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Food

Agriculture

Each summer, starting in July, the Nile River rose, flooding the low-lying plains on either side. Swollen by the monsoon rains of Ethiopia, it deposited a layer of black soil over the land, rich in nutrients needed for growing crops. The river rose about 8 metres (27 feet) on average. If it rose 2.5 metres (8 feet) higher or lower, disaster struck. When it rose too high, villages were flooded, causing extensive damage and loss of life. When it did not rise high enough, the fields did not receive sufficient nutrients and moisture to support the crops, which resulted in famine.

Shaduf.  Painting: Winnifred Neeler; 
CMC S97 10791; 
PCD 2001-273-018 Under normal conditions, the flood plains supported a rich variety of plants and animals that provided food for the ancient Egyptians. The vast majority of the people were involved in farming. When the flood waters began to recede in mid-September, farmers blocked canals to retain the water for irrigation. Still used today, the shaduf is a mechanical irrigation device used to conduct water from the canals to the fields. One person can operate it by swinging the bucket of water from the canal to the field.

Livestock was important to the Egyptian economy, supplying meat, milk, hides, and dung for cooking fuel. Draft animals such as oxen increased agricultural productivity. Herdsmen and shepherds lived a semi-nomadic life, pasturing their animals in the marshes of the Nile.

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(left) Breaking the ground with plough and hoe.
(centre) Reaping. Scattering the seed.
(right) Separating the grain from the chaff.
Paintings: Winnifred Neeler, Royal Ontario Museum

Although the land was worked by the peasants, it was owned by the king, his officials and the temples. Farmers had to meet grain quotas, which were handed over to the owners as a form of taxation. They were allowed to keep a portion of the crops for their own benefit. If they did not produce the quantity expected, however, they were severely punished.

Food staples

The principal food crops, barley and emmer, were used to make beer and bread, the main staples of the Egyptian diet. Grains were harvested and stored in granaries until ready to be processed. The quantities harvested each season far exceeded the needs of the country, so much was exported to neighbouring countries, providing a rich source of income for the Egyptian treasury.

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(left) A baker.
(centre) (top) Slab for grinding grain. (bottom) Bread.
(right) Fig gatherers.
Paintings: Winnifred Neeler, Royal Ontario Museum

A large variety of vegetables were grown, including onions, garlic, leeks, beans, lentils, peas, radishes, cabbage, cucumbers and lettuce. There were also fruits, such as dates, figs, pomegranates, melons and grapes, and honey was produced for sweetening desserts. The Egyptian diet was supplemented by fish, fowl and meat, although peasants probably enjoyed meat only on special occasions. Domesticated animals raised for food included pigs, sheep and goats. Grapes were processed into wine for the noble class, but beer was the favourite drink of the common people. Food was served in pottery bowls, but no utensils were used for eating.

CMC S97 10859; 
PCD 2001-273-033 Bread- and beer-making
Model from the tomb of Mentuhotep II
(Valley of the Kings)

Plaster and wood
Royal Ontario Museum 907.18 series

Hunting and fishing

Pharaohs and nobles participated in hunting, fishing and fowling expeditions, a means of recreation that had ritualistic and religious significance. Hunting scenes often depicted on temple walls and tombs reinforce the prowess of kings and nobles. Rabbits, deer, gazelles, bulls, oryx, antelopes, hippopotamuses, elephants and lions were among the wild animals hunted for their meat and skins.

CMC S98-3529; 
PCD 2001-283-034 Assisted by his wife, Tutankhamun hunts birds in the marshes along the Nile. In accordance with artistic convention, the end of the bow string and the butt of the arrow are concealed behind his head. His left arm is protected by an archer's leather brace, and he sits on a folding stool, accompanied by his tame lion. The vulture hovering above the king's head indicates that this is a ritual hunting scene, and the birds symbolize enemies in the land of the gods.

Fishing allowed the working class to add variety to its diet. The poor substituted fish for meat, which they could not afford. The Nile, the marshes of the delta and the Mediterranean Sea offered them a rich variety of species. Fishing methods included the use of a hook and line, harpoons, traps and nets. Birds, including geese and ducks, were also hunted in the marshes and papyrus thickets along the Nile. Small fishing boats (skiffs) were made from papyrus reeds, which are naturally filled with air pockets, making them particularly buoyant. Skiffs were also used for hunting game in the Nile marshes.

Fishing on the Nile; 
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PCD 2001-273-086 Wild ducks; 
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