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How Ancient Egyptian Houses Were Made & The Materials Used

Pottery model of a house from the First Intermediate Period.

As with other cultures, the home was the centre of social life. Ancient Egyptian homes were built to a generally common layout using a limited range of natural materials. Most houses in ancient Egypt were built using readily available and abundant materials.

Facts About Ancient Egyptian Houses

  • Ancient Egypt’s earliest recorded houses date back to the Stone Age Pre-Dynastic period around 6,000 B.C.
  • Early ancient Egyptian homes were built from wattle and daub, a process using interwoven sticks to create a framework for a wall, which was then covered with mud or clay and allowed to dry
  • It was common in ancient Egypt for people to live with other families in a multiple room house sharing a communal courtyard
  • “Adobe” is derived from the ancient Egyptian word “dbe” meaning “mud brick”
  • Adobe mud-bricks used a mixture of mud and clay moistened with water and baked in the sun
  • The ancient Egyptians mastered the technique of mass-producing mud-bricks on an industrial scale
  • Whether the home of a wealthy individual or a poor family, ancient Egyptian homes featured similar layouts and floor plans

The most common material used for building ancient Egyptian homes were sun-baked mud bricks. Amongst the wealthy elites, stone was occasionally used in building their more imposing and substantially larger homes. Unlike the majority of other civilisations, wood was scarce and expensive thanks to the rigours of Egypt’s desert climate, so its use was restricted to structural supports, doorways and ceilings in homes.

All Natural Building Materials

Ancient Egypt’s arid climate and intense sun significantly influenced how ancient Egyptians designed and constructed their houses. Early examples of Egyptian houses were constructed from a mixture of papyrus and mud. However, the annual Nile floods, which inundated the surrounding area for three months of the year, caused substantial damage to homes and washed many houses away.

By experimenting, the ancient Egyptians learned to trap the heat from the sun to bake hardy mud-bricks. Using a mixture of mud and clay dug from the Nile’s riverbank and moistened with water to form a thick slurry, they eventually mastered the technique of mass-producing mud-bricks on an industrial scale.

The ancient Egyptians shovelled this mixture into banks of pre-formed wooden moulds shaped like bricks. The filled moulds were then set out in the open and left to dry out under the scorching Egyptian sun.

Due to the degree of highly repetitive labour required to produce mud-bricks en mass, the task was usually delegated to children and slaves.

Each day this conscripted workforce would transport the mud and clay, fill the moulds, set them out to dry before finally transporting the finished mud-bricks to the construction site.

The ancient Egyptians found mud-bricks were highly durable and far sturdier building materials than mud and papyrus as building materials. However, while sturdy, over the eons, wind and rain eroded even the sturdiest mud-brick buildings, creating the gentle mounds we see today on Egyptian archaeological sites.

Standard House Designs In Ancient Egypt

Most layouts of ancient Egyptian houses were largely determined by how wealthy the family was, whether they lived in a rural area or the city.

Archaeologists have found most ancient Egypt houses were built with a flat roof as part of their design. This design feature simplified construction in an era where everything was hand made, while also providing a welcome retreat from the scalding Egyptian sun. Families often ate, relaxed, mingled and slept on their roofs in ancient times.

Ancient Egyptian Home Life

The family was at the centre of the ancient Egyptian social unit. Specific roles and duties were assigned to both men and women. Men typically worked outdoors in agriculture or construction.

Women often were expected to help their husbands in the fields but much of their time was devoted to managing the household, cooking, weaving, spinning and sewing.

The average marriageable age for men was somewhere from 16 to 20 by which time they were expected to have settled into a career. Women, by contrast, were usually married by their early teens and often younger.

Working Class Houses

Poorer ancient Egyptians often lived in single room houses. The sole room was used for sleeping during the day to escape the blistering heat and for storage. The room’s interior was furnished with mats woven from straw or reeds, wooden stools and occasionally a wooden bed supported by a string base fashioned from spun animal hair and long grass.

Access to the all-important flat roof was via a ladder, a ramp or occasionally a staircase. At night the roof was transformed into a sleeping area, as it was typically cooler than the single room below. Canopies woven from reeds provided shade during the day.

To help prevent flies, sand, dust and heat from getting into the house, each window and door was fitted with reed matting screens. A common feature of these ancient house designs was the position of the door threshold four feet off the ground in an attempt to keep out venomous snakes, scorpions and the ever-present blowing sand. A low ramp provided access to the doorway.

The ground floor opened onto a walled courtyard. The occupants often spun flax into linen; tended small vegetable plots and cooked food. It was not uncommon for the family’s livestock, chickens and goats to wander freely within the courtyard.

Plumbing was non-extant so there were no bathrooms in these meagre dwellings. Inhabitants had a limited number of options if they needed to use the bathroom. These were, to excavate a hole outside the wall of the house, walk to the village boundary, empty their waste into the River Nile, or have a chamber pot in the room. Some houses built an outhouse in the courtyard.

Along with a lack of plumbing, these simple houses lacked running water. Slaves or children were sent into the village to fill pitchers or skins with water. These had to meet their daily drinking, cooking and washing requirements.

If the family lived in a city or town, these simple houses were frequently constructed closely together on two stories. Using a common wall effectively lowered construction costs and the time required for finishing a house. Downstairs was often used for business purposes, such as a workshop or bakery, while the upstairs room was the family area.

In towns near where pyramids and other major monuments were being constructed, the artisans and labourers were provided with homes.

Upper-Class Houses

The wealthy preferred constructing their homes on the banks of the Nile River. The exterior of their houses was painted white to reflect the sun and the heat, helping to cool the interior during the day. In the case of the very rich, their outside walls were lined with limestone. This caused their houses to sparkle in the sun, creating a pleasing aesthetic effect to complement its cooling properties. The interior walls of the homes of the wealthy were painted in bright pastel colours giving the rooms clean fresh appearance.

While the working-class and poorer members of society made do with a single layer of mud-brick for their homes, wealthy Egyptians often employed two or three layers of mud-brick in their homes.

The very wealthiest of Egyptians had their homes constructed of stone. Many of these homes had granite gateways that could be locked from the within. Archaeologists have discovered ancient keys dating back to 1550 BCE.

Egyptologists discovered homes of Egypt’s wealthy elite with up to 30 rooms in their sprawling houses. Many of these rooms were storerooms for food items, oil and wine housed in sealed jars.

Some rooms were for guests or were exclusively the domain of children. Some homes of the wealthy even had bathrooms although they too lacked running water. Floor plans of homes designed for the nobility often featured a master suite located behind the living room, which came with its own toilet.

These large sprawling homes frequently had front and back doors while the windows had bars to prevent prowlers and wild animals from entering.

At the core of these wealthy houses was an elevated platform. This design feature, intended to keep out sand, formed the primary living area. Here it in the heart of the house, it was cooler in summer months and warm during the winter.

As was to be expected, archaeologists have found the rich enjoyed more fixtures and fittings as well as personal possessions. These included beds, mirrors, cooking utensils, pots, shelving, heat and lighting. Bedrooms held perfume jars, cosmetics and sets of spare clean clothes.

The gardens and courtyards of these wealthy houses were lavished decorated. Courtyard fountains, pools and extensive gardens featured in their layouts. Many of these pools were stocked with brightly coloured fish while their elaborate gardens added a splash of colour with daisies and cornflowers. Designs of these gardens can be seen on tomb paintings. Some notable houses even boasted indoor pools.

Reflecting On The Past

The Ancient Egyptians mastered the ability to build houses perfectly adapted to their harsh environment while making use of materials that were plentiful and readily available. Whether wealthy or poor, the Egyptian home was the centre of their social life and the cornerstone of society.

 

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "How Ancient Egyptian Houses Were Made & The Materials Used," Give Me History, May 7, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/ancient-egyptian-houses.

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