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Ancient Egyptian Technology: Advances & Inventions

The "Dendera light".

The ancient Egyptian concept of ma’at or harmony and balance in all things lay at the heart of their approach to technology. Harmony and balance could be maintained by overcoming life’s problems with human ingenuity through advances in technology. While those ancient Egyptians believed the gods gifted many great benefits to the Egyptians, an individual still had the responsibility of care for the community, the kingdom and one’s self through applying knowledge and inventiveness to advance Egyptian society. Thus their engineers, astronomers, hydrologists and scientists would have believed they were observing the will of the god’s by improving the world they had been gifted.

Consequently, the ancient Egyptians were innovators in architecture, mathematics, construction, language and writing, astronomy and medicine. While ancient Egypt is commonly associated with imposing pyramids, amazingly well-preserved mummies and fabulously powerful and wealthy pharaohs, the technology was applied in a surprisingly diverse range of sectors.

Facts About Ancient Egyptian Technology

  • The ancient Egyptians believed applying knowledge and inventiveness to advance Egyptian society through technology was doing the will of the gods
  • Ancient Egypt developed innovations in architecture, mathematics, construction, language and writing, astronomy and medicine
  • Their development of hieroglyphics ensured a rich treasure trove of information including records of major events, lists of kings, magical incarnations, construction techniques, religious rites and scenes of everyday life survived to come down to us thousands of years later
  • Using simple hydraulic engineering techniques the ancient Egyptians created a vast network of irrigation canals and channels
  • Papyrus was expensive even when mass produced and was widely traded to places such as Ancient Greece and Rome
  • Simple machines such as levers, counterweight cranes and ramps were used to build the pyramids, temples and palaces of ancient Egypt
  • The ancient Egyptians were masters of logistics and organizing their labour force sometimes for decades
  • Early forms of timekeeping devices and a calendar enabled the ancient Egyptians to track the seasons and the passage of time during both day and night
  • Heavy cargo boats were used to transport the immense stone blocks used to construct Egypt’s pyramids and temples
  • The ancient Egyptians also built seagoing vessels for trading and huge pleasure barges to entertain the pharaoh
  • They were also the first to feature stem-mounted rudders on their vessels

Mathematics

Louvre Museum [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Ancient Egypt’s iconic Giza pyramids required an intricate knowledge of mathematics, particularly geometry. Anyone who doubts this need only to look at the collapsed pyramid at Meidum for an insight into what happens to a monumental construction project when the mathematics goes horribly wrong.

Mathematics was used in recording state inventories and commercial transactions. The ancient Egyptians even developed their own decimal system. Their numbers were based on units of 10, such as 1, 10 and 100. So, to signify 3 units, they would write the number “1” three times.

Astronomy

Nut the Egyptian goddess of the sky, with star chart.
Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Egyptians were keen observations of the night sky. Their religion and was shaped by the sky, the heavenly bodies and the elements. Egyptians studied the celestial movement of the stars and constructed circular mud-brick walls to create artificial horizons to mark the position of the sun at sunrise.

They also employed plumb-bobs to annotate the summer and winter solstices. They applied their knowledge of astronomy to create a detailed lunar calendar based on their observations of the star Sirius and the phases of the moon. This understanding of the heavens produced the knowledge to develop a calendar still in use today, based on 12 months, 365 days and 24-hour days.

Medicine

The Edwin Smith Papyrus (Ancient Egyptian medical text).
Jeff Dahl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The ancient Egyptians produced some of the earliest developments in the field of medicine. They devised a range of medicines and cures for both human and animal ailments, together with a keen knowledge of anatomy.  This knowledge was put to use in the mummification process to preserve their dead.

One of the world’s earliest known medical texts was written in ancient Egypt. It represents an early insight into neuroscience as it describes and attempts to analyze the brain.

Medical cures, however, remained elusive and some of their medicinal practices were fraught with peril for their patients. Their cure for eye infections involved using a mixture of human brains and honey, while a cooked mouse was recommended to cure coughs. The ancient Egyptians also practised piercing to fend off infections and applied cow dung to treat wounds. These practices contributed to ancient Egyptian patients developing tetanus.

The ancient Egyptians also had a deep-seated belief in the power of magic. Many of their medical cures were accompanied by spells intended to ward off the evil spirits that they believed were making patients ill.

Agriculture

With much of Egypt being arid, wind-swept desert, agriculture was critical to the survival of the kingdom. Heavily dependent on a narrow strip of wondrously fertile soil enriched by the annual inundation of the Nile floods the ancient Egyptians developed a series of technologies to maximize their agricultural output.

Irrigation Networks

Over thousands of years, the ancient Egyptians created a vast network of irrigation canals and channels. They employed simple yet effective hydraulic engineering techniques based on scientific principles. This network allowed the pharaohs to greatly expand the area of land under cultivation. Later when Rome annexed Egypt as a province Egypt became the breadbasket of Rome for centuries.

Egyptologists have found evidence indicates that early irrigation systems were in use as early as the twelfth dynasty in ancient Egypt. The kingdom’s engineers used the lake in the Faiyum Oasis as their reservoir for storing surplus water.

The Ox-Drawn Plow

A plowing farmer – from a burial chamber of Sennedjem

Every planting season for the ancient Egyptians was a race to get the fields planted so they could be harvested before the next cycle of flooding. Any technology, which speeded up the tilling of the land, multiplied the amount of land that could be cultivated in a given season.

The first ox-drawn ploughs appeared in ancient Egypt around 2500 B.C. This agricultural innovation blended skilled metallurgy and blacksmithing to shape a basic plough together with advances in animal husbandry.

Using an ox to pull a plough speeded up the ploughing process paving the way for annual crops of wheat beans, carrots, lettuce, spinach, melons, pumpkins, cucumbers, radishes, turnips, onions, leeks, garlic, lentils, and chickpeas.

Hieroglyphics

The name of Alexander the Great in hieroglyphs.

Ancient Egypt was amongst the early cultures to develop a systematic form of writing. Hieroglyphics remain some of the world’s oldest artifacts and the Egyptians used them to keep depict major events through inscriptions carved on colossal public buildings, temple complexes, obelisks and tombs.

In their highly developed administration, elaborate records were routinely kept to help officials exert control over the kingdom. Formal letters were frequently exchanged with neighbouring kingdoms and sacred texts outlining religious invocations were created. The iconic Book of the Dead was one of a series of sacred texts containing the magic spells ancient Egyptians believed would help guide a departed soul through the perils of the underworld.

Papyrus

The Abbott Papyrus, which is a record of an official inspection of royal tombs in the Theban necropolis

Papyrus grew in profusion along the banks of the Nile River and in its marshes. The ancient Egyptians learned how to manufacture it, creating the first form of durable paper-like material for writing in the Western world.

While papyrus was mass produced, it remained expensive and ancient Egyptians mainly used papyrus for writing down state documents and religious texts. Egypt sold its papyrus to ancient trading partners such as Ancient Greece.

Ink

Together with papyrus, the ancient Egyptians developed a form of black ink. They also developed a range of bright vibrant coloured inks and dyes. The colour of these inks retained a brilliance and lustre, which lasted down the centuries and are still clearly readable today, thousands of years later.

Calendars

One sign of an advanced civilization is the development of a calendar system. The ancient Egyptians developed their calendar more than 5,000 years ago. It initially comprised a the 12-month lunar cycle separated into three, four-month seasons that coincide with the annual cycle of Nile River floods.

However, the ancient Egyptians noticed these floods could occur over a spread of 80 days towards the end of June. They observed the floods coincided with the heliacal rising of the star Sirius, so they revised their calendar basing it on the cycle of this star’s appearance. This is one of the first recorded instances of a society applying astronomy to refine the accuracy of a calendar to track the days of the year. We still use a version of the ancient Egyptian calendar model today.

Clocks

Water clock of the Ptolemaic Period.
Daderot [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Ancient Egyptians were also one of the early civilisations to divide the day into parts using different devices to track time, the ancient equivalent of the clock. Earl forms of timepieces comprised were shadow clocks, sundials, obelisks and merkhets.

Time was determined by tracking the position of the sun, while the night was tracked using the rise and setting of the stars.

Some evidence has survived that primitive water clocks were used in ancient Egypt. These “clocks” used bowl-shaped vessels with a small hole drilled in their base. They were floated on top of a larger water container and were allowed to gradually fill up. The rising water level represented the passing hours. The priesthood predominantly used these devices to measure time inside their temples and to time sacred religious rites.

Construction And Engineering Technologies

Across ancient Egypt arose vast temple complexes, sprawling palaces, awe-inspiring pyramids and colossal tombs. Ancient Egypt was a highly conservative society. They evolved processes and procedures for their epic construction programs that combined advanced mathematics, engineering, and astronomy and material science knowledge.

Many questions remain unanswered today as to how the Egyptian constructed their amazing building. However, some explanations can be found in inscriptions in ancient Egyptian monument inscriptions, tomb paintings and texts.

Unquestionably, the ancient Egyptians enjoyed extraordinary insights into technology and applied science.

Organized Labor

One of the keys to the success of ancient Egypt’s monumental construction projects was their mastery of logistics and organization on a stupendous scale for their time. The Egyptians were one of the first societies to invent and deploy a highly efficient system of organized labour. Employed on a massive scale, villages to house workers and artisans were constructed together with the bakeries, granaries and markets required to sustain the labour force needed to construct these immense stone and mud- brick structures sometimes for decades during the downtime created by the annual Nile floods.

Tools, Levers And Simple Machines

Quarrying, transporting and erecting so much monumental stonework required a range of simple machines to streamline the process and augment human exertion. The lever, the counterweight crane and the ramp were examples of simple construction machines employed by the ancient Egyptians. Many of the methods and principles devised then are still widely used in modern construction projects.

Construction tools were essentially simple and many examples have been found in tombs, in ancient quarries and construction sites. Materials used for the most commonly used tools here stone, copper and bronze. Quarrying, stone working and construction tools include stones, pick-hammers, mallets and chisels. Larger tools were created to move bricks, stone blocks and statues.

Architectural tools consisted of flat levels and various types of plumb lines for gauging vertical angles. Common measuring instruments included squares, ropes and rules.

Ancient Mortar

Archaeological remains of port structures found east of Alexandria’s Portus Magnus show foundations comprised of large blocks of limestone and mortar detritus anchored in a formwork of planks and piles. Each pile was squared off and included notches on both sides to hold the pile planks.

What Technology Was Used In Building The Pyramids?

The technologies used during the construction of the Great Pyramid still mystifies Egyptologists and engineers to this present day. Researchers get glimpses into their methods and technologies thanks to the administrative accounts recalling aspects of a construction project. Following the failure of the collapsed pyramid at Meidum, care was taken to ensure each step was executed according to the original blueprint devised by Imhotep, the Pharaoh Djoser’s vizier. Later in the Old Kingdom, Weni, the Egyptian Governor of the South, had an inscription carved detailing how he travelled to Elephantine to source the granite blocks used to create a false door for a pyramid. He describes how he instructed five canals for towboats to be excavated to enable supplies to be transported for further construction.

Surviving accounts such as Weni’s illustrate the immense effort and concentration of resources required to construct ancient Egypt’s colossal monuments. Numerous inscriptions exist detailing the supplies needed to sustain the workforce as well as the materials required to erect these vast structures. Similarly, we copious documents have come down to us outlining the difficulties involved in constructing the Giza pyramids together with their sprawling temple complexes. Unfortunately, these accounts shed little light on the technology employed to build these imposing structured.

The most popular and enduring theory as to how the ancient Egyptians build the pyramids at Giza involves the use of a system of ramps. These ramps were built as each pyramid was raised.

Example of ramp construction for pyramid building.
Althiphika [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
One modification to the ramp theory involved speculation that ramps were used on the inside of the pyramid, rather than their exterior. External ramps may have been used during the early stages of construction but then were moved inside. Quarried stones were transferred inside the pyramid via the entrance and transported up the ramps to their final position. This explanation accounts for the shafts discovered inside the pyramid. However, this theory fails to factor in the massive weight of the stone blocks or how the hordes of workers busy on the ramp could move the blocks up the steep angles inside the pyramid.

Another theory suggests the ancient Egyptians used hydraulic water power. Engineers have established the water tables of the Giza plateau are relatively high and were even higher during the construction phase of the Great Pyramid. Hydraulic water pressure could have been exploited via a pumping system to assist in raising the stone blocks up a ramp and into position. Egyptologists are still vigorously debating the purpose theses internal shafts within the Great Pyramid played.

Some ascribe a spiritual purpose in assisting the deceased king’s soul to ascend to the heavens while others see them as simply a remnant of construction. Unfortunately, there are no definitive archaeological evidence or texts to indicate one function or another.

Hydraulic pumps had been used previously on construction projects and the ancient Egyptians were well acquainted with the principal of a pump. The Middle Kingdom pharaoh King Senusret (c. 1971-1926 BCE) drained the Fayyum district lake during his reign by using a system of pumps and of canals.

Ship Design

Depiction of a Stern-mounted steering oar of an Egyptian riverboat.
Maler der Grabkammer des Menna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Nile River was a natural transportation artery. Trade featured prominently in ancient cultures and Egypt was an active exporter and importer of goods. Having access to seagoing ships as well as ships capable of navigating the Nile was critical for Egypt’s cultural and economic health.

The ancient Egyptians applied their knowledge of elementary aerodynamics to design ships that could catch the wind and push their vessels efficiently through the water. They were the first in incorporate stem-mounted rudders on their ships during their construction process. They also developed a method of employing rope trusses to strengthen the integrity of the beams of their ship and used several forms of sails that could be adjusted to sail their ships against the wind by taking advantage of side winds.

Initially, the ancient Egyptians built small boats using bundles of papyrus reeds lashed together, but later successfully constructed larger vessels capable of journeying into the Mediterranean Sea from cedar wood.

Glass Blowing

Depiction of ancient glass blowing.

Artifacts discovered in tombs and during archaeological excavations point to ancient Egyptians having advanced glass-working expertise. They were crafting brightly coloured glass beads as early as 1500 BC during the New Kingdom. Highly prized as trade goods, Egyptian glass gave their traders an advantage in their trading voyages.

Reflecting On The Past

The ancient Egyptians created or adapted a wide range of technologies, ranging from ink and papyrus to ramps used to build the pyramids at Giza. In almost every facet of society, their community was enriched by the use of some form of technology many applied on an almost industrial scale.

Header image courtesy: The original uploader was Twthmoses at English Wikipedia. [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

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, "Ancient Egyptian Technology: Advances & Inventions," Give Me History, March 25, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/ancient-egyptian-technology.

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