What did the ancients eat? We asked Egyptologist Dr. Lisa Sabbahy, and here’s what she told us.
Do we know what the ancient Egyptians ate?
Archaeologically, we know a lot about foodstuffs from ancient Egypt from excavating settlement sites. You find plant remains. You find animal bones, and it’s clear whether or not they were butchered. But most of our evidence is actually from tombs: on the walls we have depictions of food on offering tables, and in the tombs we can find foodstuffs that they put in. Tombs belonged to the elite, and everything in the tomb is meant for the perfect afterlife. So you’re seeing an elite picture and it represents a very small percentage of the population.
What foods did the tombs show?
From Dynasty II, 2900 BC, Egyptologists found the burial of a woman, a lady of lesser nobility. In her tomb, they found an entire set of dishes with food laid out by her coffin. The menu, from visual examination, was: porridge made from ground barley, a cooked quail (cleaned and dressed), two cooked kidneys, pigeon stew, cooked fish (cleaned and dressed with head removed), ribs of beef, small triangle loaves of bread, a small circular cake, stewed fruits (possibly figs) and a bowl of berries. This was meant for the afterlife. Is that what she would have eaten at home? We don’t know. We do know that the elite ate beef and drank wine, and possibly fruit was more for the elite.
What did common people eat?
Poor people lived on bread and beer and ate vegetables. They had green onions, leeks, garlic and baladi lettuce. There’s a question about cucumbers – they might have come in the New Kingdom. The beer was made from barley and was highly nutritious. It was more like a soup. Children had it, and it was suggested for women who had just gone through childbirth. Men tended to make the beer, but you can also see depictions of women making the mash for beer.
Can you tell us more about the bread?
The ancient Egyptians made bread in loaves that were very much like baladi bread, from emmer wheat. They were baked in ovens that are similar to what we use today in the Egyptian villages. There are statues of women grinding grain – so the people who prepared the grain were female. In ancient times they seemed to have added sand in with the grain, so ancient Egyptians wore their teeth down terribly. We have a list from the New Kingdom of 44 different types of bread, and they even made them into shapes – people and horses. There was triangular bread, round bread, cone-shaped bread. We usually see depictions of men baking the bread.
Did they eat a lot of protein?
The workers of the pyramids at Giza were purposely fed beef because they needed a lot of calories for the work. That’s unusual; for the most part, beef is for the elite. The only way of preserving meat was to dry it or salt it or both – often they dried it and then packed it with salt. We also know they grilled and stewed meat. And there is a very damaged drawing of King Akhenaton eating skewers of something that look like kebab. In settlement sites from the New Kingdom, the time of King Tutankhamun and Ramses II, Egyptologists found a lot of pig bones, along with fish. So poor people at the time used pork and fish. They had ducks and geese and also migratory birds; these were mostly used for their eggs.
How about recipes? Have any survived?
From ancient Egypt, we have no recipes. That would probably be because they had about 2 to 5 percent literacy, so probably cooks taught younger cooks just by showing them. We have a lot of pictures of food, very few of it being prepared. So we have a lot of evidence for foodstuffs in ancient Egypt but no known evidence of the dishes they cooked or how they cooked them.
What spices did they use?
Cumin was a common spice and black mustard seed. Later on from the Near East, they got cinnamon. But we don’t know when they added spices, how much, to what they added it. We don’t know the details.
Where did the ancient Egyptians prepare their food?
Village houses had a room that was a kitchen. It was the backmost room in the house and tended to have an open roof. They had a mortar and pestle to grind wheat, water pots and an oven. The grand, big houses of the nobility, like those found in Tell El Amarna, had a separate kitchen that was outside of the house.
How did they divide their meals throughout the day?
We have no idea. We don’t really know if they had breakfast, lunch and dinner, although when the gods were fed in temples, they had three services a day, with the most important being at dawn.
What other ancient foodstuffs can you tell us about?
The ancient Egyptians used dates to sweeten things and they had honey. They made wine from grapes and pomegranates. They also had lentils – we had baskets of that come out of King Tut’s tomb. King Tut had 140 baskets of fruits and seeds and spices in his tomb. A lot of those things would have been brought to Egypt, through trade from Palestine and Syria.
Dr. Lisa Sabbahy has a Ph.D. in Egyptian Archaeology from the University of Toronto, and is Assistant Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, where she teaches ancient Egyptian history and archaeological method and theory. Her latest research and publications are concerned with the paleopathology of the ancient Egyptians.