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The range of sources for childhood in Ancient Egypt may be summarised in the three categories of archaeological record, images and written evidence

  1. Archaeological evidence: artefacts associated with childbirth – afterlife as rebirth

Note that the reliability of this category of evidence depends on careful archaeological recording, and the preservation of the evidence so that it can be checked (e.g. in museums)

CAUTION: often, burial goods are used to identify a body as young or old, male or female – the only secure evidence comes from the individual physical body set against the recorded data for a population

  1. Depictions of childbirth: birth bricks; divine birth cycle

Detailed depictions within Ptolemaic Period hieroglyphic representation show the birth bricks upon which the mother squatted for the birth: written evidence indicates that the brick took the name Meskhenet, in some contexts a goddess and an aspect of the individual identity

The most elaborate sequence depicting conception and birth is the divine birth cycle, a narrative cycle of formal art showing the birth of the ruler (Hatshepsut and Amenhotep III in Dynasty 18) or the god Horus (Ptolemaic and Roman Period temple reliefs)

Note that formal art presents almost no direct evidence for rites of passage such as religious rites at birth, puberty or marriage, if any existed

  1. Manuscripts of good health for childbirth: there are several surviving manuscripts or fragments of manuscripts with prescriptions and incantations for the health of mother and child, the earliest being the ‘gynaecological’ papyrus from Lahun (about 1800 BC)

The surviving ancient sources can be assessed against an anthropological account of childbirth in a modern Egyptian village (Morsy 1981)


Birth ‘wands’ (gallery of Birth 'wands')

One entirely enigmatic object category is the Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC) birth ‘wand’, carved from a hippopotamus tusk, gently curving, and inscribed with images of deities associated with birth. Some inscriptions include names of women and children, rarely with titles, where the elite membership of the individual is clear.

All dateable examples appear to date to the late Middle Kingdom (1850-1700 BC); in a slightly later tomb-chapel at Elkab (about 1600 BC) the children of the tomb-owner, a local governor, are each shown with a nurse holding a ‘wand’ of similar shape.

In Middle and New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC) funerary compositions, demons of the underworld are depicted holding knives, and these may be related.

Some ‘wands’ have been found with ancient repairs to breaks, as if they had been either broken deliberately and then reused, or subjected to considerable pressure.

There is no Ancient Egyptian explanation of these items, nor any known name for this type of object. It is not known how they were used at birth. Nor is it clear why they survive from only one relatively short period of Egyptian history.

The collection includes a parallel from a more recent African culture: the ethnographic parallel does not provide a direct explanation for the ancient phenomenon, but may help to open a modern enquirer to unconsidered possibilities.


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