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Social classes in ancient Egypt

Social class is one of the most hotly contested categories in the study of society (compare race). For ancient Egypt the heat of the issue may be diffused by the vocabulary of structure and self-perception: in what ways does a society divide itself into separate segments, and how does it perceive its own internal divisions? Much as the issue of race or ethnicity concerns the external boundaries of a society, so class involves its internal boundaries. Study may focus on the boundaries observed by the researcher, or on the boundaries perceived and expressed by the society, or on the contrast between the two.

Too often the partiality and historical embeddedness of the researcher is overlooked: orientalist philology has masked its political affiliations with particular success. Archaeology and Egyptology have historically been relentlessly middle class in composition and outlook. This social homogeneity has impoverished both subjects, and needs to be acknowledged before any hidden prejudices can be overcome. Future research might look productively at the sociopolitical agendas of key figures in Egyptian archaeology and philology, for example contrasting the experiences in different universities in one country, or in different modern nation-states; this might help clear the way to a more reflective, self-critical and robust field of study.

Principal grouping mechanisms in ancient Egypt might be listed as:

The last of these may be taken for granted, but is just as essential in life as a social variable. A child born as son of the king or high official would have had radically different expectations for life to those of the daughter of a farmer, or the son of a barber. Throughout history Egyptian society is a stratified society, with a ruling elite of uncertain size at the top, and the agricultural labourers at the bottom. The social differences between the different groups are expressed in various ways but are always very clearly visible, and important for the social identification of the individual. Most written and pictorial sources give the point of view of the wealthier classes, while we depend largely on archaeology for supplementing this for the lower classes.

Compare the volume and the size of some tombs of the first and Fourth Dynasty. The time people spent on building a monument is one clear indicator of social status.
the king
The king had a special status, which is expressed by his monuments. The tomb of a high official and of a poor farmer might have been different in size, but in theory they could display the same features. A royal tomb was always different. In the Old and New Kingdom pyramids were built, while officials were buried in mastabas. In the New Kingdom king tombs were decorated with special texts (Amduat), only rarely known from contemporary private tombs.
The special status of the king was also expressed in other ways: the king wore a crown, the king had a special titulary. However, is this a reflection of social class, or is kingship entirely within the field of ideology (see kingship)?
The women nearest to the king also had a special status. The name of the wife of the king was, from the Second Intermediate Period, written in a cartouche, and several Old and Middle Kingdom wives of kings were buried in a pyramid. Again, is this class or an expression of kingship ideology (see women near the king)?
the ruling class
It is not known to what extent the royal family and the high court officials were connected by family ties. There is clear evidence that the officials of the Old Kingdom were often sons of, or at least related to, the king. For example, the vizier Nefermaat was highly likely a son of king Seneferu (Old Kingdom fourth Dynasty). In the Middle and New Kingdom the highest officials were often members of the same families, whose members held important positions at court and across the country.
Social status is expressed very directly in art. The main person in a relief or painting is always shown as the biggest figure. Servants are shown as much smaller.
The miserable lives of a whole range of craftsmen are described in the 'Satire of Trades' - a perfect example of how ancient Egyptian writings present physical work as secondary, while the profession of accountant/writer ('scribe') was seen as the most important. The best documented group of Egyptian craftsmen are the people living at Deir el-Medina. However, they worked on the decoration of the tomb of the reigning king, and therefore they enjoyed a special, quite atypical status.
Most part of the Egyptian population must have been farmers or working in food production. There is little written evidence about these people, and almost no rural settlement archaeology; fortunately, funerary archaeology (their tombs) can reveal to us a little more about these people.
Marginalised groups
Most societies co-exist with a number of people, not living in organised structures. From both archaeology and written sources there is very little known about such people. They are hard to identify in the archaeological record, and do not appear often in writings, other than in literary settings. The Tale of Khuninpu relates the injustice that such a marginalised group might suffer: its hero lives in the marginal territory of the Wadi Natrun, west of the western Delta, and is robbed of his last belongings on his way to market. Such individuals, collecting goods at the desert edge and living from small-scale trading, are almost invisible outside such exceptional self-critical compositions.
Different societies and authors use different definitions of slavery, and there is little agreement on the existence or prominence of slavery in ancient Egypt. The Egyptian term Hm is often translated into English as slave, but also 'serf' and 'servant'. In the Old and Middle Kingdom people on great estates are sometimes designated by the Egyptian word mryt; if somebody bought a certain estate, than it seems that he also bought the meryt people working on it. There are also legal documents in the Middle Kingdom recording the 'sale' of individuals: similar transactions are well attested for the New Kingdom (Allam 2001). However, even in such cases, are the 'sales' really the transfer of ownership of individuals, or do they refer to transfers of rights to labour?



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