The Egyptians invented many things, and it might be easier to list those they did not invent, such as the wheel, which was not surprising in a country where everyone travelled on water.
Most scholars believe that isolated civilisations arose independently of each other in different places: first in Mesopotamia on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and a little later in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. Other civilisations arose in Asia on the Indus River in present-day India and on the Yellow River in present-day China.
All these early civilisations had to invent everything themselves, because unlike later civilisations such as the Greeks in the west or the Chinese in the east, they had no one to learn from. So the Egyptians had to invent mathematics, geometry, geodesy, metallurgy, astronomy, accounting, writing, paper, medicine, ramps, handholds, ploughs, mills for grinding grain and other devices that are essential in large, organised societies.
How can Egyptian inventions be defined today? This is very difficult to define because three thousand years is a very long period in which discoveries are made and lost or taken over by others. For example, the Greeks are sometimes credited with inventing mathematics, but they learned it from the Egyptians and then developed and improved on what the Egyptians had achieved.
The year 3000 BC seems to have been a critical period for the development of technology, especially metal production. The Egyptians and Mesopotamians independently discovered that mixing a small amount of tin ore with copper ore could produce bronze, which was harder and stronger. This started a chain of related innovations that could not have happened without the first discovery.
The oldest pyramid was built for King Zoser between 2667 and 2648 BC. The oldest pyramid was built for King Zoser between 2667 and 2648 BC. It is actually the earliest known monumental stone structure to have been designed and erected.
The Egyptians, along with the Mesopotamians, were the first people to convert their language into a codified form of writing. All early forms of writing were pictographs – pictures. All writing systems evolved in this way, but their original form was lost as images were transformed into abstract forms. The interesting thing about the Egyptians is that although their writing changed to an abstract hieratic form, they deliberately kept the hieroglyphs in their original form.
Papyrus sheets are the first paper-like material – all other civilisations used stone, clay tablets, animal skins, wood or wax as writing surfaces. Papyrus was the main writing material in the ancient world for over 3000 years. It was exported throughout the Mediterranean and was widely used in the Roman and Byzantine Empires. It was used in Europe until the 7th century AD, when an export embargo forced Europeans to use parchment.
The Egyptians mixed vegetable gum, carbon black and beeswax to make black ink. They substituted soot for other materials such as ochre to produce different colours.
The ox-drawn plough
The ox-drawn plough Using the power of oxen to pull a plough revolutionised agriculture, and modified versions of this Egyptian invention are still used by farmers in developing countries around the world.
A sickle is a curved blade used to cut and harvest grain, such as wheat and barley.
The Egyptians built canals and irrigation ditches to take advantage of the annual flooding of the Nile to bring water to distant fields.
Shadoof The shadoof is a long balancing pole with a weight at one end and a bucket at the other. The bucket fills with water and can be easily lifted and then emptied at a higher point.
The Egyptians developed the solar calendar by recording the annual return of Sirius (the Dog Star) to the eastern sky. This was a fixed point that coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile. Their calendar was 365 days long and had 12 months, with 30 days in each month and five extra feast days at the end of the year. However, they did not take into account the extra fraction of a day, and their calendar gradually became wrong. Eventually Ptolemy III added one day to the 365 days every four years.
The Egyptians invented two types of clocks for timekeeping. Obelisks were used as sundials, watching their shadows move across the surface during the day. Obelisks were used to mark the longest and shortest day of the year.
An inscription in the tomb of an Amenemhet official from the 16th century BC shows a water clock consisting of a stone vessel with a small hole in the bottom, from which water dripped at a constant rate. The passing of the hours could be measured by signs placed at various distances. The priest in the temple at Karnak used a similar instrument at night to determine the correct time to perform religious rituals.
In the Old and Middle Kingdom, order was maintained by local officials with their own private police forces. During the New Kingdom a more centralised police force developed, consisting mainly of Egypt’s Nubian allies, the Medjes. They were armed with sticks and used dogs. Neither rich nor poor citizens were above the law, and punishments ranged from confiscation of property, beatings and mutilations (including cutting off ears and noses) to death without proper burial. The Egyptians believed that a proper burial was essential to get to the afterlife, so the threat of a final punishment was a real deterrent, and most crimes were minor.
“They went to the granary and stole three large loaves of bread and eight pancakes of sabu with Rohus berries. They took a bottle of beer which stood chilled in water while I stayed in my father’s room. Lord, may all that was stolen be returned to me.” (18th Dynasty)
Edwin Smith’s papyrus proves that the Egyptians invented medical surgery. It describes 48 cases of surgical treatment of wounds to the head, neck, arms, chest and breast. It includes a list of instruments used during surgery and instructions for suturing wounds with needle and thread. The list includes lint, cotton wools, bandages, adhesive patches, surgical sutures and cauterisers. It is also the first document to include an analysis of the brain. The Cairo Museum has a collection of surgical instruments that includes scalpels, scissors, copper needles, tweezers, spoons, lancets, hooks, probes and forceps.
Ancient Egyptian wigsMany Egyptians shaved their heads during the hot summer to keep them clean and prevent parasites such as lice. Although priests remained bald as part of purification rituals, those who could afford it had wigs of various shapes set in perfumed beeswax.
The Egyptians invented eye makeup as early as 4000 BC. They combined carbon black with a lead mineral called galena to create a black ointment called kohl. They also made green eye makeup by combining malachite with galena to colour the ointment.
Both men and women wore eye makeup in the belief that it could cure eye diseases and protect against the evil eye.
At a dental conference in Vienna in 2003, dentists tried a replica of an ancient Egyptian toothpaste. The ingredients included cheese cloth powder, ash, burnt eggshells and pumice stone. Another toothpaste recipe and toothbrush instructions were recorded on a papyrus from the 4th century AD, which described how to mix exact amounts of coarse salt, mint, dried iris flowers and peppercorns to make “a powder for perfectly white teeth”.
The Egyptians were so skilled at preserving the dead that thousands of years later we know about the diseases they suffered, such as arthritis, bone tuberculosis, gout, tooth decay, bladder and bile duct stones; there is also documented evidence of bilharziasis (schistosomiasis), caused by small parasitic flatworms, which still occurs in Egypt today. There appears to have been neither syphilis nor rickets.