Representations and Reality of Poverty in Ancient Egypt. The poor, their identities and their practices.

Poverty in ancient Egypt is a subject that remains largely unexplored. While in ancient Egyptian language, there is a whole series of terms used to describe poverty and to designate the poor, the proposed translations remain imprecise. The texts sometimes give an insight into what it means to be poor but these writings are often subjective because texts are usually written by the elites for the elites. Images are subject to the same rule, with Egyptian art obeying strict conventions and showing an ideal image of the order of the world. As a result, the poor have so far occupied only a limited place in Egyptological studies which have instead based a large part of its theories on the elites, particularly given the abundance and quality of vestiges they left behind. Yet, the elites, which held economic, politico-religious and cultural power, or had close ties to it, would have represented only a small percentage of the population. How can one then write a social and economic history of ancient Egypt if one does not take into consideration those people who did not belong to the elites? Those ordinary people (peasants, manual workers etc.), who constituted a large part of the population, likely lived in relative poverty and simplicity. However, we do not really know who the poor were, how and where did they lived or what their daily practices were.

The primary aims of this project therefore are to identify, analyse and define poverty in ancient Egypt and to make poverty a real topic of study and research in Egyptology. To do so, the chronological framework is deliberately broad (from the middle of the 3rd mill. to the end of the 1st mill. BC.), in order to detect changes in people's behaviour and mentalities. The first part of the project will work on already known Egyptological documentation (written and iconographic sources) and to analyse it under in unprecedented ways. The study of vocabulary, texts and images should make possible it to delineate the contours of poverty, although we are still bound by the subjectivity of the elites. This approach must therefore be counterbalanced by documents and material produced by the poor themselves. This is why the second part of the project focuses on a purely archaeological approach. Archaeology and the study of material culture are essential sources for collecting a wide range of substantial information which will first of all enable a better understanding of the different realities of poverty, then to better define the categories of poor but also to study in detail their behaviour and practices. All this new information will then be compared alongside the textual and iconographic data – shedding new light on them.

This new approach multidisciplinary approach, which also draws on sociology and historical anthropology, is essential to gradually defining the various forms that poverty can take and in developing a more holistic understanding about poverty in ancient Egypt.

 

Project leader: Dr. Delphine Driaux

Duration: 48 months (from 01.10.2021 to 30.09.2025)

 

This research is funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) [Project no. V-883]