Elder Women in Ancient Egypt

Elder Women in Ancient Egypt

Dr. Deborah Sweeney

If you are in your mid-thirties, you might well have been considered old in Ancient Egypt (Toivari-Viitala 2001: 207). You would have outlived many of your contemporaries; if you were poor, your body might well show the effects of years spent bent over a grindstone or dragging heavy objects (cf. Daves and Friedman 1998: 86) or you might be suffering from guinea worms (Nunn 1996: 69) from drinking infected water. Most Egyptians of all classes suffered from severe tooth decay as they grew older (Nunn 1996: 203): Even if you were rich and powerful, you might nonetheless end your life in discomfort.

For instance, in a literary text from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE, a moving description of the experience of ageing is placed in the mouth of the elderly vizier Ptahhotep:

Senescence has come, elderiness descended.
Weakness has arrived, helplessness returns.
As one spends every night becoming more childish.
Eyesight has diminished, the ears become deaf.
Strength is perishing from my heart’s fatigue.
The mouth has fallen silent and cannot speak.
The heart is exhausted and fails to remember yesterday.
Bones ache because of length (of years).
Good has become evil.
All taste is gone.
What old age does to people
Is evil in every respect
The nose is blocked and cannot breathe
from weakness in standing and sitting.

A modern reader might recognize symptoms such as loss of sight and hearing, memory loss or maybe dementia, fatigue, loss of the capacity to speak, which might be related to depression, rheumatism or maybe arthritis, loss of mobility and even loss of taste (cf. Kurt 1980: 114, 125, 127).

Since the physical changes associated with ageing are quite common, even though they vary a great deal between individuals, we can extrapolate from this description to some extent to women’s experience of ageing. But to what extent can we do that? There is no text from ancient Egypt describing a woman’s feelings as she passes through menopause, or any other aspect of specifically female ageing.

Since Ancient Egyptian written sources reflect mostly the experience of the literate male elite who produced these sources (Robins 1993: 176), Egyptologists have described ageing in Ancient Egypt largely in terms of men’s experience (e.g., Janssen and Janssen 1996), although Jaana Toivari-Viitala (2001: 204-213) has discussed older women in her book on women in Deir el-Medina.

Although we can make some generalizations about elder women, in fact this stage of life was slightly different for everybody, just as women’s childhoods, work, marriages, pregnancies and households had some elements in common and others which were very different. Differences in health might have had far-reaching practical implications: A woman whose mobility was impaired might have been able to continue weaving cloth but not to sell it in person at the market, whereas a woman with arthritis in her hands would have had difficulty weaving but would have been able to work as a mourner or cultic singer.

A woman’s experience would depend drastically on her personal circumstances – whether she was rich or poor, how healthy she was, whether her husband was still alive and could still work somewhat, how much property the couple had accumulated during their working years, how helpful her children were in supporting her, and her own initiative, determination and skills. Any or all of these factors together could make the difference as to whether a woman ended her life in destitution or in comfort and contentment.


The modern West is, by and large, a far older society than Ancient Egypt. The research of Masali and Chiarelli on the remains from Pharaonic Egypt in the Turin Museum suggests that by the age of 30, only half the adult population were still alive, and by the age of 43 only a quarter (Masali and Chiarelli 1973: 161-169). The average life expectancy seems also to have varied by place and time – a much lower life expectancy of 20 to 23 for later periods is suggested by Strouhal on the basis of the necropolis at Abu Sir from the last three centuries BCE and Roman period cemetery from Wadi Qitna in Nubia (Strouhal 1992: 255-256, 266).
In the modern West, women tend to outlive men, but in Ancient Egypt the opposite was true. Women were much more at risk from frequent pregnancy with the dangers of post partum infection or bleeding to death. At the site of Tel el Daba in the Delta, men who survived their childhood had an average life expectancy of 34 years, whereas women had a life expectancy of 30 years (Winkler and Wilfing 1991: 82).
Rich people were probably likely to live longer – having access to better diet, sanitation and medical care, and having to contend with less physical stress. Individuals who lived into their sixties and even into their seventies or eighties are known (Bierbrier 1975: 115-116).
We therefore need to think a little about who would have been considered old in Ancient Egypt. Identifying Egyptian elders three or four thousand years later is actually more difficult than it might seem.
Three characteristics are often mentioned when defining age, although they vary radically at different places and times – chronological age, physical signs of ageing and social age (considering oneself, or being considered by others, as old.)

1. Chronological age

Unlike tombstones in the western world, the Ancient Egyptians did not normally record age at death, and age is seldom mentioned in other documents, although a few exceptionally long-lived people boasted during their life time of the great age they had attained.
Sometimes we can calculate someone’s age if they appear in a series of dated documents, or if they are linked to the regnal years of the king. For example, a woman called Naunakhte made a declaration in court, barring some of her children in year 3 of Ramesses V (about 1145 BCE). She mentions that her first husband was the scribe Kenkhikhopshef, who was last heard of in year 1 of King Siptah. Adding up the regnal years of the intervening kings it seems that this was 49 years earlier. It is generally thought that women in Ancient Egypt married quite young to maximise their potential fertility (Toivari 2001: 52-53). Naunakhte would probably have been in her early teens (12 to 14?) when she married Kenkhikhopshef, so she was at least 61 to 63 years old when she made her will.

2. Physical signs of ageing

In principle, human remains from Ancient Egypt allow us to trace illness and injuries which left traces on the skeleton and some of those which left traces on body tissue. Nowadays much more subtle techniques of DNA analysis are available, which allow the researcher to detect the presence of bacteria, or of antibodies produced by the body in reaction to certain diseases (for instance David 2000), but many investigations of mummies took place before these techniques were known (cf. Mahmoud 1999).

However, there is a certain problem with circular reasoning in that often age is estimated from the presence of arthritis or arteriosclerosis. However, we can note other signs of ageing combined with these: For instance, the Ancient Egyptians often had to contend with major dental problems as they grew older. Ancient Egyptians from all walks of life, from late adolescence on, had major problems with worn-down teeth, apparently from grit in their food. (Nunn 1996: 203; Samuel 2000: 565).

3. Social age

For men, the social watershed between maturity and old age seems to have been the point when they could no longer carry out their jobs, like the vizier Ptahhotep above. This might also have been true of women who held posts or worked outside the home, but it is possible that those women whose main work was running their household experienced a less marked transition as they tapered off activities and relinquished responsibilities.
However, like many pre-modern societies, Ancient Egypt did not have a chronological definition of social age by requiring people to retire from work at a specific age – for instance, as in many modern societies, by retiring at the age of 65 or 68.

Arguably, female ageing in Ancient Egypt might have been thought to begin at menopause, when women could no longer bear children, which was considered one of women’s primary roles in Ancient Egypt (cf. Harris 2000: 22 for Mesopotamia). However, we have little information on menopause in Ancient Egypt and it would be very difficult to pinpoint this for any given woman.
In the medical papyrus Ebers, paragraph no. 833, there is a mention of a woman who has spent many years without menstruating, but she also complains that she consistently vomits up colourless fluid and has a burning sensation in her stomach that is only relieved by vomiting. However, the diagnosis is not that the woman is growing older but that she has been bewitched.
However, there was certainly awareness that at some point women could no longer bear children. In about 1250 BCE, the king of the Hittites, Hattusilis, wrote to Ramesses II asking him to send a doctor who could prepare medicine to help his sister conceive. Ramesses replied, rather ungallantly, that at the age of sixty she was probably past hope, although he agreed to send a doctor anyway (Edel 1976: 70).

As a rule of thumb, I think one might consider women mature when their children were of marriageable age, and elderly if they had grandchildren, although this general definition does not necessarily apply to every case discussed.


In the modern West, people often retire in their mid to late 60s and remain healthy for another twenty years and more. Staying active and continuing to grow in one’s elder years has rightly become an important ideal (e.g., Laslett 1989; Friedan 1993; Maierhofer 2003), and I admit that I may be reading it into the Egyptian material.
It is equally possible that the reverse was true. Most Egyptians probably continued to work as long as they could out of necessity. Maybe they looked forward to not working any more than necessary in their old age (especially since leisure and freedom from manual labour were considered prestigious). An older woman might have felt that after a lifetime’s hard work grinding and baking and weaving and sweeping she deserved her daughter or daughter-in-law to look after her; unfortunately, we simply do not know.

My survey of women’s work concentrates on the well-documented village of Deir el-Medina, home of the workmen who built the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings from the late sixteenth to mid-eleventh centuries BCE. Data from texts, tomb paintings and archaeological remains from this site is supplement with information about women’s work from similar sources elsewhere in Egypt. With care, it is also possible to draw analogies from the lives of elder woman in traditional societies, especially around the Mediterranean, although we should not forget that women’s position in these societies may have been strongly affected by the spread of Islam and Christianity over the centuries.

In principle, I hope to identify tasks generally associated with women in Ancient Egypt, especially in Deir el-Medina, and assess what skills and physical capabilities were required to perform each task and how the physical changes of ageing might have affected this performance. For instance, loss of mobility would have reduced a woman’s ability to tend a vegetable garden or to go to the market to sell household produce (Eyre 1998 ) but several stages in the process of spinning thread from flax could be performed sitting (Kemp and Vogelsang-Eastwood 2002) and required little moving about.

However, it is not clear how far a woman could support herself, for instance, in the widespread female occupation of making textiles. A tunic of the simplest cloth cost the equivalent of 1 1/2 to 2 and 1/2 sacks of grain (Janssen 1975: 111, 259). The problem is that we don’t know how long it took to make this. Weavers in one workshop made a piece every 4 1/2 days on average (Kemp and Vogelsang-Eastwood 2002: 428) but it is not clear what these pieces were worth. Nor is it clear what the weaver’s outlay would have been: Prices for thread were very variable (Janssen 1975: 436-438), and it is not clear how much cloth could be made from a given quantity of thread; ten bundles of flax were worth half a sack of grain but it is not known how much thread could be obtained from the flax (Janssen 1975: 364).


A second focus of this project is the representation of women’s ageing in Ancient Egyptian art.
Egyptian art very often had a magical role, establishing whatever is depicted in an alternative reality (the world of the gods, the afterworld). In principle, people were depicted at the height of their energy and beauty in order to be that way forever: Elite women in order to be their husband’s attractive companion and non-elite women in order to serve the tomb-owner and his family in the afterworld.

As Gay Robins points out, “neither pregnancy nor the spreading waistline that many women must have had after years of bearing children is part of the image” (1993: 180). Egyptian men might be represented in the prime of life, or in successful, portly middle age, but women who are anything other than young are unusual in Egyptian art.

Characteristics of the women who are represented as elderly or ageing in Egyptian art include walking with a staff, sagging bosoms, stocky bodies or alternatively gauntness, and lines on the face. These characteristics are unevenly distributed: Servant women are normally represented with more signs of ageing than elite women are. Servant women, weavers and mourners appear from time to time with drooping bosoms, gaunt bodies, deep wrinkles and so on. From an artistic point of view, these elder women might add variety to a group of workers or mourners, and we might guess that they enhance the skills of the people working for the tomb owner by being able to provide advice from their own wider experience. However, this explanation does not fit every case, since there are also statues and pictures of aged women grinding corn, a job where expertise did not increase with the passage of time. For instance, two very emaciated women with drooping breasts, probably very old women, named Neferet and Samut working at a grindstone are shown in a family tomb (Fischer 1959: 251). I wonder whether the tomb owners wanted to commemorate a faithful old servant. On the other hand, elite women, when they appear in their husband’s company, tend to show only small wrinkles at the corner of their mouths and/or wrinkles running from mouth to nose. It is only when they appear on monuments of their very own that they are occasionally shown with more pronounced


signs of ageing, such as gaunt bodies or drooping bosoms. These elder women may have appropriated aspects of the Egyptian images of successful male ageing to express female power and experience, an aspect of their lives which only emerged when women were not required to appear in the role of attractive partner to their husband.



At one period, images of female ageing were actually adopted by the most prestigious women in the land, the queen and the queen mother. During the reign of King Akhenaten (1352-1336 BCE) some statues of the queen mother Tiy and Queen Nefertiti show characteristics of ageing such as a downturned mouth or lines at the corner of the mouth, drooping cheeks, very heavy lines from nose to mouth, heavy lidded eyes, a drooping bosom and a sagging stomach. Dr. Dorothea Arnold of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has explained

these depictions as a conscious attempt to provide a female parallel to the well-established Egyptian image of the aged male sage (Arnold 1996: 30, 79).

Interestingly enough, this image was adopted by other women during the Amarna period, just as male members of the elite were represented resembling Akhenaten. One cultic singer of the god Aten owned an ushabti figure whose face strongly resembles that of the ageing Tiy (Freed, Markowitz and d’Auria 1999: 271; cf. idem 82) Dorothea Arnold has argued that the plaster heads of non-royal persons found in the studio of Thutmose were intended as models for their tomb statues (Arnold 1996: 51). If so, this indicates that some women were choosing to be represented as older, wiser women as one of their main images for the afterlife. It seems that the Amarna queens’ empowering initiative to establish a strongly marked image of female ageing, parallel to male images of wisdom and success, was not taken up later to any great degree (Arnold 1996: 124-126). Like other ways of depicting adventurous Amarna queens – smiting enemies, driving in chariots, offerings sacrifices in their own right – I suspect it was probably considered too characteristic of the Amarna heresy and later women preferred not to be associated with it. Foreign female captives might also be depicted with signs of ageing. As prisoners of war, they were of low social standing and might well be equated with servants; indeed, that was often their fate. However, Thomas Gilroy has recently argued that foreigners were often portrayed as haggard and weatherbeaten as a type of caricature, differentiating between the Egyptian norm and the non-Egyptian other (2002).


Women were thus in a double bind. To appropriate images of experience and wisdom they also had to depart from the socially dictated female norm and risk being associated with the peculiar and the unfamiliar.

I had been hoping to uncover empowering images of women’s ageing. The reality seems more complicated, with ageing often being stigmatized and associated with outsiders and subordinates. For women, it was difficult for ageing to provide a positive counterpoint to youth and beauty.

Attempts to reclaim the attributes of ageing as a source of authority and experience only gathered momentum when initiated by the queen, the most important and powerful woman in the land. All the more, then, we should respect women who made the brave and extraordinary gesture of reclaiming, in some small way, their age and experience.




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This research (no. 974/02) was supported by the Israel Science Foundation.
The graphics were produced by Yifat Danon and Deborah Sweeney.