Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period, Dynasties XIX and XX



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The Economy

3.2 Crafts and industry: wood, stone and metal

Artists, craftsmen and unskilled workers

The status of artists and craftsmen


The numerous artists and skilled craftsmen employed by pharaohs, temples and wealthy individuals were, for the most part, anonymous.

Many of the officials buried in the Theban necropolis filled their tombs with images of artists and craftsmen carrying out their work. However, the tomb owners did not record the names of any of the talented individuals who produced the luxury, ritual and funerary items used and dedicated by the official class. On the other hand, these officials promoted their own role in 'seeing all the crafts (and) letting every man know his responsibilities in the execution of every occupation'.

Only occasionally can we catch a glimpse of an individual artist and learn his name, Of the approximately 288 known tombs belonging to Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Dynasty officials in the Theban necropolis, only a handful belonged to artists and craftsmen such as portrait sculptors (Nebamun and Ipuki), master draughtsmen (May and Peshedu), master stonemasons (Amenmose) and goldsmiths (Neferronpet and Nehern'away). The existence of these tombs points to a hierarchy of craftsmen. Others who ranked highly were jewellers, silversmiths, bronze workers, coppersmiths, stone vase makers, master carpenters and painters. Lower down the scale were plasterers, stone workers, leather workers, weavers and brick makers.

According to the Satire of the Trades, the working conditions of craftsmen and tradesmen were far inferior to those of scribes. However, the negative aspects of the occupations mentioned in this text were exaggerated so that young students would aspire to a scribal career.

A glimpse into a royal and temple workshop


The joint tomb of Nebamun and Apuki, sculptors to Amenhotep III, has some of the best preserved scenes of a royal workshop. In the paintings, a superintendent is shown watching a scribe weighing thick rings of gold on a set of scales. Close by, wood carvers, using a chisel and adze, are shaping symbols (a djed for stability and a tyet for protection) to be fitted into a catafalque* by cabinet makers. Other craftsmen are engaged in hammering out and chasing gold and metal vessels, chis­elling a sphinx and making jewellery. Finally, two workers hold out a number of finished products (jewellery, a wooden chest, a scribe's palette and metal vessels) for inspection by the supervisor.
A catafalque was a decorated wooden support for a coffin.

The walls in the tomb of the vizier, Rekhmire, feature a wide variety of crafts and trades carried out in the workshops attached to the Temple of Amun at Karnak. Rekhmire was responsible for the raw materials that entered the temple workshops and the finished products that were destined for the palace, the king's tomb or the temple. The craftsmen pictured are goldsmiths, bronze workers and coppersmiths, masons, sculptors, carpenters, jewellers, stone vase makers, leather workers and brick makers.

Unfortunately, the workshop scenes in both of these tombs are not totally realistic. For example:
  • Not all stages in the manufacturing processes are shown. The tomb artist was selective in his choice of activities and techniques to be portrayed.
  • It is unlikely that all of these crafts were carried out in the one workshop. It is more likely that there were separate workshops and that the supervisor inspected each in turn.
  • Although the royal and temple workshops appear to be clean and orderly, most real workshops would have been bustling, noisy, dirty, crowded and very hot.

However, the scenes in these tombs do throw some light on the techniques and tools used by the New Kingdom craftsmen and some of these are described below.

Work techniques

Sculptors


The Egyptians were masters at working in granite, basalt, limestone, quartzite, schist and diorite. A sculptor employed by the king or the temple also had to have extensive knowledge of Egyptian mythology, religious ritual and forms of worship, the conduct of festivals, the characteristics of the gods and the attribute­s of kingship. An artist, who believed his knowledge and skill placed him 'above the common herd', recorded that he ‘knew the proper attitude for a statue (of a man) ... how a woman holds herself ... the way a man poises himself to strike with the harpoon ... the way a spearman lifts his arm, the tilt of a runner's body' and 'the secret of making inlays that fire cannot melt and water dissolve'.

In the tomb of Rekhmire there are scenes showing mason­s squaring a block of limestone and sculptors using chisels and mallets to shape a colossal red granite statue of Thutmose III. Also being chiselled were a white limestone sphinx and an offering table. Other workers are shown polishing and grinding the statues (using hard diorite stones and sand) and preparing to paint the figures. Finished sculptures, especially those carved from limestone, were usually painted. On the back of a standing statue, a draughtsman outlines the hieroglyphs to be engraved. Once these were carefully cut into the stone, a painter would fill them with brilliant colours. Obviously these activities did not all occur simultaneously

Goldsmiths


Because of its imperishability, gold was particularly valuable for funer­ary and ritual items. Gold arrived at the temple and palace workshops in the form of nuggets or rings and was carefully weighed. Scribes kept a strict record of how much gold was handed out to the craftsmen so that they could check this later against the weight of the finished prod­uct. The metal rings were often weighed against a weight in the shape of the head of Maat, the goddess of truth. The scenes from the tombs of Rekhmire and Nebamun/Apuki show this strict security measure.

This precious metal was used in jewellery, for making vessels and for gilding fine wooden objects (gold leaf or foil). In Rekhmire's tomb the workmen are shown using pounders to beat out sheets of gold which were then raised into various types of decorative vessels (vases, bowls and jugs). The skill of New Kingdom goldsmiths in making objects from sheet gold is best seen in the funeral mask of Tutankhamun.

Once an object was hammered into shape, other craftsmen used a pointed bronze tool to chase (punch) a design or dedicatory text into it. When several parts of an object had to be joined (brazed), such as a handle that had to be attached to a pot, charcoal furnaces were used. The heat from these furnaces was increased by the use of blowpipes. Brazing was a very skilful operation which required speed and accura­cy to prevent the bronze tongs, used to hold the vessel, from melting. An even more difficult form of brazing was used in jewellery making.

The inscription accompanying the scenes in Rekhmire's tomb refers to the goldsmiths and silversmiths as:
making all sorts of vessels for the god's limb (the person of the king), making very many ritual jugs in gold and silver in all kinds of workmanship which will last forever.

Goldsmiths and jewellers often worked together fitting the lapis lazuli, turquoise, carnelian and faience beads into the gold settings. In the tomb of Reldimire, a work­er is shown drilling holes into stone beads with a bow drill while another strings them together.

Copper and bronze smiths


The work of copper and bronze smiths was also shown in Relchmire's tomb. An inscription says that the copper came from Asia as a result of Thutmose III's victory over that area and that it was to be used for casting monumental bronze doors for the Temple of Amun at Luxor.

Ingots of copper and tin (from which bronze was made) were smelted in large furnaces. These were fuelled with charcoal and the heat was controlled by means of foot‑bellows. The men operating these held ropes which were pulled to refill the bellows once the operators had trodden the air from them.

Handling molten metal must have been extremely difficult, as it had to be poured quickly into the moulds. This involved care­ful preparation by the master smith to make sure that there was just enough molten metal to fill the mould in one pouring.

There is evidence of two types of casting or moulding. The molten bronze for the huge temple doors mentioned in Rekhmire's tomb was poured into pottery moulds. Sometimes stone moulds were used. The use of pottery or stone moulds was the most common method.

Another method of casting was the lost‑wax technique. The object to be made was first modelled in wax and then covered in clay. When the clay was heated, the wax melted, leaving a rigid clay mould into which molten metal was poured.

Carpenters


In a scene in Rekhmire's tomb, carpenters are shown building and decorating a shrine similar to one found in Tutankhamun's tomb. These workmen are depicted sawing planks, assembling the shrine, shaping and painting the protective symbols (djed pillars) with which to deco­rate it, and fitting these symbolic forms into position.

According to the text accompanying the images, carpenters made furniture in ivory and ebony, in sesnedjem‑wood and meru‑wood, (and) in real cedar from the heights of the terraced hills (Lebanon)'.

Other scenes illustrate the making of:
  • chairs with woven rush seats
  • the framework of a bed, ready to have the cords for the string base woven into it
  • chests about to have strips of various wood veneers and ivory glued to their surfaces.

Carpenters used axes, pull‑saws, adzes, chisels, bradawls, bow‑drills and stone polishers. With these simple tools they produced work of the finest quality.

The scribe in Satire of Trades, however, didn't think too highly of carpentry as a profession.
The carpenter who wields an adze,
He is wearier than a field labourer:
His field is his timber, his hoe the adze.
There is no end to his labour,
He does more than his arms can do,
Yet at night he kindles light (ie, he goes on working).

Leather workers


Leather making had been an established craft since the early dynastic period. Some of the items made from leather during the New Kingdom were sandals, ropes, satchels for carrying papyrus rolls, whips, reins, helmets, quivers and small, round shields. Some of these items were elaborately embossed with foreign designs.

Hides were stretched on a board and then left to soak in a jar of oil. When the tanned hide was almost dry it was hammered and scraped until all the oil was absorbed into the skin, giving it suppleness and durability. The leather was then cut into the shapes required.