Ladies of leisure
Queen Neferu having her hair done (a relief from her Deir el-Bahari tomb)
The most common female title 'Lady of the House' involved running the home and bearing children, and indeed women of all social classes were defined as wives and mothers first and foremost. Yet freed from the necessity of producing large numbers of offspring as an extra source of labour, wealthier women also had alternative 'career choices'.
After being bathed, depilated and doused in sweet heavy perfumes, queens and commoners alike are portrayed sitting patiently before their hairdressers, although it is equally clear that wigmakers enjoyed a brisk trade. The wealthy also employed manicurists and even female make-up artists, whose title translates literally as 'painter of her mouth'. Yet the most familiar form of cosmetic, also worn by men, was the black eye paint which reduced the glare of the sun, repelled flies and looked rather good.
Dressing in whatever style of linen garment was fashionable, from the tight-fitting dresses of the Old Kingdom (c.2686 - 2181 BC) to the flowing finery of the New Kingdom (c.1550 - 1069 BC), status was indicated by the fine quality of the linen, whose generally plain appearance could be embellished with coloured panels, ornamental stitching or beadwork. Finishing touches were added with various items of jewellery, from headbands, wig ornaments, earrings, chokers and necklaces to armlets, bracelets, rings, belts and anklets made of gold, semi-precious stones and glazed beads.
With the wealthy 'lady of the house' swathed in fine linen, bedecked in all manner of jewellery, her face boldly painted and wearing hair which more than likely used to belong to someone else, both male and female servants tended to her daily needs. They also looked after her children, did the cleaning and prepared the food, although interestingly the laundry was generally done by men.
Freed from such mundane tasks herself, the woman could enjoy all manner of relaxation, listening to music, eating good food and drinking fine wine. One female party-goer even asked for 'eighteen cups of wine for my insides are as dry as straw'. Women are also portrayed with their pets, playing board games, strolling in carefully tended gardens or touring their estates. Often travelling by river, shorter journeys were also made by carrying-chair or, for greater speed, women are even shown driving their own chariots.
Wives and mothers
Wooden carving of Queen Tiy
But with the 'top job' far more commonly held by a man, the most influential women were his mother, sisters, wives and daughters. Yet, once again, many clearly achieved significant amounts of power as reflected by the scale of monuments set up in their name. Regarded as the fourth pyramid of Giza, the huge tomb complex of Queen Khentkawes (c.2500 BC) reflects her status as both the daughter and mother of kings. The royal women of the Middle Kingdom pharaohs were again given sumptuous burials within pyramid complexes, with the gorgeous jewellery of Queen Weret discovered as recently as 1995.
During Egypt's 'Golden Age', (the New Kingdom, c.1550-1069 BC), a whole series of such women are attested, beginning with Ahhotep whose bravery was rewarded with full military honours. Later, the incomparable Queen Tiy rose from her provincial beginnings as a commoner to become 'great royal wife' of Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC), even conducting her own diplomatic correspondence with neighbouring states.
Pharaohs also had a host of 'minor wives' but, since succession did not automatically pass to the eldest son, such women are known to have plotted to assassinate their royal husbands and put their sons on the throne. Given their ability to directly affect the succession, the term 'minor wife' seems infinitely preferable to the archaic term 'concubine'.
Yet even the word 'wife' can be problematic, since there is no evidence for any kind of legal or religious marriage ceremony in ancient Egypt. As far as it is possible to tell, if a couple wanted to be together, the families would hold a big party, presents would be given and the couple would set up home, the woman becoming a 'lady of the house' and hopefully producing children.
Whilst most chose partners of a similar background and locality, some royal women came from as far afield as Babylon and were used to seal diplomatic relations. Amenhotep III described the arrival of a Syrian princess and her 317 female attendants as 'a marvel', and even wrote to his vassals - 'I am sending you my official to fetch beautiful women, to which I the king will say good. So send very beautiful women - but none with shrill voices'!
Such women were given the title 'ornament of the king', chosen for their grace and beauty to entertain with singing and dancing. But far from being closeted away for the king's private amusement, such women were important members of court and took an active part in royal functions, state events and religious ceremonies.
With the wives and daughters of officials also shown playing the harp and singing to their menfolk, women seem to have received musical training. In one tomb scene of c.2000 BC a priest is giving a kind of masterclass in how to play the sistrum (sacred rattle), as temples often employed their own female musical troupe to entertain the gods as part of the daily ritual.
Find out more
The Royal Women of Amarna: Images of Beauty from Ancient Egypt by D Arnold et al (New York, 1996)
Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt by A Capel and G Markoe (eds) (New York)
The Remarkable Women of Ancient Egypt by B Lesko (Providence, 1996)
Ancient Egyptian Medicine by J Nunn (London, 1996)
Hathor Rising: The Serpent Power of Ancient Egypt by A Roberts (Totnes, 1995)
Women in Ancient Egypt by G Robins (London, 1993)
Nefertiti and Cleopatra by J Samson (London, 1985)
The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt by I Shaw and P Nicholson (London, 1995)
Pharaonic Egyptian Clothing by G Vogelsang-Eastwood (Leiden, 1993)
Women in Ancient Egypt by B Watterson (Stroud, 1991)
Egyptian Women of the Old Kingdom by HG Fischer (New York, 1989)
Places to visit
Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford. Beaumont Street, OX1 2PH. Telephone: 01865 278000. The antiquities collection spans millennia - ranging from the Lower Palaeolithic to the Victorian era. A focus on early Egyptian, European and Near Eastern cultures is reflected in the objects on display.
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, Malet Place, London, WC1E 6BT. Telephone: 020 7679 2884. A museum based on the lifework of archaeologist and Egyptologist William Flinders Petrie. The collection is particularly strong on objects related to life and death in Ancient Egypt.
British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG. Telephone: 020 7323 8000. The British Museum holds a collection of art and antiquities from ancient and living cultures. Housed in one of Britain's architectural landmarks, the collection spans two million years of human history.
Museum of Mummification, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL. Telephone: 0161 275 2634. The origins of The Manchester Museum lie in the improvement in medicine, science and art that has been the hallmark of the world's first industrial city. Their collections include an extensive Egyptology section.