Significant numbers of people in the modern world never seriously worry about where their next meal is coming from. I myself am one of those people – even when getting grocery shopping delivered was difficult at the peak of lockdown in the UK earlier this year I was mostly concerned about whether I would get the food I wanted or not, I was confident I would be able to get something to cook & eat. And that position of privilege can make it hard to get oneself into the mindset of a pre-modern population (or that of the many people less fortunate than me even in my own country) – where if the harvest failed too often (perhaps even just once) then people were going to struggle to find enough to eat. Where the poorer portions of society might well routinely restrict what they ate, not out of fear of “getting fat” but because there was only so much food to last until the crops ripened. But it’s something that’s worth keeping in mind when thinking about the Ancient Egyptians – it helps make sense of some of the differences between their worldview and ours. Like the way that among the various metaphysical elements of their thoughts about life after death there are also solidly pragmatic concerns about ensuring that the deceased has food security in the afterlife (with a definite sub-text that this was one of the ways that the afterlife was going to be better than this life). I’ve talked about some examples of this before in the blog – like shabtis as servants to do the necessary agricultural work, or the Offering Formula to guarantee food offerings would continue to be received for eternity. And the objects I’m talking about today are a part of this mindset.

The early Middle Kingdom sees a flowering of three dimensional representations of activities involved in food production, like the one pictured where cattle are being tended to in a stable. Previously these daily life scenes had been carved or painted on the walls of the tomb, but during the First Intermediate Period there was a shift in focus from decorating the tomb to decorating the coffin. This left less space for showing food production and so models are provided for the deceased instead. These changes accompanied a change in the the overall idea of the afterlife – the rise in prominence of Osiris, and the idea that even commoners would go to some other place after death like the Field of Reeds. And they may also be a reaction to changes in the environment around them, both natural and political – the Old Kingdom had fizzled out amongst many problems, one of which appears to’ve been a series of famines that the central authority didn’t deal with terribly effectively. And then the First Intermediate Period was a time of conflict – taken together food security and a sense of certainty in the afterlife must’ve seemed even more important than it previously had been.

Model Cattle Stable

These tomb models don’t just appear suddenly from out of nowhere, of course, they evolve from earlier use of models in tombs. This appears to begin around the same time as the unification of Egypt, so some 1000 years before the Middle Kingdom. During the late Predynastic Period and the Early Dynastic Period there are some cases of replacement of large scale or expensive tomb goods with models. For instance some burials had full scale boats, but others had model ones. And one burial even had a full scale granary but several had model ones. During the Old Kingdom this practice was extended to smaller objects – for instance they might have model storage vessels or model tools. And in the later Old Kingdom limestone statues of servants also begin to show up – at first solely concerned with food production but then later expanding their repertoire of occupations to include other necessities of life.

It’s during the First Intermediate Period and early Middle Kingdom that the tomb models really come into their own. In contrast to the Old Kingdom servant statues these models are made of painted wood – which makes them much more perishable, even in the typically dry climate of Upper Egypt, so we’re lucky as many have survived as have! A typical elite burial of the period includes a set of these models, but the number and choice of scenes varies between tombs – presumably determined by the status of the deceased, the region and the exact time period. The most common are boats and models to do with food production – but other craft activities are depicted as well. The general idea is to provide all the industry required for a comfortable (food secure!) afterlife.

Boats are a little bit of a different category so I’m only going to touch on them briefly here. They have a more explicitly religious character: as the Osiris cult rose in prominence his primary cult centre at Abydos became a place of pilgrimage, and model boats in tombs from the First Intermediate Period onward generally symbolise eternal participation in pilgrimage to Abydos.

Other than boats the most common models are scenes of butchery, granaries, scenes of baking, scenes of brewing, and pairs of female servants carrying food offerings. As you can see this covers the first 3 or 4 of the standard offerings mentioned in the Offering Formula – bread, beer, ox and fowl (only present if that’s what the servants are carrying). So by including these models you are going to be well supplied in the afterlife.

Tomb models of this type (other than boats) have this period where they flourish, but then they rather abruptly die out in the reign of Senwosret III. His reign, as part of the 12th Dynasty, marks an inflection point in the history of Egyptian culture. Although we tend to think (primarily because of the influence of the 3rd Century BCE historian Manetho) of the Middle Kingdom as a single unit, subdivided into 3 dynasties, there’s also an argument to be made that it should be divided into two at the reign of Senwosret III. The early Middle Kingdom is closer to the First Intermediate Period in culture than to the later Middle Kingdom (and things like burial customs don’t seem to change when Montuhotep II reunites the country). Then Senwosret III oversees significant changes to the art style, religious ideas and political organisation of the country and the later Middle Kingdom begins – and the necessity for (or desire for) dioramic models in tombs is one of the things that changes.

But why use models? It seems perhaps a little childish to the modern eye – there’s something of the doll’s house to them, a toy for a child to play with. And it’s true that it can be hard to identify which objects from Ancient Egypt are toys and which are models with religious or magical significance (and sometimes the answer may be “both”!). The context of the find can give clues (if it’s known), for instance models such as these ones I’m talking about are found in the graves of adults so we probably need to put aside assumptions about childishness and look for other explanations. The key to understanding this are the Ancient Egyptian beliefs about the reality of symbols in a magical sense – the written or spoken name of thing, a painting or carving of a thing, or a model of a thing are magically the same as the thing itself. So if you have written on your tomb walls your request for bread and beer, then in the afterlife you will magically have bread and beer. If you have carved scenes with loaves of bread and jars of beer, then you will magically have bread and beer in your afterlife. And if you have a model granary, a model bakery and a model brewery, then in the afterlife they will magically exist and produce an endless supply of bread and beer.

So these models are in a magical sense the real things they represent. And this then answers the question of “why models?” – models are more practical than the object they represent. In much earlier times kings were buried with the actual objects – including servants in some cases – but this is expensive in terms of resources (even leaving aside the ethics of killing your bread bakers!!), and in terms of the space required inside the tomb complex. Models are a cheaper and more efficient way of taking it with you when you went. They’re also much less attractive to tomb robbers – yes, magically this stable in the photo is real and has real cows in it, but in this world you can’t eat the beef they magically produce!

The models are, of course, fascinating to anyone who’s interested in learning about Ancient Egyptian culture. They give us the obvious information about how bread was made, beer was brewed and so on. And also things like how Egyptian buildings were laid out, even the very fact they kept their cattle in stables! As well as these insights into material culture they also reinforce other evidence about what the Egyptians saw as the key necessities of life (like their emphasis on food security in the afterlife), and even give us information as to how their art style worked by letting us compare two dimensional and three dimensional representations of the same activities. A proper treasure trove despite not having the glitter of gold!


Resources used:

Ardagh, Philip. 1999. The Hieroglyphs Handbook: Teach Yourself Ancient Egyptian. Faber and Faber.
Assmann, Jan. 2003. The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. Translated by Andrew Jenkins. Harvard Univ. Press.
David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books.
Grajetzki, Wolfram. 2003. Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life in Death for Rich and Poor. Duckworth Egyptology.
Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow.
Oppenheim, Adela, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto, eds. 2015. Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Quirke, Stephen. 2015. “Understantding Death: A Journey Between Worlds.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury.
Yamamoto, Kei. 2015. “Comprehending Life: Community, Environment, and the Supernatural.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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