Humanities 102: Essay 1

Tania Allen

Prof. Hale

Humanities 102

March 4, 2009

Important Contributions of the Ancient Egyptian Civilization

When we talk of the Ancient Egyptian culture there are certain images that come to mind; the Great Pyramids, the Nile River, Tutankhamen, Queen Cleopatra. We could probably discuss dozens of contributions made by the Ancient Egyptians, whose civilization existed for nearly three thousand years and was more stable and “uniform” than the civilizations that developed in Mesopotamia (Fiero 19). But what is it that makes a contribution important? Certainly we could talk about the use of cosmetics, the construction of lighthouses, and the development of the lock and key, all of which are attributed to the Ancient Egyptian civilizations. The importance of a contribution must certainly be measured by its relevance and permanence, but also by its significance. The development of a calendar and a method of timekeeping, the invention of paper, and the development of a system of mathematics are all contributions of the Ancient Egyptian civilization which are among the most important, and have widely impacted the cultures which came after them.

The development of a calendar was inspired by the Ancient Egyptian’s need to accurately predict the annual flooding of the Nile River. Their very lives depended on being able to know when the floods would come in order to prepare for planting and harvesting of their crops. The calendar they created was much like our own, with twelve months of thirty days each. We know of course that this is not accurate; so did the Egyptians. They compensated for the difference between the 360 days in their calendar and the 365.25636 days it took for the earth to completely circle the sun by adding 5 days to the year and then an additional day every fourth year – the leap year which both the later Julian and Gregorian calendars adopted – and then an additional day every 157¼ years (Gadalla), which neither of the later calendars used. However, the calendars used today certainly were influenced by that developed five thousand years ago by the Ancient Egyptians.

The development of methods of keeping track of the hours of the day, though not nearly as accurate as the clocks we use today, came about because the Egyptians had a need to track the passage of time through the day and night in addition to over the span of a year. The first timepieces were sundials, which found widespread use throughout all of at least Western Europe (Sloley 174). These sundials allowed workers and animals both to be given equal shifts, so that they were not overworked. Water clocks, originally vessels filled with water with markings on the inside to indicate the hour-intervals of the night for each month (Sloley 174), were developed because there was a need to track of the hours of the night for temple attendants to perform their duties (Sloley 174).

The development of papyrus as a medium for writing is another of the most important contributions made by the people of Ancient Egypt. Growing out of a need for something other than stone to write on, papyrus – which was readily available to the people settling around the banks of the Nile River – proved to be the perfect solution to the problem. It was lighter and thinner than stone, and far easier to transport and the plant from which papyrus came from could be used also to build furniture, to fashion other household items and even had medicinal uses (Dunn). Without the development of paper it is likely we would not have much of the knowledge of ancient cultures, for it is from papyrus scrolls and codex that we have been able to learn about them, for stone tablets such as the Rosetta stone are more easily damaged by weather and time. Not only were religious texts written on papyrus scrolls, but court documents, tax accounts and other “administrative” papers have been found as well (Dunn), which provide us insight into life outside the temples.

Perhaps the most important of these contributions left to later cultures by the Ancient Egyptians – though it is one that is the bane of many a student – is mathematics. They used math for many things, from figuring areas of land, to measuring the level of the inundations, or the Nile floods, to figuring taxes; it was their skill in mathematics that allowed them to create the calendars and clocks already mentioned. They also used mathematics in building the pyramids and other structures that have survived the weathering of time. There are papyrus scrolls that show the calculations they made to build those structures, and others that read like textbooks (Seawright). As in their time, mathematics is in everything we do, from balancing our checkbook to planning our meals, to building our homes. Egyptian math was hindered by their number system in much the same way that the Roman system was; that is that multiplication and division were nearly impossible. But the Egyptians managed to find a way to perform such calculations that worked around these limitations, basically using addition (O’Connor and Robertson) which is similar to how some students even now learn the same problems.

It is clear that the Ancient Egyptians left a vast and lasting legacy. They had a need to track the days of the year, and so we have calendars. They had a need to keep track of the hours of the night, and so we have clocks. They needed something more usable than stone on which to inscribe their records, and so we have paper. They needed to solve mathematical problems, and so we have such things as algebra and geometry. Certainly there are other lasting contributions, but these have influenced cultures across the globe, and surely must be considered some of Ancient Egypt’s most important contributions.

Works Cited

Dunn, Jimmy. “Historical Papyrus.” Tour Egypt. 2005. The Association of Egypt Travel Businesses on the Internet. 4 Mar 2009 <http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/papyrus.htm&gt;.

Fiero, Gloria. The Humanistic Tradition: Book 1. Fifth Edition. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006.

Gadalla , Moustafa. “The Perfect Egyptian Calendar.” Rediscover Ancient Egypt. 28 Mar 2003. Tehuti Research Foundation. 4 Mar 2009 <http://www.egypt-tehuti.org/articles/egyptian-calendar.html&gt;.

O’Connor, J. J. and Robertson, E. F.. “History topic: An overview of Egyptian mathematics.” MacTutor History of Mathematics. Dec 2000. 4 Mar 2009 <http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/HistTopics/Egyptian_mathematics.html&gt;.

Seawright, Caroline. “The Ancient Egyptian Number System.” Tour Egypt. 2005. The Association of Egypt Travel Businesses on the Internet. 4 Mar 2009 <http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/numbers.htm&gt;.

Sloley, R. W.. “Primitive Methods of Measuring Time: With Special Reference to Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology Vol. 17, No. 3/411 1931 166-178. 4 Mar 2009 <http://www.jstor.com/stable/3854758&gt;.

Resources Examined

Dunn, Jimmy. “Historical Papyrus.” Tour Egypt. 2005. The Association of Egypt Travel Businesses on the Internet. 4 Mar 2009 <http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/papyrus.htm&gt;.

This is an article that describes the creation of and uses for papyrus in Ancient Egypt. It is written by the administrator of the website, which is a tourism website, , thus commercial in nature. There is no indication of sources used to write the essay, nor is there – beyond the copyright information for the site itself – any information regarding the publication or revision date. Based on this, I have to say that this was not the most reliable source I could have used for this paper.

Seawright, Caroline. “The Ancient Egyptian Number System.” Tour Egypt. 2005. The Association of Egypt Travel Businesses on the Internet. 4 Mar 2009 <http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/numbers.htm&gt;.

This is an article that describes the development of a number system and mathematics in Ancient Egypt. I could find no information on the author on the website, which is a tourism website, thus commercial in nature. There is no indication of sources used to write the essay, nor is there – beyond the copyright information for the site itself – any information regarding the publication or revision date. Based on this, I have to say that this was not the most reliable source I could have used for this paper.

Gadalla , Moustafa. “The Perfect Egyptian Calendar.” Rediscover Ancient Egypt. 28 Mar 2003. Tehuti Research Foundation. 4 Mar 2009 <http://www.egypt-tehuti.org/articles/egyptian-calendar.html&gt;.

This source is maintained by an organization which is, according to their main page, “dedicated to the study of Ancient Egypt.” The pages have dates of the last revision in plain sight, and the author’s information is readily available. It did seem that the site was predominantly geared towards selling the author’s books, however I still believe that this was a more credible and scholarly resource than the previous two web resources.

Sloley, R. W.. “Primitive Methods of Measuring Time: With Special Reference to Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology Vol. 17, No. 3/411 1931 166-178. 4 Mar 2009 <http://www.jstor.com/stable/3854758&gt;.

This article from the JSTOR database describes ancient methods of time-telling with special focus on the Ancient Egyptian cultures, and includes plates from different museum catalogs. The article is three-quarters of a century old, written in 1931, and is somewhat technical in tone. The information it gives about the Egyptian calendar is old, and I think somewhat dated. While this article is indeed scholarly and technical, I think it’s a little out of date and not very readable for the average person.

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