Taking full advantage of the abundance of avian life in their country, the ancient Egyptians' diet was enriched by birds, especially delicious and highly nutritious migratory waterfowl. Just how plentiful and comparatively easy water birds are to obtain in Egypt can be seen from the fact that from 1979 to 1986, by a conservative estimate, between 260,000 and 374,000 of them were taken annually without firearms in the Nile Delta alone, using essentially ancient technology. Moreover, there is sound ecological and other evidence indicating that four or five thousand years ago, the available wildlife was far richer. [See BIRDS.]
By the middle of the first dynasty, as shown by a representation on a gaming disc found in the tomb (no. 3035) of the chancellor Hemaka at Saqqara, and now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, fowlers had perfected the technique of employing large, rectangular clapnets to capture huge numbers of these migrants. Most of this hunting presumably took place in the then-extensive swamplands of the Delta, but probably also in the Faiyum. Those birds not immediately killed when caught were fattened, even force-fed, and kept in a semidomesticated state until needed for food or sacrifice. Members of the aristocracy maintained, as did individual temples, substantial stocks of poultry on their domains. These birds had considerable economic importance. The vast repertoire of scenes from daily life decorating the walls of tomb-chapels belonging to the elite from the Old Kingdom onward routinely include the activities of busy poultry yards and aviaries. These places are shown teeming with various kinds of ducks, geese, cranes, and doves, and frequently have captions giving the birds' names and numbers. The famous fifth dynasty mastaba (tomb 60) of the high-ranking court official Tiy at Saqqara, for example, is noteworthy for its wide assortment of vibrant aviculture and fowling compositions. Such birds must have been so esteemed as table fare, that tomb owners evidently wished to eat them throughout eternity. Generous numbers of waterfowl are carried as offerings by bearers featured in tomb-chapels and temples spanning all eras, they appear among the piles of victuals heaped before the deceased, are put on funerary tables, are named in their extensive menus for the beyond, and are mentioned in temple offering lists. There is some textual evidence from the New Kingdom that birds were affordably priced in ancient Egypt. However, the specially raised and force-fed poultry on view in tomb scenes were undoubtedly reserved for the wealthy. Curiously, the eggs seem to be absent as food in funerary contexts, probably owing to a taboo.
When images are carefully executed and paint is still extant, it is sometimes possible to recognize the precise species depicted. Some of these fowl also appear as standard hieroglyphs. Frequently identified table birds are bean goose (Anser fabalis) or graylag goose (Anser anser), rʒ and sr; white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons and Anser erythropus), ṯrp; Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus), smn; ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea), bsbs?; pintail (Anas acuta), zt and ḥp; turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) and palm dove (Streptopelia senegalensis), mnwt and ʿbʒ, common crane (Grus grus), ḏʒt, ʿjw, and gʒ, and demoiselle crane (Anthropoides virgo), wḏʿ. Other valuable birds sometimes kept for food include swan (Cygnus sp.), ḏnḏn?; wigeon (Anas penelope), wšʒt; European teal (Anas crecca), probably sr and s; quail (Coturnix coturnix), pʿrt; coot (Fulica atra), wḥʿt; and possibly pigeons (Columba sp.). Pigeon cotes, a customary feature of the Upper Egyptian landscape well into the present century, probably did not exist during dynastic times, and are first attested in the archaeological record during the Greco-Roman period.
The impression one derives from pictorial and written sources of which kinds of poultry were viewed as desirable for dining is confirmed through zooarchaeological studies on bones from cemeteries and settlement sites. Burials of well-to-do people often had mummified victuals. A sumptuous funerary repast prepared for Tutankhamun during the eighteenth dynasty, found near his tomb (no. 62) in the Valley of the Kings, consisted of one brant goose (Branta bernicla), one white-fronted goose, two bean geese, four teals, two shovelers (Anas clypeata), one gadwall (Anas strepera), and two ducks that were not identified. In the intact eighteenth dynasty tomb of the architect Kha at Thebes (tomb 8), the deceased was interred with a large amphora filled with eviscerated poultry, reportedly preserved with salt. Theban tomb paintings show birds being processed in this manner and stored in similar tall jars.
Although Egyptian aviculturalists doubtless experienced some success breeding these birds, owing to the sheer abundance of waterfowl in the wild and ease of obtaining them, there was not a strong incentive for captive propagation. Nevertheless, the growing demand for table geese eventually led to the complete domestication of a goose, probably the graylag, by the time of the New Kingdom. The Egyptian goose occasionally appears in avicultural scenes, but only during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. By the early eighteenth dynasty, this large indigenous duck had risen in distinction, becoming sacrosanct to Amun, the powerful god of the city of Thebes. It was surely for this reason that this species was kept as a pet by some Theban notables, and is displayed quietly sitting near them in their decorated tomb-chapels, even accompanying them on fowling expeditions, despite the bird's infamously aggressive behavior. Otherwise, domestic poultry evidently played a small role in Egyptian religious belief.
Today's most characteristic farmyard bird, the chicken (or red jungle fowl, Gallus gallus), was unknown to the ancient Egyptians until the nineteenth dynasty, and then only as a marvel imported from Southeast Asia by way of the Near East. The chicken did not become commonplace along the banks of the Nile until at least the Ptolemaic period. Classical writers, such as Diodorus Siculus (I, 74), in the middle of the first century BCE, mention the large-scale artificial incubation of poultry eggs by Egyptian aviculturalists. Presumably, the practice of constructing hatcheries first developed during the Late period. It is also possible that the eggs of other species, such as the sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus), were incubated to supply the popular and burgeoning animal-cult industry with birds used as votive offerings. The earliest archaeological evidence for these installations comes from the sixth century CE. Hatcheries like this were still being used in some small villages of Upper Egypt as recently as the late 1950s.
- Boessneck, Joachim. Die Tierwelt des alten Ägypten. Untersucht anhand kulturgeschichtlicher und zoologischer Quellen. Munich, 1988. This volume provides an authoritative discussion of poultry in ancient Egypt, based primarily upon zooarchaeological findings.
- Darby, William J., Paul Ghalioungui, and Louis Grivetti. Food: The Gift of Osiris. Vol. 1. London and New York, 1977. In this extensive survey of food in pharaonic Egypt, considerable space is devoted to birds. While valuable information is presented, numerous errors occur and mar the book's reliability.
- Houlihan, Patrick F. The Birds of Ancient Egypt. Warminster, 1986. The only comprehensive study of the birds represented in Egyptian art and hieroglyphs, and includes an examination of those species maintained for food consumption; contains lengthy bibliography.
- Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. London and New York, 1996. This handsomely illustrated book aimed at a general audience includes a chapter devoted to avifauna and its role in ancient Egypt.
- Ikram, Salima. Choice Cuts: Meat Production in Ancient Egypt. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, 69 Leuven, 1995. The author offers some interesting remarks about the processing and preserving of poultry using salt, and victual bird mummies.
- Mahmoud, Osama. Die wirtshaftliche Bedeutung der Vögel im Alten Reich. Frankfurt and Bern, 1991. Study of the role of birds, particularly poultry keeping, in the economy of the Old Kingdom.
- Vandier, Jacques. Manuel d'archéologie égyptienne. Vol. 5. Paris, 1969. Presents a superb overview and interpretation of the scenes of daily life relating to keeping poultry.
Patrick F. Houlihan