Everyday Life From Coptic Antiquities
The earth's various layers field many traces of man and his activities at different periods of history, and these preserve their secrets, until the archaeologist comes to restore them to the light of day. In the last century archaeology has thrown a brilliant light upon many aspects of the past, and nowheremore so than in Egypt. The ancestors of the Egyptians have left remains unique in their wealth and range of interest, and it was natureal enough that learned institutions and archaeologists from many countries should have flocked to the Nile Valley in order to carry out research among its ageless antiquities and to restore to us their meaning. A past hither to wholly obscure come once more to life wall its varied events, arts, social habits and traditions.
The evidences thus discovered are often strange enough but to the scholars, their value is undeniable. Whole towns have been uncovered from beneath the rubbish and the cinders that had buried them for centuries. >From these and from the tombs there has arisen a picture of the true glories of Egypt's ancient civilisation and of all the elements that formed the daily life of the men and women of so long ago. Egypt's five thousand years of civilisal on has known many different ages and changes of art, custi'm and belief. Each has its own special character and demands its own special study. Between the Graeco-Roman and the Islamic there came the Coptic period, the purely. Christian age that divided the pagan from Islamic. Coptic remains, too, are infinite in their variety. The excavations ot Coptic sites have given us limestone cor.nices, wooden friezes, ivory and bone palettes, woven and embriodered tissues, metal and other pots and papyri. All bear designs that reveal every day lite with the precision of an open book. As would be expected, many of the scenes have thus survived show the daily tasks of earning a bivelihood or obtaining one's food. One carved wooden frieze has a scene in relief showing a vine-dresser standing among the vine stocks and holding a sickle that was certainly used for cutting the bunches of grapes. Beside him are two migrating birds. A similar scene in admirable form on a limestone frieze, but this time with a group of vine-dressers. It begins with two of them, each seated on a stool the one playing the flute and the other the tambourine. Vine-branches and buncnes ol grapes hang about them. A second group is gathering grapes among the branches, while others are putting them into baskets and carrying them to the camel waiting at the tar end of the secne with the camel-driver holding its bridle. A striking element in this scene is that the vine-stocks and the grapes are spread out among the branches and fill the scene with gaity from the beginning to the end. It is also interesting to note that the vine-dressers' garments are composed of a small kilt that covers the lower part of the body, whose upper part is naked. It is the same dress as that which we see on so many monuments from ancient Egypt and which was the normal costume for men throughout the pharaonic period. The heads are covered with hats that resemble garlands of flower. Another scene that testifies to this same capacity for representation is drawn in black; on a limestone flake. It shows a date-gatherer who has been climbing the palm to get the fruit but who has unfortunately lost his balance and fallen to the ground . The caricaturist has caught Ihe rapid movement in a summary but a remarkable manner. This alone is a proof that the draughts-men of the time (as in ancient Egypt) did not fail to register, for their own amusement and that of their friends, such momentary occasions.
Carpentry was at all times an important occupation. It was a respectable craft and was favoured by many Copts. They excelled in it, and carpentry and cabinet-making reached a high degree of care and perfection. Excavations among ruins have recovered many tools of all kinds such as chisels, pincers, hatchels, axes, nails, saws, various hammers and other implements essential to the carpenter. We possess a rectangular limestone frieze carved with unique floral motifs in relief. In the centre is a well-made bust of a carpenter surrounded by a floral wreath like a garland. It shows what is probably a chisel and, near his shoulder, several tools such as a hammer and pincers. On his head, he is wearing a cap of Phyrygian form. Many wooden friezes have been carved with scenes representing the various means of transport used at that lime, both on land in the form of beasts of burden, and on water as Nile boats. These, too, resemble the methods known to us from the most ancient times up to today. On one wooden panel there is a scene in relief showing the use of camels, horses and mules for carrying burdens. It is known that the camel was not widely used as a beast of burden until the Arab conquest, when its figuration became widespread on the monuments. It seems probable that the elephant was also adopted for the same purpose at the same time. On another rare panel in wood carved in relief are seen several pottery jars for containing liquirds and covered with special stoppers. These amphoras are meticulously arranged on the Nile boat In exactly the same way as that followed in pharaonic times. The sculptor has been extremely clever in representing water on thus panel by drawing a crocodile on the bottom of the river preparing to attack a boatsman leaning over in the bows. Among the favourite daily scenes depicted on Coptic remains is the hunting of wild animals, then a most important pastime for one's leisure hours A strikingly lively representation occurs on a curved limestone cornice on which animals such as gazelles and hares are carved lingering among the grass and trees. One hunter is seen carrying a gazelle which he has caught, while another is holding a spear preparing to attack a gazelle or other beast hidden in the grass. One way of hunting a wild animal is shown in the carved figure of a naked hunter roving through the trees as he gets ready to shoot an arrow from his bow at a lion roaring against him. Such hunting scenes are cut not only in stone, but also on wooden panels.
The Coptic Museum in Cairo has one such from an iconostasis that is interesting as showing a turbaned hunter with a falcon beside his shoulder to assist him. The training of such birds has always been widespread. The lower part of the same panel is decorated with two gazelles placed back to back. Another panel, decorated with openwork motifs, has in the centre a hunter fighting a lion, while below, it also has two ornamental gazelles. Just as hunting in the open was a favourite sport and a major source of enjoyment, so also was fishing in the countryside swamps. On one of the limestone fragment that once adorned the facade of one of the gates of a monastery at Saggara, evidence of such a scene is still visible, as it is on similar fragments from other place in Upper Egypt. Scenes of entertainment were also essential. We find representations of concerts and dancing. During the dance instruments such as the flute and the tambourine were used, especially at feasts. The reliefs on some panels show ceremonial figures and sometimes acrobats perform their games as well. Some splendid fragments, of woven fabrics illustrate music for a war dance with the warriors carrying shields and arrows during the dance.
As always, swimming in the Nile played a large part in popular amusement. In the river itself, in the lakes and pools that existed everywhere in the country, and especially in the warmer weather as an agreable and refreshing bodily relaxation, people flocked to the water. We possess a unique figure that is amusing. It is in relief on a rectangular limestone palette showing the way of bathing a child. On the right a woman is standing, carrying an ewer in her right hand and a garland on the other. On the left is another woman seated in high-backed chair dealing with child using from a footed tub-like basin. Each woman is wearing a Phrygian cap decorated with a small cross. A large comb, a vase on a tripod, a small box and some varied rosettes and flowers complete the decoration. This picture recalls the story of the Nativity as described in various religious books which tell the bathing of the Divine Child, It is related that two midwives Zaiome and Salomi, gave the bath. The picture probably dates from the 6th century and shows the ancient method of washing a child. Among the most antiquities preserved in the Coptic Museum is its collection of balances, measures and weights used in everyday trading operations. It has also a number of pots and valuable utensils such as the ewers & basins commonly used at banquets for washing. In themselves they clearly convey the care taken to be clean before and after meals. The museum also has knives, spoons and forks, proof that the Copts used these In remote times. One spoon in this group is unique and dates back to the 2nd century A.D. It is formed of a shell, the handle to which it is fixed being of bronze. Its end forms a fork, so that it could be used as either on the same occasion.
All these pieces show the delicacy and taste used in making such pots and implements. Among the ewers and basins are a group of pure silver ornamented with fine and carefully worked motifs. One of the knives and a fork have also been found prettily adorned with gold. Here, too, the refinement of aste and the ability of the craftsman can only arouse our admiration.