The Exploitation of Live Avian Resources in Pharaonic Egypt: A Socio-Economic Study

A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Division of the Humanities in Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

By Rozenn F. Bailleul-LeSuer

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Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago
Commitee: Janet Johnson, Nadine Moeller, Dimitri Meeks


ABSTRACT

Birds were symbolically and pragmatically incorporated into the lives of ancient Egyptians in multiple ways. During the entire span of Pharaonic history they appeared as necessary offerings to appease both the gods and the deceased residing in the Underworld. They also served the needs of the living in the form of proteins, fat, and feathers. This dissertation evaluates how the ancient Egyptians fulfilled these needs in avian products, focusing specifically on the management strategies implemented to acquire birds and to maintain them alive in captivity prior to their final journey to the slaughterhouse and the poulterer’s shop.
     After a brief overview of the biogeography and avifauna of Egypt, the first section of this dissertation examines the capture of wildfowl, in particular the techniques designed to trap live birds. Analysis of the faunal remains recovered both in domestic and cultic contexts provide insight into the types of feathered game targeted by ancient Egyptians. Each category of birds –
waterfowl, quails, perching birds, and ostriches – required different equipment and expertise. To fully exploit these avian resources, often encountered in the marginal lands bordering the Nile Valley, the central administration from the Old Kingdom onwards placed high officials in charge of overseeing the activities of the men employed in these areas, including the fowlers
known as wḥʿ.w Ꜣpd.w.
     After falling prey to these fowlers, live birds were gathered into crates and transported to farmyards. The second section of this research project first investigates how institutions, such as temples and large elite estates, managed to keep birds in captivity. A sizable maind’oeuvre was needed to tend to the welfare of the captive fowl, from the staff in charge of delivering the feed to the administrators keeping track of the grain poured into the enclosures. In order to gain better control over these avian resources, aviculturists attempted to establish captive breeding programs during the Old Kingdom and ultimately managed to domesticate the goose by the New Kingdom. Notwithstanding the scarcity of Information concerning the presence of and value placed on birds in a village setting in Pharaonic Egypt, a model of household poultry husbandry is proposed, which in part relies on ethnographic data collected in 19th and 20th century rural Egypt.
     Part 3 of the dissertation acts as an epilogue to this study and presents the changes observed in bird management after the conquest of Alexander the Great. In Greco-Roman Egypt, new birds rose to prominence in bird farms, both in private and temple settings. The chicken became a most valuable resource, especially for its eggs, a commodity rarely mentioned in the record of Dynastic Egypt. In addition to barnyard birds, fowlers and aviculturists developed new techniques to trap and maintain in captivity a different category of temple birds, namely falcon and sacred ibises, destined to serve the needs of Sacred Bird Cults in the form of mummies.