From Birth to Death and Beyond: Gender, Life Span, Family, and the Afterlife


Most evidence from ancient Egypt comes from a funerary context: tombs, graves, and associated mortuary space. This source of evidence skews our picture of Egypt and its population somewhat but also provides a thorough record of Egyptian practices relating to death. From the earliest periods, the Egyptians commemorated their dead on memorial tablets known as stelae, which frequently note dates and ages at death, as well as names, titles, and family affiliations. The dead, their possessions and monuments were also carefully preserved and labeled. Mummy labels, small tags of wood or stone attached to embalmed bodies, record the name of the deceased and sometime information about family, age, and date. Such evidence can reveal much about gendered life spans and expectations of an afterlife as well as family structure and gender roles within the family.

Funerary material, however, is not adequate for a detailed study of the demographics of gender in ancient Egypt; fortunately, the Roman practice of the census and the survival of more than 300 returns on papyrus for the Egyptian census from this period provide the raw material for a thorough analysis of the demographics of the Egyptian population in the second and early third centuries CE. These data reveal the high mortality among infants and women in childbearing years, earlier ages at marriage for women, and an average life expectancy at birth of 22-25. The high incidence of full brother-sister marriage revealed by the census is peculiar to Egypt.

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