Old age in ancient Egypt
By Ann E M Liljas, on 2 March 2015
People in ancient Egypt did not grow very old. Very high infant death rates due to high risks of infections resulted in an average age at death of 19 years. However those who survived childhood had a life expectancy of 30 years for women* and 34 years for men. Most ancient Egyptians were unlikely to live beyond 40 years of age and, for example, King Tutankhamun died at the age of about 18 years. This can be compared to today’s life expectancy of 83 years for women and 79 years for men in the UK. Nowadays we routinely collect mortality data making it easy to estimate life expectancy but how do we find out about life expectancy of ancient Egyptians?
Human remains in the form of skeletal remains and mummified bodies (that would be wealthier Egyptians) are primary sources used to calculate age and life-expectancy. There are few written and visual sources that refer to age. Occasionally the age at death can be found as an inscription part of the mummy label attached to the bodies but many bodies to which the labels were attached have not survived or not been recorded. Secondary evidence of ageing includes legal documents where they sometimes have referred to the person as ‘aged’.
In ancient Egypt elders were defined as older adults who were no longer able to contribute labour. Egyptian writings indicate a social norm of respecting older people, but there was no special position in society for the elderly. Older adults were seen as venerable advisers, which is reflected in Instruction of Ptahhotep. This literary work provides both a positive and the dramatised negative aspects of growing old. Very briefly, in Instruction of Ptahhotep, the king, who is old, is requested to retire and consents to this request but he also observes that the young need the old, for “none can be born wise”. Another example is a small number of documents which refer to a ‘wise woman’ who could assist in supernatural ways with unsolved cases although it is unclear if she was any special age.
Although estimated life expectancy was just over 30 years, it’s hard to say whether a 30-year-old person in ancient Egypt had wrinkles similar to many older people today. However we do know that ancient Egyptians were as concerned about their appearance as we are. Youthfulness was the idealised norm, representing eternity. Manuscripts for good health include recommendations such as remove grey hairs and cosmetic prescriptions for face and skin. This is the reason nearly all persons are depicted as young adults and could explain why there is little art showing older adults. However for those interested in getting a closer look of an older adult in ancient Egypt there is a head of an old man (UC 16452) in black granite (pictured) at the Petrie Museum.
*Women often had numerous children and these successive pregnancies could be fatal. Even after giving birth successfully, women could still die from complications such as puerperal fever. Such deaths were not prevented until the 20th century when standards of hygiene during childbirth were improved.
Find out more about old age in ancient Egypt here.