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Ancient Egypt Magazine

Volume 7 issue 3 December 2006

Per Mesut - for younger readers


The banks of the Nile used to be lined with broad reed beds, and papyrus marshes occupied large areas of the Delta in the north. These plants provided the basic materials for the making of baskets.


Baskets of all shapes and sizes, used for all sorts of purposes, were made from the earliest times. On the Scorpion Macehead, a ceremonial object found in the ancient temple of Hierakonpolis and dating from before the First Dynasty, a servant is shown holding a basket ready to remove the earth dug by the King from an irrigation channel. You can see this object in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. In Predynastic settlements, basketwork was used to line the pits where grain was stored. The commonest use for baskets was for household storage, for food and clothing and other personal possessions.


A particular basket, looking rather like a flowerpot in shape, was used for measuring grain. It was called the hekat and held about 4.7 litres, (see Per Mesut in AE 30). The hekat basket was also used for carrying away sand and rubble from building sites. The hieroglyph for building works, and for work in general, is a man with a hekat basket balanced on his head. Archaeologists in Egypt today still use baskets to carry off débris from a dig because they are lighter-weight than metal buckets. Ushabti figures found in tombs often carry such baskets on their backs (see Per Mesut in AE 32).


The round, bowlshaped basket, like the hollowed-out shell of half an orange, was such a commonplace item in ancient Egyptian homes and workplaces that it too became a hieroglyph, representing words which sounded the same as the name the Egyptians gave to this type of basket.


The neb hieroglyph. An elaborate example from a block in the temple of Karnak. Photo: RP.


They called it neb, which was the same as the word used for ‘all’ or ‘every’, and ‘lord’ or ‘master’. You will see it in the royal title Lord of the Two Lands, neb tawy, which is sometimes used with the king’s official name. It is also the last sign in the cartouche of Tutankhamun’s throne name, Neb-kheperu-ra. In coloured hieroglyphs, the neb basket is often painted in a chequered pattern in two tones of green to show that it was woven from plant materials.


With a feminine ending, the neb hieroglyph can also mean ‘lady’ or ‘mistress’.


One of the most ancient of the king’s titles was the Two Ladies, or nebty name, so-called because it was chosen to put the king under the protection of the two patron goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt. The nebty name is marked by the emblems of the vulture goddess Nekhbet of the south, and the cobra goddess Wadjet of the north, each standing on a neb basket.


Another basket hieroglyph at first looks very similar to the neb, but the thing that makes it different is a simple loop handle hanging from the rim on one side. This is the hieroglyph used for the ‘k’ sound. In the shorthand version of hieroglyphs, now known as the hieratic script, the k-basket is simplified to a bar with an exaggerated loop at one end.


There is some evidence that the royal crowns themselves were originally made of basketwork. The tall, conical White Crown is sometimes shown with green stripes, bound together at the top with a cord made from plant fibres. Some Egyptologists think that this represents the simple hat made from dried grasses as worn by peasant farmers to protect themselves from the sun. This is the crown worn by Osiris, a god of agriculture, who was supposed to have taught the Egyptians how to care for the land, and how to plant and harvest their crops. This striped crown forms part of the elaborate atef crown, decorated with horns, streamers, feathers and serpents, which was worn by gods of the next world. The Red Crown of Lower Egypt was sometimes called the Green Crown and some pictures or carvings show it patterned in a basketwork design, like the neb basket.


Baskets could be sturdy, rigid containers, made from thick reeds and sometimes lined with mud, or they could be made of fine grasses and fibres to be as flexible as a sack. Some had lids or handles, and some were woven with elaborate patterns of different coloured reeds or leaves. The heap of food offerings in the painting from Nebamun’s tomb, (now in the British Museum), includes two fruit baskets, like the hekat in shape, which have patterns in red and black woven into the yellow basketwork.


An elaborate, but typical, storage basket, found in the tomb of Kha and Merit at Deir el Medina and now in the Egyptian Museum in Turin.



In Tutankhamun’s tomb, among the many basket containers was one that was bottle-shaped, decorated with a pattern like the hieroglyph for grape vines, because it was made to hold grapes.


The tomb of Kha, Chief Workman at the village of Deir el-Medina during the reign of Amenhotep III, contained an assortment of baskets, holding the bread, fruit and linen clothing that Kha and his wife Merit wanted to take with them to the next world. Kha even kept the tools of his trade, his measuring rods, scales and weights, in a basket. These are on display in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy.


There were two principal methods of making baskets: weaving reeds in and out between other reeds that formed the ‘ribs’ of the structure, and coiling a long, thin bundle of grasses and flexible reed stems, in the same way that a pottery jar can be made by coiling a ‘sausage’ of clay. In the coiled method, the walls of the basket were secured by stitching the coils together. Look around your home and you might find mats for the table or on the floor that are made in the same way. In ancient Egypt, basketry was a household craft. Baskets could be exchanged in the marketplace for other things needed by the family. In this way, basket-making was a very important part of the Egyptian economy.


Further Reading:


The Complete Tutankhamun by Nicholas Reeves

Hieroglyphics: the writings of ancient Egypt by Maria Carmela Betro.


Hilary Wilson

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