Ancient Egypt covers over 3,000 years of history. Over time there were many changes and developments in technology, some of which we still use today, albeit in a slightly different form. Here we look at some of the things that have come through time to us, including paper, ink, toothpaste, and hair products.

Blog by Josh Emmitt, Curator Archaeology



In ancient Egypt, people used a plant called papyrus (Cyperus papyrus Linneaus) to make a form of paper. It was used throughout Egyptian history until the early Islamic period when it was gradually disused in favour of paper closer to how we know it.1,2

Papyrus is a tall, reed-like plant that grows in marshy areas along the Nile River. While the actual techniques used to process was generally described by the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder,3 a lot of experimental archaeology has been done to reconstruct the process in more detail.4 The Egyptians cut the bottom part of the stem into a length between 20 and 30 centimetres. This was cut into thin strips and laid out side by side. Then, they placed another layer of strips on top of the first layer, but perpendicular to it. They repeated this process until they had a sheet of papyrus that was the desired size. Finally, they would pound the sheets with a mallet to create a flat, even surface. A natural sap in the plant would help fuse the strips together.5

Papyrus paper was used for many things, including writing, painting, clothing and baskets. The Egyptians were skilled in using ink to create intricate designs on the papyrus paper, which they would then roll up and store in a scroll. The invention of papyrus was an important development for writing and record-keeping. Before this, people had to rely on materials such as stone or clay tablets. Papyrus was much lighter and easier to transport. 

The earliest example of papyrus in ancient Egypt comes from the Early Dynastic Tomb of Hemaka at Saqqara, dated to approximately 3100 BC. In this tomb a small wooden box with a flattened role of blank papyrus was found.6

Today, while we use a variety of different materials for paper, the word "paper" itself still comes from the ancient Greek word "papyros," which referred to the Egyptian papyrus plant.7 So even though we might not use papyrus paper in our daily lives, the legacy of ancient Egypt lives on in the language we use.

The origin of paper as we know it is thought to come from China, and is traditionally attributed to Cai Lun, an official at the Chinese Imperial Court of the Han Dynasty, about 1800 years ago. However, our earliest evidence of paper comes from a fragment of a map found in a tomb in Fangmatan, Gansu Provence, China and is thought to date from about 2100 years ago in the early Western Han Dynasty.8

Papyrus reeds



In ancient Egypt, people used a type of ink made from carbon black, which was created by burning wood or oil and collecting the soot that was produced. This soot was then mixed with water to create a paste-like substance that could be used for writing. The Egyptians used this ink to create hieroglyphs on papyrus paper. They also used ink for other purposes, such as painting on walls and creating artwork.

Not everyone knew how to write, and that role fell to scribes. Scribes held a very important and respected position in society.9 They were highly educated individuals who were trained in the art of reading, writing, and record-keeping. Scribes played a crucial role in the administration of the government, the economy, and the religious practices of ancient Egyptian society.

Because of their ability to read and write, scribes were often sought after as advisors and consultants. They would assist the pharaoh, government officials, and priests with tasks that required their expertise. Scribes were also involved in the translation of religious texts and the copying of important literary works. The position of scribes was highly respected. They were part of the elite class and enjoyed privileges that were not available to the common people. Scribes were often well-compensated for their services, receiving land grants, valuable goods, and even exemptions from certain taxes.

Becoming a scribe was not an easy task. It required years of rigorous education and training. Scribes would attend special schools where they learned how to read, write, and master the complex hieroglyphic script.10 Only a small percentage of the population had the opportunity to become scribes, and it was often a hereditary profession passed down from one generation to the next.

Box, paint, 1932.55, 17179, Photographed by Richard Ng, digital, 9 June 2023, Model by Josh Emmitt, 13 June 2023, © Auckland Museum CC BY



The ancient Egyptians were known for their hygiene and dental practices. They believed that keeping their teeth clean and healthy was an important part of maintaining overall health. It was also necessary as examination of teeth from ancient Egyptians has shown a lot of wear on the teeth, due to the introduction of sand or small stones into the milling of wheat into flour, either accidentally or to aid the grinding process.11 When the flour was eaten as bread or other food products, the grit caused the teeth to wear or crack.12

The use of toothpaste was not limited to just the wealthy or elite. In fact, evidence suggests that toothpaste was used by people from all social classes in ancient Egypt.

One of the main ingredients in ancient Egyptian toothpaste was a substance called natron, which is a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate.13 The Egyptians would mix natron with other substances like salt, pepper, mint leaves, iris flowers, and myrrh to create a paste-like substance that could be used for cleaning their teeth.14 Today, toothpaste is made from a much wider range of materials, including fluoride to help prevent tooth decay and various flavors to make it more appealing. But the origins of toothpaste can be traced back to ancient Egypt and their innovative use of natron and other natural substances to keep their teeth clean and healthy.

The inner crater (caldera) of Mount Emi Koussi (Tibesti, Chad). Mineral precipitation (natron) on the ground is visible. Photographed by Stefan Thüngen

Hair products

Hair products

Hair care and styling have been important to people for centuries, and ancient Egypt is no exception. In fact, the Egyptians were known for their elaborate hairstyles and grooming rituals, which required the use of various hair products and accessories. Elites would often have their own hairstylist on their staff, while others would go to a travelling hairstylist or barber.15

One of the most common hair products used in ancient Egypt was hair oil. The Egyptians would use oils, such as castor oil, and apply it to their hair and scalp.16 This not only gave their hair a glossy shine but also helped to nourish and protect it from the hot, dry climate. There are even examples of mummies that have fatty materials in their hair to preserve the hair style of the deceased.17

Another hair product used by the ancient Egyptians was henna.18 Henna is a natural dye made from the leaves of the henna plant and was used by the Egyptians to color their hair. It was also used to create intricate patterns and designs on the skin as a form of body art.

The Egyptians also used various hair accessories to style their hair. For example, they would use hairpins made from ivory, gold, or bronze to secure their hair in place. They would also wear headbands made from leather or precious metals, which were often adorned with gemstones or other decorative elements. Wigs were also used and a workshop for making them has been found at Dier el-Bahari in Luxor.19

Ushabti, funerary, 1925.129, 14103, Photographed by Denise Baynham, digital, 24 May 2018, © Auckland Museum CC BY



The word "pyramid" actually comes from the Greek word "pyramis", which was used to describe the shape of these structures. The hieroglyphic transliteration for pyramid for is “mr”. The Greeks borrowed the word from the Egyptian word "per-em-us", which means "house of eternity".

Not related to gum as you may know it, the word “gum” in English originally referred to the sap of trees. The ancient Egyptians also knew it for this and referred to it as “qmyt”, and chewed it on its own as well as using it as a flavoring in food.

The word for this tree is derived from the ancient Egyptian word "hbny", which had the same meaning.

The name Susan, or Susana, comes from the word "sšn" meaning “lotus flower”.

Discover more about ancient Egypt

Don't miss our exciting new exhibition Egypt: In the Time of Pharaohs, at Auckland Museum from Thu 15 Jun - Sun 12 Nov.


Discover more about ancient Egypt


  1. Leach, B., 2009. Papyrus Manufacture. In W. Wendrich, (ed.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles.
  2. Leach, B. & Tait, J., 2000. Papyrus. In Ancient Egyptian materials and technology. P.T. Nicholson & I. Shaw (eds). pp. 227-253. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Pliny., 1952. Natural history. Volume 4. 2nd edition. The Loeb Classical Library. Translated by Harris Rackham from the Greek work by Pliny the Elder. London: William Heinemann Ltd.
  4. Leach, B., 2009. Papyrus Manufacture. In W. Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles.
  5. Hepper, F.N. & Reynolds, T., 1967. Papyrus and the adhesive properties in its cell sap in relation to papermaking. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 53, pp. 156-157
  6. Emery, W.B. Excavations at Saqqara: The tomb of Hemaka. Cairo: Government Press.
  7. Britt, K.W. "Papermaking". Encyclopedia Britannica, 10 Jan. 2020, Accessed 10 May 2023.
  8. Buisseret, D., 1998, Envisioning the City: Six Studies in Urban Cartography, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
  9. Ezzamel, M., 1994. The emergence of the 'accountant' in the institutions of Ancient Egypt. Management Accounting Research 5(3-4):221-246.
  10. Williams, R.J., 1972. Scribal Training in Ancient Egypt. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 92(2), 214–221.
  11. Miller, J., 2005. Dental Health in Ancient Egypt. Journal of Biological Research Bollettino Della Società Italiana Di Biologia Sperimentale, 80(1).
  12. Lovell, N.C. & Palichuk, K.E., 2019. Task activity and tooth wear in a woman of ancient Egypt. In: M.L. Mant & A.J. Holland. Bioarchaeology of Marginalized People (pp. 33-51). Academic Press.
  13. Lovell, N.C. & Palichuk, K.E., 2019. Task activity and tooth wear in a woman of ancient Egypt. In: M.L. Mant & A.J. Holland. Bioarchaeology of Marginalized People (pp. 33-51). Academic Press.
  14. Gurudath, G, Vijayakumar, K. & Arun, R. Oral hygiene practices: Ancient historical review. Journal of Ofofacial Research 2012, 2, 225–227.
  15. Tassie, G.J., 2008. Hair in Egypt: People and Technology Used in Creating Egyptian Hairstyles and Wigs. In: H. Selin (ed.). Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Springer, Dordrecht.
  16. Hartmann, A., 2016. Back to the roots: dermatology in ancient Egyptian medicine. JDDG: Journal der Deutschen Dermatologischen Gesellschaft, 14: 389-396.
  17. McCreesh, N.C., Gize, A.P. & David A.R., 2011. Ancient Egyptian hair gel: new insight into ancient Egyptian mummification procedures through chemical analysis. Journal of Archaeological Science, 38(12):3432-3434.
  18. Tassie, G.J., 2008. Hair in Egypt: People and Technology Used in Creating Egyptian Hairstyles and Wigs. In: H. Selin (ed.). Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Springer, Dordrecht.
  19. Tassie, G.J., 2008. Hair in Egypt: People and Technology Used in Creating Egyptian Hairstyles and Wigs. In: H. Selin (ed.). Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Springer, Dordrecht.