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Archaeologists uncover 3700-year-old ’magical’ birth brick in Egypt

26.07.2002

University of Pennsylvania Museum archaeologists have discovered a 3700-year-old "magical" birth brick inside the palatial residence of a Middle Kingdom mayor’s house just outside Abydos, in southern Egypt. The colorfully decorated mud birth brick--the first ever found--is one of a pair that would have been used to support a woman’s feet while squatting during actual childbirth.

The birth brick, which measures 14 by 7 inches, was discovered during summer 2001 excavations directed by Dr. Josef Wegner, Associate Curator, Egyptian section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Assistant Professor, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Pennsylvania, part of a large-scale, ongoing joint effort of the combined University of Pennsylvania-Yale University-Institute of Fine Arts/NYU Expedition to Abydos. The ancient brick still preserves colorful painted scenes and figures: clearly visible is a mother holding her newborn baby, as well as magical images of gods whose role was to protect and aid the mother and baby at the time of birth.

According to Dr. Wegner, Egyptologists have long known, from ancient texts, that the standard form of childbirth in ancient Egypt was for the woman to deliver the baby while squatting on two mud bricks. The upper surface of the birth brick discovered at Abydos, unlike the bottom and sides, is crumbled away. "It is quite possible," Dr Wegner notes, "that the damage to the top of the brick --and another like it that has not been preserved-- was caused by its use to support a woman’s feet in childbirth for a long period of time and during multiple deliveries."

And whose birth brick was this? Dr. Wegner and the Penn excavation team have a pretty good idea of who may have used the birth brick: a noblewoman and princess named Renseneb. Back in the summer of 1999, the Penn team discovered (from seal impressions with hieroglyphic texts and other objects) that the grandiose building they were excavating was, in fact, the mayor’s residence--the first ancient Egyptian mayor’s residence ever positively identified. The birth brick recently unearthed was in an area clearly identified as a female residential section of the house. Numerous inscribed clay seal impressions found in this area have the name of the "noblewoman and king’s daughter Renseneb." Dr. Wegner suspects that this woman, who lived during Egypt’s 13th Dynasty, may have been a princess who was married to one of the town’s mayors.

In ancient Egypt, where child mortality was high, Egyptians called upon the help of their gods through magical objects, like birth bricks, and special ritual practices during childbirth. The Egyptian birth brick was associated with a specific goddess, Meskhenet, sometimes depicted in the form of a brick with a human head. On the newly discovered birth brick, the main scene shows a mother with her newborn boy, attended on either side by women and by Hathor, a cow goddess closely associated with birth and motherhood.

The Egyptians likened the birth of a child to the rising of the sun at daybreak. The magical practices of childbirth were intended to protect a newborn baby in a way paralleling Egyptian myths where the young sun god required protection from hostile forces. On the birth brick from the Abydos excavation the sun god appears in symbolic form in the guise of a desert cat. Images of the guardians of the sun god decorate the sides of the brick, to magically provide similar protection for mother and child, according to Dr. Wegner.

One set of objects closely associated with the recently discovered birth brick are magical wands usually decorated with scenes of deities and demons--and the Penn excavators have discovered fragments of these as well in the mayor’s residence. Egyptologists know that such wands were used in a form of "sympathetic magic" that invoked divine forces to protect the newborn baby at the time of birth in the same way, according to Egyptian myth, that the allies of the sun god would protect him when he was young and vulnerable.

Dr. Wegner and his Penn team have been working in the Middle Kingdom town (circa 1850-1650 B.C.) named "Enduring-are-the-Places-of-Khakaure-true-of-voice-in-Abydos," since 1994. The positive identification in 1999 of a mayor’s residence, in this town that was organized around the service of Pharaoh Senwosret III’s mortuary temple, was seen by Dr. Wegner as "a great opportunity to study an ancient mayor’s lifestyle." The discovery of the birth brick offers another piece of the story of life at that time and a rare glimpse into motherhood and childbirth in Ancient Egypt.

Pam Kosty | EurekAlert

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