From the Brick — Fields of Egypt -- By: K.A. Kitchen
BSP 10:2 (Spring 1981) p. 43
From the Brick — Fields of Egypt
[Kenneth A. Kitchen is lecturer in the School of Archaeology and Oriental Studies at the University of Liverpool, England. He is the author of Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Inter-Varsity Press, 1966) as well as numerous other articles and books on the ancient Near East.]
In early Hebrew tradition, one of the most evocative and familiar topoi for us moderns — heard in childhood and studied later — is that of the hapless Hebrew slaves toiling in the brickfields of the Egyptian East Delta under the lash of Pharaoh’s taskmasters (Ex. 1:11–14; 5:5ff.). Much is made of the date, the route, the historical and theological significance of the oppression and exodus (and rightly so), but little more than a glance is usually spared for details of those toils preceding the exodus that were so painfully etched in the Hebrews’ memories. The subject is hardly a burning issue, but is perhaps not unworthy of some modest attention based on first-hand material either quite new or long available but much neglected.
First, I outline textual references to brick-production in pharaonic Egypt; the vast archaeological material lies beyond the needfully limited purview of this paper.
From the Old Kingdom (‘Pyramid Age’, third millennium BC) comes the earliest body of original papyrus documents. These are fragments of the meticulously-compiled accounts from the pyramid-temple
BSP 10:2 (Spring 1981) p. 44
of king Neferirkare at Abusir, a little north-west of ancient Memphis. Besides the neatly-ruled tables of daily and monthly duties of priests and temple staff, the inventories of temple-furnishings, preparations for festivals, etc., the miscellaneous accounts include one tabulation in three sections, the first of which relates to bricks. Here, a horizontal rubric (seemingly in red ink) runs: ‘[Accou]nt of brick(s) brought into the workshop-stores’. Below this are the remnants of names of 17 royal officials of very varied employment probably followed by amounts of bricks (now lost). At the end, an eighteenth column has the phrase ‘Grand total’ and (in red) the figure 80. From so shattered a document not too much can be drawn, but at least it is evident that on occasion a variety of officials might have responsibility for supplying (through subordinates) definite quantities of brick for a royal temple. The figure ‘80’ for 17 officials seems remarkably small (just over three units per man); if bricks are indeed intended, then perhaps 80 multiple units are to be understood.
From the Middle Kingdom, the early 12th Dynasty (...
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