Fishing in Ancient Egypt
written by Kenneth J. Stein, Ph.D., contributing author, TheRockyRiver.com
Let’s start our journey with a trip inside some of the complex of tombs near the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. This was the necropolis, or burial ground, for the Ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis.
A Brief History of Ancient Egypt
The Ancient Egyptians left a rich legacy about their sciences in the tombs of the Pharaohs, beginning about 2400 BC. This information was prescribed by their religion and consisted of carvings, paintings, and papyrus texts. Within their tombs, you can find scenes of agriculture, animal husbandry, beekeeping, winemaking, basket weaving, woodworking, etc. You can also view scenes of fishing and hunting – the most commonly depicted nature themes.
The carvings and paintings within the tombs are exceptionally detailed. Archaeologists and biologists use these to study the natural history and ecology of plants, birds, fish, and animals. When they combine this information with historic timelines, they are able to reconstruct the past. They can tell us how climate change and local catastrophes caused changes in the distribution of species and how certain species were extirpated, or became extinct.
Ancient Egypt wasn’t always a desert environment. Many years ago, some of it was forest or forested wetland. Its petrified forests are proof of this, and these can be found throughout a few areas in Egypt, including one outside of Cairo in the Eastern Sahara desert. A good part of Egypt was also covered by sea up to the 23rd parallel near the city of Luxor. The evidence for this is the variety of fossils such as coral, shark’s teeth, and sea urchins that are scattered throughout the Sahara.
“When you journey downriver your heart is glad. Your crew has approached the papyrus boat in which we drift downriver to my country-house… We spend our summer there…”
– Text from the 18th Dynasty (1550-1292 BC)
We can only imagine that the fishermen of Ancient Egypt were a lot like us. Fishing was a popular pastime – it provided an opportunity for either solitude or camaraderie. Like today, some fished by themselves and others, in groups. Many did it for sport and/or food. Others made their living from it. They fished from banks and in boats or rafts that were made from papyrus and other reeds. The Ancient Egyptian anglers also used a variety of techniques, including baited hooks, hand nets, drag-nets, fish baskets or weir traps, and harpoons.
Hooks were carved from pieces of bone, wood, shell or ivory. Based on the results from archaeological finds, fishhooks averaged 1/3” – 7” in length. Eventually, the Egyptians evolved and began crafting their hooks from copper and bronze. When this happened is a source of conflict. Most sources place metal fishhooks in later dynasties (Dynasty XII; 1991-1778 BC); however, a famous Egyptologist by the name of Sir William Flinders Petrie dated one specimen of a barbed, copper fishhook at 2500 BC. This latter scenario seems probable as the period was well into the Bronze Age, which began in 3300 BC. In any case, the Egyptians gave barbed metal fishhooks to the world.
Fishing line was made from the fibers of flax or linen. The Egyptians did not use a loose mass of fibers but a group of individually twisted threads. Certainly, the diameter and “Lb. test” of the line would be related to the number of linen threads. Sportsmen and recreational fishermen would use one or more hooks on a single line, and those who depended on fishing as a livelihood used multiple lines to improve their catches. Evidently, the Ancient Egyptians didn’t have to worry about legal restrictions with multi-hooked and multiple lines! The fishing lines were initially weighted with clay, but the Egyptians eventually upgraded to lead sinkers by 1200 BC. The British Museum of Natural History has one of these sinkers in its collection.
The fishermen baited their hooks with various items such as stale bread, dates, meat, small fish, and undoubtedly, insects. In addition, they used ground bait, something that was sprinkled on top of the water to attract fish. It is interesting that they never used a small fish to target a larger fish of the same species – they may have considered it sacrilegious.
Fishing in Ancient Egypt was quite simple. The fisherman threw out his baited hook and rested the line on his index finger. He waited for some nibbles and tugs, and then set the hook. So, there you have it – the Ancient Egyptians were bottom bouncers! You have to wonder how upset they became when they snagged the bottom. Was it a big deal to lose hooks and weights, or did they have an ample supply in their tackle boxes? And yes, they had tackle boxes that were made from wood or woven reeds.
The tombs do not reveal the use of fishing rods or floats in the Old Kingdoms. Both of these came into existence sometime in later dynasties. Given that they knew how to fish the bottom then, it isn’t much of a stretch to consider that they could also devise floats to carry the bait closer to the surface – and alert the angler to a strike. Accordingly, there exist reports of cork floats used by Egyptians but it remains unclear when this practice came about. Perhaps, one day, archaeologists will uncover evidence of this.
Fishing with nets was common in Ancient Egypt for those fishing for need or livelihood. These were made from linen and constructed with knots that have been passed down from generation to generation. In fact, these knots (reef, mesh, and half) are universal among net fishermen today. However, fishnets were a costly item that many fishermen could not afford, and it was for this reason that the less affluent fishermen were restricted to fishing on the bank with lines.
Drag-net fishing involved more than a couple of fishermen. These nets were weighted with lumps of clay at the bottom and buoyed at the top with wooden floats. Fishermen would wade through the water and encircle a group of fish with their drag-net. Upon trapping the fish, they would strike them with clubs or kill them with harpoons. During later dynasties, drag-nets made use of lead weights and cork floats.
Fish traps, or weir baskets, were made from the branches of willow trees. These wickerwork basket-traps were conical in shape and used in one of two ways: For the first way, the Egyptians strategically placed these in the paths of migrating fish; for example, fish swimming upstream. The trap had the effect of corralling fish as they swam with the current. The second way involved placing the traps in water that was adjacent to submerged vegetation. People would walk into the vegetation and scatter the fish away from the shoreline and into the trap. Once captured, the fish were either clubbed or harpooned. Even today, fishermen use weir traps in various places throughout the world.
The River Nile held a variety of fish, including Nile perch, tilapia, mullet, puffer fish, moonfish, mullets, carp, eels, elephant fish, catfish, and others. One of these catfish actually swam upside-down and was appropriately called, “the upside-down catfish.” At present, it is only found in the Nile below the Aswan dam. Another catfish that was well known to the Ancient Egyptians was the electric catfish. When fishermen caught these in nets, the fish produced sufficient electricity that shocked the fishermen. The volleys of electricity were strong enough to cause the fishermen to release their grip on the nets, allowing the electric catfish and all the other fish to escape! This species is still found in the Nile today. Finally, during the Greco-Roman period in Egypt, some fish, such as the Nile perch and the elephant fish, were considered sacred. There were prohibitions against keeping and eating these fish. Fishermen took great care while removing these fish from their nets to ensure their survival – and to avoid severe punishments! Both of these are doing fine in Egypt today.
Although we don’t have any evidence for bait and tackle shops, I like to think that these existed in Ancient Egypt. You can easily imagine that many anglers wouldn’t take the time to weave their own fishing lines or carve their own hooks, let alone find the “best baits.” Maybe the fishermen simply stopped by the shops to find out where the hotspots were and boast about their recent catches – or – to complain about the big one that got away. Maybe they had a piece of jerky and a hard-boiled egg, along with a cold one – yes – they had those items too! It must have been a great period to fish, even though they faced constant threats from crocodiles, hippos, and other large animals such as lions and hyenas. Making your livelihood from fishing was considered a very dangerous occupation.
It is easy to see that the Ancient Egyptians were the early innovators of modern day fishing and most likely, not any different from us. If you have the chance to read any of their translations, you will find that they valued being in the outdoors and away from everyday life. They seemed to have a good time – like all anglers! It’s incredible that the records in their tombs have lasted almost 5,000 years. Even more amazing is the fact that many of the same species of fish thrive in the waters of the Nile – today! ::
References and suggested readings:
• Dollinger, André. 2000- An Introduction to the Study of Pharaonic Egypt.
• Houlihan, Patrick J. 1996. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, Egypt. 245 pp.
• Lucas, A. and J. R. Harris. 1999. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. Dover Publications, NY, 523 pp.
• Wilkinson, J. Gardner, Sir. 1854. A Popular Account of the Ancient Egyptians. Harper and Brothers, NY, 2 Volumes, 419 and 436 pp.
• Description de l’Egypte. 1809. Publiee par les ordres de Napoleon Bonaparte. (Volume I) Histoire Naturelle, Poissons du Nil; 795-821 pp. (republished in 1994 by Taschen Verlag, Hohenzollerning)
Originally from Sheffield Lake, Ohio, Dr. Kenneth J. Stein received his M.S. in Entomology from The Ohio State University and his Ph.D. in Entomology from Virginia Tech. Currently, Dr. Stein is a U.S. Navy Reserve Commander who works as a Senior Medical Planner for the U.S. Marine Corps, an Entomology consultant, a science textbook author and if that did not keep him busy enough – a published photographer as well.
In his career, Dr. Kenneth Stein has conducted research on sandflies, ticks, and venomous snakes while living in Egypt. He has also conducted and published research on hornets and yellowjackets, moths, wetland insect ecology, and predictive modeling of tick distributions. He has also published photos from his Ancient Egypt collection and reviewed articles for National Geographic. Oh yea – he’s a diehard steelhead fisherman too!