I talk about cooking in How to Eat in Pharaoh Days, but this post is about the fuel. No electricity, no gas, no coal, no pellet stoves, and limited wood. So what did Ancient Egyptians (and, by extension, my Hebrew characters) use in New Kingdom Egypt (circa 1550-1070 BCE)?
Ancient Egypt Research Associates talks about how acacia wood (often pre-prepared as charcoal) was the main cooking fuel for Old Kingdom pyramid workers, but it’s unclear how much of this expensive and hard-to-transport commodity would have been used for our hypothetical Hebrew slave villages.
Although wood was an expensive resource, the Old Kingdom Egyptians seemed to have burned it with abandon at Giza for a variety of purposes…mostly acacia, which grew naturally across a wider area of Egypt along the low desert. Some of the acacia may have been prepared as charcoal before being transported to Giza, as charcoal is much lighter than wood and therefore easier to transport. Even if this was the case, the builders of the pyramids were also burning wood to make gypsum to use as mortar for construction and to make and harden copper tools….Feeding Pyramid Workers. Ancient Egypt Research Associates (Aera).
Since the Hebrew villages as described in Torah were full communities, and not just worker housing, they had livestock and fields and access to some specialty tools in nearby communities. So I’m assuming the primary fuel would be dried animal dung. Certainly this would have been almost the only fuel available after leaving their home for the Exodus.
I’m not just speculating; despite the verified use of wood in many contexts (especially in palaces), dried dung (often mixed with straw) was in fact used extensively in Ancient Egypt, including during the New Kingdom.
In regions like Northeast Africa where wood was scarce, alternative or supplementary fuels were used and a differentiation between domestic and industrial/production activities involving fire is also likely. For the Near East, animal dung is attested to have replaced wood as fuel. Similarly, animal dung “has served as fuel in rural areas of Egypt from Pharaonic times to the present”…For antiquity this is supported by textual records…by archaeological, and especially by archaeobotanical evidence….
At Amarna, unused fuel was found in a kitchen of a New Kingdom house and identified as straw and sheep dung; cow dung cakes were also suggested for this site. Wood and woody resources in Egypt and northern Sudan are well understood and differences between firewood and timber / working wood were noted. The most common wooden fuel was Nile acacia and tamarisk in Egypt; while in Sudan, also much Ficus sycomorus was used.The Question of Fuel for Cooking in Ancient Egypt and Sudan. J. Budka, C. Geiger, P. Heindl, V. Hinterhuber, H. Reschreiter. Publication Date 2019-02-20, EXARC Journal Issue 2019/1.
With a very basic cooking setup, pottery pots on rocks over burning material, it was fairly easy to cook a variety of foods.
[The authors tested] animal dung…in 2018 by means of a series of experiments for its suitability as a fuel for cooking in ancient Northeast Africa. Different types of herbivore dung were tried using replicas of Egyptian and Nubian cooking pots from the Second Millennium BCE. The results suggest that especially donkey and horse, but also sheep, goat, and, cattle dung provide beneficial conditions for keeping good and durable cooking temperatures while preventing fast cooling on small scale fireplaces. This seems to be especially beneficial for dishes containing legumes and cereals, which require long cooking times….
Wood might have been involved in some cases, but the better availability and especially the characteristics of animal dung as fuel makes it more likely that the latter was used in domestic hearths. It was common to all types of dungs tested at Asparn that after the successful heating they provided temperatures of around 300°C [572°F] for long enough that the cooking pots could be placed directly above the embers.
The dung fires provide beneficial conditions for keeping good cooking temperatures for a considerable long time while preventing the fast cooling off of the fireplaces. This seems to be especially beneficial for dishes with long cooking or braising time like legumes, porridge and cereals, and might also have been of importance for water heating.The Question of Fuel for Cooking in Ancient Egypt and Sudan. J. Budka, C. Geiger, P. Heindl, V. Hinterhuber, H. Reschreiter. Publication Date 2019-02-20, EXARC Journal Issue 2019/1.
Turning dung into fuel
Basically, collect manure, fresh or old, from various livestock. Then turn it into hand-sized lumps (generally while mixing with some straw and patting it down or kneading so they hold together). Then slap it on the outside wall of your house. In sunny weather, it’s done in four days. Peel it off and light it on fire.
You can also slap it on the roof of your house. Or make flat disks the size of dinner plates or platters and dry them first on the packed earth ground, then propped up on something. There are lots of techniques. Once dry, you can stack the fuel disks to store until you need them.
- Feeding Pyramid Workers. Ancient Egypt Research Associates (Aera).
- Dry dung fuel. Wikipedia.
- The Question of Fuel for Cooking in Ancient Egypt and Sudan. J. Budka, C. Geiger, P. Heindl, V. Hinterhuber, H. Reschreiter. Publication Date 2019-02-20, EXARC Journal Issue 2019/1.
- Cow dung, an Indian fuel. Video by Roger Mas, Feb 22, 2014.
- In Vrindavan – Part 5 – Preparation of Cow Dung Patties. Video by Yoga of Love, Jun 19, 2012.