Now soap is something I know well, being a soapmaker when I’m not a writer. But using a digital scale to precisely measure pure sodium hydroxide crystals and water to mix with an exact weight of olive oil is not exactly an ancient practice, though the basic idea of a caustic base plus fat is timeless.
But what exactly did the Ancient Egyptians use in the time period of the New Kingdom to wash their bodies, their hair, their clothes, their dishes, and so on?
Legend has it that the first soap was accidentally produced on Mt. Sopa, a site of animal sacrifice. As the goat meat burned, fat dripped down through the fire, bonding to lye leaching out of the ashes. The combination flowed down the mountainside and collected in the clay of the riverbanks, where women used the clay to scrub laundry clean. Although soap was known in the Fertile Crescent as early as 2000 BCE, it was used in the treatment of wounds and in hairdressing before its cleansing properties were understood. In the Mediterranean, soap was entirely unknown: Egyptians and Romans used oils for bathing and the Egyptians used natron, a crystallized rock of brine, to launder clothes. Although some individual Viking and Celtic tribes discovered soap independently, it was not widely known in Europe until the Arab invasion of the Byzantine Empire. It took considerably longer for the invention to reach northern Europe; the Celts are credited with introducing soap to Britain in 1000 CE. Although the Arabs used animal fat for their soaps, the abundance of olive trees in the Mediterranean area led to the development of soaps based on olive oil and lye from the ashes of the barilla, a common plant.Castile Olive Oil Soap, Spain, 2000 BCE. Smith College History of Science: Museum of Ancient Inventions.
The Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BCE, late Second Intermediate Period or early New Kingdom), mentions soap along with other Egyptian medical information. It was made by mixing (some sites saying boiling) animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts and used both for washing and treating skin diseases. All the sources I found (mostly soapmakers) say pretty much the same thing, but none are primary or even secondary sources. They just parrot the same information. But it’s pretty consistent.
What I’m not finding out is which ingredients they used to produce soap and what the soap was like. Some sources say it was harsh, but I don’t know if that’s based on documents or a recipe or if it’s just a guess, since more modern soaps before the standardization of lye were often caustic.
Other sources say the Ancient Egyptians used olive oil to make soap. Olive oil was certainly in production nearby during the New Kingdom (and long before) and we know that Egyptians used it. It’s unclear if it was actually used to make soap with or how expensive it was. Would it have been available to workers? Some people did use olive or other oils to clean themselves when they did not have soap.
Natron is a naturally-occurring compound of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. At the present time it is found in three localities in Egypt, two (the Wadi Natrun and the Behera province) in Lower Egypt and one (El-Kab) in Upper Egypt…The natron in the Wadi Natrun occurs dissolved in the lake water—from which a thick layer has gradually been deposited at the bottom of some of the lakes—and also as an incrustation on the ground adjoining many of the lakes. The amount present is very considerable, although the wadi has been the source, not only of the principal Egyptian supply, but also of a small export trade, for several thousands of years….
In ancient Egypt natron was used in purification ceremonies, especially for purifying the mouth; for making incense; for the manufacture of glass, glaze, and possibly the blue and green frits used as pigments, which may be made either with or without alkali, but which are more easily made if alkali is present; for cooking; in medicine and in mummification.The Occurrence of Natron in Ancient Egypt, A. Lucas, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 18, No. 1/2 (May, 1932), pp. 62-66 (5 pages), Sage Publications, Inc.
Natron is commonly used for washing clothes or can be mixed with oil to make a form of soap, though it’s not a particularly strong base.
Laundry would have been washed in the Nile River. Along with bathing and more.
Bathing, food preparation, dishwashing, etc. All in the available water source.
- Castile Olive Oil Soap, Spain, 2000 BCE. Smith College History of Science: Museum of Ancient Inventions.
- Ebers Papyrus. Wikipedia.
- Olive Oil History: Ancient Egypt, Hazienda La Rambla.
- The Occurrence of Natron in Ancient Egypt, A. Lucas, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 18, No. 1/2 (May, 1932), pp. 62-66 (5 pages), Sage Publications, Inc.
- Natron. Wikipedia.