Caring for Cows in Ancient Egypt

Jennifer Cromwell

Tomb scenes and models show how important cattle were in ancient Egypt. From birthing to butchery, we see the experiences and uses of cattle. Not only did they provide food (for the living and the dead, as well as the gods) and leather, they were also essential for agriculture. We see them depicted in a range of activities, including ploughing and threshing wheat (e.g., the tomb of Menna, Theban Tomb 69). One aspect of life that we don’t see in these scenes is what happens when animals get sick: tombs show healthy animals, fulfilling their duties without catching and succumbing to disease.

Model of Cow Giving Birth, ca. 2030-1640 BCE. (c) Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (MK.160)

Evidence for the treatment of sick animals is rare, but one papyrus demonstrates that the ancient Egyptians did have a knowledge of various conditions and treatments. Our most important source comes from the Middle Kingdom town of Kahun (or Lahun/Illahun): the Kahun Veterinary Papyrus. Kahun has yielded the largest body of papyri from the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2025–1700 BCE), which were discovered between 1889 and 1899. One group concerns the cult of pharaoh Senwosret II and was found in a rubbish mound north of the Valley Temple of his pyramid complex. The Veterinary Papyrus is part of a second, miscellaneous group of texts found across Kahun during the work of Flinders Petrie in 1889 and now in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. 

The Veterinary Papyrus is badly damaged and incomplete. Small fragments show that various animals were dealt with in the text, e.g., one piece that concerns the disease of some bird. The largest surviving section deals with cattle, preserving three case studies, the most complete of which is entitled “Eye examination of a bull with an airborne disease”:

If I see a bull with an airborne disease, its eyes running, its tears heavy, the roots of its teeth reddened, and its neck taut, it should be read as follows:

It should be lain on its side, and sprinkled with fresh (or cool) water

And its eyes should be rubbed, along with its flanks and all its limbs

With khenesh-plants or shu-plants, and fumigated by (?)

It is saved from damp … to be kept away from water

It is rubbed with khenesh parts of qadet-plants.

Then you should cut it at its nostrils and its tail and say of it:

It is under treatment – it will die from it or it will live from it.

If it does not recover, and is heavy under your fingers and its eyes are blocked

You should wrap its eyes with fine linen, heated at a fire, for the bleariness.

(translation from Collier and Quirke 2004, 55)
Kahun Veterinary Papyrus (c) Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC32036)

Based on the thick discharge from the eyes, the reddened gums, and swollen neck, the symptoms suggest that the bovine in question was suffering from an infection resulting in fever. After forcing the animal onto its side, the main course of treatment was to lower its temperature, cooling it with water and rubbing its body with several plants. Unfortunately, the identities of the plants named aren’t known, but they must have had cooling properties. To further help reduce its temperature, bloodletting is prescribed, which was a common treatment for fever in the ancient world. Finally, if its condition still has not improved, a heated piece of linen is to be placed over the eyes. 

Who was responsible for administering these treatments? No word for vet is known from ancient Egypt. It is possible that doctors (Egyptian swnw) may also have fulfilled this role, applying their medical knowledge to the animal world, but there is no conclusive evidence to support this possibility. For herders and farmers, their wealth of experience, gained by spending all their days with their animals, may have been enough to recognise common illnesses and carry out such treatments, without the need for consulting specialists. 

Regardless of who carried out the treatments, not only is it clear that ancient Egyptians cared for the health of their livestock, such knowledge was also important enough to be written down.

Ploughing Model, Dynasty 12 (ca. 1981–1885 BCE) (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. 36.5)

Technical Details 
Provenance: Kahun/Lahun, Egypt.
Date: Late Middle Kingdom (late 12th/13thdynasty); ca. 1850–1700 BCE.
Language: Middle Egyptian (cursive hieroglyphs).
Collection: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC32036). 
Designation: Kahun Veterinary Papyrus.
Bibliography: Francis Ll. Griffith (1897), The Petrie Papyri: Hieratic Papyri from Kahun and Gurob, principally of the Middle Kingdom (London) [available online here]; Mark Collier and Stephen Quirke (2004) The UCL Lahun Papyri: Religious, Literary, Legal, Mathematical and Medical (Oxford); Sian Lewis and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (2017) The Culture of Animals in Antiquity: A Sourcebook with Commentary (London); Connie Lord (2016), “One and the Same? An investigation into the connection between veterinary and medical practice in ancient Egypt,” in Campbell Price et al. (eds) Mummies, Magic, and Medicine in Ancient Egypt: Multidisciplinary Essays for Rosalie David (Manchester), pp. 140–154.

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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