New Study Suggests Ancient Egyptians Likely Branded Their Slaves

Published November 17, 2022
Updated November 18, 2022

Researchers believe that 3,000-year-old bronze irons used by ancient Egyptians were too small for cattle or horses, and may have been used for enslaved people instead.

Ancient Egyptian Branding Iron

The British MuseumA bronze branding iron from ancient Egypt.

Historians have long known that ancient Egyptians branded their cattle. But a new study suggests that they may have also used branding irons to mark enslaved people.

The study, published in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, examined ancient texts as well as 10 branding irons made of bronze. The researchers concluded that the branding irons, which date from between 1292 and 656 B.C.E., were likely too small to be used on livestock.

“They are so small that it precludes them from being used on cattle or horses,” Ella Karev, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago and author of the new study told Live Science. “I’m not excluding the possibility, but we have no evidence of small animals like goats being branded, and there is so much other evidence of humans being branded.”

Modern-day cattle brands are at least four inches long, Live Science reports. But the brands studied by Karev are a third of that size. They would have been ineffective in branding calves because as the animal grew bigger, the scar would appear smaller and harder to see.

What’s more, Karev told Live Science that ancient Egyptian texts include references to “marking” enslaved people. Though this has long been thought to mean tattoos, Karev argues that it could actually mean branding.

The “terminology of the period refers to branding, not tattooing, as previously suggested,” Karev explained in her study. “Both branding and tattooing existed as forms of body mutilation, but these practices inhabited different spheres of social power; branding marked one as property, whereas tattooing was religious and decorative.”

Karev also made the argument that branding enslaved people in ancient Egypt would have simply made more sense. Giving people tattoos was time-consuming, while branding could be done on a mass scale.

“Practically speaking, ‘hand-poking’ a tattoo [without a tattoo machine] takes quite a lot of time and skill — and if you’re doing that on a large scale, it’s not easily replicable,” Karev told Live Science. “It would make much more sense for this to be branding.”

She pointed to the Medinet Habu carving in particular, which depicts ancient Egyptians “marking” prisoners of war. Though the carving — from around 1185 B.C.E. — appears to show prisoners being tattooed, Karev argues that it could actually show them being branded. Others have interpreted the tools in the Egyptians’ hands as tattoo needles and bowls nearby as containing pigment; Karev sees brands being heated in a brazier.

Medinet Habu Carving

Oriental Institute of the University of ChicagoResearchers have long assumed that the Medinet Habu carving depicts ancient Egyptians tattooing prisoners of war, but Karev argues that it actually shows the prisoners being branded.

The bronze brands from ancient Egypt also bear a resemblance to 19th-century brands used by European enslavers on African enslaved people. “Human branding irons from the mid-and late 19th century parallel the size and shape of the smaller branding irons discussed here,” Karev explained.

But that may be where the similarity between the ancient Egyptian brands and the 19th-century brands ends.

As Karev told Live Science, slavery in ancient Egypt was a complicated concept that bears little resemblance to 19th-century slavery.

“The way that we define slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude, debt bondage — all of these are modern classifications and categorizations,” she explained. “The ancient Egyptians did not have these classifications, and so it is up to historians to figure out what, in context, is actually going on.”

Furthermore, enslaved people in ancient Egypt were often able to escape bondage. “[Ancient Egyptians] clearly had no issue with an ex-slave adopting a new name, becoming fully Egyptian, marrying an Egyptian free person, and moving up the ranks,” Karev noted.

In that case, Karev explained that a brand might be a “permanent marker of an impermanent status.” But it certainly would have been a dehumanizing mark. In her study, Karev concluded:

“The identification of these marks as brands emphasizes the dehumanization of these enslaved persons and implies that their status was on par with other property such as cattle.”

After reading about how ancient Egyptians may have branded enslaved people, look through these fascinating facts about life in ancient Egypt. Or, see why so many Egyptian statues have broken noses.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Cite This Article
Fraga, Kaleena. "New Study Suggests Ancient Egyptians Likely Branded Their Slaves.", November 17, 2022, Accessed April 19, 2024.