Ancient Egyptians Invented the Ubiquitous Things We Use Today

From boats to glass, from door locks to the world's first police force, the ancient Egyptians invented many of the things that we use today. But the Pyramids still remain a mystery.
Marcia Wendorf

No one rocked eye makeup better than Elizabeth Taylor playing ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra, and the actual ancient Egyptians used eye makeup as well. Beginning around 4,000 B.C., both men and women lined their eyes with a black ointment made of kohl, which was a combination of soot and the mineral galena, a dark gray ore of lead.

Ancient Egyptian eye makeup
Ancient Egyptian eye makeup Source: Crystal Gabriela/Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Egyptians believed that the kohl protected them from various infections and the proverbial "evil eye". On their eyelids, they wore green eye shadow made from the mineral malachite, which is a copper carbonate pigment. To create both ointments, the ancient Egyptians must have used chemical synthesizing processes on the minerals.


The ancient Egyptians used the Nile River and its canals to transport agricultural products, animals, troops, and stone for building projects. Beginning around 4,000 B.C., the earliest boats were made from bundles of bound papyrus reeds.

Ancient Egyptian boat
Ancient Egyptian boat Source: Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1920/Wikimedia Commons

The earliest sailboats were made of native acacia wood or imported cedar wood from Lebanon. They were built without nails, using a number of short planks tied together with ropes, and they were steered by a large rudder oar at the back of the ship. A single sail in the middle of the boat caught the wind, allowing the boats to go southward against the current.

Fishing Tools

Fishing in ancient Egypt was for sport, food and trade. The Nile contained delicacies such as Nile Perch and Eel, as well as the less desirable catfish, carp, mullets, tilapia, elephant-snout fish, tiger fish, and moonfish.

Ancient Egyptian fishing hook
Ancient Egyptian fishing hook Source: Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1920/Wikimedia Commons

To catch the fish, the ancient Egyptians used nets, traps or pens, hooks, and harpoons. Both barbed and barbless hooks were used, and they were made from bone. By the 12th Dynasty, metal hooks were used. Just like today, the ancient Egyptians enjoyed a day down by the river catching fish, and many tomb paintings show them relaxing by the river. Fish, such as catfish, was one of the offerings at the temple of Amen.


Desert Glass Jewelry

The ancient Egyptians turned a greenish yellowish glass that they found littering the desert floor into beautiful jewelry, including a scarab buried beside Pharaoh Tutankhamun. According to the April 2019 issue of the journal Geology, the mystery of how this glass came to be found in the deserts of eastern Libya and western Egypt has been solved.

Called Libyan Desert Glass, scientists from Curtin University in Australia say it was formed 29 million years ago when an asteroid exploded in earth’s atmosphere. Glass forms naturally when a molten material cools so quickly that its molecules can't form an ordered structure, or crystal. An airblast over the Egyptian desert, would have placed vast amounts of heat onto the desert sand.

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Libyan Desert Glass jewelry
Libyan Desert Glass jewelry Source: Jon Bodsworth/Wikimedia Commons

In samples of the Libyan Desert Glass, researchers found grains of the mineral zircon, and its presence confirms that another mineral, reidite, must also have been present. Reidite only forms under high pressure, so while both a meteorite impact and an airburst can cause melting, only a meteorite impact's shock waves could have formed the high-pressure minerals.

Glass Making

By 1,500 B.C., Egyptian artisans were making glass items in varied tints, hues, and patterns. They used a core-forming technique, where the hot glass was wound around a core made from a ceramic-like material. They then added handles and a rim, and when the vessel was cool, they removed the core. These small flasks were used to contain perfumed oil.

Ancient Egyptian glass
Ancient Egyptian glass Source: Acquired by Henry Walters/Wikimedia Commons 

The First Police Force

The ancient Egyptians had a lot to guard - their strongholds, religious buildings, and storehouses. Guards recruited from the military and even foreign mercenaries were employed. The elite Medjay were Nubian desert scouts who protected markets, temples, and trade routes. They used trained monkeys and dogs to help them catch criminals, as shown in an image from a 5th Dynasty tomb.

This description of an Eighteenth Dynasty crime could have been written today: "They went to the granary, stole three great loaves and eight Sabu-cakes of Rohusu berries. They drew a bottle of beer which was cooling in water, while I was staying in my father’s room. My Lord, let whatsoever has been stolen be given back to me."


In ancient Egypt, if you didn't leave the house without your eye makeup, you certainly didn't leave without your wig. It's thought that the ancient Egyptians shaved their heads to avoid infestations of lice.

Ancient Egyptian wig
Ancient Egyptian wig Source: Purchase, Frederick P. Huntley Bequest, 1958/Wikimedia Commons

To cover their heads, both men and women wore wigs, with those of high status wearing wigs made of human hair. Those with less status wore wigs made of dyed sheep's wool. Slaves weren't even allowed to shave their heads.

High-status women adorned their wigs with headbands, flowers, jewelry, and ribbons, while Queen Nefertiti was spot on with today's trend for colored hair, she wore a dark blue wig.


How to check out your wig and eye makeup without a hand mirror, and many examples of ancient Egyptian hand mirrors have been found. They were often decorated with inscriptions and figures, such as images of the god Bes. Besides hand mirrors, upper-class homes also had wall mirrors.

Ancient Egyptian hand mirror
Ancient Egyptian hand mirror Source: Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons

The First Door Lock

In the ruins of a palatial ancient Egyptian complex was found the world's first door lock. It used a pin-tumbler mechanism, which consisted of a wooden post that was affixed to a door, and a horizontal bolt that slid into the post. The bolt had a set of openings which were filled with pins.

A wooden key was shaped with pegs that corresponded to the pins in the lock, and when this key was inserted into the opening and lifted, it moved the pins and allowed the bolt to be withdrawn. Some keys were as long as 2 feet (.6 m) in length. The pin-tumbler lock is still in use today.

Breath Mint

Sand and small stones from grinding wheat were common in the food of ancient Egyptians, and this wore down their tooth enamel, exposing the tooth pulp, and leading to tooth decay. Many ancient Egyptians had rotting teeth, which caused bad breath.

Their solution was a breath mint made from myrrh, cinnamon, and frankincense, boiled together in a base of honey, then shaped into lozenges. In case your guests left a lingering stench when visiting, the ancient Egyptians also had a kind of room freshener made from honey, wine, pine resin and juniper berries.


Besides shaving their heads, the ancient Egyptians also shaved their faces. They considered a beard to be the mark of lower social status. Initially, they used sharp stone blades set in wooden handles, but eventually adopted copper blades. Ancient Egyptian barbers would make house calls to shave wealthy clients, while ordinary citizens were shaved sitting on benches beneath shady sycamore trees.

Ancient Egyptian shaving blade
Ancient Egyptian shaving blade Source: Wellcome Collection gallery/Wikimedia Commons

After going to all the trouble to shave off their beards, the ancient Egyptians wore fake beards fashioned out of human hair and sheep's wool. A fake beard was even worn by the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, perhaps in an attempt to display her authority.


In a settlement that dates back to the second and third centuries A.D. that is located 56 miles (90 kilometers) south of Cairo, archaeologists have discovered lanes and a collection of balls of various sizes. The lanes measured 13 feet (3.9 meters) long, 7.9 inches (20-centimeter) wide, and 3.8 inches (9.6-centimeter) deep, and each had a 4.7-inch (11.9-centimeter) square opening in its center.

In the world's first bowling alley, the ancient Egyptians weren't trying to knock down pins as in modern bowling, but were trying to roll their ball into the opening, while at the same time knocking their opponents' balls away from the hole.


A 2010 analysis of the bones of ancient Nubans revealed the presence of tetracycline, a modern antibiotic. The world's first antibiotic, penicillin, wasn't invented until 1928 by Alexander Fleming, so how did the ancient Egyptians get one - in their beer?

The beer brewed by the ancient Egyptians was contaminated by Streptocyces, a soil bacteria that thrives in arid conditions and produces tetracycline. The Streptocyces would have formed a gold-colored bacterial colony on the top of the beer.

The Pyramids

The ancient Egyptians built approximately 118 pyramids, with the earliest being built at Saqqara, northwest of Memphis. The Pyramid of Djoser was built around 2,630 – 2,610 B.C. and was designed by the famed architect Imhotep.

The most famous Egyptian pyramids are those at Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo. They are among the largest structures ever created by man, and the Pyramid of Khufu, is the largest Egyptian pyramid and the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that is still in existence.

While it has long since been carried away to use as a building material, most pyramids were faced with polished, highly reflective white limestone. This would have given them a brilliant appearance when viewed from a distance, and their names even indicate this as the formal name of the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur is "The Southern Shining Pyramid," and the pyramid of Senwosret at el-Lahun is "Shining".

The first list of all the pyramids was compiled in 1842 by the Prussian archaeologist Karl Richard Lepsius. On November 11, 2008, a new pyramid, that of Sesheshet, was discovered at Saqqara. Sesheshet was the mother of the Sixth Dynasty pharaoh Teti.

Interestingly, all pyramids except one, the small Third Dynasty pyramid of Zawyet el-Amwat (or Zawyet el-Mayitin), are located on the west bank of the Nile River. To this day, it's not known how the pyramids were constructed although this wall painting found in the tomb of Djehutihotep might give a hint.

It shows a large statue being transported by sledge, with a person standing on the front of the sledge wetting the sand. According to a 2014 study by researchers at the University of Amsterdam, "sliding friction on sand is greatly reduced by the addition of some - but not that much - water." With the right amount of water, "capillary bridges", which are extremely small droplets of water, are formed between sand grains and glue together individual grains of sand.

Stiffening sand
Ancient Egyptians stiffening sand Source: Sir John Gardner Wilkinson/Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Egyptians had to get it just right because with too much water, "the static friction progressively decreases in amplitude ..." According to the researchers, this "stiff sand" would cut by half the amount of force required to move the sledge."

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