Lessons from Little Miss Sobek in Ptolemaic breasts, ancient clothing and nursing

Photograph of a toddler wearing a crocodile mask on her head.
Little Miss Sobek in her crocodile mask

At the time of writing its a little over four years since my last fieldwork in Egypt (at Hatnub), during which I discovered I was pregnant. After three years of nursing, motherhood and Egyptology, I now have a three-year-old pre-schooler (codename Little Miss Sobek) and a lot of new experiences which have made me think anew about various aspects Egyptology and reconsider some previous assumptions.

Given that nursing was the only safe method of feeding an infant until the 20th century and most people in ancient societies nursed their children for much longer than we do, it must have been incredibly commonplace in ancient Egyptian society and a regular part of most women’s lives. Yet the implications of this for Egyptology are rarely explored, probably because Egyptologists with direct experience of nursing have been relatively limited. Archaeology and Egyptology were historically dominated by men. Most of the early Trowel Blazers were white, upper-class women, whose children were largely fed and brought-up by others. More recently, advances in contraception, social change, and the problems of pursuing an academic and fieldwork-driven career while engaging in caring responsibilities have meant many Egyptologists have chosen not to have children. Those with direct experience of nursing are fewer still, owing to the cultural norms of the mid-20th century and the existence of safe and effective bottle feeding methods. Considerations of the effect of nursing on ancient Egyptian society are therefore very limited. Despite a long interest in clothing and textiles, it was only when I became a nursing mother myself, that I realised what an impact such an activity would necessarily have on society when it was a task performed by most women for a substantial part of their lives.

Ptolemaic Breasts

Some years ago I was visiting an Egyptian site and my husband asked me what date it was. I looked at the reliefs and said confidently, ‘Ptolemaic’. ‘How can you tell?’ he asked. ‘Well there are number of features, but what really gives it away are the Ptolemaic breasts’, was my response. If you look carefully at Ptolemaic period reliefs the breasts have a distinctive shape, with a rounded top that always looked to me like the shape produced by breast-implants. You can clearly see the typical Ptolemaic shape in the female deity behind Sobek in the wall relief from Kom Ombo, below, and also in the female deities in the featured image at the top of this blog.

An ancient Egyptian relief showing three gods, Sobek to the right followed by a goddess and juvenile in a divine triad.
Ptolemaic image of Sobek, crocodile-headed god on the right, from Kom Ombo (Image Rémih/CC BY-SA 3.0 from https://commons.wikimedia.org )
A limestone statue of a late 18th Dynasty lady in a wrapped and pleated dress and a bouffant wig.
The wife of Nahktmin wearing a wrapped-dress of the type that would become popular in the Ramesside period. 18th Dynasty, reign of Ay (Cairo Museum CG779b)

I had always assumed that Ptolemaic breasts were a feature of the ‘male gaze‘, a sexualising of female deities consciously or unconsciously undertaken by heterosexual male designers and masons. That is until I woke up five days after the birth of my daughter with my very own Ptolemaic breasts! For those who are unfamiliar with the nursing process, when a child is born the first milk produced (called colostrum) is very limited, although rich in nutrients and various important immunological elements. About five days after birth the ‘milk comes in’ which means the colostrum is replaced by milk that is less rich but much greater in volume. The physical effect of this is that the breasts swell up like little water-balloons, and they will do so again and again any time milk consumption drops. The balloon-like Ptolemaic breasts of statuary and relief may or may not have been sexually titillating, but their similarity to the full breasts of nursing mothers makes me wonder if they are intended to represent fertility and abundance. The human breast in its role as provider par excellence.

Easy access

Another lesson I learned early in my experience was how inefficient modern clothes are for feeding a child. Clothes with flaps that are either held in place by gravity or can be undone one handed (while cuddling a screaming infant in the other hand) are by far the most efficient type of clothing for nursing. Something like an ancient Greek Peplos or one of the draped, wrap-around dresses of the Ramesside period (right) would offer a lot of options. Draped and wrapped dresses also offer a flexibility over time. The same garment could be converted into an efficient nursing outfit simply by draping or wrapping it differently.

11th Dynasty wooden statue of a female offering bearer wearing a tight 'sheath-dress' with a diamond pattern. The dress is cut below her breasts, which are covered by broad shoulder straps.
Female offering bearer wearing a ‘sheath dress’ with wide breast-covering straps. The band beneath the breasts and straps would provide helpful support while permitting access for breastfeeding if required. 11th Dynasty tomb of Meketre, Luxor (Author Photograph, Cairo Museum JE 46725).

Of course if your climate and culture permit them, bare nipples are even better for nursing. This may be why so many Egyptian dresses leave the breasts bare, such as the the various styles worn by offering bearers and servants and the typically Egyptian ‘sheath-dress’ (left). Vogelsang-Eastwood (1993, 96-97) identified the ‘sheath-dress’ as a type of wrap-around, but either as a sheath or as a wrap-around it would have been an efficient nursing outfit.

Tyets for the tits?

Nursing necessitates a lot of time when the only breast support is the band around the chest, the shoulder strap of the bra being unclasped to allow the child access. I was surprised to find the band alone offered a great deal of support. Ancient Egyptian dresses with straps or fabric wrapped immediately underneath the breasts would have provided their wearers with similar support, while leaving the breasts uncovered for access. Shoulder straps, whether they covered or left the breasts bare, could have contributed further support while maintaining access for the feeding child. These discoveries made me wonder about the origins of the tyet amulet. It clearly represents a knot of cloth and its association with red had led some to suggest it represents a menstrual cloth, but there isn’t any conclusive evidence of this. Alternatively the tyet may have its origins in the straps and bands worn on the upper body. A role in supporting the breasts, nourishers of children, would also be consistent with its attribution to with Isis and its associations with ‘health’ and ‘welfare’.

Conclusion

They say that having children changes you, but I had no idea it would also change many of my ideas about ancient Egyptian culture, particularly those associated with nursing. What this has taught me is how important it is to have varied lifestyles and a myriad of experiences amongst archaeologists and Egyptologists. I might have personal experience of nursing a child, but there are myriad ways in which I am far removed from the lives and experiences of the ancient Egyptians. In incorporating a range of voices amongst Egyptologists and archaeologists we will tap into multiple sources of practical and experiential knowledge that may change our understanding of ancient cultures in the same way my nursing experiences have altered my understanding of ancient Egyptian clothing.

Bibliography

Vogelsang-Eastwood, G. 1993. Pharaonic Egyptian Clothing. Brill: Leiden.

About hannahpethen

Having completed my PhD in archaeology at the University of Liverpool, I am now a freelance archaeologists working with landscape and topographic survey and satellite imagery. I specialise in GIS, GPS, desk-based assessment and landscape projects and have a particular interest in Egyptian archaeology.
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1 Response to Lessons from Little Miss Sobek in Ptolemaic breasts, ancient clothing and nursing

  1. Did you notice this »Motherhood in archaeology & matricentric feminism« | AGE online workshop, 15 February 2022: https://www.oeaw.ac.at/oeai/kommunikation-events/newsarchiv/news-detail/call-for-papers-9-1 ?

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