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What The Ancients Did For Us - The Egyptians

Updated Wednesday, 12th January 2005

Find out more about The Ancient Egyptians programme, part of the BBC/OU's 'What the Ancients Did for Us' TV series

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Egypt became a unified country five thousand years ago and - until the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 BC - remained a fiercely independent land with its own very distinctive art, religion and culture. Egypt was the superpower of its day and her kings were treated as demigods throughout the Mediterranean world – but what did they do for us?

It goes without saying they gave us mummies and mummification, and one of the great wonders of the ancient world – the pyramids. On a more practical level they invented the sewn plank boat, a method of boat construction using wooden pegs and fibre rope - no nails. Huge boats were built using this technique, the most famous one belonging to King Khufu, the builder of the great pyramid in 2500 BC. The recent discovery of a Bronze Age boat in Britain reveals that this method of construction had found its way here and could have influenced our own boat builders.

Trying to control the flood water of the Nile, the Egyptians built the first dam, a huge undertaking which unfortunately didn't survive a severe flash flood.

Technology and tool-making are high up on the list of Egyptian inventiveness. To speed up the smelting of bronze they invented the foot bellows and devised the multiple headed drill – a drill that could cut through at least three beads at the same time.

As a spin-off from their bead and jewellery making, the Egyptians came up with faience, an attractive glazing material made from quartzite; they quickly put it to use for pottery and tile making. The Egyptians adored decoration and although they didn't invent glass-making they developed the technique to produce highly colourful glass objects; these were highly prized by the wealthy.

With royalty in mind they gave us the wig, make-up and wonderful clothing, and to keep all this safe they came up with the first lock. To pass the time of day they invented fishing as a hobby and the folding stool to sit on whilst waiting for that bite.

And last but not least the Egyptians liked to keep meticulous records and invented paper from the papyrus plant. It's a wonderful material with long fibres and can also be used for basketry, sandals and rope.

First broadcast: Wednesday 16 Feb 2005 on BBC TWO

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