Slaves were brutally branded in ancient Egypt, research shows

Slaves in ancient Egypt were given the same treatment as livestock, studies show.

 Detail view of a glass bucket, dating back to Egypt or Syria in the 14th century. Currently housed in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. (photo credit: ADAM JONES/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Detail view of a glass bucket, dating back to Egypt or Syria in the 14th century. Currently housed in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.
(photo credit: ADAM JONES/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

While many people brand cattle and other livestock with a burning iron, slaves in ancient Egypt also suffered the same fate.

According to new archaeological evidence, slaves would be forcibly branded to show they were the property of the Pharaoh. Not only were these people depicted as property, but they were branded in order to show their status was "as low as cattle" in ancient society.

A recent study in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology revealed that texts from ancient Egypt referred to the sale and transfer of cattle and single out those that have a mark or stamp and those that don’t. Were those texts entirely referring to animals, or could they have been referring to slaves on the same level as their livestock?

A series of small branding irons were uncovered that were seen as "potentially too small for livestock," and were believed to be used on humans. This collection of 10 branding irons, dating back to roughly 1292 BC, until 656 BC, Egypt's 19th to 25th dynasties, were most likely used to mark the skin of human slaves as they were too small to use on livestock.

According to researchers, these branding irons were roughly the same size as those used on slaves traded by Europeans in the 19th century. 

 Pharaoh prohibited the Jewish slaves from returning to their homes.  (credit: REUTERS) Pharaoh prohibited the Jewish slaves from returning to their homes. (credit: REUTERS)

Why do researchers think the brands were used on people?

"They are so small that it precludes them from being used on cattle or horses," study author Ella Karev told Live Science in a recent interview.

"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."

Ella Karev

The expert also identified that slaves had different "markings" than the religious-based tattoos and body art of the time. Egyptian texts referred to some evidence of "slave marking," which provided insight contrary to the previous belief that tattoos were used to mark slaves.

Ancient Egyptian dynasties were known to hold three types of slaves: Slaves who were prisoners of war, slaves who sold themselves or their children into slavery to settle debts and slaves who were owned by the state but received wages.

The Bible also tells the story of the Israelites who were enslaved by the Pharoah who feared their spreading across the land and taking over control.