Talk like an Egyptian: 8ft scroll reveals prenup demands of women in ancient times

Old Kingdom Egyptian princess Nefertiabet (dated 2590-2565 BCE) from her tomb at Giza, painting on limestone, now in the Louvre Museum, Paris.
Ancient Egyptian women knew what they wanted and exactly how to get it. A massive 8-foot prenuptial contract reveals that wives of the era were solid negotiators, making sure they would still receive money and food long after their marriages ended.

Believed to be 2,480 years old, the 8-foot scroll – written in demotic script, a kind of shorthand for hieroglyphs – states that the wife responsible for the contract would receive “1.2 pieces of silver and 36 bags of grain every year for the rest of her life.”

There was, however, a small catch. The woman had to pay her soon-to-be husband 30 pieces of silver upfront in order for the prenup to exist.

Detail from the right side of an ancient Egyptian annuity contract © Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

The contract is currently on display at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Another prenup shows the husband listing all of the property the wife brought with her into the marriage, promising that he would repay her all for all of it in the event of divorce.

“One may assume that the woman and her family exerted as much pressure as they could to ensure that the husband made such a contract,” Professor Janet H. Johnson wrote in an article for the University of Chicago Library, adding that such agreements “were extremely advantageous to the wife.”

If the assertiveness of women in ancient Egypt surprises you, it shouldn't, according to Dr. Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist at the Oriental Institute. In fact, women had a lot more rights than you might expect.

Another annuity contract close-up. © Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Women could file for divorce at any time, and any prenup document would have to be honored. If either party wanted to break the contract, they would have to appear in court.

“Most people have no idea that women in ancient Egypt had the same legal rights as men,” Teeter said, as quoted by Atlas Obscura.

Ancient prenups were drafted much in the same way that a modern-day contract would be drawn up. The two parties would meet, bringing along a scribe and some witnesses.

The person proposing the agreement (namely the woman, it seems) would speak it aloud, and the scribe would record the terms in writing. The other person could either accept or refuse. If they accepted, the prenup was considered binding.

In addition to protecting themselves in the event of divorce, women could enter into contracts, sue and be sued, and serve on juries and as witnesses. They could also acquire and own property.

However, despite their legal freedom, women were still largely dependent on men in the social and political arenas. While men were placed into a hierarchy depending on their jobs, women were judged by their husbands or fathers, since many of them did not work.

Documentation of a labor strike from 1160 BCE. © Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Meanwhile, Egypt's surprisingly progressive legal system didn't only extend to women. Another scroll reveals that builders of the country's ancient tombs walked away from their jobs, refusing to work until they were paid, in what could be described as an ancient labor strike.

Unfortunately, the ancient stone breaks off, taking the end of the story with it. But since the tombs were eventually built, Teeter says the workers most likely “won the strike.”