Not known for getting his own hands dirty, he gets Piy to recruit some local tomb robbers from the workman’s village at Deir el-Medina to help him out. The tomb robbers will soon find that they have gotten themselves involved in something a lot stranger and even more terrifying than tunnelling into a sealed tomb in the dead of night right under the noses of the necropolis guards. But what was the real village they lived in really like and what kind of life would these ordinary ancient Egyptian men have led?
The name means ‘monastery of the city’ in Arabic, but to the Ancient Egyptians it was known as ‘Pa-demi’ which means ‘the town’ and also ‘Set-Maat’, the place of truth. So what is this very important and unique archaeological site? Well Deir el-Medina is the remains of the village where the workmen who worked on the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens lived with their wives and children. These highly skilled craftsmen dedicated their whole lives to carving and decorating the tombs of the great pharaohs, and, contrary to what a lot of people believe, they were free citizens and not slaves.
Discovery and Excavation of Deir el-Medina
It is these ostraca that have given us such a vivid picture of the lives of these ordinary people during the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, as they contained notes, lists, and private letters that cover everything from official business to complaints and local gossip. A French team led by Bernard Bruyère took over in 1922 and worked on excavating the whole site until 1951, and uncovered the village with its adjacent cemetery and dumps.
They uncovered a village of worker’s dwellings that opened out onto one main thoroughfare that cut through the middle of the town, with several smaller streets that had been added on as the town had grown. Deir el-Medina was a walled village, with the main entrance being to the north, and the well that provided the village with water was just outside the main gate. The well was not fed by a water source, but had to be filled every day by water carriers who hauled the precious water all the way from the Nile.
The Houses of Deir el-Medina
Some of the houses were decorated with frescos of the gods, and many had niches for stela, statues or offering tables. There were even some child burials found underneath the floors. Deir el-Medina is probably the best preserved ancient settlement in Egypt dating from pharaonic times, and provides a fascinating insight into the daily lives of this unique community.
History of Deir el-Medina
This royal pair was adopted as the patrons of the worker’s village and after their death they then became the village deities, and there is a temple dedicated to them in the vicinity of the village that stands on the terrace above the much later Ptolemaic temple. There were many feast days during the year in which Amenhotep I’s statue, in his guise of ‘Lord of the Village’ was paraded through the streets, and their joint royal cult was known to be in existence until the late Ramesside period.
The community was formed from the workmen and their families. They were highly skilled artisans who were better paid and more highly educated than many other ordinary ancient Egyptians. It is likely that even some of the women were literate, as they were known to have received and been sent messages, as for much of the time only the women would have been at home in Deir el-Medina, as their men folk worked long hours in the Valley of the Kings and sometimes were away overnight.
There were also scribes who kept records of the progress of the work on the royal tomb, payments to the workers and any supplies that were distributed. It was these scribes and the foremen who acted as the heads of the village, and they were responsible for running the local courts, distributing the worker’s wages and obtaining supplies for the work on the tombs from the royal storehouses. They were also responsible for filling any vacancies in the workforce, and there is evidence that bribes were used to obtain a job in this select enclave of elite royal workers.
These were prized jobs in Ancient Egypt, and they were passed down from father to son. The working week for these ancient workmen was eight days long, followed by two days holidays. There were also festival days to be enjoyed during the year and the records show that time was also taken off for illness, and also hangovers and for settling family rows. In their time off the workmen produced superb funerary equipment to supplement their incomes and also dug out their own rock tombs and decorated them with some of the finest tomb paintings known from ancient Egypt.
As long as the pharaoh’s were having tombs cut in the Valley of the Kings, the village thrived, but towards the end of the New Kingdom the Egyptian Empire became under threat from foreign invaders which led to economic instability and a scarcity of food and goods. The inhabitants of Deir el-Medina were totally dependent on receiving their payments of food from the outside, and when the delivery of these supplies started to become irregular they became restless.
Towards the end of the reign of Ramesses III, they downed tools in exasperation and staged perhaps the first strike in history. They wrote to the vizier stating their grievances and protesting that they were hungry, and refused to return to work. The royal authorities addressed their concerns and resumed their supplies of rations, but other strikes were to follow. Things became gradually more unsettled at Deir el-Medina, with disruptions to the grain supplies and strikes becoming commonplace, and raiders from Libya threatening the area around Thebes.
It was around this time that tomb robbing became a pastime for the inhabitants of Deir el-Medina, and gangs were formed that would tunnel into the pharaoh’s tombs to loot the gold and rich funerary equipment that they knew had been placed there to aid the pharaoh’s journey into the afterlife. Even the officials were implicated and although there were arrests, torture and executions, the looting continued and it seemed that the Egyptian authorities were powerless to completely stop the gangs. Thebes itself was plunged into civil war and the workers left Deir el-Medina to take sanctuary in the temple of Medinet Habu, but even there they were not safe and the temple was overrun and the unfortunate workers and their families were captured and enslaved.
Eventually, in a frantic attempt to protect the mummies and funerary goods of the pharaohs and their queens, the High Priests of Amun, who were by now the effective rulers of Egypt, emptied the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens of their precious contents and created two royal caches were they hoped that their rulers could rest in peace for the rest of eternity. The days of the skilled craftsmen carving royal tombs and living at Deir el-Medina were over, and the future pharaohs of ancient Egypt would be buried much further north in the Delta.
The Valley of the Kings would receive no further royal burials and the village was abandoned forever. The last ancient Egyptians to live in the vicinity of Deir el-Medina would have been the priests who served the temple of Hathor that was built during the Ptolemaic period and by then the story of the lives of these remarkable workmen and their families would have already been a very dim and distant memory.