Deir el-Medina is an ancient Egyptian workmen’s village home to the artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings during the 18th to 20th Dynasties of the New Kingdom of Egypt (ca. 1550–1080 BCE). The settlement’s ancient name was Set maat (“Place of Truth”), and the workmen who lived there were called “Servants in place of Truth”. During the Christian era, the temple of Hathor was converted into a church from which the Egyptian Arabic name Deir el-Medina (“Monastery of the City”) is derived.
When the world’s press concentrated on Howard Carter’s discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, a team led by Bernard Bruyère began to excavate the site. This work has resulted in one of the most thoroughly documented accounts of community life in the ancient world that spans almost four hundred years. There is no similar site where a community’s organisation, social interactions, and working and living conditions can be studied in such detail.
Location of Deir el-Medina
The site is located on the west bank of the Nile, across the river from modern-day Luxor. The village is laid out in a small natural amphitheatre, within easy walking distance of the Valley of the Kings to the north, funerary temples to the east and southeast, with the Valley of the Queens to the west. The village may have been built apart from the broader population to preserve secrecy because of the sensitive nature of the work carried out in the tombs.
Excavation history in Deir el-Medina
A significant find of papyri was made in the 1840s in the vicinity of the village, and many objects were also found during the 19th century. Ernesto Schiaparelli first seriously excavated the archaeological site between 1905–1909, which uncovered large amounts of ostraca. A French team directed by Bernard Bruyère excavated the entire area, including the village, dump and cemetery, between 1922–1951. Unfortunately, through lack of control, it is now thought that about half of the papyri recovered were removed without the knowledge or authorisation of the team director.
Around five thousand ostraca of assorted works of commerce and literature were found in a well close to the village. Jaroslav Černý, who was part of Bruyère’s team, studied the village for almost fifty years until his death in 1970 and could name and describe the lives of many of the inhabitants. The peak overlooking the village was renamed “Mont Cernabru” in recognition of Černý and Bruyère’s work on the village.
The first datable remains of the village belong to the reign of Thutmose I (c. 1506–1493 BCE), with its final shape formed during the Ramesside Period. At its peak, the community contained around sixty-eight houses spread over a total area of 5,600 m2, with a narrow road running the length of the village. The main road through the village may have been covered to shelter the villagers from the intense glare and heat of the sun.
The size of the habitations varied, with an average floor space of 70 m2, but the same construction methods were used throughout the village. Walls were made of mudbrick and built on top of stone foundations. Mud was applied to the walls and painted white on the external surfaces, while some inner surfaces were whitewashed up to a height of around one metre. A wooden front door might have carried the occupants’ name. Houses comprised four to five rooms, comprising an entrance, the main room, two smaller rooms, and a kitchen with a cellar and staircase leading to the roof. The sun’s glare was avoided by situating the windows high up on the walls. The main room contained a mudbrick platform with steps which may have been used as a shrine or a birthing bed. Nearly all houses contained niches for statues and small altars.
The tombs built by the community for their use include small rock-cut chapels and substructures adorned with small pyramids.
Due to its location, the village is not thought to have provided a pleasant environment. The walled village reflects the shape of the narrow valley in which it’s situated. The barren surrounding hillsides reflect the desert sun and the hill of Gurnet Murai, cutting off the north breeze and any view of the verdant river valley. The village was abandoned c. 1110–1080 BCE during the reign of Ramesses XI (whose tomb was the last of the royal tombs built in the Valley of the Kings) due to increasing threats from tomb robbery, Libyan raids and the instability of civil war. The Ptolemies later built a temple to Hathor on the site of an ancient shrine dedicated to her.
Historical texts of Deir el-Medina
The surviving texts record the events of daily life rather than major historical incidents. Personal letters reveal much about the villagers’ social relations and family life. The ancient economy is documented by records of sales transactions that yield information on prices and exchange. Records of prayers and charms illustrate ordinary popular conceptions of the divine, whilst researchers into ancient law and practice find a rich source of information recorded in the texts from the village. Many examples of the most famous works of ancient Egyptian literature have also been discovered. Thousands of papyri and ostraca still await publication.
The settlement was home to a mixed population of Egyptians, Nubians and Asiatics who were employed as labourers (stone-cutters, plasterers, water carriers) and those involved in the administration and decoration of the royal tombs and temples. The artisans and the village were organised into two groups; left and correct gangs who worked on opposite sides of the tomb walls, similar to a ship’s crew, with a foreman for each who supervised the village and its work.
As the central well was thirty minutes walk from the village, carriers worked to keep the village regularly supplied with water. When working on the tombs, the artisans stayed overnight in a camp overlooking the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut (c. 1479–1458 BCE), still visible today. Surviving records indicate that the workers had cooked meals delivered to them from the village.
Based on the analysis of income and prices, the village’s workers would, in modern terms, be considered middle class. As salaried state employees, they were paid in rations at up to three times the rate of a field hand, but unofficial second jobs were also widely practised. At great festivals such as the heb sed, the workers were issued extra food and drink supplies to allow a stylish celebration.
The working week was eight days followed by two days of holiday, though the six days off a month could be supplemented frequently due to illness, family reasons and, as recorded by the scribe of the tomb, arguing with the wife or having a hangover. Including the days given over to festivals, over one-third of the year was time off for the villagers during the reign of Merneptah (c. 1213–1203 BCE).
During their days off, the workers could work on their tombs, and since they were amongst the best artisans in Ancient Egypt who excavated and decorated royal tombs, their tombs are considered to be some of the most beautiful on the west bank.
Many of the community, including women, could at least read and possibly write.
The workers’ jobs would have been considered desirable and prized positions, with the posts being inheritable.
The examples of love songs recovered show how the friendship between the sexes was practised, as was social drinking by both men and women. Egyptian marriages amongst commoners were monogamous, but little is known about the union or wedding arrangements from surviving records. It was not unusual for couples to have six or seven children; some were recorded as having ten.
Separation, divorce and remarriage occurred. Merymaat is recorded as wanting a divorce because of his mother-in-law’s behaviour. Enslaved women could become surrogate mothers in cases where the wife was infertile and, in doing so, raise their status and procure their freedom.
The community could move freely in and out of the walled village, but for security reasons, the only outsiders allowed to enter the site were those with good work-related reasons.
Women and village life
The records from this village provide most of the information we know about how women lived in the New Kingdom era. The government supplied women with servants to assist with grinding the grain and laundry tasks. The workers’ wives cared for the children and baked the bread, a prime food source in this society. The vast majority of women with a special religious status embedded in their names were married to forepersons or scribes and could hold the titles of chantress or singer, with official positions within local shrines or temples, perhaps even within the significant temples of Thebes.
Under Egyptian law, they had property rights. They had title to their wealth and a third of all marital goods. This would belong solely to the wife in case of divorce or the husband’s death. If she died first, it would go to her heirs, not her spouse. The Mistress of the House usually supervised the brewing of beer. However, the workers considered monitoring the activity a legitimate excuse for taking time off work.
Law and order
As required, the workers and their families were not enslaved people but free citizens with recourse to the justice system. In principle, any Egyptian could petition the vizier and demand a trial by his peers. The community had its court of law comprising a supervisor, deputies, artisans and a court scribe. It was authorised to deal with civil and criminal cases, typically relating to the non-payment of goods or services. The villagers represented themselves, and issues could go on for several years, with one dispute involving the chief of police last eleven years.
The local police, Medjay, were responsible for preserving law and order and controlling access to the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. One of the most famous cases recorded relates to Paneb, the son of an overseer, who was accused of looting royal tombs, adultery and causing unrest in the community. The outcome is unknown, but surviving records indicate the execution of a head of workers at this time.
The people of Deir el-Medina often consulted with oracles about many aspects of their lives, including justice. Questions could be put in writing or orally before the image of the god when carried by priests upon a litter. A positive response could have been indicated by a downward dip and an adverse reaction by a withdrawal of the litter. When a tribunal didn’t resolve a matter of justice, the god’s statue could be carried to the accused and asked, “Is it he who stole my goods?” If the figure nodded, the accused would be considered guilty.
However, at times, the accused would deny guilt and demand to see another oracle or, in at least one case, when that failed, he asked to see a third. When guilt was determined, a judgement would be passed, and the accused would have to make reparations and receive punishment. The Egyptians also believed the oracle could bring disease or blindness to people as punishment or miracle cures as rewards.
The records and ostraca from Deir el-Medina provide a deeply compelling view into the medical workings of the New Kingdom. As in other Egyptian communities, the workers and inhabitants of Deir el-Medina received care for their health problems through medical treatment, prayer, and magic. Nevertheless, the records at Deir el-Medina indicate some level of division, as records from the village note both a “physician” who saw patients and prescribed treatments and a “scorpion charmer” who specialised in magical cures for scorpion bites.
Health texts from Deir el-Medina also differed in their circulation. Magical spells and remedies were widely distributed among the workmen; there were even several cases of spells being sent from one worker to another with no “trained” intermediary. However, written medical texts appear to have been much rarer, with only a handful of ostraca-containing prescriptions, indicating that the trained physician mixed the more complicated remedies himself. Several documents show the writer sending for medical ingredients, but it is unknown whether these were sent according to a physician’s prescription or to fulfil a home remedy.
The excavations of the royal artisan’s community at Deir el-Medina have revealed much evidence of personal religious practice and cults. State gods were worshipped freely alongside personal gods without any conflict between national and local modes of religious expression.
The community had between sixteen and eighteen chapels, with the larger ones dedicated to Hathor, Ptah and Ramesses II. The workers seem to have honoured Ptah and Resheph, the scribes Thoth and Seshat, as patron deities of their particular activity. Women had specific devotion towards Hathor, Taweret, and Bes in pregnancy, turning to Renenutet and Meretseger for food and safety. Meretseger (“She Who Loves Silence”) was perhaps locally at least as necessary as Osiris, the great god of the dead.
The villagers held Amenhotep I (c. 1526–1506 BCE) and his mother, Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, in high regard over many generations, possibly as divinised community patrons. When Amenhotep died, he became the centre of a village funerary cult, as “Amenhotep of the Town”. When the Queen died, she also was deified and became “Mistress of the Sky” and “Lady of the West”. Every year the villagers celebrated the Festival of Amenhotep I, where the elders acted as priests in the ceremonies that paid honour to their local gods who were not worshipped anywhere else in Egypt.
Steles record sorrow for human error and humbly invoke a god for forgiveness and mercy. Prayers were made and dedicated to a particular deity as votive offerings, similar in style to the Penitential Psalms in the Tanakh, which express remorse and thanksgiving for mercy. In one instance, Meretseger is petitioned to relieve one in pain. She answers the prayer by bringing “sweet breezes”. On another stele, a workman writes, “I was a man who swore falsely by Ptah, Lord of Truth, and he caused me to see darkness by day. Now I will declaim his might to both the ignorant and the knowledgeable.” Amun was considered a notable patron of the poor and one who was merciful to the penitent. A stelae records:
[Amun] who comes at the voice of the poor in distress, who gives breath to him who is wretched. You are Amun, the Lord of the silent, who comes at the voice of the poor; when I call to you in my distress, You come and rescue me… Though the servant was disposed to do evil, the Lord is disposed to forgive. The Lord of Thebes spends not a whole day in anger; His wrath passes in a moment, and none remains. His breath comes back to us in mercy… May your ka be kind, and may you forgive; it shall not happen again.
Dream interpretation was widespread. A book of dreams was found in Scribe Kenhirkhopeshef’s library, which was old even in his time. This book was used to interpret various types of dreams. These interpretations lacked precision, and similar dreams often had different meanings. In many cases, the performance was the opposite of what the dream depicted; for example, a happy dream often signified sadness, a vision of plenty often represented scarceness etc.
Examples of how the dreams are interpreted include the following:
- If a man sees himself dead, this is good; it means a long life before him.
- If a man sees himself eating crocodile flesh, this is good; it means acting as an official amongst his people. (i.e. becoming a tax collector)
- If a man sees himself with his face in a mirror, this is bad; it means a new life.
- If a man sees himself uncovering his backside, this is bad; it means he will be an orphan later.
Also, in the temple to Hathor, a few craftsmen built stelae in honour of her. One such stela is the stele of Nefersenut, in which he and one of his sons kneel and give offerings to her in human form.
The royal building service was usually well-run, given the importance of the work it carried out. Paying proper wages was a religious duty that formed an intrinsic part of Maat. When this system broke down, it indicated problems in the broader state. The coming of the Iron Age and the empire’s collapse led to economic instability, with inflation a notable feature. The high ideals expressed in the code of Maat became strained, providing the background to workers’ unrest.
In about the 25th year of the reign of Ramesses III (c. 1170 BCE), the tomb labourers were so exasperated by delays in supplies that they threw down their tools and walked off the job in what may have been the first sit-down strike action in recorded history. They wrote a letter to the Vizier complaining about the lack of wheat rations. Village leaders attempted to reason with them but refused to return to work until their grievances were addressed. They responded to the elders with “great oaths”. “We are hungry”, the crews claimed; “eighteen days have passed this month”, and they still had not received their rations. They were forced to buy their wheat. They told the leaders to send to the pharaoh or Vizier to address their concerns. After the authorities had heard their complaints, they addressed them, and the workers returned to work the next day. Several strikes followed. After one of them, when the strike leader asked the workers to follow him, they told him they had had enough and returned to work. This was not the last strike, but they soon restored the regular wheat supplies, and the strikes ended for the remaining years of Ramesses III. However, since the chiefs supported the authorities, the workers no longer trusted them and chose their representatives. Further complaints by the artisans are recorded forty and fifty years after the initial dispute, during the reigns of Ramesses IX and Ramesses X.
After the reign of Ramses IV (c. 1155–1149 BCE), the conditions of the village became increasingly unsettled. At times there was no work for fear of the enemy. The grain supplies became less dependable, and more strikes followed this. Gangs of tomb robbers increased, often tunnelling into a tomb through its back so they wouldn’t break the seal and be exposed. A tomb robbery culture developed that included fences and even some officials who accepted bribes. When the Viziers checked the tombs to determine whether the seals had been disturbed, they wouldn’t report the tomb as having been opened. When they finally did catch tomb robbers, they used limb-twisting tactics to interrogate them and obtain information about where the plunder was and who their accomplices were.
The Abbott Papyrus reported that when some officials were looking for a scapegoat, they obtained a confession from a repeat offender after torturing him. However, the Vizier was suspicious of how easily the suspect had been produced, so the Vizier asked the suspect to lead them to the tomb he had robbed. He led them to an unfinished tomb that had never been used and claimed that it was the tomb of Isis. When they retrieved the take, they didn’t return it to the burials; instead, they added it to the treasury.
Deir el-Medina in fiction
The French Egyptologist and author Christian Jacq has written a tetralogy dealing with Deir el-Medina and its artisans and Egyptian political life at the time.
Deir el-Medina is also mentioned in some of the later books of the Amelia Peabody series by Barbara Mertz (written as Elizabeth Peters). The village is the setting for some scenes, and late in the series, the fictional Egyptologist Radcliffe Emerson is credited with excavations and documentation of the site.