Despite being at the bottom end of the hierarchy of Egyptian
society, some workers prospered as a result of growing demand for
skilled craftsmen. The records from a special village give us an insight
into their lives.
|Click on the image for a gallery view
Workers had a higher status than slaves, servants and peasants,
but they were not as important as educated professionals such as
scribes, doctors and accountants.
The pick of the crop
In fact, workers were not all the same – some were more important
than others. For instance, tombs for the pharaoh and his family
were built and decorated by Egypt’s best craftsmen who were
carefully chosen by government officials.
These craftsmen were highly skilled workers
who lived with their families in the village of Deir el-Medineh, which
still exists today. Their work was secret: pharaohs
and their families were buried with huge amounts of gold and other
treasures, and tomb-robbing was a major problem.
The village was heavily guarded and the craftsmen themselves were
watched to make sure they didn’t steal anything.
Bread and beer
Despite the heavy scrutiny, workers of Deir el-Medineh were treated
very well. Their houses had several rooms, including a kitchen with
an oven for baking, and some had cellars.
Every 10 days they could have two days off and they only had to
work an eight-hour day. They could also have time off to brew beer,
or mummify a dead friend or relative.
In their spare time, they would work on their own tombs. Unlike
the royal tombs, which were decorated with religious pictures, craftsmen’s
tombs had images showing what their owners hoped for in the afterlife
– one much like this, only better.
Despite the status of being a craftsman, the work was dangerous
and dirty. Many spent their days in small dark spaces, cutting stone,
plastering or painting. Because it was dark, it was easy to trip,
so they had to make sure that the baskets of rubble which they carried
out of the tombs did not smudge the fresh paint on the walls and
After the death of Ramesses II, the workers
even went on strike – the first recorded strike in history –
because the government was running out of money and was unable to
feed or pay them.
Blast from the past
Because only the most educated and skilful craftsmen were selected
for work on the tombs, Deir el-Medineh was rare in that most of its
residents could write – even the women.
|New Kingdom women
Luckily for us, these villagers were obsessive record keepers.
They made detailed notes of even the smallest events on bits of
pottery and flakes of stone. As a result, their laundry lists, recipes
and love letters survive to this day. They give
us an amazingly detailed picture of daily life in Egypt more than
3,000 years ago.
Scandal and gossip
These records even include the local scandal and gossip [source
material]. For instance, Paneb, a foreman, was notorious for his
thieving and adultery. He stole equipment from the sites and the
salaries of some of his colleagues – and he had a fondness
for other men’s wives. Even his own son condemned
him for his behaviour.
What is striking is that the worries of the people who lived in
Deir el-Medineh weren’t very different from those we have
today. Like today, sometimes people drank too much or wouldn’t
do their household chores. These facts all combine
to give us a remarkable glimpse into daily life, thousands of years
Where to next:
Art & Architecture in the New Kingdom
Pharaohs - Ramesses II