Visiting or reading about ancient monuments – from prehistoric tombs and temples to medieval castles and cathedrals – I often find myself asking “What about the workers?” Information boards and books tell us about the emperors, kings and priests who commissioned these magnificent structures and either lived in them or were buried in them; but what about the people who actually built them? Who were these masses of people – were they slaves, willing volunteers or paid craftsmen? Where did they come from, where did they live, and how were they all fed?
One site at least provides some answers – Deir el-Medina in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. Guided tours to Luxor often include a visit to this Valley of the Artisans, which was where the labourers lived who actually built the monuments.
In 1922, while the world focused on Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, a team led by French archaeologist Bernard Bruyère was excavating another site in a nearby valley.
Based on papyri and other finds at the site, their work resulted in a remarkably documented account of daily life in the ancient world, spanning almost four hundred years during the 18th to 20th dynasties of the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1080 BC).
The site, originally known as ‘Set Maat’ or ‘The Place of Truth’ was purpose-built to house workers labouring in the Valley of the Kings. At its height, the community contained sixty-eight houses, varying in size, and all built in the same way. Walls were made of mudbrick, built on stone foundations. The mud walls were then painted white on the outside and some of the inner walls were also whitewashed up to a height of around one metre. Houses comprised four to five rooms, usually an entrance, main room, two smaller rooms, a kitchen with a cellar, and a staircase leading to the roof. Windows were set high up in the walls, probably to avoid the full glare of the sun.
The settlement was home to a mixed population of Egyptians, Nubians and Asiatic peoples. Most were employed as labourers, such as stone-cutters, plasterers or water-carriers. Others were involved in decorating the royal tombs and temples, while the remainder would have been administrators.
Although the tomb workers were all men, the village should not be seen as a male-only labour camp. The workers lived here with their families and we know, for instance, that the wives of the workers cared for the children and baked the bread.
The inhabitants were not farmers and could not produce their own food, so the village was not self-sufficient. Moreover, as the village was situated in the desert, even if the people had any skill in agriculture the land was unsuitable. Deir el-Medina also had no well and water had to be imported daily from the Nile. The same applied to food, tools and household items, all having to be delivered from Thebes every month.
When working on the tombs, the artisans stayed overnight in a camp overlooking the Temple of Hatshepsut which can still be seen today. Records indicate that the workers had cooked meals delivered to them from the village.
The workers and their families were not slaves but free citizens. In fact, based on an analysis of income and prices at the time, the workmen would, in modern terms, be considered middle class. As salaried state employees they were paid in rations and received up to three times the rate for a field hand. At the time of great festivals the workmen were issued with extra supplies of food and drink to allow them to celebrate in style.
The working week was eight days followed by two days’ holiday. Taking into account holidays for festivals, over one-third of the year would have been time-off for the villagers. Unofficial second jobs seem also to have been permitted and indeed widely practiced. During their days off the workmen could work on their own tombs. Since many of the artisans were among the best craftsmen in Egypt and decorated the royal tombs, their own tombs are today considered to be some of the most beautiful on the West Bank of the Nile.
The inhabitants of Deir el-Medina even received healthcare, which included medical treatment and also prayer and magic as appropriate.
A large proportion of the community, including women, could at least read and possibly write. The village had its own court of law, authorised to deal with all civil and some criminal cases. The local police, known as Medjay, were responsible for preserving law and order.
The whole area of Ancient Thebes on the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor, including Deir-el-Medina, appears on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
Much more information can be found online at:
Text Alun Harvey