Skilled Workers at Deir el Medina

views updated

Skilled Workers at Deir el Medina


The Village. The ancient village located at Deir el Medina provides the best documentation for the social organization of a group of skilled workers during the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.). Deir el Medina is the modern name of a village on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes (present-day Luxor). In ancient Egyptian it was called “The Place of Truth” (Set-Maat) and was the home of the artists who decorated the tombs in the Valley of the Kings during the New Kingdom. Because the artists could read and write, they left behind personal records that allow Egyptologists to reconstruct their lives. For almost three hundred years, one can follow many families who worked directly for the pharaoh’s building and decorated his tomb.

The Residents. The village at its greatest extent had seventy houses located inside a protective wall. Fifty additional structures were located just outside the walls. The adjacent hillside was the site of family tombs for the artists and workers. Approximately 120 workmen and their families lived at Deir el Medina. Estimates place the total population at about 1,200 people during Dynasties 19 (circa 1292-1190 b.c.e.) and 20 (circa 1190-1075 b.c.e.). Of these people, nearly all the adults had titles. More than twenty different titles are preserved at Deir el Medina. These titles provide the best evidence for understanding the high degree of stratification in ancient Egyptian society.

Direct Governance by Pharaoh. The village was under the jurisdiction of the vizier, the pharaoh’s prime minister. The Overseer of the Treasury of Pharaoh (finance minister) was responsible for the economic support for the village. The administrators of the village dealt directly with the highest levels of the government. The fact that the central government took a direct interest in the village shows that Deir el Medina was not a typical place. The people living here were probably more privileged than the average ancient Egyptian.

The Tomb. Overall in the documents, the governing structure of the village was called “The Tomb,” naming it after its final product. Progress on the building and decorating of the pharaoh’s tomb would have been one of his major concerns and the only official business of the village.

The Gang. The men who carried out the work were called the yesu translated as “the Gang” in this context. The same name was used to describe a ship’s crew. Just as was true of a ship’s crew where oarsmen were assigned to the right or left side of the boat, the gang was divided into right and left sides both for administrative and labor purposes. Not all members of the gang were paid equal amounts. It is possible that bachelors were paid less than married men received. However, it might be that beginners were paid less than experienced workers. The vocabulary used to describe this situation is not clear.

Workload. The numbers of the gang varied between 16 and 120 during the time of its existence. The variation usually reflected the stage of work on the tomb. At the beginning when the tomb was excavated, more workers were needed. During the final stages of decoration, only the highly skilled carvers and painters were needed. After the pharaoh had died and work on a new tomb began for the new pharaoh, the number of gang members increased again.

Hiring Practices. The workers had many children, and it is clear that there was intense competition to have sons accepted into the gang. Members of the gang kept lists of gifts made to the administrators in charge of hiring in order to influence the hiring of their sons. Yet, not all children born in the village found employment there when they grew up. Scholars report some children became scribes both in the army and in temples.

Chief Workmen. Each of the two sides of the gang had a chief workman called the foreman. The two foremen were appointed by the pharaoh, probably on the recommendation of the vizier. Often, the foreman was a son of the previous foreman. When for some reason the son of a foreman was not available to fill the position, the new foreman was chosen from the gang.

Responsibilities. The foremen supervised the work in all its stages. They were present on the work site and encouraged the men. On site the foremen were responsible for inventories of metal tools issued to the workmen of the gang. They had to be certain that a blunted chisel or hoe was returned before a new sharpened one was issued. The foreman also represented the gang to the vizier. He wrote letters to report on the gang’s progress with the tomb and even passed on complaints of late payments to the gang. The foreman also decided disputes among the members of the gang that were not sent to a court of magistrates.

Scribes of the Tomb. Scribes were an important part of the administration of the Tomb. They kept the records of wages and wrote the correspondence with other branches of government. There were at least two scribes at any one time, attached to the two sides of the gang. In some periods there were also two Scribes of the Serfs of the Tomb. Together with the foremen, the scribes formed the administrators of the Tomb.

Deputy. There were two deputies, one for each side of the gang. The foreman appointed the deputy, and usually the foreman chose one of his own sons for the post. This favoritism meant that the son of a deputy was often not chosen to follow his father and could only hope to be a member of the gang if he was to stay in the village. As a result some tension must have been caused in extended families where a new foreman would hire his son to be deputy and fire a near relative or return him to the gang.

Member of the Gang. The deputy acted in the foreman’s place when the foreman was absent. When the foreman was present, the deputy worked like any other member of the gang. Yet, the deputy also was a member of the court of magistrates and was a witness to oaths. The deputy distributed less valuable supplies to the gang such as wicks for lamps and also food. The deputy, however, was not paid more than other members of the gang.

Guardians of the Tomb. The Guardians of the Tomb were not members of the gang, but they were closely enough associated with it that they received payment at the same time. There were two guardians at any one time. They often were hired from the gang and some seem to have been promoted from door keepers. The guardians were responsible for the storehouse. The most important objects kept there were the copper tools used in construction. The guardians protected the storehouse where the tools were kept. They also took blunt tools to be reconditioned by the coppersmiths. They thus worked closely with the foremen who made the lists of tools and who had ultimate responsibility for them. In addition, the guardians kept watch over the lamp wicks used for work in the tomb, pigments for painting, leather sacks used by the workmen, and sometimes the clothes that were part of the gang’s wages. The guardian had high enough status in the village that he was a member of the court of magistrates and could witness oaths as well as barter transactions, oracles from the god, and other transactions.

Door Keepers. Two Door Keepers of the Tomb were also regular members of the Tomb, each one assigned to a side of the gang. They were not, however, members of the gang. They have no tombs in Deir el Medina and seem to have lived outside the village. They have the lowest status of the men in the wage lists, coming only before the slave women. The door keepers guarded the tomb itself but also were responsible for guarding other officials such as the scribes. They carried messages and acted as bailiffs of the court of magistrates. In this capacity they seized property of debtors. They also received deliveries of food rations for the gang. The door keepers were considered trustworthy enough to witness barter transactions, oaths, and oracles but were not members of the court of magistrates.

Slave Women. Slave women were assigned to both sides of the gang. As many as fifteen worked in the village at any one time. They were responsible for grinding the grain that the workmen received as wages. Their own wages were as little as a quarter of a workman’s wages. The slave women belonged to the administration of the Tomb but were assigned to assist the families of the gang members.

Serfs of the Tomb. The serfs’ main duty was to supply commodities to the gang. They were responsible for bringing water, vegetables, fish, wood, pottery, laundry, and gypsum to the members of the gang. They did not live in the village, though in some periods they seem to be former members of the gang.


Morris Bierbrier, The Tomb Builders of the Pharaohs (London: British Museum, 1982).

Jaroslav Cerný, A Community of Workmen at Thebes in the Ramesside Period (Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1973).

Alfred Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, fourth revised edition (London: E. Arnold, 1962).

Gay Robins, Women in Ancient Egypt (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).