Towns and Houses in Middle and New Kingdom Egypt



A small number of sites, especially from the Middle and New Kingdoms, provide us with extraordinary amounts of evidence for the settlement archaeology of ancient Egypt.


By Dr. Steven Snape
Reader in Egyptian Archaeology
University of Liverpool


Middle Kingdom

Introduction

A small number of sites, especially from the Middle and New Kingdoms, provide us with extraordinary amounts of evidence for the settlement archaeology of ancient Egypt. This evidence includes both the detailed archaeological recovery of the architecture of the settlement itself, of the houses within it, their contents and, if we are very lucky, textual material that describes the lives of their inhabitants. In the two following sections we shall consider this evidence.

Kahun – ‘Senwosret is Satisfied’

The most important surviving settlement of the Middle Kingdom is the town that was probably called Hetep-Senwosret (‘King Senwosret is satisfied/at peace’). The name of the town reflects both its function and its founder – it was part of the pyramid complex built by King Senwosret II near the mouth of the Faiyum at a site now known as Kahun (after Petrie’s original usage to distinguish it from the nearby pyramid site, which he designated Lahun/Illahun). The town was located immediately adjacent to the now-destroyed Valley Building of the pyramid complex; the pyramid itself is over 1 kilometre (⅔ miles) further to the west. It is clear from this positioning, and from documents recovered from Kahun, that at least part of the town was designed to be the residence of the priests who served the mortuary cult of Senwosret II. However, the size of the town makes it likely that it was a significant settlement, which had functions beyond that of being an elaborate Middle Kingdom version of the pyramid temples of the Old Kingdom. Documentary evidence from the site indicates that an office of the vizier was located here, and that at least some of the building work on the later pyramid of Amenemhat III at nearby Hawara was directed from Kahun. The town was occupied until the 13th Dynasty – at least 100 years after its foundation.

Discovering Kahun

Kahun was principally excavated by Flinders Petrie in two major seasons of work, from April to May 1889 and October 1889 to January 1890. He ‘cleared’ a large proportion of the town with a speed quite astonishing by today’s standards, but his excavation reports and plan of the site remain the most substantial body of evidence for Middle Kingdom towns, their houses and the contents of those houses.

The Layout of Kahun

Kahun was centrally planned on the same sort of orthogonal layout that is typical of known royal projects of the Middle Kingdom. Its external wall was roughly square, 384 by 335 m (1,260 by 1,100 ft). Today it is located at the interface between desert and cultivated land; as a result a substantial portion of the south and southeastern parts of the town have been lost.

Texts and Toys

Kahun is important not just because of its architectural remains, but also because of the wealth of small finds recovered by Petrie. These include the most important set of Middle Kingdom papyri, which cover a wide range of topics from the administration of local temples as well as personal letters and medical texts. From these sources we know that Kahun was an important seat of regional government and that it possessed a prison – perhaps in the now-lost part of the site. Just as important were the objects of everyday life that were left behind when the town was abandoned at some point in the 13th Dynasty. These also give a strong impression of a real and vibrant community, and include tools, items of personal religion, children’s toys and even a rat-trap.

The Western Quarter

The map of Kahun produced by its excavator, Flinders Petrie, together with plans of two very different types of housing, back-to-back terraces (left) and large mansions (right). Steven Snape after Petrie.

On the western side of the town, a broad strip containing rows of back-to-back houses was divided from the rest of the settlement by a mudbrick wall. The disappearance of the southern part of this locality and the dividing wall here means that it is not clear whether there was any means of communication between this quarter and the rest of the town, nor is it obvious why this strict division was present. Earlier suggestions that this part of the town was used to house a community of non-Egyptians have now been largely discounted, although there clearly were aamu-asiatics present at Kahun, just as there were in many locations in Middle Kingdom Egypt. American Egyptologist David O’Connor has suggested that the Western Quarter might have been designed to house the priests who served in the adjacent Valley Temple of Senwosret II, perhaps on a temporary, part-time basis, while the Eastern Quarter was the ‘real’ town of Kahun, which was home to a permanent resident population, and which had its own religious focus in a temple dedicated to the god Soped. That ‘real’ town may have been partly supported by the farming of the floodplain that was close to the town, and has since encroached on the southeastern sector of Kahun. However, the Western Quarter of Kahun is important for our understanding of domestic architecture of the Middle Kingdom because it contains the period’s largest group of planned and organized ‘small houses’.

The map of Kahun produced by its excavator, Flinders Petrie, together with plans of two very different types of housing, back-to-back terraces (left) and large mansions (right). Steven Snape after Petrie.

Back-to-back Terraces

Most of the inhabitants of Kahun lived in small houses, over 200 of which were excavated by Petrie. These houses were made up of small numbers of rooms, many relatively narrow and corridor-like, and roofed with barrel-vaults. These seem to have begun life as individual units with a common ground plan, creating standardized blocks of back-to-back terraces, as part of the centrally planned, highly regularized official origins of Kahun.

Among these small houses a number of variants can be detected. The smallest are no more than 8 by 7.5 m (26 by 24 ft) and this roughly square ground plan is just enough for two main rooms, plus two smaller ones, along with the connecting space between them. A variation of this type is 8.5 by 5.25 m (28 by 17 ft), with the entrance on the broad side, and with only three rooms, all opening from a small entrance hall. The largest version of this type of house has either 7 or 8 rooms, which either opened off a central room (or rooms) or had a more complicated (and perhaps more private) internal arrangement.

However, the plan produced by Petrie shows considerable variation within these houses, as internal walls were added or demolished to adapt to the particular circumstances of the families and individuals who actually lived within them. In some cases, even the rectangular box of the house itself did not limit the inhabitants’ desire for space, as neighbouring houses could be knocked together to form larger dwellings.

The Eastern Quarter

The northern part of the Eastern Quarter is dominated by a series of large (42 by 60 m, or 138 by 197 ft) multi-roomed structures, which all seem to have been built to a similar design. Six of these structures lie side-by-side, immediately to the north of the main east–west street of the town, while three lie on the southern side of the street. These nine buildings have generally been considered to be large residential houses, for the community leaders of Kahun, but they are so extraordinarily bigger than any other non-royal housing from ancient Egypt – apart from the spacious villas of Amarna – that there has been a good deal of scholarly debate about their exact function(s).

A cut-away line drawing of the wooden model from the tomb of Meketre showing a villa and its enclosed garden. Note that the villa itself has been severely ‘compressed’ in order to give emphasis to the garden. Oxford University Press.

Although each of these large Kahun houses has a different level of completeness, owing to varied archaeological survival, they are likely to have had a standard plan, the different elements of which, and their interpretation, can be summarized as:

  1. Small rooms at the entrance to the house, immediately after entering the house from the street, which are most likely to be a Porter’s Lodge.
  2. A set of large rooms, which have been described as stables, but which would also be suitable for a group activity such as weaving.
  3. A set of small, square interconnected rooms, which are generally accepted to be a granary.
  4. A series of open spaces close to the granary, which would be suitable for baking, brewing and other food-production activities.
  5. A set of rooms close to the granary, which would be a suitable location for an administrative office if close attention was being paid to deposits and withdrawals of grain from the granary.
  6. A large central courtyard.
  7. Two integrated sets of rooms, which open onto the central courtyard. These have been identified as residential units (each one has an identifiable bedroom, with a raised bed platform), but who exactly occupied these units is not agreed.

The ‘Core House’ at Kahun

It seems most likely that the real heart of this complex is a ‘core house’, whose entrance is behind the north-facing colonnade on the south side of the large courtyard. This is an entrance that is some distance away from the street-entrance to the complex as a whole, and suggests privacy – the workshops and offices can be visited without entering the core house. The core house has enough rooms to provide a comfortable living space for a family, and there is little doubt that this is where the head of the household resided. However, the presence of a second residential unit within the complex is more of a puzzle. Suggestions put forward to explain the presence of this second house include the idea that it was to provide accommodation for servants or a steward. Alternatively, it may have been the main residence of female members of the household, where infant children were brought up. Another suggestion is that it may have been the place where an adult eldest son of the family lived, with his own nuclear family, before taking over the main core house on his father’s death or retirement. This last suggestion is based on the idea that these complexes at Kahun were not designed primarily for comfortable, elite residence, but as administrative and economic institutions with an importance for the community as a whole.

‘Urban Estates’?

Barry Kemp has made the intriguing suggestion that the large houses at Kahun should be considered as ‘urban estates’ whose similarity to Amarna villas is not primarily in their size, but in the complexity of their functions. Just as Amarna villas seem to have had the important role of acting as economic and administrative ‘hubs’ for city districts at Amarna, so the complexes at Kahun had functions well beyond the servicing of the needs of the family (or families?) that lived in them.

Part of the evidence for this is the presence of a large granary in each of the Kahun elite houses where the level of archaeological survival has been sufficient to identify these structures. These granaries could each hold over 300 cubic metres (10,594 cubic feet) of grain, and therefore had a total aggregate capacity of over 2,700 cubic metres (95,350 cubic feet). If each of these granaries were filled to capacity at harvest time, the grain within them is estimated to be enough to feed a population of between 5,000 and 9,000 people – a figure that is close to, or exceeds, most estimates of the total population of Kahun.

A possible reconstruction of the town of Kahun. Oxford University Press.

This suggests that the most important asset of the Kahun community – its grain – was not stored in a centralized granary area, but was distributed within the urban estates of its community leaders. This emphasizes the role of these large houses as administrative centres overseen by community leaders who had immediate control over communal assets. The same is also likely to be true of other centralized production and distribution activities, including weaving.

Wah-Sut – An Enduring Place

Although remarkable, Kahun is not entirely unique. In 1902–3, Canadian archaeologist Charles Currelly began the excavation of a Middle Kingdom town at Abydos; the dig was later continued from 1994 by a team from the University of Pennsylvania led by American archaeologist Josef Wegner. A series of clay sealing impressions from the town gave its name, ‘Enduring are the Places of Khakaure True of Voice in Abydos’, the first part of which is Wah-Sut. Like Kahun, Wah-Sut was a royal foundation whose function was primarily to service a royal mortuary foundation, in this case the mortuary complex of Senwosret III (which some scholars believe is his tomb, and others a dummy ‘cenotaph’ tomb). Also like Kahun, Wah-Sut grew to a size and level of population that went well beyond what was needed for the servicing of even a royal temple.

The Elite Houses

The administrative gatehouse, behind the mayor’s residence, giving access to the town of Wah-Sut. Josef Wegner.

Plan of the town of Wah-Sut, after the excavations at the site up to 2012. Josef Wegner.

Although the town has not yet been completely excavated, it was at least 4.5–6 hectares (11–15 acres) in area. Most of what has been excavated to date has consisted of an area filled with elite mansions, very reminiscent of the ‘urban estates’ at Kahun, although rather smaller. They were planned in typical orthogonal style, each house 27.5 by 31.5 m (90 by 103 ft), and each part of a block of four houses. The layout of the internal rooms is also remarkably similar to Kahun, consisting of a core house fronted by a colonnaded courtyard and an entrance some distance from the street, a suite identified by the excavators as a ‘secondary residential unit’ and a series of rooms that parallel the Kahun house’s production and storage areas, but on a significantly smaller scale, suggesting that they did not have the same core supply and administration function as the mansions at Kahun.

The Mayor’s Residence

That centralized function was probably served by the largest elite dwelling to be discovered at Wah-Sut, the residence of the Mayor, which the excavators called Building A. This was a huge structure – at 82 by 52 m (269 by 171 ft) it was larger than any of the four-house blocks that were built nearby. It consisted of a series of distinct units, most of which were accessed from a large entrance court containing 12 sycamore fig trees in neat 4 by 3 rows. The core residential house stood on a raised platform and had a very impressive entrance consisting of an 8-columned portico 42 metres (138 ft) wide immediately followed by a shallow hall 38-metres (125-ft) long containing 14 columns. Other areas within the Mayor’s residence included storage and production areas (including a large granary) and, once again, a separate residential unit, which was at one time occupied by the ‘King’s Daughter’ Reniseneb, as suggested by many seal impressions naming her.

Ongoing excavation in the area behind the mayor’s residence at Wah-Sut. Josef Wegner.

Although the town of Wah-Sut was a deliberate royal foundation, the titles held by its community leader were similar to those of other ‘normal’ settlements of Middle Kingdom Egypt in that they brought together in one person two offices: Mayor (ḥ3ty-‘, haty-a) of the town of Wah-Sut and Overseer of the Temple (ỉmỉ-r ḥmw-nṯr, imi-r hemu-netjer) of the most important local deity – Senwosret III himself.

Qasr es-Sagha and Avaris

Although Kahun is the best-known example of a town that provided basic, standardized housing for its working population, it is not the only Middle Kingdom site to have produced this type of small house.

Snail Houses at Avaris

Middle Kingdom Avaris in the Eastern Delta was also the result of centralized planning on the orthogonal model and here, too, back-to-back terraces were built. These were in blocks 12 houses wide (i.e. 24 back-to-back houses) separated by streets over 2.5 m (8 ft) wide. In contrast to these relatively wide streets the houses themselves were tiny at only 5 by 5 m (16 by 16 ft). They also, unsurprisingly, contain only a small number of rooms, arranged in a basic, spiral layout, which leads their excavator – Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak – to call them ‘snail houses’. However, although the smallest Kahun houses were not much bigger than the Avaris examples, it has been suggested that the latter were so small that they may have been designed for temporary occupation (perhaps for the workforce on a specific project?) rather than for permanent residence.

Quarrymen at Qasr es-Sagha

The site of Qasr es-Sagha is located in the desert north of the Faiyum. It is one of a number of sites in Egypt’s deserts designed to house miners or quarrymen involved in the acquisition of stones, metals and minerals for the Egyptian state. Most of the settlements set up for these workers were very basic in nature – essentially campsites for short-term, seasonal occupation. Qasr es-Sagha was rather different. For one thing, it possessed a stone temple of strikingly unusual form, but whose very existence suggests an intention for permanent residence rather than occasional camping. The settlement built by the Middle Kingdom state to house their workers in this distant and desolate place also indicates a serious intent for urban development, and once more demonstrates the love of town planners of that period for regularity and the right-angle.

The settlement consisted of a rectangle 114 metres broad and 80 metres deep (374 by 262 ft), orientated north–south and with an enclosure wall. A central street running north–south, with a gateway through the enclosure wall at each end, divided the settlement in half. Although the site has suffered from erosion on its eastern side, it seems likely that the internal parts of the town were a mirror image on either side of the main street. The internal division of the town was into four blocks running north–south; the two central blocks consisted of 10 back-to-back houses, while the two outer blocks consisted of a row of five houses each. The entrances to all these houses therefore looked across the street to another house opposite them.

Reconstucted plan of the workers’ town at Qasr es-Sagha, with a detailed plan of one of the individual housing units. Steven Snape.

The 30 houses all seem to have been the same size and layout. Each had an entrance from the street giving access to a court 13 metres wide by 5.25 metres deep (42 by 17 ft). This court was used for a variety of communal, domestic activities, as indicated by the presence of ovens in some of them. At the rear of the court, five doorways gave access to five long, narrow rooms of approximately 8 by 2 metres (26 by 6 ft) each. It is tempting to see these as individual bedrooms. Although it is difficult to be certain, the evidence suggests that each of these houses was home to five individuals, who shared a certain amount of communal activity, perhaps mainly cooking and eating together. Given the nature of the site, it is difficult to think of these households as families, and they are more likely to have been five-man teams within the organization of workgangs at Qasr es-Sagha.

Big Houses and Small Houses in the Middle Kingdom?

An overview of Middle Kingdom housing strongly suggests that there was a huge disparity between large elite residences and tiny non-elite residences (including those at Avaris and Qasr es-Sagha), with not much in between. Against this it might be argued that the elite houses at Wah-Sut are not nearly so large as those at Kahun, but this is in part because of the way the large Kahun houses (and mayoral residence at Wah-Sut) had such an important role to play in administration, production and distribution at the site. However, even the basic core house at Kahun and Wah-Sut is significantly larger than any of the small houses at Avaris and Qasr es-Sagha (‘small houses’ at Wah-Sut have not yet been discovered and excavated) and this seems to suggest a stark, non-graduated distinction between the haves and have-nots in Middle Kingdom Egypt, which is not what the evidence of cemeteries of this period suggests. Perhaps the important fact is that the towns we have been looking at are all ‘official’ foundations and may have reflected a rather rigid view of society by the state, rather than the reality of social diversity that can be reflected in housing in ‘organic’ towns of the period. This diversity is reflected in the few ‘organic’ towns to have survived from Middle Kingdom Egypt.

Model Houses

The relationship between the living and the dead, their tombs and their houses, will be discussed below, for cemeteries were important and active parts of ancient Egyptian towns. An important aspect of this relationship was the need for the living to provide the dead with food offerings so that the ka-spirits of the deceased ancestors would not go hungry in their tombs. However, although this ongoing relationship between the living and the dead was an ideal, it was soon recognized that tombs, the houses of the dead, needed to be self-sufficient in the generation (using magic if need be) of everything the dead might need, especially food and drink, avoiding a reliance on living relatives to visit the tomb. A by-product of this need for self-sufficiency was the representation of parts of the city within the tomb, which provide us with a picture of urban life.

Little Boxes – Wooden Models of the Middle Kingdom

For elite tombs of the Old Kingdom, these representations took the form of an increasing level of decoration on the walls of the tomb, with scenes of food offering and, later, food production and, later still, the production of other types of goods. In the Middle Kingdom, while elite tombs with decorated walls continued, an increasingly important aspect of provincial cemeteries was the appearance of less-elaborate tombs, usually of the shaft-and-chamber type, which belonged to people – doctors, professional soldiers, middle-ranking administrators – whom we might call middle class. These tombs had little in the way of elaborate superstructures or decorated walls, but the burial chamber was usually big enough to contain both a wooden coffin and a selection of objects.

Some of these objects were wooden models that were more modest alternatives to extensive scenes painted on rock-cut tombs. Their basic repertoire included groups of little wooden figures carrying out everyday tasks: brewers and bakers are especially common, as are butchers and cow-herders, textile workers and potters. Not only are the figures themselves shown going about their daily business (as servants for the benefit of the tombowner), but they are shown with the equipment needed to carry out their occupations, and often also the premises in which they worked. Granaries are often shown, with little figures carrying sacks of grain and little wooden scribes shown recording this activity.

These models also included boats, which had a religious symbolism – allowing the deceased to journey to and from the pilgrimage town of Abydos (home of the most important cult centre of Osiris, lord of the afterlife) – but which also emphasize river travel as the prime means of long-distance communication in dynastic Egypt.

It is unclear to what extent most of the owners of these models were employers of servants when alive, but some clearly were. The most famous set of wooden models from the Middle Kingdom come from the Theban tomb of the administrator Meketre. These include modelled scenes of boats fishing with nets, and scenes of the counting of cattle, but most are standardized wooden boxes each containing a workshop of a particular activity, including baking and brewing, spinning and weaving, butchery and carpentry. Another of these boxes represents a much-abbreviated residential house with a more lovingly modelled colonnade and tree-filled courtyard. It is tempting to see in the Meketre models the component parts of an ‘urban estate’ much like those at Kahun.

Soul Houses

When Petrie was excavating the Middle Kingdom cemetery of Deir Rifeh in Upper Egypt in 1907, he recovered over 150 examples of a class of object that had only occasionally been found before. These were elaborate ceramic trays, designed to receive offerings for the dead. They were placed above ground next to fairly simple graves. Because these trays had been modelled to give them a house-like appearance, Petrie called them ‘soul houses’ and the name has stuck. The extent to which they actually resemble contemporary houses is a matter of debate. On the one hand, they needed to serve as trays in which the offering could be placed, but they do also seem to have been poorer substitutes for the large offering chapels of elite tombs of the same period, which certainly had house-like aspects to them. The tomb was, after all, the house of the ka. The need to produce a functional ceramic tray encouraged the depiction of external aspects of the house, particularly any courtyard or open area in front of it, while the internal aspects of the house would tend to be ignored or simplified. The emphasis on an external courtyard would be especially relevant if this was where food preparation generally took place, as the ‘soul houses’ themselves were especially concerned with the provision of food.

Models of granaries are often found among the range of wooden models from Middle Kingdom tombs – they were to be a source of grain for the tombowner. They might also be shown having the grain turned into flour. Left, British Museum, London. Right, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

The surviving ‘soul houses’ show different levels of attempts to emulate houses. Some emphasize the courtyard, with perhaps a sunshade supported by a set of pillars. Others depict the front of the house, especially the columned portico that also provided a shaded area at the front of the house. Some seem to indicate that houses could have two storeys, while the roofs of many ‘soul houses’ are provided with a mulqaf, a hood-like structure over a hole in the roof designed to channel any cool breezes down into the house. Some examples move away from the open tray format and look much more like real houses, with walls, windows and a door, although the need to make these ‘soul houses’ capable of carrying offerings means that the roof is in these cases removed.

Models of houses found within Middle Kingdom tombs included large, detailed wooden models like that from the tomb of Meketre. Left, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Art Resource/Scala, Florence. Right, British Museum, London

Although the value of ‘soul houses’ as accurate depictions of Middle Kingdom domestic housing might be questioned, they are extremely useful in depicting features that were, presumably, common in ‘ordinary’ Middle Kingdom houses (temporary shaded structures, mulquafs), but that do not survive in the archaeological remains of the lower parts of largely ‘official’ constructions of the period such as at Kahun and Wah-Sut.

New Kingdom

It is perhaps unsurprising that the evidence for life and work in the New Kingdom comes from two settlements that are unique – the workers’ village of Deir el-Medina (which provides the best evidence, both archaeological and textual, of any period from anywhere in Egypt) and the new-build foundation of Akhenaten at Amarna – because the special reasons for their creation are the same reasons that their evidence has been preserved: their less fertile locations away from the majority of settlement. The city of Amarna will be described in the Gazetteer, but in this section that follows its Workmen’s Village will briefly be compared with the vast array of evidence from Deir el-Medina.

The Village – Deir el-Medina

The village of Deir el-Medina is far and away the most important source of evidence for towns and villages in ancient Egypt. It provides the best evidence for the physical layout of a town/village, for the size and nature of individual houses, and for the lives of the people who lived in that town and those houses.

Evidence from the village comes in the form of the architectural remains of the houses and the village they comprise, other structures around the village (including cemeteries and shrines), physical objects from the houses and the tombs, and texts written by the villagers themselves that reflect on their everyday lives. This rich collection of varied types of evidence means that we can build a coherent picture of life in the village and of the lives of individual villagers. Nowhere else in ancient Egypt – or perhaps the ancient world – can we take a named, non-royal individual and examine their house, their tomb and their relationships with other named individuals.

Excavation History

This scene from the tomb of Sennedjem at Deir el-Medina shows him and his wife enjoying a bucolic afterlife in an agricultural landscape not dissimilar to that of Egypt itself. F. Jack Jackson/Alamy.

Because of this range of high-quality archaeological evidence, Deir el-Medina has been the focus of archaeological work for a series of excavators. The Italian archaeologist Ernesto Schiaparelli’s 1905–9 work in the village’s cemeteries has resulted in Turin Museum now containing some of the best examples of New Kingdom burial goods, including those from the intact 18th-Dynasty tomb of Kha and Merit. The Ramesside tomb of Sennedjem provided a similar range of goods and had the bonus of being painted – presumably by its owner and his colleagues – in dazzling colours. The 1913 work of German linguist Georg Möller for Berlin Museum was the first to recover in significant quantities the ostraca (fragments of limestone (or pottery), which were the scrap paper of ancient Egypt) whose texts are such an important aspect for the reconstruction of the lives and activities of Deir el-Medina villagers. Most importantly, the extensive excavations of French archaeologist Bernard Bruyère for the French Institute during 1922–40 and 1945–51 concentrated on the excavation of the core village itself, and structures in its environs such as the chapels.

A Royal Town for Royal Tombs

The paradox of Deir el-Medina is that, although it is the closest we can come to seeing the lives of ‘ordinary’ Egyptians, it is unique. Founded to house the skilled craftsmen (and their families) who dug and decorated the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, it was in some ways the descendant of the Old and Middle Kingdom pyramid towns. However, it was neither a barracks to house a substantial, transient labour force, nor was it a town whose inhabitants had an official role in the perpetuation of cults of dead kings; its function was to keep together a set of people with particular skills. Furthermore, those skills would be required by every king who wanted a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and so Deir el-Medina and the Valley of the Kings developed a relationship of mutual dependency that lasted over 400 years.

Unlike the significantly dispersed pyramid complexes that preceded them as royal tombs, the Valley of the Kings tombs were both much smaller and very close together. The tomb of (probably) the earliest king to be buried in the Valley, Thutmose I, is only 200 m (656 ft) away from the abandoned tomb of Ramesses XI. A single settlement, close by but not too close, was all that was required as living quarters for the workforce for every Valley of the Kings tomb. So, despite its unusual origins, Deir el-Medina was a settlement that had a real longevity. The date of its foundation is not certain: by the Ramesside Period the workmen regarded King Amenhotep I and his mother Ahmose-Nefertari as their royal patron-deities, although the stamped bricks in the earliest phase of the enclosure wall give the name of Amenhotep’s successor, Thutmose I.

A Community of Workmen

A view across the remains of Deir el-Medina. In the foreground are the walls of some of the village houses while in the background, at the foot of the cliffs of the Theban mountain, are tombs from the Western Cemetery. akg-images/Horizons.

Deir el-Medina’s stability in location, and the norms of Egyptian social (im)mobility, were also ideally suited for the transmission of the specialist skills required for royal tomb-cutting and decorating. Deir el-Medina was just like any ‘real’ settlement in Egypt in the sense that it was essentially made up of families for whom it was their home. Workers for the royal tomb were not made: they were, quite literally, born, as succeeding generations at Deir el-Medina passed their specific skills down from father to son. Although the village might suddenly be increased in size to cope with a major step-change in royal demand (as seems to have happened during the reigns of Horemheb and Ramesses IV), most Deir el-Medina workmen had been born in the village, and so too had most people they knew. The title of the most important summary of the written evidence from Deir el-Medina by one of the most important figures in scholarship on the village, the Czech Egyptologist Jaroslav Černý, has the telling title ‘A Community of Workmen at Thebes in the Ramesside Period’; Deir el-Medina was indeed a community, and one with a shared communal memory and a web of interpersonal relationships that could stretch back many generations.

Food and Drink

If the self-reproducing character of the village makes it look like any ‘normal’ settlement, other features emphasize its unusual character. The most obvious of these is its inability to support itself. Left to their own devices, most settlements were perfectly capable of surviving, indeed flourishing, without the external interference of the state. Most settlements were, of course, primarily agricultural and could comfortably exist on the food they grew – the tax-collecting state was probably seen as a burden rather than a supportive institution.

Deir el-Medina was different. Owing to the need for easy access to the Valley of the Kings, it was located somewhere no sensible Egyptian would live – not just on the edge of, but effectively in, the desert. Although the ‘hidden’ and ‘secluded’ aspects of Deir el-Medina are often over-emphasized (a relatively gentle stroll of less than an hour would take a Deir el-Medina villager of the Ramesside Period from his/her home to the bank of the Nile, passing the great temple of Amenhotep III along the way), it was isolated from self-sufficiency in two specific ways.

The ‘Village de Repos’, high above Deir el-Medina on the path to the Valley of the Kings, seems to have served as temporary accommodation for villagers working on the royal tomb project. Steven Snape.

The first is the range of skills the villagers possessed. The able-bodied male workforce was trained for work in the royal tomb, not food production; although Deir el-Medina villagers obviously engaged in auxiliary economic activities, this would not be enough to keep themselves in the necessities of life. Secondly, although the location of the village was not so distant as to isolate the villagers from interaction with the rest of the West Bank (or, indeed, Thebes in general), the transport to the village of the major quantities of foodstuffs required to support the village was another matter. This is especially noticeable in the problem of making sure there was enough water.

The village could therefore only survive with a large, well-organized and expensive support system. The umbilical cord that fed Deir el-Medina was supplied by the state as one of the costs of royal tomb-construction. When that umbilical cord was removed c. 1070 BC, because the Valley of the Kings ceased to be the place for royal burial, Deir el-Medina became unviable as a self-supporting settlement and the villagers did what any sensible person would have done in the same situation. They packed their bags and left.

The Village and its Environs

In its final and largest form, the village occupied an area of 6,400 square metres (1.6 acres), though for most of its life it was somewhat smaller at 5,600 square metres (1.4 acres). It contained 68 houses (although more were built outside the core village), enclosed by a perimeter wall. The main entrance to the village was on its north side, which gave access to the main street that ran down the centre of the village.

The walled ‘core’ village of Deir el-Medina (viewed here from the Western Cemetery) is the central, but not the only, part of a settlement, which includes cemeteries, chapels and an attempted well (the Great Pit). Steven Snape.

The same combination of the ‘real’ and the ‘artificial’ settlement that can be seen in the multi-generational, externally supported community at Deir el-Medina is also present in the physical appearance of the village itself. Although Deir el-Medina was essentially a planned settlement, it was not designed around the orthogonal grid-plan of typified Middle Kingdom planned settlements, such as Kahun. Instead, and unlike the grid-planned Workmen’s Village at Amarna with which it is often compared, Deir el-Medina nestles comfortably in the valley selected for its location.

The Typical House

Because Deir el-Medina was a ‘real’ village that evolved over time, no two houses are exactly the same, since each had to adapt to the needs of ‘real’ families who lived within them. However, as at Kahun, the houses were so closely packed together that opportunities for expanding the basic footprint of the building were limited – really, extra space might be obtained only by going down (for which there is evidence) or going up (for which there is much debate), but not sideways. As in the Amarna Workmen’s Village, the basic house seems to have been constructed by the state, with later additions and changes to the basic design the responsibility of individual householders. It would also appear that there was little change in the basic house plan from the early 18th-Dynasty foundation to the later Ramesside additions and, because of this, it is possible to speak of a standard Deir el-Medina house plan, while appreciating the potential for variation from this basic model.

The basic house had stone rubble foundations and stone lower courses, but with upper courses of mudbrick. The walls were then covered with mud plaster, forming a smooth, flat surface that could be decorated. The extent of that painted decoration is debated, owing to the partial survival of the walls. The exterior walls were whitewashed, presumably in part to reflect the unremitting summer sun of southern Egypt, particularly in the reflective desert bowl of the little valley in which Deir el-Medina was located.

The average Deir el-Medina house was consistent in its long, narrow shape, although with some variability in size – they might be as long as 27 m (89 ft) or as short as 13 m (43 ft), with the average around 20 m (66 ft), but there was much less variability in width: between 4 and 6 m (13–20 ft). Unsurprisingly, the larger houses belonged to the Foreman and the ‘Scribe of the Gang’, and these were located close to the entrance to the village.

A House Census at Deir el-Medina

A fragmentary papyrus in Turin Museum lists two sets of houses and their occupants at Deir el-Medina. It gives a good impression of the range of family-groups in the village, although the number of houses that appear to be occupied by single men is puzzling.

List I

  1. The House of Amennakht (plus his wife Tenetpaip, his mother Tarekhan and his sister Kaytmehty)
  2. The House of Paankha
  3. The House of Djehutymose
  4. The House of Penpare
  5. The House of Inherkhau
  6. The House of Pawaamen
  7. The House of Pennesuttway
  8. The House of Montuhatef

List II

  1. The House of Qedakhetef (plus his wife Merutmut, his son Paankheriautef and his daughter Wenher)
  2. The House of Amennakht (plus his wife Tahefnu)
  3. The House of Aapatjau (plus his wife Wabet and his daughter Meresger)
  4. The House of Hornefer (plus his wife Hutiyt and his son Qenna)
  5. The House of Ipuy (plus his wife Henutmire and his daughters Henutnetjeru, Duanofet and Hathor)

Typically, the front door opened directly from one of the main streets of the village, while the back wall of the semi-open kitchen area at the rear of the house was the perimeter wall of the village. Surviving evidence suggests that the main door was made of wood, set in a wooden or limestone frame, which could be inscribed with the name of the householder. At least some of these doors were painted red – this combination of red doors in white walls must have given the exterior of Deir el-Medina houses an appearance not dissimilar to Middle Kingdom house models. The main door was not in the centre of the front elevation of the house, but to one side, and it was in line with the internal doors that gave access to the four main sequential spaces in the house. These rooms, as described by Bruyère in his 1939 publication of the village were:

Room 1: ‘Front Room’/‘Parlour’/Vorhof/Salle du Lit Clos

This room was entered directly from the street, by stepping down two or three steps into a roughly square room. The lower parts of the walls, up to about 1 metre (3 ft) from the floor, were whitewashed. The most striking element of this room was a construction made of mudbrick in the form of a rectangular block built against one of the walls, averaging 1.7 metres long by 0.8 m wide by 0.75 m tall (5 ft 7 in. by 2 ft 7 in. by 2ft 5 in.), with screen walls protruding above the edge of the platform on all sides, but with an opening on the long side that was accessed by a short flight of steps. This structure was plastered, whitewashed and painted with images that suggest it was used for female activities, especially childbirth (representations include the protective deity Bes) and female grooming. Some 28 of the 68 houses at Deir el-Medina contained these structures, which Bruyère called ‘lits clos’ – enclosed beds (or ‘box beds’).

Although it might vary in detail from house to house, it is possible to describe a standard plan Deir el-Medina house based on the substantial architectural remains at the site. Rutherford Picture Library.

The function of these ‘beds’ is one of the great puzzles of Deir el-Medina, with some scholars proposing that they were used during childbirth, others arguing that they would be eminently impractical for such a procedure. The counter-suggestions are that they may have acted as normal beds (with the images providing a generalized protective rather than specifically female-protective aura) or that they may simply have acted as substantial bench-altars for household deities. Given the need for flexible use of space within these small houses, it is probably best to regard the ‘box beds’ as structures that had several layers of function and meaning, each one of which might be given greater or lesser importance by the particular families who owned them.

Room 2: ‘Living Room’/Wohnraum/Salle du Divan

This room was entered by stepping up two or three steps from the first room so that the floor level was the same as that of the street. This room often had a central wooden column (sometimes two) on a stone base, which supported a roof higher than in any other part of the house. The difference in height between the ceiling of this room and that of the rooms in front of and behind it might have been to enable window grilles for clerestory lighting and ventilation to be put in – perhaps necessary given how little opportunity there was for windows in these terraced houses. Inbuilt ‘furniture’ included a low platform (‘divan’) made of mudbrick, which would have been equally suitable for sitting or lying on. In the northern part of the village the houses were founded directly on limestone bedrock and in some of those houses a cellar was dug out underneath this platform, which was used for additional storage for items such as large pottery vessels.

The walls of this room often contained a series of niches and/or false doors, which were used to house objects connected with the religious life of the household, especially figures of household deities and ‘ancestor busts’. The latter suggest there was a thriving ancestor cult that connected the living family members of the household with their dead ancestors, often buried close by in one of the Deir el-Medina cemeteries.

Rooms 3 and 4: Transitional Space

At the rear of the main central room of the house was what might be called a transitional zone that separated the main space (Room 2) from the kitchen at the very rear of the house. Typically this zone contained two main elements, which divided the width of the house between them. The first was a relatively small room of undistinguished character (it did not have any obvious standard fixtures or fittings, unlike Rooms 1 and 2). The second, and narrower, element was a corridor, but one that had a door at each end and often a bench along one wall.

Room 5: The Kitchen/Wirtschaftshof/Cuisine

The kitchen was the easiest part of the Deir el-Medina house for the excavators to identify because of the food-preparation equipment often still in place. Typically this equipment consisted of a round brick oven; a limestone mortar set into the floor, which would have mainly been used for the processing of grain; and a kneading trough. This part of the house did not have a solid roof, but a shelter of light matting, which would allow smoke and cooking smells to escape while providing a welcome shade from the sun. As with Room 2, additional storage in the kitchen was provided by digging out a subterranean storage area, which often went underneath the perimeter wall.

‘Room’ 6: The Roof

The remains of the lower courses of a flight of stairs in many of these houses indicate a well-established route to one of the most intriguing part of the house: the roof.

However, unlike for houses at the Workmen’s Village at Amarna, there is no evidence that Deir el-Medina houses had a second storey, and indeed several scholars have commented that the walls at Deir el-Medina are too thin to support such a structure. Nevertheless, perhaps equipped with a simple reed shelter, the roof would have been a valuable work and storage area, as is obvious from comparisons with modern village houses.

House Use at Deir el-Medina

This account of the standard house plan at Deir el-Medina raises a number of interesting questions. Perhaps the first is, ‘Where did the residents sleep?’ It is likely that the answer lies within the flexibility in the use of space already noted with regard, for example, to the smaller Middle Kingdom houses at Kahun. At Deir el-Medina, variations from the basic house layout are minor, but it is clear that the size and composition of the families who lived within these houses was subject to a good deal of variability.

Most of the houses we are used to today are self-limiting by the large and difficult-to-move furniture put in them. A smallish bedroom with a large double-bed in it cannot become a very different room without a good deal of effort. However, one might compare studio flats in crowded cities that have fold-up beds in order to make a more efficient use of space and convert a daytime living area to a bedroom for the night. While elite Egyptians with large multi-roomed villas might have been able to designate a specific room as a bedroom, and keep it for that sole use, a Deir el-Medina villager would not necessarily have had that luxury. But nor would they have had the luxurious but limiting set of furniture that made the switch of room-use a chore.

Although it is difficult to be precise, it is likely that most of a Deir el-Medina house could become a bedroom at night, having had a quite different function during the day. Equally, anyone who has lived in a flat-roofed house in the Egyptian countryside knows how attractive the open air on the roof becomes during the hot Egyptian summer (mosquitoes notwithstanding), while an indoor room, perhaps with a small brazier in the corner, is much more comfortable on cool winter nights. But there is a more fundamental issue here, because the question of the occupation of individual houses cannot be taken on its own: the Deir el-Medina villagers did not live in isolation, their houses were within the village, within the environs of the village and within the landscape of western Thebes. Deir el-Medina does not just give us an example of what a typical New Kingdom house might have been like, it also suggests how a community interacted with its local environment.

Gendering Space

One of the most difficult problems in archaeology is interpreting the social meaning of space. In the case of Egyptian settlement archaeology one of the biggest questions of this type is the extent to which the space within houses can be ‘gendered’ – are there areas used mainly or exclusively by men or women and, if so, what does this tell us about Egyptian society?

Those lucky enough to be invited into the house of a well-to-do modern villager in Egypt will usually be taken into a room that is specifically set aside for entertaining visitors. More particularly, these will be male visitors of male members of the household. The only women the visitor is likely to see are those bringing in food and drink to the male guests before quickly disappearing to the rear of the house – the bedrooms and especially the kitchen – which are the domain of the women of the house. It would be very inappropriate indeed for male visitors to enter this part of the house.

Deir el-Medina houses present us with a collection of evidence that seems to have potential for similar types of ‘gendering’, but this brings its own problems. The most obviously functionally ‘female’ part of the house is the kitchen at the rear. This might suggest the seclusion of the women of the household in the innermost parts of the house. The other area that seems to have a specific connection with female concerns is the first room, the room of the ‘enclosed bed’, whose decoration and (possibly) function as we have seen suggest a concern with fertility and childbirth. Some commentators therefore argue that the first room of the house was where the women of the house gathered, while the central room was the gathering-place for males of the family.

Figured ostraca (fragments of limestone or pottery with drawings on them) can give an informal and informative insight into the lives of villagers who drew them, as with this fine example of a breast-feeding New Kingdom lady. akg-images/Erich Lessing.

However, if this is the case, then a room that seems to be connected to the intimate concerns of the females of the house is the most public of the entire house: every visitor to any part of the house would have to pass through it.

In addition, it is clear that, for most of the week, adult males were absent from the village, working at the Valley of the Kings and living on site or at the ‘Col’ settlement. It is therefore likely that, for 8 days out of 10, Deir el-Medina was very much a village of women.

Tombs

The cemeteries at Deir el-Medina are perhaps the best example of the physical integration of the dwellings of the living and the dead in any individual community of ancient Egypt. The presence of the village cemeteries is perhaps the most obvious evidence that Deir el-Medina was not a temporary residence for transient workers, but a community that had put down roots – those roots were the community’s dead.

Because of the location of Deir el-Medina within what was effectively an extended desert cemetery, a physically close relationship developed in a way that would have been difficult in most other Nile Valley sites. The eastern and western slopes of the valley, at the bottom of which sat Deir el-Medina, were used for the village cemetery: the Eastern Cemetery mainly during the 18th Dynasty and the more extensive Western Cemetery in the Ramesside Period. The strikingly visible, often pyramidal, superstructures of the Ramesside tombs, erected in some cases only a few metres from the perimeter wall of the village, are an obvious indicator of the way in which the cemetery was very much part of everyday life at Deir el-Medina, as the living interacted with the dead through offering and ancestor cults.

More generally, the evidence from ostraca suggests that the possession of a house and a tomb was the core of the property portfolio of a resident of Deir el-Medina – ultimately it would be the tomb (some of which were multi-generational) that would guarantee permanent residence at Deir el-Medina.

Chapels

The area to the north of the Western Cemetery, on the path to the ‘Great Pit’, was the location for a series of small home-made chapels. These were used for a variety of purposes, most obviously for the worship of local deities, but also as social clubs or community centres for groups of like-minded individuals from the village, referred to by Bruyère as confréries. Like the cemeteries, the chapel area was an obvious extension of Deir el-Medina, spreading in an unconfined way beyond the rigid boundaries of the core village itself. Within this same categorization of extra-mural activity we can include the rock-cut ‘Sanctuary of Ptah’ (patron-deity of craftsmen) on the path from Deir el-Medina to the Valley of the Queens, and a series of smaller chapels built high above the village on the path to the Valley of the Kings.

House Contents

A range of simple household objects – a stool, a basket and a hand-brush – from the New Kingdom tomb of Kha at Deir el-Medina. akg-images/De Agostini Picture Library.

Although a number of New Kingdom sites have provided the architectural remains of houses, it is usually difficult to imagine how these houses would have been filled with the possessions of their owners. A rare exception to this is Ostracon Cairo 26670. This valuable document comes from Deir el-Medina and appears to be an inventory of the contents of a house that has been left unoccupied for some reason.

List of items left behind by me in the village:

3 khar-sacks of barley

 khar-sacks of emmer

26 bundles of onions

2 beds

1 sheqer-box

2 couches for a man

2 folding stools

1 pedes-box

1 inlaid (?) tjay-box

1 harit-furniture

2 griddle-stones

1 gatit-box

2 footstools

2 folding stools of wood

1 sack of lubya-beans

12 bricks of natron-salt

2 pieces of iker-furniture

1 door

2 seterti of sawn wood

2 hetep-containers

1 mortar

2 medjay-containers

The tombs at Deir el-Medina – built by the villagers themselves using their specialist skills – were intended to be as visible as those of more high-status Egyptians, including superstructures composed of chapels topped with small mudbrick pyramids. Heidi Grassley © Thames & Hudson Ltd., London.

The list of items is not by category – furniture is mixed in with foodstuffs – but is roughly by order of value. The meanings of some of the words used for these objects remain obscure, although it is clear that houses could contain a variety of different types of boxes and other storage items. It is noticeable that no small personal items, clothes or very cheap items such as pottery are mentioned, presumably because these were so disposable that the owner felt no need to record their existence.

Daily Life at Deir el-Medina

The physical remains of Deir el-Medina give us a strong impression of the houses, streets and ancillary buildings of a real ancient Egyptian village. The ostraca recovered from the site, written to and from the villagers themselves, give an equally strong impression of those physical remains having once been populated by a vibrant community. They are perhaps the most vivid reminder that the ancient Egyptians were real people with everyday concerns not so different from our own. All of the quotations below come from ostraca or papyri of the Ramesside Period, from Deir el-Medina.

A Community at Work

Another ostracon from Deir el-Medina shows a workman with mallet and chisel in hand – perhaps a quick sketch by one workman of a colleague. Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge/Bridgeman Art Library.

The central reason for the existence of Deir el-Medina was the excavation and decoration of royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and the tombs of members of the royal family in the Valley of the Queens. It is not surprising that a good deal of the documentation from the village refers to this work.

To the Fanbearer on the right of the King, Mayor, Vizier Ta. The scribe Neferhotep greets his lord in life, prosperity and health….

Another communication for my lord, to wit, I am working in the tombs of the royal children which my lord ordered to be constructed. I am working very well and very efficiently, with good work and efficient work. My lord should not worry about it. I am working extremely well and I am not tired at all.

Some of the ostraca are notes asking for tools or materials to be brought:

The scribe Nebneteru addresses the scribe Ramose…. Please pay attention and bring me some ink, because my chief has told me that the good ink has gone bad.

To the scribe Huy: Please tell Khaemtore, ‘You must send to me your jug, the adze, the double-edged knife and the two awls.’

The copper chisels used by the workmen were valuable in their own right as substantial pieces of expensive metal. They therefore needed to be carefully accounted for:

Fourth month of Winter, Day 21. The Day of [issuing] chisels to the gang.

Chisels, 68: 34 on the right side, 34 on the left side.

The evidence suggests that there was a rather relaxed attitude towards attendance at the worksite. The following extracts from the attendance register of workers at the royal tomb list individuals who were absent on a particular day, and some of the reasons for that absence:

Second month of Inundation, Day 23.

Those who were with the scribe Pashed working for the vizier – Ipuy and Nakhtemmut.

Those who were with the chief workman Khay – Khamu, Sawadjyt and Kaha (who was ill).

Those who were with the chief workman Paneb – Kasa (his wife being in childbirth he had three days absent), Kasa son of Ramose (who was ill) and Raweben (who was ill).

Fourth month of Winter, Day 6.

Sawadjyt was absent from work, making a box for Hay.

Khamu was absent from work making a statue for Hay, and Khaemseba was absent from work with him.

Nakhtsu was ill and Rahotep was ill.

Along with food rations, the state provided a range of services to the villagers:

Year 1, third month of Winter, Day 15. Giving clothes to the washermen today.

What came from him in the third month of Winter, Day 16, what was given to them to launder at the riverbank – 10 kilts, 8 loincloths and 5 sanitary towels.

Labour Relations

The workmen of Deir el-Medina had a far from reverent attitude towards their superiors and they were quick to complain about, and to, each other:

The draughtsman Prehotep communicates to his chief, the scribe of the Place of Truth Qenhirkhopeshef. What is the meaning of this negative attitude that you are taking towards me? I am like a donkey to you. If there is work bring the donkey and if there is fodder bring the ox. If there is beer you never ask for me, you only ask for me if there is work!

The scribe Pabaky addresses his father the draughtsman Maaninakhtef…. I listened to what you said to me – ‘Let Ib work with you.’ But look, he spends every day bringing the jar of water. There is no other job for him every day … the sun has set and he is still far away with the jar of water.

Making Things for Each Other

The skills that the craftsmen of Deir el-Medina acquired could be put to good use in making and selling products to each other.

The workman Hay greets the scribe Imiseba…. I am busy making the bed. It will be beautiful. Send the ebony so there will be no delay, and also the webbing material … and you should send me some pigments.

Year 3, third month of Summer, Day 16. What the workman Paneb gave to the draughtsman […] for the construction work he did in my house: a workroom and a wall makes 1½ sacks [of grain].

One loincloth, two pairs of sandals, another loincloth, three bundles of vegetables, 2½ shaaty-worth of pigment, one mat, wood, two baskets of grain, two irkesbaskets, making a total of 6½ shaaty. This is what Aanakht gave Merysekhmet in return for the painting of his burial chamber.

Please send this to me today … a depiction of the god Montu seated on a throne and a depiction of the scribe Pentawere kissing the ground in front of him in adoration of him, as an outline drawing.

Please make for me a weret-amulet, because the one you made for me has been stolen.

Not all of these transactions went smoothly. The use of barter and the exchange of goods rather than a negotiable currency (the common extension of credit for purchases), not to mention a common reluctance to pay, gave rise to many situations like the one described below:

A statement by the workman Mose…. Your husband, the scribe Amennakht, took a coffin from me. He said, ‘I shall give a calf in exchange for it.’ But he has not yet given it to me. I said this to Paakhet who replied, ‘Give me a bed in addition, and I will bring you the calf when it is mature.’ I gave him the bed…. If you are going to give the ox, send it, but if there is no ox return the bed and the coffin.

Dishonesty

Within a comparatively rich community like Deir el-Medina, and with the constant flow of goods, theft was almost inevitable:

I am informing you of the property which was stolen from the house of Ipuy: one mat, 50 pieces of wood veneer, one pair of men’s sandals, one deben of incense, three necklaces and three signet rings.

As for the fish which you sent … only 13 fish were delivered to us. Five of them had been removed. Demand them from the person you sent with them!

Marital Disharmony and Family Solidarity

Despite a sometimes difficult relationship with their employers, the Egyptian state (represented by the vizier and his officials), most of the problems faced by the villagers were caused by themselves. Specifically, these were the inter-personal and family problems perhaps typical of a small community. The first quotation below is part of a long-running, almost soap-opera style drama, concerning the notorious Paneb:

He said, ‘Paneb slept with the lady Tuy when she was the wife of the workman Kenna. He slept with the lady Hel when she was with Pendua. He slept with the lady Hel when she was with Hesysunebef … and when he had slept with Hel he slept with Webkhet her daughter. Moreover, Aapekhty, his son, also slept with Webkhet!’

The workman Horemwia addresses his daughter Tanetdjesere. You are my good daughter. If the workman Baki throws you out of the house I will take action. The house itself belongs to Pharaoh, but you can live in the anteroom to my storehouse because I built it and nobody in the world can throw you out of there.

Takhentyshepse addresses her sister Iy…. I shall send you the barley for you to have it ground for me and add emmer wheat to it. You shall make bread with it for me because I have been quarrelling with Merymaat [her husband]. He keeps telling me ‘I will divorce you’ because of my mother and questioning the amount of barley needed for the bread.

Isis addresses her sister Nubemnu…. Please pay attention and weave for me that shawl … because I am really naked!

Having a Laugh

Nothing gives a greater sense of the humanity of long-dead people than evidence that they had a sense of humour. The Deir el-Medina ostraca include this joke, which can still raise a smile:

You are like the story about a woman, blind in one eye, who was married to a man for 20 years. When he found another [wife] he said to her, ‘I am divorcing you because you are blind in one eye’ and she said to him, ‘Have you just discovered this after the 20 years I have spent in your house?’

The Workmen’s Village at Amarna

A plan and adjacent reconstruction of one of the houses in the Workmen’s Village at Amarna, Gate Street 8. Note that the stairs lead not to the roof, but to an upper storey. Courtesy Barry Kemp/The Amarna Trust.

Deir el-Medina is unique as a settlement whose surviving physical remains are matched, if not surpassed, by the quality of the textual evidence of the lives of its inhabitants, but it is not the only settlement that can be categorized as a ‘workmen’s town’ or ‘workmen’s village’. As in the Old and Middle Kingdom, the construction of royal monuments, and their continued operation, relied on groups of specialized workers who were housed at the site as part of the royal project. The New Kingdom has provided us with other examples of such settlements, such as the town built by King Ahmose at the beginning of the 18th Dynasty to service the monumental sacred complex built at Abydos.

Perhaps the closest parallel we have to Deir el-Medina is the so-called ‘Workmen’s Village’ at Amarna. The isolation of this village from the main urban centre at Amarna – it is possibly on the way to the royal tomb – suggests that this settlement may have been built to house the Deir el-Medina tombmakers themselves, transferred from Thebes to Amarna in order to deploy their skills on the creation of royal tombs at the new capital. Unfortunately this is speculation, as the Amarna Workmen’s Village has not (yet) provided any documentary evidence as to its function or the lives of its inhabitants, unlike Deir el-Medina.

That this village was a centrally planned project is clear from the rigid layout of the settlement: a brick-walled 69 m (226 ft) square containing 72 almost identically sized houses arranged in six parallel rows. The ground plan of each house was divided into three sections, and at first sight they seem to be rather smaller and more compact than the Deir el-Medina houses. However, the careful excavation of parts of the Workmen’s Village by Barry Kemp for the Egypt Exploration Society, has revealed that the basic plan of these houses seems to have been adapted by individual householders to suit their individual needs. The central room of the house was probably a family living area with brick-built benches surrounding a low hearth for warmth during the winter. The front room of the house, perhaps surprisingly, was a working area for food preparation and ‘cottage industries’ such as weaving. The room(s) at the rear of the house were quite small, perhaps for storage, and at the back was a small kitchen and a staircase that gave access to an upper storey, which is where the room(s) used as bedrooms were located.

Like Deir el-Medina, the Workmen’s Village at Amarna consisted of a ‘core’ walled residential area surrounded by a series of chapels and tombs, and also a number of animal pens. Courtesy Barry Kemp/The Amarna Trust.

Outside the walled village itself were a series of structures used by the villagers. These include a series of small private chapels, animal pens and a space (the zir-area) that was probably used for the reception of supplies from the main city to support the villagers.

The Amarna Workmen’s Village therefore offers a variation on both individual houses and integrated settlements made available to (one assumes) valued state employees during the New Kingdom. But it is also striking that, while the specific configuration of both houses and village may vary, the total amount of space, and facilities available, are actually very similar.


From The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt, by Steven Snape (Thames & Hudson, 09.16.2014), published by Erenow, public open access.

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