Memos, To-Do Lists Shed Light On Life In Ancient Egyptian Village By Emil Venere Generations of skilled craftsmen who built tombs for Egyptian kings left behind something else--30,000 informal "documents," written on limestone flakes, that describe intimate details of daily life in the village. While many of the official records, written on papyrus, have long since disintegrated, the enduring limestone notes have survived more than 3,000 years. They were penned by artisans who lived in a village within a "necropolis," or city of the dead on the west bank of the Nile River, where the tombs of Egypt's elite were constructed. It was an ancient "company town" of sorts, revolving around the tomb-building industry. But the village, Deir el-Medina, was marked by another distinction. It had a peculiarly high standard of education for ancient times_most of the boys in the village were taught to read and write. Consequently, workers were always writing notes on the "scrap paper" of the day, the shards of limestone produced when new tombs were cut into the cliffs surrounding the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. "This is one very well-documented community," said Andrea McDowell, an assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. "It was built on a virgin site and abandoned after a few hundred years, so it's been very well preserved. We have their houses, we have their tombs, we have their furniture and their clothes, and in addition to that we have tens of thousands of texts describing what's going on." Dr. McDowell is writing an anthology of the texts, the contents of which range from laundry lists to business records to love songs. Archaeologists began excavating the village in the 1920s. Since then many of the texts have been translated and published in various scholarly journals. But they have not been presented in plain language that can be understood and appreciated by the general public, said Dr. McDowell, who is translating the ancient texts she is using in her book. "I would like to give a livelier, direct impression of what life was like in Deir el-Medina, with as much concrete detail as I can, because it's the only village we really know enough about to give a well-rounded picture," she said. Many of the limestone flakes, called ostraca, were found in a deep pit, the apparent remains of a failed attempt to dig a well. When they did not hit water, villagers were left with a hole descending as deep as 150 feet, which they apparently filled over the years with their trash. Because the desert is so dry, the texts, along with a multitude of other artifacts in the village, have survived the millennia in remarkably good condition. "The number of things they found in the tombs and in the houses boggles the imagination, and it's in a fabulous state of preservation," Dr. McDowell said. Woven baskets filled with juniper berries and spices look as though they just came off a grocery shelf. Other items, such as a woman's wig and makeup, many articles of clothing and furniture, have also survived the passage of time in similar states of preservation. In addition to written texts, archaeologists have discovered informal drawings produced by artists and inspired by everyday life in the village. "These would just be dashed off by the artists in their spare time," Dr. McDowell said. "They're just sketches; they're not major works of art. But that's what I like about them." For example, one drawing is obviously an artist's humorous portrayal of the lowly stonecutter. It is the profile of a workman with stubbly chin and smiling mouth agape as he happily wields a heavy hammer and chisel. Artists were better educated and wealthier than mere laborers, explained Dr. McDowell, an Egyptologist who specializes in the social history of Deir el-Medina. Up to 60 workmen lived in the village, which had a population of roughly 300 and flourished for about 500 years. Throughout the Egyptian New Kingdom, which lasted from 1550 to 1070 B.C.E., the community of artists, craftsmen and stonecutters produced resting places for the mummies of pharaohs. Deir el-Medina was abandoned at the end of the New Kingdom; the central government was collapsing, and it became impossible to guard the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The royal mummies were moved to a secret hiding place, and the community was disbanded. Oxford University Press is publishing the anthology, Dr. McDowell's third book on ancient Egypt. She expects it to be completed in two years.
Go to Gazette Homepage