"To Do" Lists and Other Jottings from Ancient Egypt
Andrea McDowell, assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at The Johns Hopkins University, is assembling an anthology of these texts that she'd like to call "Laundry Lists & Love Songs." That title reflects the diversity of material that has survived for 3,000 years. "People wrote down the most trivial little things," Dr. McDowell said. "You can really get to know individuals."
Deir el-Medina was what Dr. McDowell refers to as "a company town," near Luxor. Egyptian rulers used it to house the artisans who decorated the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. It was inhabited from roughly 1550 to 1100 BCE by an elite corps of draftsmen, painters, and other craftsmen. Dr. McDowell says that, during a time when the literacy rate among the Egyptian population at large might have been only 2 percent, some evidence indicates every male in Deir el-Medina had been taught to read and write. The remarkable collection of texts they left behind represents an unparalleled record of New Kingdom life, because so many people were able to write down so much down.
Deir el-Medina was built in the desert, near the tombs that were the artisans' workplaces. Covered by sand after its residents disbanded about 3,000 years ago, much of the village remained intact for excavators to unearth in the 20th century. So well-preserved is the settlement that the walls of dwellings still exist. In a tomb, archaeologists found a spice basket filled with cumin that looks like it just came off a grocery shelf.
The texts that McDowell studies exist on flakes of limestone, which was cheaper than papyrus. "Limestone was the scrap paper of the time," Dr. McDowell said. Though some of the writings were meant to be saved for a time, most were informal, written in the cursive form of hieroglyphs known as hieratic. Though some papyrus texts from the town endured the passage of centuries, much more of the limestone survived.
Dr. McDowell said that a large number of these texts come from an enormous pit in the village. She speculates that villagers, tired of hauling water by donkey from the nearby cultivated fields, tried to dig a well for themselves. She believes they went down over 50 meters, then gave up when they still hadn't reached the water table. Left with a huge hole, she says, they simply started tossing their garbage into it, including thousands of their limestone jotting.
Because the villagers made notes about so many things, and because they were not self-conscious about documents that mostly were not meant to last, Dr. McDowell has at her disposal an intimate look at everyday life. There really are laundry lists and love songs, as well as records of employee absences, receipts for deliveries, ruminations on God, and notes on the progress of work. "They were incredibly bureaucratic," she said of the villagers.
One ostracon, as the pieces of limestone are called, records the settlement of a dispute over who was entitled to a hut. One man's father had owned the dwelling. But another man lived in it and had made improvements. To whom did the hut rightfully belong? Dr. McDowell said the ostracon shows that the first man got the property, but had to pay the second man for the improvements.
As artisans, many of the villagers made little, informal sketches on limestone, which also have survived. One shows a woman kneeling to blow into an oven, to fan the coals. Another portrays a workman, complete with bulbous nose and stubble on his chin; Dr. McDowell notes that the draftsman who executed that sketch portrayed himself in a much more elegant manner.
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