Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 24, 1995

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

     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

     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

     Oxford University Press is publishing the anthology, Dr.
McDowell's third book on ancient Egypt. She expects it to be
completed in two years.

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