The village of Deir el-Medina was likely constructed during the reign of Pharaoh Thutmosis I
alongside the construction of his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The village was constructed as a sort
of worker's town, where all the skilled laborers, contractors, and stonemasons lived while they were
employed to work on the various constructs in the Valley of the Kings. The village was occupied by
such workers for roughly 400 years until it was abandoned due to violent foreign threats during the
reign of Ramses XI.
A large amount of papyri were found around the location of the village in the 1840s, but it wasn't until proper excavations were done in the early 1900's that a tremendous amount of ostraca detailing the lives of the workers and other villagers was uncovered. It was the sheer amount of written records discovered that have allowed us to understand the village as well as we do today, and offered a very unexpected and unique insight into the daily lives and stuggles of the ancient Egyptian middle class citizen.
Deir el-Medina is located northwest of the modern city Luxor, just on the opposite side of the river and
roughly half a mile from the western bank of the Nile river. The site itself is nestled between the Valley
of the Kings to the north and the Valley of the Queens to the west, and with major funerary temples
such as Ramesseum and Medinet Habu located to the east and stretching to the south-east.
The site is located in the southern portion of the Theban Necropolis, filling the space of a low, somewhat curved valley beneath the hill containing the Necropolis of Qurnet Murai. The valley that the village proper is located in is surrounded by barren desert hills and cliffs, just beyond the verdant growth encapsulating the Nile River.
In the early days of the 19th Egyptian Dynastic period, when the village had likely grown to its largest size the village proper was roughly 130 meters long and 50 meters wide with a main thoroughfare about two or three meters wide running through the heart of the town. At its biggest, the village was completely enclosed by a wall and contained about 70 small single-story houses, each one roughly 4 meters by 20 meters in size and built primarily of stone. Written records suggest that in the later years of the New Kingdom the village was occupied by around 30 or 40 workers at a time, though that number is thought to be variable as it is also recorded that 129 workers lived in Deir el-Medina under the rule of Ramses IV and 62 under Ramses XI.
To the east of the village, located up along the slope of the hill of Qurnet Murai is Deir el-Medina's oldest burial sites and cemetary. The northern and southern sections of the east cemetary have been separated, with the northern portion holding the final resting places of adults while the sourthern portion holds small pits or cavities that were built for young children.
West of the village, and indeed dotted all over the landscape on the hills to the west and cliffs to the north, are a number of burials sites intended for the workers living in Deir el-Medina. Many of these burial sites (as many as 50 have been located, though records show there may have been 100 or more) consist of underground tombs hewn right into the stone faces of the hills and cliffs, a number of which also include a chapel built for personal use by the workers and craftsmen themselves.
In addition to the many personal-use chapels and stelae located around the site, to the north of the village is a temple complex built during the Ptolemaic period which contains numerous votive chapels as well as temples and shrines to Hathor (the primary local divinity) as well as many others such as Ma'at, Seti I, Amenhotep, Imhotep, and later a Roman chapel of Isis. It is this temple complex from which the site has received its name: “Deir el-Medina” translates to “the Convent of the Town” in Arabic, a name given to it in the temple's final days of useage by monks during the Coptic period. The ancient name of the site has been discovered to be “Set Maat”, or “the Place of Truth”.
The numerous amount of papyrus artifacts and records and other significant archaeological finds that were observed around the location of the site in the 1840's made way for new, proper excavations at the turn of the century. Between 1905 and 1909 the Italian Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli underwent the first true and serious excavation of the site. In addition to discovering the tomb of Queen Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens in 1904 and the tomb of royal architect Kha in 1906, Schiaparelli happened upon part of Deir el-Medina's village proper and discovered a very large amount of ostraca containing messages and notes and other useful written records.
Later on, between 1922 and 1951, the entire site was searched and excavated by a French team, lead by French Egyptologist Bernard Bruyère. Many of the structures of the village were uncovered, and the team also excavated the site's cemetaries and one site to the northeast of the village that would have served as a garbage dump, referred to simply as the “Great Pit”. It was in this trash pit that a great number of more ostraca was discovered, provinding even more written records and a unique look into the daily lives of the royal tomb builders. It was this discovery that would later prompt other excavations to look more into identifying individuals within the community.
One such excavation was undertaken by Jaroslav Černý, a Czech Egyptologist and member of Bruyère's first expedition. Černý would continue the work started by the French expedition team on Deir el-Medina, turing the project into a lifelong ambition and studying the village for almost fifty years until his death in 1970. In the time he spent researching the archaeological site and its hordes of informative ostraca, Černý was able to identify, name, and detail the lives and actions of a large number of the site's ancient inhabitants. So great was Černý and Bruyère's work and their contribution to the study of the site that a hill overlooking the site was renamed “Mont Cernabru” in their honor.
Through studies of the village and its collection of written records, much has been elarned about the lives of the ancient villagers. It's known that the population of the settlement included both the laborers involved in crafting the tombs as well as skilled workers, foremen, and artisans used to decorate the tombs and oversee production. The community was also home to the worker's wives, children, and other dependent relatives, as well as a handful of local craftspeople such as carpenters, potters, and coppersmiths who served the village. There were also a number of individuals employed by the town who lived outside it: fishermen, agriculturalists, water carriers, and other supporting staff who provided the villagers with food and water and other basic needs produced outside the village. The sheer amount of written records would also seem to suggest that the village enjoyed a very high rate of literacy; it is likely that the children born in the village were all taught how to read and write. Due to this, many transactions and letters and messaged were recorded and discarded, giving us the ability to read them in the present day.
The workers of Deir el-Medina would have been considered middle class by today's standards; they were salaried employees (not slaves, despite what popular myths say) of the crown who earned far more than the average farmer. They worked ten-day work weeks, with eight consecutive days of work followed by two free days, where they were welcome to return home to spend time with their families or to perform side jobs for additional money. The workers were also provided several days off in cases of medical emergency or in times of holidays and festivals. The workers were all provided with more than enough food to get along, and archaeological evidence suggest they enjoyed a very high-protein diet that included fish and other meat and beer.
Many of the written artifacts found are not just personal accounts and notes or memos, but official documents as well. There are many instances of divorce or adoption documents among the found ostraca, as well as legal papers for civil disputes over land ownership and worker's rights. This suggests that the village had its own self-contained legal process, complete with courts and judges and police to handle criminal cases. There are also a smaller number of notes and prescriptions that mention both a “town physician” and patients, suggesting that there was a form of formal medical care that was provided to the villagers as well.
Much like many other “worker's town” sites such as Heit el-Ghurab, Deir el-Medina was home to the skilled laborers and artisans who constructed all of the vast tombs we see in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. The site is unique in that the high rate of literacy among the population of the village allowed for a vast amount of written records to be found, detailing the little goings on in the everyday lives of the villagers. As such we, somewhat ironically, know and understand much more personally about the individuals who built the tombs than the kings and queens and other nobles who commissioned them. It's because of sites like Deir el-Medina that we understand a lot about how the ancient Egyptians lives, and it has often been to our surprise that we've discovered just how alike they are to us today.
Bierbrier, M. L. (1992). Jurisdiction in the Workmen's Community of Deir el-Medina [Electronic version]. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, 29, 210-211. doi:10.2307/40000501
Davies, B. G. (1999). Who's Who at Deir el-Medina: A Prosopographic Study of the Royal Workmen's Community.Egyptologische Uitgaven, 13. Retrieved December 2, 2014.
Reeves, N., & Wilkinson, R. H. (2008). The Complete Vallet of the Kings: Tombs and Treasures of Egypt's Greatest Pharaohs. N.p.: Thames & Hudson.
Weinstein, J. M. (1995, July). Pharaoh's Workers: The Villagers of Deir el Medina [Electronic version]. American Journal of Archaeology, 99(3), 541. doi:10.2307/506953