Deir el-Medina workers

In the heart of the western desert, at the height of Thebes, stands Deir el-Medina, a beautifully preserved Egyptian city where the architects of the tombs of the Valleys of the Kings and Queens lived. From here comes a rich documentation that allows us to shed light about the life and work of the ancient inhabitants of the Nile Valleywhich leaves many surprises for its present.

Deir El Medina, Luxor, Egypt

Deir El Medina, Luxor, Egypt

Photo: Diego Delso,

Home, grave and work

Deir el-Medina, in Egyptian Pa-Demi, or “city”, it was built to house members of the community of artisans who built and decorated the tombs of the pharaohs of the New Kingdom. (1539-1069 BC) and is especially well preserved both because of its remoteness from the lands bordering the Nile and because of its short existence. Inhabited throughout the New Kingdom period, then it was gradually abandoned and left to the mercy of the sandwho, having covered it, preserved it to us. Rectangular in shape, the city had a plan of 163 meters long and fifty wide. it was surrounded by a wall with only one door through which one could go to work.

The contacts of the inhabitants of Deir el-Medina with the outside world were kept to a minimum. to avoid this, in collusion with thieves, they organized thefts inside the royal tombswhose exact location they knew. A sort of “golden prison”, where in exchange for limited freedom of movement, workers received house, the ability to build a grave on a hill to the west of the city and guaranteed food all year round. In addition, they used the services semedet, a team of men who brought food from outside to the village: water, firewood, dried cattle manure for use as fuel, work tools and more. They also benefited from the work of a group of maids who took turns helping around the houses. For that time, these were privileged living conditions..

Work organization

Thutmose I, the ruler who opened the necropolis of the Valley of the Kings, was probably the founder of the which about 120 families lived during the Ramessid era. The houses had an average size of eighty-six square meters and consisted of various rooms.: entrance hall, living room, bedroom, kitchen, cellar and flat roof that served as a terrace.

Copy of Nina de Garis Davis from a relief depicting Thutmose I with his mother Seniseneb.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Copy of Nina de Garis Davis from a relief depicting Thutmose I with his mother Seniseneb. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Photo: Paul James Cowie (Pjamescowie),,

The work was very well organized in the community of Deir el-Medina: the workers were divided into two teams, each of which, like a crew of a ship, worked on one side of the tomb. Their number changed over time, moving from forty to sixty units. Then there were two foremen, one for the right side and the other for the left side of the team.who were to supervise the work and see that everyone was doing their job.

Finally, there were two tomb scribes who took care of the payment and checked the presence of all the workers on site. noting the names of those absent and the reason for their absence. Everyone wrote to the administrative “newspapers” – working diaries – first ostrakashards of stone or limestone used as a notepad and then carefully transcribed on papyrus.

Wicks and working hours

The working week lasted eight days, followed by two days of rest. during which the inhabitants of Deir el-Medina could devote themselves to idleness or the construction of a tomb for their family. The daily working day was eight hours. they were calculated using the wicks as “witnesses”. were used by workers to illuminate the underground corridors of the tombs.

Deir el-Medina Workers' Camp

Deir el-Medina Workers’ Camp

Photo: Olaf Tausch,

The wick, small pieces of rolled linen, was placed inside a bowl filled with linseed oil. (to which salt was also added to prevent the formation of smoke) and had a length of 25-30 cm. The number of wicks consumed in the morning was the same as in the afternoon. and given their duration, it can be said with almost absolute certainty that working time was only eight hoursdivided into morning and afternoon, with a break for lunch and a quick rest.

Workers’ wages

On the twenty-eighth day of each month, the workers of Deir el-Medina received their wages in kind., given the absence of any currency. The main board was soldering (the so-called char) wheat and barley, which were used to make bread and beer and were sufficient to meet the needs of a family with five children. On the occasion of holidays or when important persons visited the city, additional rations were distributed. calls meku“rewards”, which consisted of salt, beans, garlic, meat, fruits, wine.

The painters received the same salary as the laborers.but in their free time they earned something more by going to paint the walls of the tombs of artisans, who, in turn, supplemented their wages by doing additional work of various to make clothes. Also tomb scribes who had a rather low basic salarythey earned a very substantial raise by writing letters, wills, and business deals for the inhabitants of the community.


This “ostracon” from Deir el-Medina signals the absence of two workers stung by a scorpion.

Photo: Kordon Press

Absence from work

Tomb scribes noted presence and absence at work: in addition to serious reasons such as mourning, there was an absence due to illness, which was never specified. For more serious illnesses a colleague may be absent from work to act as a “nurse” and help the sick. Numerous omissions were due to more trivial reasons: “Kham was at his party” or “Nakht was at his party with his daughter” or again “Neferhotep was brewing beer for his party”.

Other reasons for absence may be quarrels at work or in the family., as in the case of the worker Terermontou, who was absent from work because he “got into a fight with his wife.” It seems that the workers could take time off with a certain freedom, like the worker Merisekhmet, was absent for two days because he was sick, and then another seventeen because he felt weak.

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During the reign of Ramesses III (1187-1156 BC), the first ever Egyptian blow was dealt., which was described on the so-called Strike Papyrus from Deir el-Medina and is kept in the Egyptian Museum of Turin. In the twenty-ninth year of the reign of Ramesses II a team of workers, shouting “we are hungry!”, folded their hands and stopped for several daysand when the authorities tried to persuade them to return to work, their answer was:It’s because of hunger and thirst that we’ve come this far; no more clothes, no ointments, no fish, no vegetables; write about this to the pharaoh, our good lord, and write to the vizier, our chief, to give us provisions. Unfortunately, wage delays continued and strikes increased. until the workers were given what was agreed… bread and roses.

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Life in Ancient Egypt. Deir el-Medina, the village of the builders of the tombs of the kings. Enrica Leospo, Mario Tosi, Giunti, Florence, 1998

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