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The village - The community

Before examining the question of the tombs of Deir el-Medineh, it is necessary to quickly locate the community and discuss the peculiarities found there, which may explain some specific features of the tombs of the inhabitants.

After the reunification of Egypt under the Theban princes, which ended the Second Intermediate Period, the new kings who formed the XVIIIth Dynasty decided to arrange their burials at the foot of the Theban mountain, in an desolate wadi which would become the Valley of the Kings. In order to do this they need qualified craftsman, and this is how Amenophis I (second sovereign of the XVIIIth Dynasty, about 1525-1504) created a special group of workers allocated to this task, the "servants in the Place of Truth", an abridged form of the complete title: "those who hear the call in the Place of Truth". However, Amenophis I was not the founder of the actual village, it would in fact have been his successor, Thutmosis I (1504 -1492) who build it, in a desert area situated behind the hill of Qurnet Murai, "pA dmi", "the town", which is known today under the name of Deir el-Medineh (which in Arabic means "monastery of the city" ). The village was enlarged several times, firstly during the time of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III, then in the Ramesside period, when it had its full development.
It was Amenophis I (and not his son), who was considered by the craftsmen as their main benefactor, and who would benefit, as well as his mother, queen Ahmes-Nefertari, from a very popular cult worship within the community (a special page is dedicated to their cult).


The village was a royal institutional village intended to receive the community of workers allocated to the creation of the house of eternity of the reigning king ( "pA-xr" = 'the tomb'), also of the queens and princes, as well as their families. It is located halfway between the two areas of the Theban necropolis chosen to shelter the burials of these high ranking characters: the "Valley of the Kings" ("tA st MAat" = 'the Place of Truth') and the Valley of the Queens ("tA st nfrw" = 'the Place of Beauty'). Depending on the progress of the royal tomb, the workers could also be allocated to work in the temples of the east bank (Karnak, Luxor, etc.) or in the temples called "of Millions of years" (improperly named "funeral") on the west bank. Finally, ostraca, found in enormous quantity on the site, preserves numerous traces of private orders, concerning the funerary equipment, the furniture, etc.
The location of the village and its inhabitants depended on another vast institution: "The great and august Tomb of millions of years of Pharaoh, Life, Health, Strength, to the west of Thebes", usually summarised as "The Tomb". It had the responsibility for the activities appropriate to the royal and princely burials, for the construction and protection, through all economic cycles involved in this complex process, led by the vizier of Upper Egypt. This person resided in Thebes, far from the court which, during the Ramesside period, was in the Delta.

It is not possible, from lack of documentation, to retrace the history of the community before the extreme end of the XVIIIth Dynasty. It is very likely that, at the time of the Amarnian period, they had been transferred to the site of Akhetaten (Tell el-Amarna) where they kept their traditional beliefs, very far from the new solar religion extolled by Akhenaten and his small group of supporters.

But the period of the history of Deir el-Medineh which interests us begins in the Ramesside period, that of the XIXth and XXth dynasties. After the long and opulent period of the reign of Ramesses II, the royal power weakened steadily, especially after Ramesses III; the conditions of life in the village become progressively more and more difficult, both physically and in terms of safety, with regular incursions of nomadic Libyans. Finally, after the reign of Ramesses XI (1098-1069 BC), which closed the New Kingdom, the village was abandoned, craftsmen finding refuge in the temple of Medinet Habu.
The occupation of the site by the workers lasted almost 500 years, and documentation which exists today covers half of this, between the reigns of Horemheb and Ramesses XI.
But the history of the site and its cemetery doesn't stop there, as testified notably (very beautifully) by a small Ptolemaic temple (see tb-116) to the north of the surrounding wall. There are traces of burials not only from the Greek period, but also the Roman and early Christian times.

 The composition of "the workmen of the tomb"  ("ist n pA xr")

The work-force should not be considered as a single unit, as they were organised in two teams: left side and right side, as on a ship. Each team was in charge of one side of a royal tomb, either for digging or for decoration. So, just as navigating the Nile is part of life and impregnated into their mentality, then perhaps all Egyptians worked as if being a crew on a ship.
The village (referred to in the texts as "pA dmi" = 'the town') is surrounded by a wall which had a maximum length of 132m and a width of 50m and protected 68 houses (current and final state). It has been possible to find the identity of 15 owners, from during the reign of Ramesses II. Its overall organisation was based on the same principle of duality, since within the interior of the enclosure, a central street runs from north to south, dividing it into two parts, again left and right.
A great number of participants were necessary for the proper functioning of this relatively isolated village, which didn't even have its own source of water. Only some of the workers belonged to the production of the tomb.
Whether a person belonged or not to a work team of the tomb, resulted in certain precise things: his situation at the time of the distribution of the cereals by the administration and the fact that a home was assigned to him within the surrounding wall, as well as a tomb in the adjoining cemetery.

The team, quite a restrictive term and relating only to the group of workers, usually had between 40 and 60 men. Under Ramesses IV, however, strikes and shortcomings of provision were nevertheless frequent, it became unusually necessary for 120 men to fill a critical situation (the completion of this king's tomb, who died prematurely). They then again returned to 60 after the work was finished: Pharaoh hired when he had need to, whether the country was prosperous or not.
The gang for each side of the tomb was directed by a "chief of the workmen", the "foreman", who also supervised the appropriate side of the village. He was assisted by an "idnw" - a "deputy", who was often the son of the first. They were also accompanied by a scribe, but he was common to both sides. Towards the middle of the XXth Dynasty, was added a fourth person, the chief draftsman. This small group, which enjoyed great prestige, also possessed real power in the setting of the village.
The scribe was the link with the agents of the vizier, from whom he received his orders, one of his main tasks was to keep the administration records, which he did by firstly taking notes on an ostraca, then producing them clearly on papyrus. The administration was thus informed of the team's activities, including the advancement of the work, to the absence of 'such and such' and the reasons for this. He also had the great responsibility for the distribution of the provisions within the community, with all the conflicts which came with it.

The worker was referred to as a "rmT", 'man', but more exactly as "Hmw rmT", 'craftsman', as opposed to "rmT smdt", 'man of labour' or 'labourer' or even 'subordinate'. There was also the 'soldiers' ("mDayw") who patrolled in the Lybian mountains. There were three kinds of specialists, quarry stonemasons, sculptors, designers (and painters) and, until the beginning of the reign of Ramesses III, plasterers. Sometimes there were associated: a team of older workers, who received a modest pension, and young apprentices, sons of actual workers, their fathers being responsible for training (see right, an aged sculptor, Fitzwilliam Museum).
The status of the two guards, who continuously monitored the control room of the tomb, which was located at the north gate, seems variable. Not all of them lived within the surrounding wall, but despite this, some nevertheless had a tomb in the hillside. There were also some guards (perhaps they should be referred to as policemen) who supervised the inside of the village and notably the materials used by the workers. A little known fact is about a group of women slaves who were at the disposal of the residents, in turn, to assist with the grinding of the grain and laundry tasks. For their work, they could even receive payment.
Finally, none of the numerous porters (of water in particular, but also of plaster and vegetables, etc.), laundry-men, shoemakers, potters, fishers, etc. who carried out some tasks outside of the walls, were part of the team, but, just like the others, these labourers were divided in two groups, each in the service of the inhabitants of one of the sides of the village.

The population remained fairly stable, because it is known that, chosen on unknown criteria, some young people, maybe the least able, had to leave the village and move elsewhere. The disharmony between parents and children or grandchildren often made domestic structure delicate, and it is necessary to refer to official documents to establish a relationship rather than relying on the graves, headstones or graffiti; because, unlike many nobles, the villagers did not change their name during their lifetime.
The village represents a relatively closed environment (but not completely: some strangers are sometimes integrated, without creating problems), whose children became married between families, which explains why all business of the community is almost like family business, often very complicated: thought should be made to the abuses of the famous team leader Paneb (whose tomb, TT211, will also be presented on OsirisNet).
This promiscuity permits one to follow six or seven families during the whole length of occupation of the site, which was especially interesting to the painters and draftsmen. The reduced number of protagonists in every speciality permits the recognising of a "leg" created in the artistry by an artist from one monument to another, also sometimes the palaeography (study of ancient writings) can also help. It is also known that work was often shared between several people; testified by the chamber of Inerkhau for example (already on OsirisNet: TT359) where can be found the names of two painters, which is very rare in the ancient Egypt.

Limestone ostracon, British Museum: register of absence from work, in year 40 of Ramesses II. Only 2 workers out of the 40 listed employees never missed work. Amongst the reasons, that of giving service to someone else (chief, scribe, colleague) was high. Excuses include "involvement in a drinking session" or "his wife giving birth", etc.
A surprising fact: the days off and holidays were very numerous. Absences were tolerated for various reasons: in addition to illness they include, death of a loved one, mother giving birth, etc. It was normal that a man did not go to work on the site because he was commissioned for another task (attending the scribe, performing work for a superior or the vizier, etc.), or for reasons connected with the community, domestic or religious (gathering vegetables, making beer for his god, etc. or even drunkenness or fighting!). But what is perhaps most surprising is the frequency of collective holidays: it so happens that almost half of the days in the year were not worked! The reasons were many: days of rest at the end of a decade, epagomenal days, change of reign (a new pharaoh), the anniversary of the change, royal or princely funerals, death of an inhabitant of the village. To these must be added many days for regional festivals (the Opet Festival, Beautiful Festival of the Valley, festivals of other gods or goddesses). Finally, notably towards the end of the Ramesside period, the periods of trouble and insecurity not allowing the workers to reach the site.
This left considerable free time for artisans to work on private commissions or their own tombs, even though it is possible that the development of the latter was sometimes included in work time. This personal tomb was designated by the name "maHat", but never by "xr", a term restricted to the royal tombs (according to Cerny).

 The local temple 

The main divinity of the village was the goddess Hathor, to whom was dedicated the main sanctuary of the site, which is located to the north, within the confines of the existing Ptolemaic temple complex (which includes those to Ma'at, Amenhotep son of Hapu and to Imhotep). This replaced the one built by Sety I for the villagers of Deir el-Medineh. "She gladly takes the aspect of her pet, the cow, from the mountain of the West, but also that of a sistrum or a black ibis (?). She is revered also as mistress of Deir el-Bahari and is sometimes equated with Nebethetepet, Henutmehyt, etc." (Valbelle) (originally in French).

Distinct from Hathor, to whom she is iconographically close, the goddess Meretseger (Mertseger, Merseger or Mereseger) embodies the Theban summit, and by this fact is indeed specific to the village. "The one who loves silence" is the most often represented as a snake, but can also take the form of a cow, a lioness or a sphinx. The goddess of the harvest and domestic life, Renenutet, also a snake goddess, is often confused with Merestseger.
Ptah, the creator, head of the craftsmen, is the Lord of the Valley of the Queens, but is also very present in the village, including on some walls of the tombs.
Pharaoh Amenophis (Amenhotep) I is portrayed in the village, especially in conjunction with his mother, queen Ahmes-Nefertari. They are the subject of devotion and worship, of which we have already devoted a special page, so they will not be discussed further here.
Some of the early rulers of the XVIIIth dynasty, deified, received a cult worship and were included in tombs of the craftsmen. A famous example is in the first chamber (east wall) of the tomb of Inerkhau, TT359 (see line drawing by Lepsius).
Amon, alone or with Hathor, or Mut and Khonsu, is of course the object of a cult which seems to have weakened after the XVIIIth Dynasty.
The hippo goddess Tauret, who protects women in childbirth, enjoys an active cult, just like Thoth, as well in his form of ibis, in the shape of a baboon.


Especially regarding the tombs of Deir el-Medineh, numerous divinities are represented: no less than 45, of which are 23 gods, 18 goddesses and some genii, including entities coming from other regions of Egypt, notably from Elephantine (Khnum, Sathis and Anukis). On the other hand, the foreign divinities, in particular Middle Eastern, even if they are well represented in the village, they are absent from the tombs.

But the villagers of Deir el-Medineh cite not only the gods of their pantheon, but also and perhaps more than anywhere else (at least there are more traces there) of the "ancestors" of their lineage or the royal family (not only of the Pharaohs, as already stated, but queens and princes). Family worship was made in the homes or chapels, to either statue busts or to stelae.
A special one used was "Ax iqr n ra" (abridged to "Ax iqr or to "Ax n ra) : "excellent spirit of Ra" (or "trustworthy spirit of Ra"). The recipient of the title (which was not necessarily an ancestor, but an important person in the family) was generally shown as a man sitting on a chair with legs of a lion, holding in one hand an open lotus flower in front of his nose, while the other is extended towards a table with offerings, or a piece of a cloth or a ankh sign. Sometimes, as in the tomb of Nakhtamon, TT335, with a representation of Ax iqr on a wall (seated on the left side) of the tomb (see 12-yr).

 The cemeteries of Deir el-Medineh 

 1) - East of the necropolis 

The oldest burials on the site date of the time of Hatshepsut and are mainly in the east cemetery located on the slope of the hill of Qurnet Murai (view GoogleEarth), but there are tombs of the XVIIIth Dynasty found elsewhere; for example the tomb of Kha, TT8, found intact by Schiaparelli in 1906, which was already located in the west necropolis.
This cemetery has the particularity of being relatively sectioned south to north. One area, which was devoted to young children, contains small pits covered with stones, another was for adolescents who were placed in cavities which were accessed by a well shaft, finally, the northernmost were reserved for burials of adults of both sexes. No decorated tomb has been found there: the decoration, when any exists, is centred on the sarcophagus (see example, the one of the woman named Madja, which is in the Louvre).
Note that the population using the east cemetery had no link with the tomb workers. This was an area of choice for a social class in the service of the nobles and scholars of Thebes, musicians, makeup artists, hairdressers, etc., who looked after their welfare and their distraction. These people were not educated, but they did possess some property.
This necropolis almost completely disappeared under the debris accumulated during the clearance of the village between 1935 and 1939.

 2) - West of the necropolis 

This dates from the post Amarnian period, the innovation of a leading plan for the exclusive assignment of the hill of the west and the cliff of the north (see tb-12) in order to act as a cemetery for the teams of the tombs, as well as the individual replacement tombs of great families, the hierarchical and chronological grouping of burials, the layout of roads serving the various stages of the necropolis and the new extension of the village to the south.
Until the last of the Ramesside pharaohs, the chapels of the leaders of the workers, scribes, painters, sculptors, engravers, quarrymen and masons, were built along the hill of Deir el-Medineh. Those of the reign of Ramesses II were built against the Ramesseum, the rare ones of the XXth Dynasty faced Medinet Habu. The wealth of these tombs depended on the power of the reigning king and the length of the reign (Bruyère, 1935). Thus, few new tombs were dug from the XXth Dynasty, the men limiting themselves to the reuse of a former burial, thus being content with a rudimentary and anonymous chamber. During the Third Intermediate Period, the reuse of the chambers was systematic (example: TT360, the tomb of Kaha). The tombs were reduced to funeral shafts, with many examples of collision.

From the XIXth Dynasty, the dead were interred in family chambers, however it is impossible to discover any strict rules. Thus the tomb of Sennedjem, TT1, which was discovered intact by Bruyère, contained twenty bodies, of which nine were in coffins bearing their name, the other eleven being anonymous, but it can be imagined that they represent members of the family. However, one of the sons of Sennedjem, Khabekhnet, possessed his own tomb, TT2.
Amennakht, his son Nebenmaat, and his grandson Khaemter, have three chambers benefiting from a common area and three adjoining surface chapels (TT 218-219-220). Some workmen of the teams have two, or even three different tombs. For example: the scribe Ramose possessed TT7, TT212 and the TT250 chapel. In these are distributed his ancestors and some of their descendants. The system is not however rigid, and it is possible to find members of the same family in different, sometimes distant chambers.
Of the burial complex, some of their parts (pyramidion, chamber, etc.), could be passed on by family ties or declaration.

But one should not be deluded, only a very restricted number of craftsmen were able to construct for themselves a funerary chapel or decorated burial chamber. Out of the hundreds recorded, only about fifty are known. Even though most monuments probably disappeared under the combined blows of time and men, it remains no less true that, even whilst taking into account the domestic regrouping from the 19th Dynasty, to have a personnel tomb was indeed a privilege, of which the mode of allocation is still largely unknown.
It is known that in the XXth Dynasty, the old abandoned tombs were assigned to a descendant of the first occupant, or even a son-in-law. If a dispute appeared about an assignment, it was the divine oracle of Amenophis I who decided the outcome, but there is every reason to believe that the majority of cases were settled out of court.

The current view of the tiered aspect of this necropolis was due to the development by Bernard Bruyère in the years 1930-1940, but it can be imagined that, when the village was occupied, the appearance was different. Numerous artificial courtyards punctuated the slope, readily adjoining, edged by surrounding walls of variable heights, with sometimes a pylon at their entry and often a small flight of steps. According to Assmann, the development of the courtyards in the Ramesside period is bound directly to the practice of the ritual of the 'opening of the mouth'.
The chapel, which was placed at the rear of the courtyard, often arched, was surmounted by a small pyramid in mud bricks, capped by a limestone pyramidion (like the one of Kha, TT8, which is now at Turin).
These pyramid tops, which appeared under Amenophis III, were typical of the Ramesside tombs, in connection with the revival of solar cults at that time.

One (rarely several) arched stone stelophore statue could be placed in a niche (often painted black) on the front face of the pyramid or on the facade wall of the chapel. Stelae and statuaries were oriented eastward therefore and all carried a hymn to the sun, and on the round arch, a solar barque. The hymns were simplified versions of those in use in the whole Theban necropolis. Several copies of these stelae were found, but none has never been found in situ.

The funerary shafts often open up in the courtyard, sometimes in the chapel. The underground chambers, beautifully vaulted, are sometimes preceded of a hallway; it often happens that several family tombs share one entrance and a common hallway (for example, the complex TT218-219-220).
However, there is great variability amongst the tomb architecture, in theory and reality, because all the elements (courtyard, chapel, pyramid, well-shaft, chambers) are not always met.
On the other hand, in the XIXth Dynasty, chapels and chambers, when the two exist, are rarely separated.

Chapels of two types come from the same time period (Valbelle):
- with small vaulted rooms constructed in bricks and topped with a pyramid, readily embellished with monumental stelae, statues and even porches, many of these chapels can exist side-by-side (such as complex TT218-219-220, see tb image).
- cave chapels or semi-rock and semi-built, often have a shrine, sometimes adorned with statues of Osiris and Re-Horakhty or Osiris, Isis and Hathor (see Peacock).

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