Huge economic disparities at Deir el-Medina cannot all be explained by differences in rank-based government food rations. A hierarchy was established that favored literacy and education, allowing some to escape the confines of their government salary Lesko 1994, p 23.
For hundreds of years, Deir el-Medina shone as an extremely educated village that was able to build a micro-economy motivated by perseverence and writing.
Deir el-Medina's fossilized clamshells remind that it was underwater millions of years ago Peacock 2009. The town was established in 16th century BCE, during the New Kingdom’s 18th Dynasty, for artisan miners to build the tombs of the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens two hours away Lesko 1994, p 33. First it was small –- only 70 or so people -– but it ballooned during the 19th and 20th dynasties, reaching 200 to 300 inhabitants toward the end of Ramesses II’s reign (1279 to 1212 BCE) Lesko 1994, p 133.
However, 450 years after being established, the miners left during the 11th century to live within the safe walls of a nearby temple as Egypt fell into the turmoil of the 20th Dynasty McDowell 200, p 218. By the 21st Dynasty, completely uninhabited, the town remained extensively popular for religious and mortuary purposes until as late as the 8th century AD. Even during Roman Egypt, a new temple and monastery were constructed.
An Unusual Everyday Life
Work continued through the entire year, with a single week consisting of ten days: eight days of work, and one (although often two three) days of rest Lesko 1994, p 22. Additional days off were allowed for celebrating the principal gods’ festivals.
Each workday consisted of two four-hour shifts that were separated by a lunch break. Villagers were paid according to their position, and the royal office set wages Lesko 1994, p 18.
Deir el-Medina always had at least one or two scribes in Deir el-Medina to record events, maintain bureaucracy and ensure proper import/distribution of rations. Deir el-Medina lacks its own nearby water source, and water and food had to be imported daily Peacock 2008.
Many researchers limit literacy in ancient Egypt to only of 0.4% of the population; however, this is inconsistent with findings in the small town of Deir el-Medina Lesko 1994, p 134. Scribes would pen the writing within the tombs and temples, and the miners obviously needed some degree of language knowledge to immortalize the inscriptions onto stall walls Lesko 1994, p 19 & 135.
Also, there are abundant warnings against trespassers near the temples, as well as notes that dictate certain short prayers of respect. These would be useless if only the one or two scribes were able to read. A villager named Ken-her-khepshef wrote his name on a seat at a nearby route, and at this workstation in the shade beside Merneptah’s tomb. Certainly this was not only for the pleasure of seeing his name.
Also, jars have been found with labels that could be erased and rewritten; this extends literacy to at least household servants who needed to fetch provisions in sealed and labeled containers. Scribes even wrote notes to the wives of the villagers. These would have served no purpose unless some women could read. Many people included tidbits of their favorite stories in their tombs to enjoy in the afterlife. Even a carpenter could read and write Lesko 1994, p 133.
After miners had dug dozens of meters into ground and formed a massive hole many meters wide, a surveyor informed the town that the water table was still much deeper and thus inaccessible. The hole was then used a dump, filling with thousands literary and non-literary ostraca that first date to year 15 of Ramesses II at approximately 1167 BCE. This sheer quantity indicates that obviously not all of these ostraca were read, written and discarded by the scribe(s) on the premises.
Further evidence that literacy was widespread among persons in Deir el-Medina is the presence of student ostraca and papyri in the pit and scattered sparsely throughout the village Lesko 1994, p 131; McDowell 2000, p 222. In addition, although no school has been found in Deir el-Medina, many ostraca have been confirmed to be intermediate curriculum – and many more might be early curriculum, although they are too fragmentary to be sure McDowell 2000, p 223.
Most often, the teachers were literate individuals but not actually scribes; for example, McDowell’s 2000 publication lists six draughtsman, a chief workman, a deputy and one scribe. McDowell also describes the students as not just “future office-holders”, but also low-ranking persons such as a stone-cutter and also one woman. In one fell swoop, these findings show that there literacy and education was not confined to just the scribe(s) at Deir el-Medina.
Economic Disparity in Deir el-Medina
There are signs of tremendous economic disparity in Deir el-Medina, which cannot be explained by inequalities in pay rations from the government Lesko 1994, p 20. Pay rations were standardized, with various quantities of fish, grain and vegetables being distributed somewhat unequally to tomb workers, foreman, scribes and other persons. The scribal salary was less than that of a tomb worker Lesko 1994, p 21. However, the scribe Kenherkhepshef, who held the office of scribe beginning at least in year 40 of Ramesses II and continuing down to year 1 of Siptah (around years 1239-1193 BC), was wealthy enough to have his hut floors paved with limestone slabs Lesko 1994, p 140. Also, the scribe Ramose owned several cattle and agricultural fields Lesko 1994, p 21. The stark contrast between his pay grade and standard of living can be attributed to his off-hours work for the villagers. For example, a scribe could charge fellow villagers vast sums for legal documents, coffin decoration and even copies of the Book of the Dead Lesko 1994, p 21 - 22. This theory is supported by documents showing that the town physician charged high amounts for his services despite receiving a very low official salary.
This non-hereditary economic disparity extended even to foremen and carpenters, allowing them to amass slaves, land, donkeys and storehouses Lesko 1994, p 22. The government sustained the workers with food rations that were set by bureaucracy, and homes whose floor plans could not be changed. Indeed, Lesko writes that "the hereditary nature of positions on the work force indicates that the jobs were prized and the works generally satisfied with their lot" Lesko 1994, p 22. However, villagers made true gains on their own with work done during off-hours and earnings enjoyed outside the village wall. Furthermore, "education, and personal skills" were significant for these independent profits and made "social mobility" open to even to slaves Lesko 1994, p 23 - 24. And "one lad who began his life as a young slave in the village ended as a free artisan on the crew" Lesko 1994, p 24. Less dramatically, there are many documents describing foremen who began their lives as laborers.
Although some of the upward mobility in Deir el-Medina is attributed to winning confidence Lesko 1994, p 24, much of it is also due to the relatively high degree of education. The son of a laborer was usually destined to be a laborer, but this could change if he began school and was willing enough to remain long enough to carefully hone his ability to write and compose Lesko 1994, p 24. These well-educated youth could seek lucrative positions outside the hot and cramped environment of Deir el-Medina, rather than becoming children of the tomb, and could plausibly send money to their family from the outside world Lesko 1994, p 24. Despite being available to most any non-slave male child willing to learn, literacy was a powerful social tool that was heavily glorified Lesko 1994, p 140. Social status could be inherently used for income, as proximity to the tribunal could be lucrative via bribes Lesko 1994, p 22.
Also, scribal training, education and literacy was tied to learning arithmetic McDowell 200, p 219. This is particularly important, as it could aid carpenters and stone-cutters while moon-lighting. Without the careful plans of the tombs to work from, and instead relying on their own ingenuity, being proficient in arithmetic was useful for both construction as well as transactions. In such a small village, even a minor advantage over a competitor could seal a very lucrative purchase. A single bed was constructed from two massive poles tapering at both ends, with slits running lengthwise so that webbing could be stretched across Petrie 1923, p 145. This was an expensive and very lucrative profession, especially considering that the nearest tree in 1932 was 15 minutes away (Peacock 2008). According to sale records found at Deir el-Medina, a simple chair cost a minimum of 11 deben, a table was 15 deben and a bed was 25 deben Lesko 1994, p 21. The ability to arithmetically compute dimensions, use the written word to record a transaction and then provide an ostraca as receipt was undoubtedly a welcome edge over the competition.
There is clear evidence of literacy in Deir el-Medina, as well as the democratization of education and the ensuing economic inequality that arose. The lucrative power of literacy is most evident with scribes. Despite their extremely low salaries, they lived lavish lives and enjoyed excellent standards of living. They charged for legal documents, religious texts, coffin inscriptions and other lucrative services. This allowed one scribe to even pave his hut with limestone. Other individuals were able to incorporate literacy less directly into their profession, such as a carpenter who kept records of his prices and transactions.
Deir el-Medina material culture was whimsical and vivid, often of inexpensive local materials but with painstaking labor from the abundant highly-skilled artisans. Persons in Deir el-Medina were crudely mummified. Perhaps a relative performed the mummification, which likely was at most an external rinse, desiccation, filling of the abdomen with mud and treatment with oil and resin. Desiccation may have been short or long depending on how many burial preparations had to be completed.
Lesko, Leonard. 1994. Pharaoh's Workers: The Village of Deir El Medina. Cornell University Press.
McDowell, Andrea. 2000. Teachers and Students at Deir el-Medina. Deir el-Media in the third millennium AD. Leiden, 2000.
Peacock, Andy & Lenka. 2008. The Settlement of Deir el-Medina. xy2.org/lenka/Settlement.html
Peacock, Andy & Lenka. 2009. Workmen’s Huts. xy2.org/lenka/Huts.html
Petrie, W. M. Flinders. 1923. Social Life in Ancient Egypt. London. Whitefriars Press.