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Workers Strike
Ancestor Worship
New  Kingdom
Amarna Period
Ramesside Period

The worker's village at Deir el Medina is one of the most thoroughly documented communities in the ancient world. It is located west of modern Luxor on the west bank of the Nile about half a mile beyond the cultivated land bordering the river and between the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. The village is in the southern part of the Theban necropolis in a valley behind Gurnet Murai hill. The major path from the village proceeded north from its western foothills along the top of the cliffs, that surround Deir el Bahri, to the place where workmen made a small settlement for themselves before the path descended to the Valley of the Kings.

Workmen and their families left a record of village life that spans almost four hundred years and parallels much of the history of the New Kingdom dynasty. Surviving records shed little light on the major events, rather they talk of everyday life - work, money, people, education, legal and religious matters.

The village is located deep within a valley and is not visible from most key vantage points in the area. The plan of the village evolved over time until its final 'shape' shown here (more information is available on the Ptolemaic and other temples).


Village: Deir el Medina is a small settlement 2 km west of the Nile (see maps). It was home to workers of the royal necropolis and might be viewed as a microcosm of life in Ancient Egypt even though although the workers were at the 'top' of their profession.

The ancient name of the site was Set Maat, 'the Place of Truth' and the workmen were 'servants' in the Place of Truth. The community seems to have been established near the beginning of the 18th Dynasty, at least by the reign of Tuthmosis I (whose name has been found on bricks in the walls surrounding the village) or perhaps a few years earlier - since the villagers through many generations held Amenhotep I, and his mother Queen Ahmose Nefertari, in high esteem (maybe as patrons).

From research over the last century we know much about the people, how they lived and where they were buried and what they owned. Many finds were removed in the free-for-all of previous centuries and pieces are found in nearly every major museum in the world. It is ironic that more is known about the workmen who cut the New Kingdom tombs than we do about the kings who commissioned them.

The great pit (see map) or town dump (from a later period) contained thousands of ostraca with texts. The decipherment and publication of many of the non-literary ostraca form the basis for of the published information about the community.

Drinking water could be obtained only in the Nile valley - a journey of 2 km. Drilling wells of 52 metres was beyond their capabilities. Regular supplies were to be brought to the village and stored in large jars in the houses.

History: '[On that day] came the vizier ... and read to them a letter saying that Nebmaatre Ramesses Amenherkhepshef-meryamun [Ramesses VI] ... had arisen as the great ruler of the whole land ... and he said: Let the gang come up.' … from an ostracon.

The settlement was founded sometime early in the 18th dynasty, though by which monarch is uncertain. Many bricks in the enclosing wall are stamped with the name of Tuthmosis I - the first pharaoh definitely to be buried in the Valley of the Kings. It is known that the previous king, Amenhotep I, and his mother Ahmose--Nofretiri, were regarded as patron deities by the workmen.

The first village was destroyed by fire during the 18th Dynasty. The village grew under Tuthmosis III as building expanded on the west bank at Thebes. Under Akhenaten the inhabitants were moved to Amarna - some of the names found at Amarna are similar to those found at Deir el Medina (but it is not certain if these were the same people).

Most of the evidence dates from the 19th and 20th dynasties when the royal influence returned to Thebes. The village was expanded to its maximum extent and nine distinct quarters were formed. Streets and access ways were cut through the blocks of dwellings and funerary concessions. The old houses were restored and new ones added, the village being expanded to the south and west to enclose its suburbs and a new stone wall was built around the whole. For this period a great deal of information is available - such as the names of the viziers and other high officials who oversaw the excavation of the tombs.

At the beginning of the 19th dynasty activity in the Valley of the Queens started, resulting in tombs for the chief royal wives and children.

The village was finally abandoned at the end of the New Kingdom when royal burials in the Valley of the Kings ended. The villagers removed the valuable wooden doors and supporting columns from their houses when they left, causing the eventual collapse of the houses.

Houses: The houses were huddled closely together much like modern villages. Forty rooms made up the core of the first 18th Dynasty workshops, the village comprising of twenty houses and maybe 100 people.

Houses may have been allotted by officials but many were held on a hereditary basis through it's four-hundred- year history. Most houses had one floor and were built without foundations and with mud-brick walls. The later village houses were erected on rubble and had simple walls with stone bases from 2.0 to 2.5 m high with mud-brick superstructures. They were built in terraces with doors facing each other across the streets, some-times back-to-back. They averaged only 5 to 6 metres wide, but were not regularly spaced out. Rooms were often high (measuring from 3 to 5 metres tall). Houses were whitewashed outside with red doors. Inscriptions on the jambs and lintels often gave the owners' names. Stone jambs and columns were in some of the better houses, but all floors were earth.

Each house was built using the a succession of rooms of increasing privacy, as well as a passage to a kitchen and rear open area. A typical house would have:

VillagersThe workmen who lived at Deir el Medina included the quarrymen or stonecutters who excavated the royal tombs in the limestone hills and cliffs of the Valley of the Kings and Queens, and also the sculptors, draftsmen and painters who decorated the tombs. Although limestone is generally soft, the extent of the excavations and the fine finish of the delicate carving show the high quality of the work.

The size of the work force varied depending on demand. In addition to the artisans were some administrators - specifically the foremen of the two gangs that shared the work and at least one scribe. The community included the workmen's' wives, children and other dependants as well, and was served by a few resident coppersmiths, carpenters, potters, basket-makers, and even a part-time physician. Support staff also resided outside of Deir el Medina - such as woodcutters, water carriers, fishermen, gardeners, washermen and flour grinders.

Workmen would have to be considered, in modern terms, as middle class. They were not slaves but salaried state employees whose individual wages (in the form of rations) were perhaps three times those of a fieldhand. In addition, 'moonlighting' (making furniture, stelae etc) was a widespread practice that helped provide a comfortable standard of living. They apparently did not work on tombs of officials and priests. Nor were they responsible for the construction of the huge mortuary temples of the kings.

Sources recovered from the village indicate that 100 or more individuals lived in the community for much of its history and that over 30 foreign names have been identified. Many were literate, and left writings ranging from humorous satirical notes to pious religious inscriptions. Religion was extremely important and is indicated by the votive stelae offered to the gods as well as many small temples and chapels which served the community. A wide range of deities was venerated, from national gods such as Osiris, Hathor and Ptah, to local gods like Meretseger (goddess of the peak above the Valley of the Kings) and deified kings and queens such as Amenhotep I, Queen Ahmose-Nofretiri and Ramesses II. Also numerous shrines and stelae honoured the ancestors of the workmen.

The workmen were divided into two gangs called the 'Right Gang' and the 'Left Gang'. The size of each gang would vary depending on the point the construction had reached. The term iswt or 'gang' signified a military or naval unit. There was a foreman for each of the gangs and they were appointed by the King's representative - the Vizier.  The foreman was at the top of the village hierarchy and next came the scribe of the tomb.  The scribes job was to record the work done and absentees, also distribution of tools, materials and wages.  Deputy foremen, usually relatives of the foreman,  also supervised the distribution of supplies. Guardians of the tomb managed the royal storehouses and were assisted by doormen who worked in shifts to guard the entrances to royal tombs.  Madjay were policemen (name is still used in modern Egypt) recruited from Nubia to guard the outlying areas (and protect the approached to the region) and to preserve law and order in the village.
The villages were support by 'servants of the tomb' who lived outside of the village but were employed by the administration to supply the villages with their basic needs (such as water, firewood and food). The worker received a monthly ration of emmer wheat and barley, also regular payments of dates, cakes and (importantly) beer.  On special occasions there may have been bonuses of salt, natron and meat.  It seems that there was usually enough supplies to use the surplus for bartering. 

Although newcomers joined the community, the population was generally stable and fathers could be succeeded by sons through many generations. There wouldn't have been enough vacancies for apprentices to provide jobs for all the children and, with decreases in the size of the work force, many would have been laid off or forced to accept more menial jobs.
The villagers established their own cemeteries on the nearby hillsides forming the East Cemetery and the West Cemetery. The bottom courses of the eastern hill were the site of burials of children, with adults' graves higher up. In the larger western cemetery, with its pyramidion (see photos) topped tomb chapels with solar stela, some pre-Amarna inhabitants were buried - but this is primarily the Ramesside cemetery. At the end of the Ramesside period the workmen were transferred, for their own safety, within the walls of the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu.

Men: During their 10-day labour the workers were called, often stayed in a small way-camp (itself having small shrines) built on the ridge above the royal valley, returning to their homes for 2-day 'week-ends' and holidays. This gave 6 days off each months and they seem to have taken long weeks frequently and also they had holidays and festivals. On their days off the villages might have worked on their own tombs.  There was also a good trade in coffins and all types of funeral equipment. Some of the remainder of their free time seems to have been spend drinking and taking each other to court.
Women: Workers were absent for majority of time leaving the village a community of women. Some women were thought to be literate and some held religious titles, such as chantress, singer or priestess, indicating their involvement in various cults. Their legal rights are evident in cases such as that of Naunakhe, the widow of the scribe Kenherkhepshef, whose willed goods to her sons during the reign of Ramesses V.
Justice: Deir el Medina had its own court which had the authority to deal with minor civil, and criminal matters.  More serious matters were heard in the Vizier's court. The local court seems to have been a source of amusement and most of the cases related to non-payment of debts. Villagers conducted their own cases so there wasn't any legal representation. Some cases were on for years, such as the case of Menna suing the chief of police over non-payment for a pot of fat and some clothing - the case went on for 11 years.
Workers strike: During Ramesses III's massive construction programme at Thebes a strike was recorded. In the summer of Ramesses' 29th year (c. 1165 BC), the scribe Amennakhte delivered a formal complaint about the situation to the Temple of Horemheb, part of the large administrative complex of Medinet Habu. The letter stated 'One and a half khar of grain [about 168lbs] have been taken from us ... we are dying, we cannot live...'.

Although a payment was soon forthcoming, the poor conditions continued and later that same year the two gangs stopped work and marched to one of the royal mortuary temples where they staged what would now be called a sit-in. This action was repeated on the following day within the compound of another temple, until the complaints were recorded and sent to the administrators of Thebes.

Ancestor Worship:  Non-Royal ancestors were often worshiped in private homes, such as in Deir el Medina, rather than in temples.  Statues, stela and offering basins from the village show that families were worshiped or venerated.  The Ancestors were called akh n Re (able spirits of Re).  They were often intermediaries between morals and gods and were often thought to have a special relationship with the sun god Re, taking an honoured position in the barque as he travelled in the land of the dead at night.  Domestic worship involved leaving offering at the statue (or stela) which were in niches in the houses - the offering encouraged the akh n Re to intercede on behalf of the living.

New Kingdom (Dynasties 18-20, 1550-1070 BC)
The New Kingdom is composed of the 18th to the 20th Dynasties, following the expulsion of the Hyksos and the reunification of the country by Ahmose (1550-1525 BC).

The New Kingdom was a time of great prosperity and massive building projects at Thebes demonstrate the power and wealth of the kings period. Several kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty led campaigns into Palestine, parts of which were brought under Egyptian control.

The rock cut tombs of kings and private individuals were lavishly decorated. A wide variety of literature from this period has survived, including funerary, legal, medical and literary papyri, personal letters and hymns. The builders of the tombs lived in Deir el Medina.

Gold, of conquered Nubia, was heavily exploited until it was exhausted in the early 19th Dynasty. A less settled period followed and the threat of the Hittites reached a crisis in the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BC) with the battle of Kadesh. Ramesses III's (1184-1153 BC) assassination marked the beginning of decline. The New Kingdom ended with a series of weak kings, corrupt administration, tomb robberies and Libyans incursions into the Theban region.

Amarna Period (1390-1327 BC)
The reigns of Akhenaten (1352-1336 BC), Smenkhkare (1338-1336 BC), Tutankhamun (1336-1327 BC) and Ay (1327-1323 BC) made up the period and it is named after the city founded by Akhenaten, son of Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC). Akhenaten became king as Amenhotep IV and changed his name when he rejected traditional religion in favour of the worship of the Aten or sun disc. He closed temples to other gods and obliterated their names from monuments.

Akhenaten was succeeded by the Smenkhkare, then the famous Tutankhamun. Rejecting Akhenaten's religious beliefs, Tutankhamun restored the traditional gods and abandoned Tell el-Amarna. He died young and was succeeded by an elderly courtier, Ay. Subsequent kings did their best to remove all traces of the period from the record and the names of the Amarna period kings are not found on 'king lists' [Turin Royal Canon], various ancient texts that list the names of the Egypt's kings in chronological order.

Armarna's art is very distinctive. The royal family were depicted with elongated heads, long necks and narrow chests. They generally had spindly limbs, but heavy hips and thighs, with a pronounced paunch. Literary developments of the period include a revision of the written script to more closely reflect the spoken language of the time, and the replacement of funerary texts with a hymn to the Aten.

Ramesside Period (19th and 20th Dynasty, 1295-1069 BC)
The period is named after the eleven kings with the name Ramesses, who ruled in the 19th and 20th Dynasties. Ramesses II (1279-1213 BC) faced the armies of the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh and became a role model for his successors. He founded a capital in the Nile Delta, known as Pi-Ramesse.

The period was characterised by efforts to ward off migrating tribes known as the 'Sea Peoples' who, by the reign of Ramesses III (1184-1153 BC) had joined forces with Libyan tribes. During this period the struggling Egypt lost its hold on the empire. After the dead of Ramesses III , possibly by assassination, the internal economy began to crumble, resulting in administrative corruption and political strife. The succession of kings failed to live up to the achievements of their famous predecessor.

Ramesses II left more monuments than any other king was the model for the Ramesside Period. The literature of the time includes accounts of great battles, but also letters and documents relating to everyday life, including the trial of the Ramesses III assassins, trials of tomb robbers and records of strikes by tomb workers at Deir el Medina.

Sources Egyptian Towns and Cities, Eric Uphill, Shire Publications
Pharaoh's Workers, Leonard Lesko, Cornell University Press

The complete Valley of the Kings, Nicholas Reeves and Richard Wilkinson, Thames & Hudson
The complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, Richard Wilkinson, Thames & Hudson
The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture, Dieter Arnold, I B Taurus
Guide to the Valley of the Kings, Alberto Siliotti
Art el archéolgie: l'Égypte anciene, Ecole du Louvre
Ancient Egypt, David Silverman

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