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Monday, 14 September 2020

Deir el-Medina: The Village and Rediscovery

Last week I started my new Egypt Centre short course on Deir el-Medina. As with previous courses, the next five blog posts will be written by different members of the class. As their knowledge and levels of Egyptological background vary, the posts will likely present quite different perspectives on the classes. Since these differences and views are valued, the entries will undergo as little editing as possible. First up is Mark Ponman, a retired former civil servant from London who is studying for the Diploma in Egyptology at Manchester University, having already completed the Certificate. He volunteers with the Sudan Archaeological Research Society (SARS) at the British Museum and helps moderate several Egyptology Facebook groups.

This week a new five-week course on Deir el-Medina began and Ken Griffin explained about the site and how it was rediscovered in modern times. The village of Deir el-Medina is located on the West Bank of the Nile in a desert valley opposite Luxor, ancient Thebes. It is located next to some of the best-known locations of ancient Egypt that are favourite sites for tourists to visit. It is near Deir el-Bahari, Medinet Habu, the Ramesseum, and a short walk over the mountain to the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Its Arabic name means “the monastery of the town” after a Coptic monastery that was built near to a Ptolemaic temple that was later converted into a Coptic church.

The site is famous as the New Kingdom village of the workmen of the rulers of Egypt who built their tombs in the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, and for the splendid tombs of the inhabitants of the village buried next to the settlement (fig. 1). It is also well known for being the best preserved Egyptian settlement site and the richness of the textual evidence preserved in the abandoned rubbish of the village. The settlement continues to fascinate and to deliver much knowledge about life in the New Kingdom.

Fig. 1: Necropolis of Deir el-Medina

At the start of the New Kingdom the Pharaohs of Egypt started to build their tombs in the Valley of the Kings, a task that required a skilled workforce and a place for them to live that was close to the Valley for ease of access. The village is about thirty minutes walk from the Valley of the Kings and about fifteen minutes from the Valley of the Queens. The village was probably under construction during the reign of Amenhotep I, though for this there is no solid archaeological evidence. However, there is evidence for his successor Thutmose I at the site. The village became associated with Amenhotep I who was viewed as the patron god of the village (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Turin Museum 1372

The village grew to contain about 70 houses within its walls and about 45 outside. It had a main street and the houses had stone foundations and mudbrick walls. Unusually, the cemetery is located very close to the village; unlike Amarna and Lahun where they were much further away. The houses were of varying sizes according to rank, but would typically include a reception room with household shrines, a main room for the males of the house, a bedroom, and kitchen (fig. 3). Some had cellars. There were probably no upper floors as the walls were too thin to support them, but it may have been possible to sleep on the roof accessed by stairways. We are fortunate to know the names of the house owners as some of their names were written on the door lintels and can be linked to the tombs of the owner nearby.

Fig. 3: Houses at Deir el-Medina

The site was active for about five hundred years as a village for the tomb builders before being abandoned during the reign of Ramesses XI at the end of the New Kingdom. The village was probably abandoned as it was prone to raids by Libyans and the fact that the rulers were no longer buried in the Valley having reverted to northern burial sites. Deir el-Medina, when abandoned, was used as a place of storage and later as a tourist site for Greek and Roman visitors. A small Ptolemaic temple dedicated to Hathor and Maat was built by Ptolemy IV (fig. 4) and in Coptic times it was converted into a church and a monastic community took up residence nearby. It gradually became covered and fortunately was not built upon. The site is unique for retaining the original ground level as layers of settlement were not made that normally created a Tell (mound).

Fig. 4: Deir el-Medina temple

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the site was “rediscovered” for Europeans by the French traveller Claude Sicard (1677–1726) at a time when, due to political instability, few Europeans travelled that far south in Egypt. In January 1738, Richard Pococke drew a plan of the temple at the site but no mention of the village was made. The temple was later visited by engineers as part of the survey of Egypt ordered by Napoleon. In 1777, the first object that could be assigned to the village came to light. It was a statue of Neferabu, one of the workmen under Ramesses II, which was acquired by an Italian monk and eventually ended up housed in the museum in Valletta Malta (fig. 5). A few further travellers explored the site but it was the visit by the Italian Bernardino Drovetti (1776–1852) that resulted in a more detailed examination and the start of looting by Europeans that went on for many decades. Drovetti found a statue of Amenhotep I, which is now in the Turin Museum and possibly originated in the sanctuary of his temple in Deir el-Medina.

Fig. 5: Statue of Neferabu

Later visitors included John Gardner Wilkinson between 1827–1829 and Champollion between 1828–1829. Robert Hay visited the tomb of Pashedu (TT 3) and made a sketch that included a sarcophagus, which was destroyed shortly afterwards leaving his drawing as crucial evidence. Parts of the sarcophagus are now being put back together like a jigsaw puzzle in Luxor. The British Museum was able to acquire, via the Duke of Hamilton (1767–1852), the sarcophagus of Ankhnesneferibre (BM EA 32), a daughter of Psamtik II, which had been transferred from the original burial site at Medinet Habu to a shaft at Deir el-Medina (fig. 6).

Fig. 6: Sarcophagus lid of Ankhnesneferibre (BM EA 32)

On 1 February 1886 the tomb of Sennedjem (TT 1), an elite tomb worker, was discovered. It was richly decorated and contained the family mummies and grave goods and is considered one of the greatest discoveries in Egypt (fig. 7). Full-scale excavation was undertaken in the twentieth century and is ongoing. The Italian Ernesto Schiaparelli (1856–1928) dug in at the site in the early 1900s and found the tomb of Kha (TT 8), which was intact and is a jewel of the Egyptian collection in Turin. Such tombs of senior workmen revealed the astonishing riches that such people could afford to take to their grave.

Fig. 7: Wall in the tomb of Sennedjem

The French Institute of Oriental Archaeology (IFAO) excavated the site under the direction of Bernard Bruyère (1871–1971) from 1922 until 1951. He made meticulous notebooks, many of which remain to be published. The IFAO have provided a large volume of publications on the site and also have a large online collection to view. The Czech Egyptologist Jaroslav Cĕrny (1898–1970) also made a significant contribution, especially with publication of the non-literary ostraca. Most recently, a Finnish team excavated the huts of the workmen on the ridge above the village, finding pottery and a stela of the snake goddess Meretseger (fig. 8).

Fig. 8: Workmen's huts

The village, however, is most noted not just for the houses and tombs, but for the textual remains that bring the characters and everyday lives of the inhabitants to life showing us who they were, family relationships, and how they worked and meted out justice in the village. Texts reveal that water and food had to be brought daily to the desert location and rations were provided by the Egyptian state. Much of this textual material was found in what is called the “great pit” (fig. 9). The texts identified individuals who could be linked to their tombs and houses.

Fig. 9: The Great Pit

This was a fascinating introductory lecture to the village and I look forward to finding out some more about the site and those who lived there.

Bierbrier, Morris 1982. The tomb-builders of the pharaohs. A Colonnade Book. London: British Museum Publications.
Černý, Jaroslav 2001. A community of workmen at Thebes in the Ramesside period, 2nd ed. Bibliothèque d’étude 50. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.
Gobeil, Cédric 2015. The IFAO excavations at Deir el-Medina. Oxford Handbooks Online 2015 (August).
Meza, Alicia I. 2003. An Egyptian statuette in Malta rediscovered. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 40, 103–112.

1 comment:

  1. This Hathor Temple is one of my favourite places in Egypt (that I have visited so far). So many beautiful details!