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Monday, 21 September 2020

Musing on Deir el-Medina

The blog post for this week has been written by Laura Williams, who describes herself as a wearer of hats, having lovely cursive handwriting, and a solitary creature happiest surrounded by books, knowledge, ideas, and synonyms. Still tends to “wander off from the group” or on obscure tangents!

I admit that I am having the best time during this pandemic. To have been offered an up-close, ongoing, series of lectures by knowledgeable people, the professionals, the top in their fields, and all the other people world-wide who share my love in the study of Egyptology. To spend my Sunday nights, and some Wednesday mornings, with others who are as interested in such diverse aspects of Egyptology. I am very content and want these talks to never end. 

I will start by saying that I was ‘today days old’ when I realized that Ken Griffin was NOT sitting in the main room of The Egypt Centre. In my mind, every session, Ken turns a key in the door, opening it, casting a small stream of light into the darkness, walking across the floor, footsteps echoing, and floor boards creaking in familiar ways—carrying a candle (just go with me here) to set up in the corner of a room, perched at a desk, with the presence of all these wonderful, silent, witnesses to history, and time, lurking up behind him (fig. 1). 

Fig. 1: Ken's backdrop to the Zoom lectures in the House of Life gallery

I am not a scholar nor have any formal training or knowledge of the study of Egyptology. I am just a fan. A grownup whose imagination was first fired up, at the age of 2 in 1971, when my Grandmother returned from a church group trip to The Holy Land. My fingers discovering the bullet hole in her suitcase, covered by a sticker to avoid my parents knowing about it, and the way her voice and eyes lit up as she told me what she had seen. A photo of her sitting on a camel remains and, now, a second photo taken 30 years later of my parents all those years later on their own trip (fig. 2). I realize the camels are not the same. Granted, while attitudes of camels are likely the same. My Grandmother’s telling of going into a tomb, underground, the air, the dust disturbed by her feet walking down the hallway. The colours, the coolness, the silence that seemed filled with whispered echoes, and her wonder—her awe and delight to see history and visit the past.   

Fig. 2: Grandmother wanted the camel handler in photo and made sure to get his name. They wandered off from the group together, the three of them. Circa 1970s.

As a school child I was part of a noisy, inattentive, sugared-up, gaggle of children wandering around, shouting and laughing, echoing through the vast rooms of the Egyptian Gallery, in the late 1970s, of The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). The child who ‘tends to dawdle and wander off from the group’* who peppered our museum guide with endless questions and bursts of excitement [Ken and Sam witness to this trait still present in me!]. Standing in front of the vast carved wall of Hatshepsut’s “Expedition to Punt” mural from her funerary temple, it overwhelmed me (fig. 3). To learn that Canadians had gone and helped to discover such history and bring this knowledge to my very doorstep. We were told of the Canadian pride in the care, respect, co-operation with Egyptians and people from across the world who worked to learn, restore, catalogue, and preserve such a vast body of knowledge. In fact, I may have wandered off and ended up in the back workrooms, empty corridors, where items were studied, cared for, recorded and stored, away from the general population. And, I may be the reason that these doors are now locked, with alarms, and signs forbidding such exploration. I was ultimately discovered at the elbow of someone carefully working on the conservation of a gold gilded panel. Almost sharing her magnifying glass and blocking her focused clear light. Peppering her with questions. Sternly returned through the hands of a student assistant, then administrative person to the sole museum security guard who lead me back to my waiting class, bundled in coats, waiting so that ‘everyone’ was gathered up to return home.

Fig. 3: Inspiration from the Punt Expedition casts in the ROM

Summarizing this knowledge are three books presented at the beginning of lecture 2 of this series, Who’s Who at Deir el-Medina, Village Life in Ancient Egypt: Laundry Lists and Love Songs, and The Workmen at Thebes in the Ramesside Period focused my attention to realize that my love of Egypt is resoundingly based on the Everyday Person (fig. 4). Imagining myself living their lives, using their tools, seeing the ruins in various stages of ruination. To have been part of their creation, to have accepted their presence as ‘part of life’. To take the awesome and consider it the mundane. 

Fig. 4: Three highly recommended books

For me, Egypt has always been the hand-sized tool of unknown use that have been held by human hands over millennium. I think of the people who worked and lived everyday lives. I resonate with them. I imagine holding rocks, wood, metal, brushes, linens, as these far-off, long dead, people once did. My hand just like their hand. Long fingers, or short stubby ones, hands soft or roughened by worked, calloused and mis-shaped. Hands just like mine. Touch. The one sense that all humans experience. 

While the golden pieces are phenomenal, fashioned, memorializing, artifacts from hands of people who lived so long ago. Those preciously created, preserved and secreted away are wonderful, the stores of items tucked away, hidden from sight, to mark the wealth, status, celebration of life, that were shown to the very few. But speak of a desired life, a dream.

The people of Deir el- Medina lived lives and gave of themselves to create such objects, images, records of thoughts and ideas—for and about people who were primarily untouchable, unseen, and frequently unknown to them. To know that they have names, the people who crafted in this town or oversaw the work. I first wonder if the names we brazenly sound out Sennedjem, Paneb, and Ken, were they used everyday or for formal occasions—what names were called across the tomb’s interior as surrounded by coworkers who then walked home together (fig. 5). Day following day, season by season, year by year, and generation to generation.

Fig. 5: Painting from the tomb of Pashedu (TT 3)

Over the years of work, a father who would bring their child into the progressing tomb to point out their first season as a craftsman, places that they remember creating jokes and the stories accumulated on the walls, records of the lives being lived at those times, all the people who lived, contributed, and now remain as memories affixed to the walls and items created. Not only the stories and meanings attached to the murals and statues or objects, but the stories behind those familiar and prescribed words and ideas. The place along the wall that marks when a father met a woman who would become the child’s mother, stories of relatives who all worked in that same room. Decades and years after their voices rang out resonating off the walls. The words and experiences of the people that were painted, carved, crafted into place as the underlying real story of Egypt (fig. 6). A whole collective community, living and working together to create a monument to last forever. Each brushstroke, paint, cloth, or hand belonging to someone who lived. Then and there. 

Fig. 6: Sennedjem and Iyneferti in the Fields of Reeds

Then thousands of years later a story being told, the experience of those rooms, paintings, statues, and walkways being seen and experienced again by my Grandmother who came home to tell me not only the stories of the tombs, the artistry, the history, the experiences she had but, too, that she was coming back and telling me—the same way a father told his child—of their experience of creation and being surrounded by objects that had existed for so long. Those images as alive today to me as they were to everyone who worked, visited, explored, and then view them up to this day. A rare experience of time travel!

*Actual Report Card quote

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