Food and drink at Deir el-Medina
Diet was varied, balanced and nutritious at Deir el-Medina. We have ample information, concerning food and drink, surviving through depictions of food processing and consumption in the funerary art, and in the form of actual food remains from funerary, religious and domestic finds.
The villagers received their food in the form of regular rations as a salary (coinage did not exist before the 26th dynasty in Egypt). The rations consisted mainly of grain, water, beer and oils, and also of firewood, sandals, pottery, ointments, clothing and other items.
The vizier and the superintendent of the royal treasury were responsible for the disbursement of grain to the families at Deir el-Medina. Careful records of the allocations were kept by the village scribe. The "wages" were paid on the last working day of each month.
Monthly rations of emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum) were recorded in dry measure units: 1 khar equalling 76.89 litres.
A foreman received 5 1/2 khar of wheat, an artisan 4 khar, but a scribe received only 2 3/4 khar.
Jac Janssen points out that the scribe worked for both "sides" of the "crew", thus receiving the payment twice, therefore earning the same as a foreman. Similarly a doctor was paid 1 khar of wheat, but Jac Janssen believes this to be a supplement over the regular craftsman's wage, which he received as well.
Emmer wheat was ground on an arrangement of stones known as a saddle quern. Stone-ground flour contained fragments of stone and sand grains, which had a detrimental effect on the teeth, judging from the skeletal remains from the village tombs. The flour was used to make bread and cakes.
Although yeast was known at the time, bread was generally unleavened. It was either baked in an oven or in the embers of a fire. Numerous types of loaf were produced. Some of these were shaped by hand, some were made in moulds. Bread moulds are common types of pottery found at Deir el-Medina. The ancient Egyptian language had many different words for bread and cakes.
Barley (Hordeum vulgare) was used to make bread and beer, the two staples of the Egyptian diet.
A workman received 1 1/2 khar of barley, captains were allocated 2 khar of barley each month.
The basic ingredients for making beer were water and partly baked barley bread. Sieved together, the resulting mixture was left to ferment. It could be sweetened with honey, which would have accelerated the fermentation process. The final product could have been enhanced with various flavourings, including fruits and herbs. Beer must have been a thick, soupy liquid, which, although not always strongly alcoholic, was of nutritious value, for which it was also given to children.
Ostrakon Cairo 25608
The rations distributed for the second month of summer /a:
The chief workman 2 sacks (barley) 5 ½ sacks (emmer)
The scribe 2 5 ½
17 men, each makes 1 ½ 4 that is 25 ½ + 68
2 young men, each amounts to ½ 1 ½ that is 1 + 3
The guardian 1 ½ 3 ¼
The maidservants /b 1 ½ 1 ¼
The doorkeeper ½ 1
The doctor /c ¼ 1
Total /d 32 ½ 84 ¾
(Translation from McDowell, 1999, p. 233)
a/ Deliveries for the Left side only
b/ This is the total for all slave women
c/ The doctor was also a regular member of the crew, so this is likely an extra pay he received
d/ In reality, the total is: 34 ¼ and 88 ½ . To be considered: Was this scribe bad at maths? Or
did he cheat on purpose and keep the rest of the grain for himself? (There are other instances
where the total written is lower than the real sum.)
Water was delivered daily to Deir el-Medina by the water carriers. It was measured in khar like grain. It was used for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene (laundry was done by "laundry men" in the river).
Consumption: 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 khar a day per household (about 6 people) = 16-19 litres a day per person.
To read more about the Great Pit click here.
Ostracon DeM 60 (in the French Institute in Cairo)
What Neferhotep said, in the 3rd winter month, day 22
(Note: this is the 19th Dynasty):
Water deficit for the Left side:
Prehotep 1 ½ sack
Nebamente 1 ½ sack
Khabekhent 1 sack
The watchman ¼ sack
The servant woman Saroy ½ sack
Total of the Left side 4 ¾ sack
Beans and lentils, garlic, lettuce, leek and cucumber were among the most regular supplies of vegetables.
Various fruits, such as dates, figs, grapes, pomegranates, melons, dom-palm nuts, more rarely apples, olives and almonds,
were available to the inhabitants of Deir el-Medina. Apart from consumption of raw fruits, grapes were also used for making wine, a prestigious drink. After picking, grapes were pressed, either in a cloth twisted between poles or by trampling with
the feet. The juice was poured into vats to ferment, and finally decanted into pottery vessels where it was left to age. The shoulder of a jar was usually inscribed with details of the liquid inside, sometimes including the variety, vineyard, date, production manager or the owner.
Other alcoholic drinks were also made from fermented dates, figs and pomegranates.
Dates and figs are an excellent source of energy. They were used in many desserts. The villagers
consumed fruit from a regular date palm, and also from sycamore trees, which gave smaller and yellower dates. Dom palm (Hyphaene thebaica) gives fruit looking like small pomegranate.
The nut inside contains sweet oil.
Fish formed an important element of the villagers' diet. It was served as a substitute for the more costly meat. Fish were abundant in the Nile. The most common types were mullet and tilapia. At Deir el-Medina fishermen were employed to provide some of the rations for the villagers. Each side of the crew was getting about 250 kg of fish every month. Fish were salted for preservation, or baked or roasted.
At Deir el-Medina meat was not eaten daily. It was considered a treat. It was usually provided in the form of complete cattle from the temple stock-yards, or simply as individual portions. Oxen, hares, gazelles and other wild animals would have been eaten and they were used as a source of fat.
Cows, goats, sheep and asses were kept in order to provide milk. Ducks and hens were kept for eggs and meat.
Honey was obtained from both wild and domestic bees. It was used to transform bread into cakes and to sweeten beer. Confectioners were employed at Deir el-Medina to prepare honey cakes for the workmen.
Salt, cinnamon, celeriac herb, juniper berries, cumin.
Ostrakon Cairo 25504
Year 8 of Merenptah. On day 20 of the second month of the inundation season someone came to the workmen to reward the crew.
He gave them as reward:
9000 loaves of bread
20 menet-jars of sesame oil
9000 [...] fish
20 sacks of salt and 600 blocks of natron
6 sacks of malt [...]
3 sacks of beans
[...] of kdy-beer
(Translation from McDowell, 1999, p. 225)
Ostrakon DeM 46 (in the French Institute in Cairo)
Mentions the delivery of the following articles on a particular day:
9 more received a few days later, which are said to be shared out
The next month there came
5 head of cattle: 4 for the crew and 1 for the three leaders, the chief workmen and the scribe
That day also
280 fish received
Ostrakon Stockholm MM 14126
(water delivery, probably for one day)
[House of] Nebamente ¼ sack
House of Amenakhte, son of Dgdy ½ sack
House of Mose ½ sack
House of Pashedu, son of Harmose ½ sack
House of Karo ½ sack
[House of Pashedu], son of Hehnakht ¼ sack
[House of] … ¼ sack
[House of] … son of Sibe ½ sack
Ostrakon P2027 (Náprstek Museum, Prague)
"Said by Ta-khenty-shepse to her sister Iyt. In life, prosperity and health! Furthermore, to theeffect that: I will send this grain to you and you should have it ground for me and add emmer to itand make it into bread for me, because I am quarrelling with Mery-Ma'at. "(I will) throw you out,"so he says, when he quarrels with my mother enquiring after grain for bread. "Now, your motherdoes not do anything for you," so he says to me, saying "now, you have siblings, but they do not lookafter you!" So he says, arguing with me daily: "Now look, this is what you have done to me since Ihave lived here, although everyone supplies beer and fish daily (to) their people. In short, if yousay something, you will go down to the Black Land (the cultivation)". It is good if you attend".
(Translation from McDowell, 1999, p. 42)
Ostrakon Berlin 11238
The Mayor of West Thebes Ramose informs the two chief workmen and their crews that he has received a message from the Vizier Paser, saying:
Please let the wages be delivered to the crewof the necropolis, consisting of:vegetables, fish, firewood, beer in small vessels,small cattle and milk.Let nothing of it be postponed, so that I wouldbe in arrears with their wages.Be at it and pay heed!
Ostrakon Gardiner 59 (in Oxford)
Written by the workmen to a Vizier:To let our Lord (the Vizier) know:As regards the vegetables, oil, fish, our garments,our ointment and our grain rations,our Lord himself (Pharaoh) has providedus with these means of subsistence.
And finally, try this...
1 large courgette and 2 large leeks, finely sliced, put in a deep frying pan with a small amount of olive oil.
The pan needs to be covered with a lid. Cook the vegetables gently for 15 minutes. In a bowl mix pieces of pitta bread with pine nuts and soak them in milk. Beat 3 eggs and add salt and herbs. Once the vegetables are soft, fold the bread and nuts in. Transfer the mixture into a baking tray and pour the seasoned eggs over. Cook the eggah in the oven at 200 oC for 30 minutes. Once brown on the surface, remove it carefully from the tray and set it aside to cool. Cut into wedges.
All ingredients would have been available in Pharaonic Egypt:
vegetables were grown on a large scale (Nunn, 1996, p. 13)
bread was a staple of Egyptian diet and was made from emmer-wheat (Shaw, 1995, p. 101)
olive oil was pressed from olives
eggs came from domestic hens and were also collected from wildfowl (Shaw, 1995, p. 102)
milk would have come from cows, goats, sheep or asses (Nunn,1996, p.14-16)
pine oil and nuts were used in cooking.
Choose organically grown and produced ingredients to come as close as possible in the taste to the
meal that could have been served by Wia to her Ramose in ancient Deir el-Medina.
The text on this page was written by Lenka Peacock
Photography © Lenka and Andy Peacock
1. Berriedale-Johnson, Michelle: Food fit for Pharaohs : an ancient Egyptian cookbook
London : British Museum Press, 1999.
2. Nunn, John F.: Ancient Egyptian medicine
London : British Museum Press, 1996.
3. Shaw, Ian: British Museum dictionary of ancient Egypt
London : British Museum Press, 1995.
4. Strouhal, Evzen: Life of the ancient Egyptians
Liverpool : Liverpool University Press, 1997.
5. McDowell, A.G.: Village life in ancient Egypt : laundry lists and love songs
Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1999.
6. http://www.webkatalog.sk/egypt/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=26&Itemid=32 (no longer exists)