The Great Pit
North of the Ptolemaic temple, just before the opening of the valley, lies the second largest feature of Deir el-Medina (the first largest being the Ptolemaic temple) : an enormous pit measuring over 50 metres deep and 30 metres wide. It is generally thought that the ancient inhabitants of Deir el-Medina attempted to dig a well here in search of a convenient supply of water. The search was not successful, the water-table of the Nile being much lower than it was possible to dig and so water had to continue being transported by donkeys from the agricultural land several hundred meters away.
Although the river now flows at a considerable distance from the settlement, it has altered its course several times since antiquity. Napoleon's cartographers at the end of the 18th century, mapped the main course as being much closer to the western hills than it is at present.
In ancient times water points were established at places around the settlement, and big pottery containers were provided to hold water. From those points water would be distributed to individual houses within the village.
In modern times the water points still fulfill their function as seen in these pictures taken in February 2007. The image comes from Deir el-Medina itself, the image below comes from the road leading from
Deir el-Medina on the crossroads towards Medinet Habu
and the Valley of the Queens.
When the attempts to find water were finally abandoned the vast hole was used as a rubbish pit and was filled with debris which included hundreds of ostraka. The pit was the richest
source of both hieratic and figured ostraka found in the area of the village.
An excerpt from Jaroslav Černý's lecture held in Cairo on April 4th 1932 (the manuscript of which is held at the Archive of the Ancient Near East and Africa Department, National Museum - Náprstek Museum, Prague, Czech Republic):
"Water represents a great expenditure during the excavations. Deir el-Medina lies completely in the desert - the nearest tree is about a quarter of an hour. The ancient Egyptians had tried to dig a well in the vicinity of the temple of Deir el-Medina, but even at a depth of 60 meters they reached no water. Therefore all water for washing, cooking and drinking has to be transported from the well located down in the plain close to Medinet Habu. The well belongs to our chief workman Hassan Khalif. He gives us water for free, but we must pay the man who pumps it from the well, and the donkeys, who transport it up to our house every day from morning till evening. The expenses for water reach, if I am not mistaken, 30 crowns a day. The lion's share of this sum ends up in the pocket of our reis anyway, as the donkeys belong to him and he pays the man who pumps, and he certainly does not give him all that he charges us for him."
View of the pit looking from east towards west. The chapels north of the enclosure wall of the
Ptolemaic temple are below the cliffs on the left.
View of the pit looking from south towards north standing just outside the chapels situated north of the enclosure wall of the Ptolemaic temple.
During archaeological excavations Bruyère dated the current form of the pit to Ptolemaic times but two documents of the 20th dynasty record successive attempts to dig to the water level from a locations north of the village. Since there are not other very deep holes in this area, those Ramesside attempts must have been made at the same location.
1. Ostrakon DeM 92
Year 15, fourth month of winter, day 12. List of all the work done in the well:
previously 36 1/2 cubits
work subsequently 6 1/2 cubits
2. Papyrus Turin 1923 (+ fragments)
Year 2 (or 3), second month of summer, day 15. This day, the chief builder [...] of the estate of
Amun arrived to measure the well in front of [...] the Necropolis to the water surface (of) the lake of
from the lake to the Enclosure of the Necropolis: elevation [...] cubits
from the Necropolis to the well: 26 cubits 5 palms
total: 60 + X
The difference makes 22 cubits 5 palms to the water surface.
So one shall dig 10 to [...] the water.
Total: 22 cubits 5 palms
A rock-cut staircase spirallin down the walls of the pit gives access to the bottom.
The late Professor of Egyptology Dr. Jaana Toivari-Viitala from University of Helsinki posted a note on the EEF in June 2009 that Guillemette Andreau gave a presentation during the congress in Rhodes in 2008 where she announced, that the IFAO & Louvre were working on texts from the Great Pit.
There are 18 pages with references to the Great Pit within the Archives de Bernard Bruyère that have been digitised by the IFAO and now are accessible at
The text on this page was written by Lenka Peacock
Photography © Lenka and Andy Peacock
1. Pharaoh's workers : the villagers of Deir el-Medina / edited by Leonard H. Lesko
Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1994.
2. James, T.G.H.: Pharaoh's people : scenes from life in Imperial Egypt
New York : Tauris Parke, 2003.
3. Romer, John: Ancient lives : the story of the Pharaoh's tombmakers
London : Phoenix, 1984.
4. McDowell, A.G.: Village life in ancient Egypt : laundry lists and love songs
Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1999.
5. Théby : město bohů a faraónů = Thebes : city of gods and pharaohs / Jana Mynářová & Pavel Onderka (eds.)
Praha : Národní Museum, 2007.