The workmen's huts

The workmen from Deir el-Medina worked
throughout the year, in the hot summer as well as winter. The working week consisted of 8 working days, with days of rest on the 9th and 10th day. The Egyptian month consisted of three periods of 10 days each. Frequently the workers seem to have taken longer weekends of three-days. Apart from these free days, the workforce often had time off to celebrate the festivals of the principal gods. These would usually stretch over several consecutive days. The working day consisted of two shifts of about four hours each, with a break at midday for lunch (Bierbrier,1982,52-53).
Deir el-Medina and the emerald green fields in the Nile Valley as seen from the footpath connecting the village with the stone huts.


The path between the settlement of Deir el-Medina and the Valley of the Kings is the same ancient path the artisans used on their way to work 3,500 years ago.

The play of shadows on the Theban cliffs in the late afternoon.


None of the paths are difficult but sometimes the edge of the cliff does come rather close.

The workmen were mainly employed in the Valley of the Kings preparing the pharaoh's tomb or in the Valley of the Queens, preparing the tombs of the king's wives although they would also work in other parts of the Theban necropolis preparing the tombs of those high officials to whom the pharaoh lent his workforce as a mark of his favour. In between their working days, the men spent their nights in the Valley of the Kings or in its close proximity in simple huts.


Towards the west the view of the Valley of the Kings and the surrounding desert is magnificent...


...and the view towards east - the view of the Nile Valley - is breathtaking.

" It is impossible to imagine a contrast more striking than that presented by the two scenes that we had before or eyes: on one side solitude, aridity, desolation and death; on the other temples, palaces and beautiful river, vegetation, cultivated fields, herds, people, and all the  movement of living nature."
The remarkable view as described by M. Costaz, a member of the Commission des arts et des sciences, who arrived in Egypt with Napoleon's
army in July of 1798. (Roehrig,2001,10)


Without any doubt, the ancient artisans used to sit at the top of the cliffs near their huts and admire the views. On clear days it is possible to
see as far as 40 kilometers to the Red Sea Hills in the east.

There were two main groups of huts at the top of the cliffs - the east and the west huts - divided by the path into four clusters. The huts were originally excavated by Bernard Bruyère in 1935.


Each hut had two rooms, an inner, possibly sleeping, chamber and an antechamber with stone seats along its wall.

It has been noted that the construction style of the huts is consistent with the style of the main settlement at Deir el-Medina. The evidence of skilled stone cutting and the same technique of setting structures low in the ground with shared walls to regulate the
temperature is present throughout both sites (Meskell,2000,266).


The exact purpose of the stone huts is not known. As well the obvious time saving aspect of overnight stays, saving half an hour    or so of travel back down to the village and the same in the morning while constructing and decorating a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, the workmen could have set up small workshops here in which they made shabtis and stone stelae. The past excavations
revealed that the rooms contained artisan's tools and pottery (Meskell,2000,266).


The stone huts were not only used by the tomb workers alone, they were also used by door-keepers, guardians and possibly medjay (police).

There is ample evidence that there were two door-keepers of the tomb. Each door-keeper was assigned to one of the two sides

of the crew. An early 19th dynasty hieratic ostrakon (O. Černý 17, 2-6) tells us that "there was not any door-keeper here except Psarpot, for Sanehem slept --- and the door-keeper Sunero came [only] at noon". Therefore at some points there must have been three door-keepers. It has been suggested that the western huts were occupied by door-keepers.

The guardians of the tomb were not members of the crew of workmen, but were closely connected with them. They guarded the materials and tools used in the work in the tomb and they issued them to the workmen when required. This was done in the presence of the foremen and the scribe, who took note of the event. They also might exchange a blunt tool for a new, sharp one (Černý,1973,160).

A guard, or a police post, may have been present in the northern cluster, used by the medjay attached to the community.

This police force was required for the security of the tombs in the royal necropolis in the Valley of the Kings and Queens, and

to ensure both the safety and good conduct of the people working there. In the Old and Middle Kingdoms the medjay were Nubian nomads, but during the 19th and 20th dynasties, they were nearly completely Egyptianized. They formed part of the Medjay of the Thebes-West who were under the command of the "mayor of Thebes-West". Ostraka and papyri concerned with
the workmen of the tomb repeatedly give number of eight policemen of the tomb (Černý,1973,261-263).


Up to 2009 there was no evidence of fireplaces, food preparation or bulk storage of water anywhere in and around the huts, implying that they were not occupied permanently. This is consistent with the textual evidence we have about the supplies of food and tools - they were
provided from the main settlement (Meskell,2000,266).

During the 2nd and 3rd dig seasons in 2009/2010 the Finnish team under the leadership of late Jaana Toivari-Viitala found important new evidence  in the form of a number
of fireplaces - both inside the rooms, as well as outside! The evidence was found in both the
North and the Eastern clusters.


The seats were made of blocks of limestone. They were U-shaped as if imitating the wooden seats of the furniture in the village houses.

Kenherkhepshef, who held the office of scribe beginning at least in year 40 of Ramesses II and continuing down to year 1 of Siptah (around years 1239-1193 BC), inhabited the largest, most centrally placed hut in the settlement. Unlike the other huts, it had three
rooms. Each room was paved with slabs of limestone.

It could have been used as Kenherkhepshef's
office, where he compiled the records of the work
at the royal tomb and wrote his letters to the officers of the administration.


Another mark or sign was found on the path between Deir el-Medina and the huts.


In the most southern cluster of the huts we found
this sign or inscription, the detail of which is shown below. Similar marks are found on some 18th dynasty ostraka. Perhaps this is a name of a
workman or an ownership mark.


"Identity marks and their relation to writing in New Kingdom Egypt" is a PhD research programme, planned for May 2011 - August 2015, at University of Leiden under leadership of Dr. Ben Haring. The objectives of the research are to explain the shapes and nature of the marks themselves, and their affinity with writing and to assess precisely how the marks were used in the workmen’s community – in addition to writing.

The rich and varied textual documentation (ostraka and papyri) from the Deir el-Medina community helps us understand the semantic problem of translating the words for huts and houses. It has become standard to translate the word '.t as "hut", a place outside the village walls, whereas the pr was the "house", the official residence within these walls. (Demarée,2006,57)
Andrea McDowell remarked that "...when a workman entered the service of the necropolis he was assigned a group of buildings as his official property; this group, sometimes called the swt or "places", consisted of a house in the village (pr), a hut near the Valley of the Kings ('.t), a tomb (m'h't) and a hnw. She also concluded that "... to possess a house in the village with its corresponding out-buildings was part and parcel of being a member of the gang. This official property belonged to the state, and it could not be alienated or shared".
Jac Janssen and Pieter Pestman concluded that "it seems that at Deir el-Medina a building erected by the owner himself remains his personal property (O. Petrie 61), and is usually heritable, while the pr belongs to the crew (O. Petrie 61, 6-7), (Janssen/Pestman,1968,160).


Conclusions drawn by Robert Demarée, following observations emerging from the collection of all available
data from the texts from Deir el-Medina, are as follows:

  • the word pr always refers to a dwelling house, a home (or even a household) inside the village,
    clearly the '.t is a structure or building outside the village proper

  • an '.t is a place where work is done

  • the workmen could stay or sleep in an/their '.t, also when they were ill

  • objects could be stored or hidden in a '.t. There could be enough space inside for storing a big
    object like a coffin

  • a private stela erected in an '.t identified its owner, and could be used against claims by fellow
    workmen or others (below)

  • an '.t could be inherited and be part of a transaction or exchange deal



Dispute over a hut
From Deir el-Medina
Mid 20th dynasty, Ramesses III
Fragmentary limestone ostrakon with a hieratic inscription recording the resolution of a dispute over a hut inherited by the workman Wennofer. The writer of the text, Wennofer, claims ownership of his father's hut, which at the time was being lived in by another workman, who also claimed rights to it. They both went to see the chief workman Khonsu and his deputy to settle their dispute. It was decided that Wennofer had the right to the hut but that he should compensate the other party for any improvements made while he lived there. There follows a list of items made in payment.
The inscription is not written in ink. It is unusual in being cut into the limestone and filled with blue frit, a technique used for formal hieroglyphic inscriptions. Andrea McDowell suggests that perhaps Wennofer set this ostrakon into a wall of the disputed hut like a stele to make his claim to the building widely known.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Inv. no. ANAsh.H.O.655
Gift of Sir Alan Gardiner


[Reporting by] the workman Wen-nefer (and)
the work[man...saying] there be given to me
the hut (of) my father [...] in the presence of:
the chief workman Khonsu
the deputy [...]
[...] And they said to me, "Give him grain
[...for the construction] that he made in it."
List of the silver [given to him...]
box: 2 deben, 3 oipe of it belonging to me
[...from his?] wood
And I made for him a staff [...from?] his wood
and [...] hen-box, X deben [...]

(Translation from McDowell,1999,180)

There are many rock graffiti to be found on rock surfaces around the immediate area of the stone huts.

The majority of the textual graffiti dates back to the
19th and 20th dynasties, when the number of workmen
at Deir el-Medina increased. It is likely that most of them were literate to certain extent and perhaps their movement around the necropolis was more relaxed.
The inscriptions are spread over large areas of rock surface but are sometimes found in small clusters
We found several textual graffiti along the lower reaches of the rock spur on the east face of el-Qurn by the most southern stone structure, that could have functioned as a watch for the guards.


The archaeological evidence indicates that the huts were abandoned not later than by the early 21st dynasty, around the years 17-18 of Ramesses XI, when the community of workmen had left Deir el-Medina and
moved to the safety of Medinet Habu's walls. The decline suggests that the stone huts and the cliffs surrounding them were only rarely visited during those troubled
times (Peden,2000,289).


It is not only the textual evidence that so richly documents the past of the site. The area around the huts and, as a matter of fact, the entire ground at the top of the cliffs in the Theban hills, is scattered with thirty-million-year-old fossilised clamshells.

Some small, some as big as a fist. They are reminders
of the times when the area lay beneath the sea


Photography © 2007 Warwick Barnard

The area opposite the Ptah's shrine where traces of small stone huts of Ramesside date have been found.

Remains of these huts have been excavated and investigated at the bottom of the Valley of the Kings.


“From our modern perspective, it is upsetting to see how the village was first excavated and then left to be destroyed. Passers-by have used the huts as dumps and rest rooms,” said Jaana Toivari-Viitala.
“Fortunately, while we still have some surface cleaning to do, documentation and conservation are off to a good start. Comparing the names found in the village and in Deir-el-Medina provides useful information. Judging from the construction methods, settlement in the village can be divided into two separate periods: the initial settlement and a later one.”

The team worked at the site during three further field seasons, each consisting of three months. The research group, called "Workmen's huts in the Theban mountains", returned to the site in October 2009.


Recently I discovered an intriguing image on the Brooklyn Museum flickr site. The image is a part of the Brooklyn Museum's lantern slide collection (a lantern slide is a transparent image on glass that could be projected, in magnified form, onto a surface using a "magic lantern," or sciopticon). During the 2nd half of the 19th century this technology expanded the uses of photography, allowing photographic images to be viewed by a large audience. This view of the site of the Temples at Deir-el-Bahari taken from the top of al-Qurn caught the stone huts in the middle of the image. Unfortunately this slide is undated, but there are around 100 years in between the black & white slide on the left and the colourful digital photograph on the right. The older image is property of the Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn Museum Archives (S10|08 Deir-El-Bahari, image 9931).


© Brooklyn Museum Archive


Photography © 2007 Andy Peacock

Photography © Lenka and Andy Peacock, Philippa Robins, Warwick Barnard and the Brooklyn Museum Archive

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