The village of Deir el-Medina

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Deir el-Medina is one of the best preserved ancient settlements in the whole of Egypt. It is situated in a small secluded valley in the shadow of the Theban hills,
on the west bank of the Nile, across from modern-day Luxor in Upper Egypt.

The village was inhabited by the community of workmen involved in the  construction and decoration of the royal tombs in both the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Together with their wives and families the  workmen occupied the neatly constructed houses of mud brick and stone for some 450 years during Egypt's New Kingdom.

The settlement was founded sometime early in the 18th dynasty, although by which king remains uncertain. Many bricks in the settlement's enclosure wall were stamped with the name of Thutmosis I (around 1524-1518 BC), who was the 1st pharaoh to be buried in the Valley of the Kings. However the reverence given to the previous king, Amenhotep I (1551-1524 BC) and his mother, Ahmose-Nefertari, indicates that they might have been instrumental in setting up the royal workforce at Deir el-Medina.

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We have little information on the earliest years of the community. Most of our knowledge about the settlement is drawn from the extensive evidence dating to the 19th and 20th dynasties, when the village almost doubled in size. The first workforce was probably drawn from a number of places, possibly from other crews in the Theban area employed on temple building projects. The original town was enclosed within a thick mud-brick wall. As the first phase of the settlement's buildings from the beginning of the 18th dynasty was destroyed by fire, little is known about the layout of it. After the Amarna period, under the restoration of the king Horemheb (about 1321-1293 BC), the village expanded. The damaged houses were restored and new ones were built. During the 19th dynasty Deir el-Medina occupied an area some 132 metres long and 50 metres wide. The houses within the enclosure wall were all built in blocks - no space was left between them and two adjoining houses shared a wall.

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Although the village was occupied for over four centuries, the evidence from excavations shows that the general plan of individual houses mostly follows the pattern established in the first phase of the construction of the settlement during the 18th dynasty.

Also the ground level remained unchanged, which differs from other settlements, where successive generations built upon the remains of previous occupations.

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The village itself consisted of about 70 houses. They were divided by a main street. It ran from north to south with narrow houses on both sides of it. Archaeological excavation suggested that this street was covered over, making the village one solid roofed community. Both the floors of the houses and the central street were found to be covered with layers of accumulated and well-trodden animal droppings of goats, sheep and pigs

(Hobson, 1997, p. 117).

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In the workmen's village the house tenure was more strictly controlled - properties usually passed from father to son along with their trades and professions. Restricted by the village limits, occupants of the houses were not able to increase the size of their dwellings, as often happened in other places. Some forty to fifty houses were later built outside the enclosure wall to the north among or over earlier tombs.  

The community reached the highest numbers and greatest prosperity towards the end of the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1212 BC). From the end of the reign of Ramesses XI (1098-1070 BC), the Theban area was in turmoil and the tombs in the Valley of the Kings began to be plundered. Both the archaeological and textual evidence suggest that not later than by the early 21st dynasty, around the years 17-18 of Ramesses XI, the community of workmen had left  Deir el-Medina and moved inside the walls of the nearby temple at Medinet Habu.

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Dhutmose, scribe of the tomb, wrote to Hor, the deputy of the estate of Amun-Ra, on his visit to Thebes:

"We heard that you have arrived and reached the town of Ne; may Amun give you a good reception, may he do you all good things. We are dwelling here in the Mansion and you know thoroughly our way of dwelling. But the boys of the Tomb have gone. They dwell in Ne, while I am dwelling here alone with the scribe of the army Penthonakhte."

The mortuary temple of Ramesses III (1182-1151 BC) at Medinet Habu

as seen from the western slopes of Theban hills above Deir el-Medina

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Although the former inhabitants no longer lived in the village, they used to return to visit the family tombs and to worship at their temple of Amenhotep I. The abandoned houses were used for storage until they decayed beyond their usefulness. It is not clear what happened to the villagers after this period, but the site of Deir el-Medina continued to be used extensively for both religious and mortuary purposes until as late as the 8th century AD.

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In the 3rd century BC Ptolemy IV Philopater built a temple dedicated to Hathor and Maat at the northern side of the former village, on the site of the earlier chapels and shrines and opposite the small temple of Amun. During Christian era the temple was converted into a Coptic church. A monastery, or deir, was established there. Deir el-Medina thus survived its shift in function from a primarily
habitational to a sacred and mortuary site.

The settlement's ancient name,  "St-maat-Hr-imnty-Wast", means  "The Place of Truth, to the West of Thebes".  The ancient villagers used to refer to their settlement as "pa-demi",  "the town". The modern Arabic name Deir el-Medina, means "The Convent of the Town", is reflecting the fact, that during the Muslim conquest of Egypt, the village's Ptolemaic temple had been converted into a Christian church.

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"Wast" inscription from the walls of the Ptolemaic temple at
Deir el-Medina

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The term "st-maat", usually translated as "the Place of Truth", repeatedly appears in tomb inscriptions and on funerary objects like stelae, coffins, shabtis, statues, pyramidions, on door-lintels and door jambs and also on wide variety of small objects, originating from the Theban necropolis, and in particular the region of Deir el-Medina. The lesser number of objects came from other Theban locations, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, Ramesseum, Medinet Habu, Qurna and Dra abu al-Naga. A vast group of titles, demoting employees "in the Place of Truth" has been identified in the documents of the 19th and 20th dynasties.

"st-maat" from an
inscription on
Bankes stela no. 11
Kingston Lacy

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The earliest example of the expression "st-maat" is in chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead, which originated during the dynasties 13-17 (2nd Intermediate Period, about 1782-1633 BC). It reads "I have not committed sins in the Place of Truth". The term can generally be applied to any place or locality, which is sacred or holy ground. It was not only used within the locality of Thebes. There are examples of the term being used at Memphis, Amarna or Abydos. The term cannot be translated with a single expression as it has not got a single meaning. Depending on the context, the meaning of "st-maat" covers the beyond, the cemetery, a tomb, the king's tomb or even a workshop (in Western Thebes). In Theban documents, "st-maat" was used with the addition of "hr-imnty-Wast", meaning "to the West of Weset" (Weset being the ancient Egyptian name for Thebes, modern Luxor). Inscriptions can be found in both hieroglyphic and hieratic writings.

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Excavations of Deir el-Medina

Throughout the 19th century objects were pillaged from the area of Deir el-Medina to supply the new antiquities market awakened by foreign travellers visiting the ancient sites. The first antiquities gathered by the locals around Deir el-Medina site were sold to the passing tourists in 1815. Among them was Sir William Bankes. The collection of pieces he bought at this early stage can be seen at his Dorset family home at Kingston Lacy. Giovanni Belzoni collected antiquities for the British Consul-General Henry Salt at the same time as his rival, the French Consul-General Bernardino Drovetti, was bidding against him.

Their collections were later distributed mainly between the British Museum in London and the Museo Egizio in Turin.

John Gardner Wilkinson (1797–1875), an English traveller, writer and pioneer Egyptologist, was the first one to excavate the area. In order to record the remarkable information the tombs held, he opened several tombs there. Karl Richard Lepsius (1810–1884), a pioneering Prussian Egyptologist and linguist, also copied tomb scenes at Deir el-Medina. This inevitably let to attention being drawn to the potential riches and illicit digging followed (Hobson, 1991, p. 116-118). In the 1850s an archive of papyri was dug up from the family tomb of Butehamun. It included letters from his father, the scribe Djutmose, to Butehamun and the correspondence of Piankh (around 1074-1070 BC), sent from Nubia where he was with the army. Several other papyri, most probably from the same source, came on to the market at the time and were bought by European travellers.

Eventually the papyri and many other objects, made their way into the storerooms of numerous museums to await future scholars. Most of these discoveries were made by local people. Huge amounts of information were lost due to their haphazard digging.
In January 1886 permission was granted to a local Qurna resident, Salam Abu Duji, along with his 3 associates, to excavate at Deir el-Medina. Their attention was focused not on the settlement area, but on the adjacent terraced hill to the west - the location of the tombs. After the first week of digging they found an undisturbed tomb -the tomb of Sennedjem (Burzacott,2017,17-18).

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The Northern part of the valley was excavated to the virgin ground. Among the most significant finds was the intact 18th dynasty tomb of the foreman Kha and his wife Meryt. Between 1909-1912, Émile Baraize was employed by the Egyptian Antiquities Service to carry out work on the Ptolemaic temple. In 1912 he excavated a small chapel situated within the northwest part of the enclosure wall of the main Ptolemaic temple (Bomann, 1991, 39).

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From 1905 to 1909 the first scientific excavation of the site was undertaken by the Italian archaeologist Ernesto Schiaparelli.
During 1906 he excavated the chapel of Seti I. (Bomann, 1991, 39). Many objects, including papyri and ostraka, considerably enriched the collections at the Museo Egizio in Turin and the Museo Archeologico in Florence.
Turin had already acquired a large number of objects through the early 19th century collector and dealer Bernardino Drovetti.

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In 1913, Georg Möller, a German palaeographer, lead a dig at four locations within settlement, as part of the Berlin Museum season at Deir el-Medina, which was granted to
them as part of a large concession in Western Thebes. Among his finds were: 11 houses with their contents, 160 hieratic and 70 figured ostraka, 10-13 tombs in the  western cemetery and 4 children's graves in the eastern cemetery (McDowell, 1999, 25).

The German concession at Deir el-Medina was transferred to the French after the 1st World War. The French began working at Deir el-Medina in 1917. In 1922 the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo under direction of Bernard Bruyère started a project of systematic excavation of the entire site - village, cemetery and pit. The Great Pit, used in ancient times as a town dump, was Bruyère's most rewarding discovery. It contained thousands of both literary and nonliterary ostraka. Bruyère also uncovered thirty-two religious structures (Bomann, 1991, 39). In 1925 Bruyère was looking for an epigrapher for his excavations. Jaroslav Černý, a Czech Egyptologist, became a member of the team. He was the world's leading authority on several aspects of the Ramesside period, especially the hieratic script, a cursive form of writing used on papyri and ostraka.

Excavation Diaries of Bernard Bruyère from Deir el-Medina, 1922-1955, are now available on-line at
http://www.ifao.egnet.net/bases/archives/bruyere/about

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In 1967 the IFAO gave permission to Georges Castel to continue excavations at Deir el-Medina. Although carrying on to complete Baraize's, Schiaparelli's and Bruyère's work, he mainly focused onexcavations of Gurnet Mura'i to its north and south. Excavations by the French mission are still on going today (Brooker, 2009, 8). Domonique Valbelle and Charles Bonnet re-investigated the site to better understand the construction phases.
A world-wide group of scholars continues to study a wide range of topics relating to all matters concerning Deir el-Medina.
The research group, called "Workmen's huts in the Theban mountains", started work at the site of the workmen's huts in 2008. They will work for four field seasons, each consisting of three months.


The IFAO Excavations at Deir el-Medina, Cédric Gobeil's thorough examination of the archive kept in the Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO), published on Oxford Handbooks online, details the history of the archaeological excavations and other field activities conducted by the Institute at the site of Deir el-Medina since the early 20th century.   
A free PDF version can be read at
http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935413.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199935413-e-32?rskey=vK0AHG&result=1

All the photos accompanying the "History of excavation" come from the area in the southeast corner of the main Ptolemaic temple enclosure.

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The text on this page was written by Lenka Peacock
Photography © Lenka and Andy Peacock

Aerial view of Deir el-Medina

This wonderful photo of Deir el-Medina was taken by Warwick Barnard from Sydney, Australia, during his balloon trip over the Theban West bank in the early hours of January 17th 2007. Very little has changed since. The aerial view is an ideal tool for  understanding the layout of the site as seen from the East towards the West, where the sacred mountain of al-Qurn rises up. Please use the legend below to guide you around and the links for more detailed information and closer views of individual parts of the settlement.

Photography © Warwick Barnard 2007

A - The settlement
B - The Ptolemaic temple of Hathor and Ma'at
C - The Western necropolis
D - The Eastern necropolis
E - The great pit
F - The chapel of Hathor of Seti I
G - The temple of Amenhotep I
H - The temple of Amun of Ramesses II
I - The French dig house
J - Towards the rock shrine of Ptah and Meretseger
K - Sennedjem's house
L - The ancient path to the Valley of the Kings and to the stone huts at the top of the cliffs
M - Modern car park
N - The tourist rest house & bookstall

Western necropolis tombs:
TT1 - Sennedjem's tomb
TT2 - Khabekhenet's tomb
TT3 - Pashedu's tomb
TT5 - Neferabu's tomb
TT8 - Kha's tomb

TT212 - Ramose

TT218-220

TT290 - Irynefer
TT291 - Nakhtmin and Nu's tomb

TT338 - May
TT1159 - Sennefer's tomb

 

Sources:
1.Reeves, Nicholas: The complete Valley of the Kings : tombs and treasure of Egypt's greatest pharaohs.
London : Thames and Hudson, 1996.
2.David, A. Rosalie: The pyramid builders of ancient Egypt : a modern investigation of Pharaoh's workforce.
London : Routledge, 1986.
3. Černý, Jaroslav: Egypt from the death of Ramesses III to the end of the 21st dynasty.
Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1965.
4. Pharaoh's workers : the villagers of Deir el-Medina / edited by Leonard H. Lesko
Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1994.
5. Clayton, Peter A.: Chronicles of the Pharaohs : the reign-by-reign record of the rulers and dynasties of ancient Egypt
London : Thames & Hudson, 1994.
6. James, T.G.H.: Pharaoh's people : scenes from life in Imperial Egypt
New York : Tauris Parke, 2003.
7. Strudwick, Nigel and Helen: Thebes in Egypt : a guide to the tombs and temples of ancient Luxor
London : British Museum Press, 1999.
8. Montserrat, Dominic and Meskell, Lynn: Mortuary archaeology and religious landscape at Graeco- Roman Deir el-Medina.

IN: JEA 83, p. 179-197.
9. Romer, John: Ancient lives : the story of the Pharaoh's tombmakers
London : Phoenix, 1984.
10. McDowell, A.G.: Village life in ancient Egypt : laundry lists and love songs
Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1999.
11. Černý, Jaroslav: A community of workmen at Thebes in the Ramesside period
Cairo : Institut Francais d'archeologie Orientale du Caire, 1973.
12. Ventura, Raphael: Living in a city of the dead : a selection of topographical and administrative terms in the documents of the Theban necropolis
Freiburg (Schweiz) : Universitatsverlag, 1986.
13. Bomann, Ann H.: The private chapel in ancient Egypt : a study of the chapels in the workmen's village at el Amarna with special reference to Deir el-Medina and other sites.
London : Kegan Paul International, 1991.
14. Théby : město bohů a faraónů = Thebes : city of gods and pharaohs / Jana Mynářová & Pavel Onderka (eds.)
Praha : Národní Museum, 2007.
15. Brooker, M. L.: A new approach of identifying the function of the elevated beds at Deir el- Medina. A thesis: The University of Birmingham, Master of Philosophy.
Birmingham : University of Birmingham, June 2009. 196 p.
16. Hobson, Christine: Exploring the world of the pharaohs
London : Thames and Hudson, 1990.
17. Burzacott, Jeff: The Tomb of Sennedjem discovered IN : Nile Magazine, no. 11, December 2017 - January 2018, pp. 17-21.
18. http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935413.001.0001/oxfordhb-
9780199935413-e-32?rskey=vK0AHG&result=1