During the period known as the New Kingdom (1539–1075 B.C.E.), Egypts southern capital city of Thebes developed into one of the great urban centers of the ancient world. The massive temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor were built during this time, and the two monuments still dominate the east bank of the Nile in the modern city, now called Luxor. The nearby Valley of the Kings, on the west bank of the Nile, contains some 60 tombs, including that of the pharaoh Tutankhamen. Hundreds of private tombs, some of them magnificently painted, also dot the landscape along the base of the cliffs on the Nile's west bank.
Although some of the paintings in the private monuments preserve tantalizing pictures of the luxurious life of the nobility, on the whole, the remaining temples and tombs tell us more about religious experience and beliefs concerning the afterworld than about the experiences of the living. Daily life is less well documented because, unlike the stone monuments we see today, the majority of homes, which were made of sun-dried brick, have succumbed to the damp of the flloodplain, along with the furnishings and any written material that would have documented the lives of the literate few. On the westernmost edge of the sprawling ancient city, however, the remains of one small community escaped the general disintegration. This is the village now called Deir el-Medina, the home of the craftsmen who cut and decorated the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
Lying in an arid and relatively isolated region, the site remains remarkably well preserved: houses and chapels are still standing to a height of up to two meters in some places. Archaeologists in the first half of this century found a wealth of religious monuments and household possessions among the effects, as well as intact tombs containing coffins, furniture and clothing. And across the entire site but especially in the towns garbage dumps, researchers recovered tens of thousands of written documents, most of them dating from the period between 1275 and 1075 B.C.E. Some of the texts are on sheets of papyrus, but most are on shards of pottery or smooth, white fllakes of limestone, known as ostraca, that served as a sort of scrap paper for the community.
These writings bring the villagers to life. In them, one finds government records, love poems and private letters describing family strife, health concerns and legal disputes. The documents also offer some insight into the education system of ancient Egypt--a topic I have investigated at length. The wealth of texts from the site suggests that in some periods of its history, most men in the town could read and write. (Scholars do not know whether many women in Deir el-Medina were literate. Women in the village did exchange letters, but they may have dictated their thoughts to men.) This high literacy rate stands in stark contrast to the situation throughout the rest of ancient Egyptian society, which during the New Kingdom period had a total literacy rate hovering around only 1 or 2 percent. The ostraca illuminate how the villagers achieved such an impressive level of education.
"Bring Honey for My Eyes"
BEFORE WE LOOK more closely at the educational system in Deir el-Medina, however, a quick survey of some of the recovered ostraca will help reconstruct life in the village and the context in which this extraordinary rate of literacy developed. As the large number of administrative documents suggests, the Egyptians of this period were obsessive bureaucrats, keeping careful records of the tools issued to the men laboring on the tombs, the rations delivered to the gang, the overall progress of the work and almost every other detail that could be quantified.
The residents private jottings are even more varied. Many are purely practical: receipts for purchases or records of legal battles (the villagers were avid litigators). The most intriguing texts are perhaps the personal letters, which take the reader straight into the world of New Kingdom Egypt. In one such missive, a father, Pay, writes to his son about his eye disease--apparently one of the hazards of tomb building because of the dust, bad lighting and fllying splinters of stone associated with the task: