Daily Life in Ancient Egypt [Preview]

Workmen and their families lived some 3,000 years ago in the village now known as Deir el-Medina. Written records from the unusually well educated community offer fascinating descriptions of everyday activities

The draftsman Pay says to his son the draftsman Pre[emhab?]: Do not turn your back on me; I am not well. Do not c[ease] weeping for me, because I am in the [darkness(?) since] my lord Amon [has turned] his back on me.

May you bring me some honey for my eyes, and also some ocher which is made into bricks again, and real black eye paint. [Hurry!] Look to it! Am I not your father? Now, I am wretched; I am searching for my sight and it is not there.

Pay's lament is not surprising: blindness would have completely incapacitated a draftsman, who painted the figures and hieroglyphs inside the tombs. Descriptions of the mixture of honey, ocher and black eye-paint that Pay requested appear in specialized medical papyri, suggesting that it was a common remedy. Indeed, honey does have antiseptic properties, and ocher, an ingredient in many other prescriptions of the day, feels cool on the eyelids and was thought to reduce swelling. Because so many workmen suffered from this type of eye disease, this treatment may have been well known, and Pay was ordering it for himself. Alternatively, Pay could have been asking his son to fill a doctors prescription.

Roughly half the texts found at Deir el-Medina are religious or literary pieces. Copies of most of the "classics" from ancient Egyptian literature have been found at the site; in some cases, ostraca from the village provide the only surviving example of a work. These classics were a fundamental part of a student's education: thousands of school texts bear extracts from the masterpieces of Middle Kingdom (roughly 20001640 B.C.E.) literature, composed in a language as remote from the vernacular of the students as the English of Chaucer is from ours. Furthermore, many of the villagers were authors in their own right, composing instruction texts, hymns and letters. For example, the scribe Amennakhte wrote a poem in praise of the cosmopolitan city of Thebes, located just across the Nile:

What do they say to themselves in their hearts every day, those who are far from Thebes?
They spend the day dreaming [?] of its name, [saying] "If only its light were ours!"...
The bread which is in it is more tasty than cakes made of goose fat.
Its [water] is sweeter than honey; one drinks of it to drunkenness.
Behold, this is how one lives in Thebes!
The heaven has doubled [fresh] wind for it.

The villagers held knowledge of and ability in the literary arts in high esteem, as indicated on a papyrus found in the archives of a resident scribe. In this extract, the writer presents an unusual tribute to learning: whereas other documents tend to emphasize primarily writing skills and familiarity with classical literature, this description of the profession of scribe emphasizes authorship, the creation of texts and the fame that can come after death. In short, the writer appeals to the great Egyptian aspiration for immortality:

As for the learned scribes from the time that came after the gods--those who foretold the things to come--their names endure forever, although they have gone, having completed their lifetimes, and their relatives are forgotten.

They did not make for themselves pyramids of copper with tombstones of iron. They were unable to leave an heir in the form of children [who would] pronounce their name, but they made for themselves an heir of the writings and instructions they had made.

Importance of Education
THE EXCEPTIONAL RATE of literacy among the workmen at Deir el-Medina no doubt developed because the many skilled artisans needed an understanding of hieroglyphs for their job in the royal tombs. Early in the history of the village, the pharaohs tombs contained only simple copies of the guides to the afterworld, written in cursive script with accompanying vignettes drawn in stick figures. But at the end of the 14th century B.C.E., elaborately carved and painted scenes began to appear in tombs. At the same time, the literacy rate in the town rose sharply, as evidenced by the increase in the number of texts written after this period.

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