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 king Horemheb, who ruled from 1319 to 1292 B.C.E., introduced these painted reliefs to the Valley of the Kings. The more elaborate projects of Horemheb and later kings required a team of draftsmen to do the initial drawings and the final paint job; because the tomb paintings included large amounts of hieroglyphic texts, these workers had to be literate.

Perhaps more surprising was that at least some of the men responsible for the grueling task of carving the tomb out of the mountainside were also literate, even though their job did not call on such skills. Ambition may have motivated these laborers: education and literacy offered the keys to a good career in Egypt, separating the artisan class from the peasants, and the skills would have stood the workers in good stead had there been no job for them among the tomb builders. In addition, the culture of learning in the village may have also been a powerful stimulus, encouraging young people to study to keep up with their peers.

Egyptologists can glean numerous details from the ostraca found in Deir el-Medina, but unfortunately, we still know little of how the residents actually learned to read and write. Egyptian texts of the New Kingdom refer to schools only incidentally, indicating that they existed and that relatively young children attended them. For example, a short story found in the village describes the experiences at school of its young hero, a boy whose mother is not married:

He was sent to school and learned to write very well. He practiced all the arts of war and he surpassed his older companions who were at school with him. Then his companions said to him: "Whose son are you? You dont have a father!" And they reviled him and mocked him: "Hey, you dont have a father!"

But scholars have no evidence for an actual school at Deir el-Medina--no textual references to a school building, no structure that looks like a schoolroom, and no concentrations of student exercises that might signify a teaching area. In fact, we have no clues about how the workmen's children learned their skills of reading and writing.

Some of the ostraca left behind do give a somewhat more complete picture of what could be called secondary education--additional training in reading, writing and culture. Many of the documents found in the village are obviously exercises for advanced students, occasionally signed with the names of the student and teacher. Some of the writings bear a date marking the end of a day's lesson; some texts include several such dates, suggesting that a student used a single ostracon for several lessons.

From the various signatures on the ostraca, it is clear that fathers or grandfathers often supervised their sons' or grandsons' education, although on some occasions, fathers--even literate ones--might send their sons to someone of a higher rank for advanced training. (One signature, unfortunately badly preserved, may be a female student's, so at least one woman might have received her education in this fashion.) Pupils would have been from any station in life, including not only the future leaders of the community but also some boys who would never rise above the rank of stonecutter. Teachers consistently came from higher classes, however: the instructors mentioned in the ostraca were primarily scribes, draftsmen or chief workmen.

The students seem to have fit their lessons around their jobs at the tomb, as indicated by the dates in the ostraca--for example, texts often contain multiple dates separated by several days, indicating that there was usually time between lessons when both the instructor and pupil were presumably at work. Nevertheless, there was plenty of time for learning. Workers had many days off, especially as the tomb neared completion toward the end of a pharaoh's reign. During the final stages of construction, they might spend no more than one day out of four in the Valley of the Kings.

The education system in Deir el-Medina differed from that in other cities and towns around Egypt, most notably in who learned to read and write. Furthermore, the writing materials used and the time available for instruction also stand in contrast to practices elsewhere. Student exercises found in other locations were composed on reused papyrus--readily available to those in official positions--and appear to be the handiwork of young apprentices who were being groomed for government service. These students pursued their studies daily and managed to complete several pages of papyrus a day.

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