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Ancient Egypt: The workers' village, Deir el Medine - the village, a typical dwelling, temporary housing. -

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Mason, Deir el Medine, 13th century BCE
Mason, Deir el Medine, 13th century BCE
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Housing in a workers' village:
Deir el Medine

The village

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The workers village at Deir el Medine, Excerpt from a photograph on the interoz site: www.interoz.com     Deir el Medine was not an ordinary New Kingdom village populated by farmers and their dependents, but by workers and administrators who had been gathered together in this remote place for the purpose of building the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. They were a community of craftsmen, painters, masons, scribes, and sculptors, together with their families. As such they were probably better educated and more affluent than most Egyptians.
Map of Deir el Medine     The village was about 50 metres wide by 130 metres long when it reached its final extent at the beginning of the 19th dynasty,[4] and completely enclosed by a wall . Its main street was two to three metres wide. The houses, most of them roughly the same size, were chiefly built of stone. This was unusual in pharaonic Egypt and due to the settlements distance from the banks of the Nile, where mud was available for the production of bricks.
    The average house size was about 4m by 20m, the smallest houses measured 13m by 4m, while the largest, probably belonging to foremen, were up to 6 metres wide and 27 metres long.[3] The height of the roofs was between 3 and 5 metres. The thinness of the walls suggests that there were no upper stories, though the flat roofs were accessible by stairs.
    During the latter part of the New Kingdom about 30 to 40 workers lived in the village, exceptionally their numbers could grow: under Ramses IV to 129 and 62 under Ramses IX.

A typical dwelling

    In comparison with the inhabitants of Djehutinefer's three-storeyed townhouse the people of Deir el Medina lived under rather cramped conditions,[1] without the option of adding further living space: the walls surrounding the village prevented its expansion, there was no unused space inside the settlement itself, and the thinness of the walls precluding the addition of a second storey.
    This kind of house had a long tradition. At Gizeh 4th dynasty apartments have been found consisting of a small vestibule, a main room, and a small niche or inner room which probably served as a bedroom, your basic 2½ room flat. A worker's flat, Source: Pharaos Volk by T.G.H.James

    Entering a house from the three metre wide street one descended a few steps. The whitewashed entrance hall contained a construction similar to a cupboard bed, the bottom of which was 75 cm above the floor with a three step stair leading up to it. It was decorated with a painting of the god Bes, a very popular protective deity. Its use is uncertain; some think it may have been a kind of altar.[5]

    Through a further door one entered the main hall, the qa'a. In its centre a wooden pillar supported the roof. The chair of the master of the house stood on a little dais. The room was lit by a window set high in the wall above the first room. Alcoves in the wall may have contained holy images and perhaps busts of ancestors. In front of a false door there might be a table with symbolic or real offerings. Most of the social and official activities took place in this room. Typically this room would be furnished with at least a chair for the master of the house and a number of stools for guests or family members, one ore more tables and perhaps a chest (see furniture).The whitewashed walls were decorated with paintings.
    Lifting a trapdoor in the dais one could descend a stair into a cellar, the safest place in the house where valuables could be kept.

    Adjacent to the hall there was a bed room, which served for storage as well. If the family was large they would have to use the hall as well for sleeping and, the weather permitting, the roof. It is questionable whether all the family had bedsteads. Possibly most of them slept on mattresses which could be rolled up and put away when not in use. The ceiling of this room was appreciably lower than that of the hall.

    Another door led from the hall to a small corridor and to the kitchen which was not properly roofed over, but had just a covering of branches to give the cooks shade and let the smells escape. An oven for baking bread, a kneading-trough and a mill or a mortar set into the floor were necessary items in every household. There may also have been a table for preparing food, but most of the activity took place on the ground, with people kneeling or crouching. Some kitchens had a cellar which served as a larder.

    The rooms had varying heights and were at different levels with steps between them and doors. The reason for the uneven floor may be simply topographical. The lower ceilings in the smaller rooms had two advantages, less building material had to be prepared and transported, and there was an opportunity for lighting and ventilating inner rooms through small openings close to the ceiling. The possibility of inserting windows in sidewalls did not exist as most of the houses shared these walls with neighbouring habitations.

    No signs of a bathroom or a fixed toilet have been found. They probably washed using a bowl and relieved themselves outdoors or on a toilet stool.

Temporary housing

    Deir el Medina was at quite a distance from the tombs the artisans were working on. They therefore often erected temporary housing of unhewn stone closer to the tombs, the largest among them, referred to by archaeologists as station de repos (rest station), was halfway between Deir el Medina and the Valley of the Kings, others were situated right by the tomb entrances.
    These settlements consisted of a number of small huts where the workers slept and ate on workdays, joining their families at Deir al Medine on their restdays, one day every ten day week and the various feast days. The rooms in these cabins measured about 4 to 5 square metres [2].
    At the station de repos food remains such as fish bones and grain have been found. Bed recesses and head rests prove that the workers slept there at least some of the time. Stela depicting workers adoring divinities point to their deep religiosity.[2]
 
[1] The average family consisted of husband, wife, and about two to five dependants. Relatives who had fallen on hard times may have shared their flat, as may have, in the more affluent households, a small number of servants. The living space per person seems to have been between five and fifteen square metres. As the man was often away for the whole work week, the overcrowding was not quite as bad most of the time.
Deir el Medina was not a typical village. Flats were assigned to the workmen as part of their wages, and when the workman died his wife lost the rights to a home and generally had to leave. Bonnet and Valbelle [4] think that retirees and widows continued to occupy some of the flats. Moreover, the village was rather cut off, and it must have been difficult for a man to replace a wife who had died. Quite a few flats were inhabited by single men.
[3] Floor space was of course quite a bit smaller. Walls, stairs, pillars etc. took up somewhat more than a quarter. Living space (including the open air kitchen) was thus about 65m², 40m² and 140m² respectively.
[4] Charles Bonnet, Dominique Valbelle ; 1975, Le village de Deir el-Medineh: Reprise de l'étude archéologique, BIFAO 75 (1975), pp.429-446
[5] cf. Michelle Lesley Brooker, A new Approach of Identifying the Function of the Elevated Beds at Deir el-Medina, Thesis submitted to the University of Birmingham, June 2009

Bibliography for this and related pages

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-[2] Arbeiterhütten (Uni Basel website)
-Deir el-Medina, pictures by John C. Sanders
-Photographs of Deir el-Medina, Institute of Egyptology, Waseda University
-Deir el-Medina
 

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