Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period, Dynasties XIX and XX

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The Economy

3.5 Workers' strike, tomb robberies and corruption

See also Leona's presentation for this topic

Worker’s Strike at Deir el-Medina

The workers strike took place in Year 29 of the reign of Ramesses III. Construction at Thebes apparently severely depleted the grain reserves used to pay the workmen of the royal necropolis. The administrators were also corrupt, reducing the grain rations intolerably. A letter sent by the scribe Neferhotep around Ramesses' 25th regnal year states, "One and a half khar of gran (about 168 lbs) have been taken from us….we are dying, we cannot live…"

The workmen then went on strike, in possibly the world’s first labor dispute. On the 21st day of the second month, in Ramesses’ 29th year, the scribe Amennakhte personally delivered a formal complaint about this situation to the Temple of Horemheb, part of the large administrative complex of Medinet Habu. Although a payment was forthcoming soon after, the poor conditions continued and in the sixth month of that year, the men of the two gangs stopped worked and marched together to one of the royal mortuary temples, perhaps Tuthmosis III, where they staged what would now be called a sit-in.

On this day the crew passed the five guard-posts of the tomb saying: "We are hungry, for 18 days have already elapsed in this month;" and they sat down at the rear of the temple of Menkheperre.
The scribe of the enclosed tomb, the two foremen, the two deputies and the two proctors came and shouted to them: "Come inside."
They swore great oaths (saying): "Please come back, we have matters of Pharaoh."
They spent the night in the Tomb.

They repeated this on the following day within the complex of another temple, possibly Ramesses II, and possibly a third, that of Seti I, until the men’s complaints were recorded by the priests and sent across the river to Thebes. Only then were the rations owed finally distributed, but the events of this strike would be repeated before the reign of Ramesses III ended. Even in subsequent reigns the workers had to take action to receive any payments. In the reign of Ramesses XI, the scribe Dhutmose traveled south of Thebes to collect the grain from local temples and farmers for the community, taking along two door-keepers for protection.

Tomb robberies of the 20th Dynasty

A great deal of tomb robbery occurred in the 20th Dynasty during the reign of Ramses IX. The trials of the robbers were recorded on now‑damaged papyrus, held in the Turin Museum and the British Museum. Some of the accused were workers from Deir el Medina who were often helped by others, such as the ferrymen who carried them across the Nile.

Extracting confessions

To extract confessions, the accused were beaten with a stick; this process was called being ‘examined’. Even witnesses who were later found to be innocent and set free, did not escape the ‘examination’. Whilst awaiting trial, prisoners were often locked up within nearby temples such as the Temple of Maat in Thebes. They were also sometimes threatened with muti­lation which probably involved the cutting off of ears and nose. Refer­ences were also made to robbers who had been executed. One witness protested his innocence by stating:

I saw the punishment which was inflicted on the thieves in the time of the Vizier Khaemwese. Am I the man to go looking for death when I know it?

These were important state trials and the judges were the highest avail­able officials, including Vizier Khaemwese, the high priest of Amun at Karnak, the mayor of Thebes and a general in charge of chariotry. The trials were carried out by order of the king.

Royal tomb ransacked!

An official inspection of the royal necropolis was made after complaints had been made that tomb robberies had occurred. Most were found to to be intact but one royal tomb had been ransacked and the royal mummies dragged from their sarcophagi. Tombs of nobles had also been plundered.
One example dates from the reign of Ramses III. The papyrus lists the remaining grave goods of a tomb that had been ransacked:

Account of the survey of all things found in the ruined tomb opposite the burial place of Amennakhte, son of lpuy. One coffin of god's stone. One sarcophagus with a linen pall ... One ebony folding stool with duck's heads, repaired. Two couches. One footstool of papyrus. Three headrests ... Two pairs of sandals. One palette ... One water bag. One basket, contents: one knife, one pin, one bowl, one libation vase, one razor­case, one rotating razor, one scraping razor. Granite vessels ... One food basket with bread. One alabaster vessel. Two wooden containers for medicine. One faience amulet ... One vessel for unguent ... One comb. One eye tweezer ... Two pieces of scenting material ...

Evidence is heard

Papyrus No 10052 from the British Museum contains the evidence of a herdsman, Bukhaaf, who had plun­dered Queen Hebrezet's tomb:

He said, ‘It was Pewer, a workman of the necropolis, who showed us the tomb of Queen Hebrezet.’ They said to him, ‘The tomb to which you went, in what state did you find it?’ He said, I found it open.’ He was examined with the stick again; he said, ‘Let be, I will tell.’ The vizier said to him, ‘Tell what you did.’ He said, ‘I brought away the inner coffin of silver and a shroud of gold and silver together with the men who were with me and we broke them up and divided them among ourselves.’

Thirteen other men were also implicated. The story went on to tell of the disposal of the gold, silver and copper goods.

Shedsukhons, an incense‑burner, gives his testimony about an earlier robbery:

They took me with them. We opened the tomb and brought away a shroud of gold and silver amounting to one deben. We broke it up and put it in a basket and brought it down, and we divided it and made it into six parts. We gave two parts to Amenkhau because he had put us on to it and he gave us four parts for the four of us.

Priests as robbers

Interesting evidence is given by a fish­erman who ferried the robbers across the Nile.

‘[I] ferried the thieves from the District of the Falcon and landed them on this side.’ The judges said to him, ‘Who were they?’ He said, ‘The coppersmith Uaresi of the necropolis and the priest Panekhtresi son of Pawensh of the temple of Okheperre and the craftsman ltfnufer, and I brought them over to Thebes.’ They said to him, ‘Did you see what they were carrying?’ He said, ‘I did not see it.’ He was again beaten with the stick. He said, ‘Don't bully me, I did not see it.’ The Vizier and court said to him, ‘What sort of loads had they on their backs?’ He said, ‘They had things on their backs, but I did not see them.’
PEET, P 42

Another papyrus describes the robbery of the priest Thanufer's tomb.

[He] went to the tomb of Thanufer who was third prophet of Amun. We opened it and brought out its contents; we took its mummy and threw it down in a corner of his tomb. We took his mummy cases to this boat along with the others to the district of Amenope. We set fire to them in the night. We stripped off the gold which we found on them and four kite of gold fell to the lot of each man, total one deben and six kite.
PEET, P 46

This ransacked tomb is today known to archaeologists as No 158 at Dira ab'I Nga.

At the end of the 20th Dynasty we also have evidence of priests of major temples robbing temple property. The Temple of Ramses ll – the famous Ramesseum – was involved in such a robbery.

... the scribe Sedi, the priest Tuti and the priest Nesamon went to the 'Doors of Heaven' and set fire to it and stripped its gold and stole it.
PEET, P 54