Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period, Dynasties XIX and XX

- Syllabus Content - Map - Pharaohs -

Everyday life

6.1 Daily life and leisure activities
6.2 Food and Clothing
6.3 Housing and Furniture
6.4 Occupations

See also Rebecca's presentation for this topic


Royalty and the official class

Although there appears to be a great deal of inscriptional and archaeo­logical evidence for the public lives of the New Kingdom pharaohs, there is not much known about their private lives.
The kings' chief duty ‑ propitiating the gods on behalf of the people ‑ is well attested but evidence for the two most important ceremonies in their lives, their coronation and jubilee (heb‑sed) festivals, is fragmentary. Although there are numerous scattered references to these cel­ebrations, there is no source which describes the ceremonies in full.
Since the kings' official residences, harems and 'resting houses' were built mostly of mud‑brick, little has survived. However, some inscrip­tional and archaeological remains provide evidence of their layout, dec­oration and functions.
The tombs in the Theban necropolis are the best source of information for the public and private lives of officials from all ranks of the civil administration, the priesthood, the pharaoh's household and the army.
Apart from scenes of an obvious funerary nature, there was usually some scene in each tomb which reflected the duties carried out by the official at the height of his career. For example:

· The tomb of a vizier usually showed him judging cases; supervising workshops in the Temple of Amun, overseeing the building of temples, receiving tribute, reporting to the king, checking on the state of the granaries and receiving reports from his officials throughout the country.
· An overseer of the treasury might be shown receiving gold from Nubia, and supervising the weighing of precious metals and their transformation into jewellery and other items in the workshops.
· An overseer of granaries would have included in his tomb some scenes showing scribes and surveyors measuring the fields and recording of the harvest, as well as of the storage and shipment of grain.
· The scenes in the tomb of an army commander might show him taking part in a campaign, aspects of camp life and soldiers being drilled.
· A viceroy would have himself depicted receiving tribute from foreign lands.

Artists, craftsmen and unskilled workers

New Kingdom sources of evidence for the working and living condition, of Egyptian craftsmen and unskilled workers fall into five general ­categories.
· The remains of the worker's village at Deir el‑Medina is the best source of evidence for all aspects of the public and private life of a group of workmen in the New Kingdom. Large quantities of official records, biographical inscriptions, private letters, literary texts and graffiti written on papyri, ostraca (flakes of limestone and broken pottery on which things were written) and tomb walls have provided historians with a wealth of information about this special group of workmen. Their houses, tombs, household objects and tools supplement the written records. However, because this was a special community the conditions which existed there may not have been typical of this class.
· The reliefs and paintings on the tomb walls of officials such as Rekhmire, Nebamun and Apuky illustrate some of the craftsmen's techniques, tools and finished products. Unfortunately, these scenes show only a selection of the jobs carried out in the best workshops.
· The objects found in the tombs at Thebes and other New Kingdom ­sites show the high standard of workmanship achieved by many of these specialist craftsmen. The domestic and funerary goods found in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun illustrate the technical skill of those employed in the royal and temple workshops.
· A literary piece called the Satire of Trades, which originated in the Middle Kingdom, was used in the schools of the New Kingdom to convince trainee scribes of the superiority of their profession. It did this by ridiculing the various trades. Although it was prejudiced and probably based on the worst possible examples, it may have contained some elements of truth.

Peasants and agricultural labourers

Because they were illiterate, the farmers, who formed the largest group in society, left very few records about their lives.
The list below shows some of the details of every­day life depicted in the Eighteenth Dynasty tombs of the official class:
Rural activities related to food production:

· Agricultural activities associated with the growing of grain, flax, fruit and vines
· Methods of irrigation
· Animal husbandry
· Domestication of wild animals and force feeding of fowl
· Fishing with spears and nets
· Assessment of taxes
Transportation and markets:
· Harbour scenes; loading and unloading cargo boats
· Exchange of goods ‑ food, clothes, sandals and tools
· Ceremonial barges, sedan chairs and chariots
Professions and industries:

· Scribes at work in the fields, temples, workshops and vizier's court
· Skilled craftsmen such as goldsmiths, bronze workers, jewellers and sculptors, carpenters in their workshops
· Raw materials, tools, equipment, processes and finished items
· Tradesmen such as tanners, weavers, brickmakers and food processors at work
Tomb owner and his family:
· Intimate family scenes
· Estates ‑ houses, gardens, estate workers and pets
· Aspects of officials' careers, carrying out tasks for the king and receiving promotions
Sports and recreation:

· Fowling in the marshes with boomerangs
· Hunting in deserts with bows and arrows, on foot or from chariots.
· Adults playing board games such as sennet and youths shooting with bows and arrows, throwing, wrestling and fencing with sticks
· Banquets with fashionably dressed and coiffeured guests, abundant food and drink, music and dancing

Royal life

Coronations and jubilees

The coronation was possibly the most important ceremony in the life of the king and his people. The Egyptians believed that their god‑king maintained maat (the right order of things that was established at the time of creation). Therefore, the death of a king could lead to disorder and chaos and only when the new king was officially installed on the throne was divine order re‑established.
This ceremony was traditionally held in the northern capital of Memphis. The numer­ous monumental reliefs show the pharaoh, as the son of Amun‑Re being crowned by his father in heaven in front of the assembled gods. The actual ceremony, which began on the first day of the season of inundation, lasted many days. It was conducted in the temple by priests wearing masks representing the gods. The rituals were carried out in two sanctuaries which symbolised the primitive temples of the north and the south.
A priest, in his leopard skin garment, invested the king with all his pow­ers and duties by presenting him with the crowns and other royal insignia. Each of the crowns ‑ the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, the White Crown of Upper Egypt, the Double Crown of the Two Lands, the blue leather Khepresh or war crown, the Atef Crown, the plumed diadem, the Seshed headband, and a variety of linen headdresses ‑ were placed on the king's head in succession. He then received his great name, the titulary of five names selected by the priests of the House of Life.
The king left the chapel, wearing the Khepresh, the animal tail of the archaic chieftains and sandals, on the soles of which were images of Egypt's traditional enemies ‑ Nubians, Syrians, Libyans and Bedouins.
The coronation ceremony was probably performed again in front of an assembly of nobles and high officials. At this time priests performed a ritual entwining of the plants of Upper and Lower Egypt. Finally, the newly crowned king performed a symbolic circuit of the White Walls of Memphis.
The crowns, which did not belong to individual pharaohs but to the throne, were returned to the temple where they were kept. This explains why no crowns, except the Seshed band (worn in death) were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Journeys and public appearances

The king's chief duty was to show gratitude to the gods, which he per­formed by:
... restoring what had fallen into decay, building new shrines, recon­structing and strengthening the walls surrounding them, filling them with statues, renewing their furnishings and sacred boats, erecting obelisks, heaping the altars and offering tables with flowers and gener­ally outrivalling all his royal predecessors ... Even after the king had showered gifts upon the gods ... he must take the personal trouble to supervise the execution of his orders and, when the work was com­pleted, ceremonially consecrate the temple and dedicate it to the gods.
He also conducted tours of inspection, led expeditions, received visiting ambassadors, presided over investitures and attended many of the numerous religious festivals along the Nile. This meant that throughout the year the king moved from one royal residence to another (Thebes, Memphis and Pi‑Ramesse). These were occasions of great pomp and ceremony.
... the splendour of his surroundings displayed to advantage the splendour of the king himself.
The constant movement of the pharaoh and his entourage from one capital to another involved 'mobilising a regular convoy' of boats, which were like floating houses. The royal ship of state was probably towed by one or two vessels with enormous rectangular sails and a large com­plement of rowers. On the journey to Upper Egypt and Nubia, these boats hoisted their sails since the prevailing wind was northerly. On the return voyage they were rowed, the current helping them along.
Long before the king's arrival at one of his palaces or 'rest houses', offi­cials and servants were involved in preparations on a grand scale. The following extract gives some idea of the amount of food necessary for a welcoming banquet.

Get on with having everything ready for Pharaoh's (arrival) ... have made (ready) 100 ring‑stands for bouquets of flowers, 500 food‑bas­kets. Foodstuff, list, to be prepared: 1000 loaves of fine flour ... 10000 ibsbet‑biscuits; 2000 baskets at 300 cuts ... Milk, 60 measures; cream, 90 measures; carob beans, 30 bowls. Grapes, 50 sacks; pomegranates, 60 sacks; figs, 300 strings and 20 baskets ...
The list also specified amounts of vegetables, meats, drinks, incense and oils. Sometimes the local mayor was called on to organise the provision of extra supplies.
By the time the king left his royal barge, the streets of the capital were probably lined with people ready to acclaim their ruler and enjoy the spectacular procession to the palace. On these occasions the king was outfitted magnificently.
On ceremonial occasions the pharaoh was carried in a richly decorated palanquin or sedan‑chair resting on the shoulders of courtiers or sol­diers, and accompanied by fan‑bearers. Their job was not only to fan the king but to wave small floral bouquets around him to sweeten the air. At other times he rode in his spectacular gilded chariot, drawn by two splendidly harnessed and plumed stallions controlled by drivers, perhaps of Asiatic descent. The palanquins or chariots of the king's chief consort, family and members of the court followed. Armed Egyptian sol­diers and foreign mercenaries protected the royal entourage and cleared the way through the crowd of onlookers. During religious festivals, such as the Opet, the procession of the king would have been even more spectacular.
Investitures of the king's chief officials and tribute presentations were elaborate affairs. They were often held in an open courtyard with the king and his chief queen enthroned under a rich canopy on a specially constructed and decorated platform. Often, presentations of the gold of valour were carried out from the window of appearances in the palace.

Royal palaces and life at court

The pharaohs' palaces, royal lodges and harems reflected the opulent tastes of the New Kingdom but were also designed to incorporate the Egyptians' love of nature. These cool retreats featured lakes, pools, columned courts and huge gardens of sweet‑smelling trees and flowers. Inside, the natural theme was continued.
The palace in Ramesses' capital of Pi‑Ramesse shone with bril­liant colours and vivid scenes. It was described as 'dazzling, with halls of lapis and turquoise'.
Everything associated with the king's life at court would have followed strict rules. As a god, his day probably started like that of every other god in the land, with a ritual bathing and anointment with precious unguents. Then he would either make sacrifices and listen to prayers by the high priest or else officiate at the temple in the rite of the house of the morning.
Although he was regarded as a god, the king was a hard‑working ruler. He listened to daily reports from his vizier on the state of the kingdom and made his wishes known, held audiences, and read despatches from his officials and dictated replies.
Although there is little evidence of the ceremonies of the Egyptian court, strict etiquette would have applied to the order in which officials were presented to the king and the method of presentation. The reliefs show that when high officials and priests approached the king they bowed respectfully, either with their arms by their sides or raised in praise. Any communication with the king would probably have been preceded by a reference to his divine nature.

Private lives of royalty

Not much is known of the private lives of the New Kingdom pharaohs. Most of the evidence available comes from the wall decorations in the tombs of the Amarna nobles which show intimate scenes of Akhenaten and his family dining together, being entertained by musicians and enjoying a family outing in their chariots.
Some of the objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun feature scenes of the king enjoy­ing the company of his young wife, Ankhesenamun. Although these scenes were probably part of the symbolism of rebirth, they provide a glimpse into the private life of the queen and her husband, as in the scene that shows Tutankhamun sitting on an elaborately decorated chair with his feet on a footstool while Ankhesenamun anoints him with pre­cious unguents.
In the hot, dry climate of Egypt and especially during the fly‑ridden summers, it was important to keep the skin oiled and the eyes protected. A large number of magnificent unguent, oil and cosmetic containers, as well as elaborate fly whisks and ostrich feather fans, were found among Tutankhamun's funerary items.
The kings probably spent their leisure time in much the same way as the nobles ‑ at banquets, being entertained by musicians and dancers, playing games of sennet and taking part in hunting expeditions into the deserts and the papyrus marshes.
New Kingdom pharaohs constantly emphasised their sporting prowess, particularly with the bow. Accompanied by attendants, they drove their own chariots into the desert to hunt for gazelle and wild cattle. During their military campaigns abroad they indulged in more dangerous activ­ities such as hunting elephants and lions.
A number of single-occupant chariots, a riding crop and glove, many bows, arrows and throwing sticks, found among Tutankhamun's pos­sessions, indicate that the young king was probably trained in chariot handling and participated in hunting activities. It should be remembered, however, that some of these items in the tomb would have served a ritual purpose.

The royal harems

New Kingdom pharaohs had numerous secondary wives (both Egyptian and foreign) as well as concubines but only a select number of women travelled with the king as he moved about the country on official busi­ness. The rest, together with their many children, nurses and personal attendants, were housed in special harem/palaces attached to the royal residences which the king visited only occasionally.
Harems functioned as independent economic units, with their own lands, labourers and admin­istrators, some of whom appear to have been married men. The harem also had the potential for intrigue and conspiracy, as sec­ondary wives and kings' favourites sought to promote the interests of their own sons.

Royal children

There is little evidence of the names, early life and role of royal princes before the Nineteenth Dynasty, whereas the names of many royal daughters are found in the records. Even so, little is known about the lives of these princesses.
Only the highest ranking men and women were appointed as nurses and tutors for the kings' daughters. Evidence for the type of education they received is very scanty. The survival of several ivory writing palettes belonging to the daughters of Akhenaten indicate that royal daughters learnt how to read, write and paint in watercolours.
A relief showing the young Amarna princesses riding in their own char­iots indicates that they were brought up to be independent and given similar training to royal princes in the handling of horses. Horsemanship was possibly taught to them by Ay, Overseer of the King's Horses.
Royal princes were looked after by high-ranking wet‑nurses. There is evidence that some princes formed close associations with their milk brothers, who became their companions throughout adult life.
In keeping with the military nature of the period and the emphasis on sporting prowess, young princes were probably taught at an early age to ride, handle horses and chariots, swim and use a bow and arrow.
They accompanied their older male relatives on hunting expeditions into the desert and would have been expected eventually to display their own skill and courage in facing a wild animal alone.
An essential part of their education was to learn to read and write, so they attended schools, either in the palace or the temple. Perhaps some also became apprentice priests. One of the sons of Ramesses II, Khaemwaset, was outstanding in all the scribal arts and was interested in religion. He eventually became a high priest (sem priest) of Ptah at Memphis.
When a royal prince, particularly the crown prince, reached adoles­cence, he served an apprenticeship in the army under the supervision of veterans especially chosen for the job. In military competitions a royal prince was expected to exhibit great skill in all the arts of war.
Even at an early age, a prince often accompanied his father on his cam­paigns. At 14 years of age, Ramesses II played a minor role in his father's campaign in Libya and a year later was present at the storming of Kadesh. When he became king, Ramesses took his own son, Khaemwaset, on his Nubian campaign even though he was only five.

A wealthy elite

Within the Egyptian official class there were many levels of wealth and influence. The great nobles/officials who ran the administration and led the armies became extremely wealthy during the New Kingdom. Their tombs in western Thebes testify to this.
As Egypt prospered under the empire, these nobles and their families indulged themselves in extensive estates in different parts of the coun­try with beautiful villas, gardens and pools; town houses; numerous household officials and servants; costly food and wine; fashionable clothes, finely‑made jewellery and expensive unguents, perfumes and cosmetics; fine chariots and splendid boats.
The following extract from a Nineteenth Dynasty papyrus further illus­trates the life of luxury lived by many of these high‑ranking officials

Thy raiment is of linen, thou ridest in a chariot, a golden handled whip in thy hands, and thou holdest new reins. Thou art drawn by colts from Syria and negroes run before thee to clear the way. The boat thou boardest is of fir wood, decorated from stem to stern. Thou comest to thy fine mansion which thou hast built for thyself. Thy mouth is filled with wine and beer, with bread and meat and cakes. The oxen are dismembered and the wine unsealed. Sweet strains of song echo in thine ears. The scent maker spreads over thee the odour of sweet resin, and the chief gardener comes to offer thee garlands. The chief hunter brings thee quails from the oases and thy chief fish­erman presents thee with fish. From Syria hath thy vessel brought thee all manner of precious cargo. Thy stalls are full of calves and thy women spin to much profit. Thou art secure and thine enemies are brought low
Of course not all officials were as fortunate as these two.

Country villas and town houses

It is difficult to form an exact picture of the houses of the wealthy. All residences, from palaces to peasant's houses, were constructed pre­dominantly of mud‑brick and virtually nothing of these has survived. Also, scenes in tombs and on illustrated papyri, which feature domestic architecture, can be misleading. Egyptian artists gave no indication of the size of different parts of the house and often showed both sides of the house together. Sometimes what looks like a second or third storey is in fact different parts of a single storey house.
When an Egyptian artist ... had to draw a great building or a garden ... he wished to show every part of it ... He considered his duty accom­plished when he had placed all the details before the spectator, but he did not care whether the spectator understood how these details fit­ted together ... the Egyptian artist had no sense of proportion between different parts of the representation.
Ermin, A. Life in Ancient Egypt, p.174
A country villa appears to have had some of the following features:
· one or two storeys
· smooth whitewashed mud‑brick walls
· projecting wooden (or sometimes stone) doorways and window frames
· doors placed at one end of the main wall
· windows on the second floor with what appears to be a balcony
· a flat roof with triangular constructions which caught the cool north wind and forced it into the upper storey. In some cases the upper storey was left open for air circulation
· a main family room in the upper storey
· walled gardens planted with fig trees, date palms and pomegranates, and vine‑covered arbours
· fishponds and pools.
The furniture in upper class homes was elegant and practical ‑ high­backed chairs and stools, often inlaid with ebony and ivory, and with lion's paw legs; folding stools; couches piled with cushions and chests for holding clothes. In the dining rooms, stands were used for holding food and jars of wine, while jugs of water and basins were provided for washing hands after eating.

A nobleman’s household

The noble's family probably comprised his wife, his sons and their wives and children, unmarried daughters and sisters and possibly wid­owed relatives.
For a long time it was thought that the Egyptians were polygamous, but the evidence suggests that only the most wealthy could afford more than one wife. ‘The overwhelming majority of Egyptian men remained monogamous, officially restricting themselves to one wife at a time’. Also, many of the women previously classified as concubines were in fact unmarried women in the household. This is not to suggest, how­ever, that upper class men did not have concubines.
Apart from his family and concubines, a nobleman's household includ­ed a wide range of supervisors, servants and slaves. Among the super­visors were estate stewards and bailiffs, scribes, and overseers of the household, storehouses, bakery and slaughterhouse.
There was a significant difference in the status of servants and slaves. Free servants could leave their master's employ at any time, set up their own households, go into business and inherit property. Slaves, who were mostly foreigners, could be sold or hired out and were often treat­ed harshly. There is evidence that if they tried to run away they were pursued and punished severely.
Some of the servants and slaves employed in a wealthy household included:

· cup‑bearers (wedpou), who supervised the meals and waited on the master and his guests
· listeners, who were always ready for their master's call
· followers (shemsou) who attended the lord when he left the house. One was a sandal carrier and the another carried a roll of matting, the lord's staff and a fly whisk. When their master stopped to carry out a task, these servants placed the mat on the ground, handed him his staff, kept the flies away and washed his feet
· barbers, hairdressers, manicurists, chiropodists and experts who looked after toiletries, cosmetics and perfumes. Upper‑class Egyptians took their personal hygiene very seriously and paid great attention to their appearance
· nurses to look after the children
· gardeners
· porters who guarded the gates
· bakers, brewers and butchers. Bread and beer were the staples of the Egyptian diet. A huge variety of bread was baked and beer, made from barley and dates, was drunk at every meal. Although meat was not necessarily eaten every day, the slaughterhouse was an important feature of the wealthy household
· some tradesmen, particularly on country estates where equipment had to be made and repaired
· musicians
· a host of slaves, from stable hands to pretty slave girls who waited on tables and entertained their master.

Upper‑class women

For ‘upper class women’, see 2.4 Non-royal women.

Family relationships

Through their writings, statues and paintings, the Egyptians have revealed their ideal of marriage and family life. It appears that 'the bond between husbands and wives and their children was long‑lasting and profound'. Scenes from the tombs of the officials show wives tenderly embracing their husbands, sharing a meal or playing a game of sen­net with them, accompanying them on fowling trips, and socialising at banquets. Even though these scenes may have been associated with ideas about rebirth, it seems that couples expected to share the next life together also.
A Nineteenth Dynasty text, written by a widower to his dead wife reveals the ideal of a marriage relationship. The rest of this text is found at the end of the chapter.

I was a young man when I married you, and I spent my life with you. I rose to the highest rank but I never deserted you from my youth to the time when I was holding all manner of important posts for Pharaoh (Life, Health, Strength): nay rather I always said to myself 'She has always been my companion'.
The writer seems to be suggesting that not all men would have behaved as he did. Although consideration of one's partner was highly regarded in a relationship, some marriages ended in divorce.
Either husband or wife could initiate a divorce, but most of the evidence suggests that more often than not it was the man who repudiated his wife. Incompatibility, infertility or love for another, particularly a younger woman, might be cited as reasonable grounds for divorce. In these cases the woman returned to her father's home with all her pos­sessions and a share of the joint property of the marriage. Under no circumstances could a woman commit adultery and remain married. She would be divorced immediately, socially disgraced and lose her legal rights to all property.

Men were ... expected to respect another man's sole right of access to his wife and indulging in sexual relations with a married woman was frowned upon ... in cases of adultery the woman was clearly seen as the temptress corrupting a weak but essentially innocent man.
The Egyptians loved children and hoped for large families. Although boys were favoured, parents were caring and affectionate to all their children. Scenes in many of the tombs show parents and children enjoy­ing each other's company.
The mother's father took a great interest in the welfare of his daughter's sons, and young men were often appointed to positions owing to the influence of their maternal grandfathers.
Women were frequently honoured by their sons in their tombs, and on funerary stelae it was the custom to trace the descent of the dead man through his mother.

Grooming and personal hygiene

Upper‑class Egyptians paid particular attention to their appearance and personal hygiene. Frequent washing, removal of body hair, oiling and perfuming the skin, and protecting the eyes were all a response to the hot, dry climate of Egypt.
Both men and women kept their natural hair short, wearing elaborate wigs on social occasions. They also went to a great deal of trouble to remove body hair with tweezers, knives and hooked razors. Barbers and hairdressers were important members of the noble's household.
Only the upper classes could afford the imported, scented unguents used for moisturising and perfuming the body. They were obviously considered just as important in the next life judging by the numbers of elaborate containers found among the funerary items of the wealthy.
Cosmetics were used by both men and women to enhance their looks, ‘convey a message of high social status’ and protect them from the harsh sunlight. Black kohl (made from galena ‑ mineral‑lead) and green powder (made from malachite) were used by the Egyptians to highlight their eyes and protect them from glare, dust or insects.

Meals and family entertainment

The evidence suggests that the Egyptians really enjoyed their food. However, although there are many scenes of food production, prepara­tion and presentation, there are none showing a family meal in progress, except for one featuring Akhenaten and his family (NB. 18th Dynasty).
Breakfast was not a family affair. The noble/official ate his food while dressing and it appears that his wife was also offered food while hav­ing her hair done. Whether the members of the family gathered togeth­er for the other two meals is not known.
The Egyptian upper class ate well ‑ meat, game, fowl, fruit, vegetables, cakes and bread. Beer was the main beverage, although wine was con­sumed at social gatherings.


It appears that the upper classes took the opportunity whenever possi­ble to entertain guests at dinner parties or banquets. In the tombs of the Old Kingdom, the owner, his wife and family are often shown quietly enjoying food, music and dancing. However, by the New Kingdom these occasions had taken on the form of proper banquets. Despite the differences of opinion about the significance of these banqueting scenes in tombs, they do provide evidence for the social habits and fashions of wealthy Egyptians.
Preparations for a banquet were extensive. These included slaughtering and cooking an ox, roasting fowl (such as ducks and geese which had been fattened for weeks), and preparing special sauces and other delica­cies. As flowers and perfume played a very important part in any banquet, floral garlands and sweet‑scented pomades were prepared for the guests.
It is possible to build up a fairly clear picture of these social occasions from the paintings in the tombs of Nebamun and Nakht, as well as from a number of literary sources.

Features of a an upper‑class banquet

If the guests were important officials, the host probably met them at the door. Otherwise, young servant girls, dressed in little more than a girdle and necklet, greeted the guests and presented them with lotus flowers and perfumed incense cones which were worn on the head. During the night, these cones melted, and the scented oil ran down over the guests' wigs and clothing. The servants would renew them during the evening.
The banquet was the perfect place for these officials and their wives to show off the latest fashions. Both sexes wore finely pleated, flowing garments of the sheerest white linen, either tied under the bust (for women) or around the waist with a sash of the same material (for men). The white robes were a perfect foil for their colourful and expensive bracelets, earrings and necklets and their long curled wigs. Their elab­orate leather slippers were probably removed before entering the house as a mark of respect to the host.
Important guests were shown to high‑backed chairs, others to low stools, while some had to be satisfied with mats or cushions. The seat­ing was arranged around tables laden with food. Sometimes the men and women sat separately, sometimes together. This may have indicat­ed the difference between single and married women.

Serving girls circulated among the guests, offering them food and bowls of the finest wines. Perhaps the guests urged each other to 'celebrate the joyful day' and to 'cast behind thee all cares and mind thee of plea­sure' and offered health to each other's ka. Some, like the woman in the scene in the tomb of Paheri, might have called to the servants to ‘give me eighteen cups of wine. I want to drink to drunkenness, my throat is as dry as straw’. It was quite normal for the evening to become disorderly as men and women drank to excess. Drunkenness was tolerated and there are scenes showing both men and women vomiting and being carried from the room.
Apart from conversation and gossip, the guests were entertained by musicians playing the harp, lyre, lute, flute, castanets and tambourines. A singer might urge the guests to 'follow thy heart and thy happiness as long as thou art on earth'. Female dancers performed sensual move­ments, sometimes combined with acrobatic feats. While some of the entertainers were professional, others were probably members of the noble's household.
Quieter forms of entertainment were also enjoyed by the upper classes. A family might take a boating or fishing trip on the canals or lakes of their estate, gather in the shade of the trees in their garden and listen to music, or play one of the several popular board games, like sennet and draughts. Many rec­tangular boards, divided into squares, have been found among funerary items. In some of the tomb paintings, husbands and wives are shown playing board games together.

Hunting in the desert and marshes

Hunting for pleasure was the prerogative of the pharaoh and the nobil­ity. During the Old Kingdom, hunting wild animals in the deserts was done on foot but by the Eighteenth Dynasty chariots were used. Nobles with their specially bred hunting dogs, were accompanied by profes­sional hunters and attendants who carried the nobles' equipment. They ambushed gazelles, bulls, lions, hyenas and ostriches and attacked with bows and arrows. Sometimes animals were rounded up with lassos or trapped with nets to be kept for breeding or domestication. Wealthy Egyptians kept menageries of animals on their estates.
While scenes of hunting tended to disappear from the tomb walls after the reign of Thutmose ill, the theme of fishing and fowling in the marshes continued to appear in many of the well‑decorated tombs of the Eighteenth Dynasty. The noble, watched or helped by various mem­bers of his family speared fish and used a throwing‑stick, similar to a boomerang, to catch water birds such as geese.

Travelling and visiting estates

High‑ranking officials travelled extensively between their numerous estates, between capitals and provincial cities and even beyond the bor­ders of Egypt. Most of these journeys were taken by boat and/or chariot.

Since most of these officials controlled and supervised widely dispersed estates, they were obliged to make personal tours of inspection from time to time. On these occasions they probably travelled in a boat sim­ilar to the one used by the viceroy of Kush which was:

... a long, crescent‑shaped vessel rising clear out of the water at both bow and stern, and with an enormous sail attached by numerous ropes to a single mast. Instead of a central rudder, a pair of rudders were set against the hull slightly forward of the stern, and fastened to great posts to port and starboard respectively. The passengers quarters were in a big cabin amidships, with an extension in the form of a shelter for the horses, and two smaller cabins were placed at bow and stem.
Once an official arrived at the wharf of his estate, he made the rest of the journey by chariot, drawn by two horses. Dykes, built up when canals were dredged, served as roads for chariots, cattle and pedestrians.
The tombs of Menna, Nebamun and Paheri show these officials driving their own chariots as they supervised the activities on their estates. Running ahead of the noble's chariot were several grooms, ready to look after the horses when their master continued on foot. Following behind were a number of servants, who carried everything the lord needed when he stopped to rest or consult with his bailiffs and scribes. The shemsou (servants) set up elaborate booths with a seat and refreshments for the lord while he conducted his business. The scenes in Paheri’s tomb seem to indicate that he spent quite a lot of time in the fields and his presence appeared to spur on the labourers. A text describes him ‘seeing all the activities going on in the fields’.
High‑ranking officials had a fleet of boats to collect and distribute the produce from the estates under their control and some had their own trading boats which made the long trips to Nubia and Byblos.
The tomb makers of Deir el-Medina
On the west bank of Thebes, close to the Valley of the Kings, was the small settlement of Deir el-Medina. It was a special community, comprising the families of the craftsmen and workers who were responsible for the construction of the royal tombs.
The men who lived in Deir el‑Medina were predominantly stonema­sons, plasterers, draughtsmen, sculptors, painters and carpenters. Each of them specialised in different phases of tomb construction. They tended to pass their skills on to their sons who hoped to inherit their father's position in the work gangs.
The personnel in the teams or gangs included master craftsmen, skilled workers, apprentices and labourers.

Working conditions

The written evidence from Deir el‑Medina provides a more realistic and detailed account of working conditions for men of this class than do the scenes on the tomb walls.

Organisation of the workforce of Deir el-Medina

The workers were organised into two gangs – one worked the left side of the tomb while the other worked the right side. The size of the gangs varied from time to time. Each gang was supervised by a foreman and these two men, together with a scribe, made up the captains of the vil­lage. Certain selected workmen were chosen to act as guardians of the tomb and doorkeepers of the tomb. These royal workmen and their fam­ilies were supported by other workers from outside the village.

Working hours

The men worked in four‑hour shifts for eight days straight, in the Valley of the Kings. During this time, they camped near the tombs, after which they returned to the village and their families for two days.
Since the Egyptian month was made up of 30 days, the men had six free days a month. This, of course, did not include special festival days and the frequent absences about which there is substantial evidence.


The scribe of the tomb kept a careful register of those men who did not turn up for work and the reasons given by them for their absences. The most frequent excuses were:
· scorpion bites and eye diseases
· family events and crises such as births and deaths
· brewing beer for a festival
· hangovers
· doing personal work for their superiors
· building houses.
A worker also had a valid excuse if either his wife or daughters were menstruating because 'coming in contact with a man whose female rela­tions were bleeding could be considered undesirable'.
Kitchin, in his book Pharaoh Triumphant, The Life and Times of Ramesses II, quotes a document which was probably the scribe's atten­dance sheet. It records the absentee's name, the date and the reason why he was missing from work:

Pendua: 1st month of Inundation, Day 14 ‑ (out) drinking with Khons...
Haremwia: 3rd of Inundation, Days 21 and 22 ‑ with his boss (fore­man); 2nd of Winter, Day 8 ‑ brewing beer; 3rd of Summer, Days 17, 18, 21 ‑ ill.
Huynefer: 2nd of winter, Days 7, 8 ‑ ill; 3rd of Summer, Days 3, 5 ‑eye trouble; Days 7, 8 ‑ W.
Amenemwia: lst of Winter, Day 15 ‑ mummifying Harmose; 2nd of Winter, Day 7 ‑ absent; Day 8 ‑ brewing beer; Day 16 ‑ strength­ening the door..
Seba: 4th of Inundation, Day 17 ‑ a scorpion bit him.
Khons: 4th of Inundation, Day 7 ‑ W; 4th of Winter, Day 8 ‑ attend­ing his god; ist of Inundation, Day 14 ‑ his feast; Day 15 ‑ his feast (a birthday hangover?).
QeAnuy: I st of Winter, Day 24 ‑ fetching stone for Qen‑hir‑khopshef., 2nd of Winter, Day 7 ‑ ditto; Day 17 ‑ absent; Day 24 ‑ absent with scribe.

Provision of equipment

Although many of the workmen had their own tools, they did not use them when working for the king. Tools were issued from the govern­ment storehouse when required. The scribe kept a careful record of every piece of equipment distributed to the workers and every tool handed back to be sharpened or repaired.
Since much of the work was done deep within the tomb, the workers were provided with lamps. These consisted of wicks made from greased pieces of twisted linen placed in pottery bowls which were filled with salt­ed oil. The salt prevented the wicks from smoking. Not only would smoke have made it difficult for the workers to see but it would have damaged the paintings. Wicks were issued daily and it seems from the evidence that the men went through an enormous number of them each day.

Account of wicks issued from the storehouse in the 3rd month of Summer, [Day .. ]: 528 wicks. Account of consumption rendered this day: 118 wicks.


Wage slips have been found among the remains at Deir el‑Medina and they show that the workmen were paid in the form of monthly rations of emmer wheat flour (for making bread) and barley (for making beer). These payments were authorised by the vizier and paid through the royal treasury. A bonus of meat, salt and oil was generally paid on fes­tival days.
The foremen and scribe received the highest wages, followed by the guardians and doorkeepers. However, the craftsmen were amply paid most of the time. They also had opportunities to supplement their income by doing extra jobs for their superiors and making funerary equipment for their colleagues. In addition, the men received deliveries of vegeta­bles, fish, water, wood and pottery from suppliers outside the village.

Opportunities for promotion

The members of the work gangs were usually recruited from the sons of workmen. Since families were large, not every son was fortunate enough to become a member of one of the gangs. Those who missed out had to seek work elsewhere.
Competition for vacancies in the workforce was fierce. Although these positions were theoretically filled by the vizier, it was the foremen and scribe who made the recommendations. This situation often led to bribery and it was not unusual for a man to give gifts to his superiors in order to ensure his son a position.
Although the position of foreman was not strictly hereditary, the chiefs often made their sons deputies in order to give them a greater chance to inherit the position. For example, a draughtsman, called Amennakht, was promoted by the vizier to the position of scribe and for the next six generations a member of his family held this important position.

Work‑related disputes

There is evidence that the captains of the village did not always get along with each other. For example, a foreman by the name of Paneb threatened his colleague, Hay, that he would get him in the mountains and kill him. His threat was not carried out but the situation indicates that relations were not always smooth. This was not the only occasion on which Paneb threatened to kill someone. He threw stones at the house of a chief workman called Neferhotep and said 'I will kill him in the night'.
A draughtsman-painter named Prehotep sent the scribe an angry note because he felt he had been treated unfairly. 'What's the meaning of this rotten way you've treated me? I am to you just like a donkey.'
Workmen were far from happy if they thought others were not doing their job properly. For example, a draughtsman complained about the laziness of someone called Ib who took the whole day to get water for the workmen.
The foremen and even the workmen often sent notes reminding the vizier that their rations were overdue or that they were short of essential supplies needed to complete a tomb. On one occasion, when the workmen did not get their rations on time, they refused to work and actually staged a sit‑down demonstration, supported by the foreman and the chief of police. Mentmose, the police chief, advised them to:

Go up, collect your tools, lock your doors and bring your wives and your children. And 1 will go in front of you to the Mansion of Menmaetre (Temple of Seti I) and install you there in the morning.

Techniques used in the construction of a royal tomb

When a new king came to the throne, the royal tomb workers rejoiced because it meant the start of a new project. They would have no trou­ble getting rations and supplies and if the king wanted his tomb completed quickly, more men would be recruited. Once a royal commis­sion, headed by the vizier, had chosen a suitable site in the Valley of the Kings and a plan was drawn up, the quarrying began.
The stonemasons used copper or bronze spikes which, when pounded with a wooden mallet, would split the rock. The limestone debris was removed from the site in baskets and deposited on the valley floor. The workmen and their superiors used these limestone chips for keeping records, making rough notes, sending messages, scribbling and drawing.
As the quarrymen and stonemasons excavated further into the cliff, the plasterers followed, smoothing down the walls with a layer of gypsum and whitewash. The draughtsmen outlined the layout of the text and pictures in red ink. Any mistakes or improvements were marked in black by the master draughtsman. The scenes to be inscribed and/or painted featured mainly funerary themes such as the journey of the sun god Re, (with whom the king was associated) through the Underworld at night and his rebirth every morning to begin his journey across the sky by day.
The sculptors and painters followed. In some areas, the quality of the stone did not favour reliefs and so the scenes were simply painted on the plaster surface. Where the carving of reliefs was possible, the sculp­tors used bronze chisels. The reliefs were then painted, using natural oxides (red, brown and yellow), derivatives of copper (blue and green), whitewash and soot. These were ground and then mixed with water and occasionally gum.
When a king died, the workmen had to stop what work they were doing and concentrate on making the tomb as presentable as possible before the funeral.

Life in Deir el‑Medina

This purpose-built village was protected by its own police force since the location of the royal tombs had to be kept secret and the men who worked on them had to be protected. The police station was located outside the village walls.

Village houses

At the time of Ramesses II, the village contained about 70 houses with­in an enclosure wall and approximately 40 outside the wall. There was one main street and a number of side alleys, which some archaeologists believe may have been covered.
The mud‑brick and stone houses, which opened straight onto the street, generally followed a similar pattern. However, there were variations according to status within the community.
The white, one‑storey houses had flat roofs made from palm trunks and leaves which were covered with plaster. The evidence suggests that doors may have been painted red. Texts, also written in red, were writ­ten above some of the doorways and these have enabled archaeologists to identify individual home owners. A stairway at the back of the house provided access to the roof which acted as a cool terrace during the warm evenings. Outside each house stood a large water‑storage jar which was filled from the community well outside the northern gate of the village. Water carriers who did not live in the village kept the well full. They carted water from the Nile River a few kilometres away.
Most of the sparsely furnished houses consisted of four rooms with a walled courtyard at the back where the cooking was done. The entrance hall contained niches for offering tables, stelae and the busts of ances­tors. It also featured a large brick structure which may have been an altar or a bed where the women of the family gave birth. The next room had a brick platform around the walls which acted as seating during the day and beds at night. The ceiling of this room was higher than the rest and light filtered in through small high windows. In most homes the floor was of hard-packed earth but wealthier inhabitants plastered their floors as well as the walls. In some houses, remains of cellars have been found beneath this room. Side rooms were probably used as sleeping quarters, for storage and as work areas.

Village women

Except for a few old men and invalids, it was the women who carried on all the activities associated with daily life during the eight days the men were away. They were often required to answer requests for more food to be sent to the mountain camp. For example, a workman called Nebneteru sent the following message to his mother:
Have brought to me some bread, also whatever (else) you have by you, urgently, urgently!
As well as looking after their many children, the women supplemented their meagre issue of clothing by spinning, weaving and dressmaking. Slaves, provided by the government, alleviated their housework some­what by grinding corn and carrying out other menial tasks. There was also a regular laundry service provided by workers from outside the community. These washermen were assigned a certain number of households to service.
It appears that some of the women in Deir el‑Medina could read and write. This is not surprising in a village with a high number of skilled and educated personnel. Notes about female matters (dressmaking advice, laundry lists) and letters by workmen to their wives and moth­ers are evidence of this.
A woman's importance in the community was recognised by law. If she inherited property she was left in control of it even after marriage and she was entitled also to a third of the marital property. She was also per­mitted to leave her property to whomever she wished. There is evi­dence of a woman disinheriting her children because they did not look after her when she grew old.
If she divorced her husband she retained control of her private proper­ty. Although the one who left the marriage had to pay the other com­pensation, the amount expected from a wife to her husband was less. The only exception was if the husband accused the wife of adultery.
A letter found in the village described a situation involving a woman and her married neighbour who were having an affair. This almost led to an ugly incident as supporters of the wronged wife took matters into their own hands. Fortunately the police arrived before the pair were attacked by the incensed mob.

Neighbourhood squabbles and court cases

In a community as small and confined as Deir el‑Medina disputes often broke out. Although there were serious offences committed such as theft and violence, the majority of disputes which led to court cases concerned failure to pay for goods and services. In fact, the evidence seems to suggest that the villagers went to court over very trivial matters such as the failure to pay for a pot of fat and the sale of a lame donkey. Perhaps a good court case alleviated the boredom of the daily routine.
One notorious case concerned the foreman Paneb. He was accused of robbing private tombs, using government equipment and employees for work on his own tomb, threatening members of the community and making sexual assaults on several married women. Paneb was eventu­ally removed from office.
The local court, called the kenbet, was composed of the foremen, deputies, scribes and some highly regarded senior villagers. It dealt with all civil cases and some minor criminal ones. Very serious cases were referred to the vizier's court.


Life in the village was not all work. Religious festivals and family cele­brations gave people the chance to relax and have fun. The evidence suggests that they needed little excuse for a party and that on these occasions there was a plentiful supply of beer and wine.
During one of the yearly feasts to their patron, the deified king Amenhotep I, 'the gang made merry before him for four full days, drink­ing with their wives and children ‑ sixty people from inside (the vil­lage) and sixty people from outside'.
Scenes from the villagers' tombs show members of the family amusing themselves at a game of draughts and the numerous ostraka reveal that many villagers sketched and read popular stories. One of the largest ostraka ever found had the complete version of the story of Sinuhe written on it.


The painted scenes in the workmen's tombs and the number of village and household shrines and stelae indicate that the villagers had a strong personal devotion to the gods. Their tombs, cut in the cliffs above the village, feature Osiris and Isis as well as the deified Amenhotep and his mother Ahmose Nefertari. Village shrines were dedicated to Amun, Hathor, Thoth and Meretseger, the snake goddess of the peak which dominated the west bank.
Two particularly popular deities with the villagers were Taweret, the hip­popotamus goddess of childbirth and Bes, the bearded dwarf, god of fertili­ty, dance and music. This latter god was depicted on amulets (protective charms) and frescoes found in the houses.
Stelae placed in the home or in special chapels were dedicated to deceased members of the village and family ancestors.

For further information on occupations, see 3.2 Crafts and industry