Monday, October 29, 2007

John Romer - Ancient Lives; The Story of the Pharaohs' Tombmakers

Whenever you wander around an ancient place, be it Roman, Egyptian or Greek. Or visit some long ruined castle or cave, it is impossible not to gaze around and imagine what it must have been like for the people who lived there.

This is doubly problematic for those who have been lucky enough to visit the Pyramids. After all, no-one lived there. These were the tombs of the richest of Egyptian society. The people who made these places died, in the most, forgotten. The ordinary people of Egypt who created the wealth of the Egyptian Pharaohs leave few if any markers.

However for those who created the beautifully engraved and decorated tombs of the Valley of the Kings in southern Egypt. This is not true. For hundreds of years, men and women of the village that is now known as Deir El Medina lived and worked on the tombs and we are lucky enough to have a wealth of detailed accounts of their lives, as well as much more circumstantial evidence to back up the documents that have been discovered.

In the last hundred years or so, Archaeologists have discovered dozens of papyrus scrolls, which detail in minutiae the lives of these tomb builders. It seems that the foremen of the working gangs were meticulous in the day to day detail they recorded.

"Year one, on the twelfth day of the first month of summer, the boulder of flint was found on the right" wrote Scribe Kenhirkhopeshef, who was in charge of keeping the work journal of the tomb of the Great Ramses (who died in 1212BC). Each day he recorded the depth of digging, the number of wicks used by the quarrymen lamps and other details of the dig. Writing mostly on flakes of stone, the scribe recorded the 13 years work on the tomb of Rameses' successor. We know he sat and watched the workers from a niche cut into the rock above the tomb because he scratched "Sitting Place of the Scribe Kenhirkhopeshef" on the rock beside his seat.

While hard, the work was rewarding for the villagers. They held a priority place in Egyptian society - the important job of creating the resting place for the Pharaoh's corpse as the king travelled into the here-after. As such they got better food rations and more beer than most ordinary people. Though this didn't always mean the villagers lived in perfect harmony. Court records record the arguments and legal wrangling that must always occur in tight-knit communities where food might be short and possessions few. We hear about the rows and the fights, and the occasional murder.

Romer has brought together the most compelling stories of these people. To use a cliche, he brings them to life. For me though, the most lifelike the workers become is when they are forced, perhaps for the first time in history, to struggle together.

During the reign of King Ramesses III (around 1160BC to 1170BC) rations went short. Probably through robbery by bureaucrats in Thebes. The tombmakers did what their brothers and sisters of generations to come have done, they used the only weapon available to them - they downed tools.

"Tempers finally broke on 14 November 1152BC, in the 29th year of the King, when the two gangs stopped their work and marched together out of the Great Place. The senior men, the two foremen, their deputies and the Scribe Amennakht had no idea where they had gone."

They went and found the local elders to demand rations and the next day headed for the temple of Ramses II, where the Mayor promised food. However, this wasn't forthcoming (not the last time a bureaucrat's promises came to nothing) and the strike continued. The next day, we learn that the missing rations were given to the men, and they returned to work. This victory seems to have given them confidence as further strikes are recorded necessitating the Pharaohs' Vizier to visit the village later in the year to examine what was causing the problems.

I could go on in great detail about similar events. The rise and fall of the village, matching the rise and fall of the power of the Pharaohs is here in detail and the final chapter brings the story up to date - detailing the discovery of the village and it's records, as well as information on how the story was decoded.

This is a fascinating bit of history - my only minor quibble, is that there is little on how the works were decoded.... the scratch markings reproduced here, carrying so much information are impossible to understand... I'd love more information on how they related to hieroglyphics, and how we know what they say. This is a minor criticism though of a fascinating book - perfect for anyone who believes that history should not be about kings and queens, but those that created their wealth, and in the words of Brecht built "Thebes of the Seven Gates".

1 comment:

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