BMCR 2000.08.21

Village Life in Ancient Egypt: Laundry Lists and Love Songs

, Village Life in Ancient Egypt: Laundry Lists and Love Songs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. xii-xiv + 279. $70.00.

This book contains English translations of texts from Deir El Medina, the village of the workers who constructed the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings between 1570 and 1070 BC. Some of the texts are reprints, but previously unpublished material has been included. This volume aims to make the Egyptian material accessible not only to Egyptologists but to scholars in other fields as well, so that the reader may, in the words of the author, “experience the life of the villagers through their own words whilst viewing the artifacts and artwork they left behind.” This is one of the best volumes on Deir El Medina, and is an outstanding scholarly achievement, certain to prove useful to Egyptologist and historian alike.

Because remnants of daily life are more easily subject to decay, we have a biased view of life in Ancient Egypt. Therefore, a volume such as this is refreshing. Not only do we possess sufficient archaeological data from the site of Deir El Medina, but we are also fortunate in having literally thousands of texts on papyrus and ostraca recording the various activities of the villagers to complement the physical remains. Thus, it gives us a good view of Egyptian society from life through death as opposed to life after death. The setting of Deir El Medina as presented by the author is a well-preserved time capsule of ancient Egyptian society.

The volume gets off to an impressive start with an informative introduction, which discusses important issues such as the historical setting, and a general description of the community of workmen, including information on the archaeological remains and the history of the site excavations. Maps, plans of the village, sections of a typical house and tomb help to give the reader a feel for the period, especially those who are learning about Deir El Medina for the first time.

McDowell has provided a brief description of each text, in addition to information on how the individual text contributes to our understanding of ancient Egyptian society. The notes are useful and help the reader understand the text, as well as giving a bit of the historical context. However, non-Egytologists might have profited from more information on the genre known as “The Letters to the Dead.” For example, in number 77, there is a reference in the entry to this type of document, but no further description is supplied. Since the book seems to be aimed at a wider audience, this omission was probably an oversight.

Additional commentary about the individual texts is supplied in the notes. This information is slightly selective, but the author also provides a useful list of resources, no doubt meant as a starting point for further research, at the beginning of the book. Each section includes carefully selected illustrations, allowing the reader to experience the texts in a wider context. The translations are reliable. Finding one’s way through Village Life is simplified by the table of contents in addition to three indices devoted to individual texts, names and general topics.

Chapter one, “Family and Friends,” contains twenty four pages devoted to this important area. The author provides private letters, love charms and a census. Many “modern” subjects such as domestic violence and requests for paternity leave (Text 10) are included. Texts 14 and 20 deal with what we might call “emancipated women,” i.e., woman who were independent enough to dispose of property as well as unwanted suitors. Such texts shed light on ancient Egyptian society and are invaluable for giving a more balanced perspective on daily life.

In chapter two, McDowell focuses on different aspects of daily life. Here the author presents texts which discuss health care, the delivery and shortfall of rations, including water. Mundane topics like weather and the construction, repair and maintenance of households and tombs show that the village inhabitants had many of the same concerns found in modern life.

Chapter three is devoted to religion. To date, most of what we know about ancient Egyptian religion concerns the official state cult and is extremely one-sided. Therefore, information provided on personal piety is all the more relevant in that it presents a more equitable image of ancient Egyptian religion during this time period. Local religious practices, including festivals and divine manifestations are treated at length. Only brief sections are devoted to official cults and the oracle. These topics are presented extensively in chapter five (pp. 172-175). Their inclusion here shows their relationship to personal piety. We are shown as well how the oracle functioned in the village.

Education, learning and literature are discussed in chapter four. Well-known texts such as “The Tale of Horus and Seth” and others are presented, but the book does not restrict itself to the “classic” literary works of the Middle and New Kingdoms, which can be found in the major anthologies of Ancient Egyptian literature. McDowell’s inclusion of numerous lesser known texts is significant because this material has no other source and would otherwise be unknown were it not for the village. Many of the texts are student exercises and show that pupils did not learn Egyptian sign by sign, but rather concentrated on phrases and sentences. Furthermore, they were trained in both Middle and Late Egyptian. P Chester Beatty IV (Text 101) suggests that some of the workmen did read texts for pleasure and not merely for learning. Texts such as number 95 also give us rare glimpses of how pupils outside the village learned. Other genres include Wisdom Texts, letters and love poems. Many texts also provide their author, e.g., number 93. Deir El Medina’s inhabitants had a keen historical awareness, although not the same as the modern sense of history.

It is most welcome that a scholar with a combined background in Egyptology and law has presented legal material as the focus of chapter five. The reader is provided with a wealth of information on this fascinating aspect of human activity. Disputes are not presented as being processed, that is as “logical” steps leading to a start and a finish, rather, the diversity of human activity is shown. By a careful selection of legal texts, the author shows in detail that conflict management, complete with different possibilities for containment, was part of daily life: One could consult the local court or qnbt, the office of the vizier as well as the oracle of the deified pharaoh Amenophis I. The last was used mostly for disputes involving property. In spite of all of the written documentation, however, the legal process was primarily oral. The courts at Deir El Medina were not as formal as modern courts and seem to have decided each case according to situational adjustment. Finally some texts give an indication of the actions, such as assault and theft, which were considered deviant by the villagers. This chapter is useful for those interested in comparative law. In the future legal historians with no knowledge of Egyptian will have no difficulty using the texts.

The remaining chapter is devoted to the Work on the Royal Tombs, with extensive information on the construction of a royal tomb. Several plans have survived, and McDowell takes the reader step by step through the entire procedure from the time of inception, as illustrated in the plan of the tomb of Ramses IV, to the actual preparation of the tomb by stonecutters. There is also information on when a tomb began and how a site was chosen as well as the type of lighting used. Illustrations and tomb scenes supplement the written record, providing a “virtual reality” for the reader.

As Egypt became weaker, towards the end of the Twentieth Dynasty, so too did the prosperity of the workmen in the village. This period, which was marked by strikes (numbers 187 and 189), shortfalls in payments (number 188) and layoffs (number 182), is brilliantly illustrated textually by her chosen material.

Village Life will be a standard work for years to come and is a valuable addition to books on Deir El Medina and the topic of daily life. It is well written, complete, extremely user friendly and provides refreshing and modern translations of known texts in addition to much welcome unpublished material. Its main advantage will be its use to scholars from other areas researching daily life in antiquity. We owe our thanks to the author for this wonderful volume.