This temporary exhibition, originally created and put together by the RMN and co-organized by the Louvre Museum, the Royal Museum of Art and History of Brussels, and the Egyptian Museum of Turin in Italy is taking place in Paris' Louvre Museum from 19th April to 22nd of July 2002.
Deir el Medineh: the Artisans of the Pharaohs
Ancient Egypt has a very special link with modern civilization, and the current exhibition in Paris brings to life this connection in concentrating on art objects from the site of a fascinating Egyptian village that was inhabited by artists and craftsmen in the service of the great pharaohs of the 'New Empire' from Thutmose I to Rameses XI, covering the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties (c. 1525-1085 BC). This special link is used as a leitmotiv to show how a common cultural trunk is shared like a cybernetic tree system of human intelligence and creativity.
Since it is over three thousand years later and we can see that a large portion of our know-how derives directly from the discoveries and inventions of this or an even more remote past the current exhibition is a living proof one is driven to think that this know-how cannot go back merely a few thousand years but more likely tens of thousands of years, judging by the extent of the numerous discoveries in every field and the level of advancement and refinement reached already in that period of Egyptian history.
Very often the ancient civilization of Egypt has been depicted as a remote culture with strange and complicated gods and goddesses, deified kings and queens, and a whole nation mostly dedicated to the cult of the afterlife, engaged mainly in the building and decoration of royal tombs. This is understandable because history is full of examples where conquerors muddied the waters of history to take the credit for achievements. And it is only quite recently that man has been concerned with getting to the truth through scientific investigation. So when the truth is unveiled, as it is in this exhibition, you are surprised with the vivacity of these people who had such an admirable art of living that is expressed both in the refinement of their artistic design and in the highly efficient and coordinated organization of their society and workplace.
Deir el Medineh owed its existence to the choice of Thebes (Luxor) in Upper Egypt as the capital of the New Kingdom by the kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty (no doubt since organized resistance against the Hyksos invaders started there and gave rise to the new Dynasty and Kingdom) and also to the founding of the Valley of the Kings as their new necropolis (perhaps inspired by the natural pyramidal mountains that made the site safe and inaccessible to looters). The village itself had no water source of its own, perhaps also with a view to keeping the workers separate from the general population because they were privy to too many secrets.
Yet this exhibition concentrates on the daily life of the artisans who, over several generations, worked for the necropolis and lived at the foot of a hill, an hour’s walk from the Valley of the Kings and a twenty-minute walk from the Valley of the Queens (see map below). Moreover, the two new giant statues that were discovered in March 2002 near the two other colossal statues of Amenhotep III (known as the colossi of Memnon since Alexander brought Greek culture to bear) reminds us that the site of Deir el Medineh is also right beside the mortuary temples situated on the eastern face of the mountain in western Thebes. The position of the new colossal statues looks very much like they flanked the second pylon (entrance doorway) to what had been considered the lost mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, and this find suggests that his mortuary temple could still be buried under the centuries of rich alluvial silt, to add to the fabulous sites already familiar of Medinet Habu (Rameses III), the Ramesseum (Rameses II) and Deir el Bahari (Hatshepsut) in the same area of western Thebes.
The artisans of Deir el Medineh played a major role in transmitting to the world the culture of their epoch, making known to us great figures of their time in Egypt legendary figures such as Queen Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Amenhotep III, Akhenaton or Rameses II. It is also thanks to their work if today we can penetrate their religious beliefs and discover surprising similarities with modern religions, their intellectual advancement or poetic view of life. There are those that see divisions and differences; I, with many others, am amazed at the similarities.
Fragments of pottery or ostraca (from Greek ostrakon, pl. ostraka) found in Deir el Medineh show how this medium was frequently used instead of the expensive papyrus to sketch almost anything from a letter, verses of poetry, instantaneous snap-shots of daily life, or even journals of village life or administrative letters. Hundreds of these ostraca were found at the site of Deir el Medineh, and some very interesting ones are on show at this exhibition, testifying to a people who enjoyed their lives and lived it fully, not just working but buying and selling and not depriving themselves of material comforts. All the ingredients of a fully developed community are represented with people ordering furniture, keeping accounts (ostracon of arrears), keeping track of work progress, presence and absence registers, protesting or striking (papyrus of strikes dating from the year 29 of the reign of Rameses III known now as the 1880 Turin museum papyrus), editing newspapers or even gossip magazines, making wills (ostracon of succession), prescriptions (ostracon of a scorpion bite), seeking help from specialists of the occult (ostracon of the possessed), or asking advice from the statue of the king who nodded yes or no to the written requests.
A rich social life enticed them to look after their appearance, use makeup and perfumes, have elaborate hairstyles, dress with taste and use beautifully designed jewelry, all with an innate elegance and a sense of good taste (a great number of these items such as mirrors, eye makeup, perfume bottles, decorative boxes for jewelry or clothes were found at the site). We see how they seemed to bathe in a sort of 'dolce vita' at home and enjoy a family life with its warmth as well as its dose of intrigues and feuds (an example is shown of a mother repudiating three of her five children, cutting them out of her will). They enjoyed eating and drank mostly beer but also wine that was reserved for special occasions (witness the numerous and finely designed amphora found on the site imported from Mycenae or Canaan). Their leisure time was devoted to listening to music (fragment of an ostracon with a nude woman musician from the Twentieth Dynasty as well as an ostracon of a nude dancer from the Nineteenth Dynasty) or playing intellectual games (fragment of ostracon of game players) or even decorate their own future tombs in their spare time (tombs of Pached, Sennejem, Karo, Inherkhaou etc.).
As they were paid through barter, they used the same commercial method amongst themselves (contracts found where a painter decorated the sarcophagus of a carpenter who in return gave him a bed). It is not surprising that up to 53 tombs of the artisans of the Rameses period were found in the western cemetery of Deir el Medineh, especially that of Sennejem (a necropolis artisan at the time of Rameses II), whose tomb was discovered intact. Very much inspired by the tomb of Queen Nefertari, a reproduction of this tomb ends the exhibition, showing scenes with Sennejem and his wife praying to the gods, sowing and reaping in the eternal fields of Osiris. A beautifully sculpted and painted sarcophagus of Sennejem's daughter-in-law was also found in the tomb of this distinguished artisan. This tomb or that of Inherkhaou, team leader during the reign of Rameses III to VII, add amazing testimony to the life of this most charming community.
Therefore, parallel to working for the nearby site of the royal tomb (Pa kher) at the Valley of the Kings under the title of the Servants of 'The Place of Truth' (Set Maât), the artisans led a happy and full life in Deir el Medineh. Their refined life-style could be explained by the fact that these were well-educated people, official sculptors, painters, calligraphers and architects, and the cluster of 68 houses in Deir el Medineh constituted their assigned private homes in which they lived with their wives, children and elders, and from which they walked to their work place at the nearby construction sites of the Valley of the Kings or Queens.
For every 8 days of work, mostly spent at the site of the royal tombs, they spent 2 days at home in Deir el Medineh. Several generations of artisans belonging to the same family occupied these houses as is suggested from 'family pictures' at the tomb of Pached who was an artisan working for Rameses II as a stone carver. Other families of artisans such as that of Karo had given several generations of quarrymen and sculptors enumerated in a funerary stela in his tomb, also from the epoch of Rameses II.
Far from suggesting a people obsessed with death, the evidence gathered here at this exhibition points rather to a lively and highly creative people who loved life so much that they wanted to replicate every aspect of it and carry it to the kingdom of the dead. Things to be taken along on your eternal voyage included 'ushabti' (figurines) of loved ones or servants placed in little decorative boxes (examples were found in Deir el Medineh dating from the Nineteenth Dynasty, epoch of Rameses II, such as the box of Khabekhenet), as well as food (bread and fruit baskets with wooden replicas of various fruits, like pomegranates etc.) as well as furniture.
To this literal wish of perpetuation was of course added a more spiritual one with symbolic and theological painted scenes of the 'nightly voyage' of the deceased before being 'reborn'. The physical objects of eternity were accompanied by spiritual messages (called book of the underworld or Amdouat) in the tombs where the corridors constituted the symbolic path through which the deceased should pass following physical and spiritual rituals, with the walls of the hypogees recounting the litanies of 'passage', 'obstacle', 'keeping out the enemies', ‘presence of truth’ (Maat), 'the trial of the dead' (by Osiris), 'rebirth' (thanks to strength of the sun God Re), and finally the eternal rest in the light of 'the golden house'. The Amdouat was interpreted differently through the ages: the nightly voyage of Re could take place in a symbolic 'boat' before rebirth. Every new interpretation based on the same notion of death and resurrection produced different 'books' in different epochs (book of the doors, book of the day and light, book of earth etc.).
Although they were artisans and workers remote from the state and religious centers of power, their life and work was nevertheless intellectually intertwined with the history of the New Empire, it's pharaohs and the traditions and laws governing the state. Moreover, a deep understanding of the religious beliefs that governed the cosmos, as well as mastery of artistic tradition was essential. And judging by the fragments of the papyrus and ostraca, their work was organized almost following the same basic pattern of any work force today with a head artisan as chief coordinator of the team reporting to administrators who were either statesmen (viziers) or the mayor of Thebes, or the Chief Priest of Amon (a copy of a letter on ostracon from vizier Hay to team leader Nebnefer promises to remedy the delay in delivery of rations to workmen).
Grades started at the lowest level with the quarry laborer who quarried and shaped the stones a very trying job, often done in a cramped position and in extremely high temperatures, and sometimes in the dark with oil lamps. These laborers, the most unqualified workers, also served as water and food carriers to the village of the artisans, and lived lower in the valley. A hierarchical system of payment gave the leader of the team not only larger rations of food, but other privileges such as having the workers of the royal tombs work for their own tomb and be paid by the state. The artisans too were handsomely remunerated in food and clothing and were entitled to their own house and servants.
Their work had method and was equally well organized. The vizier and a committee of high officials chose the site of the tomb and a plan was drafted (see the tomb plan of Rameses VI of the Twentieth Dynasty in papyrus now in the Museum of Turin, and an ostracon with the plan of the tomb of Ramesses IX now in the Cairo museum). Immediately after this the interior was carved (3 months were necessary to advance 30 meters according to one ostracon). A right and left team (perhaps in order to give unity and harmony to the large overall surfaces to be decorated) of 30 to forty workmen then designed the interior. The apprentice draftsmen/painters (draftsmen were called 'sesh quedou', literally 'contour draftsman') roughly sketched the composition with red paint that was then corrected and meticulously drawn in black by the master-draftsman according to the artistic canons of the time. This was not improvised but required years of training in the symbolism of each drawing or scene (cf. the unfinished part of Horemheb's sarcophagus room). Then came the 'man who holds the medjet scissors' as they called the sculptors who carved around each drawing, shaping it into bas-reliefs, and he was followed by the painter who put the finishing touches, applying polychrome paint.
In the exhibition there are some extraordinary examples of artisans’ tools that were found in Kha's tomb. These are mainly rough flint tools but also include precision tools such as a square and plumb line, and even artists' palettes still containing colors in yellow and red ochres, and copper green.
In addition, throughout the New Empire, a 'Book of the Dead' was placed beside the mummy. This consisted of a written collection of earlier teachings and formulae containing hymns to the gods or rituals to identify the dead, pleadings in their favor to the gods, enumerating the dead person’s achievements, and chapters on how the deceased could acquire eternal life in the kingdom of Osiris and avoid hell.
The calligraphy in official and ceremonial places such as tombs was always in hieroglyphics performed by the contour draftsmen (who were also called scribes of 'sesh', as drawing and writing had no distinct frontier) but the ostraca and other less official papyri were written in hieratic script, a sort of cursive writing resulting from the graphic deformation of hieroglyphics and used in literary or some administrative documents. Hieratic writing was used mainly by scribes and highly skilled artisans (also occasionally by women) and this was the prime instrument of book-keeping, journals of local news, and legal documents, etc.
It is clear that a true spiritual life gave a moral dimension to their lives, and the fact that after working for the decoration of the tombs of the kings and queens they decorated their own tombs with the same religious fervor, shows that from the pharaoh to the honored artisan, all were bound and united with the same beliefs.
Yet this site had it's own favorite gods and saints. High on the pantheon was Amon-Re the sun God, and Osiris, the God of death and resurrection, but most of all the Goddess Maat, Goddess of truth and justice recognizable by the feather in her hair. There was also the Serpent Goddess Meresger (who loved silence), while Hathor (the Goddess of love, joy and wine, mother of Horus, associated with the sacred cow and maternal source to whom the dead returned) was a favorite at Deir el Medineh. In addition, Queen Ahmes Nefertari (whose beautiful wooden statuette dating from the Rameses II epoch is exhibited here) and her son Thutmose I (who is believed to be the founder of Deir el Medineh) were also venerated.
The life of this micro-society had its enthusiastic beginning, flourishing development and unfortunate end stemming from social unrest and looting. Very much like the modern cycles of human enterprise, the initial flame that brought these people together to build and give birth to many a wonderful creation finally dimmed and died out because of a series of injustices, leading to strikes and looting. We see the age-old mistakes of mismanagement of the cycles of growth and prosperity, a deterioration of moral and spiritual values, and the rigidity of a system that did not evolve as well as destabilizing factors from their enemies abroad.
The site of Deir el Medineh was discovered by Gaston Maspero, director of the Cairo Boulaq museum who began excavation of Deir el Medineh that was entirely hidden under desert sand. By revealing the untouched tomb of the artisan Sennejem in 1886, he uncovered one the most fascinating vestiges of the Egyptian civilization. From 1905-1909 Ernesto Schiaparelli discovered the tomb of Kha (distinguished architect whose funerary objects are now in Italy's Turin museum) as well as the decorated corridors of the tomb of Maia. From the year 1917, Bernard Bruyère of the French Institute of Oriental Archeology in Cairo started the systematic excavation of Deir el Medineh until 1951. Jaroslav Cerny another key figure in the discovery of Deir el Medineh deciphered the Hieratic language.
Art Lovers' Paris
Sources and bibliography: The Catalog of the exhibition, RMN edition; Les Artisans de Pharaon by Guillemette Andreu and Florence Gombert; La Civilization de l'Egypte Pharaonique by Frannçois Daumas; A community of Workmen at Thebes in the Ramesside Period, Deir-el-Médineh by Jaroslav Cerny.
Plan of the site at Thebes in Upper Egypt