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How Ancient Egyptians Lived and Worked in the Valley of Kings

The men who prepared the tombs in the Valley of the Kings used a collaborative process to decorate one of the most famous archaeological sites

Inside the Tomb of Ramesses IV
Inside the Tomb of Ramesses IV

As the land of Cleopatra and one of the Seven Wonders of the World, ancient Egypt oozes attention to detail. It’s within this complicated and incredibly advanced civilization that some of the most spectacularly decorated tombs in the world can be found – in the Valley of Kings.

Here, we’re exploring some interesting facts about the men who built these tombs and what we know about their ancient lives.

Village of Deir el-Medina 
Village of Deir el-Medina

We Learned About Their Lives and Work from Their Trash.

If you’re not an archaeologist, it may seem unlikely that we could know anything about these people who lived thousands of years ago. But, on the contrary, we know much about these people, their habits, and how they worked from the waste they left behind.

The men who built the tombs in the Valley of Kings lived together in a village called Deir el-Medina working in a system similar to the modern production line. They used strict record keeping to divide labor and resources, which they monitored carefully and with impressive precision.

The residents of Deir el-Medina had a garbage pit where they disposed of documents and drawings that were inscribed on limestone and pottery. The large, deep pit was a treasure trove, shedding light on the lives of these ancient people – more details than what has been found of any other Egyptian community.

Workmen’s Huts
Workmen’s Huts

From these findings, archeologists learned that during the workweek, which was ten days long back then, the men who worked on the tombs didn’t go home at night. The path back to the village was far too treacherous to follow after dark so they would stay in huts on a ridge aboveut the Valley of Kings.

Plus, in the winter, there were sometimes only 10 hours of sunlight during the day. To walk back to their village for a mid-day break was also out of the question. The trek took an hour and a half round-trip, further requiring them to stay in these huts.

On the plus side, their location above the Valley provided extra security from tomb robbers.

From their trash, we also learned that the team of workers consisted of between 40 and 120 men and were divided into two halves, the “left side” and the “right side.” As you can probably ascertain, this meant the men were permanently assigned to work on one side of the tomb – an interesting tidbit that shows further resemblance to the production lines of the industrial revolution where workers were assigned to a single job.

The Foreman had Many Responsibilities Beyond Supervision.

A foreman is a term used to describe the person in charge of the entire operation. They supervised all the tools and materials used, among having other responsibilities.

In the Valley of Kings in ancient Egypt, the position of foreman was often hereditary. They were chosen from existing tomb workers and, as payment, earned higher rations than the workers of lower ranks.

Some of their other duties beyond the supervision of tomb-building included representing the crew in relations with higher authorities, dealing with strikes over unpaid wages (which they normally distributed), and deciding legal disputes among the crew by taking oaths or acting as a witness.

Artist Sennedjem and his wife Iynefertifrom his tomb
Artist Sennedjem and his wife Iynefertifrom his tomb

Foremen would also inspect tombs in the worker’s cemetery and dealt with any inquiriesinstituted enquiries upon into a worker’s death. Still, their main duties were receiving blunt tools, issuing new ones, and dealing with wood and colors necessary for the workman’s tasks.

As you can see, the foreman had a lot of responsibility and was in control of much of the workers’ lives.

One Foreman Led a Scandalous Life.

As you can imagine, with all the power that foremen were given, surely many took advantage of their position. One such foreman was Paneb who led a scandalous life and committed many crimes.

Paneb worshipping a snake goddess
Paneb worshipping a snake goddess

He was accused of having gained his position as foreman through bribery and from there, the crimes continued. He sexually assaulted a married woman and her daughter, threatened to kill his adoptive father, and threw bricks at people while standing on a wall.

He also stole valuables from tombs and urinated on a royal sarcophagus. In short, this wasn’t someone you wanted to be associated with.

Scribes Kept all the Written Records.

Somewhat similarly to foremen, scribes were in positions that were also often hereditary. Many scribes followed in their fathers’ footsteps and were assigned to keep records of the activities and wages of the crew.

Did you know? Workers were usually paid primarily in grain. So, when scribes were keeping records of crew wages, they were dealing with grain.

They also communicated with higher administrators while receiving, issuing, and accounting for the construction materials used in the tomb-building projects.

Statue of scribe Ramose
Statue of scribe Ramose

The Tomb Builders Were Off From Work More Than They Were on.

We briefly mentioned previously that the Egyptian workweek was ten days long during the construction of the tombs at the Valley of Kings. Months were three weeks long along with the last two days of each week and the first day of each new week was being considered non-work days.

Since the ancient Egyptians were highly skilled at accounting and documentation, it was an important task of the scribes to take attendance each day, noting any reasons why a worker didn’t show up.

Archeologists have found that the most common excuse for absence was illness including eye troubles, scorpion stings, and aching hands and feet. Almost as common an excuse as an illness was people taking off work to engage in private projects for their superiors.

Other reasons tomb builders might have taken off work was for personal business like building their house or a tomb for a family member. They might also take off work to brew beer for an upcoming feast.

Speaking of feasts, it was also relatively common to take off work to attend a feast, religious event, to drink the beer they made, because of a death in the family, or because they fought with their wife or a friend. Ancient Egyptians are just like us!

Artist Sennedjem and his wife Iynefertifrom his tomb
Artist Sennedjem and his wife Iynefertifrom his tomb

Ok, maybe not – but the assumption that ancient Egyptian tomb builders were always working seems to be quite false. In reality, workers would often only work one day a week on the tombs. It seems modern-day humans have more trouble taking off from work than the Egyptians did.

Other Staff Supported the Work and Helped Maintain Law and Order.

Tomb construction was also supported by guardians, doorkeepers, police, and servants.

At any given time, one or two guardians would guard entrances and distribute tools. Copper chisels were the most valuable tool that was used and when they became blunt, workers would go to the guardians to exchange them for sharp ones. It was the guardian’s job to weigh the chisels and ensure they lost weight from usage.

Doorkeepers closed the tomb, delivered messages, fetched the grain that was used to pay the workers, and acted as witnesses.

Police completed security duties, as you might expect. They protected the royal tomb and inspected did the inspections on plundered tombs.

Tomb painting depicting the preparation of bread
Tomb painting depicting the preparation of bread

The tomb-builders had servants as well who did tasks like baking bread, fetching water, and doing laundry.

Young unmarried men who were expected to become tomb-builders also worked on the team. These boys were still paid, although less than the actual workers, and would perform small odd jobs. But they’d just as often get into trouble. These jobs were desirable since fathers often paid bribes to get them for their sons.

Many Tombs in the Valley of Kings Were Never Finished.

Many pharaohs died before their tombs were finished. Since many tombs were left in various stages of completion, we have an understanding of the stages involved in building a royal tomb.

First, the rough shape and dimensions of the final tomb would be hewedmined. They followed a prepared plan and since only a few men at a time could work due to the space constraints of the narrow tomb entrances, the others would clear out the rubble.

It should be noted that to illuminate any of the work that was done beyond where sunlight penetrated, the ancient Egyptians used  candles made out of old clothing or yarn greased with fat or sesame oil. The candles were under heavy surveillance because many workers would try to steal some of the fat and oil for home use.

Ostraca depicting a workman, found in Deir El Medina
Ostraca depicting a workman, found in Deir El Medina

Next, the workers would smooth the surface they just cut with chisels. They plastered the smoothed walls with gypsum to smooth out any remaining cracks or blemishes. Finally, They laid whitewash was laid on top to fill in the smaller pores.

When one pharaoh died and another ascended the throne, it was a time of celebration for the workers. Royal tombs were built to please the pharaohs while they were still alive, but once they were dead, the project would be abandoned and construction began on the new pharaoh’s tomb.

Ground plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV
Ground plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV

Egyptian Artists Did Not Sign Their Work.

Artists in ancient Egypt were not celebrated in the way they are today. Artists would work in assembly-line situations, just like the tomb builders, and most of the artwork that decorated the Valley of Kings was attributed to the person who commissioned the work, not the artist.

Most artists were high-ranking workers or artists’ sons and they collaborated with sculptors to complete specific designs.

Grid lines in tomb of Horemheb
Grid lines in tomb of Horemheb

Artists would subdivide a portion of the wall by holding a string dipped in red ink tightly across it, creating a grid. They used these grids to guide figure placement and the first drafts were done in yellow ochre.

Then, they rendered red placement sketches before completing more detailed drawings with corrections done in black.

Unfinished carving in tomb of Horemheb
Unfinished carving in tomb of Horemheb

From there, sculptors would carve the walls following the sketches done by the artists. They would sculpt from the base of the wall and work their way upward, carving outlines first and interior details later.

After the carvings were completed, artists would come back in and paint the carved surface by applying one color at a time.

Finished painting depictingRa traveling through the underworld in his barque, from the copy of the Book of Gates in the tomb of Ramses I (KV16)
Finished painting depictingRa traveling through the underworld in his barque, from the copy of the Book of Gates in the tomb of Ramses I (KV16)

Overall, the artistic process of building the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings was a huge collaborative effort and a massive part of ancient Egyptian culture and hierarchy that would have been repeated in some form in all of Egypt’s tombs and temples. If you get a chance to visit the area, hopefully, you’ll remember some of these interesting facts and find a deeper understanding of how these people lived and worked.

Inside the Tomb of Ramesses IV
Inside the Tomb of Ramesses IV

As the land of Cleopatra and one of the Seven Wonders of the World, ancient Egypt oozes attention to detail. It’s within this complicated and incredibly advanced civilization that some of the most spectacularly decorated tombs in the world can be found – in the Valley of Kings.

Here, we’re exploring some interesting facts about the men who built these tombs and what we know about their ancient lives.

Village of Deir el-Medina 
Village of Deir el-Medina

We Learned About Their Lives and Work from Their Trash.

If you’re not an archaeologist, it may seem unlikely that we could know anything about these people who lived thousands of years ago. But, on the contrary, we know much about these people, their habits, and how they worked from the waste they left behind.

The men who built the tombs in the Valley of Kings lived together in a village called Deir el-Medina working in a system similar to the modern production line. They used strict record keeping to divide labor and resources, which they monitored carefully and with impressive precision.

The residents of Deir el-Medina had a garbage pit where they disposed of documents and drawings that were inscribed on limestone and pottery. The large, deep pit was a treasure trove, shedding light on the lives of these ancient people – more details than what has been found of any other Egyptian community.

Workmen’s Huts
Workmen’s Huts

From these findings, archeologists learned that during the workweek, which was ten days long back then, the men who worked on the tombs didn’t go home at night. The path back to the village was far too treacherous to follow after dark so they would stay in huts on a ridge aboveut the Valley of Kings.

Plus, in the winter, there were sometimes only 10 hours of sunlight during the day. To walk back to their village for a mid-day break was also out of the question. The trek took an hour and a half round-trip, further requiring them to stay in these huts.

On the plus side, their location above the Valley provided extra security from tomb robbers.

From their trash, we also learned that the team of workers consisted of between 40 and 120 men and were divided into two halves, the “left side” and the “right side.” As you can probably ascertain, this meant the men were permanently assigned to work on one side of the tomb – an interesting tidbit that shows further resemblance to the production lines of the industrial revolution where workers were assigned to a single job.

The Foreman had Many Responsibilities Beyond Supervision.

A foreman is a term used to describe the person in charge of the entire operation. They supervised all the tools and materials used, among having other responsibilities.

In the Valley of Kings in ancient Egypt, the position of foreman was often hereditary. They were chosen from existing tomb workers and, as payment, earned higher rations than the workers of lower ranks.

Some of their other duties beyond the supervision of tomb-building included representing the crew in relations with higher authorities, dealing with strikes over unpaid wages (which they normally distributed), and deciding legal disputes among the crew by taking oaths or acting as a witness.

Artist Sennedjem and his wife Iynefertifrom his tomb
Artist Sennedjem and his wife Iynefertifrom his tomb

Foremen would also inspect tombs in the worker’s cemetery and dealt with any inquiriesinstituted enquiries upon into a worker’s death. Still, their main duties were receiving blunt tools, issuing new ones, and dealing with wood and colors necessary for the workman’s tasks.

As you can see, the foreman had a lot of responsibility and was in control of much of the workers’ lives.

One Foreman Led a Scandalous Life.

As you can imagine, with all the power that foremen were given, surely many took advantage of their position. One such foreman was Paneb who led a scandalous life and committed many crimes.

Paneb worshipping a snake goddess
Paneb worshipping a snake goddess

He was accused of having gained his position as foreman through bribery and from there, the crimes continued. He sexually assaulted a married woman and her daughter, threatened to kill his adoptive father, and threw bricks at people while standing on a wall.

He also stole valuables from tombs and urinated on a royal sarcophagus. In short, this wasn’t someone you wanted to be associated with.

Scribes Kept all the Written Records.

Somewhat similarly to foremen, scribes were in positions that were also often hereditary. Many scribes followed in their fathers’ footsteps and were assigned to keep records of the activities and wages of the crew.

Did you know? Workers were usually paid primarily in grain. So, when scribes were keeping records of crew wages, they were dealing with grain.

They also communicated with higher administrators while receiving, issuing, and accounting for the construction materials used in the tomb-building projects.

Statue of scribe Ramose
Statue of scribe Ramose

The Tomb Builders Were Off From Work More Than They Were on.

We briefly mentioned previously that the Egyptian workweek was ten days long during the construction of the tombs at the Valley of Kings. Months were three weeks long along with the last two days of each week and the first day of each new week was being considered non-work days.

Since the ancient Egyptians were highly skilled at accounting and documentation, it was an important task of the scribes to take attendance each day, noting any reasons why a worker didn’t show up.

Archeologists have found that the most common excuse for absence was illness including eye troubles, scorpion stings, and aching hands and feet. Almost as common an excuse as an illness was people taking off work to engage in private projects for their superiors.

Other reasons tomb builders might have taken off work was for personal business like building their house or a tomb for a family member. They might also take off work to brew beer for an upcoming feast.

Speaking of feasts, it was also relatively common to take off work to attend a feast, religious event, to drink the beer they made, because of a death in the family, or because they fought with their wife or a friend. Ancient Egyptians are just like us!

Artist Sennedjem and his wife Iynefertifrom his tomb
Artist Sennedjem and his wife Iynefertifrom his tomb

Ok, maybe not – but the assumption that ancient Egyptian tomb builders were always working seems to be quite false. In reality, workers would often only work one day a week on the tombs. It seems modern-day humans have more trouble taking off from work than the Egyptians did.

Other Staff Supported the Work and Helped Maintain Law and Order.

Tomb construction was also supported by guardians, doorkeepers, police, and servants.

At any given time, one or two guardians would guard entrances and distribute tools. Copper chisels were the most valuable tool that was used and when they became blunt, workers would go to the guardians to exchange them for sharp ones. It was the guardian’s job to weigh the chisels and ensure they lost weight from usage.

Doorkeepers closed the tomb, delivered messages, fetched the grain that was used to pay the workers, and acted as witnesses.

Police completed security duties, as you might expect. They protected the royal tomb and inspected did the inspections on plundered tombs.

Tomb painting depicting the preparation of bread
Tomb painting depicting the preparation of bread

The tomb-builders had servants as well who did tasks like baking bread, fetching water, and doing laundry.

Young unmarried men who were expected to become tomb-builders also worked on the team. These boys were still paid, although less than the actual workers, and would perform small odd jobs. But they’d just as often get into trouble. These jobs were desirable since fathers often paid bribes to get them for their sons.

Many Tombs in the Valley of Kings Were Never Finished.

Many pharaohs died before their tombs were finished. Since many tombs were left in various stages of completion, we have an understanding of the stages involved in building a royal tomb.

First, the rough shape and dimensions of the final tomb would be hewedmined. They followed a prepared plan and since only a few men at a time could work due to the space constraints of the narrow tomb entrances, the others would clear out the rubble.

It should be noted that to illuminate any of the work that was done beyond where sunlight penetrated, the ancient Egyptians used  candles made out of old clothing or yarn greased with fat or sesame oil. The candles were under heavy surveillance because many workers would try to steal some of the fat and oil for home use.

Ostraca depicting a workman, found in Deir El Medina
Ostraca depicting a workman, found in Deir El Medina

Next, the workers would smooth the surface they just cut with chisels. They plastered the smoothed walls with gypsum to smooth out any remaining cracks or blemishes. Finally, They laid whitewash was laid on top to fill in the smaller pores.

When one pharaoh died and another ascended the throne, it was a time of celebration for the workers. Royal tombs were built to please the pharaohs while they were still alive, but once they were dead, the project would be abandoned and construction began on the new pharaoh’s tomb.

Ground plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV
Ground plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV

Egyptian Artists Did Not Sign Their Work.

Artists in ancient Egypt were not celebrated in the way they are today. Artists would work in assembly-line situations, just like the tomb builders, and most of the artwork that decorated the Valley of Kings was attributed to the person who commissioned the work, not the artist.

Most artists were high-ranking workers or artists’ sons and they collaborated with sculptors to complete specific designs.

Grid lines in tomb of Horemheb
Grid lines in tomb of Horemheb

Artists would subdivide a portion of the wall by holding a string dipped in red ink tightly across it, creating a grid. They used these grids to guide figure placement and the first drafts were done in yellow ochre.

Then, they rendered red placement sketches before completing more detailed drawings with corrections done in black.

Unfinished carving in tomb of Horemheb
Unfinished carving in tomb of Horemheb

From there, sculptors would carve the walls following the sketches done by the artists. They would sculpt from the base of the wall and work their way upward, carving outlines first and interior details later.

After the carvings were completed, artists would come back in and paint the carved surface by applying one color at a time.

Finished painting depictingRa traveling through the underworld in his barque, from the copy of the Book of Gates in the tomb of Ramses I (KV16)
Finished painting depictingRa traveling through the underworld in his barque, from the copy of the Book of Gates in the tomb of Ramses I (KV16)

Overall, the artistic process of building the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings was a huge collaborative effort and a massive part of ancient Egyptian culture and hierarchy that would have been repeated in some form in all of Egypt’s tombs and temples. If you get a chance to visit the area, hopefully, you’ll remember some of these interesting facts and find a deeper understanding of how these people lived and worked.

Nicole B. Hansen
Nicole B. Hansen
Nicole B. Hansen received her PhD and MA in Egyptology from the University of Chicago and her BA in Egyptology from UC Berkeley. She worked for the Giza Plateau Mapping Project at the Giza Pyramids and for the Theban Mapping Project’s Cairo office. She taught courses on Egyptian art, language and culture at the University of Chicago, the American University in Cairo and Amideast. She has a special interest in the continuity of ancient Egyptian culture until the present day, animals, medicine, magic and culinary history and lives in a village in Luxor a short distance from the archaeological sites.

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