Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Holy Shit, Deir el-Medina!

Deir el-Medina Site

You won't find much in the way of functioning society at Deir el-Medina these days. It's just Northwest of the city of Luxor, next to the famous Valley of the Kings, just past the area where the Nile makes the ground fertile. What you will find, though, is plenty of evidence that people used to live there.

Deil el-Medina was a workers' village in New Kingdom Era Egypt. In case that doesn't mean anything to you, let me point out that the New Kingdom Era was 1550 and 1077 BC. Which is a hella long time ago.
Cleopatra and Julius Caesar
As old to Cleopatra as Cleopatra is us. Seriously.

It's placement was no accident. The workers who lived there were tasked with building the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. Thanks to painstaking excavations of the site during the 1920s, it's one of the clearest windows we have into the ancient Egyptian world.

Crucially, the surviving documents from the village were not preserved for posterity's sake, but rather by happenstance. That means that instead of self-aggrandizing tales of historical significance, Deir el-Medina gives us a glimpse into the ordinary daily life of the Ancient Egyptian worker.

We know, for example, that the village was what we might consider "middle class," and that the laborers there were mostly skilled tradesmen.We know that people worshiped both the "official" gods and their own "personal" gods, and that was pretty much okay with the authorities. We know that they practiced an eight day work week followed by a two day weekend. We know that they were allowed days off for both illness and hangovers. During their time off, some workers would build their own tombs - since, you know...they were pretty good at it.
Deir el-Medina worker's tomb
"Sick tomb, bro! Can't wait to see you in it!"

Maybe the most interesting thing we know about Deir el-Medina, though, is something that occurred during the reign of Ramesses III. Things weren't so hot for the Egyptian Empire at the time. In fact, the economic turmoil the Empire was embroiled in during that era was a significant factor in the overall decline of Egypt's influence.

What this meant for Deir el-Medina was that their wages and rations were late. This was a big no-no. A religious no-no, in fact. So, for the first (known) time in history, the workers went on strike. They refused to do any more work until the Pharaoh or Vizier came to speak with them about their wages and rations. Eventually, the authorities relented, but the process played out several times before it became clear that the workers were holding a winning hand.

That, as far as we know, is the origin of organized labor. In Egypt, over 3,000 years ago.

Holy Shit.

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