Working Life

For most Egyptians, work essentially meant one thing – agricultural labour. The Wilbour Papyrus suggests that the pattern of landholding in the Ramesside Period at least was quite complex, but the people at the bottom of that system would have experienced a working life, governed by the seasons of the agricultural year, that would have been hardly different from that of their ancestors. While small settlements would certainly have contained a number of craft-specialists who had the skills and equipment to serve local needs – a village potter for instance – it is larger settlements that would have provided most opportunities for skilled craftsmen, as demonstrated in the list of occupations of the inhabitants of Maiunehes at Thebes. Indeed we have already noted that the concentration of skills, materials and specialized equipment, in part to serve the demands of urban residents, is one of the defining characteristics of a city. In ancient Egypt many of these craftsmen and their workshops would have come under the direct or indirect control of major institutions, such as the crown or major temples.

Looking at Work: Words and Pictures

Our ability to assess the nature of work in ancient Egypt is limited by our sources of evidence. Administrative documents are an important source, but these are very much directed towards state enterprises – the settlement from ancient Egypt that has provided most evidence for the lives of its workers is perhaps the most consistently state-sponsored: Deir el-Medina. For non-administrative evidence, the lens through which we see the work of non-literate, non-elite Egyptians are the texts created by literate Egyptians and the illustrations on the tomb walls of elite Egyptians.

The Satire on the Trades

The superiority of the scribe is a major theme in Egyptian literature; this is hardly surprising since many of these compositions were written, at least in part, as texts for the instruction of young scribal trainees. One of the best known of these instructive compositions presents itself as the wise words of a man named Dua-Khety to his son, Pepi, but the nature of this advice has given it the modern title of The Satire on the Trades. Composed in the Middle Kingdom, it continued to be copied into the Ramesside Period.





















The basic premise of the Satire is that the occupation of the scribe is not just more prestigious, but also more comfortable than any other, and Dua-Khety provides a list of jobs and the disadvantages attached to them to prove the point. Scholars are divided as to whether the vision of non-scribal work is meant to be taken seriously or is an exaggeration for comic effect, but in either case the attitude is very far from one of the dignity of labour.

This Old Kingdom statue of a squatting scribe from Saqqara is notable because it shows an older man, rather than a youth at the beginning of his bureaucratic career. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The life of the peasants was an obvious target for the scorn and horror of the educated elite, not just because of the nature of their basic daily toil, but also their vulnerability to be conscripted by the state to be used as forced labour:

The field-worker wails more than the guinea fowl, his voice louder than that of a raven. His fingers have swollen and stink to excess. He is weary, having been taken away to work in the Delta, and so he is always in rags.

Wooden models found in Middle Kingdom tombs can provide important three-dimensional information on the organization of different crafts, like this wonderful example from the tomb of Meketre showing the process of linen production by spinners and weavers with their looms. Steven Snape.

The Trades in Egyptian Tombs and Texts

The vignettes included here connect – and contrast – tomb scenes that show images of working life with the sharp commentary on these various activities found in The Satire on the Trades. Together, the evidence from these sources provides a fascinating snapshot of working life in ancient Egypt.

The sandalmaker is utterly wretched among his tubs of oil. He is well – if it is well to be with corpses – and he chews on hides.

The laundryman washes at the riverbank in the vicinity of the crocodile…. His food is mixed with filth and there is no part of him which is clean. He cleans the clothes of menstruating women. He weeps as he spends all day there with a washing-board and washing-stone.

The weaver inside the weaving-shed is more wretched than a woman. His knees are drawn up against his belly. He cannot breathe the air. If he wastes a day without weaving he is beaten with 50 lashes. He has to bribe the doorkeeper with food to allow him to come out into the daylight.

Every carpenter who grasps the adze is wearier than a field-worker. His field is his wood, his hoe is the adze. Here is no end to his work … at night-time he must light his lamp.

The reed-cutter goes north to the Delta to get arrows for himself he has done more than his arms can do. The mosquitoes have killed him and the sandflies have butchered him, so that he is cut to pieces.

I have seen the metalworker at his labour at the mouth of his furnace. His fingers are like a crocodile’s and he stinks more than fish roe.

The potter is covered with earth, although his lifetime is among the living. He digs in the fields more than swine to fire his pottery. His clothes are stiff with mud and his loincloth is made of rags. The air which comes from his burning furnace enters his nose.

Tomb scenes showing a selection of the trades in ancient Egypt, including sandalmakers from the tomb of Rekhmire, carpenters from the tomb of Rekhmire, reed-cutters from the tomb of Puyemre, and laundrymen from the tomb of Ipuy. Steven Snape after Davies.

The types of workers depicted on the walls of private tombs could vary from producers of low value, high quantity items like mudbricks, to those of high-value materials, like these jewellers. British Museum, London.

Other jobs also provide targets for Dua-Khety’s scorn, including skilled craftsmen (e.g. stoneworkers, carpenters, jewellers, reed-cutters, bricklayers, weavers, arrow-makers and sandalmakers), exponents of pyrotechnology (e.g. goldsmiths, coppersmiths, potters and furnace-tenders), food providers (e.g. wine-makers, fowlers and fishermen) and those involved in service industries (e.g. barbers, laundrymen and messengers).

Although many of the dismissive descriptions of non-scribal occupations are rather vague, some are curiously specific, such as that of the carpenter’s lot, which has an odd extra section giving an example of the work involved in roofing a room whose dimensions are slightly less than 5 by 3 metres (16 by 10 ft):

It is miserable for the carpenter when he works on a ceiling. It is the roof of a chamber 10 by 6 cubits. A month goes by in laying the beams and spreading the matting. All the work is accomplished, but as for the food which should be given to his household [while he is working], there is no one who will provide for his children.

Although this shows a knowledge of the process of roofing a house, which is still practised in Egyptian villages today – wooden roofbeams on which reeds/matting are laid at right-angles, then covered with a layer of mud plaster – the speed with which the job is accomplished is hardly impressive.

An unshaven carpenter works with his hand-held adze on scaffolding for a building project, in a tomb-scene from the New Kingdom. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

The tomb of Ipuy at Deir el-Medina contains this depiction of magnificently ornate funerary furniture, although the main theme of the scene seems to be the industrial injuries that might be suffered by the artisans involved in the production of that furniture. The annotations suggest what may be depicted. Steven Snape after Davies.

Work on Tomb Walls

This rather jaundiced view of non-scribal work is, however, not entirely supported by another elite viewpoint, that provided by images of workers engaged in a variety of tasks that are consistently depicted on the walls of elite tombs from the Old Kingdom until the Graeco-Roman Period. In the view of Miriam Lichtheim these images ‘breathe joy and pride in the accomplishments of labor’ in a way that is quite at odds with the vision presented in the Satire on the Trades.

However, it should be noted that depictions of craftsmen and labourers found in tombs – either as two-dimensional images on walls or as three-dimensional models – are most often shown in order to demonstrate the abilities of the tombowner in organizing such activities for the king, or to provide a magically available world that could supply the tombowner with all they required in the next life. Although some scenes on tomb walls of the New Kingdom depict the tombowner undertaking agricultural work for the lord of the afterlife, Osiris, in the ‘Field of Reeds’, this is obviously intended to be participation of a limited kind, as demonstrated by the presence in tombs of the same period of shabti figures – small statuettes equipped with agricultural tools that were designed to act as magical substitutes for their owner for any obligation to manual work in the afterlife.

Interestingly, the most obvious example of a private tomb showing the dangerous and uncomfortable aspects of the working life are from the Deir el-Medina tomb of Ipuy, where the ‘scenes of daily life’ seem to be taken directly from Ipuy’s observed experience of life and work.

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