Limestone ostrakon with a register of workmen's absences

From Deir el-Medina, Egypt
19th Dynasty, around 1250 BC

Egypt: the birthplace of bureaucracy?

Deir el-Medina is the remains of a walled village for the craftsmen who built and decorated the New Kingdom tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It appears that a close record was kept of workmen's attendance, the materials used, and so on. This ostrakon seems to be a workman's register for 280 days of Year 40 of the reign of Ramesses II (about 1279-1213 BC). Only about 70 of these days seem to have been full working days. Aside from holidays and other non-working periods, by Year 40 of Ramesses's reign the royal tomb would have been substantially finished, and it is possible that men were taken off onto other projects.

A list of forty names is arranged in columns of hieratic script on the right-hand edge of each side. To the left are dates written in black in a horizontal line. The reasons for absences are written above the dates in red ink. They are varied and give us a fascinating insight into some aspects of life in ancient Egypt. Illness figures prominently; a couple of examples of illnesses of the eyes are mentioned. One workman functioned as a doctor and was often away attending on others. Absences due to deaths of relatives are recorded, as are also references to purifications, perhaps relating to childbirth. Frequently a day missed is down to a man 'being with his boss'; other sources show that workmen did frequently do work for their superiors. Occasionally a man is away 'building his house', or at 'his festival', and there are even examples of drinking, in particular 'drinking with Khonsu'.

There is mention of a Qeniherkhepeshef, who is also alluded to as 'the scribe' in several places. The British Museum also has a shabti figure and a funerary headrest belonging to Qeniherkhepeshef.

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More information

Bibliography

J.J. Janssen, 'Absence from work by the necropolis workmen of Thebes', Studien zur altägyptischen Kul, 8 (1980)

R. Parkinson, Cracking codes: the Rosetta St (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)

J. Cerny and A.H. Gardiner, Hieratic ostraca I (Oxford University Press, 1957)

S. Quirke and A.J. Spencer, The British Museum book of anc (London, The British Museum Press, 1992)

Dimensions

Height: 38.500 cm
Width: 33.000 cm

Museum number

EA 5634

YCA1285

Location

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