The Necropolis of Deir el-Medina (2023)

The blog post for this week is written by Jeanne Whitehurst, whohas completed her Certificate of Egyptology from the University of Manchester.She moved to Egypt nearly ten years ago, just before the revolution. Initially,she lived in Luxor, overlooking Karnak Temple, but now she lives in Aswanoverlooking the First Cataract. She was extremely fortunate to have worked withTed Brock on the sarcophagus of Merenptah (KV 8) as a volunteer.

This was thelast session of our five-week course on Deir el-Medina, which was superblypresented by Dr Ken Griffin and I thoroughly enjoyed the course. I can’t waituntil the next one! Thanks also go to Sam Powell who administrates the coursepatiently and efficiently.

The villageof Deir el-Medina, which nestles between the high Western mountains and thehill of Qurnet Murai on the West Bank of Luxor, was for almost five centuries aNew Kingdom workmen’s village, home to the community of craftsmen working onthe royal tombs in The Valley of the Kings. The village is unusual as the tombswere built around the village itself, whereas settlements were usually built onthe East side of the Nile and the tombs (the land of dead) in the West. Fromthe village, the workmen followed a trail north to the top of the WesternMountain and down into the Valley of the Kings to construct and decorate thetomb of the reigning pharaoh (fig. 1). Nowadays, it is thought that the craftsmen alsobuilt tombs for the queens and nobles, besides making funerary equipment. Theworkmen lived in houses whose stone foundations still remain. It is possible that this planned community wasfounded by Amenhotep I (c. 1541–1520 BC).

Fig. 1: Necropolis of Deir el-Medina

The tombs inthe Western part of the village date principally to the Nineteenth andTwentieth Dynasties (1292–1189 BC) while the Eastern Cemetery, whose tombs are lesserknown, belong to the Eighteenth Dynasty. The first were thought to have beenbuilt during the beginning of the dynasty. At the lower level are the poorertombs devoted to children. Adolescents were placed in cavities, which wereaccessed by a well shaft. Children’s tombs were just small pits covered instones. Not all were buried in coffins, but in common domestic pottery jars oramphorae, in baskets, in chests, or boxes. The poorest graves belong to still-bornbabies who were buried under house floors in small pots with small vesselsfilled with food for the afterlife.

(Video) The Incredible Craftsmen Who Made The Egyptian Tombs | Our History

Fig. 2: The Western Necropolis

Thesettlement’s tombs had a basic plan: at ground level there was a small opencourtyard and a vaulted chapel of one or more rooms surmounted by a brickpyramid topped with a stone pyramidion. This would be open to the villagers whowould have banquets and honour their ancestors there. A shaft or occasionally stairs in the courtyard led into anunderground passage and a decorated burial chamber or chambers, depending onthe individual’s means and status. The main subterranean chamber usually had avaulted roof and was very brightly decorated. Stelae were set into the mud-brickwalls and a large stela, commemorating the deceased and depicting his funeral,was placed in the courtyard. Some workers had multiple tombs, constructed atdifferent times, which means a depiction of the tomb owner did not necessarilymean he was buried there. The scenes, unlike the tombs of the nobles, do notoften show everyday life but instead are devoted to texts and scenes from the Book of the Dead, thus somewhat copyingreligious scenes that appear on the walls of royal tombs (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Osiris in the tomb of Pashedu (TT 3)

The tomb ofSennedjem (TT 1), which lies within the Western Cemetery, was discovered intactin 1886. The opening and clearing of this intact burial was overseen by GastonMaspero, the head of the Antiquities Service at the time. It is one of the best-preservedand most famous tombs in the village, which is used frequently to illustratetalks. Twenty mummies, nine of which were in coffins and eleven only wrapped inlinen, were found inside the vaulted burial chamber measuring5.12 m by 2.61m, and 2.40 m high.

Sennedjemwas a “servant in the place of truth” who lived in the village at the time ofRamesses II. He shared this “house of eternity” with his wife Iyinofreti, theirson Khonsu, daughter in-law Tamakhet, the lady Isis, who was the wife of theirsecond son Khabekhnet (who had his own tomb built next to Sennedjem’s), togetherwith their grandchildren. Both Sennedjem and his wife lived into old age.Iyinofreti’s mummy, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, is that of awoman of approximately 75 years of age, while her husband resides in Cairo. Itis sad to think that this family who had lain together for millennium are nowhoused in different museums. Scenes include the mummy of Sennedjem on afunerary bier with a lion’s head and paws, two birds (kites) at each end,representing Isis (at the foot) and Nephthys (at the head). Underneath is aparty with guests being served by servants. One is placing a perfumed cone onthe head of a guest. Another scene shows Sennedjem being mummified by a priest wearinga mask of Anubis on the same lion headed bed. We have a scene where the pairare harvesting crops in the fields of Hetep, while at the bottom register the channelsof the Nile are flowing all around the scene. In the top register, Sennedjemand his wife are worshipping the gods including Ra- Horakhty, Osiris and Ptah.At the very top is Ra-Horakhty in his solar boat with two baboons worshippinghim at either side. Baboons were used to welcome the new sun in the morning. Wehave a scene where Sennedjem and his wife are before the ten guardians of thegates. It was important to know the name of each guardian before they couldpass into the afterlife. Additionally, the couple are shown worshipping all thegods of the sky with a night sky full of stars. Lastly, Sennedjem is shown atthe side of double doors, which lead him into the afterlife (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Sennedjem at the doors to the afterlife

Possibly oneof the oldest tombs at Deir el-Medina (TT 340) is that belonging to Amenemhat,a Servant in the Place of Truth, dating from the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty,which was discovered by Bernard Bruyère in 1925. It consists of a tiny vaultedchamber located below a courtyard, which is reached by some steps. The paintingwithin the tomb are unfinished, enabling us to see the stages of its development.The colours are still fresh, showing outlines being drawn with hematite (red).The style of decoration is simple and repetitive with scenes that areexclusively religious or funerary. Tomb 340, like all the local tombs, wasinitially dug into the limestone rock before the interior was lined withbricks. This technique made it possible to obtain an almost smooth surface, withthe surface subsequently lined with a sealer of mud (a coating of earth andstraw) and then plaster(gypsum).

(Video) Egypt's Smallest Pyramids at Deir El-Medina, Luxor

Fig. 5: Brightly painted scenes in the tomb of Sennedjem

Since theseare workmen’s tombs and as I have a great interest in technology, I would liketo share my experience of making the paints. However, instead of applying themto walls, painting on papyrus. The paints are created according to the formulaof Alfred Lucas, achemist who was part of the team working with Howard Carter on the tomb ofTutankhamun.

There aresix main colours used in ancient Egyptian tombs (figs. 5–6). White obtained from gypsum(CaSO 4-2(H 2O)), commonly known as plaster of paris; lampblack, a carbon blackobtained from soot; two colours obtained from iron ore, hematite, also spelledas haematite ( Fe₂O₃), widespread in rocks and soils, which gives us the red orbrown, while yellow is obtained from limonite (FeO·nH₂O). The last two areextracted from copper ore. Malachite is a green copper carbonate hydroxide mineral with achemical composition of Cu2(CO3)(OH)2 and lastly, azurite (Cu3(CO3)2(OH)2, thebeautiful blue. Thereis also azurite-malachite, which is a blend of the two copper minerals. Theminerals are easy to grind, using a pestle and mortar, covering the mineral with water to allow the debris torise to the top. The minerals are then drained through a linen cloth. It isthen mixed with gum arabic, a term that does not indicate a particular sourcebut is a natural gum consisting of the hardened sap of two species of theacacia tree (Acacia senegal and Vachellia seyal). Previously, egg albumen wasused to bind the paint. Paint colours vary. Gypsum can be very pale andnumerous coats may be needed to be applied to obtain a deep white. Ratherthan mixing shades on the papyrus, it was easier to mix them in containers. Oneproblem with the paints is that they dry quickly, although they are easy toapply.

Fig. 6: Sennedjem in adoration

Ifwe look at the beautiful tomb scene of Sennedjem and his wife in front of thesycamore tree goddess, notice the clothes, how the shape is filled in gypsum(white) but it is the use of hematite (brown) in the lines which bring the kiltand dress to life (fig. 7).All figures and the tree are outlined in either brown or black, which makesthem stand out from the background that is covered in limonite (yellow) paintedover a white base, which is visible on Sennedjem’s arm and the tree goddess’storso. The figs are painted brown, but it is the position of the small blackellipses that seems to show them hanging naturally.

Fig. 7: Sycamore tree goddess in the tomb of Sennedjem

The end ofthe reign of Ramesses III and the beginning of Ramesses IV was a time of socialunrest. Only the privileged, such as Inherkhau (TT 229 & TT 359), who heldthe titles “Foreman in the Place of Truth in the West of Thebes” and “Directorof the Works of the Lord of the Two Lands” were lucky or indeed have theauthority or necessary connections to commission or construct two tombs. In histomb, Inherkhau is accompanied by its wife Wabet (“the Pure”) and manychildren. Wabet carries the common title of “Mistress of the House”, but alsoof “Chantress of Amun” and “Chantress of Hathor”. It is rare to know the namesof the painters who decorated the tomb, Hormin and Nebnefer, but we know thembecause they signed their names.

(Video) Focus sur la tombe TT217 du sculpteur Ipouy, mission de Deir el-Médina

Fig. 8: Painted ceiling in the tomb of Inherkhau

Unusuallythere are two chambers; one like an antechamber, with many offering scenes, andthe other the burial chamber, which is full of religious depictions. In theantechamber, the ceiling is covered with beautifully coloured geometric designsdepicting cows, possibly the goddess Hathor (fig. 8). Additionally, in a damaged scene, Inherkhauand his wife are offering incense before “The lords of the West”, i.e., theroyal ancestors, including female members. The first figure on the upperregister is Amenhotep I, possibly the founder of Deir el-Medina, while hismother Ahmose-Nefertari is first on the lower one. They were both worshipped withinthe village. Another depiction is the journey north to Abydos by boat, the cultcentre of Osiris, which is similar to the practice of Muslims travelling toMecca. There is a lovely scene of Inherkhau and his wife seated while theirchildren bring offerings to them. Another in the burial chamber has a powerfulscene of Ra changing into the great cat of Heliopolis who every night had tofight his enemy, the snake Apophis with a knife, which he achieved to ensurethat Ra (the sun) will rise every morning. Another scene here is a blind harpistplaying to the couple (we know he is blind as his eyes are closed). It wasthought this depiction would help to communicate more easily with the dead.Then there is his ba-bird, a form ofthe spirit of the dead, with Inherkhau opposite with his arms in adoration (fig. 9).

Fig. 9: The ba of Inherkhau

Ipuy (TT217) was a sculptor during the reign of Ramesses II. He was married to Nebtiunu and has a beautifully decoratedpainted tomb with unique scenes. It has a naive painting of laundrymen washingby the Nile, another showing the preparation of produce and a donkey carryinggoods. Donkeys had to carry all the water used by the community as there was nowater supply. A busy scene is of many workmen making coffins, carving chairs andstools with the feet of geese. It even shows a workman cutting down a tree. Another is ofan over-sized shrine with workers climbing all over it. One workman appears tohave dropped a mallet onto another below, who is shown rubbing his head! In onecorner a workman is fast asleep! The Metropolitan Museum in New York has two scenesfrom the tomb. The first shows a workman with a dog behind him as he drawswater with a shaduf in a garden. There is a luxurious house in the backgroundwith a column by the door with steps leading up to it. The other is makingwine, with some workmen picking the grapes and placing them in woven baskets. Othermen then tread the grapes, holding onto a rope to stop them falling into thejuice as it forms underneath. My favourite scene is of Ipuy and his wife, thelatter having a cat under her chair while Ipuy has a kitten trying to pluck hissleeve (fig. 10).Cats are always shown as tabby (striped) as all Egyptian cats were indeedstriped and much larger than the domestic ones of today.

Fig. 10: Ipuy and his wife receiving offerings (

In conclusion, Deir el-Medina is among the most importantarchaeological sites in Egypt because of the wealth of information it provideson the daily lives of the people who lived there. It is a glimpse of a societywho were not royal or noble but mostly respected, a parallel of the middleclass today. The villagers lived closely together in that long-ago time when itwas known as the Place of Truth, where the people built and protected theeternal homes of their kings.


(Video) LECTURE | From the basement to the archaeological fieldwork: rediscovering Deir el-Medina woodcraft

For a great site containing images of many of the tombs at Deir el-Medina, see

Bierbrier,Morris 1982. The tomb-builders of thepharaohs. A Colonnade Book. London: British Museum Publications.

Cherpion,Nadine and Jean-Pierre Corteggiani 2010. Latombe d’Inherkhâouy (TT 359) à Deir el-Medina, 2 vols. Mémoires publiés parles membres de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 128. Cairo: Institutfrançais d’archéologie orientale.

Keller,Cathleen A. 2001. A family affair: the decoration of Theban Tomb 359. In Davies,W. V. (ed.), Colour and painting inancient Egypt, 73–93. London: British Museum Press.

(Video) The evolving portrait of Deir el-Medina | Dr Cedric Gobeil

Lucas,A. 1962. Ancient Egyptian materials andindustries, 4th ed. Edited by J. R. Harris. London: Edward Arnold.

MahmoudAbd el-Qader, Adel 2011. Catalogue offunerary objects from the tomb of the Servant in the Place of Truth Sennedjem(TT1): ushabtis, ushabtis in coffins, ushabti boxes, canopic coffins, canopicchests, cosmetic chests, furniture, dummy vases, pottery jars, and walkingsticks, mainly from Egyptian Museum in Cairo and Metropolitan Museum of Art ofNew York. Edited by Sylvie Donnat. Série Corpus; Bibliothèque générale 37. Cairo:Institut français d’archéologie orientale.


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