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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

06/2016 manuscript  of the month


“Stung by a scorpion”

and other notes about absences from work in ancient Egypt

At first glance, it looks like a nondescript chunk of limestone, but a closer look reveals much more than that: An ancient Egyptian roster with notes on workers’ absences. Not only the days are listed on which individual workers were absent from work, but diverse reasons for their absences, too. Now, just what excuses were there in ancient Egypt for not going to work?


Fig. 1: The front of the ostracon. The irregular
shape of the shard and the red and black ink are
easy to see. > Enlarge

The object of interest here is a so-called ostracon of limestone measuring 38.5 x 33 cm, with hieratic inscriptions on the front and back. Black ink made from soot was used to write the main text. Red ocher ink was used to highlight, structure, and distinguish passages of text or single words from one another. These text passages written in red are referred to as “rubrum” (Latin for “red”).

Ostraca are pieces of broken stone or pottery bearing inscriptions. In ancient Egypt, letters, notes, and even administrative documents were written on them. Exercises for scribes in the form of literary works were also written down, or sketches of figures were made on them. Unlike papyrus, which was an expensive writing material, ostraca were readily available and plentiful. Ancient Egyptian ostraca of limestone or sandstone are known primarily from the New Kingdom in western Thebes — the shards of stone that have been found are scrap products from the construction of private and royal tombs in this region. Most of the ostraca here are rather small in size. The fragments were generally not refined any further before they were written on, but rather left as they were, in an irregular shape; any writing was put on their smooth side.

Hieratic script was a script commonly used in ancient Egypt. As the ostracon in figure 1 shows, the inscription is in cursive writing, many characters of which evolved from hieroglyphics and which was used parallel to hieroglyphics from the 3rd millennium BCE onwards.

The 40th year of the king’s reign is written in black ink in the uppermost line on the front of this ostracon (fig. 1). In view of the persons’ names listed on the fragment, this can only refer to the reign of Ramses II (19th dynasty, c. 1250 BCE).

The ostracon was purchased in 1823 by the British Museum in London. The exact circumstances of its discovery are unknown, but many factors point to Deir el-Medina as the location, an ancient Egyptian village on the west bank of Thebes near present-day Luxor. It was inhabited while the New Kingdom existed (from the 18th to the 20th dynasty, c. 1550–1069 BCE) by workers and their families, who had been hired to construct and embellish the royal tombs of this era in the Valley of the Kings. Several thousand ostraca with varied contents were found in a large pit in Deir el-Medina. Today they provide us with a unique insight into the daily life and social conditions of the local community that once lived there. The contents of the ostracon we are looking at here relate to some of these other shards: the names of the workers mentioned are also known from other finds from Deir el-Medina.


Fig. 2: The back of the ostracon. > Enlarge

The ostracon presented here is one of the largest pieces from the corpus of administrative documents from Deir el-Medina. It contains 24 lines on the front and 21 lines on the back (figs. 1 and 2). First of all, the name of a worker is listed on the right in black ink; the name is followed by one or more dates on which he did not appear at work. The reason for the absence was noted in red above the dates. As is often the case in ancient Egyptian documents, the writer of the roster did not immortalize himself on the ostracon and therefore remains anonymous. The arrangement of the names on the ostracon appears to be well deliberated, since the names with the longest entries are found at the end of each page. When creating the document, the scribe presumably first arranged all the workers’ names with a corresponding gap on the front and back of the ostracon. A scribe at the worksite most likely jotted down the worker’s absence on smaller fragments on a daily basis. Then the dates and reasons were transferred to the larger ostracon at hand here, resulting in a compilation for the central administration. All in all, 40 workers are named on the ostracon. Only two workers have no absentee entries following their names; it seems that these workers did not miss a single day of work. The absence of the other workers varied from one to 39 days.

The reasons for the absences, which are written above the particular date, are especially interesting, as they offer a glimpse of everyday life in ancient Egypt. For instance, cult events such as burials or village festivals which the worker in question was involved in preparing or conducting are among the more frequently given reasons.

Some entries allow conclusions to be drawn concerning the persons themselves: One worker named Paherypedjet appears to have been a healer. He has the most absentee entries, almost all of which refer to visits to various persons in the village and to the preparation of curatives: “Paherypedjet: 3rd month of the winter season, day 25 — with Kons, making remedies.”

It seems that it was not necessarily illegal for supervisors or important village dignitaries to deploy workers for jobs such as private construction work or craftsmanship on their own tomb or house, in doing which the workers would be absent from construction on the royal tomb. Thus, the entry for the worker named Pennub reads: “Pennub: 2nd month of the winter season, day 7 — Carrying stones for the scribe.”.

One reason for certain workers being absent that at first seems strange to us today concerns the female members of a worker’s family: a total of ten workers gave the menstruation of a wife or daughter (or both) as their reason for being absent, for instance. Here is another example: “Neferabu: 4th month of the flooding season, day 15 — His daughter was in menstruation (literally, in purification).” A further one says this: “Simut: 4th month of the winter season, day 23 — His wife menstruated (literally, purified herself).”.

Apparently, this was not an unusual reason for missing a day of work in ancient Egypt, since it is also found on other, shorter lists of absences from the 19th dynasty. But because the workers were not absent for that reason every month, the absence most likely was only justified under certain circumstances, such as ensuring management of the household if the wife or daughter was unable to perform her housekeeping duties due to menstruation.

By far the most common reason for not going to work, however, was illness. In most cases this reason is not specified any further; the scribe merely noted “ill”. In fact, based on the information recorded and the absence of several workers in quick succession, it is possible to surmise that a contagious illness may have been involved. However, the scribe does go into greater detail in some entries: For instance, two workers suffered from diseases of the eyes, and one was badly stung — by a scorpion.


Fig. 3: The worker Seba was absent once due to a scorpion sting. > Enlarge


References

AUSTIN, Anne (2015). “Accounting for sick days: a scalar approach to health and disease at Deir el-Medina.” In: Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 74, 75–85.

DAVIES, Benedict (1997): Egyptian historical inscriptions of the Nineteenth Dynasty. (Documenta mundi: Aegyptiaca, 2) Göteborg: Paul Aströms Förlag.

DEMAREE, Robert Johannes (2002): Ramesside Ostraca. London: British Museum Press, Plates 25–28.

JANSSEN, Jac. J. (1980): “Absence from work by the necropolis workmen of Thebes.” In: Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur, 8, 127–152.

PARKINSON, Richard (1999): Cracking codes: The Rosetta Stone and decipherment. London: British Museum Press, 76.

STRUDWICK, Nigel (2006): Masterpieces of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press, 206f.

WILFONG, Terry (1999): “Menstrual synchrony and the ‘place of women’ in ancient Egypt (Oriental Institute Museum Hieratic Ostracon 13512).” In: Teeter, Emily and John A. Larson (eds.), Gold of Praise: Studies on ancient Egypt in Honor of Edward F. Wente, SAOC 58, 419–434, Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.


Description
London, British Museum
Inv. no.: BM EA 5634
Material: limestone
Dimensions: 38.5 cm (height) x 33 cm (width)
Dating: 19th dynasty, year 39–40; Ramses II., c. 1250 B.C.
Origin: presumably Luxor, western Thebes, Deir el-Medina, Egypt




Text by Nadine Gräßler
© for all pictures: Trustees of the British Museum.
Reference note:
Nadine Gräßler, “Stung by a scorpion”
In: Wiebke Beyer (Ed.): Manuscript of the Month 2016.06, SFB 950: Hamburg,
http://www.manuscript-cultures.uni-hamburg.de/mom/2016_06_mom_e.html