Sunday, September 6, 2015

Ancient Egypt this week wishes you a Happy Labor Day

Labor Day is a holiday in the United States, and one most of us look forward to celebrating. (Who doesn't like a day off work?)

What was it like to be a working man or woman in ancient  Egypt?

Not as bad as some might expect. Some workers enjoyed health insurance, free food and lodging, and 2 days off every 10 days. In case you're wondering, a week in Ancient Egypt was 10 days long.

That whole slaves building the pyramid, yeah that's just a story. No Pharaoh was going to entrust his House of a Million Years to disgruntled slave labor. Still, working in Ancient Egypt was no cruise up the Nile either.

A look at some of the world's oldest professions. (No, not that one.)


Despite being at the bottom end of the hierarchy of Egyptian society, some workers prospered as a result of growing demand for skilled craftsmen. The records from a special village give us an insight into their lives.

Workers had a higher status than slaves, servants and peasants, but they were not as important as educated professionals such as scribes, doctors and accountants.

. . .

After the death of Ramses II, the workers even went on strike – the first recorded strike in history – because the government was running out of money and was unable to feed or pay them.

Labour relations in ancient Egypt

Give one loaf to your laborer, receive two from (the work of) his arms.
Give one loaf to the one who labors, give two to the one who gives orders.
The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq

Not much has changed during the last few millennia.

Deir el-Medina’s tomb builders

Deir el-Medina is the name given to the ruins of an ancient Egyptian village that housed workers building tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Records from the site reveal an ancient economic development strategy.


Over time, the farmers of ancient Egypt were able to produce more food than they needed just for themselves. This enabled some people to do types of work other than farming. Many of them set up workshops and became craftworkers. Often a son would learn his father’s craft and follow him into his workshop. Some craftworkers worked for the pharaoh or Egyptian nobles, to make items for their tombs or temples. Despite only having simple tools to work with, the craftworkers of ancient Egypt were highly skilled. There were stoneworkers, carpenters, potters, glassworkers, leatherworkers, spinners and weavers, metalworkers and jewellers. Read more for a glimpse at Deir-el Medina.

Pyramid builders’ diet

Hieroglyphic texts tell us that Old Kingdom food production and storage facilities fell under an institution called per shena (written with the house and plow signs, roughly translated to “house of the commissariat”). This term indicates a food production establishment that included bakeries, breweries, and granaries.

A slide presentation on working and life

Two types of workers existed in Ancient Egypt-- unskilled workers and skilled craftsmen. Unskilled workers were peasants who labored in large groups to accomplish large projects, normally for the government. Often unskilled laborers worked for the government during the flood season and then returned home to raise crops on their farms.

Skilled craftsmen, on the other hand, worked year-round on their crafts. Some examples of skilled craftsmen in Egypt were sculptors, goldsmiths, painters, carpenters, and rock cutters.
Inherited Jobs: For the most part, whatever job your father had, you had. If he was a farmer, most probably, when you grew up, you would become a farmer. If he was a soldier, most probably, that was your future as well. In ancient Egypt, jobs were inherited.

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