Ancient World Lives, On Bits of Limestone

They were one ancient Egyptian town's equivalent of memos and scrap paper and Post-It notes: smooth white limestone flakes that bear laundry lists and delivery receipts, attendance sheets for work crews, sketches and rough drafts of hymns.

But for Egyptologists like Andrea McDowell, an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins University, these pen-and-ink scribblings form an imperishable record of a very perishable thing: the mundane joys, sorrows, frustrations and amusements of a people long vanished.


The stories they tell suggest that human nature has changed very little in the few thousand years civilization has been around.

An estimated 30,000 of the flakes, called ostraca, were uncovered in this century in the town of Deir el-Medina, a community of stonecutters and other craftsmen who carved and decorated tombs for Egypt's royalty in the limestone cliffs of the Valley of the Kings. In an odd twist, these casual jottings have survived where the bulk of the town's official records, written on papyrus, have crumbled to dust.


A political or military historian might focus on those papyri, as well as Egypt's pyramids and other grand monuments. For a student of the civilization's social history, the ostraca are a vital source.

"I'm very interested in daily life and in looking behind the facades that the monuments project," said Dr. McDowell, who is now writing a book, titled "Laundry Lists and Love Songs," that will feature excerpts from Deir el-Medina's ostraca.

"A lot of it wasn't even supposed to be seen by anyone else, other than the person who wrote it down," she said. "Which is why I like reading it. We're seeing it against all odds."

Dr. McDowell has studied the jottings for more than a decade, mining them for information about Egypt's ancient legal system, about its economy and about the role of women. "All the trivia of the ancient world," she explained, laughing.

Deir el-Medina, located on the western bank of the Nile in the Valley of the Kings, thrived for about 500 years, between 1570 B.C. and 1070 B.C. But the bulk of the limestone notes come from a relatively brief period, 1300 B.C. to 1070 B.C., probably due to an influx of trained craftsmen into the village.

A town of privilege

Employed by the pharaohs, these workers were a privileged group. At a time when scholars estimate that only a few percent of Egypt's population was literate, every male in town was probably taught to read and write, Dr. McDowell said.

Each of the town's 50 or so families was provided with laundry service -- which is why some ostraca contain laundry lists. Craftsmen could get rich by moonlighting, building tombs and furniture for the wealthy folk of the region. Some lived to be 60 or 70 years old, at a time when the average Egyptian probably died before he or she was 30.


Though the village was extraordinary, the characters who inhabited it seem familiar: They might be anyone's co-workers, classmates, family members or neighbors.

One man evidently cracked a joke in a letter to a tax collector, which angered both the tax collector and the man's boss. The man scribbled a note to his boss to apologize and defend himself.

"I've heard that you are angry," the letter begins. "You've made me despicable through insults, on account of this joke which I told to the chief taxing master in that letter, al- though it was Henuttawy [a woman's name], who said to me, 'Tell some jokes to the chief taxing master in your letter.' "

After blaming his indiscretion on a woman -- perhaps his wife -- the man describes himself as an irrepressible joker and reproaches his boss for failing to recognize his weakness.

The irreverent craftsman compares himself to a woman "blind in one eye who is in the house of a man for 20 years, and he's found another, and he said to her, 'I will divorce you! Why, you are blind in one eye!' . . . And she said to him, 'Is this the

discovery that you have made in the twenty years that I've spent in your house?' "


"It's an apology I love," Dr. McDowell said. "Because, in the first place, he's in deep trouble because he made a joke to a high-ranking official and he blames it on this woman. And in the second place, he can't stop himself from making another joke."

A father's plea

In another ostracon, a draftsman -- a highly skilled artisan who would sketch the figures in tombs -- tells his son he is going blind and pleads for medicine.

"Do not neglect me; I am not well. Do not cease weeping for me, because I am in [darkness?]. My lord [the god] Amon has turned his back on me. May you bring some honey for my eyes and also some ointment which is remixed, and real black eye-paint. Take care! Take care! Am I not your father? Now, I am weak; I am searching for my sight but it is gone."

As archaeologists excavated Deir el-Medina in the late 1920s through the 1950s, it yielded a huge number of artifacts, including chairs, beds, wigs, clothes, underclothes, headrests and tools -- all preserved by the dry desert climate. In one tomb, excavators found a basket filled with cumin. The walls of many of the houses were still standing.

Dr. McDowell, a native of St. Louis, earned her doctorate in ancient history from the University of Pennsylvania. Before coming to Hopkins two years ago, she taught at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and at Oxford University.


Such a rich record survived in Deir el-Medina, from such a relatively short period of time in the town's history, that the names of some individual inhabitants "come up over and over again," Dr. McDowell said.

One of the most colorful townsmen was a sly young worker named Merysekhmet. "He's the bad boy of the village," she said. "He's the son of one of the richest workmen, and he's always getting into trouble."

The limestone flakes tell how Merysekhmet showed up at the home of a workman, Kenna, who has rebuilt a ramshackle private chapel. Merysekhmet breezily announces that an oracle has told him that the workman who rebuilt the chapel should let Merysekhmet share it with him.

The renovator lodges an appeal with another oracle. He wins a reversal on appeal.

In another story a poor servant, engaged to a young woman, visits her at her father's house. He finds Merysekhmet in bed with his fiancee. The servant runs out and complains to town officials. But Merysekhmet apparently has powerful friends. Some of the officials beat the poor servant.

One official, though, has a conscience. He is outraged by the incident, and Merysekhmet is hauled before the town fathers. They order him not to see the girl again. But that rascal


Merysekhmet gets the girl pregnant.

Decline and fall

By about 1070 B.C., the power of Egypt's pharaohs was weakening. Royal troops could no longer protect Deir el-Medina from raids by the nomads of the western desert. After five centuries of bustle, the town was abandoned to the sands.

Dr. McDowell has written a number of scholarly articles on Deir el-Medina. But in "Laundry Lists and Love Songs," to be published by Oxford University Press, she wants to reach a wider audience.

"I wanted to present people who weren't specialists with reliable translations," she said. "I want to provide a considerable amount of background to each piece, to explain what it tells us about ancient Egypt."

Most of all, it seems, she wants to give the past a voice.


"I want to let the reader see as much of the evidence directly, as possible," she said. "It's so exciting to read it yourself."


Douglas Birch is a science writer for The Baltimore Sun.