When historians discuss ancient Egypt, they often talk about how the pharaohs lived. Thanks to excavations at places like Deir el Medina, however, we know some things about the ancient Egyptian middle class. Deir el Medina was a village that housed craftsmen who worked on New Kingdom tombs of the Egyptian upper classes. Architects, carpenters, and other workers lived in this village with their families near the Valley of the Kings.
Necropolis workmen’s village, Deir el Medina. Photo by Roland Unger.
Houses in the village were made of adobe brick. The houses stayed cool because windows were built into small rectangles and were high up on the walls to keep out direct sunlight. Doors were made of wood, and some could be locked from the inside. A would-be thief could easily break the fragile locks, but most workers in ancient Egypt had few goods to steal.
If you could walk into one of the workers’ homes, you would enter the hall first. This was a place where visitors were welcomed. You might compliment the lady of the house on the colorful drawings and shapes painted on the walls. This room would also have an altar to Bes, the goddess who protected families.
If your guest invited you to come farther into the home, you would enter the family space. This was the central room of the house where family members gathered each day. Most ancient Egyptians couldn’t afford furniture, though some of the workers’ families may have had wooden tables or stools in their family rooms. The room also had long benches built into the walls which were used as sofas or beds. Mats used for sleeping might also be in this room.
The house also had a basement for food storage, though guests probably didn’t go in there often.
In the back of the house was the kitchen. In ancient Egypt, this was one of the most important and busiest rooms. Here you would find a built-in clay oven and spaces for cooking utensils. Some ancient Egyptians even had a primitive refrigerator. They placed pottery filled with beverages in a pit deep in the ground. A tiny roof was placed over it to keep the drinks cool. Since the most common ancient Egyptian drink was beer, your guest would likely offer you one from his pit on a hot day.
Privacy was an unknown concept for the ancient Egyptian middle class. Their houses were small and usually only one story. Kids and adults didn’t have separate bedrooms. Ancient Egyptians also lived very close to their neighbors. There were no “backyards” because the next home was just feet away.
On July 19, 1799, a discovery was made that revealed much of what we know today about ancient Egypt. Napoleon Bonaparte decided to extend his empire to the East and took forces with him to Egypt. In the process of digging a fort near the town of Rosetta, one of his soldiers found a strangely shaped black slab, which was inscribed with three different types of writing. The top, though damaged, contained Egyptian hieroglyphics; the center section was written in demotic, a form of shorthand writing of the Egyptian language; the lower part revealed Greek letters.
Rosetta Stone–British Museum by Nina Aldin Thune
Until this discovery, almost nothing was known about the language of the ancient Egyptians. Ancient Greek was still familiar to scholars, however. The Greek part of the stone stated that the three sections of writing all said the same thing—they were descriptions of the decree issued by priests at Memphis on March 27, 196 BC to honor the anniversary of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes’ reign. The British took possession of the Rosetta Stone in 1801 when they defeated Napoleon. Copies of the stone’s inscriptions were made and scholars all over Europe scrambled to be the first to solve the riddle of the hieroglyphics.
A breakthrough came when Thomas Young of England determined that at least some of the hieroglyphics represented letters of the ancient Egyptian alphabet. They were not purely a crude form of picture writing—for example, a hieroglyph that was shaped like a bird did not always refer to an actual bird. He identified the names of more than one Egyptian ruler in hieroglyphics.
Building on Young’s work, French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphics. He explained his findings in A Summary of the Hieroglyphic System of the Ancient Egyptians: “Hieroglyphic writing is a complex system, a script simultaneously figurative, symbolic and phonetic, in one and the same text in one and the same sentence, and I should say, almost one in the same word.” Some hieroglyphics represented letters of the Egyptian alphabet; some combined groups of sounds (for example, one hieroglyph represented letters that were commonly used together to save space), and some were added as pictures to clarify the meaning of a word.
Once the Rosetta Stone’s inscriptions were translated, scholars could learn more about the ancient Egyptians, their culture, daily lives, and religion. Since 1802, it has been displayed in the British Museum in London, though Egyptian archeologists are trying to bring the stone back to Egypt.