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 January 3, 1924, Howard Carter discovered the sarcophagus [a coffin made of stone] of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen. He had uncovered the pharaoh’s tomb two years before, but there were many different chambers inside. Carter’s team cleared these chambers, stuffed with furniture, clothing, and other items, before they entered the actual burial chamber. In the first few chambers, Carter said he found “strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold.” So many items filled the tomb that it took Carter ten years to record everything inside.
The sarcophagus was considered the most spectacular discovery of Carter’s excavation. Finding a burial chamber of an Egyptian pharaoh still intact was a rarity already in the 1920s. Tomb robbers often tore coffins open because dead Egyptian rulers wore valuable jewelry under the mummy wrappings. Fortunately, Tutankhamen’s tomb remained hidden by debris from the excavation of another nearby tomb. Robbers didn’t have the chance to get this far into the tomb.
Howard Carter opening mummy of King Tut
Inside the stone sarcophagus lay three smaller coffins. The first two were wooden but covered in gold. The final coffin, made of solid gold, held the body of the pharaoh. Its worth is estimated at over a million dollars. Inside this coffin lay the body of the pharaoh with his face covered in the now famous golden mask. Carter wrote, “The contents [of the coffin] were completely covered with linen shrouds. As the last shroud was removed a gasp of wonderment escaped our lips, so gorgeous was the sight that met our eyes; a golden effigy of the boy-king of most magnificent workmanship.”
Unfortunately, Tutankhamen’s body was in poor condition because of the ancient practice of pouring perfumes and oils over the mummy during the embalming process. Over time, the oils caused the pharaoh’s body to stick to the inside of the coffin. The golden mask covering King Tut’s face was also glued down; however, once Carter freed the mask with hot knives, he discovered that the mask had protected the pharaoh’s face.
Thanks to this preservation, later scientists successfully performed an autopsy. The test suggested that the pharaoh died at age eighteen, perhaps of a head injury. Exactly how he died is still debated among Egyptologists. Theories range from murder to an accidental wound which doctors at the time could not heal.