Mummy Monday: Tattooed Mummy from Deir el-Medina

This week’s Mummy Monday is a little different. We don’t know the identity of this mummy, but her remains tell us a very unique story. Let’s talk about the tattooed mummy from Deir el-Medina.


The tattooed torso of a woman was found and excavated in 2014. This was found within the assemblage that was stored in TT291 in Deir el-Medina, though it is believed that the assemblage was originally found in TT290, the tomb right next door.

The section that Anne Austin worked on in TT290 and TT291

Tomb 290 was originally the tomb of Irynefer, a necropolis workman who lived in Deir el-Medina during the Ramesside Period, 19th to 20th Dynasties. It is a small shaft tomb underneath a pyramid chapel. It was most likely looted in antiquity and then used for later burials. The tomb was discovered in 1922 and some of it was excavated in 1922. From pictures from the original excavation were full of comingled remains.

Original image of the comingled human remains at the botton of TT290

These remains were most likely moved to TT291 in 2004 in preparation for the public exhibition of Tomb 290. Anne Austin, an Egyptologist working for the Institute Francais d’Archaeologie Orientale’s mission to Deir el-Medina in 2014 researched the remains found. She determined that there were the remains of at least 26 individuals.

Mummy Torso

The torso also dates to the Ramesside Period (1300 – 1070 BCE). It was found unwrapped, except for one layer of bandages on the right forearm. The head, hands, and legs are no longer present. The mummy was at one point eviscerated, but there is no visceral cut. Rather there is a transvaginal or transperineal cut. While this practice wasn’t the most popular, there is evidence for this technique in other New Kingdom mummies.

Because the skull was missing, this made it very difficult to estimate the age of the mummy. But with the remaining bones of the torso, an estimation was made of 25 to 34 years old. She may have been mummified with the use of resins and this actually disguised some of the tattoos. Because of the looted state of the tomb, there is no way to tell if the mummy originally had any burial equipment when she was buried.

The Tattoos

When the torso was discovered, Anne Austin noticed the marking on the neck of the mummy, but originally thought these were painted on post-mortem. But upon further investigation, these marks were tattoos. Tattoos in Egypt began to appear in the Middle Kingdom and evidence suggests that only women got tattoos.

Anne Austin published a paper and gave a talk about the finds on this mummy. When investigating the torso further, she was able to find many more tattoos. She also used infrared photography to find tattoos that had faded. A computer program called DStretch was used to flesh out and stretch the skin so that the tattoos looked more like they would have before mummification.

There is evidence that someone else would have had to apply some of these, as they are unreachable for the person to tattoo themselves. This implies that there was some sort of tattoo artist or system of tattooing established. There is also considerable variation in the darkness of the tattoos. This could imply that the applications of some tattoos were less effective, the tattoos may have naturally diffused over time, or some other process made the tattoos fade. If the tattoos naturally diffused over time, it implies that this woman received the tattoos over a couple of years rather than all at once.

All the tattoos maped on her body

In total 30 tattoos were found, but there may have been more on the parts of the body that were lost. The tattoos are found on the neck, shoulders, back, and arms. These locations are a slight departure from previous tattoos found on mummies. Usually, tattoos are found in more private places, where the tattoos would not be visible on an everyday basis. These are then associated with eroticism. Previous Egyptologists have remarked that tattooed Egyptian women were “prostitutes of dubious origins.”

But these tattoos, except for one on the lower back, are all in very visible places. I’ll talk about the interpretations of the individual tattoos and them as a whole after, but first, let’s take a look at them!

Anne Austin has labeled all of the individual tattoos by T- and then a number. I’ll be talking about them in groups because many of these tattoos are symmetrical! Check out her article here to see a table of all the tattoos and their interpretations!

On the neck, there are two symmetrical seated baboons (T01 & T02) on either side of Wadjet eye (or Eye of Horus) (T03) on top of two Wadjet eyes with two nefers in between them (T04). These are very visible and were the first tattoos noticed. Nefer is the hieroglyph that means “good” or “beautiful.”

On the left and right shoulder, there are matching symbols of two Wadjet eyes around three nefers (T05 & T06). There is also either a uraeus or a snake (T07 & T08) and another tattoo on either side that could not be discerned (T09 & T10). Below on the right shoulder is a girdle knot hieroglyph (T11) and a cobra (T13). Below on the left shoulder is just a cobra (T12).

This is where the tattoos begin to differentiate. Following the right arm down, there is a cross-shape (T15), a uraeus (T21), a Hathor handle (T22), an unknown tattoo (T23), possibly a bouquet of flowers (T24), and a snake with a basket (T25). On the left, there is a cross-shape (T14), a uraeus (T16), a snake with a solar disk (T17), dual khepri beetles or a sistrum (T18), faded hieroglyphs below a snake the signs mx wab (T19), and Hathor cows (T20).

On the upper back, there are a few asymmetrical tattoos. There is a hieroglyph of a clump of papyrus with the buds bending down and the signs for mw (T27), a Wadjet eye with the signs for mw (T28), and a Wadjet presented by a baboon (T29). Finally, the largest tattoo is found on the lower back. It is a series of dots connecting two lotus blossoms which are located on the back of the hips (T30).

The Interpretations

The tattoos appear like amulets on the body which implies their meaning is of a magical or protective kind. This may have been a way to permanently attach the magical power of the amulet to one person. This could have been done to ensure healing and/or protection against illness, which would imply that this woman was very ill during her life. Unfortunately, because of the damage to the body, that is hard to discern.

Many of the tattoos can be associated with gods such a Thoth in the baboons and Hathor in the Hathor handle and cows. The Wadjet eyes and the nefer signs could be translated as “seeing the beauties” or as a votive formula, ir nfr ir nfr, or “do good, do good.”

The Hathor handle, which is pretty much a handle of something (usually a sistrum) with the face of Hathor, is upside down as if to mimic its position when held during use. This would have been “activated” by dance or movement, which would mean that every movement of this woman’s arm would ritually shake the handle.

While some of the tattoos are connected with the idea of power and divine action, most of them have to do with some sort of protective magic. This links the woman to the cult of Hathor, which would have empowered her to take on important cultic or magical roles. These tattoos help us conclude that she might have taken on one of several important roles in the cults of ancient Egypt, either as a wise woman, priestess, or healer.

You can also watch Anne talk about this find in the video below.


Image Sources

Photos of Mummy – Anne Austin

Plan of TT290 and TT291 – Anne Austin

Photo of TT290 – Elvira Kronlob 2011

Photo of TT291 – Lenka and Andy Peacock

Plan of TT291 – Lenka Peacock

Plan of TT290 –

Women Crush Wednesday: Goddess Sekhmet

This week let’s do something a little different. How about we discuss an ancient Egyptian goddess. And I couldn’t pick a better one first choice as Sekhmet!


Sekhmet’s name has been spelled in a variety of ways from Sachmis, Sakhmet, Sekhet, or Scheme. Her name comes from the Egyptian word sxm, which means “power” or “might.” It is typically translated as “The One who is Powerful.”

She has a large range of titles. She was the “One Before Whom Evil Trembles,” “Mistress of Dread,” “Lady of Slaughter,” “She Who Mauls,” “One Who Loved Maat,” and sometimes even the “Lady of Life.”


Now Sekhmet was the goddess of war, chaos, the hot desert sun, and even healing. She is the protector of the pharaohs and protected them in the afterlife. She was said to breathe fire, and the hot winds of the desert were likened to her breath. She also caused plagues, which were called her servants or her messengers. Even though she has all these terrifying characteristics, she was also the patron of physicians and healers, because to her friends, she could cure all diseases.

There is not always a clear family tree of Egyptian gods and goddesses, but Sekhmet was sometimes considered the wife of Ptah and the mother of his son Nefertum. She also may have been the mother of another lion god called Maahes. And her parents are sometimes considered to be Geb, who was the earth, and Nut, who was the sky.

She was a solar deity, sometimes called the daughter of Ra. It was said that she was created from the fire of the sun god Ra’s eye when he looked upon the earth. He apparently created her as a weapon to destroy humans for their disobedience. In one myth about the end of Ra’s rule on Earth, Ra sends the goddess Hathor in the form of Sekhmet to destroy humans. After the battle, which Ra quickly realized had gotten out of hand, Sekhmet’s bloodlust could not be quelled. To stop her, Ra poured out beer dyed with either pomegranate juice or red ochre so that it resembled blood. She became so drunk that she gave up the slaughter.


Sekhmet is depicted as a lioness or as a woman with the head of a lioness. Since she is a solar deity, she is depicted with a sun disk on her head and a uraeus, which associates her with Wadjet. She was often dressed in red, ie. the color of blood. Sometimes these dresses have a rosetta pattern over each breast, which is an ancient leonine motif that is traced to the observation of the shoulder knot hairs on lions. She is usually depicted holding a scepter in the form of papyrus, suggesting that she was associated primarily with the north. This is contradictory to the fact that she may have been associated with the south and the Sudan, where lions are much more plentiful.

When Sekhmet was in a calmer state, it was said she would take the form of the household cat goddess Bastet.


Again, even though she was, in general, a terrifying goddess, the ancient Egyptians believed that Sekhmet had a cure for every problem. To stay on her good side, they would offer her food and drink, play her music, and burn incense. They would also whisper prayers into the ears of cat mummies and offer them to Sekhmet.

Because she was closely associated with kingship, many kings in the New Kingdom worshiped her. Amenhotep II built almost 700 statues of her for his mortuary temple, as well as hundreds more for the temples in Karnak. Ramesses II also adopted Sekhmet as a symbol of his power in battle. During the Greek dominance of Egypt, there was a large temple of Sekhmet at Taremu in the Delta region in a city the Greeks called Leontopolis.

As I mentioned previously, Sekhmet was the main deity worshiped during the Festival of Intoxication, in which they recreate the Sekhmet’s drunkenness. I talked about this during a Fun Fact Friday post a couple of weeks ago!


Image Sources

Gold cultic Aegis – Wikimedia Commons (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

Gilded bier from the tomb of Tut – Wikimedia Commons (Hans Ollermann)

Temple of Kom Ombo – Wikimedia Commons

Image from Menat necklace – Wikimedia Commons (Keith Schengili-Roberts)

Statue from Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow – Wikimedia Commons (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg))

Statue from Temple of Mut Luxor at the National Museum, Copenhagen – Wikimedia Commons (McLeod)

Sekhmet – Wikimedia Commons (Jeff Dahl)

Sekhmet in the entrance of the Mortuary Temple of Ramses III, Medinet Habu –

Sekhmet statues in the British Museum –

Mummy Monday: Maatkare Mutemhat

This week for Mummy Monday, let’s meet another ancient Egyptian priestess and God’s Wife of Amun, Maatkare Mutemhat.


Name of Maatkare Mutemhat

Maatkare Mutemhat lived during the early Third Intermediate Period in the 21st Dynasty. She was the daughter of the High Priest of Amun, Pinedjem I. He was also the defacto ruled of Southern Egypt from 1070 BCE and proclaimed himself pharaoh in 1054 BCE. Her mother was Duathathor-Henuttawy, a daughter of Ramesses XI, the last ruler of the 20th Dynasty.

Maatkare Mutemhat is the throne name of Queen Hatshepsut. She was depicted as a young girl in the Luxor Temple, along with her sisters Henuttawy (B) and Mutnedjmet. She is also depicted as a high priestess on the façade of the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak and on a statue, which is now in Marseille, France. During her father’s reign as pharaoh, Maatkare received the title of Divine Adoratrice, God’s Wife of Amun. She was first God’s wife to take on the praenomen of Divine Adoratrice, which used to only be for pharaohs. With this title, Maakare was considered the female head of the priesthood of Amun at Karnak, and therefore she had almost the same status as a queen. Her titles from the Khonsu Temple are listed below:

  • r-p’t(t),w ‘rt hsw’t, hmt-ntr n ‘Imn m ‘Ipt-sw’t, s’t-nsw n kt. f, nbt t’wy
    • Hereditary princess, great of favors, God’s Wife of Amun in Karnak, king’s bodily daughter, Lady of the Two Lands
  • hmt-ntrn ‘Imn m ‘Ipt-swt, s’t-nsw n (ht.f), nbt t’wy
    • God’s Wife of Amun in Karnak, king’s (bodily) daughter, Lady of the Two Lands

Her family was well endowed because of her father. Her brother later became pharaoh, Psusennes I, one sister became queen, and three other brothers held the title of High Priest of Amun in succession. After her death, Maatkare’s position was given to her niece, Henuttawy (D).


Her original burial place is unknown, but it could be presumed that it was somewhere in the Theban necropolis. Her coffin, mummy, and some shabtis were found in the Deir el-Bahri cache (DB320), which I have talked about several times on this blog. Along with several members of the royal family from the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties (see Nodjmet, Sqenenre Tao, and Unknown Man E), many of Maatkare’s family members were also buried here. Her father, Pinedjem I, her mother, Duathathor-Hunuttawy, and her brother, Masaharta. Her other family members were buried in tomb MMA60 in Deir el-Bahri.

Burial Goods

Because this was a reburial, there weren’t too many funerary goods that were attributed to Maatkare. At least three shabtis were found inscribed for her. One is in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (US39863), one is at the Pelizaeus Museum in Germany (5485), and another is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (17.194.2405). A funerary papyrus has also been found but was not originally found in the tomb. It was probably stolen by the Abd el-Rassul family, who originally discovered DB320 and then sold many of the objects on the antiquities market. The papyrus is now located in Cairo.

One interesting object that was found in her coffin with the mummy was a small, wrapped package. At first, archaeologists believed that it was the mummy of a small baby, possibly stillborn. This would have been strange because, in her position as God’s Wife of Amun, Maatkare was supposed to be celibate. Finally, when the package was x-rayed, it was revealed to be the mummy of a female hamadryas baboon, either a pet of hers or it was placed there for a ritual purpose.

Small mummified baboon found with Maatkare


She was found within two coffins both of which are located in the Cairo Museum (CG 61028; JE 26200). The outer coffin shows signs of minor damage as a gilded right hand is missing and some of the decoration on the forehead has been removed. The three distinct holes indicate that it may have been a golden vulture head flanked by two uraeus serpents. These would have completed the gilded vulture headdress that the coffin was wearing. These symbols were reserved for exceptionally important individuals in her time.

The coffin also depicts a fantastically detailed wig with small braids carved into the wood. The clenched fists that are both on the outer and inner coffin were symbols of masculine power and were normally reserved for the coffins of high-status males. Female coffins typically had outstretched fingers, indicating that this choice was a bold statement of social status.

The inner coffin and coffin board were much less preserved. The hands and faces have been completely removed. These are both elaborately decorated similarly to the outer coffin lid. You can also see that the inside of the bottom of the inner coffin is decorated with a large winged goddess.

The pattern of damage seems to have been done on two separate occasions. The first set of thieves had probably only targeted the inner coffin and the coffin board for petty pilfering. These could have been members of the burial party because if they only damaged the inner coffin and coffin board, they could cover their tracks with the outer coffin lid. Sometime later, someone removed her headpiece and the one gilded hand from the outer coffin. Or these could have fallen off while moving the mummy to DB320.


The mummy of Maatkare Mutemhat (CG 61088) had been disturbed before it was buried in DB320. G. Elliot Smith examined the mummy in June of 1909 and found extensive damage. The shroud of the mummy had been torn from the forehead to the pelvis as well as the right arm wrapping. This was all done in an attempt to find valuables.

Her left forearm was broken, and her hand had been badly damaged, both of them been broken off. You can see below, that on her right hand there were three gold and silver rings on the thumb which were not stolen by thieves. Her body was internally packed with fat, possibly butter, mixed with soda, and molded into the shape of a woman. This included the face.

Maatkare’s face was stuffed to present a life-like appearance. Although we have many examples of these practices, she may have been the earliest example. The wrappings on the face were also painted yellow ochre in an attempt to get a realistic skin tone. She also has two glass eyes that were placed in the wrappings. Her dark hair is still visible around the wrappings. Apparently, her nails had been tied with string to prevent them from falling off.

Maatkare’s hands including the three rings on her right thumb

A leather thong was found around her head that probably held an amulet, which is now missing. X-rays reveal that there is a gold plate covering the embalming incision on her side.



Statue at the bottom of Pinedjem’s colossal statue in Karnak – Wikimedia Commons (Hedwig Storch)

Her hieroglyphs are on the Wikipedia page

Face of Mummy –

Depictions from the Khonsu Temple – Lepsius Abt III, Band 8, pg 248 and 250

Shabti’s, and funerary papyrus, cartouche, and coffin –

Mummy, baboon mummy, papyrus, and image of her hands with rings –

Images of her coffin –

Women Crush Wednesday: Sha-Amun-en-su

This week’s Women Crush Wednesday is a little sad, but I wanted to include her to keep her memory alive. Let’s talk about Sha-Amun-en-su, an Ancient Egyptian mummy lost in the fire at the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro.


Sha-Amun-en-su, meaning “The fertile Fields of Amun,” was an Egyptian priestess and singer who lived in Thebes during the 22nd Dynasty. She was probably born around 800 B.C.E. into a wealthy family. She was probably not born into nobility, but her family was wealthy enough for her to be selected and prepared to work in a temple at an early age.

Sha-Amun-en-su belonged to the main group of priestly singers within the temple complex, called a Heset. They conducted ceremonial duties and ritualistic functions by helping the God’s Wife of Amun. This tradition lasted in Thebes between the 9th and 6th centuries B.C.E.

Interestingly, the Heset were not obliged to live permanently in the temple. Many of them only went to the temple when there were ceremonies. But the women had to obey strict codes of conduct. One of the rules was that they had to stay chaste. They didn’t necessarily have to be virgins, but they were considered extremely pure.

It was also common for an older singer to adopt a younger trainee as their tutor. There is a possibly that Sha-Amun-en-su had an adoptive daughter as there is another sarcophagus in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo for a singer named Merset-Amun. She is labeled as “the daughter of Sha-Amun-en-su, singer of the shrine of Amun.”

She most likely died around the age of 50 years old, but her death could not be determined as her mummy was never unwrapped.


There is no record of the date or exact archaeological site where the coffin was found, but it is more than likely from Thebes based on the style of the coffin and that she was a priestess at the Temple of Karnak in Thebes. It originally was in the Egyptian Khedivate collection, which was the rulers of Egypt while it was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. In 1876, the Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro II visited Egypt for a second time. Dom Pedro II was an amateur Egyptologist and enthusiast. Khedive Ismail Pasha gifted the sarcophagus and the mummy to the emperor, who in return gave him a book.

An image from Dom Pedro II’s trip to Egypt in 1876

The mummy was brought back to Rio de Janeiro and was one of the featured items displayed in the Palace of São Cristóvão. The mummy was part of his private collection and on display in his study. At one point, the sarcophagus was damaged by a storm. It was knocked down by the wind and crashed into the one of the windows in his office. It’s left side was broken, but later restored. There was also a rumor that Dom Pedro II would talk to the mummy while in his study alone.

Because of the Proclamation of the Republic in 1889, the mummy became a part of the Egyptian collection at the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro. In 2015, the curator of the Egyptian collection in the National Museum, Antonio Brancaglion Jr. said in regard to the importance and uniqueness of the sarcophagus,

“If you have a mummy, you have a mummy. If you have not, you won’t get one anymore. If we lose it, we will never get anything else remotely similar. We have to keep it to the end.”

An image of the National Museum ablaze on September 2nd, 2018

This quote is especially sad, considering that the tragic end of the National Museum on September 2nd, 2018, where the entire museum burned. Almost the entire collection of the museum was lost.

Recovery Efforts

After the fire there have been multiple recovery efforts to help re-establish the National Museum. Via Google Arts and Culture, you can do an entire virtual tour of the museum pre-fire, which you can view here.

Some of the objects recovered from the fire (note that many of them are stone, which is well preserved in a fire).

Over 300 Egyptian related items have been salvaged from the fire. One of them is the heart scarab of Sha-Amun-en-su, which had never been previously seen because the mummy was never unwrapped. It had been picked up on previous CT scans that I’ll talk about below. But here is a 3D scan of the heart scarab!

This artist did a series of photographs and sculptures for an exhibition titled Museum of Ashes, where he took ashes from the National Museum and recreated some of the lost works, including Sha-Amun-en-su. You can read an interview with him here and see the exhibition pieces here.

And finally there had been multiple contests for artists to recreate something that was lost in the fire. Two artists chose to recreate the face of Sha-Amun-en-su. One is by Gislaine Avila, and the other was by user Rodrigo Avila.


The sarcophagus of Sha-Amun-en-su is carved in polychrome stuccoed wood. Its decoration had references to the Heliopolitan theology. The head of the sarcophagus has a blue headdress with a yellow vulture headdress and red ribbons. There is then an image of the goddess Nut and a ram-headed bird with wings outstretched. There are also two uraeus serpents with the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt and the four sons of Horus.

There was also a representation of the singer’s Ba, which was a part of the Egyptian concept of the soul. On the back of the sarcophagus was a djed pillar which was a sign of stability associated with Osiris.

The first band bore the inscription,

“An offering that the king makes [to] Osiris, Chief of the West, great God, Lord of Abydos – made for [?] The Singer of the Shrine [of Ammon], Sha-Amun-en-su “.

The name of Sha-Amun-en-su and her titles

And the second line of hieroglyphs reads,

 “An offering that the king makes [to] Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, Lord of the [shrine] Shetayet – made for [?] The Singer of the Shrine of Ammon, Sha-Amun-en-su”.[4]


Again, all examinations of the mummy have been made without opening the casket as it had never been unwrapped.

The mummy’s throat was covered in resin-coated bandages. This may indicate that the mummifying priests were protecting a zone seen as vital for a singer with ritualistic functions so that she could use her voice in the afterlife. This was also done to a mummy of an singer of Amun at the University of Chicago, Meresamun. This may indicate that this was a special procedure for the mummies of women who were charge of chanting hymns and songs.

CT scans of Sha-Amun-en-su

The mummy otherwise appears in good condition with no trauma or injuries. Sha-Amun-en-su kept all of her teeth except one. She also went under a 3D laser scan by Jorge Lopes from Tri-dimensional Experimentation Nucleus of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. This scan allows for the construction of a small scale replica of her skeleton.

Several amulets were identified in her wrappings. One was the heart scarab that I mentioned previously. It is made out a oval green stone that was previously set in gold (which probably melted in the fire). This was placed on the heart of the mummy so that it could replace her heart which was removed.


Image Sources

Profile of Mummy – Wikimedia Commons – Gian Cornachini

Mummy – Wikimedia Commons – Dornicke

Inscription of her name and title – Wikimedia Commons – Unknown author

Sarcophagus – Wikimedia Commons – Museu Nacional

X-ray and CT scan, picture of Dom Pedro in Egypt –

Picture of display –

Coffin – Wikimedia Commons – Dornicke                       

Image of fire –

Some of the artifact recovered –

Mummy Monday: Nefrina

This week’s Mummy Monday has been the focus of a small museum in Pennsylvania for almost 90 years! Meet Nefrina, the mummy located at the Reading Public Museum in Reading Pennsylvania!


Nefrina (phonetically spelled Nfr-ii-n) was an Egyptian woman during the Ptolemaic Period of Ancient Egypt. Her name could be translated as, “May our comings be good,” or “It is a good thing that has come to us.” She lived in the town of Akhmin with her parents and brother, Nesmin. Her father’s name was Irethourrou (Irt-Hr-r-w) and he held honored titles as the keeper of the god’s wardrobe in the temple of the Egyptian god Min. That meant that he took care of dressing the cult statue, which was a ritual that needed to be done every day. Her mother’s name was Irtyrou (Ir(ty)-r-w) and she was a housemistress and a sistrum player for the god of Min.

It is not clear why Nefrina herself did not hold a title, but it can be presumed that she worked with her family in the temple of Min. She died when she was about 25 years old around 275 B.C.E.

Provenance and Display at the Reading Public Museum

The exact provenience of Nefrina is not known, but it is more than likely that she was buried in Akhmin. The University of Pennsylvania acquired her in 1839, though I could find no details on this transaction or if the mummy went on display within their museum.

In 1930, the University loaned the mummy to the Reading Public Museum, where Nefrina became a permanent installation in 1949 (1930.318.3). During her stay in Reading, she was x-rayed in 1972, CAT scanned in 2003, and received a facial reconstruction in 2006 by forensic artist Frank Bender, the results of which I will talk about below.

Here is a video about her original display at the Reading Public Museum called Nefrina’s World.

This past year, the original exhibit got some serious upgrades along with the rest of their Ancient Civilization Gallery. Installation started in early September of 2020 and was opened in late September. They worked with Egyptologist Melinda Hartwig from the Carlos Museum at Emory University on a special project. They created a hologram of Nefrina who welcomes visitors and tells the story of her life. Dr. Hartwig ensured that her appearance and narrative were historically accurate, and an actress was chosen based on her likeness from the facial reconstruction created in 2006.

Here is a series of short videos from Neo Pangea, the designers of the new Nefrina exhibit.

Coffin and Mask

The outside of the coffin of Nefrina

Nefrina is kept in one coffin which is painted black with a gold face. Text can be read along the legs of her coffin, which describes her family and includes spells to help her to the afterlife. The gold on her face is indicative of the Egyptian belief that the gods had the skin of gold. It is also an indicator of her family’s high status in Akhmin. This was an elaborate burial that was typical for the upper class.

The cartonnage on the mummy of Nefrina

On top of her mummy, there are several cartonnage pieces. These were typical of this era and were just an extra decorative and protective layer. They depict a broad collar, wedjats (eyes of Horus), the four sons of Horus, the goddess Nut, and other winged goddesses. There are also two depictions of a mummy sitting on a platform and a bed, which are supposed to depict her own coffin. A piece of cartonnage at her feet depict two feet wearing golden sandals, though there is damage in this area.

It is unclear when the wrappings around her face were unwrapped, but the mask used to be placed over these wrappings. Funerary masks were meant to be an idealized representation of the deceased and were usually made of cartonnage. In 2011, the mask was sent to the Penn Museum Conservation lab to be repaired and conserved. It had been stabilized for photography in 1993, but these masks are prone to damage because of the various layers of cartonnage. They stabilized and realigned the tears, compensated for the structural losses, and stabilized and filled any cracks. You can read more about the process here, here, and here.


As I said previously, the only portion of the mummy that is unwrapped is her face. But through x-rays and CT scans, scholars were able to determine that she mostly died from complications from a broken hip. She suffered from a right hip fracture which could be seen on the x-rays and CT scan. Interestingly, a poultice bag was inserted near the fracture site when she was mummified. This indicates that the wound was not healed when she died and that the bag was intended to heal her in the afterlife.

These scans also revealed that her organs were removed, mummified, and then packed into the torso. And she had false wooden ears, which is a rarity and not fully understood.

Again here is her facial reconstruction made in 2006.

Facial reconstruction of Nefrina


Image Sources

Reconstruction and mask – Mummipedia page

Photo of the old exhibit –

The new exhibit –

Conservation photos – Penn Museum Conservation Lab

Mummy –

Coffin and face – Reading Public Museum

Women Crush Wednesday: Meresamun

This week we’re are going to learn about a Temple Singer from the Third Intermediate Period, Meresamun. She is currently located at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago (OIM 10797).


Meresamun’s name means “Amun loves Her.” She was an ancient Egyptian singer priestess in Karnak c. 800 B.C.E. which is approximately in the 22nd Dynasty of the Third Intermediate Period. Unfortunately, we don’t know where or when Meresamun lived or was buried, so the only things we know about her were written on her mummy. The style of the coffin does suggest that she may have lived or at least was buried in Thebes.

She held the title of “Singer in the interior Temple of Amun.” The temple was most likely the Temple of Amun at Karnak. This meant that she performed music at rituals at the temple when needed. Generally, women who held this title came from some of the wealthiest families from Thebes. Singers were probably trained by their mothers and often several generations of women from a single family worked as temple singers.

Because she is labeled as a “Singer of the Interior” versus just being a “Singer of the Temple,” she was most likely an elite in the complex bureaucracy of the many other singers of the temple. Her title indicated that she had a level of purity that allowed her to enter the most sacred part of the god’s complex.

As a singer, singing was not the only task they undertook. They may have played a sistrum, which is a type of rattle, a menat, which is a beaded necklace that when shaken produced a swishing sound, a harp, or clapsticks. They would typically serve as a temple singer for one month at a time, then have three months off. While not working at the temple, Meresamun would have taken care of her household. Women had the same legal rights as men, which allowed them to institute divorce, serve as a witness to contracts and trials, and to hold property.

The Provenance of the Mummy

The mummy was purchased in 1920 by James Henry Breasted during a visit to Egypt. Breasted, who had originally trained as a pharmacist, was convinced to study Egyptology by the first president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper. When Breasted went on his honeymoon in Egypt in 1895, Harper gave him $500 to purchase Egyptian antiquities for the university. Breasted and his fiancé stored their almost 700 purchases in their honeymoon suite aboard a boat on the Nile. Meresmaun was purchased by Breasted on a later trip to Egypt in 1920 for about $1,650, which would be almost $17,000 today. It was sent to the University of Chicago where it was on display in the Haskell Oriental Museum, which was the predecessor to today’s Oriental Institute Museum which opened at its current location in 1931.

Meresamun can be seen in the back of this 1920s photo of the Haskell Oriental Museum

Here is an interesting excerpt from Breasted’s letter to his wife about the purchase of Meresamun,

“Just as I was leaving Luxor, old Mohammed Mohasseb sent his son to see me and tell me he had something to show me. After many precautions and much secrecy, the son took me into the court of a house where lay a beautifully colored white and red mummification coffin, as fresh and bright as the day it left the painter’s studio. He wants 400 pounds for it….—old Mohammed Mohasseb, who owns nearly a thousand acres of land and has an income from these lands, of nearly 20,000 pounds Egyptian a year. These dealers are men of wealth to whom the profits from such dealing in antiquities is but part of a much larger income. Old Mohammed Mohasseb’s son said to me: “What does this antiquity business which we run for a while in the winter amount to, when we make out if it only a beggarly 1,000 pounds or possibly 2,000 pounds a year, when we have our lands with cotton and sugar cane and wheat bringing ten times what they used to bring?”

James Henry Breasted in a letter to his wife dating 1920

The mummy has been CT scanned three times with three different generations of imaging technology. First, in 1991, it was examined using a GE single slice helical scanner. In July 2008, it was examined with a 64 slice Philips Brilliance 62 scanner. And in September 2008, it was examined with a Philips iCT 256-slice CT scanner, which has never been used on an Egyptian mummy. All examinations took place at the University of Chicago Medical Center in the Department of Radiology.

Mummy Decoration

The mummy would have been inside one or even two coffins, but these seem to be lost. These would have been anthropoid coffins, which would have been painted. Like Hornedjitef’s coffins which we talked about on Monday, the outer coffin would probably have been plain, while the inner coffin/coffins would have been vividly decorated.

The mummy itself was covered in cartonnage, which is composed of layers of fabric, glue, and plaster. The cartonnage is 63 inches or 1.6 meters long. The coffin shell was formed over a temporary inner core made of mud and straw. After the shell was complete, the wrapped mummy was inserted in the case through the back and then the back seam was laced up. A separate footboard was attached, and the entire case was covered with another thin layer of plaster. Several wooden boards were placed at the feet, which would allow the mummy to stand up when it was nested in the coffins.

This was then decorated with images to ensure her success in the afterlife. An idealized version of her face is painted yellow, which could symbolize that she will be like the god with golden skin (but could not afford actual gold paint), or it was simply meant to imitate her skin tone. The majority of the other decorations of the coffin allude to life after death in an effort to protect Meresamun.

The head was decorated with a headband of flower petals and the wings of a protective vulture. The vulture headdress is common for female Egyptians to wear, though it was usually associated with Queens in the New Kingdom. She wears a wide broad collar across her chest, which could seem to depict a floral garland rather than a beaded necklace. Below are the four sons of Horus, appearing as wrapped mummies. These are Quebehsenuef, the hawk-headed god who guarded the intestines, Duamutef, the jackal-head god who guarded the stomach, Imseti, the human formed god who guarded the liver, and Hapy the ape-headed god who guarded the lungs. In between these gods is a large representation of either the god Horus or Ra, as a falcon with outstretched wings. He has a sun disc on his head and is holding a shen sign in each talon.

Next, there are two winged serpents with sun disks on their head and Eyes of Horus in front of them. These both symbolize health, regenerations, and protection. Below are two rams, which may be a pun for the word soul, which sounds the same in ancient Egyptian, an image of the god Khnum, one of the original creator gods, or the god Banebdjed, who was associated with the soul of Osiris.

The very bottom is painted with a variety of symbols important for the Egyptian religion. The symbol for the west, which is the area of the setting or dying sun, is associated with the land of the deceased. The djed pillar symbolizes the backbone of the god Osiris. The tjet, or Isis knot, symbolizes health and well-being. The symbol of the east, the realm of the reborn sun, symbolizes the land of the living. Two images of the jackal god, Wepwawet, who is the protector of the necropolis, are on the feet. Finally, there is an image of a leaping bull, which is a symbol of fertility, on the footboard of the coffin.

After the cartonnage was painted it was then varnished. This has yellowed over time, including making her skin tone look darker than it was originally. Interestingly the artist who painted this cartonnage made some mistakes. On each side of her head, there are dribbles of blue paint that extend beyond the outline of her wig. The paint must have dried this way, indicating that the mummy was laid on her back. This may indicate that this burial was a rush job, or at the very least the artist didn’t think that Meresamun would mind a few mistakes.

After the cartonnage was painted it was then varnished. This has yellowed over time, including making her skin tone look darker than it was originally. Interestingly the artist who painted this cartonnage made some mistakes. On each side of her head, there are dribbles of blue paint that extend beyond the outline of her wig. The paint must have dried this way, indicating that the mummy was laid on her back. This may indicate that this burial was a rush job, or at the very least the artist didn’t think that Meresamun would mind a few mistakes.

There is an inscription along the legs of Meresamun which reads as follows:

“A gift which the king gives to Re-Horakhty-Atum, Lord of the Two Lands and Heliopolis [and to] Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, Lord of Shechet, and Wennefer (a form of Osiris), Lord of the Sacred Land (ie: the Necropolis), the Great God, Lord of Heaven that he [the king] may give funerary offerings to the Osiris, the Singer in the Interior of the Temple of Amun, Meresamun, the One Beneficial to Amun, justified.”

After the cartonnage and coffin were completed, her body would have likely been transported to a roughly hewn undecorated group tomb chiseled into a limestone hillside on the West bank of Thebes, which was a common practice during this time.


Meresamun was the center of an exhibition at the University of Chicago called “The Life of Meresamun: A Temple Singer in Ancient Egypt.” This ran from February 10th to December 6th, 2009. This exhibition was put together by Curator Emily Teeter.

The exhibition consisted of 70 objects, including the mummy, to provide a holistic look at what Meresamun’s life may have looked like. This included objects that she would have used at work and home.

You can check out the exhibition collection program below.

*Note there are no images of mummified human remains this week, but there are x-rays, CT scans, and reconstructions*


In preparation for the exhibition, the mummy was taken to the University of Chicago’s Medical Center. Whenever moving fragile artifacts, a team of curators, conservators, and other museum staff often need to come up with a safe and secure plan for transfer. In this case, the team of conservators placed the coffin, secured by foam wedges and linen straps, into a rectangular wooden crate. To add some fun, the exhibition designers added black wedjat eyes, also known as the dual Eyes of Horus. This was a tradition in ancient Egypt burial practices when it came to rectangular coffins, often of the First Intermediate Period. They were added on one side of the coffin both for protection of the body and so that the deceased could “look out” of the coffin and see offerings being given to them.

The CT scans revealed a lot about what Meresamun may have looked like and how she was mummified. The embalmers had cleared her nasal passage before gently scooping out her brain, as her entire cranium was empty. It also showed us that Meresamun had a slight overbite and her throat had been stuffed with packing material, such as mud, soil, or sand mixed with chips of rock and some kind of binder. This extended into her mouth and covered her bottom teeth. They were able to also examine her teeth, which had no cavities or signs of dental disease. This is very unique because, in one study of ancient Egyptian mummies’ teeth, over 80% of those studied had some type of dental problems or disease. But the entire top layer of her tooth enamel had been worn down, probably by the grit of Egyptian bread, which is also common in Egyptian mummies.

Countless tiny fractures appear throughout Meresamun’s ribcage and collarbones. The CT scans were so sharp that the radiologist could determine that the embalming materials (resin and linen) that were shoved into her chest had become brittle and cracked into the exact same place as the bones. This indicates that the damage occurred long after her death and embalming. They could have occurred if the coffin or mummy was dropped. Doctors were able to examine her feet through the scans as well. Her toes, toenails, vessels, and tendons were all intact. Her right big toe pointed more laterally, which if untreated would have led to a bunion. They speculated that this may have been caused by her walking patterns and footwear.

There were also five roughly oval-shaped amulets bandaged into her wrappings: two on the eyes, one on the neck, one on the chest, and one on her back.

If you would like to watch a visual unwrapping of the mummy, you can check out this series of YouTube videos.

Facial Reconstruction

For the 2009 exhibition, the scans of Meresamun were given to two separate artists who reconstructed her face. Joshua Harker used traditional methods in which layers of fat and muscle are built up upon the skull employing the Gatliff-Snow American Tissue Depth Marker Model. He did this digitally in three dimensions. Read an interview with Joshua here.

The other artist, Michael Brassell was trained in forensic facial imaging by the FBI. He based his knowledge on his work with the Department of Justice and Maryland State Police Missing Persons Unit on their joint project NamUs. This is a database that allows smaller police departments and families of missing people to try and identify skeletal remains. He chose to hand draw and then digitally color his image. Read an interview with Michael here.

The artists portrayed very different chins and noses of Meresamun, but both included the overbite, cheekbones, and the shapes of her eyes. The similarities between the two reconstructions suggest that both techniques have created a reliable portrait of Meresamun. The curator of the exhibition, Emily Teeter, consulted with the artists for the cosmetic features of the reconstruction. Teeter decided that Meresamun should have bangs based on some stela dating to this time, which depicted women with bangs. They also included the traditional Egyptian kohl eyeliner that extends beyond the eyelid.


Photo Credits

Left lateral view of the coffin – Wikimedia commons (M. Vannier)

Coffin, CT scans, x-rays, facial reconstructions, original display of mummy – Feature “Priestess of Amun” (most originally come from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago or Anna Ressman)

Detail of Coffin – Flickr (Steve Grundy)

Mummy in the display case – Wikimedia commons (Daderot)

Images of CT scans – (Philips Healthcare/University of Chicago)

Site Saturday: Deir el-Medina

Welcome to Site Saturday! This week we are going to talk about one of the most fascinating sites in all of Egypt. This site is Deir el-Medina, which is one of the most thoroughly documented accounts of community life in the ancient world. The citizens of these villages were skilled artisans who built and decorated the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and Queens during the New Kingdom.

Location and Name

Deir el-Medina is in a quite unique location as it is on the west bank of the Nile across from Thebes/Luxor (just north west of Amenhotep III’s palace Malqata). It is laid out in a natural amphitheater within walking distance from the Valley of the Kings to the north, the Valley of the Queens to the west, and the funerary temples to the east and south east.

Map of the local area surrounding Deir el-Medina

The ancient name of the village was Set Maat, meaning “Place of Truth,” though that is only what the Egyptian officials called it. The locals called it Pa Demi, which simply meant “The Village.” The official name was thought to be inspired by the gods in creating the eternal homes of the deceased kings and their families. Those that lived in the village were called “The servants of the Place of Truth.” During the Christian era, the temple to Hathor in the village was converted to a church called Deir el-Medina in Egyptian Arabic, which means “the Monastery of the town.”

Layout of the Village

This was not a village that grew up organically. This was a planned community, most likely founded by pharaoh Amenhotep I in the 18th Dynasty. It was most likely built apart from the wider community in order to preserve the secrecy of the work being carried out in the tombs. Pharaohs during the New Kingdom moved from building massive funerary tombs, like the pyramids of Giza, to rock cut tombs built up in the cliffsides. By doing this, they hoped that their tombs would not be robbed, and the pharaohs would be able to enter the afterlife comfortably with all their possessions. Deir el-Medina was built to contain all the workers and artisans who worked on the tombs and would thus know crucial details. That is not to say that the people of Deir el-Medina didn’t rob the tombs, but we’ll talk about that later.

Although Amenhotep I probably planned the village, there are some remains that date to his father, Thutmose I’s reign. The village reached its peak during the Ramesside Period and was most likely abandoned by the end of the New Kingdom.

Although Amenhotep I probably planned the village, there are some remains that date to his father, Thutmose I’s reign. The village reached its peak during the Ramesside Period and was most likely abandoned by the end of the New Kingdom.

Map of the walled village and the necropolis surrounding it

The site is about 1.4 acres with a surrounding wall. The main entrance to the town was in the north wall and there may have even been a guard house next to the gate. The community could move freely in and out of the village, but outsiders were only allowed to enter the site if they were there for work related reasons. At it’s peak, the village had around 68 houses with a main road running the length of the village. This road may have actually been covered to shelter the villagers from the glare and heat of the sun.

What is most interesting about the village is that they were not self-sufficient. Because they were located in the hills above the Nile, they didn’t have a central well for a water supply. They were within a 30 min walk to the nearest well, so someone had to continuously help supply the village with water. The surrounding area would not have been able to sustain agriculture. Let alone, the villagers were not farmers, but artists!

Reconstruction of the walled village, one of the tombs, and a cross section of a house

The houses were designed as long rectangles, running from the street to the surrounding wall. They had an average floor space of 70 square meters or 753 square feet. Because the village was planned, all the buildings were made with the same materials and construction methods. The walls were made of mudbrick on top of a stone foundations. Mud was applied to the walls, which were then painted white on the outside. Some of the internal walls were also painted white on the bottoms.

The houses contained four to five rooms each, usually comprising of an entrance, main room, two smaller rooms, a kitchen with a cellar, and a staircase leading to the roof. Some of the houses may have had a wooden door with the name of the occupants. You would step up into the living room, then proceed to the other two rooms, before reaching the kitchen in the back of the house. It had an open roof, possibly with a thatched roof to both allow smoke to leave and block the sun. The windows of these houses were also very high up on the walls to block the glare of the sun. Nearly all the houses had niches for statues or altars and a mud brick platform which may have been used as a shrine or a birthing bed. None of the rooms were designated solely as bedrooms.

Layout of a typical house in Deir el-Medina
One of the surviving pyramid chapel above the tomb

Surrounding the village are their tombs. These mostly consist of rock cut chambers and chapels, sometimes with small pyramids. Because these villagers were artisans, these tombs are beautifully decorated. Check out these links to look inside some of the tombs!


The village was home to a mixed population of Egyptians, Nubians, and Asiastics who were employed as laborers (ie. stone cutters, plasters, water carriers), administrators, or decorators. The artisans were organized into two groups who also lived in different parts of the village. These were called left and right gangs and then worked on the respective sides of the tombs at the same time, with a foreman for each side. When working in the village, the artisans stayed overnight in a camp that overlooked the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, which is at the base of the cliffs that contain the Valley of the Kings. The workers had cooked meals delivered to them for the village.

The workmen were considered middle class, based on the record of their income and prices. They were salaried state employees, which meant that they were paid in rations. They also were known to practice unofficial second jobs as well. A working week was eight days followed by a two-day holiday. The six days off a month could be supplemented frequently due to illness or family reasons. There are even some records of taking the day off work because they were arguing with their wife or had a hangover! Workmen were also given days off for festivals as well as being issued extra supplies of food and drink to allow a larger celebration. During these days off, the workmen were allowed to work on their own tombs or take extra jobs.

The Egyptians did not use coinage for money until the Roman period, so jobs were paid with rations or through bartering. There was a continuous trade between houses of items like sandals, beds, baskets, paintings, amulets, loincloths, and toys for the children. A worker might build an addition to the house or roof in exchange for anything from a sack of grain, jug of beer, or a painting of a god or goddess in a personal shrine.

We don’t have any evidence of female artisans from this village, so it can be assumed that the village was mostly occupied by women and children while the men were away. Deir el-Medina itself provides the most information about non-royal women from the New Kingdom. Because they stayed in the village while the men were away, the government supplied them with servants to assist with the grinding of grain and laundry tasks. The wives of the worker would care for the children in the village and baked bread for the community. The vast majority of the women in the village could hold titles of chantress or singers, which meant that they held official positions within the local shrine or even the larger temples in Thebes. Women who were titled as mistress of the House could also work supervising the brewing of beer. Although some workmen used this activity as a legitimate excuse for taking time off of work.

Image from the tomb of Anherkhaway at Deir el-Medina

Women even had property rights under Egyptian law. They had a title to their own wealth and a third of all marital goods. These would belong solely to the wife in case of divorce or the death of the husband. If the wife was to die first, it would go to her heirs, not her spouse. One will of a woman named Naunakhte was found in Deir el-Medina in 1928. It dates to the 20th dynasty, during the reign of Rameses V and is currently located at the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford (1945.97).

The Will of Naunakhte at the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford

The Lady Naunakhte, who was labeled as a citizen and not a servant or slave, was married twice, first to a scribe Kenhikhopshef, with whom she had no children, and then to the workmen Khaemnun, with whom she had eight children. In her will, she lays out the inheritance to only her five oldest children, Maaynakhtef (male), Kenhikhopshef (male), Amennakht (male), Wosnakhte (female), Manenakhte (female). They were labeled as good children who took care of their mother in her old age. Her son Kenhikhopshef even received a bronze washing bowl. Although her last three children, did not receive anything in her will, she does remind them that they could receive items from their father. How I would love to see the will of Khaemnun to compare!

Religious Beliefs

In Deir el-Medina, the state gods were worshiped alongside personal gods without any conflict. The community had 16 to 18 chapels, the largest of which were dedicated to Hathor, Ptah, and Ramses II. The workmen typically honored Ptah, Resheph, originally a Canaanite god associated with plague, war, and thunder, Thoth, and Seshat. Women were devoted to Hathor, Taweret and Bes in pregnancy, and Renenutet and Meretseger for food a safety.

Tomb of Sennedjem Deir el-Medina, TT1

There was also a funerary cult dedicated to pharaoh Amenhotep I and his wife Ahmose-Nefertari. Amenhotep became Amenhotep of the Town and his wife because Mistress of the Sky and Lady of the West. The villagers held a festival every year dedicated to the pharaoh and his wife. The god Amun was also seen as a patron of the poor and one who was merciful to the penitent.

Book of Dreams found in Deir el Medina, Chester Beatty Papyrus, British Museum (EA 10683,2)

Dream interpretation also fell under the religious culture of the village. A book of dreams was found in the library cache of the scribe Kenhirkhopesehef. This book was used to interpret various types of dreams. Apparently the interpretation of the dream was often the opposite of what the dream depicted. Meaning, a happy dream could mean sadness or vice verse. Here are some examples:

  • If a man sees himself dead this is good; it means a long life in front of him.
  • If a man sees himself eating crocodile flesh this is good; it means acting as an official amongst his people. (i.e. becoming a tax collector)
  • If a man sees himself with his face in a mirror this is bad; it means a new life.
  • If a man sees himself uncovering his own backside this is bad; it means he will be an orphan later.

Historical Records

A large proportion of the community, including women, could at least and possibly write. Deir el-Medina itself contributed significantly to the literacy percentages in New Kingdom Egypt. This is seen especially in the vast number of ostraca and papyri remains that were found in Deir el-Medina. Ostraca are small pieces of stone or broke pottery, which were then written or drawn on. These could be funny scenes, literary texts, or important documents.

The surviving texts record the events of daily life rather than the major historical incidents, which is what the majority of other contemporary texts describe. Personal letters, records of sales transactions, prayer, law and court cases, medicine, love poetry, and literature are just some of the examples of the texts founds. Thousands of papyri and ostraca have still not been published, and it is estimated that half of the surviving records may have been lost to looters when the site was excavated.

As the majority of the workers were free citizens (there were some slaves who lived in the village), they were allowed all access to the justice system. Any Egyptian could petition the vizier and could demand a trial by his peers. The community’s court was made up of a foreman, deputies, craftsman, and a court scribe. They were authorized to deal with civil and some criminal cases, typically relating to the non-payment of goods or services. The villagers would represent themselves and some cases could go on for several years, including one dispute involving the chief of police that last eleven years.

The people of Deir el-Medina also consulted oracles about a variety of topics. Questions could be posed orally or in writing before the image of the god when carried by the priests. A positive response would be a downward dip and a negative response would the priests taking away the idol. They also believed that the oracle could bring disease or blindness to people as punishment or miracle cures as rewards.

Papyrus with medical advice, Edwin Smith Papyrus

A large portion of the ostraca found in Deir el-Medina describe the medical techniques of this time period. As in other Egyptian communities, the workmen and inhabitants of the village received care for their health problems through medical treatment, prayer, and magic. There was both a physician who saw patients and prescribed treatments and a scorpion charmer who specialized in magical cures. The surviving ostraca contain prescriptions, letters, and even semi-official documents such as lists noting the days and reasons for a worker’s absence. One example is a letter from a father to his son, asking for help in treating his blindness (Berlin P 11247). Apparently, it can be cured with honey, dried ochre, and black eye paint, though the instructions were not included.

Tomb Robbing

Tomb robbing was nothing new in ancient Egypt. The majority of tombs and funerary monuments were looted in antiquity, often just a few years after they were sealed. And then anything else was taken in the 18th and 19th century by tourists. If you didn’t know, the reason King Tutankhamun’s tomb was so famous and has created so much allure, is that it was the only intact tomb of a pharaoh.

Although King Tut’s tomb was filled to the brim with treasures, there was evidence of robbers entering the tomb, though they only took a few items. This map shows the different robbers holes.

The villagers of Deir el-Medina were blessed with the knowledge of the location, decoration, and possibly even witnessed the funerary assemblages being placed in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Because of this, it has been proposed that the Deir el-Medina villagers were actually the ones who looted many of these tombs and that it became part of the villages culture. During times where there was no work, they may have become desperate and used fences, or people who knowingly bought stolen goods, to loot and sell the finds of the tombs. They may have bribes officials and then would tunnel into the tombs through the back to not be suspected. Viziers would apparently inspect the tomb entrances often to make sure they were sealed. If any items were recovered from the tomb robbers, authorities would not put them back in the tombs, but add them to the treasury.

There are some records of thieves being caught and tortured to interrogate them. The police in the area were called the Medjay, who were responsible for preserving law and order. One of the famous cases was against a man named Paneb who was accused of looting royal tombs, adultery, and causing unrest in the community. There was an entire court case against him, which we unfortunately have no record of the outcome. Although there are other records of a head of the workmen being executed around this time. The adultery of Paneb was well recorded in this ostraca inscription:

“Paneb slept with the lady Tuy when she was the wife of the workman Kenna. He slept with the lady Hel when she was with Pendua. He slept with the lady Hel when she was with Hesysunebef – and when he had slept with Hel he slept with Webkhet, her daughter. Moreover, Aapekhty, his son, also slept with Webkhet!”

Papyrus Leopold II, currently in Brussels (07/003). The lower part in located at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York and is called Papyrus Amherst VII.

The Leopold II and Amherst VII Papyrus detail one tomb robbery. One worker named Amenpanufer confessed to breaking into the tomb of Pharaoh Sobekemsaf II. He and his accomplices opened the sarcophagi and stole amulets, jewelry, and gold. They fled and spilt the loot between themselves. He alone was arrested but gave his share to the official who let him go. And then he returned to his friends, who reimbursed him for losing his share!

Another record, called the Abbot Papyrus, reports that officials were looking for a scapegoat, so they obtained a confession from a repeat offender after torturing him. The vizier was suspicious at how easily the suspect was produced, so he asked the man to lead them to the tomb that he robbed. He led them to an unfinished tomb and lied about who the tomb was made for. Supposedly, he was let go.

Strikes and the Decline of the Village

Throughout the later history of the village, there is evidence of several strikes against the pharaoh. Usually paying proper wages was a religious duty that formed an intrinsic part of Maat, which was a concept of truth or justice that the Egyptians followed. Around the 25th year of Ramses III’s reign, the tomb laborers were experienced severe delaying in supplies. They decided to stop working and wrote a letter to the vizier complaining about their lack of wheat rations. Some of the village leaders attempted to reason with them, but the workers continued to refuse to work as their were force to buy their own wheat. Apparently, the vizier and authorities were able to address their complaints and the workers resumed work. This may have been the first sit-down strike action in recorded history!

There were several strikes after this. The work chiefs continued to support the authorities rather than the workers. Since the workers didn’t trust their chiefs anymore, they chose their own representatives from within the village. After the reign of Ramses IV, the conditions in the village become increasingly unsettled. It is unclear when and why the site was finally abandoned, but it could be presumed that when the pharaoh’s stopped building tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, that the village was emptied.

Excavation History

The earliest find in the area was made in the 1840s. This was a cache of papyri, which hinted at some of the later finds in the village. It was first seriously excavated from 1905 to 1909 by Ernesto Schiaperelli, who was an Italian Egyptologists who had discovered the tomb of Nefertari in the Valley of the Kings. His excavations uncovered a large number of ostraca.

Excavations in Deir el-Medina

Next, Bernard Bruyère, a French Egyptologist, started excavations around 1922. These of course were overshadowed by Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun. He excavated the entire site, including the village, the dump and the cemetery until 1951. During these excavations, a cache of 5,000 ostraca of assorted works of commerce and literature was found in a well near the village.

Jaroslav Černý, a Czech Egyptologist under Bruyère, continued to study the site for almost 50 years. He was able to name and describe the lives of many of the inhabitants of Deir el-Medina. The mountain peak that overlooks the village was renamed Mount Cernabru, in recognition of Černý and Bruyère’s work on the village.


Photo Credits

Wikimedia Commons (Roland Unger) – Ruins image – Plan of local area

Anne Austin ( – Picture of Ruins

British Museum (EA 10683,2) – Chester Beatty Papyrus (Dream Book)

Wikimedia Commons (Jeff Dahl) – Edwin Smith Papyrus (Medical Papyrus) – Funny Animal Ostraca

Peter Pavúk ( – Plan of Village and necropolis – Reconstruction of the village – Image of Pyramid shrine and ruins

Wikimedia (Steve F-E-Cameron) – Ruins

Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin – Osiride Statue of Amenhotep I

Anagh – Ruins

Archaeological Photography Exchange (Seshta) – Will of Naunakhte

Babara Weibel – Tomb of Sennedjem

Flickr (kairoinfo4u) – Tomb of Sennedjem – Outline of House Structure – Tomb of Anherkhawy

Global Egyptian Museum – Papyrus Leopold II – King Tut robbery map

Wikimedia Commons (French Archaeological Institute in Cairo IFAO) – Excavation of Deir el-Medina – Jaroslav Černý images – Bernard Bruyère image