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Ancient Egypt – Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings

There’s a new two-part documentary on Ancient Egypt showing on BBC2 at the moment, and despite recording it J decided to watch it as it aired on Friday & I joined him in this (I’d actually planned to watch the second half of the footy after dinner, but the ITV stream on their webpage was so lousy (constantly re-buffering & dropping out) during the half-time chat that I gave up on that idea).

In this series Joann Fletcher is telling us about the more ordinary inhabitants of Ancient Egypt – not the Pharaohs & the aristocracy but the more middle class inhabitants of the village of craftspeople that’s been excavated in Deir el-Medina. 3500 years ago this village (just called the village in Egyptian times) housed the people who worked on the tombs of the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings, and it’s situated just over the other side of the mountain on one of the sides of the Valley. In this first programme Fletcher used the grave goods of a couple called Kha and Merit, and other finds from the village, to tell us about how these more ordinary Egyptians lived.

I’ll get my nit-picking out of the way first – there were a couple of (heavily used) camera tricks that irritated me. The first was them playing around with the depth of focus all the time when we were being shown small & medium sized objects – I want to see the thing in its entirety not look at tiny segments shifting up & down the object! The other was even more irritating – someone had discovered the existence of fisheye lenses and was using them everywhere. Some shots there was some justification – after all it gives the feeling of a vast sweep of land or of a temple. But inside a tomb, where all it serves to do is make the pillars look bulgy?? Or distorting more & more to focus in on a particular piece of pottery?? All it did was make me roll my eyes every time it happened. Again I want to be able to see the things you’re showing me, not notice the camera-person or director’s favourite trick.

However, the actual content of the programme was good & that’s the real point. It was refreshing to watch something about Ancient Egypt that wasn’t punctuated by ad-breaks and treated the audience like adults rather than repeated the same point over & over in a portentous voice (I don’t much like Discovery channel documentaries, can you tell? 😉 ).

We know so much about Kha & Merit because their tomb was discovered intact in 1906. I thought the photographs we were shown of them excavating the tomb were very reminiscent of Tutankhamun’s tomb – in that there was the antechamber piled high with all the things they could need. Not as splendid as a King’s tomb of course. The contents of their tomb, including their mummies, are on display in Turin and Fletcher showed us some of those before we went back to Egypt to look at how they’d lived. Among the things there were Merit’s cosmetics kit, including a perfume bottle that still has traces of the original contents streaked down the sides and a beautiful kohl eyeliner bottle made out of glass, complete with wooden applicator, that still had kohl in it. The mummies hadn’t ever been unwrapped, but had been X-rayed – so Fletcher could tell us that Kha stood about 5’6″ and had a very prominent nose, and Merit was about 5’2″. She also said that Merit was a delicate woman, I’m not sure if that was by the standards of our time or by the standards of Merit’s time.

From their coffins etc we know that Kha was an architect & his title was something like “Chief of Foremen” (I forget exactly what she said), so clearly this was a high status couple – as the richness & quantity of the other items in the tomb also attest to. So not quite “the ordinary Egyptian” that the programme was trying to tell us they were, but still not part of the aristocracy. Merit’s title was Lady of the House – i.e. she was a housewife.

Back in Egypt Fletcher took us round some of the archaeology & told us what it said about Kha & Merit’s lives. Outside the village is a Great Pit, that was an attempt by the villagers to build a well and become self-sufficient for water (which they never did) – this ended up being used as a rubbish tip by the villagers & a lot of the stuff in there is shards of pottery that they’ve written notes and such on (called ostraca). These include several with love poems on, and Fletcher speculated that Kha & Merit might’ve written some things similar to these while they were courting. Egyptians didn’t marry with a ceremony like we do, instead the man brought his bundle – all his worldly goods – to the house of the woman he wanted to live with, and she either let him in or not. Fletcher read to us from an ostracon the story of a man who brought his bundle (which he details) to the house of this woman and her family, and he talks of his outrage that they turned him away not once but twice!

Kha clearly didn’t have that experience & Fletcher showed us a ring in the Turin museum that was probably given by Kha to Merit & was buried with Merit. In Egypt Fletcher showed us the layout of one of the larger houses in the village, of the sort that he & Merit and their children must’ve shared. Even tho it’s a bigger house, it was still part of a back-to-back terrace, so they lived cheek by jowl with their neighbours. The floor plan (for the ground floor, I wasn’t clear if there was likely to be a second floor) included a room where the women spent their daytime, a room with a chaise longue built in where Kha would’ve relaxed in the evenings or on days off, a bedroom, a store-room and at the back a built-in kitchen complete with oven & fridge equivalent! Fletcher visited a modern Egyptian family & watched the woman of the house cooking bread in a very similar oven, producing a similar loaf to the ones found in tombs (including Kha & Merit’s tomb).

Fletcher also followed in the footsteps of Kha on his way to work – there’s a path from the village over the mountain to the tombs. He would’ve walked that way with his workmen, possibly most days although he perhaps stayed over in the Valley during the working week. Once there the workers were watched over by guards – looking both for tomb robbery (mostly during the night I guess) and for people making off with the tools and materials to be used in tomb building. Fletcher had the chance to go in the tomb of Amenhotep III which is one of the ones that Kha worked on and has been closed to visitors for a long time – she was quite overwhelmed. And it was a well decorated & impressive tomb (and could’ve done without quite so much fisheye while they were filming it!). She also showed us an unfinished tomb thought to be intended for Akhenaten so possibly also worked on by Kha, where you could see the chisel marks & the marks made to measure out the walls. She and the archaeologist she was with showed us a cubit – the measuring tool of an egyptian monument builder (one was found in Kha’s tomb). This is about 50 cm long, and folds in the middle so it can be folded up & transported easily.

One of the other things found in Kha’s tomb was a golden cubit – this was a mark of royal favour & is a non-folding cubit covered in gold and engraved with Kha’s name, titles & some autobiographical details. It’s from this that they know that Kha wasn’t just in charge of workmen building tombs, but was also involved in the design & buildings of temples – including Luxor Temple.

Merit pre-deceased Kha, and she died unexpectedly – they know this because she’s buried in a coffin that was originally intended for Kha, it has his name on it and it’s too big for her. The tomb chapel of their tomb is highly decorated, with scenes showing Kha and Merit & their children – one daughter in particular (also called Merit) appears in lots of the scenes & Fletcher speculated that this might be the child that looked after Kha into his old age. (Although it wasn’t clear if they knew how old he was when he died.)

This was a very information dense programme, and I feel like I’ve missed loads out even though I’ve written about loads. For instance Fletcher’s narration touched on the grain stores & payment of the workers in grain, she also talked about the decoration of the houses in Deir el-Medina, the gods they worshipped, the medicine they used and more. But it wasn’t done in a dry way, or an overwhelming way – Fletcher & the other people who made the programme managed to tell us a lot while keeping it entertaining and easy to understand. If I have one quibble about the content it’s that Fletcher kept saying it was like we knew these people – but I’d say we know a fair amount about how they lived and about how they wanted to be remembered, but we don’t really know anything about their personalities. Well worth watching if you get the chance & you’re even a little interested in Ancient Egypt.