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“Deir el-Medina: A Never Ending Story” Cédric Gobeil (EEG Study Day, April 2018)

In April the Essex Egyptology Group held its annual study day. This year the subject was the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina with four talks given by Cédric Gobeil who was director of the French archaeological mission to the site for several years (before he became the Director of the Egypt Exploration Society in 2016). I’ve split my write-up into four parts, and this one covers the first talk.

“Archaeology in the Archive: A Short Historical Review of the French Excavations at Deir el-Medina”

This talk gave us historical context for the investigation of the site, as well as illustrating the information that can be gleaned by studying the archives of previous expeditions. Gobeil pointed out that archive archaeology is currently trendy – a combination of field archaeology being more difficult (more permissions, and the modern science takes much longer than the older treasure hunting style) and of how much unexpected & unpublished data lurks in the archives.

The village is positioned at the foothills of the Western mountains close to both the Valley of the Kings & the Valley of the Queens. The people who lived here were the workers (and their families) who built the tombs in these two valleys, and the village was occupied from the reign of Thutmose I to the end of the New Kingdom (roughly 1500 – 1000 BCE). The bulk of the excavation of the site was performed by a French team led by Bernard Bruyère who excavated there from 1922 to 1952. The work they did was so extensive that when Gobeil took up the job as director in 2011 he was told by friends & colleagues that he was making a mistake – it would be a dead end job with nothing left to find. Luckily for him this turned out not to be the case! The current work fills in the gaps that Bruyère left – some because he overlooked things and in other cases because he didn’t have modern technology.

Gobeil showed us a map of the site drawn by Bruyère in 1956 which is still used as a reference to this day. The site can be split into 3 areas: the settlement, the necropolis to the west of the settlement and the cultic & religious area. He highlighted a few features of each of these to whet our appetites – for instance the walls around the settlement, which weren’t to keep people in but were more likely to be for protection from the weather. The necropolis to the west is not the only necropolis at the site, but the eastern one doesn’t seem to be the same population so isn’t counted as part of Deir el-Medina nowadays. There are 491 tombs in the western necropolis of which 53 are decorated & have names. The cultic & religious area is dominated now by the Ptolemaic era temple which was built on top of the earlier structures that were contemporaneous with the workers in the village. These votive chapels were dedicated to the same gods as the later Ptolemaic structure, so there is some sort of continuity with the original inhabitants.

Bruyère hadn’t been the first archaeologist to work at Deir el-Medina, although the first people to dig there in the first half of the 19th Century can’t quite be called archaeologists being more focused on finding impressive objects for museums or private collectors rather than understanding the site. These people included Henry Salt and Bernardino Drovetti. From the later 19th Century the diggers were more archaeologically inclined – including names such as Auguste Mariette and Ernesto Schiaparelli. Gobeil showed us a photograph of Schiaparelli’s excavation with a procession of workers bringing the tomb goods out of a tomb – a reversal of what the original preparation of the tomb must’ve looked like millennia ago.

The original French concession that Bruyère worked on in the 1920s was very large – it didn’t just cover the known site but also into the mountains around it. In comparison the concession today covers just the site of Deir el-Medina. The larger size was partly because that was the way things were done at the time, and partly because the extent of the site wasn’t known. In 1921 only a few bits of the village plus the temple and a couple of tombs were known. And originally the site was thought to be Ptolemaic because the temple was clearly of that era. Gobeil showed us archive photographs of how the site looked when Bruyère started work. It was full of rubbish and debris, and things left by the looters who had been there before him. So as with the modern expedition part of Bruyère’s remit was to tidy up the site and make it visible & interesting to visitors.

Bruyère’s dig house was in the hills above the site, and the kitchen of that structure is the same kitchen that Gobeil’s team used whilst they were excavating there. But the rest of the building has been changed & extended since the 1920s! Not to the extent of providing running water, however – water is still brought up by donkey as it was in Bruyère’s day. The dig house wasn’t just living quarters for Bruyère’s team, it was also the place they stored the artifacts they’d dug up.

Bruyère’s team had about 75-100 workers per day, of whom around half were children. Children being cheaper to pay than donkeys were to hire! The excavation was done quickly even by the standards of the day. They started with the Eastern necropolis, as debris from this was likely to end up falling on the village. The original plan was to take 10 years to excavate the village itself, but because of World War II they ended up taking just one year to do the whole thing. Which is why there’s been so much for Gobeil & his team to find, and there are probably lots more ostraca and overlooked objects in the massive debris mountain from Bruyère’s excavation. After the war Bruyère returned and excavated the temple. The temple was apparently excavated down to the bedrock, although Gobeil has found things there that show that wasn’t quite the case. But Bruyère did discover that there’s a Ramesses II era temple underneath the Ptolemaic structure we see now – of course this can’t be excavated as you’d need to dismantle the Ptolemaic one first. The last part of the site to be excavated by Bruyère was the Great Pit in the 1950s, and Gobeil showed us a photography of workers removing the debris from the pit by hand using the original staircase.

Bruyère was also keen to rebuild when he had excavated, as mentioned previously tourism was an important part of his plan for the site. And so even in the 1930s they were setting up tourist routes round the village as part of their rebuilding plan. The rush of the excavation did also mean that the rebuilding was rushed, so sadly Bruyère didn’t always get it right. He also made the decision to leave the remains of the painted decoration in place for tourists to see – very interesting for those who visited then, but now it has eroded away and we know of it only from archive photographs. There’s only one fragment that still remains on a house altar – a brightly coloured half image of a dancing girl with tattoos on her thighs.

The speed of Bruyère’s excavation is both good and bad. The bad is that many smaller objects were missed, and there aren’t secure contexts recorded for a lot of the finds from the village in particular. But it does mean we have knowledge of the whole site which we wouldn’t otherwise have. An excavation of that scale would be far too expensive to be contemplated today – expensive in terms not only of money but also of manpower & time.

A lot of the information on the site & the finds comes from Bruyère’s dig diary which he kept all the way through his time at Deir el-Medina. It is very thorough and Bruyère was a good draftsman who drew his finds at their contexts. It also includes newspaper clippings show what the general public of the time were learning about the site.

After Bruyère there were another couple of excavations over the next 20 years or so. But then there was no work at the site from 1975 until Gobeil took on directorship of the concession in 2011.

Gobeil finished up this talk by showing us photographs of some of the objects (now in the Louvre) found by Bruyère’s team. These include a lot of everyday items, as well as ~15,000 ostraca (10,000 of these from the Great Pit). There were also more than a thousand papyrii, including lots of copies of the classic Middle Kingdom texts. He also showed us photographs of the people who visited the site while Bruyère was working there, including Petrie.

One of the things discussed in the question & answer session for this talk was the structures that are now thought to be house altars. These are raised platforms with a small staircase in the first room of 30 of the houses on the site. Originally they were thought to be beds, or perhaps places for women to give birth. But this seems implausible for many reasons – one of which is the position near the entrance to the houses in what was probably the public space of the house. The staircases which lead up to these platforms were decorated and show no signs of wear on the steps at all. This also counts against them being functional spaces for the human occupants of the house to walk up onto. Instead Gobeil told us that they were altars – the steps were not intended for people, they were intended for the gods to use to come & go from the altar. These altars were in a public space because when visitors were received in the household they’d bring a gift to place on the altar – and then after the guest was gone the householder would use the gift themselves in the same way that food offerings etc in a temple would be redistributed by the priests after it had been offered to the gods.