Read the story of 14-year-old Harmose, a sculptor, who lived and worked on the tombs of The Valley of the Kings.
Deir el-Medina is the modern name for a village known in ancient Egyptian as "The Place of Truth". It was probably founded by Amehhotep I, during the late 16th century BC. Situated in an isolated spot on the western bank of the Nile, not far from Thebes, its purpose was to house skilled artisans who were secretly working on royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
My name is Harmose. We are in Year 15 of the reign of His Majesty Ramesses II, Beloved of Amen. I'm 14 years old and I'm an apprentice sculptor working on His Majesty's tomb in the Valley of the Kings. My father (he's also called Harmose) has been a sculptor all his life. He remembers when the tomb was first begun, back in Year 2.
My village is called The Place of Truth and people like us, special people who labour on these most important projects like His Majesty's tomb, we're called "Servants of the Place of Truth". More than 100 families live here.
The village is one of the best places to live in all Egypt. We are a bit isolated, though, out here in the desert. You see, no one's supposed to know we exist. The Valley of the Kings is a secret - so we're very privileged to be working here. Tomb raiders have despoiled the resting places of the blessed pharaohs of our past, so now we build tombs in secret to foil the thieves.
Fancy a beer?
Even though we're in the desert, we have plenty of food, lots of beer, a decent house to live in and donkey trains that bring us water. Father says we have two of the best men in Egypt looking after us. Ramose, the scribe, records everything we do and all the tools and supplies we use - and pretty much everything else as well. He's wise and fair. He knows the difference between a good day's work and rushing for the sake of rushing. In overall charge of the village is His Majesty's Vizier (chief minister), Paser. Paser is a fine Egyptian and he makes sure shipments of grain for bread and barley for beer always arrive on time.
Eight day week...
We work eight days, then we have two days off. At the start of the working week, we march up to the tomb with all our tools and equipment. We stay at the tomb in huts all week, until it's time to return. By the fourth or fifth day I'm dying to come home again, to see my mother and sister. But father just tells me to stop moping and get on with it!
Building a royal tomb is a thrilling enterprise but it's hard work. First, the stone-cutters make a rough tunnel. Then they smooth the rock out as best they can. Next, the plasterers fill in any holes or irregularities, leaving a nice, smooth surface for Father and I to carve our decorations on. After we've done our work, the painters bring our designs to life. The tomb walls look really beautiful when we've finished.
What a relief!
Father is a great sculptor. He works in raised relief, which is much harder to do than sunken relief. Sunken relief is child's play - you just inscribe your design on the plaster. Raised relief is much more subtle. You have to lower the background around your design and then finish the raised part in fine detail. We've heard that some sculptors are being told to work in sunken relief because His Majesty is in a hurry to finish lots of temples and monuments. I hope we don't get told to work in sunken relief. The gods won't feel as honoured.
Father and I work on the left side of the tomb, behind Qaha's stone-cutting gang. They're tough guys, alright, Qaha's lot, but everybody's tough in the tombs. We have to be. It's dangerous. There's rock falls and even flash floods. But anything can get you. It doesn't have to be big. Last year, one of Qaha's men died after he cut himself with a chisel. The wound never healed and he got a fever and died. Mother said that he was a bad man, with a bad wife. She said they didn't pay proper attention to the gods and so they were punished.
Work, rest and... pray
In our family, we do everything right. We worship the deity Pharaoh Amenhotep I. He's the god and protector of all skilled artisans like ourselves. So far this year, father has only missed a couple of days at work and that was because of a scorpion bite. Well, there's nothing you can do about a scorpion bite, is there?
My sister might become a priestess one day. Or a dancer. Meanwhile, she helps my mother make bread and beer, cook meals and wash our clothes. We're a happy family and I pray to the gods that we stay that way. I know we're a bit cut off, but I'd rather be here than working in the mines. At least we're doing something that will stand the test of time...