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Knbenhavns Universitet





Work and the Organisation of Work

in the Old Kingdom
Christopher J. Eyre
University of Liverpool
1 Zntroductzon: Studies, Sources, and Problems The immediate impression
created on the mind of the visitor to Egypt, and moreover the first reaction of the
scholar concerned with that country, has always been that Egypt is different. In the
words of Herodotus [II.35]: "The Egyptians, in agreement with their climate, which is
unlike any other, and with the river, which shows a nature different from all other
rivers, established for themselves manners and customs in a way opposlte to other
men in almost all matters." The result has been a distrust of the usefulness of analogy
or general theory in the study of Egypt, a preference for the solid merlt of collection
and detailed analysis of basic data over general writing of any sort [Redford in Weeks
1979:3-61. Egyptologists have also tended to be more concerned w ~ t hthe preserved
material itself than with techniques for its study, so that modern archaeological and
geographical methodology has been less used than ~t might for historiographical
purposes [Trigger 1974-1975; Butzer 19761, and anthropological comparisons hardly
at all [Morenz 1969; O'Connor 19741975; Trigger In Weeks 19791. Attempts to set
Egypt~anhistory and society into universal patterns of historical and social development have not been successful [Helck 1959:l-2; Schenkel1978, Einleitung; Gutgesell
19831. The current basic economic history [Helck 19751 must still be regarded as a
pioneering work, and a modern social history of -Egypt remains to be written
[Pirenne 1932-1935 must be used with caution; Trigger et al. 1983 makes a
beginning]. The basic sources for descriptions of social life [Erman and Ranke 1923;
Kees 19331 have traditionally been literary and pictorial, especially using tomb
decoration [Klebs 1915; Wreszinski 1923-1942; Vandier 1952-19781, because the
quantity of documentary material is limited, especially for the earliest period of
Egyptian history, the Old Kingdom (Dynasties I-VIII, c. 3000-2150 BC), and
archaeolog~calwork or analysis has rarely been of a helpful nature [note Davis 1983;
Trigger et al. 19831.
The few surviving papyri of this perlod [Posener-Krikger n.d..25-351 include no
literary works. The most important are the Abusir papyri, part of the archives of the
local pyramid temples of the Fifth Dynasty [Posener-Krikger and de Cenival 1968;
Posener-KriBger 1976,1983; Verner 19761, and an unpublished group from Gebelein
[Posener-KriCger 19751, probably from the administration of a large estate of the
Fifth Dynasty. Other letters [Baer 1966:l-21 and documents [Posener-KriBger 19801
are isolated finds. A small number of legal texts inscribed in private tombs, usually
concerning the endowment of funerary foundations [Goedicke 19701, provide a
valuable additional source. Narrative mscriptlons of any sort are rare in the Old

Labor zn the Anczent Near East

Kingdom [Goedicke n.d.:15-241. Circumstantial personal detal only beglns to

appear In tomb inscriptions of the Fifth Dynasty, wlth the first developments towards
truly autoblograph~caltexts. Official lnscrlptlons are rare, and never narrative. A
small number of commemorative stelae and graffiti provide useful records of
quarrying, mining and military expeditions [Goyon n.d.: 193-2051, but more important
are a number of royal decrees, issued to protect the revenues and personnel of
religious foundations from taxatlon and service. With two mmor exceptions they
date to Dynasties VI-VIII [Goedicke 19671.
The poor preservation of documents is all the more to be regretted In that Old
Kingdom Egypt was highly bureaucratised, and the key to office was evidently
literacy [Bames 1983; Baines and Eyre 19831. Documentary forms were standardised
[Helck 1974bl. Registration of people and property was carefully organised for the
sake of taxat~on[Helck 1975:44,100,104]. A document or charter CC. Baer 1966:6;
Theodorides 1973:78 n.83; Menu and Haran 1974:134-140; Posener-Krikger 1976:479]
was necessary to carry out legal actions and to m a n t a n rights over people, servlces
or property [Urk. I, 211,ll; 171,2]. Land might be held specifically under a
"document of the king" [Urk. I, 2,11; 4,15-16 = Goedicke 1970:18]. "Scribes of the
kmg's document" [Helck 1954:71-72; Fischer 1960:5-61 were responsible for the royal
documents or royal decrees, wrltten to set formulas and wlth royal seal [Helck 1974b;
Goedicke 1964:32-371, that formed the essentlal instruments of admmlstratlon,
ultimately under the authority of the vizier [Strudwick 1985:199-2161. Yet only the
remalns of the Abuslr archwe give a true lmpresslon of the Immense mass of records,
registers, lists, accounts, letters and authorlsatlons typlcal of Old Kingdom
administration [Posener-Krikger and de Cenival1968:xiii-xv; Posener-Krikger 19831.
The scope for grammatical analysls of textual materlal of the Old Kingdom is
not less than for later periods [Edel1955/ 19641, but orthographlcal conventions were
still developing, writings of words and phrases were extremely concise, phraseologystandardised [Edel1944], and the range of subject matter limited, so that translations
[Roccatl 19821 tend to appear stilted, and the precise meamng of even common
expressions 1s sometimes unclear. Moreover, the long strlngs of titles that form the
major part of tomb inscriptions are preserved in almost too great a profusion [Baer
1960:160 estimates 1600-i-1. The analysls and translation of these titles [Helck 1954:
Strudwlck 19851, as well as their association into serles maklng up mdivldual careers
[Baer 1960:35-38; de Cenival 1975; Strudwlck 1985:172-1741, are necessary to
understanding the administration and social organlsation of the period. However,
specific functions can be attached to relatively few tltles; many seem rather to have
carried rank, m the sense of gradations of wealth and generalised authority [Helck
1954:111-119, 1975:126-127;pace Baer 1960:2-81. Moreover, the range of tltles used
and the status of indivldual titles changed constantly. A wide variety of epithets were
added to standard titles, but these might be omitted completely for convenience or
lack of space, and they cannot always be taken to Indicate a significant difference of

The "difference" of Egypt is most strikmgly illustrated by the fact that ~thas been
described as a c~vilisatlonwithout cities, wlth a resulting difference in economlc and
social development from the rest of the Near East [Helck 1975:18-30, 107-109;

EYRE:Work zn the Old Kingdom

Trigger et al. 1983:50, 96-1031. Thls tends to be overstated. As elsewhere, the

provlnclal centres-nome capitals-seem t x ~have developed as walled towns at the
end of the prehistoric perlod [Kemp 1977; Bietak In Weeks 1979; Helck and Otto
1984:1233-12371, but by the hlstorlcal perlod they were without the self-contamed,
local politlcal structures of the clty-state. At the height of the Old Kingdom, "the
residence" seems to have been the only centre of real politlcal importance.
Archaeologlcal information on domestlc architecture 1s scanty, and much comes
from the necropolis, ~n the form of tomb archrtecture or the houses of people
attached to mortuary temples [Badawy 19541. Furthermore, the only substantial
temple remans from the Old Kingdom are closely connected wlth the person and
mortuary cult of the kings, their pyramid temples and sun temples. Thls does not
seem to be mere chance. Other temples were probably small, Insignificant as
economic units until qulte late m the Old Kingdom [Freier 1976:5,29-32; Helck
1959:18-19; 1975:42-44,52-55; Goedicke in Lipidski 1979:113-131; Posener-KriCger
~nLipidski 1979:133-1511. The mam sources of informatlon about the Old Kingdom
therefore lie in the necropolis, the pyramlds of the klngs and the tombs of thelr
officials [for an estimate of the economlc welght of necropolis activity, see PosenerKrikger 1976:638-391. Yet so few tombs have been published m a fully scientific way,
if at all, that the preclse dating of even the most important tombs, and therefore the
careers of their owners, is often an intractable problem [Strudwlck 1985:part I].
Therefore statlstlcal methods of comparison [Trigger 1974-1975:102; Kanawati
19771, although providing an overall plcture of historical development, cannot
always be relied on for detailed reconstructions. ,
The materlal remans themselves and the depictions of workmen in the tomb
decoration provide considerable materlal for the study of technology [Clarke and
Engelbach 1930; Smith 1949:105-110,244-272; Drenkhahn 1976:2-3,134; Arnold
19761, but less for the organlsatiqn of work. The building workforces have left little
more than occasional masons' marks on blocks of stone to wltness their organisatlon.
The depictlons m the tombs are so formalised, so lacking m architectural detail, and
wlth such restricted narrative continuity, that ~t1s unsafe to draw conclusions from
thelr layout about, for mstance, the division of labour In the manufacturing processes
illustrated [Drenkhahn l976:6l, 121-127,156-1581. Nevertheless, these depictlons, the
texts attached to them, and the lnscriptlons of the tomb owners, then strings of tltles
and the meagre informatlon about thelr lives, are the essentlal basls for the study of
social and economic organisatlon. Moreover, pyramids and tombs are the most
obvious result of labour in Old Kingdom Egypt, and an examination of thelr
organlsatlon and financmg, 1s the most obvlous approach to
building, ~ t motivation,
the subject.
2 Royal Projects The orlgins of the state In Egypt [Janssen 1978; Atzler 1981;
Trigger et al. 1983:44-511 are shrouded in mystery. Nothmg is known about politlcal
and social organlsatlon before "unificatlon" at the beglnnlng of the First Dynasty.
Llttle can be sad, 1x1the present context, about the first two dynasties. Inscrlptlonal
or textual materlal is scarce, mostly m the form of labels, seals and dockets, the
reading and analysis of whlch [Kaplony 1963-196k Helck 1975:esp. 18-33] are often

Labor in the Anczent Near East

EYRE:Work m the Old Kingdom

speculative. The few preserved buildings are funerary. Preserved tomb goods show
that already high, but continually developmg, standards of craftsmanship in the use
of wood, ivory, copper and stone were available to the hlghest stratum of soclety
[Kaplony 1966:105-1081. Additionally the contents and siting of a few recognisable
craftsmen's graves allow limlted speculation about their status, the growth of thelr
importance, and their increasmg specialisation. Conclus~onsabout thelr organlsation
and the mode of distribution of their produce must be speculatwe [Dam 1983;
Trlgger et al. 1983:34,63-41, but the status of craftsmen seems to have been espeaally
high ~nthls penod [Baines 1983:594 11.141.
The relgn of Djoser, at the beginning of the Third Dynasty marks an important
stage of development. Advances m technlcal expertise can be traced ~nthe widenmg
use of building stone in monuments of the first two dynasties, but Djoser's Step
Pyramid at Saqqara is the world's first massive stone monument. The moderate slze
of the stone blocks, the manner of then laymg, and the imitation in stone of
architectural forms derived from trees, plants, and mud-brick show the experimental
nature of the work in some respects, but also demonstrate a hlgh level of technical
skill. Yet ~tis the sudden change in scale that 1s most impressive, together presumably
wlth new organlsational needs for the adminlstratlon of a mass workforce. These
may be connected wlth contemporary developments m the use of writing for
administrative purposes and the emergence of a genuine bureaucracy [Helck 1975:3235; Martin-Pardey 1974:29-311. Manetho's record of this relgn (the text is emended)
attributed medical skill, the mventlon of building with hewn stone, and developments
in wrlting to Imhotep, the later deified sage, usually regarded as the genlus behind the
Step Pyramid. His name, and probably that of a master sculptor, were carved on the
base of a royal statue from the pyramid complex [Gunn 1926:190-1961. There is,
however, no useful information about the work organlsation there [but see Gunn
1926:197-2021. Contemporary textual matend is sparse, even. the largest private
tombs usually being unmscribed;atl-d-knoW1gddgE of society-in theThird Dynasty 1s
correspondingly slight.
The Old Kingdom has typically been characterised as the Pyramid Age. The size
of the great pyramlds of the Fourth Dynasty and the efforts in labour, organisation
and finance required to build them have alwaysseemed overwhelmng. Even ignoring
mysterious and romantlc explanations of their purpose and construction [cf. Lauer
1974; Goyon 19771, the natural reactlon that nobody wouid be willing to labour at
something so huge and essentially pointless as the Great Pyramid has tended to
conjure up images of huge gangs of straining slaves, whipped to m~serableand
pointless labour. Among Classical wnters, Aristotle [Politics 1313 b 211 implies that
the policy underlying the building of the pyramids was to keep the people hard at
work, too busy to conspire against the king. Herodotus [II.!24-1291 tells that Cheops
and Chephren brought evil on the country, closing the temples and forclng the
Egyptians to work for them, whereas Mycermus (owner of the much smaller third
pyramid) reopened the temples and allowed the people to return to thelr own
business. Diodorus [I.64] tells that the two greatest pyramlds could not be used for
the burials of their owners because the populace, after so much suffering, would have
broken In and revenged themselves on the royal corpses. It IS clear that the pyramids

early developed their own mythology for the benefit of tourists, though the tradition
that Cheops was a tyrant goes b a ~ katkast to the beglnnmg of the New Kingdom
[Posener 1956:10-131.
An understanding of the economic and social significance of pyramid and tomb
building and endowment [Trigger et al. 1983:85-921 is obv~ouslycentral to describing
Old Kingdom soclety. However, complex problems arlse when attempts are made to
draw soc~al-historicalconclusions from variations in the size and technlcal quality of
pyramlds and from their relationships, in size and situation, to contemporary private
tombs [O'Connor 1974-19751. Pyramld slze reached and passed its peak early in the
Fourth Dynasty; the smaller pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, which do not
vary much m size [Edwards 1985:284-2851, have more complex and hlghly decorated
temples. At the same tlme the quantity of decoration in private tombs expanded
rapidly. Such changes may perhaps reflect a decline in the use of mass gangs of corvee
workers for the movement of stone, and an expansion m the numbers of permanently
employed craftsmen. The grandeur of a private tomb is likely to reflect the rank of its
owner [Kanawatl 19771, although correlations are never absolute and it is not
possible to specify the rank at whlch a person might obtain a tomb. The cemeteries at
Giza seem to Indicate a centralised overall planning, a town of tombs lad out in
streets and quarters around the Cheops pyramid [Reisner 1942, Chapter V]. Yet this
impression of absolute royal control is not completely reliable [Helck 1956a:63]. The
building history of the major sectors is complex, continuing beyond the reign of
Cheops, and the slze and position of tombs IS not related entlrely to status [O'Connor
1974-1975:19-221. Most important, the west cemetery seems to have,contained the
tombs of the chef builders of the pyramld, surrounded by those of their families and
staffs [Helck 1956bl. Men mvolved m works or personal servlce of the king were
often more fortunate m their tomb provlslon. Varlatlons in the relationship between
a pyramid and the contemporary prlvate tombs were erratic, as was the gradual
development of provincial cemeteries later I n the Old Kingdom. The complex
variations in royal attitudes and policies, as well as the development of the
Independence of the officials from the crown reflected in these changes, are not fully
understood [Kanawatl 1980: Strudwlck 19851.
Despite the shortage of reliable information, there is no lack of modern
descriptions of how apyramid was built [Grinsell 1947:51-83; Edwards 1985, chapter
8 and bibliography; Kozidskl 1969; Garde-Hansen 1974; Goyon 1977; Arnold 1981;
Helck and Otto 1984:l-41. The technical processes are known only in outline. Clear
archaeolog~calevldence is not available for the type of ramps used to drag the stone
up the pyramid [Clarke and Engelbach 1930:91-94; Garde-Hansen 1974; Goyon
1977:66-7,230-233; but see Edwards 1985:257-260,267-268; Arnold 19811, or for the
slipways [but see Chevrier 1975:29-301 used for dragging the stone overland
[Chevrier 1970:19-25; Grinsell 1947:64; Clarke and Engelbach 1930:20,23]. Calculatlons can indicate the force necessary to move blocks of stone [Goyon 1977:123127,291-292; Garde-Hansen 19741, and general remarks can be made about the
necessary ordering of the work [Edwards 1985:241-271; Kozi6skl 19691, but these
must depend on presumptions about basic data that cannot be substantiated.
Questions of timing and plannmg, of work organlsatlon and control on site, of



Labor m the Anczent Near East

EYRE:Work m the Old Kingdom

recruitment, and of the housing and payment of the workforce are largely subjects for
conjecture. According to Herodotus [II.l24-1251 100,000 workmen (at a time?),
according to Diodorus [I.63] 360,000, took 20 years to build the Great Pyramid. The
guesses of their informants seem as reliable as those of modern commentators. No
contemporary evidence provides a sound basis for the discussion of these figures [but
see Edwards 1985:270-2711. In the end, all speculation about the organisation and the
social-economic effects of the massive efforts involved depends solely on the certainty
that the monuments exist, built within the limited time-span of particular reigns, with
the limited available technology, manpower, and organisational structures.

apparently afinancial title, it was frequently connected with that of boat captain, and
with the navy. Boat captans thernselvgssometimes led expeditions [Gardiner, Peet
and Cerny 1955:13], although they normally served in the highest subordinate

2.1 Stone Quarrytng Stone for building came from two sources. For the cores of
buildings poor quality stone from local quarries was used. The remains of such
quarries are impressive, allowing the technical details of their working to be studied
[Reisner 1931:69-71; HGlscher 191233, Abb.19; Clarke and Engelbach 1930, fig.131,
but there is no documentary evidence about their use. High quality stone, for statues,
stelae, sarcophagi, casing blocks and architectural elements, came only from a
limited number of quarries [Helck and Otto 19841276-12831. The most important
were the limestone quarries of Tura El-Masara [Clarke and Engelbach 1930:1222].i
These are now inaccessible, but it is clear that traces of Old Kingdom activity had
already been destroyed by later working in antiquity.
The most detailed source of information about work organisation is provided by
inscriptions left by men working the distant quarrles and mnes, especially the
turquoise mines in Sinai [Gardiner, Peet and Cerny 1952; 19551, the quarries of the
Wadi Hammamat [Couyat and Montet 1912; Goyon 19571, and the quarries of
Hatnub [Anthes 19281. As in the granite quarnes of Aswan and the diorite quarries
of Lower Nubia [Engelbach 1933; 19381, they were worked by expeditions sent
specially by the king, not by men regularly employed there. The earliest records left in
Sinai simply depct the-k~ng-strilnngdown.fweigners. Later more detailed records
were often entitled "the royal_commisslon, carried out by so-and-so" [Vallogia
1976:21-22;paceGoedicke 1964:39-411. In general terms these expeditions cannot be
distinguished from other missions abroad, trading or military.
In a few examples-the leader of a quarrying expedition bore the title jmj-r mF,
"general" [Gardiner, Peet and Cerny 1955:14-16; Couyat and Montet 1912, no.206;
Goyon 1957, no.23; Gardiner 1927; Faulkner 1953:33-341. mSC, "army", although
determined by signs of armed men, and used to refer to fortress garrisons [Fischer
1959:260-2651, was also used of "expeditionary forces," to the quarries for Instance
[Urk. I, 107,9-11; Fischer 1959:268-2691. As head of a quarrying expedition such a
general might also be entitled "overseer of quarrymen7" [Couyat and Montet 1912,
nos.35,95]. Normally, however, it was not a "detachment @st) of army" [Urk. I,
134,17, a trading expedition], but a "detachment of (boat's) crews" [Urk. I, 99,13;
Anthes 1928, Gr. 3: Gardiner 19271 that was led to the quarries. Apart from the
"generals" and rarely a royal master builder [mdh nsw qd: Couyat and Montet 1912,
nos.61,107; Goyon 1957, no. 211, the leading personnel of the expeditions had naval
connections [Helck 1975:127-1281. Many expeditions were led by a "god's treasurer"
(s&wty nlr, the normal tltle of Middle Kingdom expedition leaders). Though

2.2 Organzsatzon of Transport The very geography of Egypt made the transport
of materials inconceivable except by boat. Neither the desert nor the regularly
inundated cultivable land were suitable for road building or the use of the wheel. The
donkey and the ox were the only beasts of burden known. The ownership of a boat,
or access to the use of one, was therefore of vital importance to all [Helck 1975:6,160;
Edel 1944:41-421. A variety of transport boats are shown on the walls of the tombs
[Vandier 1952-1978, V, 659-8861, usually those transporting goods, food and
animals, not those brmging stone from the quarries [Clarke and Engelbach 1930:3445; Chevrier 1970:25-331. Exceptionally, Snedjemib Inty showed [Lepslus 1849-1858,
11, 76e] his sarcophagus and its lid being brought from Tura in a great &-boat
named The Might (? pht) of (King) Isesi. The responsible officers in the boat were
labelled: captain, overseer of ten, director ( s h a of [the boat], and over[seer] of sb3
[see Posener-Krikger 1976:576]. This sarcophagus was brought to Giza in 5 (or 7?)
days [Urk. I, 66,5-91. Finer depictions from the Unas causeway show boats carrying
granite columns of up to 20 cubits height (c. 10.5 m.), already loaded on their
transport sledges, from the quarries at Aswan [Goyon 1971bl. A fragmentary
inscription [Fischer 19751 records that the responsible official performed this, or a
similar job within 7 days, was praised (hsj) by the king, and spent 4 days "in transit7"
(m 5mt m jjt). The 7 days would be a remarkably fast time for the roughly 580 miles
from Aswan to Memphis [Goyon 1971b:30-311. The 4 days "going and coming" are
obscure. This official was probably responsible only for transport, not for the
extraction of the ston$.
Expedition leaders sometimes (presumably as special achievements) recorded
thatthey built their own transport boats, and texts from the quarries themselves
sometimes refer to boat building [Anthes 1928, Gr. 1 and 31. On an expedition to
Hatnub, Wen1 said [Urk. I, 108,4-61 that he brought down the stone from the
quarries in 17 days, and also "made a wsbt-boat from accacia wood, of 60 cubits
length and 30 cubits width, built in (the same?) 17 days." Again, on an expedition to
Aswan, Wen1 not only dug 5 canals in Upper Egypt, but also built 3 wsbt-boats and
4 s3t-boats with accacia wood supplied by Nubian chieftains, in order to return with
large quantities of granite for the pyramid of Merenre. Similarly, Sabni says [Martin
1977:30-311: "The Majesty of my Lord sent me to make 2 great wsbt-boats in Wawat
to transport 2 great obelisks to Heliopolis."

2.3 Patterns of Work Organzsatron The importance of transport, the pervasive

influence of boating, and the prominence of naval officials and sailors in public works
is seen in that, from earliest times [Helck 1975:28,31], the organisatlon of a boat was
the archetype for the organisation of any body of men. Such a naval pattern of
organisation [Helck 1975:127-129; Helck and Otto 1975:371-374; Edel 1969:ll-22;
Reisner 1931:69-95,273-2771is best attested among stone workers, from the masons'


Labor zn the Ancient Near East

EYRE:Work m the Old Kingdom

marks they left on building blocks. They were divided Into crews ('pr) named after
the king for whom they worked, names such as [Helck 1975:128-1291 "the crew,
Mycennus exc~teslove" or "the crew, Mycerinus is drunk (? thw)." Each crew was
subdivided Into s3, "gangs" or "phyle." There has been considerable controversy over
the number and names of these subdiv~sions,but the most probable list, In order of
seniority, is:jmj-wrt or wr = starboard-front, t3-wr = port-front, w3d = starboardrear, n& = port-rear and jmj-nfrt = steerage9 Each of these five gangs was further
divided into 2 or 4 subgroups, identified by the addition of an extra slen to then
name; for instance a wss-sceptre, or the nfr slgn [full collection by ~ d ln iRicke
The priesthood of a temple or mortuary cult was div~dedup in the same way. In
the pyramid temple of Neferirkare [Posener-Krikger 1976, chapter VI] each phyle
seems to have consisted of a director of god's servants (shd hm ntr), a deputy
(director) of god's servants Omj-kt hm nir), simple god's servants or priests, a scribe,
and a number of "tenants" (? hq-9, who served together for a month, in rota,
performing all the duties necessary for the service and admlnlstratlon of the temple,
under the overall control of the overseer of god's servants Omj-r hm ntr). A private
mortuary priesthood, under an overseer of ka-pjlests, ccj?nsisted of the same
individual phyle, each Ideally w ~ t ha director, a deputy (director), a scribe and
ordinary ka-priests. The hierarchy In the crews and gangs of stone workers is not
attested, but is likely to have been slmilar.
The not uncommon title "overseer of 10," held by men connected with work at a
lower level [Gardiner, Peet and Cernjr 1955:15; Couyat and Montet 1912,
nos.39,93,94; Fischer 1959:266], may well Imply that ten men formed a normal work
unit [Helck 1975:129], but such a unlt cannot be slmply correlated to the subdivisions
of the crew. Petrie [n.d..210] calculated, in relation to the Giza pyramids, that no
more than 8 men could actually find room to work on a slngle block of normal slze in
the quarries. yet-tablets -from the Userkaf sun temple, recording the work of
subdivisions of phyle, tell of them having about 20 "units" (') each. presumably 20
men [Edel in Ricke 1969:7-81. Reisner's experience dunng his work at the thlrd
pyramid [Reisner 1931:11] showed that he needed about 18 men to move one of the
ordinary granlte caslng blocks. In practice, calculations of the size of subdivisions,
gangs and crews [e.g., Reisner 1931:273-2771 have to depend on such obs&rvations
and on assumptions about the tasks each group was expected to perform, particularly
that the smallest subdivision was that required for quarrymg or moving an ordinary
block of stone. They cannot be absolutely reliable. Nor is there reason to suppose
that the numbers were constant, not varying from project to project.
Old Kingdom inscrlptlons from the mines and quarries prov~deonly limited
information about the working personnel and thelr administration. A general picture
of the hlgher command structure can be reconstructed [Helck 1954:98-102,1975:126129; Gardiner, Peet and Cerng 1955:14-15; Helck and Otto 1980:128-1341, but lower
ranking administrators, such as "overseers" or "directors of officials" and "judges?" or
"admimstrators'"[s~b; cf. de Cenival 19751 are less commonly mentioned, and thelr
functions are usually unknown. Scribal titles appear irregularly and In a varlety of
forms [note an overseer of scribes of crews, Goyon 1957, no.311, so that the
functlonlng of control at a lower level is virtually unknown.

Only rarely can the isolated appearance of a more detailed minor tltle provide
good evldence for work orgarusatlo&-For instance, a "metals scribe" [ss' bj3?.
Gardiner, Peet and Cernfr 1955:13 and no.13; also a director ( s h a of metals]
presumably controlled the materials for the copper work tools. Further indications of
centralised control of workmen's tools may be found in the inscription of royal
names, or the names of work crews and their subdivisions, on the tools themselves
[Rowe 1936, 1938:391-393; the unprovenanced examples, Kaplony 1965, must-be
used with caution]. Similarly the appearance of large numbers of tools in property
lists in private tombs, and .the placing of tools themselves in the tomb, are likely to
reflect the provision of tools to hls workmen by the tomb owner [Junker 1940:72-731.
It is worth noting that weighing and the direct supervision of a scribe are standard
elements only of metal-working scenes ~n private tombs, implying a more direct
control than was usual for other raw materials. The detail of such supervlslon is not,
however, documented for the Old Kingdom.



2.4 Classes and Numbers of Workers The classes of workers lnvolved ln

quarrying expeditions are sometimes revealed ln the tltles of their overseers. Officers
controlling 'w, "foreigners" or "mercenary troops," were frequently attached,
perhaps providing a mixture of military escort' and labour. Texts from the Wadi
Hammamat refer to overseers or directors of a more specialised group of workmen.
The word is wrltten by a man holding something (a bag?) ln hls hand [read smntyw?:
Goyon 1957:41-43; Lopez 196757; Seyfried 1976; Fischer 19851. For convenience it
will be presumed that the term 1s ldentlcal to one wrltten in texts from Hatnub and
the Wadi Hammamat by a man holding a stick in hls hand, and both will be
translated "quarryman'." In the latter case there is further room for confusion with
the word for "sailor," wrltten by a man holding an oar. There are also references from
the-Wadi Hammamat to officials of "craftsmen" or "state craftsmen" [hmwt pr-' 3:
Cgd3;at .a,nbMontet 1912, nos.34,85,101] and occasionally to officials of builders -,[Couyat and Montet 1912, no. 107; Goyon 1957, no.241. There were also "controllers
of 1evies""or of "crews of lev1es9" (hrp 'prw nfrw), doubtless the unskilled labour.
There 1s no way to assess what proportion of men were permanently employed in
quarrying and building. One may presume some standing "navy" at least, to pr
transport. At royal command Wen1 was brought a sarcophagus and other
elements from Tura by a god's treasurer, commanding a detachment of boats c
in a great s2t-boat "of the resldence" [n hnw: Urk. I, 99,11-17; cf. Anthes 1928, Gr. 1
and 71. Boats and men sent to fetch such royal gifts [Urk. I, 20,7; 61,9; 65,lO-7,9]
were perhaps regularly employed on that passage. A slmilar mlssion for Washptah
[Urk. I, 44,3-41 was carrled out by "all crews from the residence," and an expedition
to the Wadi Hammamat included "many detachments from the residence" as well as
a group of "state-people" b r - =3: Couyat and Montet 1912, no.2061. This latter class
may have been people regularly connected with the state for servlce, although their
status and functions are unknown [cf. Goedicke 1959:lO-111. A "detachment from
the resldence" probably referred to any body of men provided from there for duty [cf.
Urk. I, 220, 9-11], without implication that they were permanent employees,
although craftsmen "of the resldence" worklng in a provincial tomb [Drenkhahn
1976:139-1401 doubtless were professlonals.




Labor zn the Anczent Near East

EYRE:Work zn the Old Kingdom

Interesting in thls context are some ostraca bearing the names of dead sailors7
[Goedicke 19681. The fullest examples glve the dead man's name, under that of his
"controller of crew" (brp 'pr), his nome of origin, and his parentage. The natural
assumption that these people, having died on duty, were to be transported home for
(state?) burial can be related to the evident royal desire that every effort be made to
recover the bodies of expedition leaders who died abroad [Urk. I, 134,13-135,4; 135,
9-140,111. There is, however, no indication that they were permanent employees.
The numbers of men taking part in expeditlons is only rarely recorded [Helck
1975:128], and the figures, mostly dating to the very end of the period. and from texts
quotmg the authority of high officials rather than the king, may not be typlcal. At
Hatnub a text of the time of Teti [Anthes 1928, Gr. 11 records an expedition of 300
quarrymen7,apparently sent from the residence. Sixty of them, or an additional 60,
were occupied in building [the necessary boat]. The leader of another expedition
[Anthes 1928, Gr. 61, in the time of Neferkare (Pepi 11), was accompanied by 1600
men (3 groups of nfrw 500, 600 and 500 strong), recruited from 3 different places.
They brought down 300 stones at one tlme, and loaded them into two boats
belonging to the "house" of the "count" (h3~-'),sole companion, overseer of tenants
of the state, and overseer of the treas2ry7,Id$ who had sent the expedition. Similarly
the overseer of Upper Egypt andlocal nomarck Ihasent 1600 men to bring back
stone for his own use [Anthes 1928, Gr. 93.
From the Wadi Hammamat one text [Couyat and Montet 1912, no.2061 lists
1000 state-people, 1200 quarrymen7, 100 necropolis workmen (hrg-nlr) and 50 .men, and refers also to the provision by the king of many detachments from the
residence, and of 50 oxen and 200 donkeys. In another case [Couyat and Montet
1912, no.1691, the admirals and boat captains Ipi and Nykauptah were accompanied
by 200 sailors, 200 quarrymen' and 200
-men, to do work for the pyramid of an
unknown king Ity. An overseer of Upper Egypt Ihy was accompanied by 20 . -men,
5 sealers', 10 necropolis workmen, at least 200 quarrymen?, and an unknown number
of stone-cutters (? w&). To bring down a 12 cubit stone for an overseer of Upper
Egypt a certain Idy used 200 men, 2 oxen, 50 donkeys, and 5
-men [Couyat and
Montet 1912, no.1521. Finally a broken inscription from Sinai [Gardiner, Peet and
cernfr 1955, no.191 seems to indicate an expedition of 1400 men.
The oxen and donkeys attached to quarrying expeditions provlded transport [cf.
Gardiner. Peet and Cerny 1955:11]. Donkeys were regularly attached in large
numbers to trading expeditlons [Helck 1975:7-8: 161, and the route from the rlver to
the Old Kingdom diorlte quarries was easily recognlsable by the tracks left by donkey
caravans. An early New Kingdom depiction from Tura [Daressy 1911:262-2651
shows oxen dragglng stone in the quarries there. Old Kingdom tomb scenes showing
the draggmg of we~ghtsare restricted to the placement of burial equipment, especially
statues, in the tomb, the necessary force being provided by men, oxen, or a mixture
of both [Settgast 19631. The usual presumption that heavy stone moving was done
entirely by gangs of men [Chevrier 1970:19-25; Goyon 1977:123] may therefore be
overstated. It 1s hardly conceivable that oxen were not used with some regularity to
drag stone from place to place [Borchardt 1907:122-123,1651, and donkeys for the
shifting of rubble or material for building construction ramps.

2.5 Payment and Commzssarzat Inscriptions of the Old Kingdom do not record
details of the payment and commissariat-afthese expeditions. A papyrus letter found
at Saqqara provides some information [Gunn 1925; Gardiner 1927; Grdseloff 1948;
Posener-KriCger 19801. The writer, a "general," protested at an order to bring a
detachment of crews from Tura m order for them to be glven clothing in the vuler's
presence. His objection was apparently to the waste of time (he quoted 6 days as
necessary to clothe them at the residence), when a courier (jrj m&t) was coming over
anyway in a wsht-boat (and could presumably deliver the clothes). Normally, anjrj
m&t, "he of the book," seems to have been a scribe's assistant, but when listed
among the officials of quarrying expeditions [Couyat and Montet 1912, nos.61,107;
Goyon 1957, nos.20,33] he was probably the courier ensuring communications
[Vallogia 1976:212-2131. The wsbt-boat is likely in thls case to have been a stonebarge plying between Tura and the pyramid of Pepi I1 at Saqqara. The detachment of
crews was perhaps a force worklng regularly in the quarries.
The "residence" is likely to have been the normal source of payment. Nekhebu
s a d [Urk. I, 215,13-141 that during the 6 years he controlled work at Heliopolis he
was rewarded ( b j ) whenever he vislted the residence. Such visits were presumably to
report, recelve instructions, and collect supplies. When an expedition was travelling it
was supplied by the areas it passed'through. Thus Pep1 I [Urk. I, 214 = Goedicke
1967:41-541 specifically exempted his mother's ka-house at Coptos from supplying
envoys gomg south on a mlsslon. For Harkhuf, returmng from Nubia [Urk. I,
131,4-71, the klng issued special decrees that exemptions were not to be observed. He
was to be Issued food and drlnk from every estate of the supply institutions and from
all temples (m hwt nb ntpr-inc m hwt-nlr nb). It was perhaps a special favour when
the king sent an "overseer of the two cool rooms," with a boat load of provisions, to
meet Harkhuf as he returned to the residence from another mlssion [Urk. I,



2.6 Evzdencefor Seasonal Patterns of Work Following the early authority of

Petrie [n.d..209-2151, whose knowledge of the practlcalitles and conditions of work
in Egypt surely remans unrivalled among modern scholars, it has generally been
assumed that some permanent staff was employed for skilled quarrying and building
work, but that during the inundation, when work in the fields was impossible, idle
hands were turned in large numbers to the movement of building stone for pyramids.
This is oversimplified.
The inundation, the hottest months of the year, was an unsudable time for
labour in the deserts. Indeed, Diodorus [I.36] would have us believe that "the masses
of the people, being relieved of their labours during the entire time of inundation,
turn to recreation, feasting all the while and enjoying wlthout hindrance every device
of pleasure." Nor did the shallow flooding of the fields provide free passage over them
[Goyon 1971a:146-147, l977: 131-138.196-1971. It must be presumed that some real
channel was necessary for the passage of the boats (not rafts) in whlch the stone was
moved [Helck and Otto 1984:610-613; above 12.21. Each pyramid had a port or
quay, at the edge of the cultivation, attached to its Valley Temple, from whlch a
causeway for supply and access ran up to the pyramid proper [Goyon 1971a,


iabor in the Anczent Near East

1977:127-1471. Unfortunately no such port of the Old Kingdom has been properly
excavated. Nor can ~tnow be clear whether the baslns and quays before each pyramid
or group of pyramids were connected by channels directly to the Nile, or to a canal
along the edge of the cultivation, from Memphls or the Fayum towards the sea
[Goyon 1971a, 1977:131-138; KoziAskl1969:52-55; Smrth et al. 1983:41]. This canal,
if it exlsted, would have provlded more stable condit~onsfor transport. It m~ghtbe
represented In scenes from prlvate tombs showing the boats of the deceased sailing on
"the Canal of the West" [Moussa and Altenmiiller 1977:79].
Thls is not to say that the months of high water were not the most sultable for
transport by rlver. Wen1 recorded [Grrk. I, 108,l-101 that In month I11 of shemu he
ferried an altar north from the quarrles at Hatnub, although no water was coverlng
the sandbanks, that IS, at a season unsu~tablefor transport [cf. P. Westcar, 9,15-181.
Even so he moored successfully at the pyramid of Merenre. Another tlme, more
su~tably,he completed a varlety of jobs in the south, returning wlth gran~tefrom
Aswan for that pyramld "in one year, In the mundatlon"[m rnpt wCm mh; similarly
Anthes 1928, Gr. 41.
Care is necessary when attributing dates ln the Egyptlan clvil year to the~rtrue
seasons. The 365 day calendar (three seasons, each of four th~rtyday months, akhet,
"inundat~on,"peret, "emexgence," and shemu, "low water," plus five epagomenal
days) gradually became out of step wlth the true year. By calculat~onback from later
penods, the first day of akhet (New Year's Day) coinc~dedwlth the heliacal rising of
the star Sothls, heraid of the inundatlon, In midJune 2773 BC (Gregonan). The
calendar, presumably adopted In ~ t permanent
form about then, should, by the end
of the Old Kingdom. have been nearly five months ahead of the year. Allowlng for
the necessary calibratlon, Weni's journey In I11 shemu took place ~n December/
January, a t ~ m eof low, if not the lowest, water.
The few dates In late Old Kingdom mscriptions from the Wadi Hammamat
[Montet 1959:96: IV akhet 2, I11 themu 2 and 18, IV shemu 31 mostly support the
sparse later evidence from that slte [Montet 1959:103; cf. Engelbach 1933:73-741, that
the stone was normally moved in the wlnter months, reachmg the river bank by
March or April, where it presumably awalted the rlslng waters. Old Kingdom dates
from Hatnub lnscrlptlons fit Into a slmilar pattern [Anthes 1928, In. IV, I akhet,
temp. Pep1 I; Gr. 1, I11 shemu, temp. Tetl; Gr. 3, I akhet 24, and Gr. 7, I shemu 20,
temp. Pep1 11; Gr. 9, I1 akhet, end of Old Kingdom]. The only preserved date from
Sinai [Gardiner, Peet and Cernjr 1955, no.15: IV shemu, temp. Djedkare Isesi] fits the
same pattern of wlnter work, but the deleterious effects of hot sun on the turquoise
mlned there was always a specla1 reason for worklng ~t m winter. Evidence IS
completely lacking from the quarrles at Tura, where the constant need for stone may
have requ~reda more regular and permanent organlsatlon of work.
Dates are also preserved In masons' marks pa~ntedon blocks of building stone.
These marks have rarely been properly collected [Reisner 1931:69-95,273-277; Smith
1952; Verner 1976:75-84; Saweljewa 19621, and the problems of the~rpurpose, and of
wh~chparts of the building operations they recorded and why, often seem insoluble
[Haeny In Ricke 1969:27]. They were made for a varlety of reasons, and marks of
more than one type may appear on a smgle block. L~nes,measurements, and marks
concerned with the placing of blocks [Relsner 1931:76-78; Haeny in Ricke 196927-

EYRE:Work In the Old Kingdom


29; Verner 1976:81-841 are easily enough connected with technical needs. Other
marks belong to systems of work co_ntroJ,_an_d cause much greater problems [Haeny
In Ricke 1969:31-391. Single symbols wrltten on more than one block presumably
indicate forms of checkmg, but whether m quarry or on slte will often be obscure.
For t h ~ sreason ~t can be Important to know, although ~t IS often difficult to tell,
whether a mark was made before or after a block was put ln posltion [Junker
1929:157-161, 1951:69,80-81; Relsner 1931:82-83; Maystre 1935:94; Sm~th1952126;
Haeny in Ricke 1969:26-271. In some cases, for mstance, a date was clearly added to a
block m sltu to note the state of progress of the work [Verner 1980:159], or the date
of an lnspectlon [Junker 1947:58-601.
The most Important dated blocks are those that seem to record responsibility for
the work, partlcularly those (in prlnclple thls applies only to h ~ g hquality stone from
distant quarnes) that bore the names of the work crews, phyle and subdiv~slons
employed [Relsner 1931:273-2771. Sometimes the final mark referring to the subdivis~onseems, from ~ t posltion,
to have been added separately and later [Relsner
1931:73-79; Haeny ~nRlcke 1969:30]. These marks seem normally to have been made
after rough dressing, but before positioning in the walls. A number of blocks from
Fifth Dynasty buildings carry the names of officials rather than work crews
[Borchardt 190T144-146:1909:27,45-48,52-55; Haeny ~nRicke 1969:37-391, probably
showlng a different way of accountmg the work, and possibly of its organ~sat~on.
evidence dates almost entirely to the Fourth and early Fifth Dynasties. The few later
marks available [Nagel 19501 are unmformatwe.
The dates recorded on Old Kingdom blocks fall almost without exception in the
seasons of peret and shemu [Saweljewa 1962131-132; Verner 1976:78]. Since the
major~tybelong to the earlier part of the penod, little allowance is necessary for
calibratlon of the calendar, and they can be taken to record actlvltles not durlng the
mundatlon, but In the cooler months from autumn to spring [Maystre 1935:93]. It 1s
most likely that the inundatlon was the tlme for the movement of stone by river, and
the cooler remainder of the year the tlme for excavation, working, and dragglng Into
place [Gnnsell 194757-58; Saweljewa 1962:131-1321. There, remalns, however, the
difficulty of declding what preclse work procedures the date-marks recorded.
Actual work records are very rarely preserved [note Posener-KriCger l9801.
Most notable are four small stone tablets found at the Userkaf sun temple [Edel ~n
Ricke 1969:1-22]. Each carrles a month date, wlth (in two cases) a place of work, the
name of one or two subdivlslons of a phyle, and (in three cases) the number of un~ts
(people?) In the subdivisions. Dlv~sionsof responsibility wlthin thewerall structure
of building work are virtually impossible to define. It IS not unlikely, for mstance,
that the crews employed In the quarries were a separate organisation from those at
work on the building site [Haeny ln R~cke1969:31-341. The latter group may have
operated from a sort of desert workshop ln the vlcinlty of the pyram~dunder
constructlon. A number of marks refer to such a hmwt smjt [Re~sner1931:276-277;
Saweljewa 1962:132-133; Helck 1975:129] where stone may have been stockpiled and
dressed, but nothing more IS known of the place.
Some Middle Kingdom masons' marks carry more detailed explanatory texts,
but comparison may not be helpful. Those from two late Middle Kingdom pyramids
[JCqmer 1933:lO-15.62-31 are dated to peret and shemu, then roughly April to

EYRE:Work zn the Old Kingdom

November, including the inundation. A number include the name of the official who
"brought" the stone. Blocks of the early Twelfth Dynasty from Lisht carry similar
dates (from I11 akhet to I shemu, then roughiy March to September), a few carry
texts referring to the transport of Tura stone from the quay to the pyramid site, and
exceptionally some local stone bears the name of its quarry [Lansing 1933a, 1933b:6,
n.31. It may be that Middle Kingdom marks were concerned with the delivery of the
blocks, Old Kingdom ones with their final working and positlolung in the building.
2.7 The Corvee The mass of people needed for basic labour on any project can
only have been provided by corvke, compulsory conscription or national service, but
information is sparse and mostly indirect [Bakir 1952:2-4; Helck and Otto 1977:3333341. Titles provide some information. For instance, "overseers of gangs (s3w) of
Upper Egypt" [Helck f954:102; Martin-Pardey 1976:94-1031, a function usually held
by provincial administrators, and "great ones of 10(s?) of Upper Egypt" [Fisher
1959:265-2661, doubtless controlled workforces recruited in the southern provinces.
Curiously no Old Kingdom titles are clearly connected with irrigation work or the
recruitment of labour for it. Canal digging [Helck and Otto 1980:310-3121, the only
attested form .of major water,works, may have been for navigation rather than
irrigation: Whetherthis should be taken to imply that there was no serious official
control of the flood waters before the end of the Old Kingdom [Schenkel 19781 or
that such work was limited in extent and local in nature [Butzer 1976:109-112; cf.
Janssen 1978:217], it does not seem that a specific need to organise large bodies of
men for irrigation works provided direct organisational models for the recruitment
and control of mass labour forces and the development of bureaucracy in Egypt.
The most detailed information about the imposition of labour duties is to be
found in the provisions of royal exemption decrees [Goedicke 1967; Hafemann 19851,
where recruitment for work was referred to as a form of taxation [Helck 1975:llO1131. Unfortunately the precise sense of the technical vocabulary is not always cleat.
The regulations for the pyramid town of Dahshur [Urk. I, 209-213 = Goedicke
1967:54-771 protected its people against work (k3t), impost (mdd) or labour duties
(h 3 and st h 3) of the king's house @r n nsw) or of any department of residencc(st nbt
nt hnw). Specifically they could not dig for the r-.?of the pyramid of a king Ikauhor.
Similarly Neferirkare decreed [Urk. I, 170-172 = Goedicke 1967:2236] that the
priests of the temple of Abydos, as well as their serfs, were free from any
4 & [harvest or agricultural work?, cf. Montet 19551 of the nome, or any
work (k3t) of the nome, over and above the service and administration of the temple
properties (hwwt-ntr) they belonged to. The official who ignored the exemption was
to lose his house, land, people and property, and himself be put to -& [cf. Urk. I,
he mechanics of recruitment for duties are best illustrated by a decree of Pepi I1
[Urk. I, 280-283 = Goedicke 196787-1161 protecting the entire staff, from priest
of the king
down to serf (mrt) of the Q&,P of the temple of Min, from any
and from any service (wnwt) or Impost accounted in the king's nouse. A list of
officials-overseer of Upper Egypt, local governor ( h r ~tp), great one of 10(s?) of
Upper Egypt, overseer of gangs of Upper Egypt, overseer of commissions, royal



acquaintance, overseer of crews, or overseer of nswtyw-people-were forbidden to

register them for any department b s ) afaaumber of administrations, presumably
tax registration offices-the house of the king's book, the house of largess @r wdb),
the house of the book, or (the administration of) sealing documents [Helck 1954:71721-for the purpose of putting them to do any work of the king's house. These were
the officials responsible in chief; lower officials likely to attempt such registration
were listed as any "official (sr), royal documents' scribe, overseer of scribes of the
fields, overseer of scribes of sealing documents, or (other) functionary bmj st-')."
Any such regstration sent from the nome to the overseer of Upper Egypt was to have
the names of the temple personnel purged from it. Even if the royal decree ordering
"labour duty of work of the king" specifically waived such exemptions, even then the
people of the temple of Min were not to do any,carrying, digging, or labour duty in
connection with work done in Upper Egypt.
The unpublished Gebelein papyri [Posener-Kritger 19751 may have preserved
some registrations of the sort mentioned in this decree. The recto of the first roll is
described as containing four lists of people-in one case, of women as well as
men-recruited for temple construction work, together with a list of days and an
account ofsgrain and bread. The verso contains further lists and accounts. The names
in the main lists are grou~edby- locality, and the "titles" of the individuals recorded.
One list contains people called nfrw. Conventionally translated "recruits," the term
refers to groups of young men, enrolled for some form of service [Faulkner 1953:34351, typically young men of low status engaged on large projects [Fischer 196O:S-6,11131. Controllers of crews of nfrw are attested in quarrying expeditions, and one large
expedition to Hatnub was made up entirely of 1600 nfrw, in three roughly equal
groups from three different places [Anthes 1928, Gr. 61. These nfrw were probably
levies of a certam age, called up for mass labour [but see Fisher 1959:258-2611.
The most detailed record of the recruitment of a large body of men is Weni's
description of his expedition against Asiatic bedouin [Urk.T, 101,8-102,8; Faulkner
1953:32,34-351. Recruited from the whole of Egypt, together with Nubians and
Libyans, its officers at the highest level bore titles of state rank. Essentially, however,
local officials, local governors (hr~wtp), rulers of manors (hq3w hwt), overseers of
priests, and overseers of gs-pr (the two administrative divisions of the Delta), were
"at the head of detachments of Upper and Lower Egypt, the estates and villages they
ruled." The administrators of landed property controlled their own levies [Helck
1954:1131. The foreigners were led by their own officials, the overseers of mercenaries
Omj-r 'w). Through all this material the local responsibility for regigration and
recruitment of work forces is clear. Indeed, when, in the reign of Pepi 11, Sabni led an
official expedition to Nubia, to recover his father's body and to trade, he was
accompanied by detachments from his own property, his p r dt, along with 100
donkeys [Urk. I, 136,4,17]. Supervision of taxation and work duties was clearly an
important part of the duties of provincial administrators, but the history and
mechanics of provincial admnistration as a whole [Helck 1975:34-37; MartinPardey 1976; Kanawati 1980; Strudw~ck19851 are far from clear.
Enough has been quoted here to show the basic structures of state work duty,
the liability of all, below the rank of official, even priests, to be recruited for


Labor zn the Anczent Near East

agricultural and building works, for the needs and profit of the local nome, and for
the state as represented by the king's house and the residence. Something can beseen
of the detail of the registration of the populace for taxation and work [Helck
1975:100,104; Hafemann 19851, and of the officials responsible for their overall
supervision and their immediate control. However, the types of documents preserved
are not likely to reveal the conditions under which such service was carned out. There
is no good evidence for the length of time men might serve in work gangs. Herodotus
[II. 1241clamed that on the Great Pyramid men were employed for three months at a
time [in rota? Note the comparisons to temple service: Kees 1948:76-811. Similarly
there is no gooa evidence for fheirdpaymerit, although it is natural to presume that
thev were ~rovidedat least with subsistence rations. Payments recorded for actual
performance of priestly service similarly look like the provision of subsistence during
penods of duty [Baer 1966:7, n.w].
3 Work on Przvate Tombs Detail of a different sort is available concerning work
on private tombs, and the questions posed by the matenal are not the same. For
instance, masons' marks have also been found on the blocks from private tombs.
flie qamG'of work crews indistinguishable from those
~ o m e t l m e ~ ' f hr6&b?e
mentioned-bn '$lijcki frdm royal monuments [Junker 1951:68-81; Saweljewa
1962:129-1311. Thus the Fourth Dynasty "Mastaba VII" at Giza bore marks
identifying the crew "the Horus Ka-khet is great," a crew (presumably of state
workmen) named after Mycerinus. In other cases the marks include the name of the
tomb owner [Smith 1952125; Borchardt 1907:144-1461, possibly as an indication of
the tomb to which a central quarry administration should send the stone [Junker
1929:157-1611. Yet the stone might also have been quarried by the tomb owner's own
subordinates [cf. Haeny in Ricke 1969:37-391 and marked as a sign of his authority.
The curses included in tomb inscfiptions,against those who removed stone for re-use
[Edel 19443-191 imply that t&b builders theinselves sougfit'stone wherever they
could find it. Variations in the type and content of the marks are difficult to evaluate.
The speculations of Junker [1951:80-811 show possible lines of interpretation: that
the presence or absence of crew marks would indicate whether the tomb was financed
and built by the king or its owner, and the absence or presence of date marks on the
stone might indicate whether the payment of the men was by the whole job or by
daily wages. In practice, the evidence is far too slight for such speculation.
The most extensive collection of material, that from the tomb of the vizier
Ptahshepses, although available only in preliminary reports [Verner-1976I75-841and
untypical in many ways, provides interesting insights. The marks, unusually from
core blocks, name no royal crews. A small number give the name and titles of
Ptahshepses, and two mention his wife, the princess Khamerernebty. Commonest
were blocks bearing a single mark,jr, nfr, or dd, perhaps indications of work crews.
It is not clear whether these were normally put on before or after positioning in the
wall. Other blocks bore one or more elements of a series: date, title, name. In most
cases the names and titles are recognisably those of subordinates or ka-priests
depicted in the reliefs of the tomb. Particular names and titles tend to be found only
on one type of stone or in one part of the tomb. The building history of this tomb is

EYRE:Work zn the Old Kingdom


extraordinarily complex [Fiala in Verner 1976:47-601, but the likely conclusion is that
different subordinates of Ptahshepses mpeyvised the work on different parts of his
tomb at different times. Despite the unusual size and complexity of the tomb, its close
relation to the Abusir pyramids, its owner's relation to the royal family and his office
of overseer of works [Fiala in Verner 1976591, the texts as yet available provide no
evidence of royal assistance in the provision of workmen or stone.
3.1 The Problem of Royal Patronage The question of how much royal
patronage and state workforces were involved in private mortuary provision is
central to an understanding of the system of service and recompense in Old Kingdom
society, for such provision and the expected patterns of life after death can be taken
as direct reflections of the otherwise virtually undocumented structures of contemporary social organisation. Evidence is plentiful [Donadom 1976; Helck 1975:7377; Heick and Otto 1977337. 845-8471, but apparently contradictory [cf. Wilson
1947:238-2421. In some cases the entire tomb was built and equipped at royal
command. There can be no doubt of the literal truth of this when the tomb was that
of a royal dog [Fischer 1966:57-601. The phraseology is similar to that for officials:
"the-dpg ,ghqLusedto perform attendance (stp-s?) on His Majesty, 'bwtyw by name.
His Majest~orderedthat he be buried, that a coffin be given him from the treasury,
and exceedingly much fine cloth, incense and scented oil. His Majesty had a tomb
constructed for him by the crews of tomb-makers Oswt ntjrj-js). His Majesty did this
for him for the sake of his provision (rjrn3bw.fl."
The badly damaged text from the tomb of Debehni [Urk. I, 18-21; Hassan
1943:168 and pl.XLVII1, neither copy 1s completely reliable; Helck 1975:73-741
preserves the most incidental detail concerning the royal provision of a private tomb.
Mycerinus provided the tomb, or its site, on the approaches to his pyramid, among
tombs of members of the royal family, for the sake of Debehni looking over the work
done on the kmg's own tomb. Involved inthe workulete +royal master builder, two
chief controllers of craftsmen, and a workforce. Fifty craftsmen (hmw) are mentioned,
working every day, by the royal command. They were not to be taken for any other
duty until that work was completed. Two god's treasurers were assigned for some
duty, presumably bringing stone from the quarries. The record of other details is
mostly too fragmentary for understanding, but thereare references to ferrying stone
from Tura, at least two false doors and the tomb portal, under the control of the two
chief controllers of craftsmen and the royal master builder, as well as statues for
different parts of the tomb. It was stressed that the kingdid all this for the sake of
Debehni's Om?bw), "provision," before his lord. A final note indicates that the royal
decree for work on the tomb had specified its measurements.
It seems a reasonable presumption that at least the fine stone of the distant
quarries was available only through the state [Helck 1956a:64], as probably certnn
luxury materials imported from abroad [HGck 1975:120-1251. Inscriptions attributing quarrying expeditions to the authority of great provincial magnates only appear
at the end of the Sixth Dynasty, but it was not unusual for tomb owners to describe
how luxury items were begged from the king, who sent a boat specially to fetch such
elements as sarcophagi, false doors, and offering stones [Urk. I, 38.1-39,3; 63,12-65,9;


Labor m the Anclent Near East

99,9-100,4]. It mlght be stressed that "the like had never been done for any servant"
[Urk. I, 100,1], but it IS always difficult to know how seriously this convenaonal
phrase should be taken, In what way the favour mlght have been unique.
The standard introductory formula to offerlng lists or invocations was htp dj
nsw [+ divine name(%)],conventionally translated "a boon whlch the lung glves [+
divme name(s)]." The analysis of the phrase is difficult [Gardiner 1957:170-173; Barta
19681, and m later perlods a was no more than a cliche, but some of its literal force
must be presumed effectwe m the Old Kingdom. It attributes the provislon of food
and clothmg, burlal in the necropolis, even embalmment, to the favour of the kmg
[Helck 1975:77], directly or through a god o r gods [Kaplony 1976:79,86]. Thls
Implies that in principle the tomb, any funerary foundation, and the continumg
provlslon of offermgs came by royal authority, from the state, from an offering
reversion, or from the endowed income of specified estates [Urk. I, 144,ll-21.
Examples where only a god, not the kmg, is mentioned in the formula are not
common [Federn 19581, and probably refer to that god's offenngs as the source of the
provislon. A literal interpretation [Goedicke 1970:37] sees the king as absolute owner
of the necropolis and provlder of tombs m ~ t Arguments
have further been put
forward &at &document of royal authorlsation was necessary before a tomb could
be"bUi1t '[Goedicke n.d..24; 1968:29-301, but the slight textual evldence for this
argument [Helck 1956a:68, 1975:75; Goedicke 1970:38 n.14, 188 n.9; Fischer 1978:52561 is open to other interpretatlons, and the case not proved [but see also Urk.I,65,2;
203,7; 232,14-161.
The tomb owner referred to hlmseK as an jrn3bw. It was often s a d of his tomb
and mortuary provislon that "His Majesty made thls for him as hls jrn3bw before hls
lord" [Fischer 1979:42-461. Later referrmg vaguely to a state of "reverence," jrn3bw
in orlgin indicates a "provlsion" [Helck 1956a:68-701. Normally a person wasjrn:hw
before (br) one or more kmgs, wlth few exceptions those of his own tlme [Helck
1974a:220-223; 1975:31e-323, or beforetheUgreat god:'T-Frorn thejater Old Kingdom
regularly [but not exclusively, Barta 1968:291-2921identified with the royal dead god
Osms, thls "great god" was the figure who carried out the functions of klng among
and for the dead, an amalgam of all dead kings continuing to function for then
contemporarles. Statements that someone wasjm3bw before a god probably refer to
Income durlng life, and offerlng reversions after death [e.g., Urk. I, 37; note JacquetGordon 1962231from the property of a god and hls templeIHelck 1975:82-83; Freler
1976:31]. Claims to be jm:bw before a private person [cf. Goedicke 1955:31-331
indicate provlslon made from that person's endowments [Helck 19755351. Thus an
heir or dependent, requlred to perform mortuary service, mlght be jrn?hw before the
tomb owner [Urk. I, 32; 33,15-34,6; 72,13-14; 163,13; 227,15-171. Such cases are rare.
Such provlsion was doubtless normally made to people of too low rank to own
monuments and tombs. Examples from the later Old Kingdom where the tomb
owner stresses hls personal popularity by clzumlng to be jm3hw before people in
general [br rml: Urk. I, 204,lO; 222,5] doubtless Indicate the weakening of the force
of the term.
The jrn3bw provlslon by the klng mlght consist of the entlre tomb [Fischer
1979:45-461, the necessary Income for the htp djnsw [Urk. I, 175,lO-141 or the estates


EYRE:Work In the Old Kingdom


to provlde it [Urk. 1,12,17; 14,7 and 161. There IS ample evldence to show that the
palace played a real part in the contlnulngprovlslon of offerlngs for prlvate tombs.
For instance, Tjenty [Goedicke 1970, Taf.XIIIl was able to bequeath the mortuary
income hls cult recelved from the (state) treasury and grananes. Offering lists
mentlon "every department of the residence from whlch offerings are issued" [Urk. I,
177,16; cf. 184,3]. For mstance, Kaemsenu was to receive [Urk. I, 175,lO-141: "A
boon whlch the lung gives: that he may be gwen all (sorts of) offenngs from the house
of the kmg, gram from the granary, clothlng and oil from the treas[ury. . .I, sweet
thlngs from the Cqt-house and joints of meat at the entrance (rwt) of the jststorehouse, all the (sorts of) offermgs which are given to anjrnsbw
from the
house of the kmng, for ever." Such income mlght be distinguished from the tombowners' personal resources. For instance, Khufukhaef was shown in his tomb
[Simpson 1978:12-13, fig. 291 vlewmg offenngs brought from both the king's house
and the villages of hls own property (pr &). The evidence does not allow an
assessment of the balance between direct provlsion from the king and from prwate
resources [Helck 1956a:70-731, or even the extent to which royal funerary provislon
was permission to appropriate resources in perpetuity for the cult. The Abusir papy
similarly show that a large part of ~ t endowment
reached the pyramid temple
NeYerirkare from the palace [Posener-Krikger 1976:611-341.
Centralised distribution of offermgs may partly be explamed by the rmpractlcability of the collection of small endowments due on estates scattered through the
country, but will also be connected to the concept of patronage [Kaplony 1976:36-441
so vltal to Egyptlan social organisatlon. Direct provision at the palaccmay be seen as
the onginat payment of officials [Helck 1975:56], but at the helght of the Old
Kingdom they were supported by then landholdings, and the degree to which they
were pald from the palace through such lnstltutlons as the st df:, "department of
foods" [note Fischer 1959:267] or the p r wdb, "house of largess" [Gardiner 1938:8889],1s unclear [note Jansserl 197R2231. When ah afficial carried out hls duty to the
satisfaction of the kmg, he was "pralsed" (hsj), which meant the receipt of gold
ornaments, but also large quantities of food and drink from the king [Urk. 1,59,1560,11; 129,8-14; 139,15; 220,9; 221.3 and 101 or even agift of land as source of income
[Urk. I, 140,9-111.
Too r~gldand literal an mterpretatlon should not be applied to these standard
phrases concerning tomb provislon. It is not clear, in practice, when an official
started to build his tomb, and how quickly it was completed. Tombs were not
normally begun on a small scale early in a man's careeryand extended as he rose in
rank [Baer 1960:40-41; Strudwlck 1985:343-3441. Rather he seems to have wa~ted
until hls wealth and officesjustified the grandest possible tomb. Often, therefore, even
hlgh ranklng officials must have died before their tombs were completed, or even
started. In a unique case, the Sixth Dynasty nomarch Djau constructed a jomt tomb
for hlmself and for his like-named but lower ranking father, claimmg [Urk. 1,1451471: "I have caused that I be buned in a slngle tomb with this Djau, because I want
to be wlth hlm in a smgle place. It 1s not because I am not in possession of resources?
(or authonsations' ') for maklng two tombs." Indeed, he stresses that he had
obtamed from the kmg both burial equipment and even posthumous promotion for


EYRE:Work zn the Old Kingdom

Labor in the Ancient Near East

information they give is limited. Organised in crews bswt), they were overseen by
controllers (brp) of tomb-makers, and at the highest level by an overseer of the gs-pr
of tomb-makers. T h ~ gs-pr
m~ghtbe a purely administrat~veorganisation, or an
actual place, with workshops and living quarters. The only detailed reference to their
work is their building the tomb of the dog Cbwtywat the orders of the king (see 13.1).
The normal term for unskilled or sem-skilled tomb workers was hrg-nlr, "necropolis
man," often in effect "stone-worker" [as when employed in the quarries, e.g., Couyat
and Montet 1912, no.1881. A depiction in a tomb at Mex [Blackman and Apted
1953, pl.XXI] shows five such men cutting stone with ch~seland mallet, doubtless ~n
the preparation of the tomb ~tself.However, like the tomb-makers, they have not left
significant records of the~ractivities or organisation.
The title, overseer of works, with various additional epithets, stood at the peak
of supervision of public works [Smith 1949:357-358; Freier 1976:15; Strudw~ck
1985:217-2501. It was often held by the h~ghestofficial of state, the vlzier, an
indicat~onof the central importance of public works within the administratwe
structure. Actual supervision of projects belonged to the administrat~onof the "royal
ster builder" and h ~ ssubordinates. The best known such official, Nekhebu
nham 19381recorded his supervision of a w~derange of projects, building, canal
digging and quarrying. Craftsmen and artists seem to have formed a separate group,
of higher status than ordinary workmen [Helck 1975:lOO; cf. Wilson 1947; Junker
1956, 1959; Smith 1949:351-365; Kaplony 19661. Thus Meni, recording that he
sat~sfiedall the builders of his tomb, "whether craftsman or necropolis man" Or jmj
hmwt jmj hrg-nlr), apparently dist~ngu~shed
the two groups on the grounds of status
and organlsatlon [Fischer 1966:69]. Doubtless it was for the same reason that the
work on the tomb of Debehni (see 13.1) was supervised by a royal master builder
together with two great controllers of craftsmen, offic~als of two different
The $rEM'd@nt'r6116fS-o~~cr&s~II-[wr brp hmwt: Helck 1954:102-106; Fischer
1966:63-68; Preier 19761stood atthe head of the organisat~onof craftsmen, and in
close relat~onsh~p
to the king. This orig~nallyfunctional title, held by two people at
the same tlme [Urk. I, 20,7; 38,151, was at later periods distmct~veto the High Priest
of Ptah at Memphis. Throughout the Old Kingdom there was, indeed, a connection
between the holding of craft titles and the holding of religious titles indicating a part
m (and income from) the cult of Ptah and Sokaris. The extensive development of the
temple's wealth, leading to an increase in the importance of its functionaries, and the
conversion of t h ~ sh~ghestcraft title into a (purely?) religious function cannot be
dated before the late Old Kingdom [Freier 1976:16-22.26-321. The structure of craft
organlsatlon at a lower level can only be traced through titles, and through the cursus
honorum through which higher craft officials seem to have passed [cf. Freier
Most important were variants of the titles "overseer of (all) craftsmen (of the
state)" or "overseer of (craftsmen of) wcbt." Literally "pure place," wCbt was
especially used of the embalmer's workshop [Brovarslu 1977:110,114]. Otherwise it
was used, alone or with a variety of epithets such as "southern," or "of the lung"
[Drenkhahn 1976:147-154; Brovarski 19771, to mdicate the most important of craft
organisations [Junker 1959:22-361, to which all sorts of workers were attached:


metalworkers, carpenters, pamters and sculptors, together w ~ t hthe~roverseers,

directors, deputy (directors) and oversee~s-of ten. Perhaps the two uses of wcbt
should not be completely separated, both bemg organisatlons connected with work in
the necropolis [Junker 1959:23; Drenkhahn 1976:148]. Craftsmen of the state seem to
have had their own separate organisation, and presumably different spheres of
normal activity. For instance, Ankhu, who reached the lughest rank of royal master
(mdh nsw) in overseemg metalworkers of the state, held a long series of titles
connected with metalworking and its control. Despite difficulties of understanding, it
is the best source for reconstructing the hierarchy of the profession [Goyon 1959:ll151. Most interestmg are his control of weapons and of "fashionmg gods (statues)."

4.1 Craft Actzvztzes Depleted in the Tombs In principle, and over simplified, the
reliefs of a private tomb depict the range of act~vitiesneeded for the provision of the
tomb and the continuation of life within it. They are not random depictions from the
everyday life of the tomb-owner's household [cf. Drenkhahn 1976:35], although to a
large extent coinciding with it. There is a large content of rural and agricultural life,
and a strong element of domestic labour, espec~allybaking and brew~ng.Pottery
manufacture, necessary to the provision of food and drmk, was shown injuxtapositlon to bakmg and brewmg [Drenkhahn 1976:86-87; Holthoer 1977:27-281, that is,
treated as a domeshc activity. Old Kingdom pottery was generally crude and
domestic, not the product of a large scale industry w ~ t hwide distribut~on[Arnold
1976:22 n.65; Holthoer 1977:27-28, but note O'Connor 1974-1975:27-281. Carpenters, boat-builders, leather workers and to some extent metalworkers are shown
making tomb goods that did not differ significantly from goods needed in life.
However, the skills of jewellers and the most technically sophisticated metalworkers
can hardly have been needed regularly in any but the very greatest households. The
work of sculptors, regularly shown, or of stone-vessel makers, seems to hav
r e . q ~ r ~ ~ ~ h e p m B ~ u t I for
i e ~hiso tomb.
Because the depictions often name minor figures, some detailed informat~onis
available about the actual personnel who worked on a tomb. Epithets showing the
workforce to which named craftsmen belonged are unfortunately rare [Drenkhahn
1976:135-1551. Most often they belonged to the tomb owner's estate (pr dt), but also
named werircraftsmen of the state, of wcbt, of the k~ng'shouse, or exceptionally, of
the king. The unusual mention of craftsmen of the res~dencecomes from a prov~ncial
tomb [Drenkhahn 1976:139-1401. The evidence 1s too sparse for conclusions to be
certain and exclusive,' but it seems that the most specialised workmen, notably
sculptors and painters, were only attached to the state or wcbt. The personnel of less
unusual crafts were said to belong to thepr dt of the tomb owner rather than the state
or wcbt. The only craftsmen noted to be "of the king's house" were carpenters.
Craftsmen "of the kmg" were probably the very best, who produced only the highest
quality, most luxurious goods for the king personally [Drenkhahn 1976:145]. It
seems that, in effect, one has to presume an effective state monopoly over the control
of certain of the most skilled crafts.
The ch~efdoctor, Nyankhsekhmet, asked the kmg [Urk. I, 38-39]: "'Would that
that ka of yours, beloved of Re, might decree that I be given a false door of limestone
for that tomb of mlne in the necropolis!'Then His Majesty had brought for h ~ m



Labor m the Anczent Near &t

false doors from Tura, of limestone. They were put inside the &dw of (the palace)
Khai-weret-Sahure. Two chief controllers of craftsmen, and craftsmen of wCbtwere
put on them. The work was done in the presence of the king himself. The work (? 9
went on every day. What was done on them was seen during the duties of each day.
Then His Majesty caused drawing implements [? or "authorisations", Fisher 1978:52561 to be applied to them, that they might be decorated in blue." The employment of
the chief controllers of craftsmen [cf. Urk. I, 18-21], doubtless signalling the very
highest quality of work, and the detailed supervision of the king [a similar example:
Junker 1957:30; 1959:25; Strudwick 1985:240-2411 were special. This d3dw is also
attested as the place where the chef royal leather worker Weta worked and lived
[Urk. I, 22; Junker 1957:27-321, and was probably awork centre attached to the royal
residence [Goedicke 196770-72; the depictions adduced by Drenkhahn 1976:151-154
are New Kingdom, but the companson seems valid]. The craftsmen of wCbtwere
presumably brought in specially for the work of Nyankhsekhmet.
The private tomb was, therefore, built and stocked partly by workmen from the
tomb owner's estates. For instance, detachments of men from his dt are shown
dragging a shrine into place in the tomb of Djau [Settgast 1963:21], promding the
ordinary labour. Partly it was prepared by craftsmen with 6~me.status.a~
state or
royal employees, brought in specially for the most skilled work. A partial resolution
of the apparent contradictions between royal and private provision in tomb building
is thus likely to be that these skilled workmen (as certmn of the best materials) were
only available through the state, in principle as a favour from the king, through the
"lending" of wCbtor state craftsmen to the household of the tomb owner, where they
would be provided for as, or rather better than his own dependants [cf. Drenkhahn
1976:138-1401. There is no way that craftsmen acting purely as independent wage
labourers might be recognised from this material, but it seems unlikely that they
existed outside the known orgaois,ationalframeworks. Yet withm that structure their
activities-may welkhave been lewrigidly fixed than the theonsmg here might ~mply,
particularly in the terms,coqtrpq:ed and the."satisfaction" expected.
4.2 Dwellings and Workshops It is natural to expect that craftsmen of the king
or a great official liyed and worked near their employer's great house. It is more
difficult to spewlate about the normal homes and places of work of craftsmen of the
state or of wcbt. It is not even-clear whether wCbtshould be thought of as purely
administrative organisations or as work centres, with workshops and housing. There
are, indeed, no excavated remams of a permanent workmen's village from the Old
Kingdom [Helck and Otto 1975:374, 1984:9-141, and information about a possible
industrial quarter in the excavations of Early Dynastic Hierakonpolis [Hoffman
1974:45-48; note also Davis 1983:126] is too slight for real comparison with known
craft organisations. No useful information is preserved about the remams of a
possible necropolis administrative centre of the Sixth Dynasty in the Step Pyramid
compound [Posener-KriCger 1980:92]. The rows of crude buildings, series of long,
narrow rooms, behind the Chephren pyramid [Petrie n.d.:101-103 pl.IV, Holscher
191212, 36,70, Abb. 41, if not indeed storerooms [Goyon 1977:197-1981, were only
barracks providing mass shelter for work gangs. Equally specialised shelter can be

EYRE:Work m the Old Kingdom


seen in the small, crude workmen's huts in the quarries, at Wadi Maghara in Sina
[Gardiner, Peet and cernjr 1955:6,22], arHzfnub, or in the Nubian diorite quarries
[Engelbach 1938:372]. Such accomodation was short term, for workers away from
People regularly employed on tomb building doubtless lived in or near the
necropolis. The sale of a house before the court of the pyramid town of Cheops at
Giza [Goedicke 1970:149-1731 included a necropolis man as well as ka-priests among
the witnesses. The will of Wepemnofret [Goedicke 1970:31-43; Fischer 1966:60-611,
bequeathing a shaft and rights in his tomb to his eldest son, was witnessed by all sorts
of craftsmen and workmen: builders, a painter, a sculptor, a tomb-maker, an
embalmer, a carpenter, a necropolis man and an jdw-man, as well as doctors and
ka-pnests. Presumably they were people living and working close to the properties
concerned [Trigger et al. 1983:92-941. It may be that the towns attached to pyramid
temples grew up in origin from settlements of men involved on the pyramid projects,
and continued to some extent to be inhabited by craftsmen as well as priests [Helck
1957, 1959:19; denied by Stadelmann 1981bI. Archaeologcally such sites are poorly
known [for Giza see Zivie 1976:13-14,20-22; Abdel-Aziz Saleh 1974; note also
Borchardt 19051, and the documentary ewdence of-the Abusifipapyri is concerned
only with the temple, not with the associated town.
The depictions in private tombs, usually of a large seated figure of the deceased
"watching" registers of different craftsmen at work, are too formalised and idealised
to provide evidence for the physical appearance of workshop buildings or the
organisation of work in them. In two cases [Drenkhahn 1976:75-76,135-136; Moussa
and Altenmiiller 1977, p1.651 the tomb owner is labelled as "looking at the work in
the js (of all) the craftsmen." js here is unlikely to have meant the tomb, rather the
place of work. Thejs of certain institutions were mentioned in royal decrees (see 72.8)
as "offices" responsible for the registration, recnutment and organisation of lab
dutlt%, *any wGTc%f't?le Eing's house.'' People entitledjmj-rjs (orjswy), "oversee
tkie (two) JS," controlled' storage facilities [Helck 195459,651 separate from, but
parallel to the granaries and treasury, and doubtless also the related production,
notably of oils and meat [cf. Urk. I, 177,3 and 10; 178,6]. Storage and work facilities
are always likely to have been associated.
'Tliebeit attested facilities of this sort in the Old Kingdom were called SnCworpr
Sncw [Perepelkin 1962; Bakir 1952:41-47; Helck and Otto 1975:377-378; Helck
1975:47-48, 96-97], a term that basically meant "magaune." In the temple of
Neferirkare a wide variety of materials were stored or administered in suchpr incw
[Posener-KriCger 1976:327-328, 333-335, 406-409, grain, bread and beer; 346,354,
357-358,362-365, cloth and oils; 368-384, various goods; 384-388, bricks; 392, wood],
and a guard stood over their entrances day and night [Posener-KriCger 1976:34-381.
However, emdence from private tombs, both depictions and references to the
personnel and activities ofpr Sncw, is limted to the receipt, storage, and preparation
of food for the needs of ritual and daily consumption, especially the receipt of gram
and its conversion into the staple foods of bread and beer. Workmen of other trades
were not attached to p r SnCw,so that they cannot be considered workshops in a
general sense, but rather the food storage and production centres of the household,

Labor in the Ancient Near East

EYRE:Work in the Old Kingdom

whether of an official or some institution such as a temple [Perepelkin 1962; Moussa

and Altenmuller 1977:67,71].
Other work units are even less well known. For instance, the temple of
Neferirkare had an 'ryt nt nhp, "gateway of potters" [Posener-KriCger 1976:4546,5121, doubtless the place where they worked. It also had a number of r-i,
"entrance" or "place of L" These had their ownpr-Snc w, with the^ own mrt, "serfs."
Pepi I specifically protected the people of Dahshur from any requirement to dig for
the r-Sof a king Ikauhor (see 12.8). These cannot have been simply agricultural units
[Posener-KriCger 1976:612-19; Berlandini 1979:13-151, and most likely they were
work places and organisations of a general nature attached to pyramid temples
[Helck 1975:95; Stadelmann 1981a; 198113376-771. The gin this term will not be the
word indicating a pool or piece of land, but the homonym connected with work
[Posener-KriCger 1976:578-5791. Overseers of S, or of the i of craftsmen, appear in
quarry inscriptions [Helck 1954:101], but also in connection with other types of
work, notably weaving [cf. Junker 1941:12-13; 1959:81-821. A depiction of carpenters
in the tomb of Iimery is labelled "iof the carpenter" [Lepsius 1849-1858,II, 49b], and
Nyankhsekhmet told (see 114.1) that the i of his-false doors was inspected daily.
Despite the considerable number of exampl6s [&lsoCUrk.2, 60;2;61,1; 62,1,17; 232,151
there can still be no certainty whetherLishbuld be translated simply "work" [Fischer
1978:52-581 or "workplace," "workshop" [Goedicke 1967:69-72, n.291.
The existence of specialised provincial industries or local manufacturies seems
almost untraceable but cannot be completely discounted. Pottery manufacture seems
t o have been essentially domestic [above 114.11 and most other manufacture
associated with large households or institutions. It is possible, however, to suggest
[Brovarski 1973 11.211 for instance that at the end of the Old Kingdom the Abydos
nome was an important centre for cattle rasing, with an associated leather industry.
This is based on the presence of the tomb of an Overseer of Leatherwork atsheikh
Farag and'the f a 8 that both leather-working titles and, more commonly, titles'
relating to'sacredscattleappear on stelae of the period from that nome.

Similar classes of skilled royal employees, notably craftsmen, hardressers and

manicurists, were favoured witk the-eqmvalent title mhnk of the king [Helck
1954:104; Goedicke 1970:151-152; Drenkhahn 1976:46; Freier 1976:151. An equivalence can be seen between the occasional, rather small tombs of people with specific
craft titles [Junker 1959:69-791, and those of royal doctors [Junker 1959:96-971,
hairdressers and manicurists [Moussa and Altenmuller 19771. Although such people
did not fit clearly into the bureaucratic hierarchy of Egyptian officialdom, they mght
own a not insignificant tomb, presumably as a result of their personal service to, and
contact with the king.
The subsidiary burials around major tombs of the Early Dynastic Period were
doubtless to provide the same continuing personal service as the depictions on the
walls of later tombs [cf. Helck 1959:17]. It is rarely possible to identify modest burials
associated with a major tomb of the Old Kingdom proper as those of dependants
rather than family [Helck 1956a:64,68; Simpson 1978:28,31-32; Goedicke 1970,
Taf.IV], although they may represent a form of patronage the tomb owner could
provide for hls favoured servants. As the lung provided his officials and favoured
employees with priesthoods and offices in pyramid and sun temples [Helck 19571, so
the official's personnel received ka-priesthoods in his*tomband cult [for artists and
craftsmen, Junker 1959:50-691, which gave rights to land and income in return for
duties that were presumably not very strenuous. Craftsmen as such took part in the
burial ceremonies, bnngmg their products to place in the tomb [Gardiner 1955:14-15;
Kaplony 1966:108-112; note Urk. I, 204-2051, but as ka-priests they held a
permanent income in the service of their employer, that passed to their heirs in
perpetuity [cf. Allam 19851.


4.3 The Tomb Owners Patronage of His Craftsmen State craftsmen named and
depicted ih private tombs were only rarely shown actually working. Usually they
appeared in the more distinguished role of offering bearer or ka-priest, or as
companioh to the tomb owner in "domestic" or fishing and fowling scenes, even
being presented with food and dnnk by a servant [Junker 195952-9; Drenkhahn
1976:66-671. Such depictions, so-called craftsmen's "signatures" in tombs they build
[Ware 1926-1927; Smth 1949:351-355; Wilson 1947:245-247;Junker 1956 and 19591,
put them on a par with the closest associates, subordinates and dependants of the
tomb owner. Such people were sometimes referred to as the tomb owner's mhnk
[Helck 1956a:65; 1975:75-76; Junker 1959:esp. 16-18, 96-97]. Thus in the tomb of
Nebemakhet there are depicted on a doorway [Urk. I, 16,l-71 "his mhnk, who drew
this his tomb for him, the draughtsman, Smerka," and "his mhnk, who made this his
tomb for him, the over<seer>? of works, [Inilkaef." The etymology of this title, from
hnk, "give," "bestow," indicates that ihe person holding it was a beneficiary or
pensioner in some, unfortunately, unknown way.



5 Evzdence for Trade and Markets A small number of tombs show market
scenes [Helck and Otto 1980:1191-1194; Hodjash and Berlev 19801, sometimes
clearly recognisable because the recorded speeches include requests to buy or sell:
The.goods traded are not luxury items: for a large part the scenes show the sale offood and drink, especially vegetables, fruit and fish. In some cases a refreshments
may be intended [Moussa and Altenmuller 1977, Abb.10, 3rd register, b
It would be an extraordinarily rigid social organisation that had no local tr
in such commodities among the lower classes. Manufactured goods appear in
range of essentially simple goods [listed Hodjash and Berlev 1980:47], for inst
head-rest, spmdle-whorls, oils, cloth, fishhooks, or jewellery. Among the scenes in
the tomb of two brothers at Saqqara [Moussa and Altenmuller 1977:79-81, Abb.101
are two men, standing, measuring and discussing the price per cubit of a bale of cloth,
before a seated fat (= superior) man named as the "great one of craftsmen" (wr nw
hmwt). Another salesman offers to exchange the fish from his basket with a man
seated in front of him engraving a seal. Behind the fish-salesman a metalworker is
offenng a chisel' and fishhooks. Further along another metalworker [? hmw dbnw,
"craftsman of the dbn-weight'"] is exchanging a deben-weight? for a beaker (of
pottery? or copper?). Another man is exchangng a fan for a drink.
Men in these scenes typically carry shoulder bags, tied by a cross strap over their
shoulders, as well as sacks and boxes. Such bags may have been for the valuables



,.= -


Labor m the Ancient Near East

they traded [Hodjash and Berlev 1980:45-461, and one 1s tempted to Identify some of
these bagmen as ltlnerant peddlers, the more so because they do not always appear in
the context of a formal market. In the tomb of Iimery [Lepsius 1849-1858,II, 49bl a
reglster showing scenes of oil making Includes a man carrying a sack and vessel,
apparently trying to buy oil. The register above shows a man with a shoulder bag,
apparently trylng to trade ln sklns (? fis) with men working leather [but see
Drenkhahn 1976:lO-111. Scenes of manufacture and sale seem to be run together also
In the tomb of Ti [Wild 1966, ~1.1741,where a angle register depicts the manufacture
of staffs, leather work, seal engraving, a man carrylng bags and oil, an exchange of
sandals, a man carrylng fans, and the sale of staffs. These goods were presumably
traded at or near where they were made.
The scenes from the tomb of Tepemankh seem to associate workshops and
trading with a riverbank [Hodjash and Berlev 1980:36]. The registers depicting trade
In the tomb of the two brothers have above them scenes of manicuring and barbermg,
and below a depiction of sailing on the canal of the west. It is possible to visualise a
riverbank market, where trading was assoc~atedwith certaln simple craftwork and
personal services, such as refreshments and barberlng. However, archltectural detail
is almost completely lacking ln Old Kihgaom to&6-.&eries, scenes were not
necessarily juxtaposed because they were connected, and such interpretatlon 1s
speculatlve. It is impossible to tell from the scenes whether a local or major market is
shown, how formal was ~ t conduct
lpace Hodjash and Berlev 1980:44], or how far
advanced the trading process was from the purest form of barter [cf. Daumas
The nature of internal trade in the Old Kingdom 1s difficult to understand [Helck
1975:114-1151. There is no obvious reason why market scenes should have been
Included In tomb decoratlon. They do not obviously belong
- to the cycle of provislon
for the tomb owner, for it is difficult to believe that such markets were necessary to
the supply of-their personal households lpace Hodjash and Berlev 1981:39-40,441.
The relatlve*rarity of such scenes may argue, not that market actlvitles were
lnslgnificant, but perhaps that they were so typical as not to be excluded from
incidental mater~al.It is also likely that members of the tomb owner's household, in
the wldest sense of the word, were ~nvolved.It may be that the work of his craftsmen
and dependants, their surplus production, both industrial and agrlcultural, was belng
traded, rather than the products of wholly Independent artisans [Helck 1959:35-36;
Hodjash and Berlev 1980:36; but cf. Drenkhahn 1976:156]. This might have been for
the benefit of the individual, trading on the side, or for the household to which he
belonged. Both of those models of trading are known from the New Kingdom.
6 Agrzcultural Actzvztzes and Land Tenure All the activities of the agrlcultural
year are shown In the decoration of pnvate tombs, arable farmlng [Vandier 19521978, VI], pasturage, fishing, fowling and sometlmes huntlng [Montet 19251. Like
other work shown in the tombs, they were the activltles of the dt orpr (n) dt, "house
of dt" of the tomb owner, his personal household [Perepelkm 1966; Helck 1975:57-61;
Menu and Hararl 1974:142-145; Schnelder 1977:18-19; Goedicke 1970:34-351.
Preserved references to these terms appear mostly in the context of the necropolis

EYRE:Work in the Old Kingdom


and afterlife because they come from tombs. Thus the tomb owner refers to his
"house of dt,"meanlng the tomb 13wh& h_ewill live [Urk. I, 189,8,15; 199,121, "this
tomb of my dt"[Urk. I, 174,12,16], "the daily offerings of my dt9'[Urk. I 174,8], "the
ka-prlests of my dt" [Urk. I, 36,5], estates of hls dt to provide for his cult [Urk. I,
14,16: 15,7; 144.111 and serfs (mrt) of hls dt to work them [Urk. I, 144,16; Junker
1938:93,98]. Buildings of hls dt [Jbquler 1926:54] o r p r dt [Urk. I, 44,12; 64,6; 65,9]
mlght be located In a pyramid complex or pyramd town. However, the funerary
foundation was slmply a reduced contlnuatlon of the household after death, when the
land, people, anlmals and property that the deceased had endowed, and therefore still
owned, were held in trust by co-beneficlanes, sometlmes referred to as "brother of
dt" [Helck 1956a:67; 1975:90; Goedicke 1970:127-129: Menu and Harari 1974:1481501, under strict sets of rules [Allam 1974; Goedicke 1970; Moussa and Altenmiiller
197737-881 that made them approximate to family members under the authority of
the chlef helr [Kaplony 1976:42; but note Allam 1974:139-1431. The dt or p r dt
exlsted as household and personal property before death. The official's personnel
belonged to hls p r dt. Workmen were paid with bread and beer from thepr dt [Edel
1958:15], and officials provlded for the destitute from the same source. A nomarch
"measured out Upper Egyptlan barley f5gmiCmy,jx,dt for thq hungry Ifound In thls
nome" [Urk. I, 254,161 and "burled every man of t h nome who had no son, in cloth
from the property of my dt" [Urk. I, 255,2-31. By the Middle Kingdom, dependants
of an official were slmply referred to as hls dt or ndt, effectively hls property [Helck
Major landholdings were divlded up, throughout the country, Into hwt,
"mansion," or "estate," and njwt, "village." Personifications of these properties are
shown bringlng offenngs in the tomb decoratlon, In effect providing lists of the
estates held by the tomb owner [Jacquet-Gordon 1962; but note Kanawatl 1977:72].
From then names [Helck 1975:35-441 a hlgh proportion seem to be royal foundati&, .although2apparently private foundations also occur [Helck 1975:68-721. The
same,estates may appear ln more than one tomb, from whlch ~tseems they did not
normally pass from father to son. Most probably they were held for thelr usufruct, in
connection with the person's offices, durlng hn liietlme, and provlded some small,
resldual offering after death [Jacquet-Gordon 196221-251. This seems the bas
major landholding [Menu and Hararl 1974:141-1451, although clear evidence
distinction between prlvate property and property held wlth office 1s lack~ngfort
Old Kingdom [possibly Urk. 1,l-7; see Menu and Hararl 1974:134-135; Godecken
It is easy to overestlmate the Importance of funerary endowments, since they are
the only well documented economlc units. They were frequently rather small, not
large series of estates [see the collection of examples Baer 19561. It has frequently
been argued [Menu and Hararl 1974:145; cf. Helck 1959:19; Jacquet-Gordon
196224-25; Allam 1974:146; Drenkhahn 1976:136-1371 that the origlns of prwate
property In Egypt lie ln assignments of land to provlde incomes for the contlnuatlon
of cults, and then the lapse of the dutles attached to them. Thls may be too slmplistlc
{Helck and Otto 1975:732-743; Gutgesell 19831. However, the terms of such
endowments help to illustrate standard practices of employment and ownership, if

Labor In the Anczent Near East

sometimes rather by what they forbad than what they required. They restricted the
use the hen could make of the property to the funerary provision, in the same way as
kings, by protection decrees, prevented the use of temple personnel and property for
wider state financial needs. The chief heir and benefic~aries,who did not necessarily
perform the dutles themselves, could not take their subordinate ka-prlests for any
other duty. If the ka-pr~estfailed to perform, notably if he accepted some other
service, he lost his rights to income from the endowment lands asslgned to him. This
usufruct he could only pass on, together wlth his office, to a slngle heir (eldest son).
were thus a unlty.
The work and resulting property and ~ t Income
The distinction between-the types of property hwt and njwt is not now clear
[Jacquet-Gordon 19623-4.121: perhaps the former was more centralised In organlsatlon as an estate or large farm, and ln the latter, perhaps run as a smaller "rent"
paylng unit, the village was more evident. The English term "manor" is likely to cover
both effectively. They were run by men entltled hq3 [Helck 195479,126; Junker
1938:90-971, hq3 hwt and hq3 njwt, who were responsible for the income. Their audit
is frequently shown in the tombs. That of Mereruka shows [Duell 1938, p1.361 hq3w
hwt, bowmg, ushered into a hall where scribes are at work. Some, presumably for
shown-tied to a whlpplng post, to be beaten wlth stlcks.
The accounts of the pr dt as a whole were regularly shown belng presented to the
tomb owner by his steward (pj-r pr) as he sat "watchmg" the work of hls people
[e.g., Junker 1941:88-89; Kaplony 1976:n.208].
The unpublished Gebelem papyri [Posener-Kritger 19751 may belong to the
admlnistratlon of such manors, and represent just such accounts, for one of the texts
[Posener-Kritger 1975:216-2201 was specifically a register of two manors belonging
to a p r dt. The second of these manors also appears ln the earlier tomb of
Seshemnefer at Giza, and had presumably once been ln his possession. The registers
include all the types of minor-artisans, and the scribes and clerks necessary ,$or the
admln1stratlon of an independent village or manor; but in general the people-bided
seem to have been of the lowest status, since thelr names were not formed with royal,
and only rarely with divlne names. Many of those listed in the register of the manors
were described as hm nsw, literally "royal slave." This term is rare in the Old
Kingdom, but comparison with later evidence indicates that it referred to agricultural
workers on an estate [Posener-Kritger 1975:218-2191, not to a group immediately
dependent on the king [but see Helck 1975:1021. A more commonly attested element
of the rural population were the nswtyw, literally "those of the king," who might
likewlse be thought to have some special relationship to the crown [Goedicke 1965,
1967:134-135; Helck 1959:14,26-27, 1975:101]. Overseers of nswtyw were provincial
administrators [Junker 1938:173; Martin-Pardey 1977:80,239], who Included among
their duties supervision of public works. However, assessment of the status of such
people, whether as a group of small landholders dependent only on the klng, or as a
type of serf assigned by the kmng, depends on interpretation of the statement of
Metjen [Urk. I, 2,8; 4.81 that he bought Onj rpw) land br many nswtyw-edher with
them (as peasantry) or possibly from them.
The surviving types of evidence are not iikely to provlde clear indications of the
terms under which the land was farmed, whether mostly for rent or for servlce or for

EYRE:Work in the Old Kingdom


wages, whether mostly as free agents or as serfs. A free peasantry IS notoriously a

class that leaves little historical ~ r - a r ~ h & ~ ~ evidence
l ~ g i ~ aofl its existence. The fact
that Egyptian material deals entlrely wlth great estates does not mean that other
types of holding did not exlst and that the status of all peasants was the same. For
instance, rare deplctlons of field work being performed by "crews" Cjswt) of the tomb
owner's pr dt [Junker 1938:93; Lepslus 1849-1858,II, 51,561 doubtless indicate that
farming was sometimes carrled out on a large scale by bodies of men controlled as
units. The balance between such practices, and small holdings run by family units,
cannot be deduced for the Old Kingdom.
References to the disposal, acquisition or endowment of land may refer also to
the necessary people, animals and other property attached to the fields [Urk. I, 11-15;
172 = Goedicke 1967:22-36; Baklr 1952:8]. The personnel who worked the lands and
estates of the officials, providing the correct imposts (mdd) for them, were referred to
as their mrt [Baklr 195222-25; Helck 1975:102; cf. the tltle, "overseer of commissions
of rnrt and fields," Vallogia 1976:34]. Thus the depiction of women, personificatlons
of manors, bringmg offerings, is explained on a tomb wall [Urk. I, 144,7-145,3]:
"This is done for me from the villages of my dt, as (funerary-) service (? m wCb),belng
.,a_& ,dj nsw whlch the Majesty of my Lord gave to me [in order] to make for me
. under mrt of my dt, full with cattle, with goats and with donkeys, with
[what] is made into [(offerings of) legs (of meat)?], beyond the belongings of my
father. So I am hq: hwt of thepr SnCwof land (extending) 203 arurae, 1 t 3, which the
Majesty of my Lord gave me to strengthen (snht) me." Nefenrkare's protection
decree forbad the recrultment not only of the priests of the Abydos temple who
performed service (wCb)for their fields, but also of the rnrt who actually worked the
fields for whlch the prlests did their service [Urk. I, 170-172 = Goedicke 1967:22-361.
When, at the end of the Old Kingdom, prlests for a cult were sald to be recruited from
the mrt of the founder's dt [Urk. I, 303,6-7; Helck 1975536-871: the ierm p~esumably
indicated the whole body'Cif hisdependants. Thus, althzugh thd ~ t r i ~ t k ~ a l . ~ o s i t i o n
of rnrt, or their terms of service cannot be defined, ap English ~ r a ~ s 1 a ~ l o ~ ' sisethe
most convenient indication of their status.
The decree of Pep1 I protecting the pyramid town of Dahshu; [Urk. I, 209-213 =
Goedicke 1967:54-77; Helck 1959:17-181 agalnst taxation and labour dutles contained a number of speaal clauses concerning ~ t bntpipeople.
They were freed from
assisting the passage of envoys or expeditions. Only the _h&-S of that town were
permitted to cultivate its fields; their working by the rnrt of any queen, prlnce or
princess, or officlal (smr or sr), or their holding by any "settled Nubian" (nhs htp) was
expressly forbidden. Once established In the cataster, no bntJ-3 (the wrlting IS
aberrant, but the reading virtually certain) mlght be taken away by any person, or
"settled Nubian" with whom he mlght previously have been. HntJ-S were to be
recruited from the children of those already established there (? ms jmnw), and
registered on the cataster [Schott 1965:10]. Property and functions belonging to the
town were not to be given to people from other pyramids, specifically not the
function' of bnt~-s',except under certam (obscure) conditions.
Literally "the one ~n front of S,:' the most convenient translation of &tJ-S 1s
"tenant" [Gardiner 1908:129-1301. s'mlght perhaps be the term "work" [above 14.21



Labor m the Anczent Near East

and the title refer to the servlce Incumbent on the hnq-5 ("he to whom 1s attached
work-duty?"). It might refer to the kmg's land or territory as a productwe unit
[Stadelmann 1981a:157-158; Helck and Otto 1984:10]. More usually ~t has been
regarded as a class of land holding. d basically indicated a "pool" [a marsh, cf.
Moussa and Altenmiiller 1977, Abb.8; "irngatlon-basmn?," Berlandini 1979:13-151.
As a patch of land it was often planted with trees [Edel1944:49-50; Fischer 1968:154,
1601; the Middle Kingdom hnt-5, "garden," "orchard," will be related [cf. Helck
1959:17]. As a title, hng-5 first appears ln the Fifth Dynasty [Helck 1954:106-109,
1957:102; Baer 1960:272-273; Kanawati 1977:26-271 and was held only in relation to
the state or a pyramid temple. The Abusir papyri show hng-s'servlng with prlests as
members of the temple phyle, carrymg out dutles in the cult and admixlistratlon of the
temple, and recelvlng shares of the revenues In return [Posener-Krikger 19765755811. They seem, therefore, to have been small farmers, paymg ln service and possibly
providing towards the offenngs [Helck 1957:102; Stadelmann 1981a, 1981b:74-771,
in return for thelr protected plots of land. Presumably brig-S of the state held land ln
return for some state service [Schott 1965:ll-12; Urk. I, 100,5-111. An overseer of
hng-5 of the state was included ln the officlal address of the Dahshur decree, whlch
may indicate that he was also ln authonty, for state purposes, over temple hng-5.
It seemilike19 that the ban on the cultivation of fields at Dahshur by mrt of high
officlals or members of the royal family was Intended to protect the existence of the
brig-5 as a rlcher class of peasant who could personally perform the servlce for his
land. In the same way tomb owners banned their ka-prlests from other service, for a
pluralist ka-priest would take the revenues, but not personally perform the service.
However, high officials of the Sixth Dynasty held the function of simple hnq-5 and
other offices,sometimes ln more than one pyramid temple [e.g., Urk. I, 131,15-132.2;
Schott 1965:11], that they could not possibly have carrled out regularly in person
[Helck 1957:102-1031. The attraction of such a holding is likely to have been ~ t s
freedom from Interference by the living kmg-pfelck 1925:66-71. Such landholdings
were, moreover, spread throughout the country [Helck ?57:104; Jacquet-Gordon
1962:104-1081. Thus Sabnl received, as a reward from the king, more than 124 arura
(the exact amount 1s uncertain) throughout Upper and Lower Egypt as brig-3 of the
pyramid of Pept I1 [Urk. I, 140,9-111. By that-date the assignment of land w~th
pyramld-temple office seems to have been the most Important expression of royal
patronage and provision for high officlals [Helck 1959:20; note Urk. I, 283,12-241.
7 Forelgners zn the Work Force Also mcluded ln the address of the Dahshur
decree were officials of mercenarles ('w) from three parts of Nubia, doubtless those In
charge of the "settled Nubians" mentioned In the text, of whom there must have been
a large settlement in the reglon [Fischer 1961:76; Helck and Otto 1982:134-1351.
There 1s considerable evldence for the influx of captives and herds, throughout the
Old Kingdom, taken as booty from the surrounding countries [Helck 1974a. 1975:98991, although the numbers recorded consistently seem unrealistically high Cpace
Lopez 1967:61-621. Foreigners were important from an early date In military forces
[Fischer 19611, the 'w whose overseers [Goedicke 19601 appear so regularly m the
higher personnel of expeditions of all klnds. Their Importance ln other areas is less

EYRE:Work in the Old Kingdom


clear [Helck 1974aI. There 1s no-evidezce-for their use in clearly defined groups on
work projects In Egypt [Rowe 1938:393 1s rejected by Edel in Ricke 1969:14-151. Nor
can the surrounding areas have provided the most deslrable of pnsoeers: craftsmen
and skilled workers. Forelgners do not seem to have attruned any high rank In royal
service. and their extreme rarity as subsdiary figures m prlvate tombs [Fischer
1961:75; Junker 1934, Abb.28: 1938, Abb.27; Helck 1975:102-1031 would imply that
they rarely found thelr way into the household and personal service of Egypt~an
officlals ln the classic form of slavery, whlch, if it existed at all in the Old Kingdom,
will have been of no great lmportance, essentially an irrelevance to the overall social
structure [Helck 1959:25-27; Baklr 19521.
A hlgh proportion of foreign captives and their flocks may have been used for
Internal colonlsatlon [Helck and Otto 1980:672-73; note Kanawati 1980:lO-111, a
process directly attested by mentions of njwt m3wt, "new villages," and by the
naming of villages and estates after the kings and officials presumed to be then
founders. These were largely concentrated in the Delta [Jacquet-Gordon 1962:104108; Helck 1975:39-41,461, probably as a result of deliberate efforts to develop new
areas to provide endowments and incomes for a growing official class [cf. Helck, ,
-f954:126;'1974a:223; Jacquet-Gordon 1962:24-25; Gutgesell1983:74-761, rather than '
as a reaction to Internal pressures such as a rislng population or the loss of cultivable
land through lower Nile levels [the typlcal problem of the First Intermediate Period,
to which Urk. I, 76-79 really belongs].

-8 Women in the Work Force Women did not normally have a tomb separate
from then husbands. Those who did were special cases, often queens or princesses.
They did, however, hold, inherlt and bequeath land [e.g., Urk. I, 2,9-10; Goedicke
1970, Taf.XIII], even as hntt-l "tenant" landholder, of a pyramid town [Fischer
1976:72-73; n.241, and they held ka-priesthoods [Goedicke 19701103; Fischer 1976:70,
n.151. Herodotus' belief that women never h$d prlestly office in temples was
completely mlstaken [Blackman 192l;-Helck and Otto 1982:lIOO-11021. One may,
however, doubt whether a woman holding land or an endowment in return for
service actually performed it personally. The inscription of Tjenty [Goediclte
1970:122-1301, while lnslstlng that the benefits from, and performance of rites for
were in the hands of his wife, actually named four ka-priests
himself and h ~ mother
who should hold land and perform the rltes under her endowment. In a number of
cases a woman bears tltles clearly of administratlve or functional form, but it can
often be demonstrated that she was ln the servxe of another woman's household, or
that some other unusual circumstances surrounded her association with the tltle
[Fischer 1976:69-751. It is unlikely that such women held normal functions within the
state administratlve structure. No women can be shown to have had work authority
as officials over men.
The deplctlons of women ln the tomb scenes are restricted In range [Drenkhahn
1976:133-1341. They are shown as relations of the tomb owner, or In domestic
employment, especially brewmg and bakmg, as singers and dancers [titles: Fischer
1976:71], occasionally In agricultural, or rather harvest scenes, especially wlnnowmg
[Vandier 1952-1978, VI, esp. 176-183,272-2731, and In market scenes, both as


Labor m the Anctent Near East

EYRE:Work m the Old Kingdom

purchaser and seller [Moussa and Altenmiiller 1977:79-81, Abb.101. This seems to
glve a fan plcture of the normal "women's professions," essentially domest~cand
personal servlce. To these must be added weaving, possibly In special workshops or
organlsatlons [note Lepslus 1849-1858, 11, 103a], for women bear tltles connected
with the craft [Fischer 1976:70-72: Helck 1954:63]. Depictions in the tomb of Seneb
[Junker 1941:41-611, showlng the reward of female weavers with jewellery, Imply that
women of some status could be involved in such work. Othenvlse women do not
seem to have performed crafts. A Gebelem papyrus which includes women among
people recruited for work on a building project [Posener-Krikger 19751 is, for the
present, an isolated example of uncertam significance.

the actual career of a work officlal. He tells how the kmg promoted him from
common builder (qdn 'S:) through the-mmus offices of the building administration,
to "sole companlon and royal master builder In the two houses" [Helck 1954:1041051. Other texts reveal that he eventually became overseer of all works of the kmg,
and overseer of commsslons of the pyramid of Pep1 I [Baer 1960:37-38.95-961.
Although constantly stressmg the successful performance of all his tasks and the
favour of the king as the reason for each promotion, the texts of Nekhebu clearly
reveal the importance of his family connection. He rose, effectively, as hls brother's
deputy. He recorded how, at different stages of h ~ brother's
career, he carried his
palette. or his measunng rod, or acted as his assistant. When hls brother became
royal master builder, he ruled his village for hlm. When his brother became sole
companlon and royal master builder in the two houses, he controlled ( ~ p )his
property ~nsuch a way that "there were more things in hls house than in the house of
any noble (sch)." The brother finally reached the posltion of overseer of works, when
Nekhebu acted as his representatwe. It may be that one can identify here the rank at
which an officlal obtamed a manor for hls support, and the growth of his property as
his rank rose. Nekhebu administered his brother'spr n dt for 20 years, to everybody's
satisfaction: "I did not beat any person there so that he fell under my fingers"(= into
unconsciousness?), and "I never went to bed enraged at any people" are representatwe of h ~ cla~ms.
The same prmciple of employment is seen in the literary format of
the wisdom of Ptahhotep. The aged vlzier was to train hls son, by leave of the kmg, to
act as hu "staff of old age," his active assistant and thus virtually designated
successor. In his turn, when overseer of works, Meryptahankhmeryre was accompanied by a son of the same name on an expedition to the Wadi Hammamat [Goyon
1957, no.21; Couyat and Montet 1912, nos.61,107].


9 Soczai Mobility In theory a hlgh degree of soclal mobility was possi

Egypt [Theodorides 1973; Donadoni 19761. Except for membership of the
family nobility of blrth was not an expliclt source of position. Wisdom lite
frequently Implied that the lowest might rise to high rank and t
nothing. Thus the instructions of Ptahhotep [175-185: probably a
in an Old Kingdom setting] advlsed the pupil, as a depend
orth and not to despise him for his former poverty,
hls wealth resulted from hls merlt and divlne favour. The tr
If-made, self-reliant man, boasting of hu wealth, 1s a characte
ographical texts of the First Intermediate Perlod that can be seen dev
xth Dynasty, but at no date did the tomb owner hesitate to attribute
e king to hls personal merit.
The statements of classical authors [Diodorus 1.74; Herodotus 11.1641 that the
son was compelled to follow hls father's trade are presumably too rigld even for their
own tlmes, the attribution of normal practlce to legal necessity, but the ideal that a
son succeeded his father was alqvays strongp Egypt. .It is to be expected that skille
men, officials, scribes and craftsmen, educated thew own children to their own trade
The skill of an overseer of works [Urk, I, 63,6], ox of a lector priest reading rituals
[Urk. I, 186,151, was hmt the same as that of a craftsman. Knowledge of the
prosopography of the Old Kingdom is insufficient to illustrate family careers m a
systematic way [Baer 1960:1]. Evenso, such successions can be demonstrated among
families holding the highest craft and,work tltles. For Instance, many of the known
chlef controllers of craftsmen seem to havebeen related to each other; members of
thelr families held other craft tltles [Freier 1976:11]. The overseer of craftsmen of
wcbt, Washptah, showed three sons m his tomb, two bearing the subordinate title
director of craftsmen of wcbt [Hassan 1936:5-141. A tomb complex at Saqqara[Kees
19571 was the burlal place of the family of Kaemheset, varlous members of which
held office as royal master builder or overseer of builders. Such examples can be
multiplied considerably.
The most interesting family is that of a vizler and overseer of works, Snedjemib,
of the late Fifth Dynasty. Several generations of hls descendants, holding high titles
connected wlth public works, were buried m a complex of tombs surrounding his
own [Relsner 19131. The inscriptions of his grandson7, Meryptahankhmeryre, called
Nekhebu [Urk. I, 215-221; Dunham 19381, provides the most detailed description of


10 Concluszon In summary, Egypt of the Old Kingdom was not so uni

develop-ment. ObvrauslJi~~a
"state" m the termmology of political anthro
[Balandier 1972, chapter 6; Trlgger 1974-1975:lOl-103; Janssen 1978; Atzler 19811,
the only term used by the Egyptians for that concept was pr-C2, "the great house."
Although tn prlnclple referrmg to the palace, lt was not in practlce used for such. The
essential governmental units were rather "the residence" (bnw) or "the king's house"
(pr nsw) [Helck 1975:95-971. People whose tltles described them as "of pr-' 3" were
not so much employees or dependants of the king hlmself, but of the state run by the
king as a house. Government actlvity and public office, public administration at all
levels, can be seen to have developed by expansion of the functions of personal
service wlthm the royal household [Helck 1959:15-21; Janssen 1978:223-2341. The
"taxatlon" system originates as a biennial royal progress around the country
("Follow~ngof Horus"), associated with the "counting" of all livestock and taxable
property [Helck and Otto 1975:4, 1980:51-521. Early in the Old Kingdom the hlghest
offices were held only by members of the royal family, but by the Fifth Dynasty the
state had developed [Helck 1975:56; Strudwlck 1985:337-3461 into a complex sort of
feudal [Balandier 197295-981bureaucracy. The officials had thelr own houses,pr dt,
made up of land and peasantry exploited to provlde their income, manors m the form
of villages and estates throughout the country, together wlth craft personnel,

Labor in the Anczent Near East

EYRE:Work zn the Old Kingdom

administrators and personal servants [Helck 1975:131-1341. This 1s essentially the

typical economic unit of the great estate [cf. Gelb in Lipihski 1979:l-111, held in
origin and principle from the king In return for the performance of office. Within
such a house the personnel were in the same way dependent on the favour, patronage
and provision of the official as he was on the king. This estate the official tried, so far
as possible, to maintain as a unit in his personal possession even after death [Helck
At the peak of the Old Kingdom officials did not in principle form an hereditary
nobility of birth, but held their position by appomtment of the king, admnistering
with seals of office [cf. Urk. I, 8-9: "I never slept with my seal away from me since I
was appointed an official"]. They stressed constantly the performance of their public
duties, to the king and to the populace at large, especially their assistance of the
destitute, judgement of disputants to their satisfaction, fair payment of their
workmen, and not oppressing anybody in any way [Edel1944:31-471. A hlgh concept
of civic duty was the ideal norm, formalised as the desire of king and god
[Thtodondes 19731, and provlding the necessary justification of the social structure.
Any such description will, as a matter of course, be too rigid. Over-formalised
even for the peak of the Old Kingdom, it cannot mace allowhnce'for changing
conditions as society developed [Helck 1975:134-138x It is too heavily biased
towards the necropolis, depending on the idealised information the king and officials
chose to leave in their mscriptions, and relates basically to the state and the estates of
great officials, providing little information about lower or middle classes of society.
For instance, even the terms on which the peasantry worked the land are not clear;
whether they paid a proportion of the produce to the estate holder, which seems
likely In the Egyptian environment [cf.'Baer 19621, or whether they worked for
rations or wages. Economic life outside the great houses is effectively undocumented,
which does not mean*-."
itcdid-not exist. However, the general picture is likely to be
correct, pf patronage and provision wo;king downwards through society from the
king, in retern for 1alab'our.aIidservice worhng up from the lowest peasant.

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