Tuesday, November 25, 2014

New Discovery, Luxor: Archaeologist leads the first detailed study of human remains at the ancient Egyptian site of Deir el-Medina

By combining an analysis of written artifacts with a study of skeletal remains, Stanford postdoctoral scholar Anne Austin is creating a detailed picture of care and medicine in the ancient world.

Ancient Egyptian workers in a village that’s now called Deir el-Medina were beneficiaries of what Stanford Egyptologist Anne Austin calls “the earliest documented governmental health care plan.”

The craftsmen who built Egyptian pharaohs’ royal tombs across the Nile from the modern city of Luxor worked under grueling conditions, but they could also take a paid sick day or visit a “clinic” for a free checkup.

For decades, Egyptologists have seen evidence of these health care benefits in the well preserved written records from the site, but Austin, a specialist in osteo-archaeology (the study of ancient bones), led the first detailed study of human remains at the site.

A postdoctoral scholar in the Department of History, Austin compared Deir el-Medina’s well-known textual artifacts to physical evidence of health and disease to create a newly comprehensive picture of how Egyptian workers lived.

Austin is continuing her research during her tenure as a fellow in the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in the Humanities.

In skeletal remains that she found in the village’s cemeteries, Austin saw “evidence for state-subsidized health care among these workers, but also significant occupational stress fueled by pressure from the state to work.”

Daily work and payment records corroborate the physical evidence: Deir el-Medina’s men had uniquely comprehensive health care, but sometimes could not take advantage of it.

Deir el-Medina (the workers village)
For example, Austin saw in one mummy evidence of osteomyelitis – inflammation in the bone due to blood-borne infection; the man clearly had been working while this infection was ravaging his body. “The remains suggest that he would have been working during the development of this infection,” Austin said. “Rather than take time off, for whatever reason, he kept going.”

The workers received paid sick leave, as we know from the written records, but they “nonetheless felt pressure to work through illness, perhaps to fulfill tacit obligations to the state to which they owed so much.”


“The more I learn about Egypt, the more similar I think ancient Egyptian society is to modern American society,” Austin said. “Things we consider creations of the modern condition, such as health care and labor strikes, are also visible so far in the past.”

Evidence in the bones
Deir el-Medina, an hour’s climb across the mountainside that looms above Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, housed workers primarily in the 19th and 20th dynasties (1292-1077 BCE). Its heyday is later than the valley’s best-known occupant, Tutankhamun, but contemporaneous with the pharaoh who was arguably Egypt’s greatest, Ramesses II, and his long line of successors.

Deir el-Medina’s skilled workers had considerable engineering knowledge and an uncommon degree of literacy. They left tens of thousands of written records – bills, personal letters, lawsuits and prayers, on shards of clay, stone flakes and scraps of papyrus.……. Read More
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