New study sheds light into ancient Egyptian health care system at Deir el-Medina
Stanford archaeologists have undertaken the first ever detailed analyses of human remains found at Deir el-Medina, an ancient Egyptian village which was home to the artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings during the 18th to 20th dynasties of the New Kingdom period (c. 1550–1080 BC), including those of Ramesses II and his long line of successors. Their findings reveal a detailed and fascinating picture of a health care in the ancient world.
Deir el-Medina, once known as Set Maat (“The Place of Truth”) is located on the west bank of the Nile, across the river from modern-day Luxor. It was a gruelling hour's climb for the workers, across the mountainside that looms above Egypt's Valley of the Kings. The village may have been built apart from the wider population in order to preserve secrecy in view of sensitive nature of the work carried out in the tombs.
The workers of Deir el-Medina worked in the world famous ‘Valley of the Kings’. Source: BigStockPhoto
In addition to the extremely well-preserved village of Deir el-Medina, a UNESCO World Heritage site, many ancient records exist, including personal letters, bills, lawsuits, prayers, ancient Egyptian literature, and thousands of papyri, which have enabled archaeologists to piece together what life was like in this ancient worker’s settlement. By combining an analysis of written documentation, with the study of the skeletal remains, Stanford postdoctoral scholar Anne Austin, has been able to shed new light on what she calls “the earliest documented governmental health care plan”.
The ancient village of Deir el-Medina had a complex system of health and social care. (Wikipedia)
According to a Stanford report on the research, Austin found physical evidence to corroborate records describing a comprehensive health care system, in which workers could take paid sick days and visit a ‘clinic’ for a free check-up, and the disabled were well cared for.
"I found the remains of a man who died at the age of 19 or 20 and was born without a useful right leg, presumably because of polio or another neuromuscular disorder," Austin said. To work in the royal tombs, he would have had to endure a difficult climb, but she found "no signs of other health issues, or of having lived a hard life. That suggests to me that they found a role for him in this community even though the predominant role, of working in the tombs, could not be met."
Like in other Egyptian communities, the workmen and inhabitants of Deir el-Medina received care for their health problems through medical treatment, prayer, and magic. The records at Deir el-Medina, for example, note both a “physician”, who saw patients and prescribed treatments, and a “scorpion charmer” who specialized in magical cures for scorpion bites. Incredibly, archaeologists even recovered an ancient prosthetic toe, which would have enabled a worker with a missing toe to continue working.
Prosthetic toe from ancient Egypt, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The big toe is carved from wood and is attached to the foot by a sewn leather wrapping. (Wikipedia)
Despite the healthcare available in Deir el-Medina, Austin also found evidence of significant occupational stress, which may have been fuelled by a pressure to work, either from the state or from their own sense of duty and obligation. For example, the bones of one mummy displayed osteomyelitis – inflammation in the bone due to blood-borne infection. "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 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."
Austin’s research at Deir el-Medina is continuing in the hope of identifying specific diseases present in the village, and further unravelling the complex social, health, and community life within this ancient and important settlement.
Featured image: The ancient village of Deir el-Medina (Wikimedia)