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A Tough Commute: Long Hike to Work in the Valley of the Kings Caused Laborers to Suffer from Arthritis

A Tough Commute: Long Hike to Work in the Valley of the Kings Caused Laborers to Suffer from Arthritis

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In the ancient world, work was so hard that bone pathologies show up in skeletal remains even to this day. In ancient Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, workers labored hard to build the mortuary temples and complexes to pharaohs and other high officials, but they also worked hard just hiking to the job site that their legs show osteoarthritis, a new study says.

Anne Austin, an osteologist and Egyptologist at California’s Stanford University in Palo Alto, has separated the jumbled-up bones of the workers in robbed tombs beside the village of Deir el-Medina in Egypt.

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 grueling 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 the sensitive nature of the work carried out in the tombs.

The ancient village of Deir el-Medina

The ancient village of Deir el-Medina ( Public Domain

Ms Austin determined the people’s sexes and ages from the recovered bones, and analyzed them for symptoms of osteoarthritis, which causes stiffness and pain, says a story about her research in Science online. Ms. Austin’s findings have been published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

She says the bones that appear to be from men show signs of more osteoarthritis in the ankles and knees than the bones of the women from the cemetery. The Science story reports:

The location of the disease, and its higher occurrence among men, struck Austin as odd. Although the artisans' work in the Valley of the Kings was hard—involving digging, carving, and painting in the rock-cut royal tombs that descend into the Theban hills—this would mainly affect the upper body, not the knees and ankles.

A Tough Commute

Based on 3,500-year-old carved inscriptions detailing daily life, the archaeological record and her observations of the hiking distance, the women remained in the village. But the male workers walked over 2 kilometers (1.242 miles) from the village to their workplace in the Theban Hills on the west bank of the Nile River every week.

From their stone huts, the men hiked downhill 93 meters (305 feet) to the valley where they worked on the tombs. At the end of the day, they hiked uphill 93 meters, a rise of 151 meters (494 feet), to the stone huts. These huts are still there to this day. The climb was steep and many of the workers made the hike week after week for years.

These workers and artisans cut out sections of rock and then decorated them, carving and painting royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the resting place of the New Kingdom pharaohs.

Back-Breaking Work

But Deir el-Medina wasn’t the only place where workers suffered. In 2015, Ancient Origins reported on Akhenaten’s iconoclastic revolution of around 1330 BC and how it affected workers at Amarna. The work at Amarna went on somewhat after the time of Ms. Austin’s Valley of the Kings.

When Pharaoh Akhenaten ordered the construction of the new city of Amarna dedicated to the sun god Aten, more than 20,000 people moved there to do the back-breaking work. The work was so strenuous that it resulted in numerous broken bones, including many fractured spinal bones, according to a recent study by archaeologists who examined skeletal remains from a commoners’ cemetery at Amarna.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children bask in the rays of the sun, Aten, a god that Akhenaten raised above all others.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children bask in the rays of the sun, Aten, a god that Akhenaten raised above all others. (Photo by Andreas Praefcke/ Wikimedia Commons )

The team of archaeologists, who published their work in the journal Antiquity, examined skeletons with more than 50 percent of the bones remaining and found that in addition to probably work-related fractures and degenerative joint disease, the workers also had smaller-than-average stature suggesting lifelong malnutrition and other hardships.

Medical Treatment, Prayers and Magic

This is not the first work Ms. Austin has done at Deir el-Medina, and her work shows while the artisans may have suffered from osteoarthritis in their lower limbs, they also may have had recourse to treatment.

As Ancient Origins reported in 2014, as 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. Archaeologists even recovered an ancient prosthetic toe, which would have enabled a worker with a missing toe to continue working.

Prosthetic toe from the commoners’ cemetery at Deir el-Medina of 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.

Prosthetic toe from the commoners’ cemetery at Deir el-Medina of 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)

Top image: The ancient village of Deir el-Medina ( Wikimedia)

By Mark Miller

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