Sit—Down Strike
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

Sit—Down Strike

From the building of the step pyramid 4,600 years ago through the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Egyptian pharaohs were buried in pyramids. About 90 of these monuments rose from the sands of Giza and other cities near Memphis. Despite the ingenuity of the builders, tombs were almost always plundered. As a result Pharaoh Thutmose I decided, some 3,500 years ago, to create an underground tomb for himself in what came to be known as the Valley of the Kings. It was located on the west bank of the Nile, about 400 miles south of the pyramids, accessible to the capital city of Thebes and yet concealed from possible robbers.

For the next 500 years, through the period of the New Kingdom (1567—1085 b.c.) all the pharaohs were buried in that same Valley of the Kings. As far as is known each of the tombs was eventually robbed, but less systematically and less quickly after the monarch's burial.

Thousands of fragments of limestone and pieces of broken pottery covered with drawings and hieratic writing (hieroglyphic shorthand) give detailed information concerning conditions under which tomb excavators and builders lived and worked. Contrary to popular belief, work crews for the royal tombs were not slave laborers who eked out a miserable existence under brutal working conditions; they were a permanent company of skilled artisans. The work of burrowing into the rock and constructing tortuous passages, hidden doors, and false chambers was carried out by specialized craftsmen. Artists and draftsmen decorated the interiors of the tombs.

To ensure secrecy of the tomb's whereabouts, the tomb builders with their families were housed on a barren site in the desert in a specially constructed village, Deir el—Medina. Each single—story house consisted of four rooms, and all were lined up facing directly onto the street. Although none had its own water supply, a public tank stood outside the main gate of the enclosure wall. Servants were provided by the government to grind grain, do laundry, and mend pottery.

Records recovered and deciphered provide incredibly detailed information. Each workman's name and duties were listed, and a timecard noted his arrival at work. The progress of work on each tomb was carefully charted. These records were quite specific: on one fragment it was noted that a workman was absent because he had had an argument with his wife. Other inventive excuses ranged from "eye trouble" and "brewing beer" to "embalming mother."

The men were organized into two working crews, each under a foreman, his deputy, and a scribe who kept careful records of everything that took place. They worked on eight—day stretches, during which they slept in simple huts close to the tomb under construction. Every 9th and 10th day was a holiday, at which time they went home to their wives and children in the village. There was also time off for festival days of the principal gods.

Workers were generally conscientious, and wages were paid in wheat for bread and barley for beer, issued monthly from the royal treasury. The men were also supplied with rations of fish, vegetables, wood for fuel, and body oil. The latter was in great demand by the men working in hot, dusty conditions. Occasionally the pharaoh himself would reward his skilled tomb workers with luxuries, such as meat, wine, salt, and Asiatic beer.

Isolated in the desert and unable to grow their own food, the villagers relied on the prompt delivery of supplies. This normally happened on the 28th day of each month, but occasionally the heavily laden donkeys failed to arrive on time.

In the 29th year of the reign of Ramses III, the supplies were several weeks late and nowhere in sight. Finally the workmen threw down their tools in disgust and made their way to the great mortuary temple of Ramses II. There, in an orderly fashion, the employees sat down and refused to return to work until the pharaoh had been informed of their desperate plight. A temple scribe, after hearing the men's complaint, ordered that they be given a month's supply of grain from the supplies allotted to the official scribes. The men staged further strikes over the next few months, until the backlog of monthly payments had all been delivered.

No record shows anyone being punished for daring to dictate terms to the pharaoh in this way. The evidence indicates that the rulers of ancient Egypt were less tyrannical and the workers less docile than history has sometimes led us to believe. (Hollywood has certainly helped in shaping this negative image of the great pharaohs.) The workers and the pharaoh knew their work was absolutely vital to the king. His journey to the next world could not be made unless his "house of eternity" was decorated, furnished, and completed in time for the gods to receive his earthy remains. It therefore seems reasonable that the king would treat the men well, even to the extent of meeting their collective bargaining demands after the first known "sit—down strike" in history.