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Artists’ villages

A very special band of workmen was paid to live inside a number of small, purpose-built villages in ancient Egypt. These were the elite tomb artists and artisans who were commissioned to build and decorate the tombs of pharaohs and other officials. Financed by the ruling pharaoh, they included stone masons, plasterers, draftsmen, sculptors, carvers, carpenters, painters and scribes, and they lived in artists’ villages or ‘workshops’ with their families.

The elaborate wall art that decorated the tombs of the wealthy was created by teams such as these, with each person specialising in different mediums. First the stone masons cut away the rooms of the tomb. Then the plasterers covered the uneven walls with a layer of gypsum and whitewash. Once the walls were smoothed and polished, they were turned over to the draughtsmen who inked out proposed designs in red. The master draughtsman, with his black ink, would then go over these designs to ensure accuracy. Next in line were the sculptors who carefully carved out the design, signifying ‘eternity’. The painters would then move in and add colour. This formula was followed for thousands of years, with each trade being passed from father to son.

Dier el-Medina and the first industrial strike

Around November 1153 BCE, the first ever industrial strike was recorded in the artists' village of Deir el-Medina. When wheat and barley for making beer owed to the workmen as payment for services failed to arrive on time, the men of the village spent days demanding payment. When nobody took any notice, the workmen staged a sit-down demonstration outside the funerary temples of Thutmose III, Ramesses II and possibly Seti I. The scribe Amennakhte stated to the temple precinct’s chief of police:

‘It is because of hunger and because of thirst that we came here. There is no clothing, no ointment, no fish, no vegetables. Send to Pharaoh our good Lord about it and send to the vizier our superior that sustenance may be made for us.’

This threat of informing the central administration had a good effect and the workmen were given their supplies.

Tools of the trade

The materials artists used included clay, paints made from pigments, inks, metals, woods (indigenous and imported), ivory and bone, glass, flax, reeds, wax, leather and stone. Tools included axes, saws, adzes, chisels, moulds, mallets, set squares with plumb lines, levels with plumb lines, kilns, brushes and pens made from reed, pottery wheels and palettes with wells for red and black ink. As tomb artists were in the service of the king, their tools and materials were supplied by the government. To prevent theft, scribes kept account of what materials and tools were supplied and also kept running records of the wear and tear of tools. They even weighed the tools after use to ensure their precious metals weren’t being pilfered.

Sculptors’ workshops contained models for apprentices to practise on. These were usually made from limestone, which is easy to work with.

Artists’ notepads

The Greek term ‘ostrakon’ means ‘clay shard’. In ancient Egypt, pieces of broken pottery or flat limestone sherds were used as sketchbooks and notepads. Wall art was often designed and practised on ostraca. These ‘notepads’, particularly those found in artists’ villages such as Athribis and Deir el-Medina, give us insight into everyday life and art outside the official catalogue.