Labor in Ancient Egypt
The status of manual laborers in Ancient Egypt is one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of Pharaonic society.
A prominent feature of the Egyptian labor system was the use of a corvee. Due to the use of a census, the Pharaonic state had a good picture of the potential labor force available at it’s disposal, and required all able men to work on state projects for a period during the inundation, when agricultural work was not possible, and the river was at its highest, allowing for easy transport. The men were paid for the time of service, and provided with accommodation, rations and healthcare at their workplace.
Although the corvee was a features of life throughout much of the Pharaonic period, it appears to have reached a peak of organization during the Middle Kingdom, where several texts refer to a Bureau of Labor Organisation.
As well as supplying the unskilled labor needed for state projects, this system also prevented starvation, ensuring rations for many who would otherwise have no supplies of their own. Thus, the potential for discontent was also reduced, and the state integrated more into the lives of the commoners. More so than in other ancient societies, in Egypt the state played a significant role in the lives of individuals.
It was also possible for a man to pay another to undertake the corvee obligation on his behalf, or provide a worker from his own estate. At the same time, many state and temple owned estates were under special exemption decrees, which prevented workers on these estates being diverted to other projects by other departments.
Due to the use of the corvee system, slavery was not common, and some scholars have even argued that it did not exist at all in the western sense until the Ptolemaic period. This claim is not universally accepted, but the image of tens or hundreds of thousands of slaves cowered under the lash whilst toiling to build the monuments of Egypt is now rejected as wholly inaccurate by almost all Egyptologists.
Forced labor was used in quarrying and mining. Forced labor, particularly (though not universally) in quarrying and mining was explicitly spelt out as a punishment reserved for criminals. The prospect of such punishment eventually led to the oath “If I am lying, may I be sent to the quarries”.
As well as criminals, wartime captives could also end up in forced labor, and their roles were more varied, including personal, agricultural and, quite often, military service. Talented men, however, were not bound to menial roles, and a few foreigners, decendants of these captives, rose through the ranks over time, the military being one Egyptian institution where social mobility was possible.
During the New Kingdom, the first strike in recorded history took place, following a pay dispute between the state and the workers of Deir El Medina, a purpose built workers town housing the workforce that constructed and decorated most of the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The dispute was settled though negotiation, with arrears being paid. In the latter part of the 20th Dynasty, due to a poor economic situation, several other strikes also occurred, with a general policy that favoured negotiation over force.
- David, R (1998), Handbook of Life in Ancient Egypt, Facts on File, New York
- Meskell, L (2005), Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ and Woodstock, United Kingdom
- Tydesley, J (2000), Judgment of the Pharaoh, Phoenix, London