Egypt: Tomb Building in the Valley of the Kings

Tomb Building in the Valley of the Kings

by Jimmy Dunn

One of the most important goals for the pharaohs of ancient Egypt were the building of their own tombs. Normally the location of the future tomb was decided upon during the first year of the pharaoh's rule. At this point, architectural designs were set out, as well as the decorations that would very often adorn the walls and ceiling.

Wooden Hammer and metal chisel used to dig the tomb into the mountain.

For those pharaohs buried in the Valley of the Kings, work on their tombs would be entrusted to an architect and the craftsmen who lived in the village of Deir el-Medina. Each day the workmen would commute to the tomb that was being built over the mountains crest on a trail that can still easily be crossed today.

The architect would supervise the work of the craftsmen, who were usually divided into two groups, the right and the left. While these groups did not have a set number of workmen, they usually consisted of between 30 and 60 people but at times might increase to as many as 120 workmen.

Workmen were usually specialized, and included stone-cutters, plasterers, sculptors, draftsmen and artists who decorated the surfaces. The work progressed almost like an assembly line. First came the quarrymen who would dig the tomb into the mountain. Behind them were the plasterers who would smooth the walls. They used muna, a type of plaster made from clay, quartz, limestone and crushed straw to smooth the walls. Over that they laid thin layers of clay and limestone whitened with a layer of diluted gypsum.

Crude brush probably used to add then layers of plaster to the tomb walls.

Draftsman would then execute the designs previously decided upon by the high priests and approved by the pharaoh. They used red ochire to divide out the wall and ceiling surfaces into squares in order to correctly place the figures and text of the decorations. A chief draftsman would inspect the work and make corrections using black charcoal. Finally the sculptors would step in and start carving the bas-relief, which would finally be colored by painters using six basic colors. The colors were symbolic and had ritual meanings.

Plumb and Bob used for alignment

Other workman were also employed. The sons of craftsmen were often employed to do menial tasks, and common laborers were provided to the craftsmen and performed tasks such as carrying water, preparing the plaster and keeping torches burning. Incidentally, the torches were made of baked clay containers filled with oil of sesame or animal fat and salt. The salt was used to help limit the amount of smoke in order to not harm the paintings.

String used to give a straight line for boxes where decorations will be drawn.

In this manner, even as the digging went on in the deepest sections of the tomb, near the entrance the work might practically be finished, and even though only rudimentary tools were available, an average tomb might be completed within a few months. Larger, more complex tombs could, however, take anywhere from six to ten years for completion.

These two teams would work in their respective parts of the tomb under the direct control of two foremen. The foremen were normally appointed by either the pharaoh or his vizier. Their responsibilities included the work itself, as well as keeping track of the workmen and dealing with the pharaoh's vizier and with the vizier's scribe.

The scribes were responsible for providing the workmen food from the pharaoh's warehouses (which constituted the workmen's wages), settling quarrels among the workers, and the administration of justice in the village of Deir el-Medina.

Pigments for painting walls

Working days were variable, but it usually started at down and lasted eight hours, with a break for lunch halfway through the workday. The working week usually lasted ten days with tow days for rest. However, many other breaks were added for religious festivals and personal leave.

Additional References on the Valley of the Kings: