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Mrs. Naunakhte and Family: The Women of Ramesside Deir al-Medina

July 2018 (122.3)

Book Review

Mrs. Naunakhte and Family: The Women of Ramesside Deir al-Medina

By Koenraad Donker van Heel. Pp. xix + 243. American University Press in Cairo, Cairo 2016. $34.95. ISBN 978-977-416-773-7 (cloth).

Reviewed by

In the third installment of a book series that aims to parallel the ordinary lives of ancient Egyptians and people of today, Donker van Heel delves once again into textual sources to tease out the life of an otherwise unknown, remarried widow, to whom he refers affectionately as Mrs. Naunakhte. An ancient Egyptian nonelite woman as the subject of a book presents a welcome change from the more common royal perspective of many books written for a popular audience. Introduced as a minor character in the author’s previous book, Mrs. Tsenhor: A Female Entrepreneur in Ancient Egypt (Cairo 2014), the average Mrs. Naunakhte takes center stage in the present volume. She and her familial woes are the touchstones for several topics, such as the role of women in Deir al-Medina, the legal system, mortuary cult and ritual, naughty behavior, disputes over donkeys, and similar themes attested in texts from the Deir al-Medina community. The will of Naunakhte is well known in the field of Egyptology as a fascinating legal document, in which Mrs. Naunakhte appears in court to disinherit several of her eight children because they failed to properly care for her in her old age—a timeless family concern. Less well known is Mrs. Naunakhte herself. The author attempts to reconstruct her identity through hundreds of texts, attested on ostraca and papyri, as he pieces together various aspects of Naunakhte’s life through the lives of her family and fellow villagers living in Deir al-Medina. This window into that community should be enjoyable to the intended nonacademic audience, as well as to students of ancient Egypt, as the volume presents also a broad overview of the community and the scope of available textual sources.

The archaeological site of Deir al-Medina contains a treasure trove of information about the workmen responsible for the construction and decoration of the elaborate tombs of New Kingdom pharaohs in the nearby Valley of the Kings. Their housing arrangements, work logs, legal documents and manuals, daily records, receipts, letters, spells, party accounts, and graffiti reveal insights into the personal and professional lives of the workforce and their families. The nature of the textual sources, written presumably by men and for a predominantly male audience, make Donker van Heel’s task that much more challenging, as he reveals the intimate—and admittedly speculative—details of a remarkable yet ordinary ancient Egyptian woman, who lived a long, seemingly complicated life within the confines of her village. The author’s vast knowledge of the cursive hieratic script, in which the texts were composed, is apparent throughout the book, although frequent discussions of specific signs and words might present a challenge for the lay reader with little to no background in the writing systems of ancient Egypt.

Writing for a popular audience, the author does a good job explaining more complex ideas and topics, even providing references for further reading and ideas for future studies. For the non-Egyptologist, Donker van Heel demonstrates and explains how scholars use primary sources to draw sound conclusions. A generous dose of humor, speculation, and shared human experience is interspersed among scholarly discussions. For example, the author presents a humanized version of Mrs. Naunakhte and her fellow villagers that includes the idea of “kitchen-table discussions” (70). While this sort of speculation strays from scholarly convention, the lay reader will no doubt relate easily to the life of an ordinary woman who lived nearly 3,000 years ago in ancient Egypt.

Generally, each chapter contains direct quotes from texts and a lengthy explanation of anything that would or could have taken place surrounding a given event, then segues into the introduction of new, but related, topics of interest. The first three chapters introduce Mrs. Naunakhte and her family and provide background information about the site, the workforce, and its fluctuating population, as revealed through the written sources. It is here that the author introduces the significant role women surely played within the walled community of Deir al-Medina during the eight-day work week, while most of the men were away. At the onset of the book, several translations of ostraca and papyri make up the bulk of his evidence. Here, a basic knowledge of the Egyptian language is useful to appreciate fully the author’s methodology. Only four documents pertain exclusively to Mrs. Naunakhte, so texts concerning those closest to her, as well as complete strangers, must also be consulted. Chapter 4 looks into the life of Naunakhte’s first husband, Qenhirkhopshef, a famous scribe, who is well attested in the textual record. The author uses this husband’s possible adoption story—though mostly speculative, still grounded in archaeological evidence from the village itself—to provide the reader with insights into ancient Egyptian ideas of barrenness and subsequent fertility beliefs and rituals in daily life of the villagers. Visual references of this type of evidence would have nicely complemented the author’s descriptions. The author does, however, include a sample of Mrs. Naunakhte’s elderly husband’s handwriting, which Donker van Heel describes as the “most atrocious New Kingdom hieratic ever seen” (31) and attributes this to possible intense headaches. Chapter 5 details the role of women, the divine, and dreams in court cases, using several textual documents.

Chapter 6 concerns Naunakhte’s second husband, Khaemnun, an ordinary workman. Here again the reader is presented with imagined conversations between Naunakhte and her husband over dinner based on his work in the royal necropolis. Topics of conversation include the mundane events of chisel deliveries and the arrival of messages, to the more exciting occurrences of job promotions, strikes, and investigations. Chapter 7 concerns the legal document that prompted the author’s interest in the book’s protagonist. The will of Naunakhte outlines the division of her inheritance among the less selfish of her eight children. Through the discussion of this will and others from the same village, Donker van Heel elucidates the complexities of inheritance and the rights of women to divide their property in late New Kingdom Egypt. At times, the reader senses the tensions that must have been felt between Mrs. Naunakhte, her husband, and their children (who at this time had children of their own).

A different child or spouse of a child serves as the basis of discussion for chapters 8–12. For example, three chapters focus on Mrs. Naunakhte’s son Maaininakhtef, through documents relating almost exclusively to their family, her daughter Menatnakhte and an alleged affair, and her “wimpy” son Neferhotep. In another, the author explores Deir al-Medina etiquette for parties and gift giving, with regard to a party thrown for Naunakhte’s daughter-in-law Hathor. The last of the group concerns a selection of ostraca and a poorly planned stele made for Naunakhte’s son Qenhirkhopshef, complete with illustrations of the dedicatory “mess” (156). Chapter 13 concerns property division between divorcing couples and their children; chapter 14 discusses sources pertaining to the treatment of women, derived mostly from instructional texts; and the last three chapters, 15–17, wrap up the author’s thoughts on the rights and lives of women in the village, with additional case studies, in the form of legal documents and letters. An interesting paleographic study, concerning the forms of hieratic signs, illustrates one of the ways philologists work with textual sources, which is particularly helpful in the context of a confined community of scribes taking note of nearly every aspect of village life. In this last regard, the author speculates that, given the well-documented cases of divorce in Deir al-Medina, there should have been some kind of formal procedure for marriage but notes that evidence for such a procedure appears to be lacking.

Donker van Heel presents the abundant textual sources from Deir al-Medina in a sometimes roundabout narrative, providing insight into various aspects of the lives of the women and men who lived in this uniquely literate community. His task is no easy feat, as he tackles the many issues that arise when using textual sources, including the one-sidedness of the material, the frequent anonymity of scribes, loss of critical information in lacunae, and the frequent reuse of literary works as scrap paper for letters. As a popular treatment, the book lacks footnotes and extensive bibliography, and this deliberate omission will be somewhat frustrating to students and scholars of ancient Egypt. Ultimately, however, Donker van Heel’s extended investigation into the remarkable life of the ordinary Mrs. Naunakhte appeals to our shared humanity with a series of messages from 3,000 years ago that remain relevant today.

Margaret Taylor Deane
University of Memphis

Book Review of Mrs. Naunakhte and Family: The Women of Ramesside Deir al-Medina, by Koenraad Donker van Heel

Reviewed by Margaret Taylor Deane

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 3 (July 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1223.taylor-deane

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