Ancient Lives: Daily Life in Egypt of the Pharaohs

"Ancient Lives: Daily Life in Egypt of the Pharaohs"
by John Romer
Henry Holt Books
ISBN: 0-8050-1244-3

It has been said that little is known about the daily life of people in ancient Egypt (Kemet). In fact, this primary misconception has been the basis of a number of other biases and misconceptions about Kemet, including many regarding the ancient people's religion (such as the commonly-held belief that the religion of Kemet must have died out because it was inferior to later faiths, or that since nobody knows how they practiced it anyway, why bother).

John Romer, himself a controversial figure, has done much to dispel common misconceptions with a delightful book called Ancient Lives. Romer, who is a historian but does not hold an "official" Egyptology degree (and so has earned, I believe undeservedly, the enmity of some Egyptologists and classical scholars), has written a book in the highest tradition of archaeology, putting together decades of work with an ancient site and piecing together hundreds of extant texts to come up with a very believable picture of the life and times of one group of people in Kemet over a period of no less than five generations.

Romer's work centers around the people and politics of a tiny New Kingdom village (today called Deir el Medina), the official home of the painters, sculptors and construction workers who created the fabulous tombs of New Kingdom rulers in the Valley of the Kings ("the Great Place") and the Valley of the Queens ("the Place of Beauty").

The Deir el Medina artisans, who came from the same sets of families over and over again from the time of Amenhotep III of the 18th Dynasty through the end of the rule of Rameses III one dynasty later, tell their own story here, through Romer's expert eye: a story of pride, happiness, sadness, treachery and politics, even treason. If it weren't based on real facts, real people who left extensive letters and other forms of evidence, and archaeological digs, you'd think Ancient Lives was just a really good historical novel.

After my trip to visit this actual place in October 1996, I'll have to report back and tell you what I see -- I already have a whole list, thanks to Romer, of houses I want to visit, to see the things his "characters" (who were living, breathing people, not just inventions in a book) saw, do what they did, appreciate what they appreciated. In Kemetic religion, the highest glory one can do for a loved one who has passed on is to "make their name live" through stories and venerations of their tomb and their deeds in life. Romer's saved a whole village from oblivion with this one. And the greatest thing? If you can't go to Egypt yourself, a video adaptation of this book is available, as well as occasionally shown on public television and cable channels like Discovery.

- Rev. Tamara L. Siuda