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Sex, Lies and Ostraca: A New Look at the Forman Paneb

Mr. Al Berens is an independent scholar who is also a founding member of the Northern California chapter.  He holds multiple academic degrees, the most recent of which is a certificate in Egyptology from the University of Manchester, England, received in 2008.

 Mr. Berens opened his remarks by noting his pride at being selected to give the Marie Buttery Memorial Lecture for 2009, and acknowledged Dr. Cathleen Keller, Dr. Jaroslav Cerny and Dr. John Romer, for their help in preparing his dissertation, from which this lecture is taken.

 Paneb, who flourished during the mid-Rameside Period (1265-1182BCE), is the best known non-royal ancient Egyptian, after Imhotep and Amenhotep Son of Hapu, and one of the oldest known, having come to light during Belzoni’s excavations at the village of Deir el Medina for Henry Salt in 1816.

 Paneb, one of four or five children born to the workman Nefersenut and his wife Iuy in about year 40 of the reign of Ramses II, was the Foreman of one of the tomb construction crews which worked in the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens.  His family had been stone cutters since the time of Pharaoh Horemheb. His father served on the crew whose Foreman was Neferhotep.  Nefersenut died sometime between year 40 and year 50 of Ramses II”s reign, and Neferhotep, who had no children of his own adopted his friends son and made him his heir.

 Paneb’s finely appointed, rock cut tomb at Deir el Medina, TT211, and a variety of extant records of his activities makes him perhaps the most famous – or infamous! - of the Deir el Medina tomb owners.  We know of Paneb and accusations brought against him through Salt Papyrus 124.  Without this illuminating papyrus, Paneb would be just another Deir el Medina villager.  We learn from Papyrus 124 that one of the workmen, Amennakht, had a considerable grudge against Paneb.  Perhaps he thought he should have been appointed to Paneb’s job.  Whatever the reason, he accused Paneb of a long list of offenses.  We also know of Paneb through some 32 other ostraca and papyrus documents, his own tomb (TT211), his father’s tomb (T10), four stela now in the British Museum, an offering table from the tomb, five graffito in the valley of the Kings, and from Papyrus Turin 1880, the famous Turin Strike Papyrus, in which there is an indication that Paneb was, indeed censured by the Vizier Hori for misappropriation of stones from the Valley of the Kings.

 Surviving documents show Paneb to have been a typical villager, piously worshiping the village gods, and records from the village court, the qnbt, offer no indications of the anti-social behaviors attributed to him in Salt Papyrus 124. 

 Paneb disappears from village records sometime between 1193 and 1185 BCE.  He was not a young man when he achieved the position of Foreman, so it is possible that his disappearance from the record was due to his natural death vice foul play.

 The village of Deir el Medina, which lies on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, off the modern road leading to the Valley of the Queens, is the best self-documented village in ancient Egypt.  Much of the material which tells us about the village, its occupants and life there, comes from the “great pit”, an abandoned well located to the northeast of the village in which a number of ostraca were found.  They are predominately records of work attendance, lists of supplies, etc.  They are difficult to date but language indicators seem to point to the same scribe authoring many of them.  Village scribes tended to use their own colloquial place names that are never referenced in official texts, and repetition of such names on many ostraca, suggest the same scribe may have written them.

 Kinship is also problematic at Deir el Medina as it is not uncommon for any given name to be carried by every other generation or even every generation of sons in the same family.  Thus trying to determine whether the grandfather, the father, the son, or the grandson is being referred to is very difficult.  Additionally, “father” can be used to refer to one’s biological father, adoptive father, grandfather, father-in-law or any direct male ancestor.   To make things yet more knotty, gaps exist in the record due to civil unrest created by the power struggles going on among factions of the Rameside family.  We do know, however, that when Seti II warred against Amenmesse, who ruled at Thebes for at least two year, Paneb’s adoptive father, Neferhotep then a man of about 80 years, was killed, which opened the way for Paneb to rise to the position of Foreman.

 Known simply as “The Village” to its inhabitants, Deir el Medina was a planned, walled, community of townhouses established during the reign of Amenhotep I.  Housing was assigned according to rank and rank dictated where on the hill above the village one could construct one’s tomb.  The village was totally dependent on royal administrators working under the Southern Vizier for its food, materials, and water.  There has been much debate among scholars as to whether the movements of the villagers were restricted, whether they were allowed to own property outside the village or work outside the village on their own time. Mr. Berens noted that surviving documentation seems to favor a reasonable amount of freedom of movement.

 The socio-economic status of the villages is also a debated issue among scholars.  The work strikes during the reign of Ramses III indicate that the villagers had a certain exalted status in the eyes of the administration.  The more talented artists and workmen are known to have made extra money creating funerary equipment and preparing funerary papyri on commission for outsiders.  Many owned fields and animals outside the village.  Paneb’s adoptive father, Neferhotep, is known to have been quite a wealthy man, wearing fine linen garments, drinking wine vice beer and prosperous enough to slaughter a cow for food from time to time.  Paneb inherited this wealth.  In fact, Amunnakht, states in his accusations, that Paneb used this newly acquired wealth to bribe the Vizier. 

 The village had its own court, the qnbt, on which Paneb sat as a magistrate.  If dissatisfied with a ruling from the qnbt, a villager could appeal to the deified Amenhotep I and his mother Ahmose Nefertari for judgment.  It was also possible to appeal to the Vizier directly if one could afford to pay a scribe to write the letter of appeal.

 Work gangs were organized into two cadres of 16 men each responsible for one side of the tomb.  They were responsible for tunneling the tombs into the limestone hillsides and plastering the walls for the skilled draftsmen, painters and sculptors who followed them.  They worked in both the “Great Place” (Valley of the Kings), and the “Place of Beauty” (Valley of the Queens).  Rosters were kept by the scribe of the tomb and all absences, injuries and illnesses were noted, as well as “excused” absences for such things as preparation for festivals, work assignments to other tombs, deaths in the family, and religious observances.

 Everything required to complete the work of tomb building – food, fire wood, tools, timbers for scaffolding, etc., - had to be carried over the mountain or through the guarded entrances into the valleys.  Tools were the property of the state and were recorded and weighted at time of issue and time of return.  Blunted tools were sent to the Ramesseum workshops for recasting when necessary.  The building of a king’s tomb began almost immediately after he was crowned.  Mr. Berens noted that one has a greater appreciation for the work done by these small crews when it is known that during the years that Paneb and Hay were Foremen, their crews removed 1170 tons of stone during the building of Seti II’s tomb and 2160 tons during the building of Siptah’s tomb, both of which are relatively small in comparison to some of the colossal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

 Sometime during the period between Pharaoh Merenptah’s death and the first year of Seti II’s reestablished reign, half the workforce at Deir el Medina disappeared from the village roles.  Thus documentation related to the village during the 18th Dynasty comes mainly from what is recorded in tombs.  After the end of the Amarna period, when Horemheb came to the throne and restored the village, ostraca and papyri once again survive.

 The first attestations to Paneb appear in year 66 of the reign of Ramses II, when Paneb and his wife, Wabet, swore an oath for payment of household goods.  Their eldest son, ‘Apahte, is also mentioned in this document. In addition Paneb and Wabet had at least three other sons and six daughters all of whom are attested in his tomb.   Paneb built his tomb high on the hillside above Deir el Medina, probably during the reign of Merneptah, but there are strong indications that he was constructing a much larger and more spectacular tomb which was likely never completed and is today unidentified.

 There are no datable records of Paneb during the reigns of Merenptah or Amenmesse save the charges filed by Amunnakht recorded in Salt Papyrus 124 which refer to this period.  He was, however, named as Foreman on an ostraca dated to year 5 of the reign of Seti II.  Amunnakht accused Paneb of having bribed the Vizier with several belonging from the estate of his deceased adoptive father, Neferhotep, to get the post.  Mr. Berens noted that the word for “bribe” in this document is the same as the Arabic term, “bakhsheesh”, which can also be construed as a “gift”.  It was customary for gifts to be sent regularly to the Vizier by the villages and villagers are known to have bribed scribes and foreman to get jobs for their children or favorable judgments in disputes.  For example, silver chisels were given to the Vizier after the reduction of the work force following the death of Ramses IV by the grateful workmen who were retained.

 As Foreman, Paneb served as a magistrate of the court and a member of the village council of elders who administered the village for the royal administration.  The Foremen and the Scribe of the Tomb were often called upon to witness legal and monetary transactions.  Several notable cases occurred with Paneb serving as magistrate, including a trial for the theft of state and temple property during the war between Seti II and Amenmesse, and a slander trial brought against a workmen accusing him of cursing the reigning king.  Only two instances survive of Foremen being brought before the qnbt, one of which is, of course that charged filed against Paneb by Amunnakht.

 Five kinds of charges are found in the document:

  • Anti-social behavior: including drunkenness, threats made against members of the community, assault of villagers and/or their servants, and adultery;
  • Malfeasance in office: including bribery, violating his oath of office, misuse of state property and labor;
  • Murder: with accusations which would equate to both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter in modern criminal terms;
  • Theft of state property and tomb robbery;
  • Sacrilege: including theft of temple and tomb offerings, impiety before the mummy of a deified king, and hindering villagers from performing their obligations to the gods and the dead.

Amunnakht also accused Paneb of ethical abuses, which while not criminal are designed to point to his unworthiness for his office.

 Mr. Berens noted that the text of the accusations rambles and appears to have been dictated to a scribe who did his best to take down every word Amunnakht, who would have been and old man at the time Papyrus 124 was written, had to say.  Rancor spills from this document; Amunnakht clearly felt he had been wronged.  The Foremanship of the right side of the tomb had been in his family for three generations before Paneb received the post.

 A closer look at the charges against Paneb reveals that the charges of drunkenness, threats, assaults and adultery are the least serious cited, and are included to demolish Paneb’s character in the eyes of the Vizier.  Such behavior runs counter to the teachings of the Old and Middle Kingdom sages taught in the village schools but are ethical infractions in the eyes of the law, not crimes.

 Paneb is accused of debauching three village wives, all of whom are married to men in his own crew.  This charge is a typical device in ancient Egyptian law cases.  Similar charges occur in several other cases and the number of women seduced is always three.  In fact the indictment against Paneb is mirrored almost exactly in charges against the priest Pennanuqet lodged during the reign of Ramses IV/V.

 Amunnakht cited several instances of Paneb’s drunken rages complete with all the lurid details of each event.  Interestingly none of these occurrences show up in any of the records of qnbt proceedings. 

 The charges of malfeasance in office begin with a charge of bribery, which has already been referenced in our earlier discussion of “bakhsheesh”.  Added to this is the making of furniture for the deputy of the temple of Amun – likely another gift in return for rations.  Amunnakht also lists workmen being used to plaster Paneb’s tomb, paint his sarcophagus and construct other burial furnishings.  As records exist for a number of other village elders using workmen to do these same tasks for them, it can be assumed that this was one of the ‘perks’ of the office.  The work appears in the official work logs, so had to have been sanctioned by the administration.

 Murder is the vaguest of the charges against Paneb.  The charge merely says “..and (yet) it was him who killed those men that they might not bring message to Pharaoh”.  It is difficult to believe that a man could commit such wholesale murder in such a small and compact village without anyone else knowing about it.

 Charges of theft of state property and tomb robbing are serious charges against a man in Paneb’s position.  “Servants in the Place of Truth” swore an oath to each reigning Pharaoh to be honest and report any wrongdoing to the Vizier on pain of severe punishment and banishment.  We know Paneb was censured for having used stone from a wall that was taken down in the tomb of Seti II, to build a column in his own tomb, but he apparently continued in office after the incident.  No other records of wrong doing commensurate with the charge exist.

 Amunnakht also accused him of plundering royal tombs though the accusation is disjointed and not well enough substantiated to conclusively point to theft.  We know that Paneb did a bit of exploring in the valley as he left graffito in several places he investigated.  It seems unlikely, however, that he would have done so if he was also robbing the tombs.

 He is also charged with removing tools from the valley to use in his own tomb.  Many records of qnbt proceedings involve tools and proof by workmen that they had purchased them for their own use.  Mr. Berens postulated that Paneb was, as with the stone, likely pushing the limits of his privileges where tools were concerned and may, in fact, have borrowed some, as he seems to have hidden a missing axe so that it would conveniently be found.

 The gods were also victims of Paneb, according to Amunnakht.  Sacrilege and impiety are the final charges he makes against the Foreman, stating that he stole wine, incense and oil from the king’s funerary temple, sat on the king’s sarcophagus, and a variety of other acts which Amunnakht considered to profane the temple and offend the gods.  We know that one of the jobs of the elders of the village was to tidy up burials and clear old burials for use by new members of the community.  The charges stated, could have easily fallen within this category.

 We are left with many questions about Paneb.  Did Amunnakht’s charges ever actually reach the Vizier? There are indications that Paneb was likely defiant and careless in aspects of his life and job execution, and likely pushed the limits of his privileges, but no court records exist indicating that he was ever officially tried.  Although we know he was censured at one point, he did not lose his position as Foreman.  His son is attested as Deputy Foreman as late as year 5 of the reign of Ramses III, even though Paneb has disappeared from the record by then.  Had Paneb died a natural death in the meantime?  Though Amunnakht’s accusations may have unseated Paneb, he was not awarded the position.  A man by the name of Anakht, from an entirely different family, became Foreman after Paneb. 

 Mr. Berens summarized by noting that Pascal Vernus cited a “crisis of values” at the end of the Rameside period.  The Foremanship of Paneb can be seen as one of the first symptoms of this crisis.  The long reign of Ramses II, coupled with his astounding fertility, created rivalries among his many offspring regard who had the best claim to the throne.  Cadet branches of the family seized the opportunity to press their own claims resulting in rival Pharaoh’s in the north and south.  Opportunism replaced law.  After Paneb’s time, Egypt was ruled by a steady stream of kings who called themselves Ramses, each of whom became progressively weaker as the country sank into foreign invasions, strikes, tomb robbery and attempted assignations of kings.  Paneb’s offenses pale in comparison to the intrigues going on at all levels of the official administrative hierarchy.  Mr. Berens postulated that Paneb was likely an opportunist with a self-destructive personality, but probably no more than a bully and braggart with an alcohol problem.  His mode of operations seems to have consisted of taking small, portable objects when the opportunity arose, and even returning them on the sly if the need arose.  Charges of murder were probably a gross exaggeration.  Many of the characters in the village of Deir el Medina are “unsavory” characters.  One, Qeniherkopeschef comes across in the literature as an effete, pseudo-intellectual who accepted bribes to cover up misdemeanor crimes, and Amunnakht himself seems a shrill complainer prone to embellishing the facts to make his case.