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Contending with illness in ancient Egypt: A textual and osteological study of health care at Deir el-Medina


Archaeologists primarily address disease, illness, and health through biological studies of human remains. These studies convey physical suffering in the past, but without broader social context, they do not document how culture responds to illness. As a result, we lack explanations for the relationship between physiological health and social health care. To resolve this problem, it is necessary to develop a model for an archaeological investigation of health care that incorporates both biological and social factors to analyze not only how individuals died, but also what factors helped them to survive in the past.

This dissertation acts as a case study for an archaeology of health care through an investigation of the ancient Egyptian village of Deir el-Medina, the home of the workmen who built the royal tombs during the New Kingdom (1550 BCE-1080 BCE). I use an interdisciplinary approach that combines texts from the site with osteological data from the villagers' skeletal remains in order to document both the major stresses on health at the site and Deir el-Medina's health care networks.

I accomplish this through a bioarchaeological analysis of health using the systemic stress model. Comparisons between Deir el-Medina and other sites in Egypt as well as broader sites in the Western Hemisphere Project show that health was relatively high at Deir el-Medina, but that infectious disease and occupational stress were primary factors impacting the villagers' health.

The villagers at Deir el-Medina utilized a complex health care system in order to respond to these stresses. The ancient Egyptian government provided rations for medical professionals and subsidized sick leave for the workmen. These medical professionals would have used a logic of contamination to explain the transmission of disease and treat illnesses. In conjunction with this, personal networks involving reciprocal caretaking between colleagues and close family members ensured the sick had provisions and nursing.

This research offers evidence for one of the world's oldest documented health care systems. It demonstrates how illnesses were perceived and treated in ancient Egypt, and finally, it offers a model for an archaeology of health care.

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