The Great Pit
1. Pharaoh's workers : the villagers of Deir el-Medina / edited by Leonard H. Lesko
Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1994.
2. James, T.G.H.: Pharaoh's people : scenes from life in Imperial Egypt
New York : Tauris Parke, 2003.
3. Romer, John: Ancient lives : the story of the Pharaoh's tombmakers
London : Phoenix, 1984.
4. McDowell, A.G.: Village life in ancient Egypt : laundry lists and love songs
Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1999.
5. Théby : město bohů a faraónů = Thebes : city of gods and pharaohs / Jana Mynářová & Pavel
Onderka (eds.)
Praha : Národní Museum, 2007.
Rock shrine
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North of the Ptolemaic temple, just before the opening of the valley, lies the second largest feature of
Deir el-Medina (the first largest being the Ptolemaic temple) : an enormous pit measuring over 50 metres
deep and 30 metres wide. It is generally thought that the ancient inhabitants of Deir el-Medina
attempted to dig a well here in search of a convenient supply of water. The search was not successful,
the water-table of the Nile being much lower than it was possible to dig and so water had to continue
being transported by donkeys from the agricultural land several hundred meters away.
During archaeological excavations Bruyère dated the current form of the pit to Ptolemaic times but
two documents of the 20th dynasty record successive attempts to dig to the water level from a
locations north of the village. Since there are not other very deep holes in this area, those
Ramesside attempts must have been made at the same location.
When the attempts to find water were
finally abandoned the vast hole was
used as a rubbish pit and was filled
with debris which included hundreds of
ostraka. The pit was the richest
source of both hieratic and figured
ostraka found in the area of the
A rock-cut staircase spiralling
down the walls of the pit gives
access to the bottom.
View of the pit looking from east
towards west. The chapels north
of the enclosure wall of the
Ptolemaic temple are below the
cliffs on the left.
View of the pit looking from
south towards north standing
just outside the chapels situated
north of the enclosure wall of
the Ptolemaic temple.
Although the river now flows at a considerable distance from the settlement, it has altered its course
several times since antiquity.  Napoleon's cartographers at the end of the 18th century, mapped the main
course as being much closer to the western hills than it is at present.
Water points were established at places
around the settlement, and big pottery
containers were provided to hold water. From
those points water would be distributed to
individual houses within the village.
In modern times the water points
still fulfill their function as seen in
these pictures taken in February
2007. The left image comes from
Deir el-Medina itself, the image
below comes from the road leading
from Deir el-Medina on the
crossroads towards Medinet Habu
and the Valley of the Queens.
The first document dates to year 15 of Ramesses III (1182-1151 BC). A depth of 22.4 metres (43
cubits) was reached without finding water and the project was stopped.

1. Ostrakon DeM 92

Year 15, fourth month of winter, day 12. List of all the work done in the well:
previously              36 1/2 cubits
work subsequently      6 1/2 cubits
total                    43

The second document dates most probably to the reign of Ramesses VI (1141-1133 BC). The workmen
tried to find the water supply again. This time, a professional surveyor was brought in to calculate the
remaining distance to the water table. The sacred lake of the Ramesseum served as a reference point.
The total depth of the water table was established to be over 31.5 metres (over 60 cubits).

2. Papyrus Turin 1923 (+ fragments)

Year 2 (or 3), second month of summer, day 15. This day, the chief builder [...] of the estate of
Amun arrived to measure the well in front of [...] the Necropolis to the water surface (of) the lake of
the Ramesseum:
from the lake to the Enclosure of the Necropolis:           elevation [...] cubits
from the Necropolis to the well:                                           26 cubits 5 palms
total:                                                                         60 + X
The difference makes 22 cubits 5 palms to the water surface.
So one shall dig 10 to [...] the water.
Total:                                                                          22 cubits 5 palms
An excerpt from Jaroslav Černý's lecture held in Cairo on April 4th 1932 (the manuscript of which is held
at the Archive of the Ancient Near East and Africa Department, National Museum - Náprstek Museum,
Prague, Czech Republic):

"Water represents a great expenditure during the excavations. Deir el-Medina lies completely in the
desert - the nearest tree is about a quarter of an hour. The ancient Egyptians had tried to dig a well in
the vicinity of the temple of Deir el-Medina, but even at a depth of 60 meters they reached no water.
Therefore all water for washing, cooking and drinking has to be transported from the well located down in
the plain close to Medinet Habu. The well belongs to our chief workman Hassan Khalif. He gives us water
for free, but we must pay the man who pump it from the well, and the donkeys, who transport it up to our
house every day from morning till evening. The expenses for water reach, if I am not mistaken, 30 crowns
a day. The lion's share of this sum ends up in the pocket of our reis anyway, as the donkeys belong to him
and he pays the man who pumps, and he certainly does not give him all that he charges us for him."
Professor of Egyptology Dr. Jaana Toivari-Viitala from University of Helsinki posted a note on the
EEF in June 2009 that Guillemette Andreau gave a presentation during the congress in Rhodes a year
ago where she said, that the IFAO & Louvre were working on texts from the Great Pit.
The text on this page was written by Lenka Peacock
Photography © Lenka and Andy Peacock
The page was last updated on February 25th 2010