This 3,270-Year-Old Tablet Reveals Why Ancient Egyptians Skipped Work

Written By Wise Healthy n Wealthy

Did you know the British Museum has a 3,270-year-old tablet detailing why 40 employees in ancient Egypt missed work?

This limestone “ostracon” is a register of attendance from “Year 40 of Ramses II” that offers a fascinating (and sometimes amusing) glimpse into life in Thebes in 1250 BC.

Find out why workers didn’t show up to their shifts here…

Photo Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The Ostracon’s Contents

This incredible tablet is 38.5 cm high and 33 cm wide. The inscriptions cover both the front and back of it and are split into columns revealing employee names, dates, and words/phrases in red that detail why they missed work.

It covers 280 days of the year, with 24 lines of text on the front and 21 on the back. Here’s an example of an entry:

“Penduauu: month 1 of Spring, day 14 (drinking with Khonsu).” Then below that, “Hornefer: month 2 of Winter, day 13 (with his boss).”

From what the British Museum’s translations suggest, the names listed include Penduauu, Hornefer, Sawadjyt, Horemwia, Amennakht, Wadjmose, Hehnekhu, and Nakhy. There were 40 in total.

Here are the reasons (most of which featured numerous times) for their absences in the Year 40 of Ramses II, translated directly from the tablet:

  • Drinking with Khonsu
  • With his boss
  • His daughter was bleeding
  • Offering to the god
  • Libating to this father
  • Ill
  • Brewing beer
  • Wrapping the corpse of his mother
  • Fetching stone for the scribe
  • With the scribe
  • His mother was ill
  • Burying the god
  • Offering to his god
  • With Khons making remedies
  • Suffering with his eye
  • Embalming Hormose
  • Strengthening the door
  • His wife was bleeding
  • Embalming his brother
  • The scorpion bit him
  • His feast
  • Wrapping the corpse of his son

As you can tell, this was a diverse set of reasons for missing work!

Some are relatable, like being ill. Others sound crazy by today’s standards, such as missing work to brew beer (apparently, the importance of beer as a fortifying drink in Egypt made this a legitimate excuse for missing work).

And at least one (e.g., the scorpion bit him) provides an almost comical insight into where these people worked. Of course, more sobering was the number of times these men had to miss work to wrap the bodies of deceased loved ones.

The fact many were absent because “his wife/daughter was bleeding” (i.e., menstruating) suggests some of their workplace practices were quite progressive.

What about the most common reasons?

As you might expect, if you include eye problems and being stung by scorpions, illness is number one. It featured over a hundred times.

Next up was “with his boss.” This basically meant the employee was away doing private work for their superior. According to the British Museum, this practice was allowed, but only if they did it infrequently.

All told, this ostracon offers an amazing look at daily life for real people living over 3,000 years ago. Somehow, while differences definitely exist and things certainly change, it serves as a reassuring reminder that people, problems, and life as a whole stay pretty much the same.

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