What I think is really interesting about the papyrus account of the workers building the tomb of Rameses III going on strike to demand better wages is really fascinating to me because if you look at the description given by the royal scribe you see that there was an attempt to satisfy the workers by bringing a large amount of food at once but that was rebuffed by the workers who declared that it wasn’t just that they were hungry at the moment but had serious charges to bring that “something bad had been done in this place of Pharoah” (is poor wages and mistreatment). They understood themselves as having long term economic interests as a -class- and organized together knowing that by doing so they could put forward their demands collectively. It so strongly flies in the face of narratives that are like “in this Time and Place people were happy to be serve because they believed in the God-King and maybe you get some intellectual outliers but certainly no common person questioned that”. If historical sources might paint that sorta picture of cultural homogeneity it is because those sources sought not to describe something true but invent a myth for the stability of a regime.

Since this is getting notes here’s a link to a translation of the papyrus scroll and here’s an article that gets further into the economic situation surrounding the strike and giving an explanation of the events. The workers didnt just refuse to construct Rameses III’s future tomb, they actually occupied the Valley of the Kings and were preventing anyone from entering to perform rituals or funerals. Basically they set up the first ever recorded picket line

Again the workers went on strike, this time taking over and blocking all access to the Valley of the Kings. The significance of this act was that no priests or family members of the deceased were able to enter with food and drink offerings for the dead and this was considered a serious offense to the memory of those who had passed on to the afterlife. When officials appeared with armed guards and threatened to remove the men by force, a striker responded that he would damage the royal tombs before they could move against him and so the two sides were stalemated.

Eventually the tomb workers were able to win the day and acquire their demands and actually set a precedent for organized labor and strikes in Egyptian society that continued for a long time

The jubilee in 1156 BCE was a great success and, as at all festivals, the participants forgot about their daily troubles with dancing and drink. The problem did not go away, however, and the workers continued their strikes and their struggle for fair payment in the following months. At last some sort of resolution seems to have been reached whereby officials were able to make payments to the workers on time but the dynamic of the relationship between temple officials and workers had changed – as had the practical application of the concept of ma’at – and these would never really revert to their former understandings again. Ma’at was the responsibility of the pharaoh to oversee and maintain, not the workers; and yet the men of Deir el-Medina had taken it upon themselves to correct what they saw as a breach in the policies which helped to maintain essential harmony and balance. The common people had been forced to assume the responsibilities of the king.


The success of the tomb-worker/artisan strikes inspired others to do the same. Just as the official records of the battle with the Sea Peoples never recorded the Egyptian losses in the land battle, neither do they record any mention of the strikes. The record of the strike comes from a papyrus scroll discovered at Deir el-Medina and most probably written by the scribe Amennakht. The precedent of workers walking away from their jobs was set by these events and, although there are no extant official reports of other similar events, workers now understood they had more power than previously thought. Strikes are mentioned in the latter part of the New Kingdom and Late Period and there is no doubt the practice began with the workers at Deir el-Medina in the time of Ramesses III.

There was also a strike at one point where construction workers refused to continue until they were given sufficient “cosmetics.”

This was thought a highly strange thing until somebody deciphered the recipe for the “cosmetics” the workers were demanding and recreated it.

It was sunscreen. Sunscreen

Making that the first recorded strike over occupational safety.