Death by Nile: Punishing Policemen at Deir el-Medina

By Jennifer Cromwell

Three papyri from the village Deir el-Medina, dating to the late New Kingdom, reveal a shocking event: the punishment of two policemen – medjay – with death by drowning in the Nile. Each letter is written from “the general of Pharaoh”, by his scribe Qenkhnum, to three people: the Scribe of the Necropolis, Tjaroy; the agent/controller (Egyptian rwDw) Payshuweben; and the head of the harem of Amun-Re, the lady Nodjmet. In the letter to Tjaroy, the general writes:

I’ve taken note of all matters you wrote to me about. As for the mention you made of this matter of these two policemen saying, ‘They spoke these words’, join up with Nodjmet and Payshuweben, as well, and they shall send word and have these two policemen brought to this (i.e., my) house and get to the bottom of their charges in short order. If it is determined that they are true, you shall put them in two baskets and they shall be thrown into the water by night – but don’t let anybody in the land find out!”

P.Berlin P.10487, letter to Tjaroy. Late Ramesside Letter 21, translation slightly modified from Wente (1990, 183)
P.Berlin.P10478 (recto – first ten lines of the letter to Tjaroy). Photo of the papyrus from Janssen, Late Ramesside Letters and Communications, pl. 50; transcription from Čern‎ý‎‎, Late Ramesside Letters, pp. 36–37 [no. 21]

While each letter is slightly different, one with more personal enquiries another with reference to other business matters, this instruction regarding the two unnamed policemen is the same in each one. But what had the two men done to warrant such a course of action? As is often the case in letters, the key details, which were well known to the writer and recipient, are not stated directly. Instead, the policemen’s words are referred to obliquely: “They spoke these words”. But what words? 
The medjay fulfilled a number of roles at Deir el-Medina (‘policeman’ is a convenient rather than accurate translation). They were guards of the necropolis, were responsible for maintaining law and order, could serve on tribunals and deliberate with village officials, and also served as a point of contact between the community and central authorities, delivering messages to and from the village. These men were therefore privy to confidential information, potentially relating to the highest authorities in the land. Were they guilty of leaking secrets, whether through indiscretion or acting as informants, and were punished? If this were the case, why weren’t they formally tried and sentenced? The clandestine nature of the investigation reported in these letters – taking place at the general’s house and being drowned at night without witnesses – suggests something else may be taking place. Had the men instead made charges against Tjaroy, Payshuweben, and Nodjmet, who were now taking action to silence them? Either way, as the ‘words’ in question were confidential (or damning), they could not be repeated in these letters and so anybody who read the letters – including the modern reader – is none the wiser, unless they had access to other sources of information. 
And why death by drowning in the Nile? If murder, why not make the deaths look like an accident on the mountain – a fateful slip, or a fight that resulted in fatal wounds? There may be evidence for drowning as an official punishment at this time, if this is how ‘taken to the river bank’ is to be understood in texts from Deir el-Medina. But apart from any pragmatic advantages that drowning may have – the bodies would be carried away by the current and eaten by animals, leaving no evidence ­– there is another aspect of such deaths. The destruction of the body also meant the loss of an afterlife, and so the punishment was not only of this world but also of the next.
A final point about these three letters is that they are the only papyri from Deir el-Medina that were found with their original seal attached. They had been intentionally kept together, having been rolled up and tied by a linen strip with a clay seal. Perhaps after the punishment had been enacted, the letters were reunited and put in a safe place, ready to be brought out in case the bodies were found and the parties involved needed to defend themselves against accusations of murder.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Deir el-Medina.
Date: Late New Kingdom; dated by Wente to year 10 of the whm nswt (‘Renaissance’) of Rameses XI (so year 28 of his reign, ca. 1080 BCE).
Language: Late Egyptian, written in hieratic.
Collection: Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussamlung, Berlin (P.Berlin P.10487, 10488, 10489). Bought together in 1912.
Designation: Late Ramesside Letter 21 (10487), 34 (10488), and 35 (10489).
Bibliography: Jaroslav Čern‎ý‎‎ (1939), Late Ramesside Letters (Brussels: Édition de la Foundation égyptologique Reine Élisabeth);‎‎ Adolf Erman (1913), Ein Fall abgekiirzter Justiz in Agypten. Abhandlungen der Kiniglich-PreuBischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, philosophisch-historische Klasse (Berlin: Verlag der K6niglichen Akademie der Wissenschaften); Jac Janssen (1991), Late Ramesside Letters and Communications (London: British Museum Press); Edward Wente (1969), Late Ramesside Letters (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), available as a pdf here; Edward Wente (1990), Letters from Ancient Egypt (Atlanta: Scholars Press).

Some Further reading:
Benedict G. Davies (2018), Life within the Five Walls. A Handbook to Deir El-Medina (Wallasey: Abercromby Press); see the entry on “Medjayu” (pp 184–187).
Kerry Muhlestein (2005), “Death by Water: The Role of Water in Ancient Egypt’s Treatment of Enemies and Juridical Process,” in L’Acqua Nell’antico Egitto: Vita, Rigenerazione, Incantesimo, Medicamento, edited by Alessia Amenta, Michela Luiselli, and Maria Novell (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider), 173–179.
Torgny Säve-Söderbergh (1992–92), “A Stela of a Rameside Policeman,” Orientalia Suecana 41–42: 273–275, which you can read online here.

Stela of Korka – the only known monument of a medjay from western Thebes. Today in Uppsala University museum, Sweden; see Säve-Söderbergh, ‘A Stela of a Rameside Policeman’

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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