Creaky joints, sick leave, endless paperwork: Ancient Egyptian health care sounds surprisingly familiar.
When archaeologist Anne Austin began to explore an ancient Egyptian village where residents were beneficiaries of what she calls “the world’s first documented health-care plan,” she was immediately struck by one thing in particular.
“There was definitely a lot of paperwork we still don’t understand the purpose of, or why it has the level of detail that it does,” Austin told The Post, noting that exacting documentation of worker sick days, for example, is not always reflected by a deduction in their pay. “It seems like they were documenting things because they had to record them, but not necessarily because they planned to use the information.”
Endless stacks of medical paperwork serving no particular purpose, you say?
Tedious bureaucracy wasn’t the only parallel Austin found between ancient Egyptian health care and the modern world.
The more the Stanford scholar dug into the lives of the highly skilled craftsmen hired to build tombs for Egyptian pharaohs, not far from the modern city of Luxor, the more similarities she found. Workers who spent their weeks away from home in a village now called Deir el-Medina could take “paid sick leave” or “visit a clinic for a checkup,” Austin said. During the 19th dynasty of Egypt and the 12th (1292-1077 BCE), when workers were primarily housed in the area, there were even two separate health-care networks at Deir el-Medina, Austin told the Stanford News. The first was a “professional state-subsidized network” for workers; the other was a private network for family and friends.
“What surprised me was seeing the ways people who were associated with the workmen were provided for,” Austin said. “There is evidence to suggest work men would get time off to take care of wives and daughters when they were menstruating.”
“For decades,” according to a Stanford news release, “Egyptologists have seen evidence of these health-care benefits in the well preserved written records from the site.” But Austin was the first to lead a “detailed study of human remains at the site.”
Despite many of the workers being skilled artists who were well-treated and compensated with rations, Austin — a postdoctoral scholar in Stanford’s history department and a specialist in osteo-archaeology — was able to determine that the grueling work took a serious toll on the men’s bodies.
Making the weekly hike from their family homes to a temporary work camp in Deir el-Medina was equivalent to climbing the Great Pyramid of Giza, due to steep changes in elevation. Their daily trek, with gear and equipment, into the Valley of the Kings and back, was the same as descending and ascending a 36-story building, Austin said. Today, the distance is about 1,000 stone steps.
“Arthritis is something you could easily see in the bones,” Austin said. “It was mostly concentrated in the workers’ knees and ankles.”
And yet, despite access to “uniquely comprehensive health care,” workers didn’t always take advantage of it, Austin said. One man continued working despite suffering from a condition known as osteomyelitis, the result of a blood-borne infection. Austin was able to determine the man had the condition by studying his mummified remains.
“The remains suggest that he would have been working during the development of this infection,” Austin told Stanford News. This suggested that the man might have felt pressure to continue. “Rather than take time off, for whatever reason, he kept going,” she said.
Austin plans to return to Egypt in March to continue to studying mummified remains. She aims to explore a new tomb and identify new diseases that ancient Egyptian workers may have suffered from.