The British Museum houses a tablet which provides a peek into work-life balance in ancient Egypt. It documents the number of sick days and why 40 workers took time off from their workplace in 1250 BC. All sorts of fascinating reasons have been given for why people were away from their work, including a note about someone named Buqentuf, who needed time off for embalming and wrapping the corpse of his dead mother.
The limestone tablet was found at Deir el-Medina (Thebes). It has New Egyptian hieratic script on it, with the text written in red and black ink. The writing covers both sides of the tablet, and the days of workers’ absence are marked by season and number, such as “month 4 of Winter, day 24.” This is useful information for researchers who want to know more about the administrative side of life in Egypt. For others, there’s the human-interest angle. They want to know why people were absent from work.
A limestone ostracon from ancient Egypt listing workers and their reasons for being absent from work on certain dates . (The Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
Like Buqentuf, several other workers also had to take time off to embalm and wrap their dead relatives. As we see today, family obligations and illness were the most common reasons why people had to take sick leave. Some workers, such as a man named Pennub, missed work because their mothers were ill. Others had causes that we wouldn’t expect to hear as often today, such as men who stayed home to help around the house due to a “wife or daughter bleeding” – a reference to menstruation.
Of course, people had to deal with their own health and manage their illnesses as well. For example, someone called Huynefer was frequently “suffering with his eye” and the scribe noted that a man named Seba couldn’t work after being bitten by a scorpion.
A person named Aapehti was said to have been ill on a regular basis and also took time off when he was “making offerings to god” – perhaps to improve his health? Illness was the most frequently recorded reason for sick leave, it appears over a hundred times on the tablet.
Workers also took days off when they had to perform tasks for their superiors – which was apparently permitted in moderate amounts. For example, Amenmose was allowed time away from work when he was “fetching stones for the scribe.”
Finally, there’s another reason people often had to excuse themselves from work – brewing beer. While this may sound like nothing more than a strange excuse for people to go out drinking, beer was an important beverage in ancient Egypt. It was a fortifying drink for people to consume daily and it was associated with some of their gods and rituals!
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