Just outside the walls of their village, the wealthiest workers at Deir el-Medina built their own tombs—albeit on a much smaller scale than those they constructed for the pharaohs. While the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings could cover 4,000 square feet and could hold 100 bodies, the 200-square-foot tombs of the workers at Deir el-Medina served as the resting place for only four to six people, including children who died young.

The workers’ tombs were typically marked by small, steep brick pyramids topped by a stone pyramidion, or miniature pyramid, as shown in a reconstructed tomb from Deir el-Medina (above).a These pyramids contained a tiny aboveground chapel in which were recorded the images and names of the persons buried in the crypt below. A shaft dug in the small courtyard in front of the chapel led to the tomb, where brilliantly colored portraits of the deceased and their relations covered the walls and ceiling of the vaulted burial chambers.

The painting below, from the tomb of the worker Pashed, depicts a workman praying beneath a palm tree. Other tomb frescoes depicted the final rites of the mummy, the funeral procession and the meeting of the great gods of the afterlife—the sun god Re in his sun-bark; the bovine goddess Hathor, represented as a cow emerging from the western mountain; and the enthroned deity Osiris, god of the afterlife, overseeing the judgment of the deceased. Here homage was also paid to the patrons of the village—the deified Amenhotep I and his mother Queen Ahmose Nefertari.

One of the finest of the surviving tombs belonged to Sennedjem, a simple workman who was determined to lie in the splendor denied him by his earthly profession. The lush verdure of the paradise that he portrayed on the tomb walls, and that he imagined was awaiting him and his wife, contrasts sharply with the aridity of the region he lived in. In one fresco (below), the couple, dressed in white linen, receive water for cleansing, bread, and lotus flowers from the goddess Isis, who emerges from a holy sycamore tree. Rich burial goods, including the painted terracotta jar at left, accompanied Sennedjem to the underworld.

Sennedjem’s tomb and that of the workman Inherkau, which are now often open for viewing, astound the visitor with the brightness of their ancient pigments. Tourists often refuse to believe the colors have not been retouched, but the paintings are original.