Anne Austen, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher in Stanford's history department, recently conducted the first detailed study of human remains at what is now called Deir el-Medina, an ancient town outside of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. She found that these Egyptians likely had state-sponsored health care with "modern" benefits like paid sick days and clinics. They also felt a strong pressure to do grueling work, yet took care of their disabled and infirm.
Austen works in the relatively new field of osteo-archaeology, which enables researchers to deduce details about people's daily lives from their skeletal remains. Archaeologists have always been interested in how remains are positioned relative to the rest of the site, but Austen tested the bones themselves to determine what diseases the people were experiencing, and then contextualized that information within the copious written records from Deir el-Medina in its heyday, when it was a bustling village of workers building the pyramids. She has added a new dimension to the picture of ancient medicine and care already gleaned from this uncommonly literate group's receipts, personal letters, bills, prayers, and lawsuits, found on shards of clay or scraps of papyrus.
During her current tenure in the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in the Humanities, she is continuing the PhD research she conducted in 2012 while at UCLA. In a Stanford News piece, she commented, "The more I learn about Egypt, the more similar I think ancient Egyptian society is to modern American society. Things we consider creations of the modern condition, such as health care and labor strikes, are also visible so far in the past."
Austin thinks that research about Egyptians is particularly compelling for thinking about today's questions of wellness and social responsibility because they thought of health and disease in ways surprisingly similar to our own. In contrast to the Greeks, who, as Austin points out in the article, thought of disease as an imbalance of the body's four fluid humors, Egyptians thought of disease as a contamination, a foreign substance that must be purged. This is essentially analogous to modern germ theory. Furthermore, they negotiated the question that underlies much current American discussion about healthcare: Who is responsible for whose health, and why? Austen explains:
At Deir el-Medina, we see two health care networks happening. There's a professional, state-subsidized network so the state can get what it wants – a nice tomb for the king. Parallel to this, there's a private network of families and friends. And this network has pressure to take care of its members, for fear of public shaming, such as being divorced for neglect or even disinherited.
Photo courtesy of Anne Austin