This ancient Egyptian villain of our story was a man called Paneb, and he was born in the workman’s village of Deir el-Medina around 1244 BC during the reign of the great Pharaoh Ramses II. Deir el-Medina was a unique community set in a hollow of the cliffs on the west bank of the Nile at ancient Thebes, peopled by the workmen who cut and decorated the magnificent tombs of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings and their families.
Our bad boy Paneb was one of these workman, and he would have worked long hours in the dark, hot, stuffy conditions of the pharaoh’s tomb. Paneb had been raised in the home of his adopted father Neferhotep, who had also generously provided Paneb with his education. At Deir el-Medina, jobs were passed down from father to son, and Paneb succeeded to Neferhotep’s coveted position as one of the two foremen of the gangs of workmen in the Valley of the Kings. Paneb, however, was not the type of guy who would repay these kindnesses with the respect and consideration due to his adopted father.
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Papyrus Salt 124 was probably initially found at Deir el-Medina and it arrived in the British Museum from the collection of the early 19th century collector and Egyptologist, Henry Salt, who had obtained it in the Luxor area. Putting an exact date on the papyrus is problematical, although a clue comes from a later recorded event where one of Paneb’s descendants in year 29 of the pharaoh Ramses III referred to Paneb’s trial taking place during the time of the Vizier Hori.
However, Hori fulfilled the office of Vizier from the reign of the pharaoh Siptah through to the reign of Ramses III, a period of many years. The first translation of the papyrus was not released until 1870, when it was published by François Chabas with a short summary, and the first translation into English was in 1929 by Jaroslav Cerny. Papyrus Salt 124 is in the form of a letter to the Vizier of the day, Hori, and consists of a list of accusations against Paneb all designed to let the Vizier know that Paneb was not fit to hold the post of foreman in the Valley of the Kings. The letter was written by a scribe called Amenakht, who, as he was Paneb’s adoptive father’s brother and believed that the post of foreman should have been his, was not what we might have called an uninterested and unbiased party.
One of the bitterest accusations in the papyrus is that Paneb had violated the Lady Yemyemwah against her will on top of a wall, which was very unwise of Paneb if it was true, as this lady was Amenakht’s sister. He also managed to fit in a very lengthy affair with a lady of the village called Hunro, who herself had gone through three different husbands in this time. One of Paneb’s sons, who was called Aapakhte, was almost as disreputable as his father and even got involved in some of his exploits with the ladies.
By this time the area around the ancient city of Thebes was very unsettled, with the Pharaoh Seti II fighting for dominance in the region with Amenmesse, although evidence shows that Amenmesse did gain control over Thebes for several years during Seti II’s reign. Whether Paneb was involved in this incident is not known, but it was alleged that Paneb had bribed the Vizier Pra’emhab with a gift of five of Neferhotep’s servants in order to persuade him to give him Neferhotep’s job as foreman.
He also allegedly took a chariot cover, a statue, and some fine oil, incense and wine that belonged to pharaoh. In the Valley of the Kings the tools used by the workers were very valuable, but that did not deter Paneb from taking them and even breaking one before he could return it. It seemed as though he used the workmen as his own personal workforce, as he made them build a plaited bed for him and also made their wives weave clothes for him.
Paneb was also accused of tomb robbing, which was regarded as a very serious crime because to disturb the eternal rest of a pharaoh was regarded as sacrilege. His rebellious act of sitting on the sarcophagus of Seti II, would have been seen as a hugely disrespectful act. Among the objects that he purloined from tombs supposedly included a mummified goose from the tomb of one of Ramses II’s daughters and a bed and other funerary articles from the tomb of a fellow worker called Nakhtmin.
This chief could well have been Paneb, but as there is no name mentioned on the ostraca, it may not have been him. Also this would have meant that Paneb would have been around 67 when he was executed, which was a very great age for an ordinary Ancient Egyptian worker. Paneb is also known from his damaged tomb in the cliffs at Deir el-Medina and also from a carved offering table that would have once stood at the entrance of his tomb, so that his descendants could make their offerings to their deceased ancestor.