5 Historical Time & Attendance Complaints

There are lots of potted histories of “Time and Attendance” online, and most of them pinpoint the relevant start of our industry to be the rise of factory and shift work in the 19th century and the invention of Bundy’s time clock.

However, people have held jobs throughout recorded history, and surely behaved much the same!

We thought it would be interesting to find a few more ancient records of people being beholden to workplace schedules and paperwork.

1250BC – Ancient Egyptian Attendance Records

Here’s a surprise – this is not about the pyramids!

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Image taken by Djehouty, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The site in question, Deir el-Medina, was essentially employer-provided accommodation for the workers who built the rock-cut royal tombs of the era.

Very detailed records were kept of workers’ individual attendance.

From these, modern scholars have been able to deduce that they received pay even if they were off sick, and even that their daily commute gave them arthritis!

You can see an example of one of these fragmented records here.

Some of the absence reasons given include building their house, dealing with their mother’s death, and being ill.

2nd century AD Sundial Woes (supposedly preserving 2nd century BC)

The gods confound the man who first found
How to distinguish hours! Confound him too
Who in this place set up a sundial
To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small portions! When I was a boy,
My belly was my sundial: one more sure,
Truer, and more exact than any of them.
This dial told me when it was time
To go to dinner, when I had anything to eat;
But nowadays, why even when I have,
I can’t fall-to unless the sun gives leave.
The town’s so full of these confounded dials,
The greatest part of its inhabitants,
Shrunk up with hunger, creep along the streets.

This fantastic quote about the cruelties of assigned meal-times as measured by the sun dial is from a book called Attic Nights.

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This book supposedly preserves this verse of Boeotia by playwright Plautus, several hundred of years earlier.

Perhaps not our most factual source, but it’s still interesting to see how ancient creative minds played with concepts like time-keeping.

Medieval Monks’ Annotations

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Example of an illuminated manuscript, by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash

In the linked amusing collection of monks’ complaints about their scribal copying drudgery, we see several related to time passing and attendance to their assigned work.

“Thank God, it will soon be dark”

“While I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight.”


The first suggests that this monk stopped his work at nightfall.

However, the second annotation suggests that this other monk had to work until his copying was done, working eventually by candlelight in the darkness.

Two different workplace approaches, perhaps?

14th century – Mason Job-Completion Marks

Medieval stone masons were in wide demand for the building and repair of huge structures such as cathedrals.

Piecemeal work was the norm – like modern individual jobs and projects.

If employers were paying by the jobs that had been completed, rather than by the workers’ daily attendance, the masons needed a way to make it clear what they had managed to do.

Masons marked their stone to let the paymaster know how much work they had done.

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Stonemason’s marks, on the bottom of the Caledonian Canal
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Craig Wallace – geograph.org.uk/p/6086979

Its existence is very neatly proven by comparing two sets of cathedral payments.

Lincoln cathedral contracted with a mason to build the upper part of the crossing tower in 1306 and specified that the plain work, that is the walling stone, was to be costed by measure and the more complex work by the day. The stone blocks of the tower are covered in masons’ marks.

Exeter cathedral, by contrast, paid its masons regular wages during the great rebuilding that lasted from c.1280 – 1350, and there are no marks to be seen on the masonry erected during that period.


This strategy continued right up until the 19th century. This days masons may still mark their completed stones, but as a signature rather than a demand for payment.

1825 – Gardener Time-Books

John Claudius Loudon, a Scottish botanist, garden designer and author, published a book in 1825 on all aspects of managing large-scale landscaping.

This included how to manage the workforce, with this fascinating titbit about a very early usage of “time-books”:

The master inserts the name of every hand; and the foreman of each department inserts the time in days, or proportions of a day, which each person under his care has been at work, and the particular work he or she has been engaged in.
At the end of each week the master sums up the time from the preceding Saturday or Monday, to the Friday or Saturday inclusive; the sum due or to be advanced to each man is put in one column, and when the man receives it he writes the word received in the column before it, and signs his name as a receipt in the succeeding column.
The time-book, therefore, will show what every man has been engaged in during every hour in the year for which he has been paid, and it will also contain receipts for every sum, however trifling, which has been paid by the gardener for garden-labour.

An Encyclopædia of Gardening (1860): page 506 (1672)
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Here is the most recognisable example of hourly time-sheets!

We might expect this from the most modern of them all, but it is interesting to see something so methodical in gardening, as far away from the urban industrial revolution as could be!

Still, if the Ancient Egyptians could have daily pay and absence records, should we really be so surprised?

Hopefully this little post has enlightened you on historical ways to manage the workplace.

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