Ancient Egyptian history didn’t just happen an awfully long time ago, but their civilisation also lasted an almost unimaginable length of time. It’s often noted that Cleopatra is closer to our time than she was to the time of the builders of the pyramids at Giza.
And the Egyptians knew it. They didn’t have tales of giants building the ancient monuments, they didn’t think it was some vanished race of superhumans, they knew that this was their ancestors constructing these buildings in the same way that their own king commissioned his own.
This is one of the ways that we know this – the vaguely pyramid shaped heap of stone on the left of the picture is the pyramid built by Unas, who ruled around 2350 BCE as the last king of the 5th Dynasty during the Old Kingdom.
And the cleaner looking slabs laid up against it are a (reconstructed) inscription commissioned by a man called Khaemwaset (who was one of the many, many sons of Ramesses II) around 1250 BCE during the 19th Dynasty in the New Kingdom.
The inscription talks about how he found that the pyramid was in ruin, so restored it and made sure that Unas’s name was on it once more. This ruined pyramid wasn’t just a heap of rubble to him, but was known to be the tomb of a specific king some 1200 years after it was built.
At first glance this is a collection of rather unprepossessing little objects. Squares of ivory, with a small hole and hieroglyphic sign or two etched onto the surface. They’re not terribly big, just about the size of the museum’s number for the objects.
And that juxtaposition illustrates what they are – they are labels. Very very old labels with some of the first evidence for the use of hieroglyphs. They were found in Tomb U-j at Abydos, which had been looted in the distant mists of time but some of the labels remained.
It’s thought that they were attached to the various funerary goods that were buried with the tomb’s owner. There are numbers on some of them, others are thought to name towns – including what looks like the names of a couple of towns in the Delta region far to the north.
It’s not entirely certain whose tomb this is, but it probably belongs to a ruler called Scorpion – probably not the one with the famous macehead but an earlier one, who may’ve unified Upper Egypt around 3150 BCE.
These are now in the Cairo Museum, but I don’t have accession numbers for them.
800 years after Hatshepsut built her temple at Deir el Bahri it was still in use as a temple, and also served as the final resting place for the Priests of Montu and their families. Tabakenkhonsu was the daughter of one of these priests and was probably married to another.
Her burial was found intact in 1894-5 by the Egypt Exploration Fund’s excavation and given to the Met Museum (acc. no.: 96.4.5) in exchange for their earlier funding. This photo is a detail of the bead shroud that was sewn onto the outer wrapping of her mummy inside her coffins.
The beads are made of faience, a manufactured ceramic which was used a lot by the ancient Egyptians, and they are strung together to make a lattice. Additional decoration is worked into the basic lattice, like the Four Sons of Horus protecting her abdomen and internal organs.
You can also see at the top of the photo a winged scarab, sitting over her heart like a scarab amulet would. I’m not sure (as the museum website doesn’t discuss her mummy) whether or not she would also have had amulets inside her wrappings or if this bead net replaced those.
In these rather splendid coffins was buried a woman called Nephthys, who held the title of Mayor’s Daughter and lived during the Middle Kingdom in the reigns of Senwosret I & Senwosret II (so around 4000 years ago). She was found in her coffins in an intact burial at Meir.
She wasn’t the original owner of the coffins – her name looks added into the inscription later, and previously the coffin was inscribed for a man called Ukhhotep. You can’t see it on this photo, but the text of the name is in a subtly different colour to the rest.
The outer coffin (box shaped) is made of wood – sycomore and ziziphus wood, which are both (I think!) found in Egypt. So not the highest quality of wood (that would be imported woods like cedar) but the planks look pretty straight and even so it was an expensive coffin.
The inner coffin is made of cartonnage (which is like papier-mâché but made with linen and plaster) and has a gilded face, and a broad collar made of inlaid stones. I particularly like the colour of the gold, which gives the effect of being both golden and skin coloured.
The coffins (and Nephthys) are now in the Met Museum, acc. no.s: 11.150.15a-c.
In the reign of Psamtik I, in the 26th Dynasty, the Vizier of Lower Egypt was a man called Bekenrenef. He built his tomb at Saqqara, cut into the cliff face at the eastern desert edge. The stone there isn’t great quality so he lined it with Tura limestone before decorating it.
The tomb was found early in the history of Egyptology, by Lepsius who published what it looked like in the middle of the 19th Century. Sadly before the end of the 19th Century most of the reliefs had been removed from the tomb and dispersed around the world.
It takes a bit of imagination to see it as it was when it was new. The limestone would be gleaming white – this is the same stone as was used for the outermost layer of the Great Pyramid. And the decoration was all painted, blue for the text and reds & yellows for the figures.
The decorative scheme of the tomb was heavy on texts, and light on figures. I believe these are magic spells, and come from the antechamber to the innermost room (which was presumably the most sacred part of the tomb).
It was purchased, along with other reliefs from the tomb, by the Met Museum in the early 20th Century and is displayed there (acc. no. 11.150.50). They have quite a detailed description of the tomb if you expand the “Curatorial Interpretation”: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/549495
Iynaferty (or Iineferty) rejoiced in the title of “Mistress of the House”, which actually just means she was a housewife but sounds rather grander. She was buried at Deir el Medina in her husband Sennedjem’s tomb (and presumably lived at Deir el Medina too!).
Sennedjem also had a fabulous title – he was “Servant in the Place of Truth”, which means he was one of the people who worked on building the royal tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings. Given the richness of his tomb, probably quite a senior figure in the workforce.
This is Iynaferty’s mummy mask and it’s quite beautiful. I particularly like the lotus flower motif on the top of her head. She’s also depicted as having natural hair poking out from the wig, with two little pigtails framing her face. Perhaps a glimpse into contemporary fashions?
It was found in TT1 at Deir el Medina, and is now in the Met Museum (acc. no.: 86.1.6). It dates to the reign of Ramesses II.
The head of this coffin is interesting – at first glance it’s a rather fine piece of work, but as you look more closely you can see it doesn’t look like it was made all in one go! The face doesn’t quite seem to match the surrounding wig, and looks rather nicer quality.
The coffin itself is inscribed for a woman called Heribsenes who lived in the 26th Dynasty, but the Met Museum’s website dates the face to the New Kingdom based on the style. So anything from 500 to 1000 years older than the rest of the piece.
But this doesn’t appear to be a modern frankenstein of a coffin – the wig is nicely shaped round the face, for instance. So this is ancient re-use: Heribsenes (or those burying her) saw this fine old coffin fragment and thought it would look rather nice on her coffin.
It’s not known where it was found, but it is now in the Met Museum, acc. no.: 33.5
These two pieces of relief come from the tomb of a man called Dagi, who counted amongst his titles “sealer, sole companion, favourite of the god, director of those who are among the gods”. He lived during Dynasty 11, and was buried at Sheikh Abd el-Qurna in tomb TT103/MMA807.
The primary point of this relief is to provide Dagi with food in his afterlife, and the offering table is certainly piled high with readily identifiable tasty things. He even has a whole stack of bread moulds for the afterlife bakers to make his daily bread in!
The inscription below gives us those titles I listed earlier and the text at the top is part of what the Met Museum calls his “menu” but I prefer to think of as his shopping list! The full grid originally listed with quantities the foodstuffs necessary for his funerary cult.
The relief fragments are now in the Met Museum, acc. no.s: 12.180.244 and 12.180.245
These rather fine shabtis and the accompanying boxes came from the tomb of Yuya and Tjuya (KV46), who were the parents-in-law of Amenhotep III so despite not being royal themselves were granted permission for a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. These items belonged to Yuya.
KV46 was found in 1905 by James Quibell, who at the time was working for Theodore Davis. Quibell was also one of the discoverers of the Narmer Palette about a decade earlier. At the time KV46 was the best preserved tomb in the Valley even tho it had been robbed much of its contents were still there.
The shabtis are really lovely quality work. The wood itself looks smooth and like it would feel nice in the hand. The hieroglyphs are neatly incised and filled with paint and the faces are well modelled. I particularly like the broad collar necklace on the left hand one.
Most of the items found ended up in the Cairo Museum, but Theodore Davis was allowed to keep a few bits which he subsequently gave to the Met Museum which is where I photographed these pieces (acc. no.s: 30.8.56, 30.8.57, 30.8.58, 30.8.59a, 30.8.59b, 30.8.60a and 30.8.60b).
The vizier of Thebes at the beginning of the 26th Dynasty was a man called Nespakashuty, and he commissioned a tomb in the cliffs at Deir el Bahri near the temple of Hatshepsut and right in the courtyard of a much earlier 11th Dynasty tomb.
Maybe he intended to be too elaborate, maybe he just didn’t live long enough after work was started on the tomb, but whichever it was the reliefs weren’t completed before Nespakashuty died. Which is nice for Egyptologists as it gives a lot of evidence for how the work was done!
This portion shows how the carving was done in two phases. A team of workers has been along the wall and carved out the outlines of all the elements of the design. None of the internal details are present yet, and none of the cutouts (like the vases on her head) have been done.
In the next phase another team (or the same one, perhaps) would come along and do all of the details that you can see drawn in red paint on the figures. They’d also round off the edges and generally make it all look a lot more finished and ready for the painters.
The tomb is numbered TT312 or MMA509, and there are several pieces of relief from it in the Met Museum (acc. no.: 23.3.468) in various stages of decoration.