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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III, Dahshur: Private Tombs to the North

In ancient Egypt, while a royal pyramid was under construction, the area adjoining it could not be used for private tomb building. Royal courtiers had to build their tombs either at a safe distance from the construction area or near the pyramid of the preceding king. The officials of Senwosret III erected their tombs in a close group that was separated from the royal pyramid complex by a narrow desert strip. This cemetery was still in use during the reign of King Amenemhat III (r. ca. 1859–1813 B.C.), Senwosret III’s successor and presumed son. In 1894, Jacques de Morgan (1857–1924) excavated about thirty tombs, which represents approximately half of the cemetery. Many tombs consisted only of a shaft with a burial chamber. Several were brick mastabas of moderate dimensions, but a few tombs were monumental and cased with fine-quality limestone. Almost all above-ground buildings were destroyed in antiquity, leaving only foundations and a few brick or stone courses; with very few exceptions, all underground burial chambers were robbed.

One task of the archaeologist is to reconstruct the original appearance of the architecture from the remains left by the stone robbers. Several of the mastabas were inscribed with the names and titles of the tomb owner and occasionally biographical information about his or her life. Because of the historical value of these texts, the tiniest fragments must be recorded and studied. The expedition of the Metropolitan Museum has been systematically reexcavating the cemetery since 1995. The major mastaba tombs belonging to the officials Nebit, Harkherti, and Khnumhotep have been explored and recorded.

The mastabas of Nebit and Harkherti had smooth, gently sloping walls that were articulated in the east with two niches containing false doors and relief scenes of offering rituals. Both mastabas measured 10.5 x 21 meters and were 4.5 meters high. Large inscriptions ran along the tops of the walls and down the corners. Almost the entire north wall of Nebit’s mastaba is preserved, along with a section of the north end of the east wall. The inscriptions include the cartouches of Senwosret III, indicating that Nebit served under that king. They also reveal that Nebit held the offices of vizier and overseer of the pyramid city. Harkherti’s less well preserved inscriptions include a number of religious titles.

The mastaba of Khnumhotep had a different, dramatic surface articulation consisting of paneled walls structured by an elaborate system of projections and recesses. This type of building design and decoration plays a long and important role in Egyptian architecture and its origins extend back to Early Dynastic palace architecture. A beautiful detail was the representation of bundles of papyrus blossoms in windowlike panels. On Khnumhotep’s mastaba, long inscriptions framed the top of the building and the panels of the four false doors on the east side. These fragmentary inscriptions include important information about military campaigns that Khnumhotep appears to have undertaken in the Levant. Sections of the mastabas of Nebit, Harkherti, and Khnumhotep have been reconstructed at the site by the Metropolitan Museum expedition.

The underground tombs consisted of monumental, stone-lined chambers, where the bodies of the tomb owners were laid to rest in wood coffins nested inside stone sarcophagi. A wall niche enclosed the canopic chest, which contained some of the deceased’s internal organs. The crypts of Nebit, Harkherti, and Khnumhotep were found completely robbed, but the burial of Harkherti’s wife Sitwerut was discovered untouched. The meticulous recording of her burial enabled the excavators to reconstruct the funerary equipment of an upper-class Dynasty 12 lady. Sitwerut was buried in her own stone sarcophagus that contained a rectangular cedar wood coffin with gilded edges. Her mummy was wrapped in linen and her body placed in a gilded, mummy-shaped inner coffin. Her jewelry was composed of faience and carnelian beads and had elements made of wood covered with gold foil and decorated cartonnage, indicating that the objects were made specifically for her burial. Among her adornments were bracelets, anklets, a girdle, and a broad collar. The four alabaster jars of her canopic burial had human heads, and one even preserved some of the ancient embalming fluid; the jars are now on display in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.