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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III, Dahshur: Queens and Princesses

Flanking the pyramid of Senwosret III on the north and south were seven smaller pyramids that primarily belonged to women of the royal family. Beginning with the Dynasty 4 pharaoh Khufu (r. 2551–2528 B.C.), small pyramids for queens and princesses were commonly placed near the pyramid of the king.

The three pyramids to the south of Senwosret III’s pyramid are earlier and larger than those to the north. The easternmost pyramid of this group probably did not belong to a royal woman, but rather was intended to house the ka, a part of the king’s spirit that played an important role in his afterlife. The center pyramid on the south belonged to a Queen Weret I. Inscriptions found around her pyramid, and also at other monuments in Egypt, tell us that she was the mother of a king, presumably Senwosret III. No burial chamber was discovered under or near Queen Weret I’s pyramid, leading to the conclusion that she was interred elsewhere, perhaps at Lahun near the Fayum oasis with her presumed husband Senwosret II. In this case, Queen Weret I’s pyramid at Dahshur would have served as a cenotaph or memorial. The queen mother seems to have played an important role in the king’s afterlife.

The westernmost pyramid on the south side belonged to Queen Weret II, the principal wife of Senwosret III. Although her tomb was plundered in antiquity, its entrance remained hidden under the desert sands for centuries until the entrance shaft was found by the Metropolitan Museum excavation in 1994. Queen Weret II’s elaborate underground burial complex consists of a shrinelike construction placed under her pyramid and elaborate burial chambers that were actually built beneath the pyramid of the king; the two spaces are connected by a long corridor. Several small objects and pottery that escaped the attention of the tomb robbers were found in her burial chambers. Most surprising was the rare discovery of a cache of the queen’s jewelry in a niche at the bottom of the entrance shaft; the unusual placement of the deposit probably led to its being overlooked by the tomb robbers. The objects include two amethyst scarabs inscribed for the pharaoh Amenemhat II, two bracelets with djed-pillar clasps signifying stability, two bracelets with gold lion pendants, a girdle composed of gold cowrie shells, and two anklets with claw pendants. The pieces, now on display in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, represent the sixth major find of royal Middle Kingdom jewelry. On display in the Metropolitan Museum is another jewelry collection that belonged to the Dynasty 12 princess Sithathoryunet; this group of objects was excavated by the British at Lahun.

North of Senwosret III’s pyramid are four smaller pyramids, built later in the king’s reign. The second and third from the east belonged respectively to Princess Itakayet and Queen Nefrethenut; the owners of the other two pyramids remain unknown. Burial chambers with stone sarcophagi were placed beneath each of the four pyramids. To the east of the easternmost pyramid, eight royal women were buried in small chambers hollowed out on either side of a common corridor. In this area, Jacques de Morgan (1857–1924) discovered two caches of jewelry on two successive days in 1894. Both treasures are now displayed in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

All of the pyramids belonging to royal women had small chapels dedicated to the cult of the deceased; the four north pyramids seem to have had only east chapels, while the two queens’ pyramids on the south had north and east chapels. Fragments of relief decoration recovered from these structures indicate that the decorative program consisted mainly of standard offering scenes: processions of offering bearers carrying food approached the queen or princess, who was seated in front of a table. In front of the woman was a large list enumerating the type and quantity of goods she could expect to receive in the afterlife. Additional spaces were filled with representations of piled foodstuffs. The area around the door included scenes of men butchering cattle for meat offerings. Inscriptions above the figures of the women, at the tops of the walls, and above the entrance listed their names and titles.