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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Egyptian Tombs: Life Along the Nile

From 1906 to 1936, the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Egyptian Art conducted excavations at several sites in Egypt. During these three decades, while working in the cemeteries in western Thebes, across the Nile River from the modern city of Luxor, the Museum’s archaeologists uncovered a number of intact tombs belonging to nonroyal individuals. By the terms of the Museum’s contract with the Egyptian Antiquities Service, the finds from these tombs were divided, with approximately half going to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and half coming to New York. The burials contained personal possessions of the deceased and funerary gifts left by family members (40.3.1,.11,.16). They also contained mummified bodies, the examination of which has given us some idea of the appearance of the living individuals, as well as their physical condition and age at death.

These tombs provide us with invaluable information about the lives of the ancient Egyptians. Two tombs within the cemetery are particularly fascinating. The earlier of the two dates to the Middle Kingdom and belonged to a man named Wah; it was discovered on March 24, 1920, beneath the causeway, leading to the destroyed tomb of an important official, Meketre, who was Wah’s employer. The second, the early New Kingdom tomb of a woman named Hatnefer, was uncovered on January 11, 1936, beneath the man-made terrace of the offering chapel belonging to her son Senenmut, the chief architect.

The third and latest assemblage discussed here belonged to a man named Khonsu (86.1.2a), who lived at about the mid-point of the New Kingdom. Khonsu was buried with several generations of his family in a tomb that was discovered by members of the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1886. Because the funerary furniture within the crypt was all quite similar in style, the Egyptian government generously allowed the Metropolitan Museum to purchase a group of objects from the tomb—an acquisition that represented a significant addition to its fledgling collection of Egyptian art, nearly twenty years before the Museum began its own excavations.

Wah, Hatnefer, and Khonsu each lived at an extraordinary time in Egypt’s history. Wah was born in the early Middle Kingdom at the end of the reign of one of Egypt’s greatest kings, Nebhepetre Mentuhotep (07.230.2), and he lived through the transitional period in which power passed from Dynasty 11 to Dynasty 12. Hatnefer was born late in the reign of Ahmose I, another of Egypt’s most renowned rulers, and lived to see the great female pharaoh, Hatshepsut (29.3.2), become the principal ruler of Egypt. Khonsu, who was probably born at the very end of Dynasty 18, nearly two centuries after Hatnefer, lived most of his long life under a single pharaoh, Ramesses II, called the Great—the most illustrious ruler of Dynasty 19.