Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Housemistress in New Kingdom Egypt: Hatnefer

Sometime around 1473 B.C., an elderly woman named Hatnefer was laid to rest in the Theban necropolis in a small rock-cut tomb that had been prepared for her by her son Senenmut (31.4.2). Hatnefer had lived through an extraordinary time in Egypt’s history. She was born late in the reign of Ahmose in the vicinity of Armant, a town some ten miles south of Thebes. In about 1540 B.C., less than a decade before Hatnefer’s birth, Ahmose had reunited the two lands of Egypt by defeating the Hyksos, descendants of migrants from western Asia who had settled in the eastern delta and controlled Lower Egypt and part of the Nile valley to the north of Thebes for about a century.

Identified by historians as the founder of the New Kingdom and the first ruler of Dynasty 18, Ahmose was the brother of Kamose, the last king of Dynasty 17, whose family had ruled Thebes and part of southern Egypt during what we now call the Second Intermediate Period. Since Hatnefer’s hometown was part of the Theban province, one or more of her close male relatives almost certainly would have fought alongside these Theban kings in the battles that eventually drove the Hyksos back into western Asia and secured the throne of a united Egypt for Ahmose.

When we consider that she lived in the middle of the second millennium B.C., Hatnefer was fortunate to have been born into a culture that recognized a woman as an individual, not merely as the possession of her male relatives. In Egypt, a woman could inherit, buy, and sell property in her own right. Any material goods or land that she brought to her marriage remained hers, and she could make a will to distribute her property as she wished. She could take grievances before a judge, be a witness in a court case, and even sit on a jury. Although Egyptian society was essentially patriarchal and men generally held all positions of power, both on the local level and at the royal court, a wife could carry out at least some of her husband’s official duties when he was absent. Indeed, during Hatnefer’s lifetime, circumstances arose that allowed a woman, Hatshepsut (29.3.2), to claim the most powerful position in the land.

At the time of her death, Hatnefer was a short, rather stout grandmother of about sixty—a “good old age” in Egyptian terms. Just over five feet tall, with a delicate bone structure, she must have been quite attractive as a young woman. On special occasions, she probably wore her dark brown, naturally curly hair in braids similar to those seen on a statuette of one of her contemporaries that is now in the Museum’s collection (26.7.1404). In order to achieve the volume necessary for this hairstyle, Hatnefer would have augmented her own hair with supplementary braids of the same color. Even after her death, when her mummy was being prepared for burial, scores of dark brown supplementary braids were woven into her white hair in an imitation of the style of her youth.

Like all Egyptians, men as well as women, Hatnefer would have used various kinds of cosmetics, including oils and unguents to protect her skin from the dryness of the Upper Egyptian climate. She also would have outlined her eyes with kohl, a blue, green, or black powder of ground minerals that was thought to enhance the eyes’ beauty while protecting them from the sun’s glare. In order to apply her makeup and admire her handiwork, Hatnefer had several mirrors (36.3.69; 36.3.13) made of highly polished bronze or silver set into wood or metal handles. She also owned a bronze razor, which was found with other cosmetic implements inside a basket in her tomb (36.3.189,.190,.199).

Hatnefer probably married before the age of twenty, moving into the household of her husband, Ramose. We know nothing of Ramose’s background, but he seems to have been a man of modest means—anything from a tenant farmer to an artisan or even a small landowner. He probably brought his wife into the house of his parents rather than to an establishment that was exclusively his own. Egyptian households often comprised a number of generations, including parents, elderly grandparents, and unmarried and married siblings and their children. Prosperous households would also have included servants. In the early years of her marriage, Hatnefer was probably subordinate to her mother-in-law and may have shared housekeeping duties with her husband’s unmarried sisters. Eventually, however, she became the head of her own household and was given the honorific title nebet per, meaning “housemistress.”

Three wood chests containing a total of seventy-six long, fringed sheets of linen (36.3.56,.54,.111) were found in Hatnefer’s tomb. Ranging from 14 to 54 feet in length, the sheets had seen much wear, and some had been mended. Before being placed in the chests, the individual pieces of fabric had been laundered, pressed, and carefully folded into neat rectangles. Among the other objects associated with Hatnefer’s tomb was a leather tambourine that was found just outside the entrance. Although it may have been used in the funerary ritual performed at her burial, the instrument was probably one of Hatnefer’s personal possessions. In ancient Egypt, just as today, music enriched all spheres of life, from the family home to the temples of the gods.