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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

An Artisan’s Tomb in New Kingdom Egypt

Almost thirty-three centuries ago, a young man named Khonsu became a “servant in the Place of Truth”—a designation that identified members of the crew of artisans who carved and decorated the royal tombs of the New Kingdom. These artisans included quarrymen, scribes (23.3.4), draftsmen (14.108), sculptors, painters, and carpenters. The entire crew, which usually numbered no more than sixty, lived with their families in a walled community known to its residents simply as the Village, a ruin now known as Deir el-Medina. Situated in a small desert valley on the west bank of the Nile, at the edge of the Theban cliffs, the Village was within easy reach of the two principal royal cemeteries: the Great Place, now called the Valley of the Kings; and the Place of Beauty, or the Valley of the Queens.

Khonsu was the fourth son in a large family, and like most members of the royal work crew, he and at least one of his brothers had followed in the footsteps of their father, Sennedjem (86.1.10), who was also a servant in the Place of Truth. Sennedjem was an active member of the crew in the time of Menmaatre Seti, the son of a former general named Ramesses who had ascended the throne of Egypt and founded a new dynasty.

Sennedjem and his sons were fortunate to live during a period of great prosperity for the Village. At the height of Sennedjem’s career, in the first sixteen years of the new dynasty, two royal tombs were required. The amount of time it took the crew to complete a royal tomb depended on the length of a king’s reign, and work was sometimes cut short by the pharaoh’s death. Because of the length of time required for mummification, the team would have up to three months to finish its work, and then the process would begin all over again for the new pharaoh.

The same talents that created a spectacular sepulchre for the ruling king were also put to use in the more modest burial places of the workers themselves. Located in a terraced cemetery on the hillside adjacent to the Village, their funerary monuments included small, vaulted, above-ground offering chapels that were topped by miniature, steep-sided pyramids. In or near the chapels, shafts cut deep into the bedrock led to groupings of corridors and vaulted rooms that were often used by many generations of the same family. One of the finest of these tombs belonged to Sennedjem and his descendants. Built at the southern end of the cemetery, the family crypt was just a stone’s throw away from its owner’s house. The upper level of the complex had offering chapels for both Sennedjem and Khonsu, and the decorated burial chamber contained the mummies of Sennedjem and his wife, Iineferti; Khonsu and his wife, Tameket; Khonsu’s younger brother Ramesses; and four other named members of the family, as well as eleven unidentified mummies.

In preparation for his journey to the afterworld, Khonsu commissioned a pair of nesting anthropoid coffins (86.1.1,.2) made of wood. The lid of each depicts Khonsu in the form of a mummy, with arms crossed over his chest and hands clutching the tit amulet and djed pillar, the same magical symbols that were used some 200 years earlier on Hatnefer’s chair (36.3.152) to ensure the owner’s well-being. The coffins are covered with magical texts and vignettes featuring deities as well as Khonsu and Tameket. A mask of painted wood (86.1.4) and cartonnage completed the ensemble. Khonsu had also obtained a painted canopic box to hold his internal organs and several shawabtis (86.1.14,.18,.21,.28; 67.80), little figurines that were intended to substitute for the deceased owner if he were called upon to perform any kind of manual labor in the next life (30.4.2).

When he finally began his own journey to the afterworld, Khonsu was about sixty-five years of age and had seen two generations of his descendants enter the work crew. He was placed in the family tomb along with his parents, and the funeral rites were probably performed by his sons Nakhemmut and Nakhtmin, who spoke the words of the offering texts and repeated the names of those who had passed on to the next world, thus giving them renewed life. After being used by many generations of Khonsu’s descendants, the family crypt was sealed at last and remained undisturbed until February 1, 1886, when it was uncovered by agents of the Egyptian Antiquities Service.