The Archaeology of Female Burial
Continuing my review of Grajetzki, Tomb Treasures of the Late Middle Kingdom
Yes, I did say in Part I of this post that I would stop harping on the gorgeous jewellery of 12th Dynasty royal women and show you some serious implements of authority and war instead. Well, sorry, girls will be girls. So hang on a moment and we'll get to blood and guts after the bling.
This is the pyramid of Pharaoh Senusret III (ca. 1837-1818 BCE) at Dahshur. Around the king's enormous pyramid are clusters of smaller pyramids inhabited in death by his wives and daughters. Each such peripheral pyramid had an underground burial chamber containing the sarcophagus and two side chambers, presumably chapels dedicated to the cult of the deceased.
X Marks the Spot
Instead of separate units for each queen or daughter of the royal loins, as was customary, there was (left) a most unusual underground gallery connecting the burial chambers beneath the four small pyramids on the north side. Under the first gallery, a lower shaft provided access to a long vaulted corridor connecting the four sets of chambers each with their sarcophagus and canopic chest.
Long before the French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan explored these galleries in 1894/5, they had been entered by tomb robbers -- probably during the Hyksos period (ca. 1650-1550 BCE) -- and all the sarcophagi were opened and looted.
I can well imagine the first reaction of De Morgan when he found the open sarcophagi and scattered debris left by the ancient thieves: after digging the main pyramid and finding nothing but dust in the king's sarcophagus, and then these ransacked tombs, he might well have been a bit disheartened. But the robbers had been careless or perhaps confounded (not expecting, I imagine, to find buried treasure in a tomb) and so missed two boxes filled with jewellery that had been placed in holes dug into the floor.
Thus, a lucky Monsieur de Morgan hit the jackpot: finding one badly decayed, partly gilded treasure chest on 6 March 1894, and another two days later.
Fit for a pharaoh's daughter
The first box almost certainly belonged to Princess Sithathor, as the box contained a scarab with her name and title, 'King's daughter Sithathor, lady of honour'.
It seems that the princess took with her to the grave much of the jewellery that she had already worn during her lifetime: the gold was much heavier than the thin or gold-leaf items that are usually found on mummies. Surely her most cherished possession was this pectoral collar (above) made of gold, carnelian, lapis lazuli, and turquoise, with the throne name of her father (?) Senusret II in the central cartouche. On both sides of the cartouche a Horus falcon wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt is perched on the hieroglyphic sign for 'gold'.
Other masterpieces from her treasure include two bracelets (left) of hundreds of beads in alternate rows of lapis lazuli, carnelian, and turquoise with gold spacer bars between them, and fastening pieces in the shape of a djed pillar (the sign 'Stability!'). Similar bracelets with djed-pillar clasps were found in the nearby burial of Senusret III's principle queen Weret II, a tomb only discovered in 1995.*
Smiting the enemy
The second treasure in the gallery belonged to the king's daughter (possibly also king's wife) Mereret. Her box contained an even greater number of goodies including two pectoral collars -- one with the throne name of Senusret III and one naming Amenemhat III, his successor.** The later pectoral (above) depicts a vulture protecting the scene under its outstretched wings. The king's throne name appears twice within a cartouche, between which is written "The good god, lord of the two lands, beating all foreign lands". Not to leave any doubt, the enemies about to be clobbered are identified by a label which reads, "smiting Asiatics". Accordingly, the king is (twice) shown smiting kneeling enemies with a mace.
Yes, that's how pharaohs smite:
Your mace is over the head of every foreign land ....
The depiction of the king on foot with mace raised ready to crack the skulls of his enemies is very ancient and it doesn't change much over time. But why a mace? Maces are basically only wooden clubs with a head made of some heavy and hard material, in this case stone. As one of the earliest weapons in ancient Egypt, the skull-smashing mace became a source of royal prowess long after it was abandoned as a practical weapon. Perhaps this was because the mace is a weapon requiring great force, rather than any particular skill, and so became a symbol of overwhelming power.
But that alone does not explain why the mace-wielding smiting scene endured for some 3,000 years: even Egypt's Roman pharaohs continued to crush opponents with a mace, at least on temple walls. In fact, this is probably the longest-lasting and best-attested image in Egyptian culture. Its staying power may well lie in its echo of the cosmic conflict between the gods Horus and Seth, their everlasting battle of good against evil, and the victory of order over chaos. The pharaoh was considered to be an incarnation of the falcon god Horus, the posthumous son of Osiris, a divine king slain by his brother, Seth.
Horus has brought Seth to thee [Osiris-King], he has given him to thee, bowed down under thee. (Pyr. 1632a)
Which brings us back to Mereret.
In Tomb Treasures of the Late Middle Kingdom, Wolfram Grajetzkio describes 76 pieces of jewellery and precious objects found in her treasure chest: number 74 is listed simply as 'A mace head.' So Mereret, too, amidst all her gold and dainty bangles took a royal weapon with her to the grave.*** She is far from the only royal lady buried with weapons and royal regalia. As we saw in Part I, Dr Grajetzki's careful listing of finds from the few intact female burials, credit all of the women with one or more maces, daggers, bows, arrows, and even spears -- as well as wooden staffs, flails, and sceptres of authority.
In a word, these are standard features of the 'Court Type' elite burials -- for women as well as men.
True, Mereret had just a single mace head in her treasure box -- but who knows how many weapons and regalia had originally been buried with her and later looted from her grave? A goodly number, I would say, given those in intact female 'Court Type' burials. But the "Most Weapons Award" should probably go to the comparatively non-aristocratic 'Lady of the House', Senebtisi, whose unlooted tomb was excavated at Lisht in 1906/07 by Herbert Winlock of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Lady Senebtisi lacked nothing when it came to worldly goods. Despite not having a royal title, she nonetheless had a 'Court Type' burial. Her mummy was adorned with loads of jewellery (three broad collars, gold necklaces, gold hair ornaments made of 98 golden rosettes, armlets, anklets, and much much more). She also had a full panopoly of royal sceptres and staffs, a beaded flail (similar to that on the left), two bows, an alabaster mace with a gold-mounted shaft, a rock crystal mace-head, and a copper dagger with gilded wooden sheath.
She was, it seems, quite ready to have a battle royal. Yet I don't think for a moment that she was a warrior-woman in any way, shape, or form [in this, disagreeing with Rebecca Dean (see Sources, below)]. Nor can we really explain the weapons and regalia as a means of projecting their worldly power: if anything, there seems to be a decrease in women's and thus queens' status in the Middle Kingdom.
Wolfram Grajetzki is, of course, well aware of the fact that female Court-Type burials contain muddled gender-related goods. In fact, he takes us on a tour of rich tombs in other ancient cultures where weapons are occasionally buried with high-ranking women. But there really isn't much known about female burials in the Middle Bronze Age around the eastern Mediteranean, the time period of this post. So, he doesn't say much -- except to warn against the danger of projecting our own gender expections onto ancient burials.
Dr Grajetzki does, however, put his finger on the underlying symbolism -- if only alluding to it briefly -- when he says:
Although these insignia and weapons are in other contexts associated with gender and in many cultures more typical for burials of men, they appear as ritual object in late Middle Kingdom tombs of women. In this context they are not gender related but confirm the identity of the deceased as Osiris, and clearly show that the deceased was treated as Osiris in ritual.What has Osiris to do with it?
In ancient Egypt, the act of creating new life was not attributed to females. Rather, the male created the 'spark of life' while the female's role was to stimulate the male sexually and then receive his child (fully formed in the semen) into her nuturing body. That's how it was supposed to work both for earthly fertility (having babies) as well as for -- a crucial mental leap -- the rejuvenation of the dead. It all goes back to the Creation.
Atum and Osiris
In the Egyptian creation myth, the primal deity Atum brought forth all creation via masturbation. The only female entity involved was his hand -- the word 'hand' is grammatically feminine in Egyptian -- which helped Atum create himself by acting as the stimulant. Thus, the deceased says:
I am Atum who made the sky and created what exists, who came forth from the earth, who created seed, Lord of All, who fashioned the god, the Great God, the Lord of Life.... (Book of the Dead, Spell 79)Osiris, god of the netherworld, has the same creative power, somewhat weirdly creating his own rebirth after his murder and dismemberment by his brother Seth. When his sister-wife Isis had reassembled him in a wrapped human form (i.e. the first mummy), Osiris magically recreated himself through the same act of masturbation as Atum. Osiris essentially raises himself from the dead. When his body had been reunited by mummification, that sexual act reawakened him to life. Hence, the transition to the blessed afterlife became a model for mortals, but one that only really worked for the male sex. The female had no active role in the mechanism of rebirth.
You can well imagine that this created problems for half of the elite world. Nonetheless...
You will become Osiris (CT, Spell 4)
The circle was squared by having the dead take on a masculine form once placed inside the sarcophagus, regardless of the original gender of the body. To start with, both male and female deceased likened themselves to the god of rebirth, assuming the name of Osiris + their personal name. Thus, for example, Zenobia would have become Osiris-Zenobia (regardless of her female sex). This would give her the regenerative powers of a creator god, simultaneously masculine and divine. Second, her mummy was shaped into the form of Osiris, with the same wrappings whether the person inside was male or female. Third, scribes stuck to the masculine pronouns he and him instead of the feminine she and her when writing magical texts on a woman's coffin. All together, this meant that the deceased female was given a temporary masculine divine identity in order to be reborn after death.
Wake up! May you appear as Osiris... in your hand is the sceptre, in your hand is the flail.
Yes, but to be sure to wake up in the 'Fields of Peace' I suggest we add a fourth way for wily elite women to masculinize themselves: let them place in their tombs such manly objects as weapons, the regalia of kings, and even metal tools.
If nothing else, this will confuse generations of Egyptologists.
But don't worry. After becoming one of the 'blessed dead', the lady returns to her feminine self, her true form for all eternity.
* In 1994, the Metropolitan Museum of Art investigated a shaft in the western most of these tombs that led to a tunnel which in turn led to a three chambers actually located under the southwest corner of the king's pyramid. Fragments of a canopic jar found within this tomb bore the name of Khnumetneferhedjetweret (Weret II), who was the wife of Senusret II and the mother of Senusret III. See also "Queens and Princesses in the Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III, Dahshur". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 2004).
** Egyptologists generally agree that such scenes cluttered with figures and hieroglyphs are characteristic of the goldsmith's art under Amenemhat III, indicating a slight decline in the goldsmith's art. There's certainly something crowded in the composition, at least to our eyes; but would Mereret have agreed with us? I rather suspect not.
*** Stone maceheads already appear in female burials in the Predynastic period. A study of 100 Predynastic burials with mace heads indicated that the weapons were more common in the graves of males but not at all rare in female graves. Given the unreliability of sex determination in early excavations, we should be cautious (although the sex bias probably lies in the other direction). However, three such burials appear quite certain: Predynastic Naqada 1488 with two stone mace heads; 1401 with three stone mace heads and a flint knife; and 1417 with a decorated limestone mace head and several flint knives. For references, see Dean in Sources, below; for maces in Predynastic graves, see Stevenson in Sources, below.
Sources: Besides the book under review, I have made especial use of M.M. Luiselli, "The Ancient Egyptian Scene of 'Pharaoh Smiting his Enemies': an attempt to visualize cultural memory". In (M. Bommas, ed.) Cultural Memory and Identity in Ancient Societies, 10-25; R. Dean, Women, Weaponry and Warfare in Ancient Egypt: A Brief Examination of Available Evidence ; A. Stevenson, Alice, 'Mace', UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. On the exciting new topic of the fluid genders of the dead, see H.L. McCarthy, 'The Osiris Nefertari: A Case Study of Decorum, Gender and regeneration,' Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 39 (2002), 173-195; and the trio of papers by K. Cooney, which she so kindly sent me: 'Gender Transformation in Death' Near Eastern Archaeology 73.4 (2010) 224-237; 'Where does the Masculine Begin and the Feminine End?' In (B. Heininger, ed.) Ehrenmord und Emanzipation, 99-124; and 'The Problem of Female Rebirth in New Kingdom Egypt', In (C. Graves-Brown, ed.), Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt: "Don your Wig for a Joyful Hour", 1-25.
Tomb Treasures of the Late Middle Kingdom:
The Archaeology of Female Burials
By Wolfram GrajetzkiUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2013
Top: Pyramid complex of Sensuret III in Dahshur. Copyright © 2000-2014 Dariusz Sitek, Czestochowa - Chicago-Ann Arbor.
Upper left: Plan of the underground galleries of the pyramid complex of Sensuret III. Credit: W. Grajetzki, from the book under review, p. 83, Fig. 65.
Middle left: Canopic jars of Princess Sithathor . Photo credit: Egypt, The pyramid of Sensuret II at Dahshur.
Upper centre: Pectoral of Sithathor with the throne name of Senusret II in central cartouche. Photo credit: Sergiothirteen on the Ancient Egyptian Jewellery Flickr group.
Lower left 1: I cheated: this photograph is actually of the restrung djed-pillar bracelets of Queen Weret II (A. Oppenheim, "Queens and Princesses in the Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III, Dahshur". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 2004). The similar bracelets belonging to Sithathor were in deplorable condition with scattered beads and only the djed-pillar clasps intact.
Middle centre: Pectoral of Mereret with the throne name of Amenemhat III. Photo credit:
Lower left 2: A rounded pear form of mace head known as a "piriform" used throughout the Naqada III period (3250-3100 BC). Photo credit: Tour Egypt net.
Lower left 3: Girdle of Mereret, gold and amethyst, length 60 cm. Cairo Museum JE 30879 - 30923 (CG 53075). Photo credit: Tour Egypt.
Below centre: Was sceptres from the tomb of Senebtisi, Lisht North, Tomb of Senwosret (758), Pit 763, MMA 1906–1907. Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1908; Accession Number: 08.200.51.
Lower left 4: Collar and beaded flail from burial of Princess Nefruptah, daughter of Ameemhat III, in Hawara. Photo credit sergiothirteen on Flickr.
Bottom left: Colossol statue from Coptos showing the god Min engendering his own creation. Ca. 3200 BCE. Ashmolean Museum 1994.105e. Photo credit: Katherine Wodehouse (via K.M. Cooley, 'Gender Transformation in Death' (see Sources), Fig. 1.