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Monday, 11 October 2021

Decoding the Mastabas of the Old Kingdom

 This blog post has been written by Sandra Ottens, who has been working as a secretary at the municipality of Amsterdam for thirty years. Sandra studied Egyptology at Leiden University (BA and MA) from 2006 to 2012. She started blogging about her Egyptological adventures when her class attended a two-month study semester in Cairo, visiting a large number of excavation sites ( Sandra joined the excavations in Amheida (Dakhla Oasis) as an assistant epigrapher to Professor Olaf Kaper for one season in 2012. She wrote her MA thesis on the Seven Hathors, a group of seven goddesses who predicted the fate of new-born children.

This week in the Egypt Centre’s History course, Ken Griffin discussed the history of the Old Kingdom with its many pyramids and sun temples. The highest officials in the government administration were buried in rectangular mastabas in the tomb fields around the pyramids of their pharaohs, near the capital city of Memphis (fig. 1). While the tomb owners themselves were buried in underground shafts, they also built a chapel above ground where offerings to the deceased could be made. These chapels were richly decorated with elaborate scenes from the ideal elite existence in the expectation of prolonging it in the afterlife. The scenes are often accompanied by texts. There are captions to clarify what is happening, words that are spoken by the people depicted, and even the lyrics of work songs sung by those employed to help keep a steady rhythm during strenuous repetitive work.

Fig. 1: Schematic drawing of an Old Kingdom mastaba

The decorated chapel walls contain a lot of interesting and original details and can be read almost like comic books. Note for instance what is happening in figure 2 from the tomb of princess Idut. The Leiden Mastaba Project was initiated in 1998 to build a database of iconography in Old Kingdom elite tombs from the Memphite area. The project, directed by Dr. René van Walsem from Leiden University, resulted in the original MastaBase on cd-rom in 2008 (published by Peeters in Leuven). It has since proven to be an indispensable research tool. In 2014, a group of enthusiastic Egyptologists from Leiden joined Dr. René van Walsem in forming the Leiden Mastaba Study Group, to work on an enhanced and updated version of the database. The first step in the project was making the basic dataset accessible online, to be consulted free of charge by researchers, students and interested people around the world. This basic data set can be found on a lack of funds has made further development of the database an unfulfilled dream for now, the members of the study group have occupied themselves with reading some of the texts from the Mastabase.

Fig. 2: Decoration from the tomb of Idut

Our current subject is ‘observation texts’. Most mastabas contain one or more large images of the tomb owner looking out over the activities that are depicted on the wall before him or her. That image is usually accompanied by an ‘observation text’, which describes what he or she is looking at, starting with the verb mꜣꜣ (observing). I will give an example from the mastaba chapel of Hetepherakhty (currently in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (RMO) in Leiden). You can get virtual access to the chapel (on the ground floor of the museum) via this link: Hetepherakhty (fig. 3) had his tomb built in Saqqara during the late Fifth Dynasty, possibly around the same time as Tjenti, whose lintel is in the Egypt Centre collection (W491).

Fig. 3: Tomb of Hetepherakhty


Inside the chapel on the left (south) wall, Hetepherakhty is shown standing with a long stick in his hand (fig. 4). Above him, the text gives his name and titles: ‘Eldest of the Hall, priest of Ma’at, Hetepherakhty’. Behind him at ground level, a servant is holding a rectangular parasol above his head to shield him from the sunlight. Behind the servant is a boy described as a ‘follower’, carrying something over his shoulder. Depicted above the boy is the eldest son of the tomb owner, the judge and scribe Nyankhptah.

Fig. 4: Relief from the tomb of Hetepherakhty

The text we are focusing on in our reading group, however, is the column of hieroglyphs in front of Hetepherakhty: ‘Observing sowing, harvesting of flax, and mowing of wheat’. Indeed, part of the wall that stretches out before him contains images of the described activities, and most of the hieroglyphs used in the ‘observation text’ are repeated to clarify the images (fig. 5). Thousands of years after they were made, they are also used to teach Egyptologists the vocabulary that the Egyptians used for their activities.

Fig. 5: Relief from the tomb of Hetepherakhty

At the top left of this image stands a scribe, with some pens behind his right ear and a roll of papyrus under his left arm. Next to him two men are working a plough, drawn by a pair of cows. The text confirms they are ‘sowing with a plough’. The man with the stick is shouting “pull hard!” at the animals. Next to the cows some men are ‘sowing wheat’. In the Egypt Centre’s course on Egyptian textiles I learned that the overarm gesture of the sower also indicates the sowing of cereal seeds, according to Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood. After the sowing the freshly sown seeds are trampled into the soil by some sheep, but in this case the sheep have been almost completely lost due to damage to the wall. Below them is another register showing men cutting ears of wheat with sickles (left and right) and pulling flax plants out of the ground (middle). As Carolyn Graves-Brown is showing in her Egypt Centre course on Egyptian textiles, long flax fibres are very useful for spinning threads for the weaving process.

This is just a small example of the great variety of activities depicted on mastaba walls for the tomb owner to observe at his leisure in the afterlife.


Further reading:

1 comment:

  1. Such interesting information about the study groups. Thank you.