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The Politics of Placement: The Development of the New Kingdom Theban Necropolis

30 March 2008

Dr. J. J. Shirley is an Associate Professor (Lecturer in the UK), in Egyptology at the University of Wales, Swansea. Dr. Shirley’s lecture was entitled, The Politics of Placement: The Development of the New Kingdom Theban Necropolis.

Dr. Shirley began her lecture by noting that she would be discussing new research, and would be concentrating on the 18th Dynasty during the period between about 1550BC and 1350BC.  By way of introduction, she noted that this period was a very dynamic period in Egypt’s history and that there were clearly changes occurring in the elite ranks of the bureaucracy.  As part of her Ph.D. research she has documented the monuments left by these elites – most specifically their tombs.  To date she has recorded and documented more than 100 tombs dating from the period between the reign of Thutmosis III and that of Amenhotep II.  And – she has found some very interesting information and questions emerging as the project proceeds. 

How was an Egyptian elite personage able to place his tomb in a particular place in the Theban necropolis?  Did it have to do with family status?  Did it have to do with his relationship to the king?  Was it related to his position in the bureaucracy?   It seemed clear that the king and very high officials in the government may have played some role in the allotment of tomb sites, but just what that role was is vague.

Thebes and Saqqara were both very important for elite burials during the 18th Dynasty; however, most of the burials at Saqqara seem to be post-Amarna in origin, so the Theban necropolis is a better source for evaluating the question at hand.

The elite tombs at Thebes are about three and a half kilometers from the river’s edge, above the cultivated area and in several defined necropoli, which are today named for the modern villages in and around which they lie.  The tombs run for about three kilometers north to south along the ridge line formed by the hills which also houses the Valley of the Kings farther to the west.

Thebes was the ceremonial capitol of Egypt during the 18th Dynasty, while Memphis served as the administrative capitol.  The west bank and the necropoli which developed there became connected with creation and the emergence and return of Amun-Re Kamutef.

Dr. Shirley believes that it was the goal of the Theban kings to redesign the landscape of the west bank to create a unified city necropolis that was a reflection of the cosmos.  It incorporated processional ways and temples which were carefully located such that they impacted the development of the necropolis.  As in any emerging design, the spatial usage of the necropolis changed over time.

The earliest area developed at the northern most end on the lower slopes of the necropolis known as Dra Abu el-Naga.  It had a slow start but the placement of the elite tombs was clearly related to the funerary temples of Amenhotep I and Ahmose-Nefertari as well as early royal tombs which affected where the elite tombs in the area were situated.

From the reign of Hatshepsut to the reign of Amenhotep III, elite tombs are concentrated in the Asasif, Khokha and Qurna as well as at Qurnet Murai. As with the Dra Abu el-Naga tombs these tombs clearly relate to where the nearby royal mortuary temples are located.  During the Amarna period a drop off in burial occurs but picks up again, post-Amarna, in the village of Deir el Medina, as well as the areas of Qurnet Marai, Qurna and Dra Abu el-Naga.  In Qurna newer tombs are generally located on the lower plain, right along the ridge line, or they usurp 18th dynasty tombs farther up the hill.

The entire West Bank ultimately became a giant processional way with tombs, temples and other monuments placed in such a way as to create a special relationship between the gods and the king. They also facilitated the involvement of private tombs and their owners in the many festivals that occurred throughout the year.  These valley festivals were important to both the king and private citizens who, through the careful placement of their tombs and the pathways leading among them, could fully participate in the festivals and processions.

Over 1000 private tombs have been identified in the Theban necropolis to date.  Some areas have many tombs and others seem almost devoid of them as not all the stone in the area is good enough for tomb building. The 18th Dynasty Theban tombs are rock-cut tombs, built with above ground chapels and below ground burial chambers.  Most have a decorated transverse hall at the front of the tomb, which reflects aspects of the tomb owner’s life and career.  As one moved down the corridor to the back of the chapel, however, the decoration relates to the funerary rituals and the deceased’s participation in them.  Some tombs use the natural rock to facilitate parts of the decoration, as in the tomb of Sennefer, where the undulating ceiling is very effectively used to portray a grape arbor.  Interestingly, the burial chambers in these 18th Dynasty tombs are almost universally undecorated.

Where the tomb was placed not only related to the quality of the stone in a given location, but also to the spot where the best access to the processionals is facilitated – all of which is closely connected to the king, his cult, the gods and the afterlife. 

Dr. Shirley wondered if there were other factors involved in the placement of tombs.  For example, did the  position or the family of the deceased play any role in the placement of his tomb?  Was the decision as to where to place the tomb really geared to the afterlife, or did the availability of an appropriate space play a greater role - after all, prime locations would begin to become scarce as more and more people placed their tombs on the slopes overlooking the royal funerary temples.  Who decided on where an individual might place his tomb?  How much did a relationship with the king impact the location of one’s tomb?  With these “other factors” in mind, Dr. Shirley investigated the placement of tombs of high officials who are known to us. And found some most revealing information. 

As she plotted tombs along the cliff face, after identifying the routes of paths which undoubtedly have survived from earliest times, clear patterns emerged.  In the case of the early Dynasty 18 viziers – the prime ministers of the day whose extended families were also spread throughout the ranks of the Amun priesthood and administration – a series of individuals from within this extended family carefully placed their tombs along axes which related to their rank and lineage, as well as to the funerary temple of the king or kings under whom they had served.

For example, Ineni, royal architect to Thutmosis I and mayor of Thebes when Hatshepsut came to power, utilized an imposing saff tomb near the top of the ridge.  His brother-in-law Ahmose-Aametu, the vizier under three kings (Thutmose I-Hatshepsut/Thutmose III), located his tomb along the same path, followed by that of Useramun, Ahmose-Aametu’s son and successor, near the bottom of the slope – all in a direct line down the cliff and in line-of-site to the mortuary temple of Thutmosis III.  These three men were members of the same extended family over several generations.  Useramun actually had two tombs, the upper evoking memories of the primordial mound on a direct path with his second tomb.  It is also on a direct path with the tomb of his brother, Neferhotep, and his grandson, Amenemhat.  Thus a sort of “family complex” began to evolve. The tombs of Amenmes and Rekmire, two additional extended family members, are outside of the central “family complex” but along the same topographical contour, so clearly related in their location.  All of these tombs have a direct line-of-site to the mortuary temples of Thutmosis III and Amenhotep II, and a sort of processional path leads from one tomb to another.  Family members who couldn’t afford such auspicious tombs had the option to use the tomb courtyards for participation in festivals and to view the processions associated with them.

It is interesting to note that among this family complex is the tomb of Amenemhat, who was not related by blood to the family of viziers, but rather was steward to the vizier, serving under Useramun,  He devotes an entire wall of his tomb to depictions of Useramun and another wall to depictions of Ahmose-Aametu and his family.  Amenemhat received this auspicious tomb in this very choice location not because of family ties, but because he was a highly favored underling of this family.

The same types of relationships were found with other tomb groupings in the same area. What starts out as a family complex becomes part of a larger cluster of tombs used by administrators within the Amun cult and their subordinates.

Following the co-regency of Hatshepsut/Thutmosis III through the reign of Amenhotep II, the central and southern end of Qurna, nearer the mortuary temple of Amenhotep II, is populated with the tombs of civil administrative and military officials. Predominately, those whose tombs were built in this area are high ranking officials associated with the royal court and they are invariably the “first” of their position; no subordinates are entombed among them.  Likewise, only High Priests are entombed here; their subordinates are all buried elsewhere.

Dr. Shirley noted that two or three distinct groups can be identified to specific areas of the necropolis. For example, in the central section are officials serving in the late years of Thutmosis III’s reign until the reign of Amenhotep II. These include the Overseer of the Treasury, Djhuty; and Overseers of the Granaries, Minnakht and his son Menkheper; and the High Priest of Amun, Menkheperresoneb; all of whom were highly favored by the king and all of whom were related “officially” as the elite of their positions, if not by family.

At southern Qurna is a grouping of tombs made up of officials, predominately military, with very strong ties to both Thutmosis III and Amenhotep II.  They include Amenemheb-Mahu, an important military official; civil officials, royal friends (hangers-on) and those with quasi-military titles, all of whom are connected to the person of the king while several are related to royal nurses and tutors. All stress their function and the paramount importance of their relationship to the king in the decoration of their tombs, where he is depicted repeatedly. All these tombs are within line-of-site to the mortuary temples of Thutmosis III and Amenhotep II. 

At the southern-most end of Qurna are the tombs of a Vizier, a Mayor of Thebes, a 3rd High Priest of Amun and his brother a Royal Steward, a Royal Herald and a High Priest of Amun, all of whom served under Amenhotep II. All have depictions of the king in their tombs and all were married or related to royal nurses and tutors of the king, suggesting their tomb locations are related to their court connections.

The same patterns show up during the reigns of Thutmosis IV and Amenhotep III; military and civilian officials clustered together by function rather than by family groups, and the tombs almost universally contain depictions of the king.  During this time officials connected to the court or of military rank are able to obtain spots at the top level of the ridge at Qurna for their tombs. Unless also connected to the court, only the High Priest among all the religious officials is included in this uppermost, prestigious location.

Thus, Dr. Shirley returned to her original question:  who decided which officials could build their tombs and where?  She believes that:

·          There was no official “locator of tombs” in the government;

·          She has found no inscriptions which mention how tomb sites were chosen;

·          She feels reasonably sure that the Vizier, the Mayor of Thebes, and the High Priest of Amun probably had a hand in the decision, or at least its execution;

·          But overall it is the king who seems to be granting or denying spots, especially in the mid- to late-18th Dynasty;

·          How the tomb owner defines himself – whether by family, career or his relation to the king – seem to be dominating factors in his tomb placement;

·          Tomb placement reflects not just the individual but also the wider changes in power and influence among different groups that occur within the administration of the 18th Dynasty.