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Recent Final Report on the Tomb of Senneferi at Thebes TT99

28 January 2007

January’s lecture was presented by Dr. Nigel Strudwick, currently the holder of the Dorothy K. Hohenberg Chair of Excellence in Art History at the University of Memphis, and Assistant Keeper in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum in London.  Dr. Strudwick’s lecture was entitled Recent Work in the Tomb of Senneferi at Thebes.

 The history of the tomb covers a long period beginning in the New Kingdom but with implications as late as the Greco/Roman period. The tomb, also known as T(heban) T(Tomb-99),  was owned by a man named Senneferi who was Overseer of the Seal – in other words, the king’s financial manager – in the 18th Dynasty reign of Thutmosis III, circa 1420BC.

 From Thebes, though not directly associated with his tomb, is a magnificent block statue of Senneferi, which is completely in tact and now in the collection of the British Museum.  It is believed that the statue came to the museum when the first of three collections of Egyptian antiquities amassed by Henry Salt was purchased by the museum.  According to the information in the British Museum’s archives, the piece came into the collection in 1829.  This date had always bothered Dr. Strudwick as it didn’t correlate with any of the known dates for acquisitions of any of the Salt collections.  The first collection was sold to the British Museum in 1823, and the second was purchased by the Louvre in 1825. Salt died in 1827, and the third collection was sold at auction by Sotheby’s London, in 1835, at which time the British Museum purchased a considerable number of significant pieces. So if the block statue of Senneferi came from one of the Salt collections, how did it come to the museum in 1829?

 Samuel Birch came to the British Museum in 1836. He was the first Egyptologist at the British Museum, and he wrote what are now known as “slips” for each object then in the Egyptian collection of the British Museum.  In trying to resolve the dating question, Dr. Strudwick first consulted the Birch Slip entry for the statue.  The slip does attribute the piece to the Salt collection, but contains only a note in the margin that indicates 1829.  Dr. Strudwick guessed that the Salt collection attribution was correct, but was still not satisfied with the date.  He knew that Henry Salt had been in Egypt between 1816 and his death in 1827, with Belzoni, the former circus strongman, collecting for him.  There was lots of politics surrounding the collecting done by Salt.  Salt felt he had a mandate to collect for the British Museum and the greater glory of England.  The British Museum, however, was not so sure and so didn’t necessarily share that mandate. 

 Dr. Strudwick decided he needed to consult the list of the first collection of objects made by Salt and provided to the British Museum, a list dated 1818.  Dr. Strudwick believed that this list was intended to give the museum an idea of the caliber of material Salt was amassing, and suspected that some pieces were sent to the museum at that time, as “teasers”. Salt had listed and described each item, specified what he estimated to be a fair value for the object, and had annotated a “+” by each object he considered of especial importance or quality.  The Trustees of the British Museum were indignant that he had noted values and viewed his list as nothing more than a ploy to get money from the museum.  The list did, however, contain an entry for a block statue that met the description of the Senneferi statue, and a very faint, pencil notation of number “48” appeared in the margin. (Number 48 is the current number assigned to this piece.)   An even stronger clue was a notation that two objects – BM-EA 26, a statue of Seti II and BM-EA 48, the block statue of Senneferi, were marked as “already in the Museum”– the “teasers” sent to the Trustees to heighten their interest in the material Salt was collecting.   The same piece was noted in the Annual Synopsis of the holding of the museum in 1827.  Thus Dr. Strudwick is convinced that the Senneferi statue actually came to the British museum in 1819.

 The Salt collection was first displayed at the British Museum in the Townley Gallery.  During those early days there was not a consistent numbering scheme in place and objects were sometime renumbered every year when an inventory was made.  In 1827 nobody could yet read the hieroglyphs nor understand the iconography so the attributions for many pieces had little or nothing to do with reality.  The Senneferi statue was at one time noted as a statue of Isis!   In 1834, however, the main building of the British Museum was opened and the 1835 Annual Synopsis lists the statue as renumbered to #48 – the number it holds today.

 Now to the tomb!  One of the reasons Dr. Strudwick selected this tomb for excavation was because there was no documentation about it, and because it was rather badly damaged.   It took 11 years to complete the work on the tomb, considerably longer than expected on initial examination.

 The tomb of Senneferi is divided into three main parts:

  • A courtyard with several deep burial shafts;
  • A rock-cut offering chapel;
  • A superstructure – part of the solar aspect of the tomb – with little niches that perhaps held a small statue of the owner adoring the sun god.

Inside the tomb’s offering chapel there are some very important wall paintings, most in fragmentary condition now, but of great importance nonetheless.  At the very back of the tomb there is an offering scene with Senneferi and his wife with remarkably good paint still adhering on the part of the wall that remains.  In the front of the tomb there are painted scenes of Senneferi’s journey to Lebanon, by direction of the king, to procure wood for the flagpoles at Karnak temple.  Another scene in a small corner shows an Asiatic fortress – migdol type – with four people on the battlements, their hands raised in adoration, presumably to Senneferi.   Yet another scene contains a strange figure that somewhat resembles a teddy bear, with his arms a bit akimbo and with hands resting on his bowed thighs just above his knees.  Dr. Strudwick believes this to be one of the earliest representation of the god Bes, as a bed with a fragment of a young woman are just to the proper left of the god image.  He believes this painting may be a metaphor for the rebirth of the deceased, as Bes protects women in childbirth. 

What makes this tomb spectacularly interesting, however, relates to what happened between 1420BC and 1907AD.   The tomb is a T-shaped tomb with a courtyard in front and two tomb shafts in the courtyard, one which is very deep.  The largest tomb shaft leads 15 meters down to a passage that connects to the burial chambers which are about 20 meters below the surface.  In 1903, Robert Mond worked in Thebes and he or one of his staff went down the shaft then.   After Dr. Strudwick got past the debris and wash accumulated at the bottom of the entrance shaft and entered the passage to the burial chamber, virtually everything found in the tomb was from the 18th dynasty.  It appears that Mond went down the shaft, found that the tomb had been robbed, picked up a few things, then decided not to bother with anything else.  Until Dr. Strudwick’s excavation team descended, clearly, nobody else had either!

Senneferi was not the only person buried in the tomb. Who were these other inhabitants?  Remains of five different people were found in this major chamber.  They included two males who died in their 50s, two females who also died in their 50s, and one female who died between the age of 25 and 30.   Dr. Strudwick believes that the deceased are Senneferi, his wife, possibly Senneferi’s parents as they are noted in some of the tomb reliefs, and likely a daughter.  One female skull and mummy was found completely covered with a centimeter of white plaster; clearly a very high status burial.  The only name that appears in the tomb is that of Senneferi, however.   Coffin bits are all of the classic black of Tuthmosis III’s reign.  Of particular importance were bits of a linen shroud inscribed with texts from the Book of the Dead, as well as bits of papyrus containing texts from the Book of the Dead.  These fragments are especially important as they represent a transition-in-progress in which the spells from the Book of the Dead were inscribed on papyrus rolls and stored in the tomb as protection for the deceased. The tomb also produced fragments of four canopic jars, with names of the four sons of Horus but not that of the owner, and some ritual objects used during the funeral, including elephant ivory pieces of model adzes inscribed with werhekau and imyut.  These seem to be fragments of the actual ritual adzes used in the opening of the mouth ceremony during the tomb owner’s funeral.  Other ritual objects include a khepresh – the leg of an ox; a long wooden finger – possibly the “finger of electrum” mentioned in some texts; part of an incense burner and ostraca that when put back together contain various scenes of the opening of the mouth ceremony – perhaps a “users guide” for the ceremony - left in the tomb on purpose.

Storage jars and pots were found in the tomb in vast amounts. The excavation reconstructed 120 vessels, some of which seem to have had to be smashed to get them into the tomb. They form the most complete assemblage of pottery from a disturbed tomb ever found at Thebes.

The tomb was clearly reused. There is evidence for both further 18th dynasty use, as well as later reuse.  A second shaft in the courtyard is much shallower, and objects found in it hint at use later in the 18th dynasty.  A statue of a man named Amenhotep who was the Deputy Overseer of the Seal – Senneferi’s deputy—was found thrown away in a shaft in the tomb in 1993.   Amenhotep had a tomb, now lost, that was recorded in 1870.  The false door from his tomb was found reused at Karnak Temple.  Also mentioned is a woman named Renena who was the daughter of the Overseer of the Seal, (Senneferi’s daughter?) who may have been married to Amenhotep. It is most interesting that Senneferi’s son-in-law seems to have commemorated himself in his father-in-law’s tomb, and emphasizes how little we know about these practices in the New Kingdom.

During the Third Intermediate Period new chambers were excavated in the old tombs.  In the chapel of Senneferi’s tomb, six later shafts were found.  The produced a little material from Dynasty 21 – based on coffin fragments - related to the burials of at least four people.  From Dynasties 22 and 23 there were lots of pieces and one family can even be identified – that of Tabakenmut, who lived and died during Dynasty 22.

During Dynasty 25 high officials continued to cut new shafts in old tombs.  We have from a linen fragment tied to the toe of one burial, a reference to King Shabaka, and a mummy of one, Wedjahor, who was a high priest – Fourth Priest of Amun - and whose death can now be dated to 705 BC with some certainty.   Another coffin in the tomb, for which fragments were found, is inscribed for Horempe.  A statue of Horempe was found in the cachette in Karnak. He was the son of the Fourth Priest of Amun, Wadjahor and perhaps died in the 12th year of the reign of Taharqa.

The tomb also produced fragment of a cartonage cage coffin which is made with cutouts between the decorative figures.  Only one other of this type is known.  The cartonage cage coffin in TT 99 belonged to a person named Nini, who was perhaps the wife of Wedjahor.  Nini is called daughter of a priest of Kawa in the Sudan, and may have been the wife of Wedjahor.  Also an unusual shabti is only paralleled in the burials of two queens of the reign of either Shabaka or Shebitku in the Sudan.   It shows clearly a Sudanese influence in 25th Dynasty Thebes.

There are loculi – recesses cut into the tomb – and pottery that date from the Greco/Roman period in the tomb, and we know that the tomb was lived in by a Coptic family until 1907.  There are cooking installations, dividing walls, etc. all still remained in various states of completeness.  In 1907 the tomb and two others were purchased for 10 Egyptian Pounds from the family who had been living there.

To recap, the tomb was built in 1420BC, was reused in the 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 25th Dynasties, and in to the Greco/Roman period.  It was used as a dwelling until 1907. Thereafter the tomb was rarely entered by Egyptologists.  In 1993, Dr. Strudwick with his wife, Helen Strudwick as his co-director, began excavation and study of the tomb which went on until 2002.   For more information about TT99, Dr. Strudwick urged attendees to visit

Dr. Strudwick has two new books just out from the University of Texas Press and the Society for Biblical Literature that may be of interest to readers.  They are:

·         Masterpieces of Ancient Egypt, published by the University of Texas Press which highlights 200 of the British Museum’s finest Egyptian pieces. ($23.45 at the UTP web site)

·         Texts from the Pyramid Age, published by the Society for Biblical Literature. ($39.95 at the SBL web site)