History Under the Microscope:

What Egyptian Graffiti Tells Us About the Past

Our June Meeting was a fascinating slide lecture given by Dr. Teresa Moore, of the Berkeley Near Eastern Studies Department on ancient Egyptian graffiti inscrip-tions. She opened her lecture with a slide of the Colossi of Memnon erected by Amenhotep III about 1370 B.C.E. on the West Bank of the New Kingdom religious center of Egypt, Thebes. Believed to be Memnon, a son of Aurora, goddess of the dawn who fell at Troy, the monuments gave off a sound like the twang of a musical instrument in the morning as the sun rose until they were piously repaired and the sound was no longer heard. These monuments were visited by a party of Romans about 130 A.D. which included the Emperor Hadrian and a Roman lady, Sabina, who had an inscrip-tion carved for her on the base and legs of one of the statues. These are only some of the most easily accessible graffiti to be found in the Theban area.

Writing was believed to be a gift of the gods and almost any blank surface seems to have appealed to scribes and officials as a space to fill with formal inscriptions of the king, prayers to the gods, records of military exploits, or records of quarrying expeditions. The common man was likewise felt compelled to leave his name, prayers and even tourist information wherever artisans or sculptures had left an open patch of stone.
The Wadi Hammamat, with its access to the mines and quarries in the eastern desert and its access to the Red Sea ports leading to Punt and the Arabian Peninsula afforded many rocky surfaces to inscribe. The 11th dyn-asty expedition leader Henu, the "keeper of the Door of the South" recorded his dispatch of a ship to Punt and the successful quarrying of bekhen stone for use as statues in the royal temples of Mentuhotep V. A structure known as the Paneon contains a carved falcon with Greek inscriptions, as well as graffiti in Egyptian, Greek and Latin. Other quarries at Hatnub (the Mansion of Gold) where Egyptian alabaster (calcite) was quarried are also full of inscriptions of the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom. The nomarchs of the Hare-nome left inscriptions there, including one by a certain Kai, who recorded that "I rescued my city in the day of violence from the terrors of the royal house." an indication that he had repulsed an attack by the king in the period of pharaonic decline.

Sehel Island near Aswan, the old border of Egypt proper, contains graffito of Senusert III recording the cutting of a canal there to aid his conquests in Nubia. The granite quarries contain many New Kingdom inscriptions from envoys carrying out the Pharaohs' commissions for cutting obelisks and stone for statues and records of the Viceroys of Kush proclaiming their great deeds on behalf of the royal house. A certain Amenope left a prayer to the goddess Anukis, daughter of the cataract god Khnum and his wife Satis, who is easily identified by her unusual feathered headdress. Amenhotep II left tablets recording his victories in Nubia early in his reign and the completion of his father's (Thuthmose III) temples. Other graffito include one by Ty who accompanied the Pharaoh Hatshepsut into Nubia, the only mention of such a campaign by the female king; this one mentions the artist, Amenmose, who carved it as well. Hatshepsut's right hand, Senenmut left his mark at the quarries of Aswan as well, in his role as Steward of Amun. He recorded the extraction of two obelisks from the quarries, to be erected at the eastern boundary of Karnak (these are not the famous ones erected by Hatshepsut in the temple) which are now lost.

The pyramids were already tourist attractions for the New Kingdom travelers who visited them, being even for them almost one thousand years old. At Abusir Müller found a scribe's message (now lost) from the time of Thutmose III piously wishing for offerings for Sahure in the temple of his pyramid there. In the North and South buildings of the pyramid complex of Djoser, inscriptions dating back to the reign of Amenhotep I (circa 1530 B.C.E.) through the 20th Dynasty enabled scholars to make the link between Netjerikhet (as he is known throughout the complex) and Djoser. Another  graffiti from year 20 of Thutmose III mentions both Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. The formula text for something wondrous: "found as if it were heaven" was the praise of a uniquely qualified (and self-satisfied) scribe for the funeral complex erected by Djoser at Saqqara. A certain Hadnahkt left his inscriptions in ink on the walls of the north building within the complex where they can be seen today under a plexiglass plate.

Specific to the Theban area are about four thousand inscriptions dating from about 4000 B.C. to 400 A.D. found along many of the ancient footpaths which crisscross the Theban hills. Jaroslav Cerny spent most of his life studying and recording the graffiti in the Theban area and the workers' village at Deir el Medina. While at work on the Tomb of Thutmose I (KV 38) he found a shady rock-cut chair inscribed for the supervisor of the work-men, Kenhirkopeshef. Another Deir el Medina workman, Amennahkt left a record of his visit to "water from heaven" in the West Valley, a grotto filled by one of the great floods which infrequently inundate the Theban hills. Recording a family outing with his sons, it demon-strates that the workman could not have been virtual prisoners in their village as some scholars have main-tained. Votive stelae with scribes worshipping Amun or the deified Amen-hotep I (the guardian of the workmen's village) are found in the hills and wadis surrounding the Valley of the Kings.

The Valley of the Queens (the Place of Perfection or Beauty)) also has a natural grotto which is sometimes filled with rainwater where inscriptions by the workman are located.  In QV 66 (the tomb of Nefertari) has an inked notation on the west wall which notes the delivery of plaster to the work crew painting the tomb. Numerous inscriptions form the time of Ramesses II and Merneptah are to be found in the Valley of the Queens.

Activity in the necropolis can be connected to graffiti found both in and around the tombs. The tomb of Thutmose IV (KV 43)  contains the inscriptions left by inspectors of the royal tombs in the reign of Horemhab. The burial was described as removed under the auspices of Maya (the treasurer of Tutankhamen) in graffiti left by the Steward Thutmose. From this inscription we know that Horemhab was putting the necropolis right about year 8 of his reign.

Another inscription lists the date of Merneptah's burial (1204 B.C.E.) and the year 1 of his successor. Graffiti also indicate that the Tomb of Seti I was already open in the 20th dynasty. The civil war at the end of the 20th dynasty is reflected in graffiti found in the tomb of Horemhab (KV 57) written by the Deir el Medina scribe Butehamen in year 4 with the burial removed or exam-ined by the vizier two years later.
Under Generalissimo Piankh (Herihor's successor at Thebes) tombs were again examined and their contents  removed and cached. Graffiti of these activities are to be found in the Tomb of Hatshepsut Meryamun (KV 42)  and Thutmose I (KV 38). Their final resting place would be the tomb of Inhapy (DB 320) in the cliffs of Deir el Bahari. Despite the seeming inaccessibility of DB 320, graffiti from as early as the Middle Kingdom are found nearby. In the remote Valley of the Eagle, graffiti are found referring to Amenhotep (I?). Once again the name of Butehamen is found, this time asking for the establishment of his name. Is Butamen part of the reburial commission? Dr. Moore speculated that Amenhotep I may have been buried in this remote spot before his final transfer to the DB 320 cache as Amen-hotep I appears to have been one of the last of the reburials in that cache. Butehamen is mentioned in a Smendes docket in connection with the reburial of Ramesses III.  A graffiti dated to year 13 near DB 320 mentions his name as well as three others almost at the entrance to the tomb. These seem to indicate that the scribe Butehamen must have had some important commissions relating to the reburial of the royal mummies under Pinejem.

The last persons to leave graffiti before the wave of European travelers who left their names and remarks over the ancient monuments of Thebes were the Coptic monks who made their homes in the tombs and caves of the region. One Coptic father, who called himself the sinner Abraham, invoked the saints to intercede for him just as the villagers had asked the deified Amenhotep the first to intercede with the gods for them centuries before. A brother Jacob addresses visitors who come upon his inscription to pray for him in a traditional style which is found in many tombs from pharaonic Egypt.

Dr. Moore summarized that Egyptian graffito thus inform us of historical events we might not otherwise have in the record (such as the Hatshepsut Nubian campaign or the reburials of the royal mummies) as well as giving us glimpses into the lives of individual scribes and travelers from the ancient past.

  • Al Berens
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