The tombs of officials. Houses of Eternity

Detail, Slab Stela of Prince Wep-em-nefret
Detail, Slab Stela of Prince Wep-em-nefret

Make good your dwelling in the graveyard,
Make worthy your station in the West.

The house of death is for life.

From the “Instruction of Prince Har-djedef”

While our attitude toward the transitoriness of life often is primarily negative and tends to avoid contemplating death, ancient Egyptians regarded the preparation for their welfare after death as a major task to be undertaken during life. Providing for the afterlife meant not only building a tomb and equipping it with the necessities but also establishing a mortuary cult maintained by individuals who would provide for the requisite offerings and perform the essential rituals after the tomb owner was buried. Certainly, preparing for life after death involved one of the largest investments Egyptians had to make.

Only the elite of Egyptian society had enough means to create and support an eternal abode. The tombs and burial customs of ordinary men and women for the most part remain unknown, for throughout pharaonic history the majority of Egyptians were interred simply, in shallow pits with a few necessary items. This must be stressed to make clear that in studying Egyptian tombs and their extraordinary reliefs, statues, and burial equipment, we are concerned with the art, architecture, and funerary practices and beliefs of only a small portion of the society, the upper class.

Inscriptional as well as archaeological evidence seems to support the idea that the Egyptians regarded their tombs as houses or dwelling places for eternity. A survey of the development of funerary architecture during the Pyramid Age does not contradict this idea; yet it also demonstrates that this concept represents an oversimplification that leaves unexplored a number of crucial features or phenomena that are vital to the understanding of Egyptian concerns about the afterlife.

In general, Old Kingdom tombs, regardless of their size and the status of the owner, consist of two parts: a substructure situated below ground level containing the interment, and a superstructure, the mastaba,1 erected above the burial place, which is the monument of the deceased. The parts form a unit but developed separately and in different ways in the course of history.

It was in the Second and Third Dynasties that the idea of the dead living in their tombs was most evidently manifested in funerary architecture. A number of mastabas of the period surmount complex substructures comprising a multiplicity of chambers, some of which duplicated installations the deceased would have used in earthly life.2 The superstructure, built of mud bricks and adorned with elaborate Palace Facade paneling since the First Dynasty, gradually became simplified in this period, until the paneling was relegated to a single side.3 The tomb of Hesi-re (Saqqara 2405), from the later part of the Third Dynasty,4 shows a substructure that retains a complex of rooms (even disposed on a number of different floor levels) as well as a superstructure that has become more complicated, with corridors, an offering chamber, a serdab, or statue chamber, delicately carved wood panels set into the false doors (cat. no. 17),5 and wall decorations, all features demonstrating that the accessible part of the tomb has gained importance.6

With the Fourth Dynasty the classic type of Old Kingdom tomb, the stone mastaba, emerged,7 as limestone gradually replaced the mud bricks that were still the primary building material at the beginning of the period.8 In Meidum, offering chapels (of Nefer-maat and Itet, Ra-hotep and Nofret) and burial chambers (such as the example in the anonymous mastaba M 17)9 were erected in limestone during the reign of Snefru. Some tombs of the same period to the southeast of the Red Pyramid at Dahshur were built with superstructures of rubble cased with limestone (M II/I).10 The east facade of each Dahshur monument contains two false doors, the southern being larger and decorated, and a small mud-brick chapel that is the main offering place of the tomb has been added.11 When Khufu, one of Snefru’s many sons, ascended the throne early in the Fourth Dynasty, he chose a new place for his pyramid complex, a location commonly referred to as the necropolis or plateau of Giza (fig. 13).12 There Khufu not only constructed the largest pyramid ever built in Egypt but also ordered the erection of rows of tombs to the east and west of his own funerary monument. The tombs to the east were given to his wives (who were buried in small pyramids) and close relatives, while the mastabas to the west were built for his officials and more distant relatives. The tombs of these initial, or nucleus, cemeteries, the oldest in the necropolis,13 display a number of features that seem to set them apart from the funerary architecture of the previous reign and from later monuments as well. The mastabas in the various sections are set in rows equidistant from one another and separated by streets and avenues14 with a degree of symmetry unparalleled in both previous and later necropolises. The cores of the tombs either are solid, consisting of well-laid stone blocks, or have a rubble filling cased with stone blocks.15 Massive rectangular structures with stepped courses (fig. 14), the mastabas for the most part are not cased or decorated on their exteriors with palace facade paneling, nor were they given false doors.16 There are no entrances into rooms inside the core superstructures like those in the tombs at Meidum or Saqqara, where a cruciform chapel within the mastaba became the standard offering room.17 The serdab, present in earlier tombs and a common feature from the end of the Fourth Dynasty onward,18 is absent from the mastabas of these nucleus cemeteries, whose only decoration is a small limestone tablet, or slab stela, with delicate painted low relief (cat. nos. 51-53) set into the southern part of the east facade. A small mud-brick chapel with whitewashed walls usually encloses the place of worship and protects the slab stela, which in these unfinished structures must be regarded as a substitute for the false door that was a standard element of funerary architecture before the time of Khufu and in later tombs. A shaft penetrates the northern half of the superstructure as well as the rock below and leads to a short horizontal passage that ends in the burial chamber to the south. Except for its roof, this chamber is cased with fine limestone painted to imitate granite.19 From the middle of the Fourth Dynasty onward, cased burial chambers gradually disappear, and in the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties only in very large tombs are such chambers occasionally cased with white limestone.20 The only sculpture associated with these tombs was the reserve head, which was set up in the substructure (see “Reserve Heads” by Catharine H. Roehrig in this catalogue).21

The high quality of the relief carving and painting of the slab stelae has led to the supposition that these objects, issued from royal workshops, were distributed by the king as marks of ownership or assignment during the lifetimes of the recipients.22 It seems more probable, however, that the stelae were made at various times during Khufu’s reign, most likely once the owners died, in order to provide for the basic requirements of the mortuary cult when the tomb remained unfinished (without a casing, a stone chapel, and a false door). This theory accounts for the many epigraphic and iconographie variations the stelae display despite their uniformity in other respects.23 It also accords with the fact that most tombs were furnished with only mud-brick chapels that could not have survived long and certainly did not fulfill the initial aims of the builders. When the owner was buried, building activities usually ceased or were reduced to a minimum,24 the relatives contented themselves with preparing a place of worship simpler than originally intended, and the royal workshops contributed the slab stela as a gift. (For a somewhat different interpretation, see “Excavating the Old Kingdom” by Peter Der Manuelian in this catalogue.)

Archaeological evidence shows that in several instances either the tomb owner’s family or the king’s office of works completed a core mastaba that had a mud-brick chapel by replacing the latter with a stone chapel with a false door and adding a stone casing. These alterations clearly indicate that the tomb as it was previously constituted did not embody the form of the funerary monument the owner desired.25 In some mastabas the remains of the old mud-brick chapel were preserved underneath the additional stone construction,26 and in four of them slab stelae have been found behind the stone wall, apparently having been left in place and hidden when the new chapel was built.27

Reconstructions of this kind, which probably took place during the reign of Khufu or shortly thereafter, did not much alter the form of the mastabas. However, other alterations pursued at the same time and later had considerable impact on the size and layout of the tombs. Three methods of changing the original design can be distinguished in the monuments of the Western Cemetery. The first left the core of the mastaba intact and added new structures to the existing one. The second broke a hole in the existing core or removed part of the existing mastaba and built a chapel in the new space created (fig. 15 f). Although this procedure seriously interfered with the original structure, it was undertaken in a considerable number of tombs,28 the earliest of which are the huge twin mastabas in G 7000.29 The third method, which seems to have developed from the second, did not modify an existing structure but rather created a new design in which the chapel was built within a space left inside the core. This last procedure was used in the tombs surrounding the nucleus cemeteries and can be dated to the reigns of Khafre and Menkaure.30

The first method allowed different kinds of alteration to the form of the tomb, which can be observed in the archaeological remains (fig. 15 ). The simplest variation, visible in the tomb of Nefer (G 2110) (fig. 15 c), involved setting up two false doors in the east facade and adding a stone chapel around the main false door.31 A more complicated alteration, undertaken in the tomb of Ka-ni-nisut I, from the end of the Fourth Dynasty (G 2155) (fig. 15 d), not only introduced a casing but also extended the mastaba core to the south by building a new structure that contained the offering chamber and a serdab behind the south false door.32 A third variation incorporated a chapel or offering place in the mass by constructing it within masonry that was added to the entire east side of the original core (fig. 15 e).33 An impressive example of such an enlargement is the monumental mastaba of Hemiunu (G 4000) (fig. 15 a).34 In the east facade of the original core of this tomb two holes were broken out and reconstructed as serdabs, the north one containing the owner’s splendid statue (fig. 15 b; cat. no. 44). A long, narrow corridor with two false doors in its west wall and an entrance at its south end was erected in the new masonry. A small mud-brick structure was placed in front of the entrance to the corridor.

These procedures all increased the size of the tomb and added a chapel inside the new structure. A fourth not only accomplished these same alterations but also changed the original purpose of the tomb. All tombs of the nucleus cemeteries were built as one-shaft mastabas that served as resting places for one person.35 However, in the Western Cemetery six mastaba cores36 were enlarged by the addition of masonry that includes a shaft for a second burial (fig. 15 e). Because these tombs were destined to be cased, nothing in their final forms would have revealed that in each, two substructures are incorporated under one superstructure. Each single tomb had become a two-shaft mastaba.

All of these alterations clearly served to accomplish one intention of the tomb owners: to move the offering room, in one way or another, into the core of the superstructure. Another goal, the creation of a second burial place in the substructure, probably for the owner’s wife or a near relative, was less frequently attempted, but its realization had major consequences for the development of tomb building.

The few epigraphic remains from slab stelae in the core cemeteries show that most tombs were owned by men and only a small percentage can safely be assigned to women.37 The sex of tomb owners is sometimes deduced not from the epigraphic traces but from the reserve heads found in the substructures (cat. nos. 46-49).38 However, identifications made in this manner are controversial: for example, although the owner of G 1203 is beyond doubt a man named Ka-nefer, the head found in his tomb is considered by some scholars to represent his wife.39 The identification of a head as female in a tomb owned by a male might seem to be merely a case of confusion caused by subjective mis judgment regarding the sex of the person represented if archaeological evidence did not point in another direction: two reserve heads, one male and one female, have been found in the substructures of each of two mastabas (G 4140 and G 4440),40 indicating that both a man and a woman may have been buried in each (but see “Reserve Heads” by Catharine H. Roehrig in this catalogue)—and by extension that the head in Ka-nefer’s tomb, if female, is a representation of a woman who was interred with him. This evidence suggests that perhaps women were occasionally, but not necessarily as a rule, buried with their husbands in the husband’s mastaba.41 If this was indeed the case, it would account for the small number of women’s tombs found in the nucleus cemeteries.

Yet two mastabas in the Western Cemetery, G 1225 and G 4140, belonging to the titular princesses Nefret-iabet and Meret-ites,42 demonstrate that generalizations should not be too strictly applied regarding the gender and relative importance of tomb owners and those who were buried with them. Each mastaba was augmented by an annex containing a second shaft (fig. 15 e), raising questions about the ownership of these additional burial places.43 Since women were laid to rest in the original substructures, the secondary shafts must certainly have been intended for their husbands or offspring and clearly, then, it would be rash to argue that women’s burials were less important than or subordinate to those of their male counterparts.44

  1. The Arabic term mastaba, or “bench,” was applied by Egyptians to the rectangular benchlike form of the superstructure of these Old Kingdom tombs. In modern Egyptological usage the word commonly denotes the entire tomb, that is, both the substructure and the superstructure, although it correctly refers only to the upper part. That the narrower meaning is appropriate is borne out by the existence of numerous tombs that consist of a rock-cut chapel, a subterranean burial place, and a mastaba added as a superstructure on top of the rock-cut chapel (see p. 32 of this essay), indicating that it was considered a distinct, separate entity.
  2. The tomb of Ruabu (QS 2302), for example, consists of twenty-seven rooms, among which a bedroom, a bathroom, and a lavatory can clearly be distinguished (Quibell 1923, pp. IIf., pl. 30). On the idea of living in the tomb, see Scharff 1947; and Bolshakov 1997, pp. 28ff.
  3. Kaiser 1982, pp. 256ff., fig. 13; Kaiser 1985, pp. 25-38.
  4. Quibell 1913.
  5. Wood 1978, pp. 9-24.
  6. The building stages of this tomb are still insufficiently investigated and documented. Because Hesi-re’s monument is unique in the context of the few other known mastabas of the late Third Dynasty, it is difficult to make a clear presentation of tomb development in this epoch based on its example.
  7. Reisner 1942, pp. 5f.
  8. See Reisner 1936, pp. 184ff., 219ff.; Saad 1947; Saad 1951; Wood 1987, pp. 59-77; and D. Arnold 1994, pp. 246f
  9. Petrie 1892, pp. 11-20, pls. 1, 6, 7; Petrie, Mackay, and Wainwright, 1910, pp. 3-5, pls. 10, 12, 20/4-6; Reisner 1936, pp. 2o6ff., 234f
  10. Stadelmann et al. 1993, pp. 268-90; Alexanian T995, pp. 1-18.
  11. Alexanian in Stadelmann et al. 1993, pp. 278-81, fig. 12; Alexanian 1995, pp. 3ff., fig. 1.
  12. The name derives from a suburb of Cairo located about eight miles to the east of the pyramids. For the area enclosing the pyramids and tombs, see Zivie 1974, pp. 53ff.; and Zivie 1976, pp. If., 15 n. 2.
  13. Reisner (1942, pp. 66ff.) numbered these initial cemeteries G 1200, G 2100, G 4000, and G 7000 and called them “nucleus cemeteries,” since they form the oldest parts of the necropolis.
  14. Junker 1929, pp. 82ff.; Reisner 1942, pp. 56ff., 61ff.
  15. Reisner and Fisher 1914, pp. 232ff.; Junker 1929, pp. 14ft., 75ff., 82ff.; Reisner 1942, pp. 39ff., 177f.
  16. Only seventeen of the sixty-three mastabas in the Western Cemetery had casings, and many of these were left unfinished. Six of the eight huge twin mastabas in the Eastern Cemetery were cased. In many instances the casing was added after the original core of the mastaba had undergone considerable alteration and enlargement (see text below); thus, it is necessary to distinguish between the time the casing was executed and the time the core was erected.
  17. Reisner 1936, pp. 262-78.
  18. Bárta 1998, pp. 65-75.
  19. Junker 1929, pp. 47f., 96 (tombs G 4150, G 4160, G 4360, G 4450, G 4560).
  20. See the tomb of Ra-wer in the Central Field at Giza (no number) from the Fifth Dynasty (Hassan 1932, p. 30).
  21. Although most reserve heads have been found in burial chambers and shafts, the original position of these superb works of art is still a matter of debate. Lacovara (1997, pp. 28-36) correctly questions Junker’s theory (1929, pp. 57-61, pl. 10) that they were placed in the horizontal passage between the bottom of the shaft and the burial chamber.
  22. Junker 1929, pp. 17, 36f.; Reisner 1942, pp. 64, 79. Smith (1949, p. 159) remarks that they were “given to certain persons for the decoration of their mastabas by the king as a mark of royal favour.
  23. Barta 1963, pp. 41ff., 56; Der Manuelian 1998a, pp. 115-34.
  24. A similar situation existed in the royal pyramid complexes: as soon as the king was buried, the parts of the monument needed for establishing the royal mortuary cult and guaranteeing the sovereign’s afterlife were constructed, often with poor materials (wood and mud bricks), while the rest remained unfinished. No pyramid of the Old Kingdom is known to have been completed by a ruler’s successor as initially intended.
  25. Although Junker (1928, pp. 9ff.; 1929, pp. 14, 35, 75ff.; 1955, pp. 31ff.) always understood that these tombs should have been given casings and false doors, he explained that their seemingly unfinished state was the form of the private funerary monument intended during the reign of Khufu. He designated this type of mastaba the “normal mastaba” (Nor-malmastaba) and regarded every change and addition in the architecture of the prototype as a deviation from the original concept. Haeny (1971, pp. 153-59) has shown, however, that Junker’s reconstruction of the Normalmastaba is not sustained by the archaeological evidence. For the most recent treatment of this question in connection with the slab stelae, see Der Manuelian 1998a.
  26. Reisner and Fisher 1914, pp. 234f; Reisner 1942, p. 427, fig. 243.
  27. G 4150 (Iunu): Junker 1929, p. 173, pl. 26; Junker 1955, p. 53; G 1201 (Wep-em-nefret), G 1223 (Ka-em-ah), and G 1225 (Nefret-iabet): Reisner and Fisher 1914, pp. 234f.; Reisner 1942, pp. 64, 385f., 399, 403, pl. IIb-d. Some Egyptologists believe that the slab stelae were hidden in response to an order by the king that curtailed or forbade the practice of any funerary cult by private individuals (Shoukry 1951, pp. 31ff.; Helck 1981, p. 54; Helck 1986, p. 20). That a number of private tombs had casings, false doors, and stone chapels added to them clearly shows that this explanation is incorrect and that there could not have been any such royal order. Concerning private sculpture under Khufu, see Russmann 1995b, p. 118.
  28. G 2130, G 2140, G 2150, G 4710, G 5010, G II S, G III S, G VI S.
  29. Reisner 1942, p. 72. In some tombs, such as that of Seshem-nefer III (G 5170), sufficient superstructure was removed to allow the erection not only of an offering place but also of other cult chambers. See Junker 1938, p. 193, fig. 36.
  30. Reisner 1942, pp. 69f., 81f.
  31. Ibid., pp. 422f., fig. 109. Similar reconstructions can be found in the tombs of Akhi (G 4750; Junker 1929, pp. 234ff., fig. 55) and of Snefru-seneb (G 4240; Reisner 1942, p. 465, fig. 110, map of cemetery 4000).
  32. Tomb G 2155 = G 4780; see Junker 1934, pp. 138ff., fig. 12; and Reisner 1942, pp. 446f.
  33. See G 1201 and G 2210, both left unfinished, and G 1201, completed in mud bricks (Reisner 1942, pp. 385b, 433).
  34. Junker 1929, pp. 132ff., figs. 18-20, pls. 15, 16, 18.
  35. One of the few early exceptions is the mastaba of Hemiunu (G 4000), with two substructures, the southern one of which was excavated later and left unfinished (ibid., pp. 141-45, fig. 18).
  36. G 1223, G 1225, G 1227, G 1233, G 4140, G 4150. In all cases the addition was built on the north side of the mastaba.
  37. Of the sixty-three mastabas in the nucleus cemeteries only eight can be assigned to women, while twenty-six clearly belonged to men. The inequality is obvious even though the considerable number of remaining tombs cannot be taken into account, as they are anonymous (either because they were never occupied or because the names of their owners are lost). Moreover, only about 15 percent of false doors executed throughout the entire Old Kingdom are known to have belonged exclusively to women. See Wiebach 1981, pp. 227, 255, n. 200.
  38. Tefnin 1991, pp. 41-52, 97-129.
  39. Smith 1949, p. 26 (21), pl. 9b. There is also uncertainty regarding the sex of the individuals represented in heads from G 4340, G 4350, G 4540, and G 4560; see Junker 1929, pp. 64f.; Tefnin 1991, pp. 64ff., 104, 114, 122, 127; and Junge 1995, pp. 105ff.
  40. Reisner 1915, pp. 30f., figs. 5-7, 10; Reisner 1942, p. 462, pls. 46c,d, 52a,b, p. 477, pls. 49c, 54a,b.
  41. Reisner and Fisher 1914, p. 240; Junker 1929, p. 38. It is possible, of course, that at least the second reserve heads in tombs G 4140 and G 4440 were placed there randomly, after they had been stolen from their original sites in other burial chambers, in which case serious doubts would be raised about the original locations of all the other heads found in burial chambers; if, however, they were left there deliberately, the only reasonable explanation for their pairing would be that they represent men and women who were buried together. Yet in no burial chamber have the fragments of more than one limestone sarcophagus been found, which indicates that second burials must have been carried out in wood coffins. Fragments of both wood and stone have been discovered in a number of burial chambers—the usual explanation for this being that the wood coffins were put inside the stone sarcophagi (Junker 1929, pp. 45, 54, 190, 233f., 247).
  42. Reisner 1942, pp. 460ff., 403ff. The simple forms of the women’s titles do not give any clue as to whether or not they were descendants of the king. Since no direct offspring of Khufu were buried in the Western Cemetery, it has been deduced that Nefret-iabet and Meret-ites are merely honorary princesses. See Schmitz 1976, pp. 123, 127f., 133; and Ziegler 1990b, p. 188.
  43. Shaft G 1225-annex A has been completely plundered (Reisner 1942b, p. 405, fig. 230).
  44. See ibid., p. 285; this assumption is refuted not only by these two tombs but also by a number of others.
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