What A Virtually Untouched 4,400-year-old Ancient Egyptian Tomb Might Reveal
The world of archaeology has been abuzz this week with the announcement by Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities of the discovery of a new tomb. An Egyptian archaeological mission conducting excavations at Saqqara encountered the extremely well-preserved tomb of a royal official by the name of Wahtye. This individual served during the reign of Fifth Dynasty pharaoh Neferirkare as an aid and priest, and the splendor of his tomb reflects that status.
The press release was accompanied by stunning photos of beautiful reliefs and murals, but what lies behind that glamour? To explore what archaeologists can learn from an ancient tomb like this, the author spoke with Egyptologist Leslie Anne Warden, Associate Professor of Art History at Roanoke College, an expert on Old Kingdom Egypt. (She was not part of the excavations.)
DSA: This new tomb might be full of 'beautiful things,' but what can archaeologists learn by excavating another tomb in Egypt?
LAW: This is a tomb of a high official, so it gives us insight into the bureaucracy of the 5th Dynasty in Ancient Egypt. When we think about Egypt, we tend to think of a Pharaoh who controlled the whole country, but what becomes clear with tombs such as this is how complex the bureaucracy under Pharaoh was. This tomb highlights how one individual held multiple roles and how those roles might have been interconnected. Since Wahtye was buried in a royal necropolis, he was obviously associated with the Pharaoh, but he also carried several titles that are reflective of the religious hierarchy, so we see how religion and state intertwined in the Old Kingdom.
DSA: What makes the site of Saqqara, where this tomb was found, an important place?
LAW: The first pyramid built in Egypt – the Step Pyramid - was built at Saqqara during the 3rd Dynasty. During the 4th Dynasty, Giza became the burial place of choice for the Pharaohs, and we of course have the height of pyramid architecture at this time. When it comes to the 5th Dynasty, Pharaohs were buried at multiple different sites, and the private citizens who served them were not necessarily buried at the same site as the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh that Wahtye worked under, Neferirkare, was buried at Abusir, a site further south. What we see is a breaking from the 4th Dynasty conventions where Pharaoh and his administration were kept very close and tight together in both life and death, and now in the 5th Dynasty the administration became more complex and diffused. Also, at this point, positions within the government bureaucracy had a hereditary element. So, it is interesting that Saqqara continued to be an important place to the Old Kingdom Egyptians. Wahtye's burial in Saqqara, away from the king he served, combined with his titles indicates that he was not a particularly high-ranking individual, though he was part of the bureaucracy and the royal network.
DSA: What do you mean by not high-ranking?
LAW: In the Egyptian bureaucracy you had Pharaoh on top, then you had the man right under him who was the Vizier. This individual would have made a lot of the day to day decisions running the government. Under the Vizier there was a whole slew of other people. It is hard to make a simple hierarchy out of it. Some titles denoted rank and not actual responsibilities. If Wahtye were someone closely associated with the Pharaoh, like the Vizier, or the head priest of a state deity, or even if he were a royal hair dresser who would touch Pharaoh's body, he would have been in a more important position. This person was lower in the hierarchy.
DSA: Wahtye chose to be depicted in his tomb with a relief featuring his wife and mother. What was the importance of these family roles during the Old Kingdom?
LAW: Ancient Egyptians aspired to have families. That was one of the most important things you could do, to be a father or mother of children. The family line was incredibly important to the Egyptian afterlife. In order to live forever, you needed someone to come and leave you food and offerings. Without a family that would not happen. Having your wife and mother in your tomb was important; your wife, of course, was necessary for continuing the family line, and your mother is the person who brought you into this world. It makes sense that you would reference that person as you pass into the next world. Mothers and fathers are incredibly important figures in Egyptians' lives.
DSA: We are looking at the tomb of a royal official, but can a discovery like this teach us more about the lives of average people lived during the Old Kingdom?
LAW: We can use this tomb to learn about what life was like for this person, this particular class of person, and particularly how the 5th Dynasty was operating at this point in time. The painted scenes and statues are stunning but remember that Egyptian art was very idealized. Wahtye was likely a land owner, based on what we know of other officials of similar ranks, and that land is likely where much of his personal wealth came from. He used his tomb to present to us an idealized view of his estates. He would not have done any of the farming or labor himself. Catching reality in these images was not the goal. One of the interesting points to look forward to will be to see if the Egyptian team finds untouched shafts with human remains and offerings. Understanding what the offering and funerary rituals were for non-royal people at this time is an interesting field of study and more data to reflect on those rituals would be helpful. If the excavations encounter the bodies of Wahtye and his family, it would be particularly interesting to see what bioarchaeological analyses of those remains might reveal about their lives.
-- Sent from my Linux system.