2015.08.19 | By Peter Der Manuelian
§1. Despite the fact that Egyptologists have millennia of primary sources to draw upon, we can be tempted to fall into the dangerous trap of using evidence from one era to support our conclusions for another. And sometimes the two eras are thousands of years apart. It is no easy task to climb inside the head of an ancient Egyptian to decipher the significance attached to a style, a color, or a motif, and then further, to decide if that significance changed greatly over time. The representation of skin color, for example, could represent ethnic origins, or symbolic associations with regenerative forces of nature. In this present case, a decorated chamber from the Pyramid Age (3rd millennium BCE) may or may not contribute to notional blondness of later ages, but connecting the dots is part of the challenge—and the fun—of scholarly investigation.
§2. On April 23rd, 1927, the very last day of the season’s work in the Eastern Cemetery, the Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition under George Reisner, was cleaning the east face of a tomb. Suddenly a doorway appeared in an unusual place: below ground level.
§3. Two unique inscriptions flanked the entranceway, giving the name of the tomb-owner as Queen Meresankh. The date of Meresankh’s death is recorded on the right as “Year 1, first month of the third season, day 21” of an unnamed king. On the left, her burial is listed, taking place on “Year 2, 2nd month of the second season, day 18.” This is an unusually long interval of 272 days (a little over nine months). But who was the king?
§4. Climbing in through the door, on top of a hill of debris, the excavators gazed upon one of the most colorful sights they had ever seen: a beautifully carved and painted subterranean chapel, consisting of three separate rooms, 20 engaged statues, and a burial shaft. Usually, such chapels were located above ground, in the core of the tomb’s superstructure. Meresankh’s chapel is one of the most important of all at Giza. Along with its spectacular color, it shows a wide variety of scenes of funerary ritual and daily life, and key information for reconstructing the genealogy and history of the royal family of the Fourth Dynasty.
§5. The interesting scene for our purposes here appears on the west wall, where Meresankh’s mother Hetepheres II wears a robe with high, pointed shoulders. Note the yellow or blond hair or wig coloring outlined with red guidelines. Meresankh follows, in elaborate dress and typically black-colored hair, while her son, the well-known Nebemakhet, brings up the rear.
§6. The south wall has more offering bearers and produce, but also some interesting scenes of furniture: a carrying chair, sitting chair, bed canopy, and headrest. Niche statues of six unnamed men, all seated cross-legged in the pose of scribes, adorn the lower part of this wall. The group of four scribes was not carved but cemented in place. In an unusual touch, two of the artists are actually named in hieroglyphs—on the south and east walls.
§7. In the western room the decoration was never finished. Two pairs of statues oversee the mouth of the burial shaft, which leads down to the burial chamber, extending to the west, not to the south, as was more typical. Here lay the queen’s sarcophagus, accompanied by four limestone canopic jars for her internal organs, and a few other small objects.
§8. The burial chamber had been plundered, and thieves had propped open the sarcophagus lid with loose stones. But the queen’s skeletal remains were found inside. They appeared to indicate a woman of about five feet tall and 50 years old. An important vertical inscription on the sarcophagus reads “I [meaning Hetepheres II] have given [it, meaning the sarcophagus] to the king’s daughter and king’s wife, Meresankh.” Some scholars, such as Reisner, have argued that this text proves that Meresankh died before her mother Hetepheres II, and thus the tomb was “repurposed”—from mother Hetepheres to daughter Meresankh. But the evidence is not so straightforward.
§9. Today tourists may actually visit the painted chapel of Meresankh, and photographs and publications are currently available online at http://www.gizapyramids.org (search for the tomb by its number: “G 7530-7540”). The accompanying still images come from the Giza Project’s interactive 3D model of the tomb (http://giza.3ds.com, a website geared to PCs at present).
Peter Der Manuelian
Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology
Director, The Giza Project at Harvard
Director, The Harvard Semitic Museum