Rear wall of a vestibule in the tomb is visible through a doorway. On this wall, above and to the sides of a second door leading farther into the tomb, are murals painted in color. They show Khnumhotep and Niankhkhum seated at table above the second door, then they stand facing one another across the second door, each holding his staff of authority.
Entrance to second vestibule in the mastaba of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, seen from the enclosed court.

Khnumhotep (pronunciation: xaˈnaːmaw-ˈħatpew) and Niankhkhnum (pronunciation: nij-daˌnax-xaˈnaːmaw)[1]:230 were ancient Egyptian royal servants. They shared the title of Overseer of the Manicurists in the Palace of King Nyuserre Ini, sixth pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty, reigning during the second half of the 25th century BC. They were buried together at Saqqara and are listed as "royal confidants" in their joint tomb.[2]:98


Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum were ancient Egyptian royal servants and are believed by Thomas Dowson, Greg Reeder, and some other scholars to be the first recorded same-sex couple in history.[3]:96ff[4]:200-201 The assumed romantic relationship between Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum is based on depictions of the two men standing nose to nose and embracing.[5][6] Niankhkhnum's wife, depicted in a banquet scene, was almost completely erased in antiquity, and in other pictures Khnumhotep occupies the position usually designated for a wife. Their official titles were "Overseers of the Manicurists of the Palace of the King" (see sections Titularies, Banquents and music). Critics argue that both men appear with their respective wives and children, suggesting the men were brothers, rather than lovers.[7]:22[8]:88

Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum are depicted in the tomb with their respective families. It has been proposed that they were the sons of Khabaw-khufu and Rewedzawes. They appear to have had three brothers named Titi, Nefernisut, and Kahersetef. Three possible sisters are also attested. They are named Neferhotep-hewetherew, Mehewet and Ptah-heseten. Niankhkhnum's wife was named Khentikawes. The couple appear in the tomb with three sons named Hem-re, Qed-unas and Khnumhezewef, and three daughters, Hemet-re, Khewiten-re and Nebet. At least one grandson is attested, Irin-akheti, the son of Hem-re and his wife, Tjeset.[citation needed]

Khnumhotep had a wife by the name of Khenut. Khnumhotep and Khenut had at least five sons named Ptahshepses, Ptahneferkhu, Kaizebi, Khnumheswef and Niankhkhnum the younger (possibly named after the tomb owner), as well as a daughter named Rewedzawes.[7]:55-61


Egyptian tombs feature lists of titles and epithets honoring the deceased or held during life, often giving titles for other persons who appear on a wall, as in the funeral procession scene discussed in another section of this article. Inscriptions embodied magic. Informing visitors merely a secondary purpose, Ipet in his 4th Dynasty Meidum tomb regards the hieroglyphs as "his gods;" the animal heads surmounting certain gods' bodies were also readable as words.[9]:150[10]:117 For Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, the titulary may be condensed as follows:[11][note 1][note 2][note 3]

Refer to caption.
False doors of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, inner hall. Khnumhotep's door on the right, with an offering table scene above the paired watchmen. Niankhkhnum's matching door, left, is damaged and not shown. Titles and names go above the embracing pair portrait, identical except for name itself. These correspond to numbers (2), (4), (6), (8) in this section. Areas marked "text" contain the Htp dj nswt formula and other benedictions; see section "Offering formulas in the tomb" in this article. Adapted from Moussa & Altenmüller.[7]:Plate 92

Held by either or both men

  1. m-r jr ant pr aA "overseer of manicurists (literally, 'those who do fingernails') in the palace." pr aA means "the great house,"[12]:34 the name for the center of power, at Memphis during the Old Kingdom. In the later story of Sinuhe, after 12th Dynasty rulers of the Middle Kingdom had fixed the political capital near the Fayum Oasis at Itjtawy, the palace was called the Xnw "interior."[11]:Szene 13[13]:59
  2. sHD jr ant pr aA "inspector of manicurists in the palace"[11]:Szene 15[14]:1179
  3. Hrj sStA "guardian of secrets" (As a verb, sStA is causative, so the term would refer to the process of making secrets. For more on this title, which originates from the Giza necropolis, see subsection on Hrj sStA below or consult the reference.)[15]:75[11]:Szene 13
  4. rx nswt "king's acquaintance"[11]:Szenen 1.2, 1.3
  5. zXAw nswt "king's scribe"[citation needed]
  6. mHnk nswt "confidant of the king"[11]:Szene 13, 15
  7. jr xt nswt "keeper of the king's things"[11]:Szene 23
  8. mrr nb.f "one who is beloved of his lord"[7]:Plates 90, 92
  9. Hm-nTr ra m Szp jb ra "sun priest in the (place where the sun-god) Ra's heart receives welcome," that is, in Nyuserre's solar temple at Abu Ghurab[14]:808[11]:Szene 23
  10. wab mn swt nj-wsr-ra "purity attendant of the enduring places of Nyuserre" (a cleaner-priest in this king's pyramid complex at Abusir). A peculiar hieroglyphic grapheme in this title, a device of three seat signs (denoting plural noun) followed by a pyramid, is seen on a gold seal purportedly found in Turkey, a demonstration of official use of a pyramid establishment title for signing documents.[11]:Szene 23,[16]
  11. wab nswt "one who purifies the king." (a personal priest to the king)[11]:Szene 13
  12. nb jmAx nTr aA "lord of those who are honored before the great god" (an aspirational title signifying donations to the individual's mortuary estate from the king; see subsection on jmAx below)[11]:Szene 13

Representative items empaneled here do not exhaust the set. These titles related to each man's job in the bureaucratic state, but more importantly, signified rank and power relative to other officials at court.[17][15]:60, 72-73 They also help date burials, as changes in the mix of titles in circulation and in the way they were spelled are well-documented. The wab-priests, armed with brooms, handled cleanliness, ritual purity, and portage of offerings in areas of the temple outside the inner sanctuary where the god's cult statue was kept and where the higher, Hm nTr priests worked.[18]:20-21, 26 We see that a Hm nTr at the solar temple was not above putting in stints as a humbler wab at the pyramid complex—if his titulary reflects his actual work, a matter deeply in question.[19]:55, 359[20]:470

Translation into modern languages

Translation of Egyptian terms varies considerably between authors: Raymond O. Faulkner's 1962 concise dictionary (p. 239) renders titulary noun sHD as "inspector" based on New Kingdom historical sources, with added question mark. Ranier Hannig, from period sources, calls the sHD an "Untervorsteher" (subordinate official),[14]:1178 of rank lower than the m-r; in particular, the sHD jrj.w an.wt pr aA who supervises manicurists in the palace is an Untervorsteher.[14]:1179 Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep held the title m-r "overseer" of the manicurists in addition to their sHD stations. Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae has followed Hannig on this issue, but cautions that its text translations, here taken from Moussa & Altenmüller's 1977 publication of the tomb, are not definitive. Baud considers emerging local overlordships and subdivision of the bureaucracy in the Old Kingdom the primary phenomena responsible for multiple titles pertaining to one occupational field.[17]:91-94[note 4]

Uncertainty increases when abstract concepts are at hand: Old Kingdom pyramids were named using constructions scholars haven't yet parsed completely, so that modern book translations only gloss the original meanings. For instance, to English-speaking ears, the near-synonyms "abide" and "endure" display a species difference within the genus of "things which survive a long time," the former more animate than the latter, yet both can be used to translate the word mn found in 5th and 6th Dynasty pyramid names.[21]:73

The religious and mortuary establishments

We should note the two temples mentioned, the solar and the one beside the pyramid, are distinct, about a mile (1.5 km) apart in the Abusir-Abu Ghurab necropolis district southwest of modern Cairo, and, like most cemeteries, sited in the desert just beyond reach of the annual Nile flood. Each 5th Dynasty pyramid furthermore came with two temple enclosures, a mortuary establishment in the shadow of the pyramid itself and a valley temple at the edge of the cultivated land, a causeway connecting these. The solar temple had similar auxiliary structures.[22]:93-95[note 5][23]

Suspicion that Nyuserre, the most prolific of the 5th-Dynasty monument builders, usurped his predecessor Neferirkare's valley temple and causeway for his own pyramid project arises, even in popular literature, as his causeway runs directly toward Neferirkare's pyramid a considerable distance before detouring, a thing no other causeway at Abusir does.[24]:33, 121[25]:151[26][23]:map Such usurpation is common, and not necessarily directed at promoting self in lieu of family line: New Kingdom practice of Thutmose III while erasing Hatshepsut’s cartouches at Medinet Habu was to substitute not his own cartouches, but those of Thutmoses I and II, his immediate ancestors.[27]:12[28]:267 Ladislav Bareš, of the Czech Egyptological school which has excavated at Abusir and Saqqara over decades, believes Neferirkare was Nyuserre’s father, and that the elder died leaving mortuary construction unfinished.[29]:xiv, 1-3 In this case, completion of family dynastic monumental statements, not usurpation, would be the applicable motive. (Observe that the 5th and most other numbered dynasties in Egypt cover more than one family line.) Ćwiek demurs, but places 'usurpation' in single quotes.[24]:33 The result was an unusual L-shaped floor plan in a location shoehorned between existing pyramids and mastabas, a problem the sun temple escaped.[30]:62-65

The Hrj sStA and control of information by the state

The title Hrj sStA "keeper of the secrets" is attested for 13 individuals during the Old Kingdom, at least once elaborated to the form Hr sStA mdw-nTr "keeper of the secrets of the god's words," meaning the hieroglyphic language used on monuments.[15]:75[12]:44 In contrast with the hieratic script used for everyday record-keeping, already an elite activity no more than one percent of the population engaged in, the content of hieroglyphic texts was closely controlled property of the state and permission from the king was probably required for inscriptions in one's tomb, as we see in a royal authorization for Rawer, an official under Neferirkare buried at Giza, to do so. Indeed, the 5th Dynasty marks the appearance in quantity of extended prose documents carrying legal force.[12]:6[31]:584[19]:79–81

The Pyramid Texts (in prefatory stages of development during Nyuserre's reign, then first inscribed in and around the burial chamber of King Unas) were reserved for royals only; a democratization of magic spells for the afterlife which would yield the Coffin Texts and Book of the Dead remained yet to come, although physical offering goods royal mortuary texts called for could be listed by name and icon in private tombs, and offering formulas for non-royal burials were available. (The term "democratization" and the process attending it is a topic of research and controversy.)[32]:116 The Hrj sStA was at times in charge of enforcing these rules, or at least the will of the king expressed through the vizier, as shown by the 6th-Dynasty tomb of Khenu at Deir el-Gabrawi: Khenu held the title Hrj sStA n Hwt wrt "chief of secrets in the great hut," the vizier's bureau.[33]:1 In parallel with the rise of legal documents, the Pyramid Texts increased the complexity of religion, adding the Osirian underworld to the deceased's experience in complementarity with already-prevalent solar themes.[34]:98–99, 102–103[35]:192-198[12]:322

The jmAx concept as proximity to king and god, in life and hereafter

jmAx xr nTr aA "honored one near the great god" is a euphemism for "dead," appearing frequently in tombs and on slab stelae, even though it, like the word (and goddess) mAat, evokes a multifarious idealization of relationships between social and cosmological ranks.

Epithets beginning with jmAx are common throughout Egyptian history from the 4th Dynasty on,[21]:194 tending toward greater specificity in later periods. An official or family member could possess several, both jmAx xr nTr aA "honored before the great god" (when dead)[11]:Szene 34 and jmAx xr nswt "honored before the king" (presumably in life).[11]:Szenen 13 It is important to realize that king and god themselves can be one and the same, especially upon death, as Amenemhat I would be in the early Middle Kingdom story of Sinuhe.[13]:59 The goal of kingship, after maintaining social order (mAat) in Egypt, was to ascend and unite with the sun disk of Heliopolitan theology, maintained from Old Kingdom until the arrival of Christianity.[12]:121[35]:141Since jmAx can also be translated as "provided for," the connection an official's tomb holds with royal subsidy is made implicit; although officials built their tombs using mainly their own resources once the 4th Dynasty (and Khufu's largess at Giza) ended.[34]:103[36]:14

If the efficacy of jmAx status in garnering support from the living world is unknown, the title holders were expected to confer favors in return, from the necropolis as beings in their afterlife corpora, denoted by the word Ax "akh" and perceived as effective against illness or through dreams. Respects paid the dead were a crucial matter: Egyptians wrote letters to them, an activity which peaked during the Old and Middle Kingdoms.[35]:42 Royal mortuary cults continued operations at Abusir through the end of the 6th Dynasty; maintenance for private cults being less secure.[29]:1–3 Saqqara was still receiving interments of officials in the Middle and New Kingdom periods,[37][38] where a hypothesis that burial grounds were segregated according to professional line has been advanced; this is uncertain, as is whether the pattern was based on older precedent.[39]:xiv, 1-3 The 1st Dynasty drew such a pattern in stark outlines: Kings chose Abydos while the dignitaries were buried at Saqqara, but not so in the 2nd, when royal burials at Saqqara alongside officials commenced.[40]:99-100, 201[41]:222-223

The Tomb

Coordinates: 29°52′05″N 31°13′10″E / 29.86795°N 31.219416°E / 29.86795; 31.219416

Refer to caption.
Two wrestlers, tomb of Baqet III at Beni Hasan, 11th Dynasty (ca. 2000 BC), Egypt. The hieroglyphic text above the figures is a standard votive formula to the god Osiris, ultimately on behalf of the tomb owner.[42]:47, Pl. V
Refer to caption.
The mastaba of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum.

The tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum was discovered by Egyptologist Ahmed Moussa in the necropolis at Saqqara, Egypt in 1964, during the excavation of the causeway for the pyramid of King Unas.[2]:98 It is the only tomb in the necropolis where men are displayed embracing and holding hands. In addition, the men's chosen names (both theophorics to the creator-god Khnum) form a linguistic reference to their closeness: Niankhkhnum means "life belongs to Khnum" and Khnumhotep means "Khnum is satisfied;"[43] both names honor the god of pottery, responsible for shaping the human body before its birth, as in the midwife episode of Papyrus Westcar, where King Khufu's children are born. Khnum, active in the Elephantine Island region (the first Nile cataract, near modern Aswan), was also associated with the onset of the annual Nile inundation, especially during the early Dynastic period.[44]:153-155

The precise king and regnal date of this tomb are unknown; style places it in the latter 5th Dynasty under Nyuserre or Menkauhor. No human remains were discovered inside.[45]:644 It is believed the tomb was built in stages, first a sequence of two chambers cut into the limestone of a low escarpment in the northern area of Saqqara, then a surface-built mastaba structure added to mate with the earlier construction. This would have occurred as the two intended occupants gained resources.

In a banquet scene (treated in a later section), Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep are entertained by dancers, clappers, musicians and singers; in another, they oversee their funeral preparations. In the most striking portrayal, the two embrace, noses touching, in the most intimate pose allowed by canonical Egyptian art, surrounded by what would appear to be their heirs. The superstructure of their tomb

"was almost completely destroyed because king Unas built his [tomb] causeway over it. It has been reconstructed using the decorated blocks that were found during excavation, and is now open to the public. The part of the tomb that was put into the rock is well preserved. The quality of the painted reliefs is excellent, especially in the first of the rock cut chambers. The various scenes on the western side of the tomb include fishing and fowling in the marshes, stock breeding, papyrus gathering and fights among the boatmen. Opposite are agricultural scenes and scenes of sculptors and jewellers at work."[8]:88

The Old Kingdom necropolis revolved around the king's pyramid complex[22]:93-95 and its satellite cemeteries, in which queens, princes, and high officials were interred, queens often in small pyramids of their own, others entombed in underground apartments but memorialized above ground by a substantial building for the deceased's offering chapels and grave goods, the mastaba. This rectangular monument is often 60 feet (18m) or more on its long side and 15 feet (5m) high, and erected directly over the burial site. At Giza, these tombs formed a city of the dead, laid out on a grid of streets and avenues,[46]:27–29, Figs. 13–17[35]:148-151 although later in this article, we see that the necropolis was a bustling center of activity for the living. Layout at Saqqara is similar but less regular. Maps of Saqqara and of Abusir, the home of Nysurre's pyramid, are online at Rice University and at Tour Egypt, a brief overview at the latter.[47][48][23]

During initial development of the necropolis at Saqqara in the 2nd and 3rd Dynasties, the mastaba, a mud-brick and/or limestone superstructure built on the surface over a shaft leading to the actual burial chamber below ground, had an elaborate niched and fluted façade. This is called the palace serekh design.[49] The 4th Dynasty simplified the mastaba so that those of Khufu's reign at Giza, as well as the 5th Dynasty monuments at Saqqara, have smooth sides;[46] Niankhknum and Khnumhotep's beautifully restored structure encased in stone. The exterior has a batter angle like a fortress, the wall sloped back as it rises, except for the topmost course, which forms a vertical cornice.

Unfortunately, the artwork inside did not always fare as well. Some of the blocks were re-used in Unas' causeway and nearly all of them, whether removed from situ or not, suffered moisture and salt damage. Preservation improves in the rock-cut section. Most of the reliefs are legible enough for line drawings to be made of them; allowing their texts and graphical data to come down to us.

Forecourt entrance with architrave and pillars

We progress inward from the tomb entrance as a visitor would. A two-pillared portico makes up the eastern half of the mastaba's façade. The front is inscribed with Niankhkhnum depicted on the left, Khnumhotep on the right. These two reliefs are virtually identical, only the names being different.

Interior of forecourt

This space is fairly small. The west side is decorated with a funerary procession for Niankhkhnum and the east side shows a matching funerary procession for Khnumhotep.

Two men standing on small boats; more in caption.
Khnumhotep (left) and Niankhknum (right) enjoy taking game in the papyrus marshes that dot Egypt's landscape. See text for discussion; click image to enlarge and view tiny family members dispersed about the men. Osirisnet[50]

The uppermost south wall shows the two men seated before an offering table. Niankhkhnum is seated on the right, while Khnumhotep is seated on the left. The table with offerings stretches out between them. Below the offering scene the two men are depicted netting fowl and fishing. On the left, below this lintel, Khnumhotep stands on a papyrus boat, spearing fish in the water that floods the bases of papyrus stalks he drifts among. He is accompanied by his wife Khenut, sons and a daughter. On the right, Niankhkhnum is depicted in a similar manner, aiming his throw stick at the waterfowl although the active arm is now missing from this piece. The birds flush at the disturbance. He is accompanied by his wife Khentkawes, who was a priestess of Hathor, and sons and a daughter as well.[45] Such hunting in its various forms has been a pursuit of the entitled nobility throughout history. Note that the wives are sniffing lotus blossoms as they hang their free arms upon the legs of their husbands. This scene is a composite made by subtracting a doorway which actually stands between the two men's boats in the tomb; done here to save space. However, one might be tempted to read it as if the door weren't there; analogous Egyptian murals exist with no splitting of the scene into two halves, often with the same person performing the fishing and fowling on both boats. The 18th Dynasty Theban tomb of Nakht (TT52) was an instance. Egyptians would understand a convention that the person engaged in the two activities at consecutive times. Here, since two friends are present, they can be imagined doing it together. The families come along for the outing, drawn at much smaller scales to show relative social status. Their names and titles are written beside each.[45]:642


Refer to caption.
East wall in the first chamber.

At the entrance scenes of baking bread and brewing beer are depicted. Barley is carefully measured out and turned into bread. Some of the bread is mixed with a date beverage and fermented to produce some type of beer. Other scenes include goat herding, ship building, harvesting scenes, sailing, netting of birds, etc. The east wall contains a legal text. Below this text several people are depicted thought to be the family of the two men. At the very bottom ships are shown. The men are shown standing before the main cabin of the ship.[45]

Court (open to sky)

An undecorated space which serves to connect the vestibule and chambers on the north end of the mastaba with the abutting rock-cut sections of the tomb to their south. Modern security grates now obstruct much of the full sun that would have flooded this small, walled yard, yet little or no sun fell on the vestibule to the outer rock-cut hall described below, as its entrance faces north.[45]


This should not be confused with the previously-mentioned vestibule at the public entrance; here we are arriving from an enclosed court. With names, titles, and standing portraits of the two men, it is much smaller than the other vestibule and without pillars. The lintel's inside surface features another cattle count scene, and each tomb owner appears on one of the side walls with his wife, amid a flow of yet more offerings from the herds.[45]

Outer hall

Refer to caption.
Niankhkhnum (standing, left) and Khnumhotep (right, with his right arm on Niankhkhnum's shoulder), accompanied by their offspring (hieroglyphic notations msw.f). On west wall of outer hall, between double doors.[7]:148–150, Plate 73

This outer hall, an antechamber to the final, inner hall, marks the tomb's first, rock-cut phase of construction, and is fully decorated. Before the mastaba was added, it would have been the first room a visitor entered after passing through the forecourt, which was relocated northeast to the far side of the mastaba where it is now. Here, people engage in agricultural occupations including the weighing of corn and grain, the ploughing of fields, and harvesting.

A double doorway to the inner hall is on the west wall, with a broad pillar dividing the doors. Its surface depicts the two men, their children, drawn much smaller to reflect a lesser status, in tow behind each parent.[45] The respective wives do not appear in this scene. Niankhkhnum has three sons and three daughters, Khnumhotep five sons and one daughter, some of whom may be adopted or conceived by a second wife or mistress as they lack the shendyt kilts worn by the others. All the children except Niankhkhnum's youngest son, who still runs naked with his shaved head bearing the single sidelock of youth, are adults despite the scale they are drawn at.[9]:38 Ptahshepses (not the vizier discussed below), a son of Khnumhotep, wore the youth sidelock in the marsh scene of the forecourt but not so here. Either inconsistency intrudes, or the art, completed over years, reflects some changes of status which transpire during the tomb's construction.

Inner hall

Niankhknum and Khnumhotep embracing. Refer to text.
See text for discussion. Reeder.[4]:194

Entering either of the double doors, we note more registers, of birds and of men leading animals, on the thicknesses of the jambs. Now on the reverse side of the dividing pillar, we see Niankhknum and Khnumhotep embracing again, and a third time on the opposite wall of this small chamber. They are without their children in this innermost sanctuary. Each man has a "false door," a carved, slot-like niche surrounded by inscriptions which was produced in the royal workshops and installed in the tomb. Niankhknum's is seriously damaged.[45] The false door provided an accessway for the deceased, as a spiritual being, to reach offerings left at the tomb by the living. These offerings were to be set on plinths in front of the false doors.[35]:155-159[51]:19, 55 Behind the false doors is a small statue closet known as the serdab. A statue of each man would have been placed here, facing the chamber as if to watch visitors come and go, but invisible to the offering-bringers since the false doors are actually solid. Unfortunately, it appears that tomb robbers removed the statues in antiquity; they are no longer extant.[46]:31[45]:644

Frontalism in art poses a problem the artist must solve when rendering persons who face one another or sit together: This style makes it less obvious that the two men are facing each other in an embrace. Only heads and legs orient that way in profile; the torso must be shown in frontal aspect. Side-by-side seating puts one person behind the other in a "doubled" chair, as in the banquet scene (Banquets and music section below). Variety of plant species in a wetland can result in a "composite" plant being painted.[52]:19, 55[53]:47-48 The integrated false doors of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep face the pair of real doors by which people enter the tiny room. The common door frame for the false doors is covered with offering texts (see image in Titulary section). Not only is each transom provided with an offering table scene, the side walls repeat it, for each man, yet now combine it with gathering of goods from the fields. Activity of the butchers receives special emphasis in the lowest, "foreground" registers on both side walls.[7]:Plates 86-89 Niankhkhnum takes the ideologically more favorable south half of the inner hall, but otherwise the two are treated equally.[20]:464

Offering formulas in the tomb

According to Taylor, belief that the deceased physically occupies the grave or tomb dates back to predynastic times, when goods including tools and weapons were placed in the grave during the funeral, a practice which inspired the palace serekh design we mentioned above: For high dignitaries, the early dynastic mastaba reflected the palace they had occupied during life; this "tomb-as-residence" idea remained current up through Roman Egypt, although by Nysuerre's day the art program had moved indoors, obviating the need for serrated exterior walls.[35]:149

Rows of men at work. Refer to caption.
Detail of scene between double door to inner hall. Offering-bearers deliver goods to the tomb owners, some (not shown) arriving by boat. For hieroglyphs circled in red, see text. Altenmüller.[54]:33

Besides its unusual construction with both rock-cut and mastaba sections, this tomb is remarkable for the variety of offering-scene layouts and formulas introduced. Within the 5th Dynasty, it is an example of the invocation Htp dj nswt "an offering the king gives..." to the god, here Anubis, the jackal-headed deity of embalming, in a role that marks royal support for the burial.[36]:14[7]:55, Plate 3, Fig. 4 In all such formulas, the deceased is understood as ultimate beneficiary, as the specified food, drink, raiment, and luxury goods are meant to sustain the ka component of a person's soul in the afterlife. Allen's grammatical analysis of this formula identifies the god (Osiris, Anubis, or Wepwawet) as the agent of the gift via direct genitive connection between the god's name and the combination Htp-dj-nswt, which he takes as a compound word. In his interpretation, the god, acting physically through the king, blesses the deceased.[12]:366

As seen above, offerings can occur at table, with the tomb owner seated before them, or in the field with workers delivering them to the owner. The latter can be considered tributary due to the owner's status under royal patronage; in temples they may devolve to the local or state gods in question and are usually tendered by the king. In such cases, the terms jnw "that which is brought" and bAkw "works done" come into play. The main point is that they are royal transactions, either diplomatic, when the king receives from foreign emissaries, or redistributive, as when taxes in kind flow to the royal magazines or temples.[55]:201

Altenmüller discusses another kind of offering, the nDt-Hr "greeting,"[54]:32–35 extended to a private citizen although undoubtedly as reward for service to the crown. These come from estates (njwwt "towns") the king has granted the deceased, or which the latter has inherited in the line of succession to a grant made in a previous generation.[40]:166-171 The depictions emphasize agricultural produce—wine, figs, raisins—and desert animals, brought in procession under the watchful eye of a scribe, who holds his inventory sheet at far left in the illustration. Circled in red is a text for viewing the nDt-Hr-offerings:

mAA nDt-Hr jnnt m njwwt.f nbt "See the greetings-offerings which are being brought from all his villages."

The formulas in the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep refer anachronistically to the pr-dSrt "red house," a collections and storage center which had not been active since the 3rd Dynasty.[note 6] In these greetings offerings, no invocation to the god is made.[54]:34-35

Banquets and music

Refer to caption.
The Banquet: Offering tables with Khnumhotep's (left) and Niankhkhnum's names, titles; two registers of musicians and dancers below. Hieroglyphs circled in red are translated in the article text. Note how people form orderly groups, each with a small label describing their activity or quoting their speech, much as graphic novels do today. After Altenmüller (2008).[56]:25
Refer to caption.
(top) Relief from tomb of Ti, Saqqara, Dyn. 5, with musicians and dancers.[57]:p.25 (inset) Detail of stela of Nefret-iabet, Giza, reign of Khufu, Dyn. 4. Note the leopard skin dress Nefret-iabet wears, the red color with black rim band on jar, and the water issuing from it, painted details not normally preserved in ancient art.[58]:243

The banquet scene (first image)[45]:643 shows Niankhkhnum clean-shaven (left) and Khnumhotep (wearing a short beard) seated facing one another across comestibles spread between, each with his own breadboard table. Set off by a baseline, this is read separately from the two registers of entertainment below them.[24]:148-149 A different upper register substitutes in the contemporary Saqqara tomb of Ti (next image), where no food is present with the owner, who is seated holding a scepter, his wife (drawn at half-scale) by his feet.

Religious motive

Dining scenes in Egyptian art refer to the afterlife, often in groups seated on the ground as the large dinner tables familiar to us were unknown to Egypt. Ritual purity becomes a matter of special concern in this context: Museums exhibit the ceramic washing bowls, one to pour from and one to catch the dribbling water.[57]:3-4 Magical utterances and libation precede the meal of the dead; in the soon-forthcoming Pyramid Texts of Unas, we read

"These your cool waters, Osiris—these your cool waters, oh Unis…I have come having gotten Horus’s eye, (Spell 21). Wash yourself, Unis, and part your mouth with Horus’s eye. You shall summon your ka—namely, Osiris—and he shall defend you from every wrath of the dead. Unis, receive to yourself this your bread, which is Horus’s eye (Spell 66)."[59]:19, 23

Although no 5th Dynasty private tombs call the owner Osiris or mention Horus' eye, Taylor indicates some elements of what became the Pyramid Texts were adapted for non-royal use;[35]:192–198 particularly the qbH "libation" water[14]:1332 streaming from a red jar on the slab stela of Nefret-iabet (Louvre 15591, Dyn. 4, reign of Khufu), afront her face so as to suggest its use directly. Ziegler calls this a funeral meal as well as an offering table scene, yet it must have taken place after her death, if at all, given that linen for her mummy is specified on the piece's right half.[58]:242-244 Numerals "1000" count most of the items pictured, clearly demonstrating the stela's purpose as an offering list. By invocation and magic, if the living were to stop donating to her tomb establishment, then she would still be provided for. The "one thousand in beer, one thousand in bread" phrases[11]:Szene 31 which introduce Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep's offering table in the rock-cut section of their tomb evokes stelae such as Neferet-iabet's, themselves once affixed to mastaba facades as found in situ for Wep-em-neferet (possible husband of Nefret-iabet) at Khufu's Giza cemetery. The heart is never eaten and remains absent from offering lists.[58]:245-246[60]:31

The musicians

The upper register of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (corresponding to Ti's) resembles these scenes on slab stelae, without text beyond the two men's names and titles.[11]:Szene 31 Niankhkhnum's wife, seated next to him at the left edge, has been erased; the doubled chair and partially visible label on this side reveals her. She was a rxt nswt "king's acquaintance." Clearly the ensemble of musicians and dancers is formulaic, as this tomb and Ti's bear similar graphic layouts. Nonetheless, a written music program preserves the orders an instructor-maestro (labeled as such by the word sbA behind his head[14]:1097) gives his troupe, accompanied by mmt- and mAt-flutes and sqr m bnt "plucking of the harps:"

Hsjt j.jrj m nw n snwj ntrwj pr r.k jr.s "Singing: Do it thus for the two divine brothers: Begin for them now," the instructor exhorts (hieroglyphs near center right in banquet scene image under the section heading; these are circled in red). About it we hear a mysterious comment:

m.k Trf jTt "Look, the Trf-dance is taken" (lower left corner of image, not circled).[11]:Szene 31

All the men in the second register who aren't playing an instrument are clapping or slapping their thighs except the instructor, standing bent forward at far right. Fourth from left, named Ankhredwi-nesut and playing a flute, is someone who may know the tomb owners, as he is mentioned several times on other walls of this tomb. In the bottom register, another woman, Hemet-Re, possibly Niankhkhnum's daughter and entitled a "keeper of the king's things," stands before six Hst "female singers" at her right. She is backed by seven jbAw "male dancers" with hands upraised. Fourth from left in this register is the person who announces that the dance has been taken, clapping as he does so. In front of him, a pair of men kneel. Each clasps one of the other's hands overhead while pointing his other arm toward the ground.[7]:142–147, Plate 70, Fig. 25[11]:31 Altenmüller has more recently refined the translation to read, "Singing, in this (tomb) as the offering ritual is performed. The (song) of the divine brother. Go up to him." This English wording folds the divine brothers into a song title, reducing their number to just one.[56]:26

Observing that festive scenes are more concentrated at Saqqara than elsewhere during the 5th Dynasty, Altenmüller goes on to compare several scenes from this genre, placing them in the context of a family and the gods it associates with, which becomes a heritable scheme along with the titles. At Saqqara, many reliefs involve sniffing the lotus blossom, an activity we saw Khentikawes engage in during her husband's bird hunt.[56]:17, 25 Returning our gaze to the top register above the music, we see that Khnumhotep is holding a lotus blossom in his lap with his left hand. If he is watching the dancers, they are in front of him, not in a basement below. Complexities encountered in music and dance remain poorly understood today, although Allen thinks that literature was written in meter as well.[13]:2-3 Officials, who sometimes were women, presided over musical festivities: In a 4th Dynasty mastaba at Giza, the owner Ity and his wife both bore the rx nswt "king's acquaintance" title:

rx nswt jmj-r Hxt pr aA jtj rx nswt Hmt.f mrt.f wsrt-kA "Acquaintance of the king, master of the king's music Acquaintance of the king, his wife, his beloved Wasretka."[61]:59


Montage of two scenes. All men in them are squatting. Refer to caption.
(top) Carpenter planing a backrest, (bottom) Relief from Sahure's causeway depicting a feast of his craftsmen. Three of these are labeled as mDH qdw "supervisor of sculptors."[14]:581[62]:122, Plate 54

On the adjoining east wall, near another seated portrait of Khnumhotep,[7]:Plate 62 a carpenter makes a furniture item probably used at banquets: a portable wooden recliner or backrest,[63]:151 an angled plate set on the ground or on a bench to lean against, so that one is lying down with upper body propped up. Furniture, vital to the deceased's sense of wellness, was placed inside the tomb before it was sealed, as were amulets and adornment: To the right, closer to Niankhnum and the banquet scene, are jewelers at work.[60]:23[7]:Plate 64 Banqueting could take place in the "presence" of the king even if persons of differing rank did not eat together: A relief from Sahure's causeway shows (in part) a feast craftsmen and their overseers enjoy at the king's behest, divine presence signified by the lion emerging beside a papyrus umbel;[57]:27 the goddesses Bastet and Sekhmet are associated with royal sustenance at the mortuary complex. In the tomb of Iny (late Dynasty 6), a boastful text explains this:

"I was seated eating bread in the (royal) daily round, and great was His Person's (Hm.f, the king) satisfaction at seeing me eat, more [so] than [for] any peer of mine."[57]:5

This sentence, written a bit later historically, carries an autobiographical tone, blurring the distinction between life and hereafter, although we assume real-life, non-funerary meals must have been served at court. The tomb is largely a continuation of normal everyday life, the thing the dead wanted most: they were not excluded from the society of the living.[35]:41 At 5th Dynasty Saqqara, the deceased Rashepses can contemplate a sculptor reaching for a tray of fruit, even if with fewer words.[57]:5

Conventions treating a limited number of themes made up the Old Kingdom art corpus; rules meant to relate what is shown on the wall with what happens in an ideal life, so that the dead can continue to have access to it. Egyptian perspective encompasses both space and time on the two-dimensional relief; heads, arms, and legs in profile but torso frontal. What is above may really lie behind; what is behind may be "pluralized" with multiple outlines as animals often are, while left and right sometimes represent consecutive action as discussed later. Statues of course look forward as expected.[52]:9-10[51]:19, 55[24]:148-149 Figures face the tomb entrance where possible, looking out toward the world of the living.[24]:22, 148-149[51]:72–74 Lower registers tend to comprise foregrounds, denoting a venue closer to the reader than the top registers do. Seriation of episodes is read horizontally within a register, the people and objects assembled in groups distinguished by what they are doing or by the direction they face. Choice of sunk versus raised relief conveys meaning; the latter used in the intimate rear areas of tombs, the former at the entrance.[24]:22

First designed for royalty, art is extended to private citizens, minus the king's privileged contacts with deity. Niankhnum and Khnumhotep's tomb uses sunk relief at the entrance to its rock-cut section, which had faced the public before the owners added the mastaba. The two officials could emulate King Khafre's 4th Dynasty practice of gouging a titulary into pillars, but only in limestone, not the hard granodiorite Khafre used.[64]:44-45, 48[24]:98-100 The banquet scene exemplifies an Egyptian desire to impose structure on life and death, yet in an exuberant manner, its figures imbued with color.


Since personal information modern reviewers desire is usually unavailable, a situation true for Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, routines of daily life must be pieced together from archaeological inference or read between lines of surviving texts, all of which (including the accounting data) express elite viewpoints. Kemp discusses methods for obtaining knowledge under such constraints, pointing out that local religion came with a varnish distinct from that of the state cults.[40]:112-113, 134 Art cannot be totally divorced from reality; the agricultural year and cattle counts seen on walls happened. Yet text orbits near myth. So the cattle count is as much ritual as systematic tax collection, and so a lion goddess, addressing King Nyuserre as "my son," gives him milk from her teat at his valley temple.[19]:277[65]:236[66]:352

Relatively few Egyptians could read and write, skill among the literate distributed unevenly as well after schooling based upon individual tutelage—its ad hoc nature evidenced by mistranscription of hieratic source material by draftsmen (zXAw-qdwt "outline scribes") arranging formal inscriptions on walls and statues.[12]:467[31]:577, 583-584 Living conditions could turn harsh, even for middle classes: In a somewhat later, 12th Dynasty social context, the prosperous tenant farmer Heqanakht orders cutbacks for his household, citing that year's suboptimal Nile flood and hunger in the land. Insects ate a substantial fraction of stored grain supplies at New Kingdom Amarna, a condition we have little reason to imagine spared 5th Dynasty communities near Memphis. Iconography and portrait placement assign Niankhkhnum a slight priority over Khnumhotep in the joint tomb.[67]:16-17[68]:318[20]:464


King seated beneath a canopy looking out at crowd. More in caption.
Heb-Sed festival of Nyuserre from his solar temple. The enshrined king wears the white crown of Upper Egypt at left; standard-bearers at right. In top register beside his pavilion is the personification of Heliopolis, with hieroglyphic label. Ćwiek (2003)[24]:232, Fig. 70

A solar temple separate from the pyramid complex was a feature unique to the seven 5th-Dynasty kings from Userkaf to Menkauhor, of which two have been excavated in modern times. Nyuserre's was richly decorated with reliefs, today in a fragmentary condition. These temples centered on worship of the bn-bn "Benben" stone, a cultural artifact inherited from the predynastic era and, by alliteration, tied to the Benu Bird, a theme of plenty later in the Book of the Dead.[40]:137-141, fig. 48[69]:73, Plates 7, 27[70][note 7] Where Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep spent most of their day cannot be determined; the palace, the solar or the pyramid temple, or their own residential compounds all possibilities. The solar temple was used, however, for the king's hb-sd "Heb-sed," the festival celebrating his 30th anniversary on the throne. Nyuserre's reliefs depict, as had Djoser's back in the 3rd Dynasty, the king watching tributary files pass in review and demonstrating his physical fitness in a game where he ran to and fro between two posts on a marshaling ground.[40]:104-107[24]:123 While at least part of the king's funeral was held at the pyramid complex, his other major monument, the pyramid was never meant to be left unattended after services, as graves of modern heads of state are. Accounting papyri at Abusir detail a persistent mortuary cult's receipt of goods over decades.[22]:94[71]:350-351

The vizier, highest official beneath the king, handled Old Kingdom administration. Absent indexed state archives, business transactions proceeded face-to-face, or sometimes by letter while participants kept copies of any legal documents generated. Each proof might be in duplicate, one for consultation, the other sealed to frustrate tampering—by Ramesside times both ingeniously accommodated on the same papyrus roll, where the seal blocked only half its length. In other words, there were bureaus and scribes but no constitutional underpinnings behind them: Whoever held greatest personal influence at a given moment took the decisions and implemented these through his own patronage as best he could, an arrangement not noted for efficiency, yet remarkably effective in seeing a king's monuments through to completion.[19]:64-65, 259, 342-343[40]:179-180, 201-203

On duty at the sun temple, Niankhkhnum or Khnumhotep may have watched over subordinate officials, such as the m-r pr Sna "overseer of the magazines" who in turn supervised crews of porters stocking and withdrawing material from the granaries and store-rooms. This suggests either that the m-r ranks below the Hm-nTr priest, at least within the temple enclosure, or that the appellations m-r, sHD, Hm-nTr, and wab aren't reliable status indicators. Barta reports Helck's assertion that the pr Sna was a group of workshops making processed goods in the temple precinct. The Abusir papyri, a set of accounting spreadsheets, relates the pr Sna to the pyramid temple, where Niankhkhnum was "only" a wab, adding to the confusion temple bureaucracy presents to scholars.[15]:61 It is clear no legal separation of temple from palace existed; Old Kingdom temples were named after the king, who also supported later temples dedicated to gods (such as Karnak). That theft could be a problem is seen in New Kingdom legal disputes; presumably the senior officials were expected to monitor it.[18]:21 A police captain is named and illustrated among the genuflectors in the funeral procession at the mastaba.[11]:Szene 12

Manicurists, hairdressers, and adorners

Two men squatting; one is doing the other’s fingernails. More in caption.
Manicurist at work, Dyn. 5 (reconstruction). He holds tablet for steadying client's hand by pressing it against his knee; trims nails with a flint knife. One is among reliefs in this tomb.[45]:642

Care of the king's body and wardrobe in preparation for his public appearances required a large number of aides, apparently working in different ateliers each under its own leadership. In addition to the manicurists whom Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep supervised (discussed in the titulary section of this article), the palace had attendants under one or more men holding the title jrj nfr HAt "keeper of the headdress," responsible for the king's wigs and headcloths, jrw Snj " hairdressers,[14]:189 who kept him shaven, and an m-r n jzwj Xkrwt nswt "overseer of the two chambers of king's adorners."[15]:74 The post of Xkrt nswt "adorner of the king" was always held by women, who were legally, if not socially, equal to men in Egypt.[18]:8 Neferhotep-Hathor is labeled with this status at the funeral procession of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep.[11]:Szene 12

How, or how often, personnel in the hairdressers' shop, which from titulary evidence stands higher than the manicurists in 5th and 6th Dynasty prestige rankings, communicated with the latter remains unknown. No hairdressers are labeled at the funeral procession. Ptahshepses, the keeper of the headdress who became Nyussere's vizier,[15]:73 and Ti, overseer of the pyramids and sun temples, are two officials whom Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep may have worked with. They were buried at Abusir and Saqqara, respectively. Ti's large mastaba and extra titles suggest attainment of high rank.[45]:468-478 Both Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum are attested on a harvest scene in the splendid burial estate of Ptahshepses, where they may have been quarry supervisors, yet named as jr ant pr aA "palace manicurists," quite junior to titulary in their own tomb, which could mean Ptahshepses died while they were younger.[20]:469[60]:68 A door jamb, besides TAtj "vizier," displays the title HAt-a "one whose arm is in front," a pure honorific Allen distinguishes from the m-r and jrj titles specifying responsibility domains we've encountered up to now. We observe that his jrj nfr HAt "keeper of the headdress" epithet, recorded in many of the rooms, is spelled with the mouth sign (Gardiner D21), not the eye sign (D4), so that it shares the introductory word of jrj-pat "hereditary prince," another of Allen's honorifics.[60]:34[14]:178[12]:34 This fact traverses ground in explaining the apparently higher standing of the hairdressers' shop. Such arcane hierarchy isn't foreign to our own day, where the president of the United States commands TV makeup artists and speechwriters all having different effective ranks within the White House staff.

Funeral procession

Longevity and circumstances of the tomb owners' deaths are unknown. The limestone sarcophagi beneath the mastaba were ransacked and wooden coffins of later date interred in the burial chambers. Booth, citing others, adheres to the theory that Khnumhotep died first, leaving Niankhkhnum to complete the tomb's art. This conclusion was drawn from Khnumhotep's jmAx epithets (see Titulary section), a style of beard he wears, and exclusion of his wife at the banquet scene when Niankhknum's was originally there.[72]:ch.5 at n.92[4]:200-201 Upon reaching the portico, the visitor beholds on the side walls men towing shrine boats along canals, the herald announcing them carrying a pole standard reminiscent of official colors at the king's Heb-Sed festival. Such boats might carry the mummy or statue of the deceased.[73]:48, Front cover There is a statue transported here; men and oxen in an upper register drag it overland in order to load it on the boat.[45]:642 Contra the impression we get from Jones' model boat, the statue is already inside its shrine before loading, so that the shrine structure seen on the boats here may actually belong to the cargo, a breakaway of material parts the model conceals from us. (That may apply to mummy boats, too, given their similar functionality.)

Legal text

Main presentation of the funeral is in the vestibule after the forecourt (see color photo in Tomb section), introduced by the two owners encouched arm-in-arm for dictation of a text giving legal instructions to survivors and caretakers. Below their names and titles, it reads, in part,

"They say: Concerning those brothers and mortuary priests (Hm-kA) who will act for us in the necropolis, we will not allow our children, our two wives, or any man to (have mandates over) them...Further, if any mortuary priest gives his things (assets entrusted to him) in payment to any personnel, from him will be withdrawn all that was given him as a mortuary priest of his workgroup...We have created what we have made for you so that these voice offerings are effective for the akhs (transformed souls) of the offerings-receivers who are the inhabitants of the necropolis."[11]:Szene 12[note 8]

The mourners and relatives

A scene presented in narrow, horizontal rows, one above another. Four of the rows show people walking in single file. In the first two rows, they carry offerings. Those in the third row have titles in hieroglyphic above them. Most put one hand on their heart as they walk. So do the people in the next row, who are smaller and lack titles. The bottom row shows two boats with oars, one following the other. Caption and text discuss this scene.
Funeral procession of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep. Again, note how size denotes social status in art. Bottom register is a "foreground." What onlookers see are the boats. The lining-up to honor the deceased probably occurs at the tomb in the desert, a guarded area not open to the public except by permission to enter for some reason, say to bring offerings to one of the tombs. The duo likely had a private cult establishment at their mastaba, or priests from the necropolis staff rotated in and out to service this tomb. Osirisnet.[50]

There follow two registers of offering-bearers (image at right; the preceding legal text is cropped out), and then larger figures, the principals honoring the deceased, led by the sHD wjA "inspector of the shrine boat," Khabau-Khufu (named in recognition of the 4th Dynasty king who made the largest Giza pyramid).[14]:1180[11]:Szene 12 Familial relationships stay unclear in Egyptian tombs: Only the pictures of wives (Hmt.f "his wife"), daughters (zAt.f), and sons (zA.f) bore genealogical notations; even the ego need not be obvious when not drawn at full scale because so many people shared identical names, a situation we face with "John Smith" in a phone book. Reeder identifies Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep themselves at the rear of Khabau-Khufu's line; he and the woman behind him are Niankhkhnum's parents. This woman and Khnumhotep are the only paraders who do not place their left hands upon their hearts, but use them to hold the hand or arm of the person in front of them, suggesting a degree of intimacy between them and the persons they grasp (Khabau-Khufu or Niankhkhnum, respectively).[4]:197 More of the deceased's children plus some of foggier status appear, including Ankhredwi-nesut, police captain Khnumhezuf, palace manicurist Kasetef, and Hemre's wife Tjeset.[11]:Szene 12[note 9] Sekhem, a scribe of the pr HD "white house," is both here and behind Niankhkhnum in the forecourt marsh scene, where he had a namesake on Khnumhotep's side, albeit with additional post of inspector of Hm-kA priests marked. Court decorum would prescribe the guest list and the order they marched in, knowledge lost to modern scholars.

In Reeder's interpretation, absence of Khnumhotep's parents here matching absence of his wife at the banquet, is consistent with Khnumhotep predeceasing his afterlife roommate; for the relief was drafted in advance, before both men were dead. Other officials in line and in the next register (where figures are smaller) include supervisors of weavers, manicurists, Hm-kA priests, and scribes.[11]:Szene 12[note 10] In fact, on Egyptian monuments it's hard to tell who's still alive: Hemre, a probable son of Niankhkhnum, appears elsewhere seated with his wife and receiving a goose from his own son, a scene which emulates the offerings tendered the tomb owners. The dynamics force us to appreciate the sincerity of their afterlife beliefs. Uncertain precise relationship connects Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep as well; Altenmüller considers them brothers, Baines that they were twins, and Reeder that they were same-sex conjugal or domestic partners evidenced by iconography normally used for husband and wife, or, with Khnumhotep, for women (sniffing the lotus blossom). Baines points out that embraces derive from religious and royal precedent, as we saw when a lion goddess suckled Nyuserre (Career section), and a theme Hatshepsut would later develop to high art as offspring of Amun. It is safe to conclude sufficient trust to embark on a yearslong joint tomb project showing them in close contact; the king also permitting them at court in an era where assassination posed real threat.[7]:90-92[20]:463,468[4]:197-99,207

The boat convoy

In the bottom register, two new canopy ships (not the shrine boats in the forecourt discussed above) are rowed on a final "journey to the Beautiful Places in the Midst of the Honored Ones, the journey to the Field of Offerings" (sqdwt r swt nfrwt m-m jmAxw, sqdwt r sxt Htp), the leading craft decorated with a hedgehog's-head prow and known as the Hnt.[14]:850[7]:91 The pilots give each crew instructions on where to land, the one in the rear boat cautioning his oarsmen not to hit the hedgehog boat. This setting is a formula with variations also enumerated at Abusir and (minus hedgehog prow) in the Giza mastaba of Iymery, where the watercourse traveled is dubbed "the Canal of the West." In the Egyptian schema, these funeral boats were skippered by the deceased themselves, as they stand in front of the cabin or sit at the stern. The cabin or shrine, roofed with decorative reed matting, shelters the deceased's afterlife corporum, what we think of as a soul even though its structure was more elaborate, more rooted in physicality, than the modern Christian soul conceptions usually are. For us, the watery trip to the West completes a visual connection between soul and the statue or mummy actually carried as cargo in the shrine boats. Since the hedgehog and its companion sport canopies of a different design, we're not sure what was on their manifiests, although the deceased manage to find themselves standing or seated in authority on the decks here, just as in the shrine boats. Barta informs us that in the dual tomb of Fetekty and Mety, a third craft laden with beer trailed the hedgehog, perhaps indicating travel to a funerary meal near the burial site.[15]:82-84[61]:31[11]:Szene 12

Social implications

The privilege found in Old Kingdom tombs no longer represents operation of an admirable political system. Elite presence imposed hardship on peasants working the fields and paying rents; within the literate class itself, subordinates' resentment of superiors' petty gestures strikes a familiar chord today. Roles were gendered. Physical violence and corporal punishment were common and accepted as normal. Escape hatches leading to mobility taken for granted today opened rarely then. However, the ability to express emotion in writing, particularly of affection or loss, underwent refinement among an elite which after all had come to power over Egypt as warriors employing brutal force. (See the decapitated prisoners on the Narmer palette.)[74]:150[note 11] Despite acute limitations of administration and political will, by the 5th Dynasty Egypt had already become capable as a provider state for those outside the highest official circles. Organized recognition of feelings and interests in a broader range of people, as when Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep make concessions to mortuary priests and ask for official integrity in their legal text, began to set a stage for codification of legal procedure (which Egypt achieved in the Ptolemaic period) and extension of rights to individuals and groups within a society.[75]:42, 59, 138, 261[19]:91-94[40]:191-192, 205-209[76]:112-114


  1. ^ After registration, must search for pages on Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae: Click picture on home page to enter site. Pick "navigating the hierarchical tree of objects and texts" on the database search page. Position of texts in the hierarchical tree is *Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae, *Strukturen und Transformationen Berlin-Brandenburgische, *Grabinschriften des Alten Reiches, *Sakkara, *Unas-Friedhof, *Mastaba des Nianch-Chnum und Chnum-hotep. Be sure to click on the nodes themselves, at left on each line.
  2. ^ Wall texts in Thes. Ling. Aeg. identified by Porter & Moss : Szenen 1.2 and 1.3 [Porter & Moss III, p. 641, I 1(c-d)]; Szene 12 [Porter & Moss III, p. 642, II 8]; Szene 13 [Porter & Moss III, p. 642, II 9]; Szene 15 [Porter & Moss III, p. 642, II 9]; Szene 23 [Porter & Moss III, p. 643, IV 15]; Szene 31 [Porter & Moss III, p. 643, V 20].
  3. ^ To avoid display problems, the MDC system is used here to transliterate Egyptian words, hence note that A and a are different. The complete set of consonantal “letters” (in lexical order for consulting an Egyptian dictionary) are A, j, y, a, w, b, p, f, m, n, r, h, H, x, X, z, s, S, q, k, g, t, T, d, D, set apart in italics. Other systems exist with special fonts; the A looks like 3 and the a like in books using these. (Wikipedia list here).
  4. ^ The titulary in this article elects Egyptian sHD = Aufseher = "inspector," jmAx = Ehrwürdigkeit = "honored," nb = Herr = "lord," jr or jrj = Verwalter = "doer, maker, keeper, or supervisor," Hr or Hrj = Hüter = "guardian," m-r or jmj-r = Vorsteher = "overseer." This runs contra German-speaking Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae; yet English-language books almost always call the m-r an "overseer," and, less consistently, call the sHD an "inspector." Literally, jmj-r means "one whom the mouth is in," that is, a word-giver, grammatically a reverse nisbe, while sHD is a causative verb meaning "to make bright." (Allen, 2010, pp. 93, 469)
  5. ^ See also maps on pp. 22-23. There was a harbor and port for docking the ships of state at the entrance to the valley temple, which they accessed from the Nile by going up a canal. The valley temple was a few yards (meters) beyond the line where arable land wetted by the annual Nile flood stops abruptly. A causeway, roofed so that dignitaries (especially women) need not face the brutal sun, led uphill to the pyramid and its temples. Women are rendered in yellow pigments instead of red ochre because they spent less time outdoors.
  6. ^ 5th Dynasty tax collection by scribes is depicted in the tomb of Ti with postures of obeisance, see Wilkinson (1994), Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art, Thames & Hudson, p. 208. For enforcement of taxes we have detail information from New Kingdom Thebes; see Haring, B.J (1997), Divine Households: Administrative and economic aspects of the New Kingdom royal memorial temples in Western Thebes, Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten. Note labor conscription and exemptions, and the status of many peasants as serfs tied to the land.
  7. ^ In BOD Spell 83, jwnw "Iunu" is Heliopolis, now reduced to a Middle Kingdom obelisk of Senwosret I and some foundation walls in a Cairo city park but long the center of solar theology and its priests.
  8. ^ In the German this reads, " Sie sagen: Was anbetrifft jene (Stiftungs-)Brüder und jene Totenpriester, die für uns wegen des Totenopfers für uns in der Nekropole handeln...Was ferner anbetrifft irgendeinen Totenpriester, der irgendeinem Menschen seinen Anteil gegen eine Gegenleistung gibt, von ihm fortzunehmen ist jede zu ihm gegebene Sache, die (dann) gegeben wird zu den Priestern seiner Phyle...Wir haben dieses für euch Gemachte gemacht, damit diese Totenopfer vortrefflich sind den Verklärungsseelen der Opferempfänger und den Bewohnern der Nekropole." I have summarized the redundant clauses for brevity.
  9. ^ Perhaps "guard" should be compared with "police" in this context, showing the danger of modern terminology in translation. Police in ancient Egypt, unlike ordinary door guards, most likely did gather personal intelligence and search for wanted persons. However, they protected only the state; as a rule, they did not investigate crimes against citizens. The revenge system, or a lawsuit if the victims could afford to pursue it, were the only redresses available for crimes that did not involve state officials or property. See Eyre, C. (2013), The Use of Documents in Pharaonic Egypt, Oxford, pp. 178, 307-308 for administrative papyri used in the prosecution of Ramesside-era tomb robbers. See again Eyre, C. (1984), "Crime and Adultery in Ancient Egypt," Jl. of Egyptian Archaeology 70, pp. 92-105 for a general discussion of how Egypt handled antisocial behavior, esp. pp. 92-94 where the corruption case of Paneb arises. Resort to New Kingdom evidence is due to so little surviving from the Old Kingdom. 5th Dynasty police agencies were probably less evolved, deploying fewer personnel.
  10. ^ All tomb scenes were carved and painted during the prospective occupant's lifetime. Hence they showed an idealization of what was supposed to happen, in terms of mortuary beliefs; they are not records of who was present at a funeral or even of what they did there. From Jones' boats, however, we know that papyriform funeral boats were built and used. An enormous ship of state Khufu buried in a special pit beside his pyramid has been restored and is on display at Giza. There were pits for four more boats, with a boat inside one of these left in situ for future archaeologists. Khufu's boats were made of wood, while the smaller private boats were usually made from bundles of papyrus stalks.
  11. ^ For violence against women in an everyday context at a scribal registration table, see Percy Newberry (1893), Beni Hasan II, Egypt Exploration Society, Plate VII, Register 3. With his stick, a man strikes the top of the head of a kneeling woman who is nursing a baby, yelling at her to stand up (hieroglyphic notation above woman) so as to yield the way to a file of young donkeys being brought forward for inventory. The tomb owner, Baqet III, holding staff and scepter, appears to watch this and other action dispassionately. 11th Dynasty, Beni Hasan tomb 15. Translation with small drawing of this scene, Joris Borghouts (2010), Egyptian: An Introduction to the Writing and Language, Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, p. 174.


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  • Ahmed Moussa & Hartwig Altenmüller (1977), Das Grab des Nianchchnum und Chnumhotep. Darmstadt, Germany: Philipp von Zabern. This is the generally accepted publication of the tomb. In German. ISBN 978-3-8053-0050-6
  • James Allen (2005), The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Series: Writings from the ancient world (23), Peter Der Manuelian (Ed.), Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 978-1-58983-182-7
  • John Baines (2013). High Culture and Experience in Ancient Egypt. Bristol, CT: Equinox. ISBN 978-1-84553-300-7
  • Charlotte Booth (2015), In Bed with the Ancient Egyptians, Stroud, UK: Amberley.ISBN 978-1-44-564343-4
  • Thomas A. Dowson, "Archaeologists, Feminists, and Queers: sexual politics in the construction of the past". In, Pamela L. Geller, Miranda K. Stockett, Feminist Anthropology: Past, Present, and Future, pp 89–102. University of Pennsylvania Press 2006, ISBN 0-8122-3940-7
  • Ian Shaw, Editor (2000), The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, New York:Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-280458-7
  • William K. Simpson (2003) "Three Autobiographies of the Old Kingdom," in W.K. Simpson (Ed.), The Literature of Ancient Egypt. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, pp. 401–413. ISBN 978-0-300-09920-1
  • John Taylor (2001), Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt, Univ. of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-79164-5
  • Emily Teeter (2011), Religion & Ritual in Ancient Egypt, New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-61300-2
  • Leslie Ann Warden (2013) Pottery and Economy in Old Kingdom Egypt, Boston: Brill. ISBN 978-9-00-425-985-0
  • Richard Wilkinson (1994). Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art, New York: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28070-3

External links

  • Jenny Hill, "Egyptian Hieroglyphs," Kemet Design. A brief primer giving the phonological values for hieroglyphs and some information on how words and sentences found in this tomb were written.
  • John Hirst and Thierry Benderitter, "The Mastaba of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep," Complete virtual tour of mastaba.
  • Joseph Manning (2012), "The Representation of Justice in Ancient Egypt," Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 24(1), 111-118. Legal process in Egypt and question of despotism vs. rule of law. Yale Digital Commons,
  • Museum of Fine Arts Boston, "The Giza Archives." A trove on the Old Kingdom, including Giza Mastabas series and Reisner publications.
  • Greg Reeder, "The Tomb of Niankhkhum and Khnumhotep." Schematic of pillars in forecourt; detail photo of both men's names inscribed on Türrolle of second vestibule; with bibliography. Emphasis on significance of tomb for the LGBT community.
  • Mark Smith (2009), "Democratization of the Afterlife," UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. More about diffusion of mortuary texts in Egypt.
  • University College London, "Digital Egypt for Universities." Material on all phases of Egypt's religion and history.