Archéologie égyptienne


Thebes (Egypt)

On the west bank of the Nile opposite the modern city of Louqsor lies one of the most important necropolises of ancient Egypt. For five centuries, the pharaohs of the New Kingdom (1550-1050 BC) were buried there in the heart of the desert mountain, in the famous Valley of the Kings. Dominated by the pyramid shape of its summit, the Theban mountain also housed the cemeteries of the high dignitaries of the administration, the army, the clergy and the relatives of the royal house. Spread over about two kilometres along the edge of the alluvial plain, more than four hundred private tombs have been dug out in the limestone and decorated with paintings or reliefs, representing exceptional witnesses of a moment of apogee of Egyptian art.

It is at the heart of this necropolis, registered by UNESCO on the World Heritage List, that the Université libre de Bruxelles undertook in 1999, under the direction of Professor Roland Tefnin, an ambitious programme of study and conservation of two neighbouring tombs of the 18th dynasty, located on the southern slope of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna hill. Despite the premature passing of Roland Tefnin in 2006, the project continues today as part of a collaboration between ULB and the University of Liège, thanks to the continued support of the F.R.S.-FNRS, the Ministry of Scientific Research of the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles and the two universities.

Fig. 1. The Theban region.

Famous for its ceiling painted in imitation of a vineyard, the first of the two monuments studied by the mission is Theban tomb 96 (TT 96), built for the Prince of the city of Thebes, Sennefer. His many titles, first and foremost that of director of the estate of Amun, indicate that Sennefer held the highest positions in the economic management of the many properties of the temple of Amun-Re, the great god of the Empire.
Some thirty metres further south, TT 29 was commissioned by Sennefer's cousin, the vizier Amenemope. At the head of the civil, economic and judicial administration, the vizier was the highest official in the state after Pharaoh. Other members of this family also held positions close to the king, and there is no doubt that the two men belonged to the first circle of the royal entourage during the reign of Amenhotep II (around 1427-1401 BC). 

Fig. 2. The southern flank of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, with the tombs of Sennefer TT 96 (1), Amenemope TT 29 (2) and Amenhotep TT C3 (3) (photo L. Bavay).

From the outset, the project was designed around two complementary research axes. First, from a synchronic perspective, it was necessary to study the structure and functioning of a Theban tomb of the 18th dynasty. Indeed, there are few examples of tombs for which we have complete archaeological observations, since most of them were hastily cleared during the first decades of the 20th century. The second axis of research, this time from a diachronic perspective, aimed to reconstruct the history of these monuments, from their construction under the reign of Amenhotep II to the present day. Here again, and although the situation has fortunately changed since the beginning of our work, it must be noted that very often, excavations have shown little interest in the remains of post-New Kingdom periods and even less in post-Pharaonic periods. However, the history of the necropolis did not end with the disappearance of the pharaohs and even knew a period of intense monastic activity during the first centuries of Arab rule.
The discovery of a new tomb immediately south of TT 29 opened up new archaeological perspectives for the project, offering an exceptional opportunity to extend the investigation, both diachronic and synchronic, to the organization of space throughout an entire area of the necropolis, in an attempt to understand in particular the relationships between individual tombs, the criteria that may have governed the choice of their location or architectural characteristics, as well as the location of the various successive occupants of the area in the archaeological landscape. 

Fig. 3. Plan d'ensemble du secteur étudié par la mission.

The tomb of Amenemope, 3500 years of human occupation

Known to Egyptologists since the end of the 19th century, TT 29 had not been the subject of any archaeological study. The outside of the tomb was cluttered with the ruins of an abandoned village house, built on a thick layer of debris, while the chapel itself, protected by a metal door, had long served as a stable for the household's cattle and its floor was covered with thick animal bedding. The excavation was conducted between 1999 and 2005. In the tradition of New Kingdom Theban tombs, Amenemope's tomb includes a large open courtyard on the side of the hill, a chapel carved out of the limestone for the owner's mortuary cult and various underground funerary chambers. 

Fig. 4. Overview of the courtyard of the tomb of the vizier Amenemopé TT 29 (photo: L. Bavay).

The chapel has the usual T-shaped plan of the tombs of the 18th dynasty: an 18-metre wide transverse hall, divided by a row of ten pillars, gives access to a second hall that Ancient Egyptian texts call "the long passage to the West"; at the back of this 10-metre long room facing east-west is a small niche that originally housed a statue of the deceased and was the point of passage to the world of the dead. The walls of the chapel were decorated with paintings, now very damaged by successive occupations, intended to commemorate the social status of the owner and to ensure magically and for eternity the proper conduct of funeral rituals for the benefit of the deceased.
A hieratic inscription found on the south wall of the courtyard records the completion of the work on the tomb, "the year 11, the twentieth day of the fourth month of the peret-season (germination season)", a date which places the monument in the first half of the reign of Amenhotep II. It seems, however, that the vizier never occupied this tomb. Like a few very people close to the king, Amenemope received the privilege of being buried in the Valley of the Kings, in the immediate vicinity of his sovereign's tomb, in a small shaft tomb (KV 48) discovered in 1906. However, the excavation of TT 29 revealed the presence of several wells and sloping passages leading to underground burial chambers. These chambers were probably occupied by relatives or descendants of the owner. Several objects can be attributed to the reign of Thutmosis IV or Amenhotep III and indicate the presence of burials only a few decades after the death of the vizier. The reuse of the tomb probably continued during the first millennium BC, as evidenced by the material dating from the Third Intermediate Period (coffins, ouchebti) and the 26th Dynasty. At that time, the majority of the tombs in the necropolis were thus reused by many, generally modest burials. The monument then remained abandoned, the courtyard and chapel strewn with debris left by the looters. 
It took almost a millennium to see new occupants settle in the tomb. From the end of the 6th to the middle of the 8th century AD, many Coptic monastic communities colonized the Theban mountain. Organized as monasteries or retired as hermits, these Christians found in the ancient necropolis an ideal place to test their faith, in an environment that was both desert and in daily contact with the remains of a thousand-year-old pagan past. TT 29 housed one of these Fathers. At the beginning of the 8th century, an anchorite named Frange transformed the tomb into a hermitage, sharing a time with his young disciple Moses. The exceptional discovery of the monk's archives, including more than one thousand ostraca written on fragments of pottery or limestone, provides a very complete picture of the life of these Christian communities in the Theban mountains shortly after the Arab conquest. Among Frange's daily activities, copying books and weaving linen strips were important. Reed pens, papyrus cuts and a pit build to accommodate a loom are the remains of these activities uncovered by the excavation and echoing the hermit's correspondence. The archaeobotanical study of plant remains and the culinary ceramics used by the hermit also provide an accurate picture of his diet, much less ascetic than that conveyed by the Apophtegma and other contemporary hagiographical texts.
After the disappearance of these monastic installations, the mountain was abandoned again for almost a millennium. It was only with the development of the antiquities market at the beginning of the 19th century that the inhabitants of the region found a new reason to settle in this hostile environment. Villages developed on the hills, with houses built in the courtyards of tombs to facilitate looting and protect this source of income. It was probably in the second half of the 19th century that a family took possession of TT 29. They built a house there that they would not abandon until after the Second World War, to settle in New Qurna, the new village built by Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi along the road leading to the Nile. The father worked as a foreman on the French excavations at Deir el-Medina...

Fig. 5. Coptic ostraca belonging to the archives of the hermit Frange (8th century AD) (photos L. Bavay).
Fig. 6. Left: overview of the Coptic hermitage installed in the courtyard of Amenhotep's tomb (to the south) (photo L. Bavay); right: evocation of the Coptic hermitage based on the data provided by the excavation (Rafael Morales drawing)

The lost tomb of Amenhotep and Renena

In 2006, a test excavation conducted immediately south of TT 29 rapidly revealed the presence of another, hitherto unknown tomb. Under the ruins of a modern village house, also abandoned for several decades, appeared the corner cut into the rock of the façade of the monument and the enclosure wall of its courtyard. In the space of this courtyard, remarkably well preserved mud brick walls were associated with abundant archaeological material that could be dated to Late Antiquity. There was no doubt that this new tomb had, like TT 29, been transformed into a Coptic hermitage. 
However, it was not until the 2009 campaign that we resumed exploration of this tomb, whose owner, date and importance remained unknown to us. 

Fig. 7. View of the chapel of Amenhotep as it was discovered in January 2009 (photo: L. Bavay).

The continuation of the excavation made it possible to completely excavate the remains of the Coptic establishement. Occupying the northwestern part of the courtyard, it was bounded on the east by a mudbrick wall and on the south by a wall leaning on the façade just south of the door leading to the chapel. The interior space of this small hermitage included an open courtyard, accessed through a brick staircase, and a room with two rectangular benches also made of mudbricks, which were probably used as beds for the hermit and his disciple. The excavation has yielded many Coptic ostraca, which allow us to date the occupation to the beginning of the Arab period, probably in the course of the 8th century like TT 29. On the other hand, the name of the hermit who lived there has not yet been identified with certainty, though the name of a “Hello” appears many times. 
The excavation in the courtyard quickly provided access to the chapel cut into the hill. A first room in width is divided by a row of six pillars. At the time of discovery, only the northern part of this transverse room was accessible; the ceiling of the south wing was collapsed and this part of the chapel was entirely filled with rubble slipped along the hill. The second room, or passage, extends westward for a length of 10 metres. At the end of this long room there is another, small room that remained unfinished; two square pillars have been rough-ewed on either side of the axis of the chapel. Like the courtyard, the chapel was occupied by the hermit. In particular, the open space created by the collapse of the ceiling, forming a small sheltered courtyard, preserved a loom pit and the remains of an earthen bread oven; at the time of the excavation, a pile of wooden fragments, some belonging to Pharaonic painted coffins, was still in front of the mouth of the oven, being fuel abandoned by the hermit after the last firing. In the long room, two other very deep pits probably also correspond to artisanal activities.

Fig. 8. South part of the transverse room of the chapel of TT C3, kiln and mud brick installations belonging to the Coptic use of the tomb (photo L. Bavay).

The paintings that decorated the walls of the chapel have almost completely disappeared, cut with a saw by looters, probably during the 19th century to be sold on the antique market. On the other hand, the ceiling paintings have been remarkably well preserved. They have polychrome geometric motifs, typical of 18th dynasty tombs. These motifs are framed by bands of hieroglyphic texts giving, in addition to funerary formulas, the names, titles and family relationships of the owners of the tomb. 

Fig. 9. One of the paintings preserved in the chapel of Amenhotep (lintel of the passage between the transverse room and the long room) (photo L. Bavay).
Fig. 10. Detail of the painted decoration of the chapel ceiling, mentioning the titles and the name of the "substitute of the overseer of the Treasury, the scribe[Amen]hotep" (photo L. Bavay).

According to these texts, the monument belongs to a man named Amenhotep, known as a scribe, "substitute for the director of the Treasury" and "companion of the king in foreign countries". His father Ahmes was a scribe, overseer of the cattle of Amun and the weavers of Upper and Lower Egypt. His mother Neh has no particular title. A woman named Renena, probably Amenhotep's wife (although the inscriptions do not specify it), occupies an important place in the chapel, since the texts of the ceiling of the northeast aisle are entirely dedicated to her. A singer of Amun, Renena was the daughter of the director of the Treasury Senneferi. The latter is a well-known dignitary of the reign of Thutmosis III (around 1479-1427 BC) and also the owner of the TT 99, located only a few dozen metres to the northeast. It is therefore very tempting to think that Amenhotep owed his privileged social position to his marriage to his superior's daughter, which would explain the unusual, foremost place granted to Renena in the grave.

The information gathered made it possible to identify Amenhotep's tomb with a "lost tomb", briefly mentioned in a study published in 1886 but whose location was no longer known. During a stay in Thebes in 1882-83, Swedish Egyptologist Karl Piehl entered the chapel and copied the texts from the ceiling of the transverse room, of which he gave a transcription in his Recueil d’inscriptions hiéroglyphiques, but without providing any indication on the location of the monument. When the first scientific catalogue of the Theban necropolis' tombs was carried out at the beginning of the 20th century, the chapel had already been covered with rubble and could not be found. Amenhotep's lost tomb was then given number C3, among many others still waiting for their rediscovery.

Several objects belonging to the tomb had also been found earlier, sometimes on other sites. One of them is the red granite “false-door”, a stela ensuring in the chapel a magical contact point between the world of the living and the afterlife; it was discovered in the 1970s on the other bank of the Nile, reused in the pavement of the chapel leaning against the Khonsu temple in Karnak! In 2013, the mission was able to bring this stela back to Qurna and reinstall it in the chapel; some fragments of granite, joining with the stela, had been found there during the excavation, confirming its origin. During the research carried out by the University of Cambridge in tomb TT 99, precisely that of the director of the Treasury Senneferi, the excavation yielded a beautiful painted sandstone statue representing his son-in-law Amenhotep on a seat; the statue, probably placed originally in the niche at the back of the long room in TT C3, is now kept in the Cairo Museum.
The excavation of the courtyard and chapel, completed in 2018, provided further information on the original appearance of the tomb and its successive occupations. The stone wall that crowned the façade of the chapel was found, collapsed just in front of it, with its dozens of funerary cones. Characteristic of Theban tombs, these ceramic cones, about thirty centimetres long in size, bear an imprint on their heads indicating the name and main titles of the owner and were inserted as friezes at the top of the façade. It is extremely rare to find them in this way, in a falling position.
In the northwest corner of the courtyard was found the only burial shaft of the tomb. With an exceptional depth of 18 metres, it led to an underground chamber and two small adjoining rooms. Plundered since Antiquity, these funerary arrangements have nevertheless yielded objects of very high quality, most certainly belonging (at least in part) to the original burial: hard stone vases, painted wooden oushebtis, wooden furniture elements (beds and chairs), imported pottery, remarkably preserved basketry, as well as many fragments of papyrus belonging to a Book of the Dead inscribed for Renena; this is definitely an exceptional document, as funeral papyri for a woman are extremely rare for the 18th dynasty. A coffin of the 18th dynasty type was found in the room, but it appears to have been reused for a man named Mersuamon, whose titles, relatives and date are unknown. In addition, a large number of fragments of wooden coffins painted on a yellow background can be attributed to the beginning of the 20th dynasty, attesting to the reuse of the burial chamber during the Ramesside period.

Fig. 11. Statue of Amenhotep, discovered in 1993 by the Cambridge University Mission in tomb TT 99, now in the Cairo Museum, inv. JE99148 (photo: M. Kacicnik, with the kind permission from the Cairo Museum).
Fig. 12. Excavation of the burial chamber at the bottom of the funerary shaft of Amenhotep's tomb (photo L. Bavay).
Fig. 13. Group of "Egyptian alabaster" (calcite) vases probably belonging to the burial of Amenhotep, 18th dynasty (photo V. Dupuis).

The pyramid of the vizier Khay: On the trail of a new tomb

The excavation of the Coptic hermitage in the courtyard of the TT C3 had shown that the Late Antique constructions were build on a thick layer consisting almost exclusively of mud bricks piled up in no order. These remains were probably the result of the destruction of a nearby monument, but its nature remained an enigma because the tombs of the 18th dynasty did not usually have such massive mudbrick structures. The answer came with the continuation of the excavation of the courtyard, and it was unexpected to say the least. On the rock-cut surface of the courtyard stands a massive mudbrick construction. Despite its very ruined condition, it presents a base with vertical walls and covered with a careful plaster of mûna. The western face – the only one entirely preserved – measures 10.40m on its side, i.e. very precisely 20 royal cubits. On the south side, the monument includes in its mass the stone wall forming the original wall of the courtyard; against this wall lies the south face of the building, preserved on a height of 11 brick beds and presenting a slope of 71°. These characteristics, as well as the method of construction, make it possible to identify the structure as the base of a mudbrick pyramid, similar to those forming the superstructure of Ramesside period tombs (19th-20th dynasties) in the Theban necropolis. This interpretation was confirmed by the discovery of the “pyramidion” or capstone that covered the pyramid; found in fragments on the courtyard floor, it is made of grano-diorite and has a relief decoration in the hollow showing the deceased in adoration before the seated god Re-Horakhty, surmounted by a solar disk. In the eastern part of the monument, a carefully plastered surface of soil represents the remains of the small chapel build in the core of the pyramid.

Fig. 14. General view of the mudbrick pyramid of vizier Khay in the courtyard of tomb TT C3. In the foreground, the opening of the funerary shaft of Amenhotep's tomb (towards the south-east) (photo L. Bavay).

Until then, no Ramesside period tombs were known in this area of the Sheikh Abd el-Qurna hill. The owner of this monument can be identified thanks to the inscriptions discovered in association with the pyramid; among the mudbricks of the destruction of the pyramid were several dozen fired bricks of the same module (32 x 18 x 8cm), with a large seal print applied before firing; the hieroglyphic text indicates “the Osiris [i. e. the deceased], the mayor of the city and vizier of Upper and Lower Egypt, Khay”. Attested by numerous documents (statues, stelae, oushebtis, ostraca, blocks), vizier Khay is well known to Egyptologists, in particular for his role in the management of the community of workmen in Deir el-Medina. His activity is documented for about fifteen years from year 30 of the reign of Ramses II (around 1279-1213 BC), but his tomb could not be located until now.
If the pyramid discovered in the courtyard of Amenhotep belongs to the funerary monument of Khey, the vizier of Ramses II, his tomb itself must be a short distance below. There are clear evidences that it is located immediately to the east, under a modern village house that is still occupied. With its 10 metres side and an original height that can be estimated at 15 metres from the slope of its face, the pyramid installed on a ridge of the hill was to represent a major landmark in the Theban landscape, visible from very far away in the valley. On the other hand, its position directly overlooking the Ramesseum, the Temple of Millions of Years of Ramses II, appears undeniably ideal for the tomb of an official of Khay's importance.

The excavation and study of the tomb of vizier Khay may take place in the future, once the ongoing procedures to compensate the owners of the village house have been successfully completed. In the meantime, the mission is continuing the documentation, study and conservation of the very abundant finds discovered since 2009 in preparation for the publication of the tomb of Amenhotep in the series Études d'archéologie thébaine of the CReA-Patrimoine.

Fig. 15. Grano-diorite pyramidion that originally covered the mudbrick pyramid (photo M. Kacicnik).
Fig. 16. Restitution of the Khay pyramid based on the information provided by the archaeological study (Rafael Morales drawing).

Contact: Laurent Bavay 

Bibliographic orientation:

L. Bavay, « La tombe thébaine d’Aménémopé, vizir d’Amenhotep II », Égypte Afrique & Orient 45, 2007, p. 7-20.

- L. Bavay, « La tombe perdue du substitut du chancelier Amenhotep. Données nouvelles sur l’organisation spatiale de la nécropole thébaine », Bulletin de la Société française d’Égyptologie 177-178, 2010, p. 23-43.

- L. Bavay, R. Tefnin, « Cheikh abd el-Gourna, Thèbes » dans : L’archéologie à l’Université libre de Bruxelles (2001-2005). Matériaux pour une archéologie des milieux et des pratiques humaines, Bruxelles, CReA-Patrimoine, 2006 (Études d’archéologie 1), p. 67-74.

- A. Boud’hors, Ch. Heurtel, Les ostraca coptes de la TT 29. Autour du moine Frangé, Bruxelles, CReA-Patrimoine, 2010 (Études d’archéologie thébaine 3), vol. 1 Textes (432 p.), vol. 2. Index et planches (86 p. + 133 pl.).

- D. Laboury, « Sennéfer et Amenemopé, une affaire de famille », Égypte Afrique & Orient 45, 2007, p. 43-52.

- D. Laboury, « Les artistes des tombes privées de la nécropole thébaine sous la XVIIIe dynastie : Bilan et perspectives », Égypte Afrique & Orient 59, 2010, p. 33-46.

- D. Laboury, H. Tavier, « À la recherche des peintres de la nécropole thébaine sous la 18e dynastie. Prolégomènes à une analyse des pratiques picturales dans la tombe d’Amenemopé (TT 29) », dans : E. Warmenbol, V. Angenot (éd.), Thèbes aux 101 portes. Mélanges à la mémoire de Roland Tefnin, Bruxelles, Brepols, 2010 (Monumenta Aegyptiaca 12, série Imago 3), p. 91-106.

Sur les travaux menés par l’équipe de l’université de Liège sur les peintures de la tombe d’Aménémopé et de Sennéfer, on verra notamment :

- L. Bavay, D. Laboury, « Dans l’entourage de Pharaon. Art et archéologie dans la nécropole thébaine », dans : Ceci n’est pas une pyramide… Un siècle de recherche archéologique belge en Égypte, Leuven-Paris, Peeters, 2012, p. 62-79.