Egypt: The Private Tomb of Sennefer on the West Bank at Luxor

The Private Tomb of Sennefer on the West Bank at Luxor

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

Sennefer's career appears to have developed during the reign of Amenhotep II (about 1439-1413 BC, during Egypt's 18th Dynasty), when he became mayor of Thebes, which was during his time a most important Egyptian city. Egypt was very prosperous, and because of the importance of its Temples, particularly that of Amun to whom Pharaoh owed his brilliant victories, considerable revenue flowed into this particular region. Several well-known names, particularly famous for the magnificent tombs they built on the west bank at Thebes, belong to this period, and Sennefer is one of them. His tomb, known by 19th century travelers as the "Tomb of the Vineyards" because of the decorative theme of its ceiling, attests to the fact that he received a fair share of these proceeds.

Sennefer's tittles, shown on the walls of his tomb, are varied, but the main one attached to his name is that of Mayor of Thebes. Besides being in charge of the administration of the city, the ports on the Nile and the country districts, and the collection of the taxes on grain and other goods, for which he was responsible to the vizier, he was also responsible for works in the necropolis and for the upkeep of Amun's temples, granaries, cattle, fields, gardens and orchards. His other titles included Chancellor to Amenhotep II, Overseer of the Granaries of Amen, Overseer of the Fields of Amen, High Priest of Amen in Menisut and Superintendent of Amen's Gardens. To hold such positions meant that he was trusted and respected by the king. Sennefer therefore proudly calls himself, in his tomb "Great Confidante of the Lord of the Two Lands", "praised by the living god", "of enduring favor", "beloved one", and "efficient and trustworthy servant of the Lord of the Two Lands". He was efficient and devoted to his lord, thus earning the king's high esteem, as reflected in his final resting-place.

Sennefer's parents were named Ahmose and Nub, who's names are only found within the superstructure of this tomb. We know that he was married to Meryt, who he refers to as beloved within the tomb. He may have also been married to as many as four other wives named Sentnefert, Senetnay, who were both Royal Nurses to the king, Senetmi and Senetemiah. However, there is debate as to whether these were all different wives, or simply different names for only one or two wives. They might all simply refer to Meryt, or to Meryt and a second wife. In fact, official documents record his marriage to Senetnay, who was almost certainly the same as Meryt. Senetnay is also attested to by a statue from Karnak that is now in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. In the tomb, Meryt is depicted on the sides of several pillars presenting gifts, as well as making the Pilgrimage to Abydos with her husband, while Senetnay is found performing various duties. She is also seen with him while making offerings to Amen. Sennefer also had at least three daughters. They included Mut-tuy, who may be seen in several scenes within the burial chamber of his tomb, Mutnefert, who is shown on a statue that is also in the Egyptian antiquities Museum in Cairo, and Nefertiry, who is on a statue in the London Museum.

Sennefer Tomb (TT96), has been open since at least the Graeco-Roman Period. We know that it was visited by Sir John Gardiner Wilkinson sometime after 1821, and in 1826, Robert Hay, part of who's notebook is in the British Museum Library, copied a number of the scenes. Howard Carter reported that the tomb was "reopened" by Sir Robert Mond in 1904.

It should also be noted that this may not have been Sennefer's final resting place at all. Howard Carter speculated that he may have been buried in tomb KV42, based on canopic jars, but all the evidence has not been fully analyzed. However, if this were indeed the case, it might explain why no objects associated with Sennefer were actually unearthed in TT96.

Regrettably, over the years there were a number of attempts to rob the tomb of its paintings. We find one such suspect scene in the Florence Museum. Other scenes were originally restored incorrectly, and in 1994, the tomb suffered some damage due to a particularly violent storm. However, since that time the walls have been completely conserved with glass installed to protect the images.

Notable for its decorations, the tomb is situated high on the southern hillside of Sheikh 'Abd El-Gurna on the West Bank at Luxor (ancient Thebes) in an area known as the Tomb of the Nobles, close to several other tombs of the time of Amenhotep II, including the well known tomb of Rekhmire (TT100). It overlooks the Ramesseum and the alluvial plain of the Nile, and takes the classic "T" plan of the private tombs. However, it differs from other 18th Dynasty tombs in the amplitude of the burial chamber and the fact that both the antechamber and burial chamber are decorated. From this period we only find one other private tomb, that of Amenemhat (TT82) with a decorated burial chamber. Later, burial chambers would be decorated, but mostly with religious underworld scenes, while TT96. The scenes within the tomb were apparently the work of at least two different artists, of which one was less talented than the other.

The tomb has a large, rectangular courtyard enclosed by a rough rock wall finished with plastered mud brick. Here, a superstructure, which is referred to as a funerary chapel, is considerably damaged. It consists of a hall, passage and pillared inner hall. On the east wall of this room are three statue niches. It communicates with a single pillared hall. Yet the paintings in the funerary chapel are of even a higher quality than those within the substructure of the tomb. The most important of these is a scene that shows Amenhotep II blessing the harvest and is the earliest of only five such known scenes. However, this superstructure has, since 1905, been used to store artifacts from other tombs in the area. It was even used to store the treasures of Tutankhamen's tomb. Perhaps visitors will someday have access to this area though, for a Belgian team of conservators are currently working on the paintings. From here, a pit allows entrance to the tomb's substructure.

The tomb is reached by way of a steep staircase with 44 irregular rock cut steps, leading out of the yard facing the chapel, down twelve meters. These steps lead, after taking an elbow bend, directly into an antechamber which in turn communicates thought a small doorway with a four pillared burial chamber. Both rooms are plastered and have a pale bluish gray background, which was typical of this period.

Regardless of the damage over the years caused to this tomb, the remaining scenes in the antechamber, which measures 3.5 meters by 2.35 meters, are very well preserved. Here, as the staircase bends to the right, one is suddenly presented with Sennefer sitting under a grape laden pergola, a theme that seems to be repeated in the whole of the tomb's ceiling. On the western wall we find Sennefer receiving offerings presented by priests led by one of his daughters, consisting of linen tissues, torches, a foreleg of beef and bread. His daughter, Mut-tuy the "Chantress of Amun", offers him two necklaces and a heart amulet. On the eastern (right hand wall), the scene depicts the funerary entourage, with bearers presenting the tomb equipment. These items include a large menat collar, another collar and leather sandals, two shawabti figures, the funeral mask and a heart shaped amulet painted blue to symbolize lapis lazuli. There is also a bed and Sennefer's personal possessions, locked up in two small boxes. Beside the door to the burial chamber on the northern wall another scene depicts the woman named Setneferet, "much beloved sister and singer of Amun". She plays the sistrum while holding a menat necklace, and along with her deceased husband, are depicted worshiping Osiris and Anubis, the two major deities of the afterlife. The short passage between the antechamber and burial chamber was decorated, but the scenes are extremely damaged.

The burial chamber itself is surprisingly cheerful, if one may say that about a tomb. Its irregular surfaced ceiling is especially spectacular, with its portrayal of vineyard grapes at the entrance giving way to a multicolored carpet of geometric designs (more typical of 18th Dynasty tombs) at the rear. It provides an impression that one is standing under a tent, whether by design or otherwise, and the pillars only enhance this perception. The overall decorative theme is complex, revealing the life of the deceased and his wife, specifically and exclusively Meryt, in the afterworld. In fact, the walls are painted in a very precise order, telling the story of the deceased's journey through the afterlife, beginning with the initial offerings to the gods and ending with the deceased being regenerated and his appearing in daylight.

The order of these scenes actually begins on the northwestern wall and from there proceed clockwise around the tomb. Here the first scene portrays Sennefer and Meryt, who are making offerings to Osiris-Unnefer (Lord of the Holy Land, Price of Eternity), as well as to Hathor (Lady of the Western Necropolis). This scene in turn is followed by Sennefer's funeral procession, where his sarcophagus is hauled by four oxen and proceeded by servants carrying the funeral equipment which is locked up in wooden coffers. There are also offerings and the procession is accompanied by friends as well as high ranking officials. After this scene comes another depicting the funerary rites, including washing and cleansing the body of the deceased, the transportation of the canopic jars as well as other ceremonies.

Turning the corner, we find on the northeast wall a double scene of offerings to Osiris, where the deceased and his wife are found facing a well stocked table of food offerings, in front of which there are priests carrying torches and libations. These scenes also have accompanying offering formulas. In the first scene, it translates as:

Offering the king gives to Osiris, Lord of Eternity, so that he might provide bread and beer, meat and every good and pure thing for the ka of Sennefer purified."

While most of the scenes are in precise order, the following two scenes on this wall appear somewhat out of order. The first portrays Sennefer and his wife worshiping Anubis and the resurrected Osiris, whose face is painted a reddish (blood) color which traditionally is used to represent the living. However, this is followed by a river scene recalling the pilgrimage to Abydos, a common occurrence in private tombs. It is in the holy city of Abydos that the traditional tomb of Osiris, Lord of the Afterlife, was considered to be located. It was necessary for the deceased to make this trip in order for his soul to be judged by weighing it on a set of scales against the feather of Ma'at. The boat that Sennefer and his wife travel aboard on the Nile is painted green, symbolizing papyrus but also regeneration. They sit beneath a baldachin while a priest performs a cleansing ceremony prior to leaving on their journey. As traditional, their bark is pulled by a second, larger boat complete with helmsman, rowers and a captain. In a second register below, they are shown on the return journey back to the Thebean necropolis, this time with the lead boat depicting a sail.

On the next wall (souutheast), the grape motif of the ceiling winds down around the next scene where we find Sennefer and Meryt first depicted worshiping Osiris and Anubis followed by a scene from Chapter 151 of the Book of the Dead. Here, the deceased lies on his death bed while Anubis, the divine embalmer, accompanied by Isis on the right and Nephthys on his left, attend to his mummy. Beneath the bed is Sennefer's ba, or soul, represented as a bird. In each corner of this scene are one of the four sons of Horus, consisting (clockwise) of Qebhsenuef, Duamutef, Imset and Hapy). Also, in the lower part of this scene are shown two shawabi figures along with passages from Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead. This text includes the magic formula allowing the deceased to call upon the shawabti so that they undertake his labors in the Afterworld. At the far end of this same wall is another curious scene depicting Sennefer and his wife being cleansed by water from a nemset-jar by a sem-priest, a most ancient representation, with the priest wearing his traditional leopard skin garment. Interestingly, here one finds an ancient Greek graffito from an early tourist to this tomb. It appears on the left of a double heart scarab amulet worn around Sennefer's neck. He holds a bouquet of lotus buds, while Meryt also holds lotus buds as well as her sistrum and menat.

Turning the corner to the front, southern wall next to the chamber's entrance, we find depicted first a priest bringing libations and burning offerings before the couple The text provides a traditional formula, consisting of "1000 of bread, beer, cattle, fowl, and all good and pure things to be offered for your Ka". On the left front wall we discover a scene representing Sennefer and his wife seated on high backed chairs in a conventional attitude. Meryt's hair is tied with a band that is adorned with a large lotus flower. After that comes a scene in which the two are standing while they prepare to "appear in broad daylight" so they may see the solar disk in its daily journey, after which they symbolically leave from the entrance of the burial chamber.

Above the doorway is a double scene of Anubis as a black jackal crouching on a pylon shaped shrine to either side of some lotus flowers. Here, text inscriptions provide an invocation to several deities, including Anubis, Mut, Amun-Re and Osiris. The Pillars within the burial chamber are also decorated. On three sides, each of them portray Meryt offering lotus flowers, perfume ointments, food, myrrh, protecting amulets, linen bands, necklaces and a sistrum to her husband. One exception is the southeast pillar where she simply stands before him. One one side of each pillar, the scenes vary. On the southwest pillar, the deceased and his wife are beneath a sycamore with Sennefer sitting on a chair while Meryt sits on the floor at his feet. The deceased smells a lotus flower and holds a sekhem scepter, symbol of power and authority, while in front of them is a table with three vessels, probably containing beer and wrapped in lotus stems. On the northwest pillar is depicted the "goddess of the sycamore" offering water to the couple surmounted by a portrayal of Anubis in canine form. On both the southeast and northeast pillars are depicted parts of the "Opening of the Mouth ceremony, which allows the deceased to magically recover the use of his senses and speech. In all, the couple is represented fourteen times on these pillars.

Obviously, this is one of the most interesting private tombs and well worth a visit when near the Tombs of the Nobles.

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011






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