“A Beautiful Burial: Decorating an Old Kingdom Mastaba Chapel” Ann Macy Roth

Due to a dead car battery on Sunday afternoon, J and I couldn’t make it to the April Essex Egyptology Group meeting (a real shame, it was given by Wolfram Grajetzki who had done a talk for the group at the Petrie Museum last year (post)). So when we got back from our attempt to go to Witham we watched a lecture that J had previously found on youtube about Old Kingdom tomb decoration.

The lecture was given in 2013 and is the first of three lectures of the annual Charles Wilkinson Lecture series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The overall title for this series was The Art of Burial, and each of the three lectures is associated with the three departments that this Charles Wilkinson was associated with during his 60 years at the museum. So this one is the Egyptian department, the second is the Ancient Near Eastern department and the last is the Islamic Art department. This lecture was introduced by Diana Craig Patch who mostly did the standard intro stuff (explained the lecture series, explained who the lecturer was and so on), but she also played a short video about the mastaba that they have in the MMA. It was brought to New York in 1913, so was celebrating its centennial and the Journey of Perneb video explained how it was found and how it was taken to New York. And a bit about what was done over the century to display it suitably.

The main speaker was Ann Macy Roth and she was talking about her work on the decoration of Old Kingdom tombs (like the mastaba Patch was talking about). It was a pretty interesting talk – full of little details and things I’d never even thought of looking for. I shan’t write up a full recap of the talk because it’s on youtube (and I’ve linked it at the end of the first paragraph of this post) – instead I’ll talk about a few of the bits and pieces that particularly struck me.

One of these came from near the beginning of the talk when she was giving an overview of the evolution of tomb chapel format. Originally mastabas were based on an architectural idea borrowed from Mesopotamian culture, and they had niches evenly spaced all around the rectangular structure (which was painted to resemble a building constructed out of painted mats). But Egyptian funerary rituals require a focus point for offerings, and so two niches became more and more important (on the eastern side) and the others faded away. Usually this was one niche for the owner and one for his wife. Over time the primary niche became more elaborate and deeper set, and the secondary one moved inside that – and that’s what a tomb chapel in a mastaba is. It’s an elaborate niche in the wall, and I’d never really thought of them like that before.

One of her themes during the talk was that the scenes in an Old Kingdom tomb chapel are spatially organised to represent something about the real world – either the geography of the country (delta scenes to the north, for instance) or the layout of a typical nobleman’s house. One example of this sort of thing definitely falls into the category of things I didn’t even know to look for: She showed us a wall with 6 registers of scenes. Three were Nile scenes and three were desert scenes. And the line between the two groups of scenes was also the line that formed the ground that the closest image of the tomb owner was standing on (this was a large image that stretched across several registers). Roth said this was effectively a “you are here!” marker for the spirit of the tomb owner – these tombs all stand on the west bank of the Nile, so you are between the river and desert.

Another example was a wall that had (working from the bottom up) hunting scenes, then food preparation scenes and finally offering tables piled high with food in front of a large image of the tomb owner. The progression is obvious, but what I wouldn’t’ve noticed till she pointed it out was that this isn’t just a progression of scene types. As well as that there are details that move through the scenes – like the ducks. At the bottom are men catching ducks, and one of them is striding out of the scene carrying three ducks. In the food prep scenes, there is one of a man roasting three ducks. And then when you look across the offering tables (of which there are several) you can count three roasted ducks being offered. It sounds like an obvious thing to do, once it’s spelt out like that, but I wouldn’t’ve thought to look for the repeating details.

There are several other things like that, plus a lot of overview of the general scheme of the decoration and of each wall. She also mentions things that she’s still working on (like trying to figure out if there’s a pattern behind which servants are portrayed as naked and which not). Worth watching 🙂