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“Living in a Liminal Zone: The ‘Town’ of Queen Khentkawes at Giza” Ana Tavares (EEG Meeting Talk)

On Sunday Ana Tavares co-Field Director of Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA) came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about her work on two 4th Dynasty towns on the Giza Plateau near the Pyramids which she’s currently writing up as her PhD thesis. Her talk focussed on the town near Queen Khentkawes’s monument, with some comparisons to the other town at Heit el Ghurab (also called the Lost City of the Pyramids, which is where the builders of the Pyramids lived).

Below you can see a plan of the Giza Plateau (that I found on wikipedia last year when I was writing about my visit there in November 2014). Heit el Ghurab isn’t marked – but it lies southeast of Khafre & Menkaure’s pyramid complexes (so the bottom right hand corner). The tomb of Queen Khentkawes is labelled towards the bottom right, and the pink L shape that comes out of the square tomb is where the town lies.

Plan of Giza Plateau made by wikipedia user MesserWoland
Plan of Giza Plateau made by MesserWoland

Tavares started her talk by showing us an old photo of the area when the inundation still happened, and explaining what she meant by her title. Liminal means border or threshold, and so a liminal zone is a transitional space. In this case the town of Khentkawes is situated between the desert and the cultivated land. It is also a space which serves both the living (the priests and their households that live there) and the dead (the cult of Khentkawes). And this means it’s also a space that is both secular and sacred.

AERA started work on the site in 2005, but this wasn’t the first time it had been excavated. In the early 1930s an Egyptian archaeologist called Selim Hassan excavated across the site in a single season, cleaning the monument and some of the priests’ houses. In 1943 he published this work, describing the monument and one of the priests’ houses (they all look very similar so he picked one as a “generic” house from the site). So why come back to a relatively recently excavated and published site? The primary reason was conservation of the site, which had become pressing for two reasons. Firstly, as you can see on the plan, there is a modern cemetery just to the south of the town which was beginning to encroach further onto the site. The Ministry of Antiquities had put a wall up around the site, but nonetheless AERA thought it would be wise to start excavating there before any further encroachment. The other reason is that in the 1930s it wasn’t common practice to backfill a site when excavation was over (i.e. cover the site up with sand). This means that the mudbrick walls that Hassan had uncovered had deteriorated considerably just through exposure to the elements. Tavares showed us some pictures from the 1930s and some from their own excavations and the difference was striking. Walls that had been knee high when Hassan uncovered them were now only an inch high if that.

So the first six seasons on the site were spent painstakingly cleaning, recording and then covering up the site. This also let them generate maps of the site, which they’ve then digitised. These have then been overlaid onto Hassan’s original plans and satellite imagery, generating a very detailed map of the whole site. As well as maps they also laser scanned the monument – which is a technique that’s becoming more commonplace now, but at the time they did it it was at the cutting edge. Basically this technique uses lasers to very accurately measure all aspects of a physical space, and then these measurements are used to generate a 3D image on the computer which lets you examine the site from angles you can’t achieve in person. Tavares showed us the one they’ve made of the monument, she had a little video she’d made a of a fly past – around the monument a couple of times then up and over the top of it for an aerial view. I thought it was a rather cool way to look at the building!

Tavares pointed out some interesting features while we watched the fly past. Like the Sphinx, Khentkawes monument is carved from the bedrock. It’s actually a piece of rock that was left behind in a quarry that was used to build one of the main pyramids on the plateau. Each pyramid is primarily constructed of local stone, which was quarried in each case to the south/south-east of the pyramid in question. After the pyramid was finished this quarry area would be used for the mastaba field associated with that pyramid. Khentkawes monument was constructed from this knoll of rock, with the corners built out to be square (where they weren’t already). A palace facade feature was carved into the south side of it, which would then have been covered with a limestone casing. There were then granite elements added – a chapel, a gate. This use of granite links Khentkawes’s monument (and herself) with the era of Menkaure.

A big question in Old Kingdom Egyptology is “the Khentkawes problem”. Some of it has been sorted out – there turn out to be two women named Khentkawes, one named here in Giza associated with the late 4th Dynasty Pharaohs, and another elsewhere. But what precisely her title means is still unclear. The title associated with her is: mut niswt bity niswt bity. “Mut” means “mother” and “niswt bity” means “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”. Tavares explained that this can be interpreted in two different ways – Khentkawes might’ve been the mother of two kings, or she might’ve been the mother of a king who also ruled as a king herself. As they excavated and mapped the area around her monument the team found that the site has many features that also show up in kingly pyramid complexes – the monument with the causeway leading from it to a temple, a harbour, and a pyramid town, for instance. The team is divided on whether or not this is evidence that Khentkawes ruled as a king – Tavares seemed inclined to say that yes it does.

As well as mapping work they have been able to excavate new areas of the town – some under the buildings uncovered by Hassan, and some structures further to the east of the town. The latter included the harbour area I alluded to above. The work they have done on the site has shown three phases of building & occupation there during the 4th Dynasty. First there was a large building (which they excavated below the causeway that Hassan found). Next there were large houses laid out along a wide street. And following this the causeway was put in – it was narrower than the previous street, and it cut off some parts of the houses from the rest of the settlement. There was then a tunnel built under the causeway so that they were connected again, which implies that the causeway was put in as the result of a top-down decision rather than growing organically out of changing use by the site’s inhabitants. The site was abandoned after the 4th Dynasty, but then re-occupied in the 6th Dynasty. This happened in a formal fashion rather than as a shanty town – the buildings were reconstructed and the enclosure wall was too.

The team have excavated one of the houses (House E) more thoroughly, and Tavares told us a little bit more detail of these phases of occupation. When the house was first built it looked much like all the other houses on the street – they all have the same modular design. The big street was to the south and there was a door at both the north & south ends of the house. Later when the causeway was put in (where the street had been) the north door of the house was also blocked off – which seems rather inconvenient as now access to the rear of the house meant you had to go round all the other houses. Later still there are grain silos built in the northern areas of the house. Grain silos are an indication of wealth – grain is the currency (as such) of Egypt at the time, and having a lot of it not only means you’re wealthy but also that you are probably distributing rations to other people (so are high status). Interestingly the silos are in House E’s space, but are only accessibly from House F. The rest of House E has amalgamated with House D on the other side.

After our break for coffee (and cake!) Tavares talked to us a bit more generally about Egyptian houses of the 4th Dynasty (using plans from Heit el Ghurab as her examples). Tavares also got us to measure out some rooms of houses in the hall with tape measures and string so that we got a feel for the sorts of sizes she was talking about. The group I was in measured out the main room of one of the smaller houses – which seemed a reasonable size until we were told that probably 6 people lived in that house! (Which was an estimate using data from a Middle Kingdom census of the town at Lahun.) Unlike the town at Khentkawes’s monument the houses of Heit el Ghurab come in several different sizes. The lowest status type are actually pretty large buildings – 35m long by 5m wide. At the front end is a standard looking house, and then the rest of the space consists of a barracks like arrangement of two rows of bed platforms. This would be where the lowest status workers slept, the men who were there to build a pyramid as part of their labour obligation to the state.

The next size up were (very) small estates – each had an L-shaped main room (about 5mx2m) with a bed platform in the short arm of the L (which is the room we measured out). This was surrounded by small courtyards in which a lot of daily life would’ve gone on (rather than inside the house per se). The biggest houses belonged to administrators, the largest of which covered 400m2 – which is the largest Old Kingdom house that have been excavated. These larger estates didn’t just have a main room for sleeping in, they also had other rooms for business and living quarters as well as a bakery and a brewery attached to the house. The main rooms were richly decorated – the team found remains of painted plaster, and also the bed platform in the largest one had the foot end of it shaped into two different style (“his’n’hers” as Tavares put it).

Tavares ended her talk by talking about Pyramid Towns more generally, where Khentkawes town fits into this, and the difficulties in getting the textual evidence for these towns to match the archaeological evidence. The term “Pyramid Town” is actually the Ancient Egyptian term – which I hadn’t realised. They’re referred to in texts about tax exemptions – for instance in Pepi II’s reign the Pyramid Town of Menkaure’s Pyramid is exempt from taxation. But the archaeological evidence clearly shows that after Menkaure’s Pyramid was finished the town that the workers lived in (Heit el Ghurab) was carefully dismantled and abandoned – the valuable fabric of the town, the wood, bricks and stone, were removed for reuse. So where does the Pyramid Town in Pepi II’s time come from? Tavares said it’s likely to be the shanty town that grew up within the Menkaure Temple (which was excavated in 1908/9 rather than the formal sort of place one would expect from the texts.

Khentkawes’s Pyramid Town also has discrepancies between the textual evidence and the archaeology, but in the opposite direction. There are no textual references to a Pyramid Town associated with her monument, but the archaeology (as we saw in this talk) demonstrates that there was a formal, planned town there. Tavares said that Khentkawes’s complex is on the cusp of the changes between the 4th Dynasty and the 5th Dynasty. It really isn’t the same sort of thing as either the pyramid builders town nor the shanty town that later grows up associated with Menkaure’s Pyramid. Instead of having a variety of housing types for a variety of social groups, like Heit el Ghurab has, Khentkawes’s town has only one type of house. Tavares suggested that it shouldn’t really be called a town – it’s a single purpose institution, with several priests (and presumably their households given the size of the houses) all of whom were the same rank and were there to do the same job.

This was a fascinating talk, and Tavares is a good speaker – she really brought to life what could’ve been some rather dry archaeology and gave us a feel for the places she was talking about as living towns.