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“Seeking Senenmut: Statues, Status and Scandal” Campbell Price (EEG Meeting Talk)

At the beginning of June Campbell Price, the curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, came to talk to the Essex Egyptology Group about one of the senior officials in Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s court: Senenmut. Hatshepsut ruled Egypt from 1473-1458 BCE, and she generally seemed to do things differently to her predecessors & successors. Technically she was ruling first as regent for then alongside Tutmosis III – but in reality she was the sole ruler of Egypt, surrounded by a small group of male advisors. Price made the comparison a couple of times in his talk to Elizabeth I (of England) – single woman as the ruler taking a traditionally male role, with a small collection of highly trusted male courtiers none of whom mention their wives terribly often when in the presence of their ruler.

In autobiographical texts Senenmut claims to be a rags-to-riches story, but Price pointed out that we need to take this with a pinch of salt. An Ancient Egyptian’s autobiography is always written so as to make himself look particularly special and saying that you were promoted from obscurity to a high rank is a very good way to claim to be good at your job. But there is some corroborating evidence. He comes from Armant (that’s the modern name) near Thebes, so near the religious centre of Egypt at the time. His parents’ tomb was discovered almost intact (and the contents are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, so J and I saw then when we visited last October). His father Ramose probably wasn’t part of the elite – he never seems to be referred to by high status titles. When Senenmut’s mother Hatnofer died Ramose was reburied in her tomb – and she was buried with impressive grave goods. It seems likely that Hatnofer died after Senenmut had gained wealth & status and so he buried both his parents more lavishly than Ramose’s original burial had been.

Senenmut may have had some sort of military background prior to his entering the historical record. But Price noted that this is based on a single scene in one of Senenmut’s tombs which might be there for symbolic reasons rather than autobiographical ones, so we can’t be sure. Senenmut’s first known job is as a tutor to Neferure, the daughter of Hatshepsut and her husband Tutmosis II (perhaps their only child). Being a tutor to royalty indicated that you were highly trusted, and gave you power through the close relationship with your charge. Senenmut references this job frequently in both texts and statues. One particularly unusual statue, which is now in the British Museum, shows Senenmut hugging the Princess protectively. This is an extremely unusual pose – it’s unusual to see a commoner touching royalty at all, in fact it was a privilege to be allowed to be depicted kissing the Pharaoh’s feet rather than the ground in front of his feet. So this statue shows that Senenmut is now very trusted and close to the royal family. The statue dates to a period before Hatshepsut becomes Pharaoh – when she’s still using the title God’s Wife of Amun instead (which is a title held by a particularly high ranking woman, normally the King’s wife, that has religious and economic power (as it comes with estates, the source of wealth in Ancient Egypt)). Senenmut is clearly trusted from early in Hatshepsut’s reign.

Senenmut rises to high status at an interesting time. When Hatshepsut’s husband Tutmosis II died his heir, Tutmosis III, was an infant and Hatshepsut (Tutmosis III’s step mother) was in her late teens. There was nothing unusual in an older female relative becoming regent for an infant Pharaoh, but Hatshepsut took more power into her own hands than was usual. She also never remarried, so Price said there was a sort of male power vacuum at the top which Senenmut stepped in to fill. He was older than Hatshepsut, and clearly trusted, so it seems she felt she could rely on him. Although he started as tutor to Neferure he gained many more titles over his lifetime, including several which refer to him as a steward of one thing or another and several which refer to him as overseer of works for various things. These include titles that give him oversight of the wealth of the Pharaoh – he’s connected with the treasury, with the gardens, with cattle, all of which are a part of wealth in this non-monetary society.

Senenmut may have been an architect as well, in particular he is credited as the creative mind behind Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri. Although we don’t know how much of the actual nitty-gritty of the designing he did. Part of the evidence for this is that foundation deposits from some buildings from Hatshepsut’s time contain name beads which have the names of both Hatshepsut and of Senenmut. In texts about himself Senenmut boasts about being an innovator, and about doing things that are new. This is unusual for an Ancient Egyptian, as they are generally very keen to talk about how they are upholding the proper order by doing things exactly as their forefathers did (regardless of the truth of that statement!). An example that Price gave us of this was Senenmut combining hieroglyphs into new cryptographic symbols – for instance one of Hatshepsut’s names was Ma’atkare and there’s a frieze decoration (I think in Deir el Bahri) of repeated units of a snake (a form of Ma’at) sitting on a ka hieroglyph wearing a sun disk (Re). So Hatshepsut’s name is therefore embedded into the decoration of her temple. There’s also a statue of Senenmut protectively embracing this cryptographic form of Ma’atkare.

Senenmut had more than one tomb built for himself. As with other contemporary tombs of the elite the decoration boasts about his possession or access to fashionable exotic luxury goods and people. The decoration also boasts about his knowledge. In the interior of one of the tombs there is a star clock on the ceiling, which is intended to show that he’s a man who has access to knowledge and to learning. Interestingly this is not a room that any living person would have access to – it’s intended to demonstrate to the gods that Senenmut is a wise man. His sarcophagus is now in the Met Museum displayed near his parents’ tomb contents. It has been badly damaged, but it’s still easy to see that it’s an oval shape. This is a case of him (a private individual) usurping a royal perogative – sarcophagi of this shape were supposed to be just for the Pharaohs. Another indication of the high status he had achieved.

There are a lot of surviving statues of Senenmut, which means there must’ve been even more made. He says in texts that he wants to commission a lot of statues so that he will be remembered after his death. He had no wife nor children, so if there weren’t images of him in the temples then who would remember his name? But sadly for Senenmut his name and image were defaced after his death, along with those of Hatshepsut. There’s only one surviving full writing of his name left in his tombs (next to a curse on anyone who damages his tomb!). It’s clear from the sorts of damage (like a line through an image of him that separates his head from his body) that he was deliberately attacked posthumously but it’s not entirely clear why. It may be because he was personally disliked, Or perhaps his closeness to royalty was thought inappropriate. Or maybe he was just caught up in the posthumous destruction of Hatshepsut’s name – as her closest advisor he too was attacked.

His memory did survive for a few hundred years in some form or another. There’s a statue fragment (in Geneva now) which Price believes to be a 22nd Dynasty piece which makes a reference to Senenmut. And in modern times there have been a variety of fictional treatments of Senenmut, and in particular his relationship with Hatshepsut with “torrid love affair” being a favourite way to portray this. Price pointed out that there’s actually no real evidence for this – even the famous graffiti in a cave near the temple at Deir el Bahri that is often described as a satirical representation of Hatshepsut & Senenmut having sex isn’t actually labelled with names. And in the larger context of the wall it’s on there are other doodles and so on that would seem to have nothing to do with Senenmut & Hatshepsut so it seems pretty unlikely as “evidence”. There are also even weirder modern associations – like a US college fraternity named after him!

After this overview of the life of Senenmut we had a break for coffee & cake, and then Price returned to the subject of Senenmut’s statues. Senenmut has the highest number of surviving statues for a non-royal Egyptian, and he also appears to’ve invented or popularised some of the later standard poses. For instance he popularised the statues where a person kneels presenting a god. As Price mentioned nearer the start of the talk Senenmut also had some very unusual statues like the one of him protectively hugging Neferure. The point of a statue in Ancient Egyptian times was to stand in a temple and receive offerings & attention from the living to keep the deceased happy in the afterlife – and so having an unusual statue would draw attention to itself.

Price finished his talk by telling us about an exciting discovery that he’d made in the storerooms at Manchester Museum. They have a large collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, around 18,000, not all of which have been exhaustively studied. They are generally provenanced as they were acquired from the Museum’s support of archaeological expeditions – so it’s known where they came from. One of the archaeologists that was supported by the museum was Naville who excavated at Deir el Bahri. Price said that Naville wasn’t a particularly good archaeologist by the standards of his own day let alone the modern day – he didn’t keep good records of what he found. So there’s a fragment of statuary in the Manchester Museum storerooms that was probably found in the temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri, which was just recorded as “Middle Kingdom statue fragment” and put away & mostly forgotten about.

Price has been re-examining (or more accurately examining for the first time) this statue – particularly the texts. Most are the standard sorts of prayers and titles for the owner of the piece, but one is very unusual. There’s a phrase that means “gift of the king” that appears only on 45 statues out of all the many many Ancient Egyptian statues that have been found. And 6 of those statues are Senenmut’s statues. So that intrigued Price and he had a much closer look at the statue. Looking more closely at the “gift of the…” text, which is quite damaged towards the end, it became clear that it wasn’t “gift of the King” but instead was “gift of the God’s Wife of Amun”. Which was Hatshepsut’s title before she began to rule as King. And Senenmut has two statues with that text on it. There is also a title on the statue that only Senenmut is recorded as having held.

However there was one potential problem: one of the pieces of text appeared to name the owner as “the Priest of Amun, Userhat”. Which is not Senenmut. But Price talked to someone who is particularly expert in reading hieroglyphs who pointed out that the barque (boat) in which the statue of Amun is carried on procession is called “Amun-Userhat” and that was a different potential reading of the hieroglyphs. So perhaps not a problem after all.

The fragmentary statue has many stylistic similarities with the one of Senenmut cuddling Neferure (which also has the text about “gift of the God’s Wife of Amun” on it). So Price believes that the two were a pair – one set in Karnak and one set in Deir el Bahri, facing each other across the Nile. Of course that just opens up even more questions, like: what was it doing in the Middle Kingdom temple (if it indeed was found there)? the one in Karnak is known to’ve been made before Deir el Bahri was built, was the pair moved there later? or was Deir el Bahri started earlier in Hatshepsut’s reign than previously thought?

This was a really interesting talk – Price is a good speaker, and he closed with a very intriguing piece of detective work. I always like the glimpses of how things are actually figured out!