History Under the Microscope:

What Egyptian Graffiti Tells Us About the Past

Our June Meeting was a fascinating slide lecture givenby Dr. Teresa Moore, of the Berkeley Near Eastern Studies Department onancient Egyptian graffiti inscrip-tions. She opened her lecture with aslide of the Colossi of Memnon erected by Amenhotep III about 1370 B.C.E.on the West Bank of the New Kingdom religious center of Egypt, Thebes.Believed to be Memnon, a son of Aurora, goddess of the dawn who fell atTroy, the monuments gave off a sound like the twang of a musical instrumentin the morning as the sun rose until they were piously repaired and thesound was no longer heard. These monuments were visited by a party of Romansabout 130 A.D. which included the Emperor Hadrian and a Roman lady, Sabina,who had an inscrip-tion carved for her on the base and legs of one of thestatues. These are only some of the most easily accessible graffiti tobe found in the Theban area.

Writing was believed to be a gift of the gods and almostany blank surface seems to have appealed to scribes and officials as aspace to fill with formal inscriptions of the king, prayers to the gods,records of military exploits, or records of quarrying expeditions. Thecommon man was likewise felt compelled to leave his name, prayers and eventourist information wherever artisans or sculptures had left an open patchof stone.
The Wadi Hammamat, with its access to the mines and quarriesin the eastern desert and its access to the Red Sea ports leading to Puntand the Arabian Peninsula afforded many rocky surfaces to inscribe. The11th dyn-asty expedition leader Henu, the "keeper of the Door of the South"recorded his dispatch of a ship to Punt and the successful quarrying ofbekhen stone for use as statues in the royal temples of Mentuhotep V. Astructure known as the Paneon contains a carved falcon with Greek inscriptions,as well as graffiti in Egyptian, Greek and Latin. Other quarries at Hatnub(the Mansion of Gold) where Egyptian alabaster (calcite) was quarried arealso full of inscriptions of the First Intermediate Period and the MiddleKingdom. The nomarchs of the Hare-nome left inscriptions there, includingone by a certain Kai, who recorded that "I rescued my city in the day ofviolence from the terrors of the royal house." an indication that he hadrepulsed an attack by the king in the period of pharaonic decline.

Sehel Island near Aswan, the old border of Egypt proper,contains graffito of Senusert III recording the cutting of a canal thereto aid his conquests in Nubia. The granite quarries contain many New Kingdominscriptions from envoys carrying out the Pharaohs' commissions for cuttingobelisks and stone for statues and records of the Viceroys of Kush proclaimingtheir great deeds on behalf of the royal house. A certain Amenope lefta prayer to the goddess Anukis, daughter of the cataract god Khnum andhis wife Satis, who is easily identified by her unusual feathered headdress.Amenhotep II left tablets recording his victories in Nubia early in hisreign and the completion of his father's (Thuthmose III) temples. Othergraffito include one by Ty who accompanied the Pharaoh Hatshepsut intoNubia, the only mention of such a campaign by the female king; this onementions the artist, Amenmose, who carved it as well. Hatshepsut's righthand, Senenmut left his mark at the quarries of Aswan as well, in his roleas Steward of Amun. He recorded the extraction of two obelisks from thequarries, to be erected at the eastern boundary of Karnak (these are notthe famous ones erected by Hatshepsut in the temple) which are now lost.

The pyramids were already tourist attractions for theNew Kingdom travelers who visited them, being even for them almost onethousand years old. At Abusir Müller found a scribe's message (nowlost) from the time of Thutmose III piously wishing for offerings for Sahurein the temple of his pyramid there. In the North and South buildings ofthe pyramid complex of Djoser, inscriptions dating back to the reign ofAmenhotep I (circa 1530 B.C.E.) through the 20th Dynasty enabled scholarsto make the link between Netjerikhet (as he is known throughout the complex)and Djoser. Another  graffiti from year 20 of Thutmose III mentionsboth Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. The formula text for something wondrous:"found as if it were heaven" was the praise of a uniquely qualified (andself-satisfied) scribe for the funeral complex erected by Djoser at Saqqara.A certain Hadnahkt left his inscriptions in ink on the walls of the northbuilding within the complex where they can be seen today under a plexiglassplate.

Specific to the Theban area are about four thousand inscriptionsdating from about 4000 B.C. to 400 A.D. found along many of the ancientfootpaths which crisscross the Theban hills. Jaroslav Cerny spent mostof his life studying and recording the graffiti in the Theban area andthe workers' village at Deir el Medina. While at work on the Tomb of ThutmoseI (KV 38) he found a shady rock-cut chair inscribed for the supervisorof the work-men, Kenhirkopeshef. Another Deir el Medina workman, Amennahktleft a record of his visit to "water from heaven" in the West Valley, agrotto filled by one of the great floods which infrequently inundate theTheban hills. Recording a family outing with his sons, it demon-stratesthat the workman could not have been virtual prisoners in their villageas some scholars have main-tained. Votive stelae with scribes worshippingAmun or the deified Amen-hotep I (the guardian of the workmen's village)are found in the hills and wadis surrounding the Valley of the Kings.

The Valley of the Queens (the Place of Perfection or Beauty))also has a natural grotto which is sometimes filled with rainwater whereinscriptions by the workman are located.  In QV 66 (the tomb of Nefertari)has an inked notation on the west wall which notes the delivery of plasterto the work crew painting the tomb. Numerous inscriptions form the timeof Ramesses II and Merneptah are to be found in the Valley of the Queens.

Activity in the necropolis can be connected to graffitifound both in and around the tombs. The tomb of Thutmose IV (KV 43) contains the inscriptions left by inspectors of the royal tombs in thereign of Horemhab. The burial was described as removed under the auspicesof Maya (the treasurer of Tutankhamen) in graffiti left by the StewardThutmose. From this inscription we know that Horemhab was putting the necropolisright about year 8 of his reign.

Another inscription lists the date of Merneptah's burial(1204 B.C.E.) and the year 1 of his successor. Graffiti also indicate thatthe Tomb of Seti I was already open in the 20th dynasty. The civil warat the end of the 20th dynasty is reflected in graffiti found in the tombof Horemhab (KV 57) written by the Deir el Medina scribe Butehamen in year4 with the burial removed or exam-ined by the vizier two years later.
Under Generalissimo Piankh (Herihor's successor at Thebes)tombs were again examined and their contents  removed and cached.Graffiti of these activities are to be found in the Tomb of HatshepsutMeryamun (KV 42)  and Thutmose I (KV 38). Their final resting placewould be the tomb of Inhapy (DB 320) in the cliffs of Deir el Bahari. Despitethe seeming inaccessibility of DB 320, graffiti from as early as the MiddleKingdom are found nearby. In the remote Valley of the Eagle, graffiti arefound referring to Amenhotep (I?). Once again the name of Butehamen isfound, this time asking for the establishment of his name. Is Butamen partof the reburial commission? Dr. Moore speculated that Amenhotep I may havebeen buried in this remote spot before his final transfer to the DB 320cache as Amen-hotep I appears to have been one of the last of the reburialsin that cache. Butehamen is mentioned in a Smendes docket in connectionwith the reburial of Ramesses III.  A graffiti dated to year 13 nearDB 320 mentions his name as well as three others almost at the entranceto the tomb. These seem to indicate that the scribe Butehamen must havehad some important commissions relating to the reburial of the royal mummiesunder Pinejem.

The last persons to leave graffiti before the wave ofEuropean travelers who left their names and remarks over the ancient monumentsof Thebes were the Coptic monks who made their homes in the tombs and cavesof the region. One Coptic father, who called himself the sinner Abraham,invoked the saints to intercede for him just as the villagers had askedthe deified Amenhotep the first to intercede with the gods for them centuriesbefore. A brother Jacob addresses visitors who come upon his inscriptionto pray for him in a traditional style which is found in many tombs frompharaonic Egypt.

Dr. Moore summarized that Egyptian graffito thus informus of historical events we might not otherwise have in the record (suchas the Hatshepsut Nubian campaign or the reburials of the royal mummies)as well as giving us glimpses into the lives of individual scribes andtravelers from the ancient past.

  • Al Berens
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