Projekt TT 95: The Theban Rock Tomb of Meri and Hunai
The Theban Rock Tomb of Meri and Hunai (TT 95)
a joint research project of the Egyptological Seminar of the University of Basel and the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo
Andrea M. Gnirs
Started in 1991 on behalf of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo and kindly supported by the German Research Foundation, the field project directed by Dr. Andrea Gnirs-Loprieno became a joint venture between the German Archaeological Institute and the Egyptological Seminar of the University of Basel since 2006 with support by the Gertrud Mayer Foundation. In the focus of attention lies the archaeological and epigraphic documentation of a large decorated rock tomb from the late 15th century BC and its subsequent uses in later times (fig. 1). Designed for the Highpriest of Amun Meri and his mother Hunai, a Royal Nurse of king Amenhotep II (fig. 2), the rock chapel and the extensive substructures related to it offered plenty of space for later burials from the later New Kingdom into the Late Period (ca. 1330-335 BC). As a consequence of an accident during construction, the tomb chapel was, however, left unfinished. Epigraphic evidence suggests that a nearby abandoned tomb from the time of Thutmose III, TT 84, seems to have been used by mother and son as a surrogate cult place (fig. 3). Like many other tombs in the middle and lower ranges of the hills of Sheikh Abd’el-Qurnah, TT 95 and adjacent structures were inhabited by Christian monks during the Coptic Period (ca. 6th-8th century) and again from the late 19th through the first half of the 20th century by a local family.
The project aims at documenting, conserving, and understanding the processes of elite tomb construction and use in the Theban Necropolis during its long history of occupation, i.e. how a monumental rock-cut tomb was constructed, decorated and, in subsequent periods, modified according to changes of social agency and funerary practices, how and by whom burial sites were administered and engineered, and who their social agents were by looking at burial assemblages and tomb representations.
Location and plan of the tomb
TT 95 is situated on the southwestern slope of the hills of Sheikh Abd’el-Qurnah, a part of the Theban Necropolis which was mainly used by middle and high ranking title-holders of the time of Amenhotep II and Thutmosis IV (fig. 4). Oriented towards the east, the tomb faces the Mansion of Millions of Years of Amenhotep II and, further to the east, the Amun temple of Karnak. The tomb was designed as a vast burial site subdivided into four semantically distinct architectural units (fig. 5):
(1) A partly decorated chapel of considerable size, consisting of a high transverse 12-pillared hall (fig. 6) and an adjoining square shaped 4-pillared hall left unfinished: The way in which the ceilings of the halls are designed shows that the central axis of the chapel was accentuated (fig. 7) as it is laid out like a temple colonnade leading to the main cult place in the west; in this pathway the ceiling was planned to slope upwards from east to west – an architectural device well known from the tomb of Rekhmira, TT 100. An intrusive shaft tomb and an additional pit in the shape of a coffin were cut into the rock floor of the transverse hall during the 3rd Intermediate Period. The mummy parts and bones of about 40 individuals dispersed in the tomb chapel and in the underground chamber of the shaft tomb could be reassembled. This means that besides the shaft tomb and the rectangular pit, other locations in the tomb chapel must have served a burial purpose. As the tomb was inhabited in Late Antiquity and modern times, no evidence of their original disposition could be retrieved during the excavations.
(2) An unfinished broad, open courtyard in front of the façade of the tomb that gives access to the chapel as well as to the substructure 95B at its southern end (fig. 1): Delimited in the south by a rock-cut sidewall descending from west to east, the courtyard was enclosed in the east and the north by a mud brick wall. While in the north it ran parallel to the stone wall bordering the courtyard of the tomb of Sennefer in the north (TT 96), on the eastern side it was built against the stone wall topping the façade of the tomb of Imenemipe (TT 29) further below the hill. The southern part of the courtyard provided some evidence for ritual and funerary practices during the 18th Dynasty and the Third Intermediate Period; in its northeastern section, a disturbed cache of embalming material could be located.
(3) Substructure 95B which can be entered at ground level through a door in the façade (fig. 1): From an antechamber one steps into a short corridor that gives way to a long, narrow sloping staircase (fig. 8) which ends in a square shaped coffin chamber deeply below the western end of the 2nd Pillared Hall, the location where usually the central funerary cult ought to have taken place. The coffin chamber accommodated the badly disturbed remains of Mery’s mother Hunay (fig. 9) and of three other unidentified burials. Scarce remains of a black 22nd Dynasty coffin suggest that after the middle 18th Dynasty the room has been reused during the Third Intermediate Period.
The antechamber of 95B also served as a shaft room to a complementary second burial complex, with access from a short sloping corridor running west; at each side of this passage, a spacious room opens to the south and to the north respectively (fig. 10). A further small chamber was later cut into the floor of the northern room, leading west. Like Hunay’s chamber these rooms were constructed for members of the high-priest’s family, maybe even for Mery himself, as the burial of Myt, Mery’s wife and a Chantress of Amun, could be attributed to one of the two coffin chambers on the basis of her pottery canopic jars, the sherds of which were mainly recollected from this room (fig. 11). The complex, providing a place of burial for 29 individuals, has been reused during the Third Intermediate Period, more precisely during the early 22nd Dynasty (ca. 925-890 BC), as the evidence of stamped mummy leather bands indicate. Substructure 95B was excavated during the mid 1990’s, studying and recording of the find-complexes was begun at the same time with a focus on 18th Dynasty burials, while documentation of the fragmented funerary equipment from subsequent periods started in 2003.
(4) Substructure 95C, which was built in the south close to TT 95, on a higher level (fig. 12): Following the latter’s orientation it is accessible through an oblong courtyard deeply cut into the rock; from there a long, spacious staircase slopes down to the west, changing twice its direction (fig. 13). It abruptly ends in a gallery, the filling of which contained remains of a late 18th Dynasty burial mixed with stonemasons’ debris and huge pieces of rock. The substructure’s proximity to TT 95, its orientation and similarities with substructure 95B support the idea that it was originally designed to accommodate a burial related to the mortuary chapel TT 95, possibly that of the high-priest himself.
Three secondary sarcophagus chambers bear witness to the later use of the sloping passage during the 1st millennium BC. While the two rooms further up the passage were thoroughly robbed, more evidence survived from the burials in the chamber at the end of the staircase: Although plundered as well, the room and the grounds around its shaft provided some material evidence which suggests that the chamber was used from the Third Intermediate to the Late Period; a more detailed analysis of the burial remains is in progress.
At ground level with the sunken forecourt the latter is flanked in the south by two additional small single-room-chapels giving access to at least two shaft-tombs (fig. 14, only the Western one has been cleared, the Eastern one still contains intact modern furnishing made of dried Nile silt (muna) and has been left unexcavated). It does not seem likely that the rooms were constructed at the same time as the courtyard and the sloping passage. Remains of burial equipment document a use during the Third Intermediate to the Late Period. TT 95C was excavated in 2007-08. In 2009, the recording of its finds has been started.
Construction and preservation of the tomb
The tomb was constructed and decorated under Amenhotep II, whose name is mentioned in the offering spell linked to the scene of the burning offering on the northern east wall of the 1st Pillared Hall. According to stylistic analysis of the wall paintings, a later date within the reign of Amenhotep II seemed plausible. In 2003, this idea was corroborated by the find of a group of ostraca in the substructure of the tomb of the vizier Amenemope located further below the hill (TT 29), investigated and documented by the Belgian Mission working in Theban tombs from Dyn. 18th (Mission Archéologique dans la Nécropole Thébaine MANT: http://www.ulb.ac.be/rech/inventaire/projets/4/PR3344.html ). These ostraca originating from TT 95 record the progress of work undertaken in the tomb of the Highpriest Mery during a period of 4 years, between year 21 and year 25 of Amenhotep II, and refer to the stonemasonry performed in various parts of the complex as well as to the process of painting the walls. While constructional and archaeological evidence suggest that the main burial system of substructure 95B had been accomplished and used for the interment of Hunay early during the building phase of Mery’s tomb, the rock chapel was, in contrast, never finished. Due to the collapse of a huge part of the ceiling in the 1st Pillared Hall, leaving the room exposed to open air, the chapel must have been abandoned during construction (fig. 15). Since three intact wooden hammers used by the ancient stonemasons were found in situ in the 2nd Pillared Hall on top of the original limestone debris at three different locations, the site must have been abruptly abandoned, leaving behind useful working tools (fig. 16). It seems therefore likely that the chapel never served for commemoration and mortuary rituals after the death of Hunay and Mery. Instead, the decorated tomb of Iamunedjeh, TT 84, built in the reign of Thutmose III had been taken over for this purpose (fig. 17).
Up to the moment when work was stopped in Mery’s mortuary chapel, some parts of its front hall were already decorated, while others – its southern half except for the eastern wall and the eastern part of the southern wall, the entire 2nd Pillared Hall and the forecourt – were still under construction. The debris produced by cutting the rock were carried outside and discarded just to the northeast of the courtyard, on top of spoil left behind by the stonemasons of the tombs of Sennefer (TT 96) and Amenemope (TT 29), which had been built earlier during the reign of Amenhotep II, to even up the steeply descending bedrock in this part of the hill and to create a terrace on which extending walls related to the construction of both neighboring tombs could be built. From these layers, some ostraca (sketches, „Vorlagen“ of tomb scenes and texts, list of rations, fig. 18), workmen’s pottery (among others plaster pots and painters’ dishes, fig. 19), pieces of ropes, etc. could be uncovered, adding valuable information to our knowledge of tomb construction and decoration.
Despite its poor preservation, it is still obvious that the wall paintings were carried out with the utmost precision concerning the execution of the preliminary sketches and the application of color (fig. 20), except for two subregisters depicting female family members at the western end of the north wall of the First Pillared Hall, the representations of which show traces of reworking (fig. 21). It can be assumed that the working gang made available for Mery’s building site was also employed at royal enterprises.
The decoration in TT 95 has suffered substantial deterioration partly because the painted plaster fell off the walls, most of which consist of a crumbly and inhomogenous limestone that did not allow smooth surfaces, partly because of intentional damage inflicted during the Late-Roman and modern occupation of the 1st Pillared Hall: Most defects were caused by modern inhabitants who stuck soot producing oil-lamps into the walls, scratched out faces for fear of the bad eye, smeared mud on the paintings and rubbed off the lower parts of the walls (fig. 22). Therefore, soiled wall paintings had been cleaned (fig. 23 shows their state after conservation) before epigraphic documentation, i.e. the studying of the painting process and the tracing, photographing and description of the scenes and inscriptions, was started. Most recently, structural consolidation of endangered walls and pillars was carried out.
Contemporary and later use of the tomb complex
Substructure 95B turned out to have been designed as the original family mausoleum. Although its coffin chambers were thoroughly robbed and vandalized over the millennia, the funerary pottery recovered from the coffin chambers suggested a middle Dyn. 18th date (fig. 24), which proved to be positive by evidence of painted and inscribed vessels mentioning the titles and names of Mery’s closest female relatives, mother and wife (figs. 9 and 11). Beside the pottery sets, however, not much has overcome subsequent interferences and looting of the original burials. Small wooden fragments of the black coffin type (showing bitumen or black and yellow paint) and tiny pieces of gilted wood found in the rubble of the underground chambers give an idea how some of the bodies must have been protected. Impressions on sealed jar stoppers, reproducing, among others, the name of the god Amun-Ra from Karnak (fig. 25), or clay seals showing the official sign of the necropolis tell their story about the institutions involved in the provisioning of certain luxurious products as burial goods for the tomb of Mery and Hunay (fig. 26).
Later reuse of substructures 95B and 95C provided slightly more archaeological material. Most prominent among them are the remains of cartonnage coffins found broken into pieces and dispersed all over the place in the chambers and the corridor of the satellite underground system of 95B (fig. 27-29) as well as pieces of mummy leather bands, some of them decorated with a stamped scene that shows king Osorkon I (22nd Dynasty, ca. 925-890 BC) in front of the ithyphallic Amun. Although only very little survived of the Third Intermediate Period burials from the transverse hall, some of them seem to have been of a more elaborate kind. A nicely carved wooden artificial toe was found in place when the legs of a mummy were examined by the anthropologists of the excavation team (fig. 30). The mummy, which had been torn into pieces by robbers, was that of a 50-60 years old woman.
During the Late-Roman Period, the accessible rock chambers and the courtyards of the tomb complex were occupied by Christian monks who had settled down in this part of the necropolis to lead their ascetic lives apart from villages and monasteries. Archaeological remains of domestic and industrial structures and production including masses of pottery sherds, some Coptic graffiti inscribed across the pharaonic paintings (fig. 31) on the tomb walls and, in particular, hundreds of inscribed ostraca mainly in Coptic language as well as some fragments of papyrus bear witness to their daily activities and trades pursued in the forecourts and tombs, to their religious beliefs and social contacts (fig. 32). After a first season in spring 2010, the study of the ostraca was continued in 2012 and in 2013, involving collation of the texts against the database that has been created on the basis of photographic documentation in previous years.
D. Polz, Jamunedjeh, Meri und Userhat, in: Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Abteilung Kairo 47 (1991), 281-291.
A.M. Gnirs, E. Grothe & H. Guksch, Zweiter Vorbericht über die Aufnahme und Publikation von Gräbern der 18. Dynastie der thebanischen Beamtennekropole, in: Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Abteilung Kairo 53 (1997), 57-83.
A.M. Gnirs, Das Pfeilerdekorationsprogramm im Grab des Meri, Theben Nr. 95: Ein Beitrag zu den Totenkultpraktiken der 18. Dynastie, in: J. Assmann et al. (Hg.), Thebanische Beamtennekropolen. Neue Perspektiven archäologischer Forschung. Internationales Symposion Heidelberg 9.-13.6.1993, Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens 12, Heidelberg 1995, 233-253.
F. Kampp, Die Thebanische Nekropole. Zum Wandel des Grabgedankens von der XVIII. bis zur XX. Dynastie, 2 vols., Theben 13.1-2, Mainz 1996, I. 358-360, II. map III, B 6.
A. G. Nerlich, et al., Ancient Egyptian prosthesis of the big toe, in: The Lancet vol. 356 No. 9248 (2000), 2176-2179.
A.G. Nerlich & A. Zink, Anthropological and palaeopathological analysis of human remains in the Theban necropolis: a comparative study on three ‚Tombs of the Nobles’, in: N. Strudwick & J.H. Taylor (ed.), The Theban necropolis. Past, present and future, London 2003, 218-228.
 Publication in progress by Pierre Tallet and Andrea Gnirs.