Bringing it all together: Curious finds from the tomb of the bowman Neferhotep (TT 316 / MMA 518)

By Dina Serova

Finds are often dispersed and discussed out of context. Especially early archaeological publications and excavation reports of the early 20th century tend to focus on high-culture objects suitable for a wider public. In many cases, it was not only the methodology or excavation technique, but rather a matter of pre-selection and individual preference that ensured further documentation, study and, in particular, the transportation of an object to an archive or museum where it would be kept, mended and, at best, exhibited.

From today’s perspective, archaeologists often face this very problem: not only is our knowledge about life and death in antiquity fragmentary but also is the archaeological record upon which we base our understanding of the past. Thus, we often find ourselves recollecting and reassembling information in order to (re-)construct the past – in fact conducting “archive digging” before we can start a real excavation in the field. In this context, studying the remains of human activities in a space such as Deir el-Bahari, it is pivotal to assess such dispersed and sometimes rather neglected finds in order to understand their inner logic and significance.

The potential of this approach and possible resulting problems can be best illustrated using the example of tomb TT 316/MMA 518 (see fig. 1 below), which was first excavated in 1918-1919, with a later season in 1922-1923 (see Morales et al. 2018, 208-209, 212, 217; Allen 2015, 26, n° 1; Soliman 2009, 126-128; Kampp 1996, 573; Porter & Moss 19602, 390; Winlock 1942, 71-72, pl. 35; Winlock 1923, 19-20). However, it was not before 1923 that the first publication of the fieldwork results appeared in the framework of a short report (Winlock 1923, 11-39).

Fig. 1: Hand-made plan of TT 316/MMA 518 (by MKTP architect, Fourth Season – 2018)

Being one of the many rock-cut tombs in the northern cliff close to the temple of Mentuhotep-Nebhepetre, TT 316/MMA 518 can be ascribed to an individual named Neferhotep, who was an iry-pedjet “bowman”. His name and title were inscribed on both of his block-statues uncovered in a small hidden statue chamber, only about two meters above the entrance to his tomb (Schulz 1992, 305-308, Nr. 170-171; Bothmer 2004, 135-137). These two ‘cuboid’ statues (Cairo JE 47708 and JE 47709) (figs. 2-3), made from calcite alabaster and silicified sandstone (quartzite), fit very well into the general observation that Middle Kingdom officials could own more than one of these objects and wished for their placement close to their burials (Schulz 2011, 4). However, whether Neferhotep was a true administrative official is questionable, as his title indicates a rather middle ranking position in the military service and no other titles have been recorded. Nevertheless, the prominent location of his tomb and some of the objects accompanying his burial can be considered as products belonging to the upper levels of society (Miniaci 2017, 276) and must have been accessible to him and his family members.

Fig. 2: Cairo JE 47709 (drawn after Schulz 1992, pl. 77a)

Fig. 3: Cairo JE 47708 (drawn after Schulz 1992, pl. 77b)

Apart from the block-statues just mentioned, Winlock and his workmen found several other objects, which so far have neither been fully collated nor studied in detail as an assemblage (cfr. however Morris 2017, 298-299; Miniaci 2017, 252; both with differing foci), but aroused curiosity and caused lively debates among scholars. Before reviewing the finds in more detail, it seems worthwhile to first approach the tomb zooming in from the outside to the inside at considering its topographical and architectural setting.

In 2018, the MKTP reinitiated the study of the so-called “Eastern Sector” at Deir el-Bahari. The team conducted a survey of several tombs and their surroundings within this area. This resulted –among other things– in an updated plan of TT 316/MMA 518 showing the layout and the distribution of the passages and chambers (Morales et al. 2018, 208-209, fig. 10; and fig. 1 above). In general, the slope in front of TT 316/MMA 518 is slightly steeper than that of its immediate western neighbors (cfr. e.g. TT 315), and leads to a small rectangular courtyard. As the others, the tomb is not oriented towards the temple of Mentuhotep-Nebhepetre, but towards the monumental processional road leading to it. Somewhere in the forecourt, Winlock uncovered a small mud-brick shrine and a limestone offering-table (Cairo JE 47713). Its hieroglyphic inscriptions indicate that it was dedicated to Neferhotep’s mother, called Nebetitef, and to a woman called Merit, daughter of Hennu, who was probably his wife. In addition, there was another offering-table made of wood that is not mentioned in Winlock’s report, but noted by Porter & Moss (19602, 390). Currently, it is not clear where exactly these finds and the shrine, which Winlock jestingly described as a “chicken-coop” (Winlock 1923, 20), have to be located. In theory, one should expect here also remnants of offering deposits such as pottery or other small finds from waste disposal.

Approaching the tomb façade, it is discernable that it was sharply cut into the limestone bedrock, while the entrance was framed by a massive mud-brick casing, which is quite fragmentary and deteriorated nowadays. In addition to the aforementioned statue chamber above the entrance, there is a small hole in the mud-brick structure on the right side. “Thrown out from the tomb” (Winlock 1923, 20) – so probably right at its entrance – Winlock found the remains of a quiver partly made with pierced and decorated leather together with several arrows. The quiver remains were very fragmentary and seem to not have found their way to a museum storage. In one of the passages, that have a quite unusual shape and orientation due to a layer of harder rock which made the tomb builders slightly change the tomb layout (Morales et al. 2018, 212, 217), Winlock found a fragmentary hippopotamus figurine (Cairo JE 47711: fig. 4) and a nude female figurine with truncated legs (Cairo JE 47710: fig. 5), both made of blue faience. The contents of the burial chamber are not known. Whether it housed the human remains of Neferhotep’s relatives (e.g. his wife) beside his own burial is so far not confirmed on material basis.

Fig. 4: Faince hippopotamus: Cairo JE 47711 (drawn after Morris 2017, 298; own reconstruction)
Fig. 5: Faince female figurine: Cairo J 47710 (drawn after Morris 2017, 298; own recontruction)

The archive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art holds a number of objects associated with TT 316/MMA 518 which were never explicitly mentioned by their excavators and await further investigation. Some are even lacking inventory numbers and could only be recorded on the basis of MMA expedition photographs and tomb cards (see Morris 2017, 299).

Among them are for instance a pair of clappers made of ivory (fig. 6), whose upper parts are not preserved but can be reconstructed as hand-shaped. That we are indeed dealing with clappers and not with “magic wands” is indicated by small pierced holes at their lower ends, which can often be observed with these objects. It is very likely that originally there was a string holding both pieces together. This allowed to carry or to deposit them without losing the counterpart. Clappers were important magical devices and noise-making instruments in apotropaic cults and rituals providing rhythm and accompaniment to dancing, singing and/or recitations (Morris 2017, 285-335).

Furthermore, TT 316/MMA 518 contained another set of ritual objects: a nude female figurine with truncated legs made of imported ebony (New York MMA 26.3.307: fig. 7) and a hippopotamus figurine made of wood (fig. 8). Thus, we face four figurative objects in total: two female and two hippopotamus figurines.

Fig. 6: Hand-shaped clappers: unknown inventory num. (drawn after Morris 2017, 298; own reconstruction)
Fig. 7: Ebony female figurine: New York MMA 26-3-307 (drawn after Morris 2017, 298; own reconstruction)
Fig. 8: Wood hippopotamus: unknown inventory num. (drawn after Morris 2017, 298; own reconstruction)

Nude female figurines with truncated legs have long time been interpreted as sexually attractive dancers, entertainers and “concubines” providing amusement to the (male) deceased, and thus procuring his physical regeneration in the afterlife. Since such figurines were also found in tombs of children and women, the initial interpretation of these objects needed reevaluation and has shifted towards the aspect of “fertility”. In this way, nude female figurines were ascribed to the female life sphere being votives and guarantees to secure conception, pregnancy and birth as well as the continuity of the family and the whole household. “Fertility figurines” were and are often seen as individual protective measures against dangers and problems relating to human reproduction. In recent studies, this approach has even been overstressed in terms of general physical health and medico-magical applications.

In contrast, however, it was proposed lately to return to the initial hypothesis to understand nude female figurines of the Middle Kingdom as representations of dancers and female ritualists associated with the cult of Hathor (Morris 2011, 71-103). These figurines were identified as miniature embodiments of this goddess and particularly as khener dancers, which were thought to have an exhilarant effect on the deceased by showing their genitals during acrobatic ritual dances. This refers to the famous episode in the “Contendings of Horus and Seth” (P. Chester Beatty I, rto. 4,2) where Hathor uncovers her lower body in front of her father Ra when he has withdrawn himself after a dispute in the divine council. From the text, we learn that Hathor’s act evokes Ra’s laughter and uplifts his spirit so he can go back to council. Which emotion exactly (arousal; amusement; joy; anger; fear) provoked his reaction is not explained in the text, but scholars read this episode in a rather one-sided way. Apart from erotic/sexual or satirical interpretations, we know from ethnographic sources that the exposure of female genitalia is/was a highly provocative and disparaging act of communication or even as a threatening gesture in several African cultures (Serova in prep., 198-202). In short, the meaning of the text passage in question has to be reconsidered and interpreted with more caution. Also the significance and conceptualization of Hathor in the Middle Kingdom has not yet been focused on. A finer distinction and detailed study of the references to this goddess in the textual sources of this time period (particularly the Coffin Texts) might illuminate other aspects than those of sexuality, joy, music and dance. The association of female figurines with clappers and hippopotamus figurines in archaeological contexts might in general point to an apotropaic function.

Hippopotamus figurines made from faience are quite popular and widely distributed in the late Middle Kingdom. As ferocious and dangerous animals living in a liminal area (the marshes, the Nile and water basins), hippopotami and composite forms (hippopotamus-lion) are often attested as individual objects (Miniaci & Quirke 2009, 346-348) and less frequently as iconographic features e.g. on “birth tusks” (Quirke 2016, 327ff., 416-419). As has been put forward recently, faience figurines often represent vivid and dynamic beings, so the hippopotami can be represented squatting, standing as well as in movement walking, rearing and roaring (Miniaci 2017, 272). Such faience hippos have often been interpreted as pacified models of their real counterparts as well as symbols of fertility and rebirth. In such a “pacification” of these wild animals might lie their emic significance, which leads to the development and exploitation of their apotropaic qualities. Also the blue-greenish shimmer of their voluminous bodies combined with the floral or vegetal decoration on their skin evoke an association with the Nile inundation and luxuriant vegetation – thus “fecundity” in its broader sense.

All these objects (clappers, female figurines, and hippopotami), especially in their combination, are part of a typical funerary assemblage of a (later) Middle Kingdom burial in Thebes. This observation is another indication not to date the tomb of Neferhotep to the Eleventh Dynasty as initially proposed by Winlock. In addition, its architectural features (Seyfried 1987, 243) and the iconography as well as the style of the block-statues (Bothmer 2004, 135-137; Schulz 1992, 305, n° 3) strongly indicate a later date between the end of the Twelfth to the early Thirteenth Dynasty.

There is a number of objects, which raise several questions because of their date and function besides the fact that their original find spot within the tomb area is unknown. For instance, a “club” made of wood (New York MMA 26.3.304: fig. 9) was found somewhere in the structure. Not being merely a long stick (82 cm in length), the object shows interesting traces of working. It is not only quite heavy and made of hard wood, it is also “diamond-shaped in cross section” and has “sharp striking edges along two sides” (Hayes 1953, 283). Also the handle of the “club” was carefully prepared to fit into the palm of the hand when grasping. Hayes dated the object to the Middle Kingdom (Hayes 1953, 279, fig. 181; 283) and compared it to other wooden weapons of that time. In this context, it seems likely, that the “club” is to be associated with the quiver find. Both objects fit very well with the designation of the tomb owner as “bowman”, whereas the “club” might represent further links to specific combat-related functions and tasks. However, the punch of such a weapon cannot be compared with lances with metal or flint applications.

Fig. 9: Wood club: New York MMA 26.3.304 (drawn after MMA photograph; online collection search)

In addition, two curious “polishing stones of baked earthenware” (New York MMA 26.3.308 and 26.3.309), each ca. 13 cm in length –a size well-fitting for craft activities– can be mentioned. Whether these objects can be identified as the “bell-shaped burnishers” mentioned by Hayes (1953, 291) which were used to polish flat surfaces such as coffin planks remains unclear. According to Hayes, the “burnishers” had a slightly convex-shaped underside and were “stained by a dark resinous substance” possibly originating from the worked material. Another object found in TT 316/MMA 518 is an 11 cm long shell (New York MMA 26.3.305). Generally, shells could be used as small and natural containers, for example for ink (Hayes 1953, 296), or as amulets and bodily ornamentation (Hayes 1953, 195). Although not verifiable without consulting the original objects or at least having photographs of these objects, it is tempting to juxtapose the polishing stones with the shell as working materials and/or implements that were disposed of after their use for example in the final preparation of the burial.

Furthermore, some gold fragments (New York MMA 26.3.306) were discovered. They have been dated to the time between the Eleventh and Eighteenth Dynasty probably based on the fact that they might derive from gilded objects which were more common in the New Kingdom. Whether this precious metal was part of a shabti box or belonged to a fan handle of gilded wood is so far unclear.

The last piece to be mentioned is a 6 cm large rearing cobra head made of faience (New York MMA 26.3.311), which according to the MMA online database has been found in the debris of Neferhotep’s tomb. The object has also been attributed to the Eighteenth Dynasty. It was suggested by Winlock to reconstruct it as a piece of decoration on the forehead of an anthropoid coffin. However, it is not very common to find such an uraeus on a private coffin or mummy mask, since the rearing cobra is to be considered a divine and royal symbol in the Middle and New Kingdoms (but cfr. Hayes 1953, 310, fig. 201). Also, representations of snakes made of faience are not to be found among the Middle Kingdom quartz ceramics (Miniaci 2017, 241-257). In fact, it is very likely that we are dealing with one of the many forms of faience amulets that are widely distributed in Egypt from the first Millennium BCE onwards. A more detailed study of this object and the others would surely clarify most of these questions.

Although many questions still remain unanswered concerning the finds from Neferhotep’s tomb, studying the archival data and collating it with information found in its first publications has proved to be fruitful. Further investigation of the original objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art will hopefully help to complete our understanding of the tomb assemblage, providing a solid ground for future re-excavation as well as re-examination of the tomb TT 316 / MMA 518 and its courtyard.


Allen, S. J. 2015. “An Offering to Mentuhotep, Son of Mentuhotep-anhu, Found at Thebes – MMA 26.3.316”, in: A. Oppenheim, O. Goelet (eds.), in The Art and Culture of Ancient Egypt: Studies in Honor of Dorothea Arnold, BES 19, 25-40.

Behrmann, A. 1989. Das Nilpferd in der Vorstellungswelt der Alten Ägypter I. Europäische Hochschulschriften, Reihe 38: Archäologie 22. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Bothmer, B. V. 2004. “Block statues of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom II: The Sculpture of Teta’s Son”, in B. V. Bothmer (ed.), Egyptian Art: Selected Writings of Bernard V. Bothmer. New York: Oxford University Press, 121-142.

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Note: Unless expressly indicated to the contrary, photos in this article are copyright of The Middle Kingdom Theban Project © MKTP. Figs. 2 to 9 are illustrative drawings (with reconstructions) produced by the author, Dina Serova.

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MKTP - Middle Kingdom Theban Project - Recuperando el pasado

El proyecto

El Middle Kingdom Theban Project tiene como objetivos la excavación, estudio y publicación de varias tumbas de la necrópolis del Reino Medio en Deir el-Bahari (Henenu, Ipi, Neferhotep, E1) y de las tumbas de Dagi (TT 103) y Djari (TT 366) en la necrópolis de Asasif.

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Con la colaboración del Ministerio Egipcio de Antigüedades y las autoridades del Alto Egipto, Luxor y la Orilla Occidental.

Las tumbas

Las tumbas de Henenu (TT 313) e Ipi (TT 315) se encuentran en la colina norte de la necrópolis de Deir el-Bahari, donde fueron enterrados algunos de los oficiales más importantes de Mentuhotep II y principios del Reino Medio. 

La cámara funeraria de Harhotep (CG 28023) fue localizada en el patio de la tumba TT 314 y constituye uno de los ejemplos más interesantes en arquitectura, iconografía y epigrafía del yacimiento. 

En la planicie de Asasif, las tumbas de Dagi (TT 103) y Djari (TT 366) también representan monumentos a la memoria de altos cargos tebanos del reinado de Mentuhotep II que ayudaron a construir un gran estado.

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