Their Memory Lives On

Domestic Funerary Commemoration at Wah-sut

By: Kevin M. Cahail

Originally Published in 2014

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To the ancient Egyptian mind, the worlds of the living and the dead were inextricably intertwined. The speech of one man to his wife recorded on a stela encapsulates both this belief, and the mechanism through which it was enacted:

How are you? Is the West taking care of you [according to] your desire? Now since I am your beloved upon earth, fight on my behalf and intercede on behalf of my name. I did not garble [a spell] in your presence when I perpetuated your name upon earth. Remove the infirmity of my body! Please become a spirit for me [before] my eyes so that I may see you in a dream fighting on my behalf. I will then deposit offerings for you [as soon as] the sun has risen and out#t your offering slab for you. (Translation by E.Wente)

A fragment of a middle Kingdom offering table was recovered at South Abydos.
A fragment of a middle Kingdom offering table was recovered at South Abydos.

Merirtyfy’s poignant address to his deceased wife Nebetiotef demonstrates the perceived link between the living and the dead, and the responsibilities of entities on either side of mortality. Spiritual elements employed false doors, statues, and stelae to temporarily inhabit the earthly realm in order to receive food and offerings from the living before returning to the underworld.

Recent discoveries within the Middle Kingdom town of Wah-sut point to commemorative activity within the town. Excavations in domestic contexts have uncovered a significant corpus of inscribed funerary stelae, offering tables, and statues. Since no tombs have yet been discovered near Wah-sut , the Late Middle Kingdom citizens of this town seem to have commemorated their departed loved ones within the homes of the living, rather than the tombs of the dead.

Three stela fragments (12631, 101-14-2, and 12639, 101-20-1) originated in the mayor’s house (Building A). though badly broken in antiquity, the reconstructed offering formula on the left side reads:

A royal offering [of Ptah-So]kar-Osirs, Lord of the Ankh-[tawy, that he might give every good and pure thing] to the ka of the Hall-keeper of the Chamber of Linen, Khuinutef.

Renefiker and Iru from Wah-sut are depicted on this Middle Kingdom pair statue. Height as preserved 15 cm.
Renefiker and Iru from Wah-sut are depicted on this Middle Kingdom pair statue. Height as preserved 15 cm.
A twin offering table from Wah-sut is illustrated in this drawing. Width as preserved approximately 23 cm.
A twin offering table from Wah-sut is illustrated in this drawing. Width as preserved approximately 23 cm.

Auguste Mariette, a 19th century Egyptologist, discovered a contemporary stela (Cairo CG 20134) at North Abydos belonging to the same family which names Khuinutef’s mother, Petyt, and his uncle, a Domestic Servant of the Chamber of Linen, Senebef. though the Cairo stela’s specific archaeological context is unknown, it was probably part of a family chapel in the extensive North Abydos Votive Zone (an area with evidence of ritual activity). The actual tombs of these individuals are currently unknown. Despite this, Khuinutef was commemorated on stelae at both North Abydos (connected with the Osiris Temple), and within a domestic context at Wah-sut , where he probably lived and worked.

Evidence exists from Wah-sut that domestic funerary commemoration was widespread, seemingly across all levels of non-royal society. An offering table (SA.15472, 67-7) belonging to one of the early high status mayors of Wah-sut — a man by the name of Nakht—was found in the vicinity of Building B in 1999. It had been reused as a door pivot, but still retained the name and title of the deceased.

Another beautiful limestone offering table (SA.11002, 92-4-6) is divided into two distinct sections, with what appears to be twin catch basins. The piece was not inscribed, but through comparison with other similar tables, it was probably dedicated to two or more individuals.

Along with stelae and offering tables, portions of numerous statues have been discovered in and around Wah-sut . Fragments of a beautifully carved quartzite statue were recovered during the winter of 2012 within a Middle Kingdom pottery dump directly south of the town. Given the difficulty of carving quartzite, coupled with the artistry of the piece and its large size, it probably derives from a high status commemorative emplacement. More typical of the size of statuary for the town’s population are smaller limestone statuettes, such as a pair figure (two individuals carved on the same statue) discovered in 2012 of a man named Renefiker and his wife Iru. Other similar uninscribed statues (both single and pair figures) have been found in a number of areas throughout Wah-sut .

THE PRACTICE OF DOMESTIC CULT AT WAH-SUT

This fragment of an offering table indicates it belonged to Nakht, the mayor of Wah-sut.
This fragment of an offering table indicates it belonged to Nakht, the mayor of Wah-sut.

The existence of commemorative artifacts within the town context is tantalizing evidence of domestic funerary cult. Yet none of the objects found to date were in their original positions inside the houses, due either to their destruction or reuse. Therefore, any reconstruction of the original positions of these funerary objects must be based upon comparable sites. Thankfully scraps of information from two roughly contemporary towns aid in elucidation: Lahun and Kom el-Fakhry. William Matthew Flinders Petrie found funerary cult objects within the Middle Kingdom town of Lahun including stela fragments, and small statues. He also found limestone offering columns or pillars, one of which is very similar to an example from Wah-sut (SA.15023, 67-1-7).

At Kom el-Fakhry—a Late Middle Kingdom neighborhood of Memphis—one of the best preserved contemporary domestic cult emplacements was found recently. In a ground-floor room of a house, excavators discovered a stela with cavetto (concave) cornice and frame, offering table, and seated double statue of N(y)ka and Sat-Hathor. Archaeologists believe that the stela was set into the wall and the offering table was on the floor against the bottom of the stela, with the statue placed nearby. The layout is very similar to that of a tomb chapel, with the stela taking the place of the false door. On this point it is interesting to note that both the Kom el-Fakhry stela and the stela of Khuinutef from Wah-sut have the same cavetto cornice and frame—a form common to false doors from the Old Kingdom on.

We can conclude that a standard commemorative emplacement at Wah-sut would also have consisted of a small stela set against the wall, with an offering table at its base. The space around these two integral objects would have contained statues of ancestors, freestanding offering apparatus such as dwarf statues or fluted columns, as well as other small items of a votive nature.

Given that Wah-sut existed for many generations, domestic cult emplacements would have required periodic replacement and renewal. Statues and stelae of distant ancestors were removed in favor of newer ones commemorating the recently deceased. This cycle of use and obsolescence helps explain the reuse or discarding of objects such as the Nakht offering table or the quartzite statue.

WAH-SUT AND NORTH ABYDOS

The discovery of these funerary objects at South Abydos highlights a number of questions bearing upon an understanding of the Middle Kingdom community here. Most important are the locations of the tombs of numerous people commemorated within the town. From the reign of Senwosret III well into the Second Intermediate Period—a period of 250 years— Wah-sut was home to a significant number of people. Yet only broken traces of their burial goods have been identified to date.

One possible explanation is that due to the sanctity of North Abydos and its proximity to the Osiris Cult, the residents of Wah-sut buried their dead there. At more than three kilometers (two miles) distance, however, the probability that every citizen of Wah-sut was interred there is somewhat unlikely. though a modern field lays atop the desert directly behind the ancient town, remote sensing and exploratory excavation may eventually uncover undiscovered tombs closer to Wah-sut itself.

Cite This Article

Cahail, Kevin M.. "Their Memory Lives On." Expedition Magazine 56, no. 1 (April, 2014): -. Accessed April 17, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/their-memory-lives-on/


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