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Work Chapel of the tomb of Akhethotep

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: From the late prehistoric period to the late Middle Kingdom (circa 3800 - 1710 BC)

Chapelle de la tombe d'Akhethétep

© Musée du Louvre/C. Larrieu

Egyptian Antiquities
From the late prehistoric period to the late Middle Kingdom (circa 3800 - 1710 BC)

Author(s):
Catherine Bridonneau, Lili Aït-Kaci

The mastaba chapel of Akhethotep, originally in Saqqara, was reconstructed in the Louvre in 1903. The word mastaba (the Arabic term for "bench") refers to the huge construction that stood over the underground vault in which the deceased was laid to rest. From the Old Kingdom onward, tombs of this type were designed for high-ranking dignitaries of the king's entourage. The chapel inside the mastaba was where the priests and family came to place offerings of food and drink and recite the formulas that would guarantee the deceased's well-being in the afterlife.

A mastaba chapel

The decorated section of the tomb chapel of Akhethotep, an Old Kingdom dignitary, was chosen in Saqqara, purchased from the Egyptian government, and transported to the Louvre in 1903 by Georges Bénédite, curator in the department of Egyptian Antiquities. Time, sand, and desert winds subsequently destroyed all traces of the mastaba itself.

The limestone blocks with their bas-relief carvings were reassembled within a stonework structure in the Louvre the same year. The gently sloping outer facing gives an idea of the overall shape of the original monument.

The solid, trapezoid block of a mastaba contained a funerary chapel, a serdab, and a shaft leading to an underground vault, hollowed out of the rocky desert soil, where the deceased lay in a sarcophagus, surrounded by a variety of offerings, accessories, utensils, and funerary furniture. The chapel, which was usually decorated, was a public place where the deceased's relatives congregated and the priest in charge of the funerary cult placed offerings to the deceased on a large table in front of a false door sculpted in the west wall.

The chapel decoration comprises both images and texts; the former served to reinforce the latter – especially the offering formula that expressed the deceased's wishes: a splendid tomb, an eternally-replenished food supply, and the ability to go wherever the Great God's protégés were entitled to go. The chapel decoration illustrates these wishes and, to identify the beneficiary, the names and titles of the deceased tomb owner were inscribed on the entrance lintel and along the stone walls of the passageway.

Organization of the scenes

The texts and images stand out in very slight relief on the smooth, fine limestone wall with its thin coat of plaster. The original polychrome decoration is still visible in places.

- On the entrance passage walls, a large figure of Akhethotep observes the arrival of the various supplies for the tomb in which he will live for all eternity: the left wall shows the pieces of fabric required for the funerary cult, and the papyri on which their quantity was recorded. To the right, Akhethotep’s son incenses his statues, and the ceremonial placement in the tomb is accompanied by dancing and the slaughter of animals;

- the west wall, facing the entrance, is carved with a double false door—a passageway between the world of the living and that of the dead. A large granite offering table was placed in front of it;

- the north wall shows the most important scene in the tomb: the funerary meal. Akhethotep sits in front of a heap of food offerings that is constantly replenished by a procession of women bearing produce from his funerary estates. There is also a scene of animal slaughter. The banquet is enlivened by a musician, singers, and dancers;

- On the opposite south wall, the feast is completed by processions of cattle, offering caskets, and a chart showing the ideal menu;

- the wall on either side of the door on the east side presents the various activities in the fields and marshlands whose produce will nourish Akhethotep in the afterlife. Boating scenes – sailing upstream to the south, rowing downstream to the north – are an allusion to visits to his funerary estates and voyages toward the Field of Offerings, in the domain of the Great God.

Excavations by the Louvre in Saqqara

The mastaba of Akhethotep was discovered during excavations conducted by the Louvre. It was located in the Saqqara necropolis, between the funerary complex of King Djoser (3rd Dynasty) and that of King Wenas (5th Dynasty).This excavation campaign, which began in 1991, unearthed a massive, solid building, preserved to a height of almost 6 meters and covered with a facing of fine limestone; it was 32 meters long from north to south, and 16 from east to west. This building was in the center of a funerary complex which also contained a chapel, a courtyard, and a small mastaba in the name of another Akhethotep (doubtless a member of the same family).

The chapel in the Louvre occupied only a small section to the south of the huge building, the only decorated parts of which were this room and a tall false door in the east side of the building. The funerary shaft led to an underground vault, about 20 meters deep in the rock, which was pillaged in antiquity. It still contained the sarcophagus and a few items of funerary furniture. Three painted limestone statues – one standing, one seated, and one in the cross-legged position of the scribe – were also discovered; two of these are inscribed with the name of Akhethotep. Unfortunately, their heads are missing.

Bibliography

- CENIVAL J.-L. de , Feuillet 2-11, Louvre.

- ZIEGLER C. , Le Mastaba d'Akhethétep. Une chapelle funéraire de l'Ancien Empire, éd. RMN, 1993.

- PIERRAT-BONNEFOIS G. , Les Travaux des champs, le mastaba, Fiche Visite-Louvre, Département des Antiquités Egyptiennes, Salle 4.

- ZIEGLER C. et al., "À la recherche du mastaba d'Akhethétep – rapport préliminaire de la mission archéologique du musée du Louvre à Saqqara", Revue du Louvre n°2, avril, pp 13-24

- ZIEGLER C.,  BOVOTJ .-L., Art et Archéologie : l’Égypte ancienne, École du Louvre/RMN /Documentation française, Paris, 2001.

- ADAM J.-P. , ZIEGLER C. , "La Mission archéologique du musée du Louvre à Saqqara " dans Dossiers d’archéologie n° 265, juillet/août 2001.

- ANDREU G. , RUTSCHOWSCAYA M.-H. , ZIEGLER C. , L’Égypte ancienne au Louvre, Hachette, Paris, 1997.

- COLINART S. , ZIEGLER C. , « Des minéraux jaunes peu connus. Le Mastaba d’Akhethétep », revue Techné n° 31.

Technical description

  • Chapelle de la tombe d'Akhethétep

    vers 2400 avant J.-C. (5e dynastie)

    Saqqara

  • bas-reliefs remontés dans une maçonnerie modernecalcaire

  • (le mastaba)

    E 10958 (A)

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Field work
    Room 4

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