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Work Mortuary Mask of Khaemwaset

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: The New Kingdom (circa 1550 to circa 1069 BC)

Mortuary Mask of Khaemwaset

© Musée du Louvre/C. Larrieu

Egyptian Antiquities
The New Kingdom (circa 1550 to circa 1069 BC)

Author(s):
Elisabeth David, Christophe Barbotin

Not all the gold funerary masks of Egypt are as splendid as Tutankhamen's. That of Khaemwaset, son of Ramesses II, is a case in point. The thin sheet of gold leaf (one-tenth of a millimeter thick) has irregular edges and crudely reproduces the shape of a fairly chubby and unattractive face; the eyes and mouth are rendered clearly, and the ears stick out.

Son of Ramesses II and High Priest of Ptah

Khaemwaset was one of Ramesses II's most famous sons. His round, chubby face seems to be a fairly good likeness: at his death, in the year 55 of his father's reign (1225 BC), Khaemwaset was about fifty years old. He was the high priest of Ptah, the patron deity of Memphis. His function is illustrated in bas-reliefs that are also in the Louvre's collection. He was responsible for taking care of the sepulchers of the sacred bulls of the god Ptah in the underground complex known as the Serapeum (west of the large necropolis of Saqqara). He himself was buried there, in a tomb near the burial sites of the Apis bulls.

An archaeologist ahead of his time

Khaemwaset was also one of the first archaeologists: he had the pyramids from the Old Kingdom restored nearly one thousand years after they were constructed, and undertook excavation projects to find the burial sites of bulls from older periods. Around year 30 of his father's reign, he inaugurated a new procedure for the burial of the Apis bulls, abandoning individual sepulchers in favor of a common underground burial place - a practice that continued until Cleopatra's time. Khaemwaset was immortalized as a magician in a story from the third or second century BC.

The story of the mummy

The circumstances of the discovery of this mask are obscure, in that there are no detailed archaeological reports or photographs. Contrary to a tenacious legend, Auguste Mariette did not blow up Khaemwaset's tomb with dynamite. In 1852, he found a collapsed portion of a ceiling as he was exploring the underground tunnels. In the spring of the following year, he decided to displace the block with gunpowder. He was undeniably careful, given the era - although this would be considered relative in today's terms - and used the methods at hand: "We had to use more than one hundred firecrackers," he wrote. Given the debris created by this operation, it was impossible to distinguish what had collapsed with the roof prior to Mariette's intervention from damage caused by the clearing operation. Nevertheless, Mariette was categorical in his writings: there was a coffin, a human mummy with a mask, jewelry bearing the name of Khaemwaset, and funerary statuettes with the name of Osiris-Apis.

Bibliography

Ch. Barbotin et E. David, L'Abécédaire de Ramsès II, Paris, 2001, p. 94-95.

Technical description

  • Mortuary Mask of Khaemwaset

    New Kingdom, Nineteenth Dynasty, reign of Ramesses II, 1279-1213 BC

    Saqqara, Serapeum

  • Gold

    H. 28 cm; W. 28 cm; D. 0.01 cm

  • Gift of the Egyptian government, as part of the policy of dividing archaeological finds, 1853

    N 2291

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    The New Kingdom
    Room 28

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