Coffin of the Chantress of Amun

Coffin of the Chantress of Amun

Coffin of the Chantress of Amun - History

Unashamedly, I have brought this wonderful news here from ARCHAEOLOGY.ORG

It is not only exciting but an important detail to add to the mysterious history of Egypt’s past. Egypt’s enlightened civilisation, with their incredible building skills, art and spiritual depth, is a vital link between those great civilisations that have risen and fallen since, in our known history, and the lost worlds that have slipped out of our memories. As far as we can know, it is now believed that Egypt grew as a phoenix from the ashes of the lost world of Atlantis, and the more we can understand this connection, the more we will be able to understand ourselves and our future.

I introduce the Chantress, Nehemes-Bastet (‘may Bastet protect her’)…

A newly discovered burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings provides a rare glimpse into the life of an ancient Egyptian singer

A wooden coffin holding the remains of a temple singer sat inside a tomb undisturbed for nearly 3,000 years. It is the first unlooted burial to be found in the Valley of the Kings since 1922. (Courtesy © University of Basel Kings’ Valley Project)

On January 25, 2011, tens of thousands of protestors flooded Cairo’s Tahrir Square, demanding the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. As the “day of revolt” filled the streets of Cairo and other cities with tear gas and flying stones, a team of archaeologists led by Susanne Bickel of the University of Basel in Switzerland was about to make one of the most significant discoveries in the Valley of the Kings in almost a century.

The valley lies on the west bank of the Nile, opposite what was once Egypt’s spiritual center—the city of Thebes, now known as Luxor. The valley was the final resting place of the pharaohs and aristocracy beginning in the New Kingdom period (1539–1069 B.C.), when Egyptian wealth and power were at a high point. Dozens of tombs were cut into the valley’s walls, but most of them were eventually looted. It was in this place that the Basel team came across what they initially believed to be an unremarkable find.

At the southeastern end of the valley they discovered three sides of a man-made stone rim surrounding an area of about three-and-a-half by five feet. The archaeologists suspected that it was just the top of an abandoned shaft. But, because of the uncertainty created by Egypt’s political revolution, they covered the stone rim with an iron door while they informed the authorities and applied for an official permit to excavate.

A year later, just before the first anniversary of the revolution, Bickel returned with a team of two dozen people, including field director Elina Paulin-Grothe of the University of Basel, Egyptian inspector Ali Reda, and local workmen. They started clearing the sand and gravel out of the shaft. Eight feet down, they came upon the upper edge of a door blocked by large stones. At the bottom of the shaft they found fragments of pottery made from Nile silt and pieces of plaster, a material commonly used to seal tomb entrances. Those plaster pieces, together with the age of other nearby sites, were the first sign that the shaft might actually be a tomb dating to between 1539 and 1292 B.C., Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty. The large stones appeared to have been added later.

Although stones blocked the entrance, there was a hole just large enough to admit a small digital camera. Bickel, Paulin- Grothe, and the chief of the Egyptian workmen each took turns lying on the ground, head pressed against the shaft wall, one arm through the hole, snapping pictures. The surprising images revealed a small rock-cut chamber measuring 13 by 8.5 feet, filled to within three feet of the ceiling with debris, leaving little doubt they had found a tomb. On top of the debris rested a dusty black coffin carved from sycamore wood and decorated with large yellow hieroglyphs on its sides and top. “I’ve never found a coffin in as good condition before,” Bickel says.

The hieroglyphs describe the tomb’s occupant, named Nehemes-Bastet, as a “lady” of the upper class and “chantress [shemayet] of Amun,” whose father was a priest in the temple complex of Karnak in Thebes. The coffin’s color and hieroglyphs match a style that dates to between 945 and 715 B.C., at least 350 years after the tomb was built. The coffin shows that the burial chamber had been reused, a common practice at the time.

The only other artifact dating to the same period as the coffin was a wooden stele, slightly smaller than an iPad, painted with a prayer to provide for her in the afterlife, and an image that is believed to be of Nehemes-Bastet in front of the seated sun god Amun. The white, green, yellow, and red paints hadn’t faded a bit. Bickel says, “It could have been taken from a storeroom yesterday.” The rubble that filled the chamber held the remnants of the original Eighteenth Dynasty burial, she adds, including pottery, wood fragments, and parts of the unwrapped and dismembered mummy who first occupied the tomb. It also must be noted that before the discovery of Nehemes-Bastet’s, the last unlooted tomb found in the valley was the famous burial of Tutankhamun, discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter.

The coffin was carved from sycamore wood and decorated with hieroglyphs. (Courtesy © University of Basel Kings’ Valley Project)

People have been claiming there was nothing new left to find in the Valley of the Kings for almost as long as they have been digging there. The Venetian antiquarian Giovanni Belzoni believed he had emptied the last of the valley’s tombs during his 1817 expedition. Theodore Davis, who excavated there a century later, came to a similar conclusion—right before Tutankhamun’s burial was found. Of course, other discoveries have been made in the valley. In 1995, a team led by Kent Weeks, now retired from the American University in Cairo, was investigating a tomb used by the family of Pharaoh Rameses II.* They found previously unknown corridors, leading to the resting place of Rameses II’s sons, which extended to more than 121 rooms. Unfortunately, the rooms had been looted in antiquity and damaged by flash floods. In 2005, a team led by Otto Schaden of the Amenmesse Project discovered an unlooted chamber, which held seven coffins and 28 jars containing mummification materials. The chamber, however, contained no bodies, so it is unlikely that it was a tomb.

Before Bickel’s team could take Nehemes-Bastet’s coffin out of the burial chamber for further study, they had to open it to make sure that nothing inside would be damaged when it was moved. It took a professional restorer a day to remove the nails that held the lid closed. Inspector Ali Reda and Mohammed el-Bialy, chief inspector of antiquities of Upper Egypt, joined Bickel and Paulin-Grothe for the opening. Inside they found a carefully wrapped female mummy, about five feet tall. It was blackened all over—and stuck to the bottom of the coffin—by a sticky fruit-based syrup used in the mummification process.

Even in the short time since its discovery, the tomb is already providing intriguing insights into the life of the woman who was buried there. The time of Nehemes-Bastet’s burial (sometime between 945 and 715 B.C.) was long after Egypt had reached the peak of its power and influence. The Great Pyramid was more than 1,500 years old, and the prosperous days of the New Kingdom were gone. Nehemes- Bastet lived during the Third Intermediate Period, a time when Egypt was split by intermittent wars between the pharaohs in Tanis and the high priests of Amun in Thebes, who rivaled the traditional rulers in wealth and power. “It must have been a pretty unsettling period,” says Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist and research assistant at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. “There was fighting among these factions around her time.”

“It’s interesting that in this period even a wealthy girl was buried with quite simple things,” Bickel says, comparing Nehemes-Bastet’s coffin and stele with the elaborate pottery, furniture, and food found in earlier tombs. “Her wooden coffin was certainly quite expensive,” she says, but nonetheless, it lacked the elaborate inner coffins found in similar burials. More details on Nehemes-Bastet’s daily life can be drawn from a wealth of paintings, texts, and reliefs carved on statues and stelae of the time, says Teeter. As a chantress, or singer, in the temple of Amun, she probably lived in the 250-acre Karnak temple complex located in Thebes. Her name, translated as “may Bastet save her,” indicates that she was under the protection of the feline goddess and “divine mother” Bastet, the protector of Lower Egypt. Nehemes-Bastet’s occupation, however, was to worship Amun, the king of ancient Egyptian gods.

Music was a key ingredient in Egyptian religion. Teeter explains that it was believed to soothe the gods and encourage them to provide for their worshippers. Nehemes-Bastet was one of many priestess-musicians who performed inside the sanctuaries and in the courts of the temples. “The hypothesis is that these women would sing, act, and take part in festivities and big ritual processions that were held several times a year,” Bickel says. The musical instruments that chantresses typically used were the menat, a multi-strand beaded necklace they would shake, and the sistrum, a handheld rattle whose sound was said to evoke wind rustling through papyrus reeds. Other musicians would have played drums, harps, and lutes during religious processions.

An inscription states the name and title of the coffin’s occupant— Nehemes-Bastet, Chantress of Amun (Courtesy © University of Basel Kings’ Valley Project)

“For years people have debated what kind of music it was,” says Teeter. “But there’s no musical notation left, and we’re not sure how they tuned the instruments or whether they sang or chanted.” Some scholars have suggested it may have sounded like an ancient ancestor of rap, she adds. The emphasis was definitely on percussion. Images often show people stamping their feet and clapping. Examples of song lyrics are recorded on temple walls. This one from Luxor refers to the Festival of Opet, when the cult images of the gods Amun, Mut, and Khonsu were brought by boat down the Nile to renew the pharoah’s divine essence.

Hail Amun-Re, the primeval one of the two lands, foremost one of Karnak, in your glorious appearance amidst your [river] fleet, in your beautiful Festival of Opet, may you be pleased with it.

The title “Chantress of Amun” belonged to women of the upper classes, Teeter says. Genealogies show multiple generations of women held the title, with mothers probably teaching the profession to their daughters. “It was a very honorable profession,” says Teeter. “These women were well respected in society, which is why [Nehemes-Bastet] was buried in the Valley of the Kings.” As was the case with the priests, temple singers were paid from the income generated by the huge tracts of land that Amun “owned” across Egypt. Some priests and priestesses served in the temples only a few months out of the year before returning home. There’s little information about what women like Nehemes-Bastet would have done while at home, Teeter says, but it probably wasn’t too different from other women’s traditional duties of the time: running the household, raising children, and supporting their husbands.

To learn more about Nehemes-Bastet, Bickel’s team needed to move the mummy to their lab. After reinforcing the coffin and securing the mummy, Bickel’s team carefully removed them from the burial chamber and transported them across the Nile to Luxor, where they are being fully restored. Theteam has emptied and sealed the tomb, but plans to return to complete an architectural analysis so they can learn more about its construction. The bodies from both of the tomb’s burials will be examined in detail. Bickel hopes to find the name or at least the title of the tomb’s original Eighteenth Dynasty occupant. In addition, a CT scan of Nehemes-Bastet is planned for later this year or early 2013. Preliminary reports will be published by the end of 2012, she says, but final analyses of the tomb and its artifacts will probably take four to five years. As surprising as finding Nehemes-Bastet’s tomb was, archaeologists believe it probably isn’t the last major discovery that will be made in the Valley of the Kings. “The valley has many nooks and crannies,” says Otto Schaden, “so it is still premature to set any limits on the possibility of finding more tombs.”

Julian Smith is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Donald Ryan of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington led a team to investigate the tomb of Rameses II’s family. Kent Weeks led the project to excavate that tomb.

Coffin for Female Mummy Identified as the Chantress of Amen

This coffin once belonged to a singer in the temple of Amen during the Twenty-First Dynasty of Egypt, but at a later date someone radically carved back the area around the face, chiseled out the lotus-bangs into a royal crown, and shortened the wings of the vulture’s headdress.

What we are likely seeing is a nineteenth-century vision of Cleopatra, as exemplified in Alexandre Cabanel’s 1887 painting Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners (see below). Cleopatra’s face is soft and round, her eyes are lined black, shadowy bangs cascade toward the eyes, a crown settles at the brow, and golden wings curve behind the chin, anticipating the chic bob hairstyle of many modern visions of Cleopatra. Just below, her chest is bare save for one lappet that falls over her left breast, and a striped fabric band (red, black, gold) dives down the torso until it reaches the belt. From waist to ankles, her dress is a kaleidoscope of color and Egyptian-esque symbols. It is perhaps telling that this coffin was taken from Egypt to Paris in in May of 1889 during the years when Cabanel’s Cleopatra was pleasing Parisian eyes with her decadence.

Coffin Lid of Tanakhtnettahat/Ta-Aset

Label Text This coffin lid, made for the lady Tanakhtnettahat, a chantress in the temple of the god Amun at Karnak, depicts her outfitted in a full wig adorned with her finest jewelry. A fillet of lotus flowers and petals encircles the top of her head, and round earrings peek out from beneath her wig. The lappets of the wig are gathered in beaded bands and overlay a shawl-like broad collar. A winged goddess is spread across the chest of the coffin lid, and below are twinned scenes of an enthroned Osiris receiving offerings from Tanakhtnettahat. Below this is a composition of Isis and Nephthys worshipping the fetish of Abydos, which is flanked by Tanakhtnettahat adoring a ram-headed deity. The pattern of a central pattern of amuletic devices and gods and goddesses being venerated by the coffin owner continues on the remainder of the base of the coffin. At the foot end of the lid, goddesses are shown mourning a mummified figure.
A 3D model of the coffin's 3 elements is available here


Chapter 1: The Vatican Coffin Project
Alessia Amenta, Christian Greco, Ulderico Santamaria, and Lara Weiss

Chapter 2: The 21st Dynasty: The theocracy of Amun, and the position of the Theban priestly families.
Gerard P. F. Broekman

Chapter 3: The Tomb of the Priests of Amun at Thebes: The history of the find
Rogério Sousa

Chapter 4: The coffins in Leiden
4.1. The Letters of Willem Pleyte
Liliane Mann
4.2 Lot XI in Leiden
Christian Greco and Lara Weiss

Chapter 5: Painting techniques of the Leiden coffins
Elsbeth Geldhof

Chapter 6: Coffin Reuse in Dynasty 21: A Case Study of the Coffins in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden
Kathlyn M. Cooney


After excavating the outer corridor a large well was encountered. Planks and a board were brought into the tomb to create a makeshift bridge and Winlock crossed over the well to find an empty chamber. A doorway led to the inner chamber where the burial of Queen Ahmose Meritamun was found. Persea twigs and some saucers were found at the foot of a large coffin.

The outer coffin (now in the Egyptian Museum, JE 53140) is over 10 ft in size and is made from cedar planks which are joined and carved to a uniform thickness throughout the coffin. The eyes and eyebrows are inlaid with glass. The body is carefully carved with chevrons painted in blue to create the illusion of feathers. The coffin was covered in gold which had been stripped in antiquity. The inner coffin was smaller, but still over 6 ft tall. The inner coffin had also been covered in gold but stripped of this precious metal. Her mummy had been rewrapped and reburied by priests who had found her tomb that had been vandalized by robbers. The mummy had been carefully rewrapped during the reign of Pinedjem I. Inscriptions record that the linen used in the reburial was made in year 18 of Pinedjem by the High Priest of Amun Masaharta, son of Pinedjem I. The reburial took place in year 19, month 3 of the winter, day 28. [4]

Ahmose Meritamun's mummy was found in two cedarwood coffins and a cartonnage outer case. It appears that she died when she was relatively young, with evidence of being afflicted with arthritis and scoliosis. [5]

The outer corridor contained the burial of the Lady of the House, the Chantress of Amun Ra, the King's Daughter of his body, his Beloved, Nany. The yellow varnished coffin contained a mummy covered with garlands and a wig. Beyond this coffin a larger outer coffin was found. Further funerary items for the burial included a shabti box and an Osiris figure. [4]

The coffins used for the burial of Nany (called Entiuny in older publications) had originally been made for a woman named Te-net-bekhenu. [2]

Unknown Egyptian Coffin of Pedi-Osiris

Ancient Egyptians believed in life after death. This coffin was made for Pedi-Osiris, a priest of the god Osiris, Lord of the Underworld. Standing more than seven feet tall, the coffin once held the priest's mummified body, which had been elaborately prepared for the afterlife, wrapped in multiple layers of linen cloth.

Pedi-Osiris appears with a gold face, exotic black-lined eyes, and a fake beard—a symbol of high rank. He wears a wig painted the rich blue of lapis lazuli numerous painted necklaces and red clothing covered with a net of painted beads. The coffin also features likenesses of ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses, who were included to protect the deceased and to help him overcome obstacles in the dangerous journey to the next world.

Provenance [The Edward H. Merrin Gallery, Inc., New York, 1970s] purchased by Fundacion Cultural Televisa, Mexico City, 1978–1991 private collection, Japan, 1991–2000 purchased by [The Merrin Gallery, Inc., New York, 2000] purchased by MFAH, 2000.
Exhibition History "El Sueno de Egipta: La Influencia del Arte Egipcio en el Arte Contemporaneo," Feburary-May, 1991, Centro Cultural / Arte Contemporaneo, Mexico City.
Inscriptions, Signatures and Marks

Cataloguing data may change with further research.

If you have questions about this work of art or the MFAH Online Collection please contact us.

Coffin of the Chantress of Amun - History

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Editor's Letter: The Value of Persistence

This issue's cover is an image of a woman's coffin from the first unlooted tomb found in Egypt's Valley of the Kings since 1922. Her name was Nehemes-Bastet and hieroglyphs on the coffin's side reveal that she was a shemayet, or chantress, of the sun god, Amun. In "Tomb of the Chantress," contributing editor Julian Smith discusses her life and the significance of the find.

"The Birth of Bureaucracy," by archaeologist and writer Amanda Summer, focuses on the Mycenaean site of Iklaina, located in Greece's southwestern Peloponnese. Since the late 1990s, excavation work there has focused on the manner in which government functioned in towns and villages, on the lives of the ordinary people who lived at Iklaina more than 3,000 years ago, and how widespread literacy may have been in the Mycenaean world.

The wreck of a seventeenth-century Swedish warship, pulled nearly intact more than 50 years ago from Stockholm Harbor, has long concealed a mystery about why it sank on its maiden voyage. In "Vasa's Curious Imbalance," science journalist Lucas Laursen explains that archaeologists are now coming up with answers thanks, in part, to their ability to digitally render Vasa's contours.

As the 2012 Summer Olympics approach, journalist Nadia Durrani has filed a report on the challenging archaeology of the Olympic Park site in East London's Lea Valley. "London 2012: Archaeology and the Olympics," offers a 12,000-year timeline, maps the location of six of the most significant finds, and tells us what mankind has been up to there from prehistoric times until the present day.

Contributing editor Andrew Lawler, in "Uncovering Sidon's Long Life," traces the history of the port city of Sidon in Lebanon. The extraordinary site sits directly beneath the modern-day city and has been under excavation by a multinational team for more than a decade. Sidon has been occupied for some 4,000 years, and archaeologists are only now beginning to trace the long history of a city so ancient that it is mentioned in the Book of Genesis.

"Letter From Mexico," tells a different story, one in which archaeology must proceed sporadically because of the danger to researchers often caught in the ongoing drug war south of the United States border. Writer Kathleen McGuire details the importance of the region known to some as El Norte de Mexico, and talks with archaeologists who are committed to studying and preserving its important heritage.

That, of course, isn't all. Don't miss a very special "Artifact," and do look for a mystery or two to be revealed in "From the Trenches" and "World Roundup."

Claudia Valentino
Editor in Chief

London 2012
Archaeology and the Olympics
by Nadia Durrani

Tomb of the Chantress
A newly discovered burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings provides a rare glimpse into the life of an ancient Egyptian singer
by Julian Smith

The Birth of Bureaucracy
At the site of Iklaina, excavations are revealing new evidence of how the Mycenaean state functioned
by Amanda Summer

Automated Site Mapping
Computational analysis of satellite images detects previously overlooked human settlements
by Aldo Foe

Vasa's Curious Imbalance
Researchers are learning new lessons from the majestic Vasa&mdasha warship monumental in its ambition, its failure, and its role in maritime archaeology
by Lucas Laursen

Uncovering Sidon's Long Life
For the first time, archaeologists are revealing the 4,000-year history of one of ancient Lebanon's oldest ports
by Andrew Lawler

From the President
Saving Easter Island
by Elizabeth Bartman

World Roundup
A mass grave in the South Atlantic is a grim reminder of the slave trade, Lucy's tree-climbing hominin friends, scientists look for elite archers in a medieval shipwreck, and when it snowed in Baghdad.

Letter from Mexico
An archaeologist's daughter surveys the rich cultural heritage of northern Mexico&mdashand the impact of violence on researchers working there.

In one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon Christian burial sites in Britain, archaeologists find a young girl's rare gold and garnet-jeweled cross.

Coffin Set of the Singer of Amun Re, Henettawy

The Mistress of the House, Singer of Amun-Re, Henettawy died at the young age of twenty-one. She was buried in a plundered tomb, which had originally been the resting place of Minmose, an official of Hatshepsut. The burial was a modest one, including a set of coffins and personal jewelry. Henettawy's body was not embalmed but simply wrapped in layers of linen bandages.

Aside from her rather simple personal jewelry, Henettawy's main burial equipment consisted of two splendid coffins and a mummy board, fitting one into the other like parts of a Russian doll. Both coffins and the mummy board are shaped like wrapped mummies with elaborate masks fastened over the heads.

Museum excavations 1923–24. Acquired by the Museum in the division of finds, 1925.

Organization of the Chantresses.

The women who served as chantresses generally came from the upper class, and even queens belonged to the most important group of chantresses: those who served the god Amun, king of the gods. The chantress accompanied her singing with a sistrum. This sacred rattle was closely associated with the goddess Hathor, whose symbol often appeared as decoration on it. Many representations of the queens and princesses show them holding the sistrum while they chant for the god. Queen Nefertiti was described as "one who pacifies the god with a sweet voice and whose two hands carry the sistra." Organized into four groups known as phyle, the chantresses served in rotation at the temple over the course of the year. The role of chantress was an honored one in Egyptian society with the chief of each phyle reporting directly to the High Priest of the temple in which the phyle served. The chantress was less a professional musician than a priestess who recited or chanted the liturgy before the statues of the god.

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