Egypt: The Mastaba of Ptahshepses at Abusir near Cairo

The Mastaba of Ptahshepses at Abusir near Cairo

by Jimmy Dunn

A view of the mortuary complex of Ptahshepses at Abusir

Ptahshepses was originally a royal manicurist and hairdresser, who rose to the rank of Vizier during Egypt's Old Kingdom 5th Dynasty. Like others who held the office of manicurist and hairdresser, he was a priest of high rank since, to discharge his function of grooming the king, he had to touch the body of a living god. He also became the son-in-law of King Niuserre, married to Khamerernebty, and therefore a man of some prominence during this period. He held a number of different titles besides Vizier.

Looking down on the mortuary complex of Ptahshepses at Abusir

It should be noted that some references confuse this individual with others because Ptahshepses was a common name during this period.

His tomb is located at Abusir in the vicinity of Niuserre's pyramid, next to the Pyramid Complex of Sahure. This mastaba, second in size only to that of Mereruke at Saqqara, was first excavated by Jacques de Morgan in 1893. The ruins were originally discovered by LepsiusLepsius, who classified it as a pyramid, but Jacques de Morgan excavations soon revealed the entrance to this mostaba. However, he really only excavated a very small part of the mastaba, and afterwards, it was forgotten for almost seventy years.

Interest in the mastaba of Ptahshepses resurfaced with the founding of the Czech Institute of Egyptology at Charles University. They initiated excavations in the mastaba in 1960, which continued through 1974, resulting in the unearthing of what is as yet the most extensive and architecturally the most complex non-royal tomb known from the period of the Old Kingdom.

Floor plan of the funerary complex of Ptahshepses

In fact, many features incorporated into the design of the Ptashepses mastaba were more or less inspired by royal architecture, and it became a model for generations of Old Kingdom noblemen and architects, particularly at Saqqara through the end of the 6th Dynasty.

From this moment on, imitations of royal architecture became a common feature of the mastabas built for the highest of noblemen. This tendency concerns not only particular elements of their plan, but also their decoration, in which many motifs, invented in royal workshops of the 5th Dynasty for the funerary and solar temples of subsequent kings, were imitated.

The tombs of noblemen such as Ptahshepses were usually more sophisticated in their architecture and decorative elements than the tombs of lesser men, and their richness bears witness to a wealth and power without precedence in Egyptian history. Such is the case with the Mastaba tomb of Ptashepses, with its dimensions of 80 by 107 meters and its complex layout, in which the most important elements of royal funerary monuments may be found.

The tomb was constructed in three major building phases. Its original structure was twice modified in the interests of creating a larger and architecturally more demanding structure. What ultimately emerged was a building that had no parallel in its time. Eventually, it stood majestically on the edge of the raised desert plateau, visible alongside the pyramids of the kings its owner had served. Indeed, the site for the mastaba of Ptahshepses was not chosen at random, but rather deliberately in front of the pyramids of Sahure and Niuserre, and almost precisely equidistant from both

The two principle elements of the mastaba were the superstructure, which was constructed from mudbrick and masonry and seems to have evolved and been enlarged over a period of time, and the partly rock-cut subterranean chamber which is now open to the elements.

The entrance way to the mortuary complex of Ptahshepses at Abusir

The grand front entrance to the tomb, which has recently been reconstructed, includes a portico flanked by two unique eight-stemmed lotus columns with closed buds. Each column was made from a single piece of the fine white limestone that in Arabic is often referred to as batn al-baqara, meaning "cow's belly", perhaps because this is what the color and smoothness of the stone brings to mind. These columns are currently the oldest known example of their type from Ancient Egypt.

The lotus used in the column capital is was very symbolic to the ancient Egyptians. Its flower closes at night and sinks into the water until morning, when it opens once more. Hence, the ancient Egyptians saw it as a symbol of resurrection and rebirth. Therefore, in this mastaba, the entrance was not that of a tomb, but rather the gateway to resurrection and a new life.

A closer view of one of the columns in the vistibule

The columns supported a heavy architrave on which rested the enormous slabs of the roof terrace, all of which was made from the same high quality stone as the columns. This portico originally reached a height of eight meters.

These limestone columns, together with the entry portal, have been reconstructed to their original height.Inside is a columned vestibule, though here the columns are six-stemmed. In the second stage of building at the mastaba, this vestibule was planned to be the main entrance, but it lost this function during the third stage, becoming instead a closed room. Within, the walls are adorned with depictions of boats and bearers bringing funerary equipment and other items necessary for the mortuary cult. These items include furniture, jewelry, cloth, grain, fruit and other items. The torso of a large, seated statue of Ptahshepses was discovered near the entrance to the vestibule.

A narrow passage, with scenes of depicting the slaughter of sacrificial animals and of Ptahshepses himself, leads from the vestibule to one of the most important cult rooms in the tomb. This chapel, with three niches, contains a number of different scenes with accompanying inscriptions that tell us of the titles of Ptahshepses and which attest to his high social status. Among others, he was:

"Local Prince, Only Friend (of the pharaoh), Ruler of Nekhab, Guardian of the (royal) Diadem, Privy to the Secret of the House of Morning, Beloved One of his Lord, Chief Justice, Vizier, Overseer of all the Royal Works, Servant of the Throne, Lector-Priest, Privy to the Secret Sacred Writings of the God's Words"

Originally, slightly larger than life reddish quartzite statues of a standing Ptahshepses, stood in the three niches. Though only fragments of these statues were unearthed, the inscriptions on the facing wall of the niches seem to indicate that the statues represented Ptahshepses in three different functions, as an official, as a priest and as a private individual. Offerings were placed on altars at the foot of these statues during funerary ceremonies, while a lector-priest recited various religious formulae.

Much of the polychrome relief decorations, linked by a common theme, have survived in the chapel. Here, Ptahshepses oversees work in his fields, pastures, gardens and workshops. For example, on the northern wall there are scenes in which gardeners are working in fields of grain and vegetable plots, while bearers bring the fruits of the fields and gardens on offering tables and in baskets to the feet of Ptahshepses.

The south wall depicts fishermen, herdsmen milking cows and the foreman of a poultry operation driving flocks of duck, geese and cranes. Here, there are also scribes who carefully record everything.

Sculptors working on a seated and striding statues of Ptahshepses

On the northern part of the east wall of the chapel are superb scenes of a sculptor's atelier where two statues of Ptahshepses, one seated and of red granite, and the other standing and made of wood, are being completed. Here, metal workers are also shown at their work, together with carpenters who are making a staff.

Several of Ptahshepses' sons carrying birds, and apparently a staff

There is a very curious scene depicting the six sons of Ptahshepses walking, opposite the scenes of crafts and very near the entrance of the narrow hall leading from the vestibule. In this simple scene, the figure and name of the first-born son has been carefully chiseled off and almost entirely removed. However, with good lighting, the name of the first born, Khafini, could be made out. The destruction of the name, which was also done elsewhere in the tomb, points to a deliberate action which would have dire consequences, for according to the religious ideas of the Ancient Egyptians, the name was one of the enduring spiritual elements of a person that lasted beyond his earthly lifetime.

This may have had much to do with the marriage of Ptahshepses, late in life, to the daughter of King Niuserre. Almost certainly Ptahshepses already possessed a family, but this non-royal family would have had to give way to any new children produced from his royal marriage, including the first born. One can only guess at the ramifications of these events.

An image of Ptahshepses from one of the pillars in the courtyard

To the south is an enormous courtyard, surrounded by a portico which was supported by 20 square limestone pillars, decorated with reliefs of Ptahshepses. The huge pillars can still be seen in the now-open court which is annexed to the tomb structure. On the walls of the eastern part of the southern portico opening the way from the chapel to the pillared courtyard, Ptahshepses is shown surrounded by his subordinate officials. On the northern wall of this portico the tomb owner is being carried on a litter by servants, with an interesting inscription above the line of men. This inscription is really a dialogue between the man leading and supervising the procession, and the man at the end of the row. The bearer at the rear is being reprimanded by the supervisor, who tells him to fulfill his duties. However, the man at the rear is being stubborn, and suggests that the "privileged one," meaning the supervisor, would do well to mind his own business and follow his nose. From this, we surmise that the supervisor enjoyed no great status, but it is nevertheless an interesting exchange, particularly in the context of a tomb depiction.

The western part of the southern portico is adorned with scenes displaying statues of Ptahshepses being transported , and also of the storage of the offerings. Here we see a typical Egyptian scene, with the striding statues being dragged on wooden sleds. Interestingly, the inscriptions describe statues of red granite measuring some seven cubits, or approximately three and a half meters in height. Such colossal statues were likely to be only a royal privilege during the Old Kingdom, so one must wonder if these were somehow symbolic. Indeed, though many statue fragments were discovered during excavations, none were from colossal statues.

This pillared court only came into existence during the third phase of the mastaba's construction. Though de Morgan marked and measured the disintegrating tops of the twenty monolithic limestone pillars contained in the court, it was not, as a whole, investigated.

West of the Pillared court, de Morgan unearthed the entrance to what seemed to be another mastaba, separate from that of Ptahshepses. However, later excavations by the Czech team revealed that this was actually the original mastaba constructed during the first building phase of the same complex.

Offerings were originally made in the pillared courtyard under the open sky on a huge alter, the upper face of which was decorated with the large hieroglyphic sign hetep, meaning "offering" or "offering table." The courtyard walls were once richly decorated with reliefs, though only a tiny fraction of those remain in situ. They were protected by a flat limestone slab roof supported on twenty monolithic stone pillars. The interior side faces of the slaps each bore a life-size image of Ptahshepses in sunk relief. The figures of the tomb owner were arranged on the pillars in such a way as to lead visitors in the direction of the altar, and therefore to the northwestern corner of the courtyard where the entrance to the original mastaba (and the burial chamber of Ptahshepses) was located. Above each figure, in sunk relief, were carved the titles of the tomb owner. This type of relief is particularly suitable for open space accessible to direct sunlight, because it allows the aesthetic effect of the inscriptions to be accented by the play of light and shadow. Though none of the pillar crowns have survived intact, it is clear from fragments that his titles began with "King's Son." Hence, by the time of the final construction, Ptahshepses had already attained the status of prince, undoubtedly as a result of his marriage to Khamerernebty, the daughter of King Niuserre. This was very much so an amazing feat.

There are two large magazine complexes, or storage areas in the mastaba. One, comprising four chambers is situated southwest of the pillared courtyard, while the other with seven chambers is to the southwest. Unearthed in the 1960s, these added further evidence to the high rank of the owner as they mirrored the so-called treasury and granary found in contemporary royal pyramid temples.

However, if these features of the Ptahshepses mastaba were more or less inspired by royal architecture, than a room in the southwest corner of the tomb was a completely unexpected surprise to the excavators, which left no one in doubt of the extraordinarily high and truly exceptional social standing of the tomb's owner. It is the largest room in the tomb and, remarkably, resembles a boat. Its northern wall is not only convex, but carved in a way that visibly recalls the side of a boat. Clearly, the existence of a boat pit is almost exclusively an element of royal burials, because the boat journey in the netherworld of the sun god was only a royal privilege. Interestingly however, the room, which is large enough to hold several boats, was left unfinished.

In the northwest part of the funerary monument is situated the original mastaba built during the earliest phase of construction. This was, at one time, a complete tomb with slightly inclined walls made of white limestone slabs. Regrettably, of the original rich relief program adorning the walls, only two fragments remain in situ. One, measuring only a few square centimeters, depicts the lower part of the figure of an offering bearer, and the other, on the eastern wall of the serdab, is a much larger fragment showing the lower part of a well carved, polychrome false door in the form of a palace facade. In the floor just beneath the false door was a shaft that communicated with the burial chamber of Ptahshepses.

The sarcophai of Ptahshepses and Khamerenebty in the burial chamber

Remarkably, and somewhat perplexing, in this earliest phase of construction, the burial chamber was constructed in the manner of royal burial chambers, with a gabled ceiling built of huge monolithic limestone blocks. Here, two well executed red granite sarcophagi were found. Though robbed in antiquity, the larger one, belonging to Ptahshepses was well preserved, while the smaller one, reserved for his royal wife, Khamerenebty, had a broken lid.

The existence of Khamerenebty's sarcophagus in the burial chamber may help to explain why, even in this early phase of construction, the burial chamber resembles that of royal monuments. This sarcophagus could not have been carried through the narrow descending passage, so it must have been lowered into the chamber at a time when the mastaba was only half finished, and still open. It is also significant that the name of Princess Khamerernebty has been found among the inscriptions recorded by the builders in red directly on the rough limestone blocks that were used to construct the core of the original mastaba. Clearly, Princess Khamerernebty must have already been a part of Ptahshepses' life soon after the start of work on his original mastaba. Note that this does little to explain the removal of Ptahshepses' first born son from the reliefs of additions made to the complex sometime after the original mastaba was completed.

Regrettably, it is not possible to reconstruct much of Ptahshepses' early life from the almost totally destroyed reliefs in his original mastaba. We can date the start of the original mastaba's construction, from builder's inscriptions, to a time shortly before the tenth regnal year of King Niuserre, and its completion to about the king's thirtieth regnal year. However, little else is known, other than that his career and achievements were absolutely miraculous, given the customs and traditions of that period.

Unfortunately, like the royal pyramids, Ptahshepses' own wealth resulted in his funerary monument's destruction over time by looters, probably during the First Intermediate Period, and later by those who turned it into a stone quarry. Parts of it were dismantled and re-used for other buildings beginning in the New Kingdom. Later, nomads even camped with their herds of goats and sheep in the Boat Hall, and its destruction continued into the Roman era. Finally, before its modern excavation, the ruins disappeared under six meters of sand and rubble, or likely there would have been nothing left of it today.

This tomb was only opened to the public a few years ago, but is now one of the major tourist attractions at Abusir.






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