The Royal Tombs of Tanis

The Royal Tombs of Tanis

by Jimmy Dunn

A view of the royal necropolis at Tanis

A view of the royal necropolis at Tanis

The tombs of a number of kings of the Third Intermediate Period were constructed at Tanis (modern San el-Hagar). During the Third Intermediate Period, Tanis was the principal seat of government and in all, seven burials of rulers from the 21st and 22nd Dynasties have been found there since 1939. By no means does this represent all of the kings of these two dynasties, with the notable absences being Smedes (Smendes) and Amenemnisu of the 21st Dynasty, and Shoshenq I and Osorkon I of the 22nd Dynasty.

Montet first discovered the royal necropolis at Tanis in 1939, after spending some time concentrating on the temple area of this district. The superstructures of the earlier tombs had been cleared away by subsequent domestic building by the Ptolemies, so these tombs were largely hidden. The archaeologists had been given clues by finding a gold amulet and canopic jars of Osorkon in the area, but it came as a great surprise when, on February 27th, 1939, Montet and his team found their first tomb (now called NRT- I) close to the southwestern corner of the temple.

The known royal tombs at Tanis consist of:

Tomb Primary Occupant Dynasty Other Royal Occupants Dynasty
NRT-1 Osorkon II 22nd Takelot I
Shoshenq (V?)
NRT-II Pami 22nd None
NRT-III Psusennes I 21st Amenemope
Psusennes II
Shoshenq II

NRT-IV None: built for Amenemope 21st
NRT-V Shoshenq III 22nd Shoshenq IV 22nd
NRT-VI Not Known 21st/22nd
NRT-VII Not Known 22nd

Osorkon II was buried in a gigantic granite sarcophagus with a lid carved from a Ramesside period group statue, but only some debris of a hawk-headed coffin and canopic jars remained in the robbed tomb to identify this king. His young son Harnakht who had the title of High Priest of Amun at Tanis and who had died before his father, shared Osorkon II's burial chamber. Takelot I (formerly identified as Takelot II) was buried in a Middle Kingdom sarcophagus in a redecorated chamber of the tomb with a few remains of burial equipment inscribed for Osorkon I. Another chamber contained the remains of a reburial of Shoshenq III. There is the possibility that Shoshenq V was also subsequently buried in NRT I, evidenced by his canopic equipment.

Interestingly, however, an architectural study of tomb NRT-I clearly shows that it was constructed before NRT-III, resulting in suggestions that the historical order that has normally been assigned to their occupants should be reversed. The outer wall of tomb NRT-1 was trimmed to accommodate NRT-III and also NRT-III's chambers were arranged to avoid the earlier tomb. Hence, this chronological anomaly has been used to argue that Osorkon II (22nd Dynasty), actually preceded Psusennes I (21st Dynasty) on the throne. The gap in the royal sequence has also been used, along with another gap in the sequence of Apis bulls at Saqqara, to support a radical revision of the relative placement of kings and dynasties during this period.

Plan of the Royal Tombs at Tanis

Plan of the Royal Tombs at Tanis

However, the issue of Osorkon II's tomb and the lack of a tomb for Smedes are intimately connected to the issue of dating the reigns of these kings. It has been shown that there is enough structure evidence to support a conclusion that considerable modifications were made to NRT-I. Furthermore, both NRT-I and NRT-III are unique at Tanis. Both of these tombs have granite burial chambers within a basic limestone structure, while all the other tombs built at Tanis were constructed purely of limestone, and are much simpler in design.

Considering the modification that were made to NRT-I, it has been suggested that this tomb very likely originally belonged to Smedes. One of his canopic jars was purchased nearby this tomb, and though there was no trace of any decoration belonging to him in NRT-I, this means nothing, for tombs NRT-II, IV, VI and VII all had their walls left bare. Apparently, Osorkon II added decorations to this tomb, as well as altering the eastern part of the burial chamber, providing a sarcophagus for his father, Takelot I, as well as a new sarcophagus for himself. In doing so, he dismantled the west wall of the burial chamber, also adding a sarcophagus for his son. Therefore, rather than a radical revision of the 21st and 22nd Dynasties, we have instead an usurped tomb which was not at all uncommon in Egypt.

Anklet of Psusennes I

If we allocate NRT-I initially to Smedes, this still leaves Amenemnisu without a tomb. It is possible that this king was buried in NRT-VI, though considering an epithet within his cartouche naming him as "Ruler of Thebes", it is also possible that he was buried in southern Egypt.

However, the next two kings of the 21st Dynasty, Psusennes I and Amenemope (Amenope) both have tombs at Tanis, although the mummy of Amenemope was latter placed in NRT-III. The tomb of Psusennes I was an amazing find, with five chambers and containing the silver falcon-headed coffin of Shoshenq II, who before the tomb's discovery was unknown to Egyptologists. Two completely decayed mummies in the antechamber of NRT-III appear, strictly on the basis of funerary figurines found with them, to be those of Siamun and Psusennes II (the last ruler of the 21st Dynasty). They may have been buried in this modest fashion because of the eclipse of the 21st Dynasty line that accompanied the foundation of the 22nd Dynasty. Psusennes I's burial chamber was discovered lying undisturbed behind a decorated wall. He was interred in a granite sarcophagus which had once belonged to Merenptah, the 19th Dynasty ruler and son of Ramesses II. Within this sarcophagus, was a granite coffin which in turn contained a coffin of solid silver, a gold mummy-board and a solid gold mask covering the face of Psusennes I.

Bracelet of Sheshonq II

Around the sarcophagus were piled his canopic jars, funerary figurines and other burial goods, a rich find indeed. A chamber on the other side of that of Psusennes I was prepared for his mother, Queen Mutnodjmet, but her sarcophagus was found to contain the body of king Amenemope, encased in a coffin of gilded wood. Another chamber was found to contain the empty coffin of a general Ankhefenmut, but it was not until excavations resumed after World War II (this time by Alexandre Lezine) that a final chamber was found which revealed the undisturbed burial of another military man, Wendjebauendjed along with quantities of jewelry and burial equipment.

After Amenemope, no dedicated royal tomb is known at Tanis until the time of Osorkon II. It is unclear why Amenemope was buried in the tomb of Psusennes I, for he had his own tomb, NRT-IV, prepared with a beautiful sarcophagus. After Osorkon II, Shoshenq III, who was buried in a sarcophagus which was originally a 13th Dynasty lintel, built his own tomb (NRT-V). His funeral was probably conducted by Shoshenq IV, whose own sarcophagus was found in this tomb alongside that of his predecessor.

Unfortunately, nothing is known of the burials of the first Libyan kings, consisting of Osochor, Shoshenq I and Osorkon I, with the exception of the canopic chest of Shoshenq I now in Berlin. However, the province of its discovery is unknown. Possibly, one of these kings could have been buried in NRT-VI, but this is a very modest tomb and it is unlikely that it belonged to either Shoshenq I or Osorkon I.

One possible clue to the problem of the tombs at Tanis surrounds a third body, belonging to Shoshenq II, that was found in the antechamber of the tomb belonging to Psusennes I. Shoshenq II was probably a co-regent of Osorkon I. He was interred in a silver coffin which showed evidence of having been moved to this location from elsewhere. There was plant growth discovered on the mummy which was consistent with it having originally stood in water, and there is no evidence of flooding in NRT-III. Hence, the mummy had first been buried in a different tomb which was subjected to standing water, presumably well away from Tanis. If Shoshenq II's burial occurred originally elsewhere, then so too might have the burials of earlier members of his family, perhaps near Bubastis, which seems to have been the home town for members of the new dynasty.

This scenario would also explain Osorkon II's usurpation of an old tomb rather than the building of a new one, as well as the situation of providing a chamber within it for his father. It is likely that the flooding of the tombs of Shoshenq II and Takelot I, and perhaps even his own intended tomb, could have forced Osorkon II back to the old necropolis at Tanis.

What the tombs of Tanis give us is a wealth of information about the burial customs of this period and a clearer idea of the genealogy of the rulers and family and political relationships between Tanis and Thebes. The kings of the 21st Dynasty liked to reuse sarcophagi or usurp older pieces from the New or Middle Kingdom periods. Their tombs were furnished with a considerable amount of equipment in the form of vessels and precious metals, funerary figurines and canopic jars, which perhaps could be said to demonstrate their attachment to the burial traditions of the past. The technical capabilities of the craftsmen and metalworkers probably equaled those of the earlier New Kingdom. However, in comparison to the New Kingdom tombs, those at Tanis are meager and there was apparently a tendency to eliminate the everyday objects in preference to specific funerary and magical items. Likely, the Tanis burials reveal the poverty of the northern kings, who seemed to have quantities of precious metals at their disposal but had to re-use sarcophagi and canopic jars from earlier burials. Today, excavation work is still being conducted at Tanis, so while there are many questions remaining, perhaps one day the mysteries of the Third Intermediate Period will eventually be solved.


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Seventy Great Mysteries of Ancient Egypt, The Manley, Bill (Editor) 2003 Thames & Hudson Ltd ISBN 0-500-05123-2