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The priestly cache

The priestly cache in Deir el-Bahri

Bildet kan inneholde: sky, himmel, landskap, bygning, fjell.
Today Sheikh Abd el-Qurneh is sustained by tourism, but goats are still a common sight. Photo: Lill-Ann Chepstow-Lusty

Many of the museum’s artifacts originate from the 21st Dynasty. Most of the archeological evidence from this dynasty originates from two grave finds from Luxor, discovered at the end of the 1800s. The finds are closely related, and the story behind them is one of the most spectacular in the history of Egyptology.

The necropolis in Thebes

Modern day Luxor is a small town in Upper Egypt. Here, people have what they need to survive in the modern world: train station, airport, hospitals, schools up to the secondary level, and so on. In ancient times, Luxor was unquestionably one of the world’s largest cultural centers. Waset, as the Egyptians called it, or Thebes, as the Greeks called it, was then, as now, divided in two by the Nile. Farming was practiced on both sides. On the east bank was the powerful Karnak temple. The west bank, as in many other places in Ancient Egypt, was reserved for the dead. The necropolises were located on the west bank of the river because it was believed that the entrance to the kingdom of the dead was where the sun set.

Deir el-Bahri is famous for the magnificent funerary chapels of Mentuhotep II and Hatshepsut, but other historical treasures are hidden here as well. Map Andrei Niwinski.

The powerful pharaohs from the New Kingdom–the Age of Empires and the Golden Age in Ancient Egypt–were originally buried in the secluded Valley of the Kings in the desert mountains to the northwest. The tombs of the kings were filled with invaluable riches and hidden in the Valley of the Kings to protect them from plundering. Around 1000 B.C. (in the 21st Dynasty), however, the priests discovered that the Valley of the Kings did not provide sufficient protection for their valuable secrets. Several of the kings’ tombs had been partly or entirely plundered, and action had to be taken so that the kings could rest in peace. In all secrecy, and in the cover of darkness, a gigantic operation was undertaken to move the contents of the tombs. The sarcophagi of the kings and the remaining tomb goods were moved to a new and more secure hiding place. The sight of the ruined sarcophagi and desecrated mummies in the tombs must have frightened the priests. They probably feared that such a fate would also befall their own tombs and the tombs of their brethren. It probably did not take not long before they too began to move their own tombs and the tombs of their fellow priests to a more secluded hiding place. The operations were successful. Almost 3000 years were to pass before the priests’ secret was revealed.

The west bank of Thebes in modern times

In modern day Luxor, the city center still lies on the east bank. The little village of Sheikh Abd el-Qurneh, which clings fast to the mountainsides of the west bank, is still separate from the actual city center. It is not known exactly how long this village has been located there, but it existed when the first Europeans set foot in Egypt–and it was probably old even then.

Bildet kan inneholde: skråningen, skrift, parallell, diagram, ingeniørfag.
Nowhere in the world is the density of ancient monuments higher than on the west bank of Thebes (today’s Luxor). From «The Complete Valley of the Kings», by Reeves and Wilkinson. Thames and Hudson, 1996

For the first European explorers and men of science, the village represented an unwelcome challenge. It was located in the middle of the ancient Egyptian necropolis, and the locals used the ancient tombs as cellars and stalls for their animals. They were also very skeptical, often with good reason, of the white newcomers. Occasionally, armed conflict erupted between the villagers and the European treasure hunters. 6

During the 1800s, the rift between the two sides began to close. The Egyptians in the village became accustomed to the foreigners, and when they understood their motives, agreements were reached. The Europeans were after ancient artifacts. The west bank of Thebes was full of them, and no one knew the area better than the people of Sheikh Abd el-Qurneh. Even though agricultural practice continued as before, not many decades passed before trade in antiquities was the main source of income for the village. At first, it took place openly. But after a law prohibiting unregulated trading in antiquities was passed in the mid-1800s, the trade went underground. A thriving black market was established.

The great discovery

Bildet kan inneholde: hodeplagg, berggrunn, monokrom fotografering, monokrom, kunst.
From left: The Adb el-Rasool brothers, Gaston Maspero and Ahmed Kamal outside the shaft leading down to the Royal Cache in Deir el-Bahri. From «The Complete Valley of the Kings», by Reeves and Wilkinson. Thames and Hudson, 1996

One late afternoon in the beginning of the 1870s, Ahmed Abd el-Rasool from Sheikh Abd el-Qurneh was wandering through the mountains on the outskirts of the Nile Valley to retrieve his goats. One of the kids had disappeared during the course of the day, and Ahmed climbed the steep rocks in search of the animal. The area would have been dangerous had he not known it so well. In the dusk he could easily have fallen into one of the many deep shafts that the ancient Egyptians had dug out for their dead. After a while he could hear the kid bleating desperately from up the mountainside. After a short climb, Ahmed reached the slope where the sound was coming from. His greatest fear was realized. The sound came from a dark abyss in the ground before him. The kid had fallen into an ancient burial shaft.

He was prepared for precisely this eventuality, and had taken a long rope with him. With the rope bound securely to a block of stone, he lowered himself down into the shaft. At this point, the fate of the kid ceases to be central to the story. About 15 meters down the shaft, Ahmed discovered something of even greater interest. His torch lit up a corridor that was dug horizontally into the mountain. Further inside, he found a sealed door. He had found an unopened tomb. This could mean a good income for him and his family.

The find was not made public until 1881. Gaston Maspero, head of the Antiquity Service, the official office for archeological excavations in Egypt, understood that something out of the ordinary must have occurred. His spies on the black market had long reported trade in a number of highly unusual artifacts. Royal burial papyruses, canopic jars, and ushabtis with inscriptions from virtually unknown kings were suddenly appearing in private collections. The artifacts appeared to be genuine. They must have belonged to kings of the New Kingdom: Amenhotep II, Thutmose III, Sety I and Ramses II, kings whose tombs had never been found, or had been found empty in the Valley of the Kings. A major investigation was set in motion. On April 4, 1881, Ahmed and his elder brother Mohammad Abd el-Rasool were brought in for questioning. Interrogation methods in Egypt 120 years ago were brutal, and the elder brother soon confessed. For several years they had plundered the grave Ahmed had discovered. Yet they had only recovered a fraction of its contents; he assured the Antiquity Service that there was much more to be found.

Rumors about the royal tomb spread quickly throughout the city. To prevent further plundering, action had to be taken quickly. On July 6, Maspero wasted no time in gathering 300 men who were dispatched to the site. They arrived in time, and within two days the tomb was emptied. The discovery was unique. Forty royal mummies with coffins and grave goods more or less intact were found. The kings, whose graves were thought to have been lost forever, were found in good condition. Hieroglyphic texts and beautiful artwork, the likes of which had never been seen before, could now be studied by experts.

Bildet kan inneholde: himmel, fjell, landskap, byggemateriale, skråningen.
Today the shaft leading down to the Priestly Cache in Deir el-Bahri is closed. Photo: Lill-Ann Chepstow-Lusty

The next task was to ship the sarcophagi to Cairo for storage and preservation in the Egyptian Museum. The news of the moving of the royal mummies must have spread quickly; hundreds of fellahin, Egyptian farmers, gathered along the riverbanks from Luxor to Cairo. When the boat sailed past the villages, the people gathered by the riverbanks. Women wore veils and pulled their hair in mourning; the men fired shots into the air. It was a traditional funeral. The ancient kings who had lied buried in Thebes for more than 3000 years were leaving for good.

This fantastic story just got better and better. Ten years later, in 1891, the Rasool family made history again. The oldest brother, Mohammad Adb el-Rasool, had avoided punishment by giving a full confession. The experience, however, made such a strong impression on him that he began to study Egyptology. In 1891, he joined the great Egyptologist George Daressy on an official excavation in Deir el-Bahri, on the plain in front of the Temple of Hatshepsut, close to the mass grave of the kings. Again, the local knowledge of the Rasool family proved invaluable, and soon they were excavating an unknown grave shaft. The royal tomb in the rocks had been well protected by the hostile terrain, but the graves on the plains below were more vulnerable. The shafts had been filled with sand, gravel, and rocks to hinder discovery by grave robbers. Moreover, the grave was located inside the temple area, giving it additional protection as long as the temple was in use. The archeologists had great expectations for what lay hidden at the bottom.

About 13 meters into the shaft, the workers found a small opening that only housed the sad remains of a single coffin. This was a great disappointment. But suddenly one of the workers discovered a small crevice in the ground where they were standing. Curiosity drove them onward, and soon they discovered that the floor on which they were standing was an artificial plateau built into the shaft to mislead robbers. A coffin had been placed on the plateau so that intruders would think they had reached the bottom. The shaft continued down a couple of meters. When they finally reached bottom, they saw a corridor carved horizontally into the mountain, blocked by a sealed door, just like in the royal tomb. Yet another undisturbed grave had been found. The priests’ grave was filled with coffins stacked on top of one another by the entrance, along the walls, and in the innermost burial chamber. The tomb was probably originally planned for a high-ranking priest and his family before it was extended as a mass grave for the priests.

Coffins from the 21st Dynasty

Coffins from both the discoveries originated from a single 150-year period, the beginning of the 21st Dynasty (ca. 1050 B.C.) to the beginning of the 22nd Dynasty. The coffins are anthropoid, and religious motifs are painted in dense formation on a yellow background. A thick layer of resin-based lacquer applied to the outermost layer of paint on the coffin had preserved the coffins exceptionally well. The yellow coffin, covered with the shiny lacquer, made the coffin appear to be made of gold–the same substance the skin of the gods was
believed to be made from.

To resemble the hair of the gods, the coffins had a blue-striped wig that was meant to look like the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli. The chin was covered with a long, artificial beard, which was also a sign of divinity 8. The women had single-colored wigs and outstretched hands. They often had modeled breasts that were decorated with rosettes. The ears and hands were often decorated with painted jewelry. Sometimes it was also possible to see differences in the facial expressions. Two of the coffins on display clearly demonstrate this.

Another typical characteristic was that each mummy had two coffins: one outer coffin and one inner coffin in the same style. The mummy was equipped with a mummy cover shaped and decorated in the same way as the two coffin lids. The coffins resemble the Russian Matryoshka doll; when the outer coffin was opened, a smaller version was found inside, until finally the core was reached–the mummy itself.

But how did they end up here?

Bildet kan inneholde: menneskekroppen, tre, tinning, gjenstand, kunst.
Two of the coffins from the Priestly Cache were sent to Norway in 1894. C47713 og C47714. Photo: Ellen C. Holte and Lill-Ann Chepstow-Lusty

After the second mass grave was discovered, the staff of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo faced a dilemma. The tomb of the priests contained far more coffins than did the royal tombs. One hundred and fifty three mummies were transported to the museum, and most of them came with two coffins and a mummy case. This meant that 254 new coffins had to be stored in a museum that was already filled to the brim. Long-term storage under these conditions could damage the coffins. The museum petitioned the government, and in 1893, the Khedive himself, the Ottoman viceroy in Egypt, decided to present the coffins as gifts to museums in Europe and the United States. There, they would receive the care they deserved.

This is how, one autumn day in 1894, four coffin sets from the tomb of priests in Deir el-Bahri were loaded onto a ship in Alexandria bound for the united kingdom of Sweden-Norway. The coffins were a gift to His Majesty King Oscar II, an avid collector of antiquities with a special fondness for Ancient Egypt. The collection contained two outer coffins, four inner coffins, and three mummy cases, which must have belonged to at least five different mummies. The shipment also contained 88 ushabtis and an ushabti box from the same grave.

Two inner coffins, a mummy case and 42 ushabtis arrived at the Ethnographic Museum in Oslo. The rest went to Sweden. The Swedish share of the collection was divided between the Victoria Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Uppsala and the Museum of Mediterranean Antiquities, Stockholm. There, the gifts from Egypt are housed in beautiful permanent exhibits. The Norwegian share of the gift has now come out of storage. For the first time since 1894, Oscar II’s gift from the Khedive of Egypt will be exhibited in full for the pleasure of the Norwegian public.

Published Jan. 29, 2021 9:23 AM - Last modified Jan. 29, 2021 11:46 AM