Categorizing Archaeological Finds: The Funerary Material of Queen Hetepheres I at Giza

By Munch, Hans-Hubertus | Antiquity, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Categorizing Archaeological Finds: The Funerary Material of Queen Hetepheres I at Giza


Munch, Hans-Hubertus, Antiquity


In this article I present a problematic case in Egyptian archaeology that exemplifies some pitfalls in the categorization of archaeological remains and their indirect effects on interpretation. The find itself has been known for more than 70 years; the new interpretation is based on a rethinking of its categorization, following clues suggested by some features that do not fit our general understanding of Egyptian elite burials. My aim is to offer an interpretation of `Hetepheres' tomb' that explains more of its features than previous accounts although not all of them. I also hope to show another face of Egyptology to a wider archaeological audience, which often laments the field's conservatism and lack of interest in theory.

G 7000x and previous interpretations

The `tomb' of Queen Hetepheres I, probably the widow of King Sneferu (c. 2640-2600) and the mother of King Khufu (c. 2600-2580), was found in a deep shaft in front of the east side of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza and designated G7000x by the American Egyptologist George A. Reisner, who directed its excavation in 1925 (FIGURE 1). The find is in many ways unique in the funerary archaeology of the Old Kingdom (c. 2700-2210): for its social background, the objects it contained -- such as splendid jewellery and furniture -- as well as for the problems of interpretation that it poses (FIGURES 2-3). The find remains a mystery because it exhibits other unique features, notably the lack of the mummy in what is presumed to have been a burial. These features cannot fit the identification of the find as a tomb unless further, hypothetical assumptions are made; consequently no definitive interpretation has been reached. As Peter Janosi (1996: 13-19) has shown, these strictures apply both to the initial interpretation of Reisner (Smith & Reisner 1955) and to that of Mark Lehner (1985).

[Figures 1-3 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Reisner and his team soon realized that some aspects of the find did not fit with their pre-supposition that G7000x was an undisturbed elite tomb. In their interpretation these features were marked as `anomalies' and explained by hypothetical events that lay outside the archaeological find. Reisner's most important hypothesis was that Hetepheres' hypothetical original burial near her husband's pyramid at Dahshur had been violated and the mummy perhaps completely destroyed. After officials discovered this violation, they reburied her funerary equipment at Giza. To prevent further robberies the whole action was carried out in secrecy and great haste. Reisner's hypothetical reconstruction was treated as established fact until 1985, when Mark Lehner published a critique and proposed a different explanation. In contrast to Reisner, Lehner suggests that Hetepheres had originally been buried at Giza and not at Dahshur. In his interpretation, G7000x was the first construction to occur in the east field, to the east of the Great Pyramid, and was the Queen's original burial place. His main hypothesis is that repeated changes in the architectural plan for the Great Pyramid led to the abandonment of the tomb, so that Hetepheres' body, but not her burial equipment, was reburied elsewhere, leaving behind the assemblage of material in the chamber.

Peter Janosi (1996) has criticized these interpretations on a variety of grounds. His main objection to Lehner's explanation, as well as to Reisner's, is the lack of proof for the suggested sequences of events. In Lehner's case either the postulated changes in plan are not clearly visible in the archaeological record or they have been shown to be incorrect by more recent finds at Giza; notably the satellite pyramid of Khufu, which was discovered by Zahi Hawass (1996). Janosi is the first scholar to question whether G7000x should be understood as a tomb, but he does not give an alternative interpretation, concluding instead that no satisfactory explanation of the find is available or likely to be so. …

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