This month’s object biography was the first Egyptian piece to be installed into the new Ancient Worlds galleries last week. The relief (Acc. No. 5168) comes from the mastaba tomb chapel of Nefermaat and his wife Itet at Meidum. Nefermaat was probably a son of King Sneferu (c. 2613-2589 BC). At this period the highest offices of state were held by members of the king’s close family, and Nefermaat had the titles of ‘Vizier’ and ‘Overseer of All the King’s Works’. Although Sneferu is perhaps best known as the father of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid, Sneferu himself build more in terms of volume – his two (perhaps three) pyramids are located at Dahshur (the ‘Bent’ Pyramid, and ‘Red’ Pyramid), and Meidum (though this was perhaps begun by his predecessor Huni). Nefermaat is likely to have overseen these monumental projects.
Nefermaat and Itet’s mastaba tomb was originally excavated by Auguste Mariette in 1872 and later re-examined by Flinders Petrie in 1890–1891. It is from the latter excavations that our relief comes. The upper scene shows an ox and ibex. Hieroglyphs describe the two boatmen pictured below as ‘coming out of the marshes’, where they have been catching birds.
Our relief was created using a very unusual form of decoration, which is attested chiefly from Nefermaat and Itet’s tomb chapel. Reliefs have been sunk into the limestone walls and then filled with coloured paste. An inscription from another part of the tomb chapel, on a relief now in Chicago, explains the purpose of this unusual decorative technique. In words attributed to Nefermaat: “He is one who fashions his representations (lit. ‘gods’) in writing that cannot be erased”. Other parts of the tomb chapel were decorated in the more conventional fashion of paint applied onto mud plaster. The other Nefermaat scene we hold in Manchester uses this technique, and comes from the same wall as the famous ‘Meidum Geese.’
The paste-inlay technique appears to have been an innovation at the time, and seems unique in terms of tomb decoration. It is for this reason that it is often supposed to have been abandoned at an early date, having been found to be unsuccessful. However, the paste-inlays were largely intact at the time of the tomb’s discovery by Auguste Mariette in 1872, and their subsequent deterioration – as shown in an archive photo I recently discovered of the relief’s consolidation when it arrived in Manchester – may be due to rough handling after excavation rather than because of the intrinsic weakness of the technique.
Egyptian tomb owners greatly feared damage to, or usurpation of, their ‘houses of eternity’. Several Old Kingdom tombs, only a little later than Nefermaat’s time, bear curses against trespassers intent on such damage. It is interesting to observe another use of this type of filled decoration occurs in the inscription of the famous seated statue of Khufu’s ‘Overseer of Works’ Hemiunu in Hildesheim (#19622). Perhaps both men, intimately involved with construction and themselves all-too-aware of how easily decorated walls could be reappropriated or destroyed, took special pains to carve their ‘gods’ for eternity. Perhaps the fashion was abandoned due simply to being too labour-intensive.