Alabaster block of Khaemwaset, from a Memphis foundation deposit. Acc. no. 4947
A guest blog post from Nicolas de Larquier, currently on an internship at the museum, discussing some objects he has been working on, and the motivations of one of ancient Egypt’s most well-known personages.
Khaemwaset was the fourth son of king Ramesses II. His name is particularly known for being considered as the first known Egyptian historian. Even if the title could be a bit excessive, it is clear that Khaemwaset had a real interest in ancient times and especially for kingship lineage. He also has been shown to be a kind of “conservator”, by reshaping the Memphite sacred landscape and restoring some Old and Middle Kingdom monuments. But of course, one should keep in mind that Khaemwaset was mostly acting in regard to Ramesses II’s desire to promote his own kingship in reference to his great predecessors. Nevertheless Khaemwaset’s historical awareness can’t be denied and he clearly had a personal way to confront the past. He also obviously wanted to leave his own mark in a way that is different to the one we are accustomed to see in Ancient Egypt.
The Manchester Museum holds a deposit from Memphis, published by Flinders Petrie in 1909, composed of three small brick-shaped plaques (in alabaster, basalt and faience) inscribed in the name of Ramesses II. On the sides of two of them, and on the back of the third one, Khaemwaset’s name and main title are inscribed too.
Here is the description of that deposit, given by Petrie in Memphis I, p. 8: “Over the region now occupied by the pond near the West Hall, there has been a building of Ramessu II, now entirely destroyed. Only the west side of its foundation is left, and in the sand bed of it a foundation deposit was found, shewn on PI. XIX. The large block of alabaster has the cartouches of Ramessu II on both of the faces, and the inscription of “the high priest of Ptah, the royal son, Kha-em-uas” on both of the edges. The lesser tablet of green glazed pottery has similar names on the faces and edges ; and the black granite tablet has the names of Ramessu on one face, and that of Khaemuas on the other face. These are some of the finest deposit blocks that are known ; they rest now at Manchester.
Plate 19 from Petrie’s ‘Memphis I’, showing the blocks of Khaemwaset
In his article “Khaemwese and the Present Past: History and the Individual in Ramesside Egypt”, Steven Snape hypothesises that this deposit could be attributed to the West Hall – a structure from the Ptah enclosure in Memphis – probably built for Ramesses’ jubilees. And indeed, if we know Khaemwaset especially for having been behind the architectural reorganisation of the Memphite sacred landscape and necropolis, or for the construction of the Apis Burials at the Serapeum, one may know that he was also in charge of the five Ramesses II’s jubilees celebrated between the years 30 and 42 of his reign.
Faience plaque from the Khaemwaset foundation deposit (Acc. no. 4949)
The inscription on the “lesser tablet of green glazed pottery” is unfortunately much more difficult to read today than when Petrie found and published it. For this, the photograph presented on pl. XIX of Memphis I is really interesting. Moreover, a parallel for this tablet can be seen at the British Museum (EA49235). The latter has no provenance known and was purchased in Cairo. It is very similar to our own example in Manchester, and should come from Memphis too, maybe from the same type of deposit, perhaps from the very same West Hall of the Ptah enclosure.
In 1907, Petrie found a deposit in South Giza composed of a lot of anonymous shabtis but also Khaemwaset ones. The majority of these items are held by the Petrie Museum in London. It is not possible to determine the exact place where the deposit was found from the Petrie’s diary but Stephane Pasquali proposes as a provenance the Ro-Setjau area, and highlights a possible relation of this deposit with the Shetayet Shrine of Sokar. Indeed, Steven Snape presents the Shetayet shrine as an important site for quasi-funerary deposition and signals that some Khaemwaset shabtis have been found in that context.
Deatil of block 4947, with Khaemwaset’s titles: “Sem-priest of Ptah, King’s Son, Khaemwaset, justified”
But the point here is to question the value of the Khaemwaset’s deposits. Are they classical, canonical votive deposits or do they serve an extra purpose? There is a close relationship between Khaemwaset and Ro-Setjau as can be seen in his proper titles; we also know that he ordered there, as a personal project, the construction of a building, the Hill-Shrine, that could be seen from Memphis. It seems obvious that the historical awareness of Khaemwaset makes him work in three parallel ways : first of all he may have really wanted to restore monuments from ancient times, but always to create a link between his father’s kingship and the glorious kings of the Old Kingdom, and after this he had probably wanted to make his own name enter the History. For this, we could wonder if his deposits are not like a kind of a signature, as well as the ‘labels’ he inscribed on the pyramids and other monuments and statues. Indeed, Khaemwaset shabtis were also found during the Serapeum excavations when his tomb still waited to be discovered. Those shabtis could come from quasi-funerary deposits. They could also be just votive, but in a place where the Khaemwaset mark is so strong for having being the designer of it, one could certainly think that there is more to understand…
This may be the same for the deposit held in Manchester. Why did Khaemwaset inscribe his name on the edges and back of those tablets? Certainly to share with his father the benefits of such an offering but why not also to claim his part of the monument’s creation?
Nicolas de Larquier is a Student Curator from the French National Institute for Cultural Heritage (INP) currently working at the Manchester Museum.