• EraPharaonic
  • LocationValley of the Queens & Deir el-Medina
  • Project Dates2018-2019

The start of the 19th Dynasty (circa 1292 BC) not only marked the beginning of a new ruling line, the Ramessides, but it was also a time of remarkable innovation that developed, in part, as a complex reaction to the dramatic cultural and religious changes brought about by Akhenaten during the Amarna period and as a means of politically legitimizing a new dynasty with non-royal origins. This early Ramesside creative spirit impacted the spheres of religion, art, and the ideology of Egyptian kingship and queenship, and the funerary realm was one of the chief settings for this upsurge of new ideas. Seti I, the second king of Dynasty 19, effectively redesigned the architectural and decorative template of pharaohs’ tombs, a model that was largely followed, though with variations, additions, and amendments, for the rest of the New Kingdom. For the first time, the tombs of royal sons became a distinct category of royal funerary monument. Private tombs were adorned with more explicitly religious schemes than had been the case in the 18th Dynasty, and Ramesside non-royal tomb owners were frequently depicted among the deities, directly worshiping gods and goddesses.

Some of the most dramatic early Ramesside innovations concerned the location, architectural plans, and decoration of royal women’s tombs. At the very start of the 19th Dynasty, beginning with the tomb of Sat-Re, the first queen of the Ramesside period, the way royal women were buried changed abruptly and significantly. A desert valley at the south end of the western Theban mountain range, a wadi known anciently as Ta Set Neferu (usually translated as “The Place of the Beautiful Ones”) and now called the Valley of the Queens, was deliberately re-purposed as a separate, discrete cemetery for many of the highest-ranking royal women of the Ramesside period (1292-1075 BC). Most of these queens bore the “great royal wife” title, which appears to have been an important, though not exclusive, criterion for burial in this prestigious cemetery, and each woman was interred in an elaborately decorated, independently owned, rock-cut tomb.

Valley of the Queens. Photo: Heather Lee Mccarthy.

The tombs of Ramesside royal women were larger and more elaborate than those of their 18th Dynasty predecessors, who were typically buried, singly or in groups, in undecorated chambers within kings’ tombs or in separate, undecorated tombs in and around the pharaohs’ necropolis, the Valley of the Kings. However, in the Ramesside period, the Valley of the Queens was a true queenly equivalent to the kings’ necropolis. At the level of individual tombs, the complex, multifaceted Ramesside period enhancement of royal women’s burials involved the design and execution of new decorative schemes, each comprising scenes and texts specifically tailored to the gender, status, and role of the royal female tomb owner. The most impressive and best preserved of these is QV 66, the tomb of Nefertari, the most important great royal wife of Ramesses II.

The BD 180 Re-Osiris vignette in the tomb of Nefertari (QV 66) on the north flank of the Valley of the Queens. Photo: © The J. Paul Getty Trust, [1992].

Among the scenes developed for and employed in these tombs were new vignettes and new arrangements of pre-existing vignettes from the Book of the Dead, a New Kingdom compendium of spells, typically combining texts and illustrations, intended to provide the dead with highly specialized, esoteric knowledge to guide them through the netherworld. One example of such a newly created vignette is the well-known Book of the Dead Spell 180 “Re-Osiris” scene employed in Nefertari’s tomb. The people at the center of this concentrated creative activity were the artists, stonecutters, scribes, foremen, and guards who lived with their families in the village of Deir el-Medina, a special purpose-built settlement founded in the early 18th Dynasty. These Deir el-Medina inhabitants were tasked with the immense responsibility of cutting, decorating, and maintaining the security of the New Kingdom royal tombs in western Thebes.

View of Deir el-Medina village from outside TT 3, the tomb of Pashedu, in the western cemetery. Photo: Heather Lee Mccarthy.

View north towards the path through the Valley of the Dolmen from the Valley of the Queens. Rock cut shrines dedicated to the deities Ptah and Meretseger, which can be seen on the right, served the religious needs of the Deir el-Medina artists who traveled to and from work in the Valley of the Queens. Photo: Heather Lee Mccarthy.

The village was located only 1 kilometer north of the Valley of the Queens, and the artists and other personnel traveled to and from their work at the site via a path through an adjacent wadi, the Valley of the Dolmen, which lies immediately to the south of Deir el-Medina . In the early 19th Dynasty, the Deir el-Medina villagers developed a rich iconographic tradition of their own, which was impacted by the newly designed and executed programs of the Ramesside queens’ tombs and which they applied to the decoration of their own tombs in the village necropolis and to funerary equipment such as the coffins, sarcophagi, and Book of the Dead papyri buried with them.

View towards Deir el-Medina’s western cemetery from the east side of the village. Photo: Heather Lee Mccarthy.

Research Objectives:

My research project examines the creative nexus between these two sites, the Valley of the Queens and Deir el-Medina, and their respective tombs during Dynasty 19. Its overarching aims are to explore how early 19th Dynasty Ramesside royal women’s tombs influenced the development of Book of the Dead spells/vignettes subsequently incorporated into the Deir el-Medina iconographic tradition and to trace the specific paths of transmission from these queens’ tombs to Deir el-Medina.

This work builds upon my 2011 PhD dissertation, which dealt with the architecture and decorative programs of Ramesside royal women’s tombs in the Valley of the Queens, as well as more recent research elucidating the complex patterns of scene dissemination from Ramesside queens’ tomb programs to those of subsequent kings’ tombs and also to private tombs and papyri.

The project is centered upon a dataset comprising the total repertoire of Book of the Dead spells/vignettes employed in 19th Dynasty royal women’s tombs—BD 1, 15, 16, 17, 18, 82, 94, 125 (the “Weighing of the Heart”), 125B (the “Negative Confessions”), 138, 144, 146, 148, 151, 161, 180, and 186. In the preliminary stages of my research, in order to determine areas of overlap and possible influence, I identified twenty-one Deir el-Medina tombs (TT 1-3, 5-6, 10, 211, 214-216, 218-219, 265, 290, 292, 323, 335-336, 356, 359-360) adorned with Book of the Dead spells/vignettes from my dataset.

My 2018-2019 ARCE postdoctoral fellowship allowed me to carry out a crucially important aspect of my study, a 2019 field research season to examine Deir el-Medina tomb programs at first hand and to photograph the scenes relevant to my research. During my work in Egypt, I closely examined and photographed programs in the twenty-one decorated Ramesside period private tombs at Deir el-Medina, most dating to the first half of the 19th Dynasty. The majority of these tombs comprise both aboveground chapels, decorated either in painted relief or painting alone, and all have subterranean, rock-cut chambers for burials. The latter typically have multiple chambers with one or two decorated rooms, their scenes executed exclusively in paint.

In the current phase of my research, I am analyzing my gathered data and determining the stylistic, iconographic, and textual/orthographic affinities and differences between scenes in both groups of tombs. Furthermore, I am evaluating the pictorial and textual variations between royal and non-royal versions of the same Book of the Dead spells in order to establish how differences were determined, such as by rules of decorum related to gender or status. In addition, I continue to investigate paths of transmission from queens’ tombs to private tombs and papyri, as another aspect of my research involves the study of Deir el-Medina textual records, including administrative documents, and prosopographic studies in order to determine, where possible, which artisans, scribes, and other staff worked in which tombs.

Though I am focusing primarily on tombs of the early 19th Dynasty, which marked the most creatively fruitful period of scene development in the Valley of the Queens and Deir el-Medina, I am also documenting the histories of selected spells’ use into the 20th Dynasty.


Previous scholars have acknowledged the link between the Ramesside queens’ tombs and the Deir el-Medina iconographic tradition, but there has not been an in-depth exploration of the specific pathways and patterns of transmission from the royal women’s tombs to those of the villagers. Likewise, the role of queens’ monuments as loci for the creation and dissemination of ideas has not been given the attention it merits.

Rather, scholars have tended to focus on the flow of ideas “downward” from kings’ monuments and funerary literature to non-royal material culture and on the reverse movement “upward” from the private sphere to the royal domain, which, in the context of past studies of cultural dissemination across social strata, typically has been considered the realm of kings.

Preliminary Observations:

The influence of early 19th Ramesside royal women’s tomb programs upon the decoration of the non-royal Deir el-Medina tombs is complex and manifested in diverse patterns of scene use. In some cases, Book of the Dead vignettes employed in Deir el-Medina tombs resemble those in Ramesside queens’ tombs in terms of content as well as layout. Even some grammatical and orthographic idiosyncrasies from queenly originals appear to have been copied. However, there are also significant formal differences that distinguish private tomb scenes from those in queens’ tombs.

These include execution of scenes in paint rather than painted relief, especially in burial chambers; occasional use of the predominantly golden yellow “monochrome” style, an artistic convention primarily used in private tombs at that time, in contrast to the polychromy typically employed in contemporary royal tombs; religious iconographic variations; smaller scale scenes in some instances; and also a reduction in scene complexity that either resulted in the fragmentation of a large, complex vignette, such as BD 17, into component images that were used individually, or resulted in the reduction of a scene to an abbreviated form.

BD 180 Re-Osiris scene in TT 335, the tomb of the relief sculptor Nakhtamun. This version was executed in the monochrome style and also exhibits significant pictorial and iconographic differences from the version in Nefertari’s tomb. Photo: Heather Lee Mccarthy.

In addition, I have observed patterns within the Deir el-Medina tombs in which images and texts from distinct, though thematically similar, spells are re-combined into a single vignette. This “mixing and matching” of different spell constituents not only indicates a degree of fluidity concerning the conception of Book of the Dead spells at Deir el-Medina, but it also suggests a theologically informed improvisational approach to the presentation of these spells.

Scene from TT 290, the tomb of Irynefer, showing the illustration of BD 109 combined with text from BD 180. Photo: Heather Lee Mccarthy.

My direct examination of tombs also allowed me to identify more occurrences of BD scenes from my dataset than were indicated in the scholarly literature, especially variant versions of BD 17 and BD 161. Thus, my field research revealed that the Deir el-Medina tombs in my study share even more scenes in common with royal women’s tombs than I had thought previously. This observation not only further reinforces the notion of influence of queens’ tombs upon those at Deir el-Medina, but it also enhances our understanding of the history of selected Book of the Dead spells/vignettes. 

BD 180 Re-Osiris Scene: Transmission and Variation:

The BD 180 Re-Osiris vignette in the tomb of Nefertari (QV 66) on the north flank of the Valley of the Queens. Photo: © The J. Paul Getty Trust, [1992].

The history of use of the BD 180 Re-Osiris scene, which depicts the critically important syncretistic union of the sun-god Re and of Osiris, god of the dead, provides an especially clear example of transmission from the Valley of the Queens to Deir el-Medina. Although the BD 180 spell text originated in the 18th Dynasty – when it was employed in papyri as a textual composition – a largely pictorial version of BD 180 illustrated with the Re-Osiris scene first appears in QV 66, the previously mentioned, early 19th Dynasty tomb of Nefertari, the great royal wife of Ramesses II.

The QV 66 Re-Osiris vignette was then subsequently used in the tombs cut and decorated for several of Ramesses II’s daughter-wives: Nebettawy, the owner of QV 60; Merytamun, who was buried in QV 68; and an unknown daughter for whom QV 74 was prepared but never used (it was later usurped by Duatentipet, a 20th Dynasty queen). The BD 180 Re-Osiris scene was also adopted for use in TT 335 and TT 336, the neighboring tombs of the brothers Nakhtamun and Neferrenpet, two relief sculptors who likely worked in QV 66 and were also the brothers-in-law of the scribe Huy, who is connected to the work in Nefertari’s tomb by an ostracon found in the Valley of the Queens.

Both of these Deir el-Medina versions of the BD 180 Re-Osiris vignettes were clearly differentiated from those used in queens’ tombs, probably for reasons of decorum. The Deir el-Medina scenes were rendered in the monochrome style, and there are also noticeable iconographic variations, particularly evident in Nakhtamun’s version. Figures of the deities Wadjet and Re-Horakhty were added, Re-Osiris is shown with a rearing cobra on his head rather than his usual red solar disk, and Isis and Nephthys wear tripartite wigs rather than their usual afnet-hair coverings.

BD 180 Re-Osiris scene in TT 335, the tomb of the relief sculptor Nakhtamun. This version was executed in the monochrome style and also exhibits significant pictorial and iconographic differences from the version in Nefertari’s tomb. Photo: Heather Lee Mccarthy.


Additionally, the vertical texts that appear on each side of the Re-Osiris figure in QV 66 and declare his syncretistic nature, namely, “This is Re who rests as/in Osiris, [this is] Osiris who rests as/in Re,” were combined into a single column in TT 335. The TT 335 caption therefore lacks the symmetry of the versions in the tombs of Nefertari and other queens. Neferrenpet’s version of BD 180 in TT 336 is a simplified, streamlined monochrome style vignette (now discolored red by exposure to heat) that includes no text other than the characteristic hieroglyphic name insignia worn on the heads of Isis and Nephthys.

BD 180 Re-Osiris scene in TT 336, the tomb of the relief sculptor Neferrenpet. Like his brother, Neferrenpet had a version of the BD 180 Re-Osiris scene in his tomb. This version was also executed in the monochrome style (now turned red by exposure to heat), and it lacks the text ordinarily associated with the BD 180 Re-Osiris scene. Photo: Heather Lee Mccarthy.

Fragmentation, Abbreviation, and Recombination:

Book of the Dead 17 is a multi-tableaux spell/vignette appearing frequently in Deir el-Medina private tombs, where it was nearly always reduced to one or two essential component scenes. This spell identifies the deceased with the creator god Atum, discusses the relationships of deities to each other, and describes and depicts the deceased undergoing the various afterlife transformations that will allow them to emerge from her tomb like the sun reborn from the netherworld. It appears in the antechamber of the tomb of Nefertari, QV 66, where the series of small tableaux comprising the illustration adorn the uppermost register on the local west half of Nefertari’s antechamber, with the spell’s text arranged in vertical columns below it. The hieroglyphs have a retrograde orientation, so that the text is read outward, towards the tomb entrance, thereby evoking solar rebirth. The one Deir el-Medina tomb decorated with the long version of BD 17 is TT 265, the burial place of the royal scribe Amenemopet, a high-ranking resident of the village. BD 17 appears in TT 265’s antechamber, and it is similar to the QV 66 version in terms of content, location, and layout; it even exhibits the same retrograde orientation of the hieroglyphs. However, TT 265’s scenes are executed solely in paint, rather than painted relief.

Elsewhere in Deir el-Medina, the BD 17 vignette is severely abbreviated, with only selected scenes employed. Sometimes multiple scenes from BD 17 are shown in a single tomb, though not always in close proximity to each other. The tableau used most often is that depicting the two back-to-back rwty lions of the eastern and western horizons, which appears to be the “default” shorthand pictorial expression of BD 17 at Deir el-Medina.

Vaulted ceiling from the sarcophagus chamber of TT 5, the tomb of Neferabu. One panel is adorned with the BD 17 rwty-lions. Photo: Heather Lee Mccarthy.

Other components of BD 17 often used at Deir el-Medina include a bovine image of the goddess Mehit-Weret, who reclines on a rectangular pool of water; a senet game involving the deceased or deceased couple, which has been interpreted as a summary of both the BD 17 spell and the successfully completed afterlife journey as a whole; and the representation of the deceased tomb owners as ba-birds, often shown as part of or adjacent to the senet game scene.

Antechamber in TT 218, the tomb of Amennakht. Lunette decorated with the Mehit-Weret figure from BD 17. Photo: Heather Lee Mccarthy.

Scene from the sarcophagus chamber of TT 219, the tomb of Nebenmaat, showing the deceased and his wife playing a game of senet, while their daughter observes. Representations of the deceased and his wife as human-headed ba-birds appears next to the senet scene. Photo: Heather Lee Mccarthy.

BD 161 is another spell that appears more frequently in Deir el-Medina tombs than has been indicated in scholarly literature. As with BD 17, there are multiple variant versions of the vignette. BD 161 first appears in the mid-18th Dynasty and was often employed on the sides of coffins and sarcophagi. According to Book of the Dead scholarship, it rarely appeared in tomb programs, and its most notable use in that context is as a pair of pendant wall scenes in QV 40, the tomb of an unknown queen dating to the reign of Seti I. However, BD 161 often appears on the sarcophagus chamber ceilings of 19th Dynasty Deir el-Medina tombs and was used in seven of the twenty-one tombs I examined. These BD 161 vignettes take the form of a single panel adorned with an abbreviated, variant version of the scene, or they appear as a series of panels depicting Thoth, the four sons of Horus, and sometimes also Anubis.

Abbreviated version of BD 161 employed as a painted panel on the vaulted sarcophagus chamber ceiling of TT 219, the tomb of Nebenmaat. Photo: Heather Lee Mccarthy.

Scholarly Contribution:

It is my hope that my research project and its resulting publications will elucidate the relationship between the tombs of the 19th Dynasty royal women in the Valley of the Queens and those of the contemporary and later Ramesside inhabitants of Deir el-Medina, determining and defining with greater clarity the paths and processes by which ideas were transmitted. I also hope to articulate the role of royal women and their monuments in the development and dissemination of funerary/religious art and ideas.  In addition, I hope to contribute to Book of the Dead scholarship, as my study of individual compositions involves little known, previously unpublished versions, thereby fleshing out their history of use and presenting an opportunity for an enriched understanding of them.

TopicsEgyptologyThemePyramids, Tombs & Temples