• EraMiddle to New Kingdom  
  • Project DirectorHana Navratilova
  • LocationDahshur
  • AffiliationUniversity of OxfordThe Metropolitan Museum of Art 
  • Project SponsorAntiquities Endowment Fund 
  • Project dates August 2022 - July 2023 

Revisiting Senwosret III – Secondary Epigraphy in the Pyramid Complex  

The necropolis at Dahshur hosts intriguing evidence of Egyptian life and culture, ranging from Old Kingdom pyramids and settlements to Middle Kingdom pyramids to New Kingdom tombs to simple burials from long periods of Egyptian history. The entire site’s life is more captivating than any individual monument seen only on its own. Equally, no building is finished and frozen in time. The ongoing exploration of the Middle Kingdom pyramid of Senwosret III at Dahshur has revealed that the pyramid precinct was targeted by generations of later users: from devoted visitors to workmen involved in dismantling the pyramid complex. The research of New Kingdom inscriptions and New Kingdom artefacts give a full picture of the life – and of the demise – of the buildings that once surrounded the pyramid of Senwosret III. 

Fig. 1 Plan of the pyramid complex of Senwosret III, drawing Sara Chen © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The project introduces a ‘pyramid biography’: how a monumental building lives and dies. This perspective is important for any modern viewer, who may focus on the ideal image of an ancient monument, without realising how it might have been peopled, used and perceived in antiquity, or how it must have changed, and how it interacted with its surroundings.  

Fig. 2 Monuments in context: the north side of the pyramid of Senwosret III with the Red pyramid of Snefru in the background, photo Hana Navratilova © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The secondary inscriptions, also known as graffiti, were first noted in the 1830s by John Shae Perring and Howard Vyse mission, recorded in the 1890s by Jacques de Morgan, and studied systematically from 1990 as part of the project of the Egyptian Expedition to Dahshur of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The epigraphic research is ongoing and reveals the New Kingdom life of a Middle Kingdom pyramid precinct. The Antiquities Endowment Fund has supported the graffiti research and also the publication of the first volume of the edition of secondary epigraphy from the precinct of Senwosret III: the texts and figures from the Pyramid Temple and the North Chapel. The work in the South Temple, probably the largest temple building in Egypt before the sanctuaries of the New Kingdom were built, is ongoing.  

Fig. 3 The demolition layers in the South Temple of Senwosret III, photo Hana Navratilova © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The fragile texts and figures, added in ink or by incisions, tell many stories. Since the 1950s, we use the concept of ‘visitors’ inscriptions.’ These texts are mostly from the Egyptian New Kingdom and refer to ancient visitors in tombs and temples, who came, wrote down their names, often also the names of the ancient king, and explained that they were there to admire the funerary temple and make offerings to the long-deceased sovereign. Yet, as the pyramid precincts on sites from Abusir to Dahshur have revealed, that was not the only interest New Kingdom Egyptians had in the monuments. In the Ramesside period, the buildings, made of fine limestone, were dismantled and re-used. Notes appeared, marking stone blocks for delivery at contemporary building sites.  

Fig. 4 H. Navratilova documenting column fragments’ graffiti in spring 2023, photo Richard Lee © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Increasingly, the interest in pyramid precincts has expanded. Next to the fascinating architecture, and the reliefs and texts, we are also looking at the communities of people who were involved in the life and death of a pyramid. Thanks to finds in Giza, as well as Abusir, or Lahun, the builders are now much better known, as are the priests and workers who maintained and served the royal funerary complexes. But the later users, curious visitors, pilgrims even, and ultimately the demolition crews used to be more enigmatic.  

Fig. 5 One scribe obliterated the name of his predecessor. The traces of the second line still preserve the name of Senwosret III. A fragment from the Pyramid Temple, photo Hana Navratilova © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The evidence at Dahshur makes them visible: some had training as craftsmen, others demonstrated their literate skills by quoting Kemyt, the training and instruction text originally from the Middle Kingdom, still others venerated Thoth, the god of writing and wisdom. They took the spaces of a royal funerary monument to be their own, their names, prayers, and concerns filled the ancient rooms. On occasion, they competed and even obliterated the names of those who had written graffiti earlier. On one fragment from the Pyramid Temple, someone took care to delete the name of a previous writer, whilst preserving the royal name of Senwosret III (his throne name Khakaura).   

The finds from the precinct of Senwosret III offer a unique collection of texts and images that capture the voices of the early admirers of the pyramids as well as of those who were given the task to recycle the stone. Each of the temples or chapels within the pyramid complex has its own reception history. 

Fig. 6 Checking a fragment from the North Chapel, carrying the introductory formula from Kemyt, photo Hana Navratilova © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fig. 7 The finished line drawing of the Kemyt text, Hana Navratilova © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reconstructing this history in a demolished pyramid complex is a demanding task. The walls of the precinct of Senwosret III are broken in thousands of pieces with traces of relief decoration, and most of the material is lost. Possibly as little as only 10% of the wall surfaces survives. On them, traces of later texts can be seen, often damaged, and almost always incomplete. With the exception of a few better preserved, longer specimens, the texts have to be reconstructed, using parallels from other sites. They also have to be recontextualised with the original space, also reconstructed from these fragments. The epigrapher works in close cooperation with colleagues working on Middle Kingdom reliefs and architecture, to recreate the spaces and experience of the New Kingdom visitors and ‘de-constructors.’  

The texts and images are traced, digitised and also photographed. The research of the Pyramid Temple and the North Chapel of Senwosret III are now complete (as of 2023), and publication of their graffiti is ready. Further investigation will help to put the secondary epigraphy in context of other New Kingdom finds.  

Fig. 8 The ongoing work in the South Temple, photo Hana Navratilova © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

CategoryAntiquities Endowment FundTopicsArchaeology, Egyptology, EpigraphyThemeArchaeological Sites, Hieroglyphs & Literature, PyramidsHistoric PeriodMiddle Kingdom, New KingdomLocationLower Egypt