• Era18th dynasty
  • Project DirectorJJ Shirley
  • LocationLuxor
  • AffiliationUniversity of Pennsylvania
  • Project SponsorAntiquities Endowment Fund
  • Project Dates2014-2018
Students of the field school inside the tomb of Djehuty on Luxor’s West Bank

In the Theban Necropolis on Luxor’s West Bank sits an 18th-dynasty tomb belonging to a royal official named Djehuty. He lived during a time of immense power and prosperity for ancient Egypt, working for both Hatshepsut – one of ancient Egypt’s only female rulers – and her stepson and nephew, Thutmosis III. Djehuty’s participation in this remarkable era makes his tomb a one-of-a-kind relic with insight into his life and the activities of the pharaohs he served. Through their epigraphy and research field school, project director Dr. JJ Shirley, chief epigrapher Will Schenck and trainees from the Ministry of Antiquities are uncovering this story by studying the painted walls and carved inscriptions of Djehuty’s tomb. This innovative model not only allows students to learn and practice in a genuine archaeological environment but records fully the unique decorations of this 3,500-year-old monument for the first time.

“Huge sections of the tomb don’t have any documentation at all. We’re adding to the information and making it much more accessible to scholars and the interested public,” notes Shirley.

Epigraphy is the precise and formidable practice of recording inscriptions and decoration on the walls of temples and tombs, as well as on isolated fragments. It requires the drawing techniques of an illustrator, the language skills and historical knowledge of an Egyptologist and the technical expertise to shuffle through several methods of epigraphic recording – both traditional and digital – to settle on the most responsible and appropriate way to capture an individual scene or hieroglyphic passage.

Started in 2014 with grant funding from the American Research Center in Egypt, the field school teaches all of these procedures in an advanced classroom. Many tombs in the Theban Necropolis, including TT110, were reused in later periods, as homes, storage areas or animal shelters that left the spaces badly damaged by heavy smoke and fire residue. In addition, much of the stone in TT110 is too fragile for recording; the painted scenes on these areas cannot be drawn with the traditional practice of taping plastic to trace directly on the wall.

Wall paintings inside the tomb were badly damaged by smoke

“This was not any easy tomb to draw for anyone at any level, but the students rose to the challenge,” says Schenck. “You have to learn to draw and record sympathetically. Everything you do in the tomb should complement and supplement its history and in no way damage it.”

An ARCE project started in 2012 addressed some of the damage. By excavating, cleaning and conserving the tomb, the team made it possible for the epigraphers not only to correct an initial recording from the 1930s but to document new areas as well.

Wall paintings inside the tomb were blacked by smoke damage

The students decipher and connect small pieces and relate them to the unique historical events of the early 18th dynasty. Hatshepsut first came to power as regent for Thutmosis III, still a young child when his father died. A few years into her reign, she determined to transition from regent to pharaoh and rule in her own right. Hatshepsut undertook massive building programs and changed the ways she represented herself in statues and writing to demonstrate her new position. But today, nearly all depictions of Hatshepsut have disappeared. For a long time, Egyptologists posited that Thutmosis III, angered by his relative’s power grab, destroyed Hatshepsut’s image across Egypt. More recent scholarship, however, suggests it’s more likely that Thutmosis conducted the erasure campaign to ensure his son would be seen as the rightful heir to the throne.

Djehuty was one of the few men who was an important member of the palace household for both Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III, and TT110 is the only accessible tomb that has both rulers depicted. Tomb inscriptions show that under Hatshepsut he was a royal butler, a house manager of sorts. He handled food inventories and storage, controlled who could enter the palace at Thebes and enjoyed extreme access to the pharaoh. Thutmosis III promoted Djehuty to the role of a herald. He spoke on the king’s behalf and served as his representative in Thebes when Thutmosis was at the capital in Memphis. The tomb tells of Hatshepsut’s expeditions to the ancient kingdom of Punt and her building projects at Karnak and Luxor Temples, as well as the construction of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari. The walls share logistical details for acquiring obelisks and stone and tell how overseers worked and divided responsibilities. All of these details add to the historic record of a fascinating part of Egyptian history and may have remained unknown if not for the epigraphy field school.

“You get from these tombs a real glimpse into what the tomb owners thought was significant or important. Within the confines of what you have to put in your tomb for the afterlife, there’s a lot of personality that comes out. You get a real sense of the person and his family,” remarks Shirley.

Members of the field school held at TT110

The field school students capture all of these intricacies with publication-quality accuracy. They maneuver the small tomb for long stretches, crammed together in a careful formation that avoids bumping elbows or seats. Much of their work happens before any drawing takes place. They look at the condition of the wall and consider their scenes and inscriptions based on historic context. They research parallel decoration within other tombs to assess how a wall may have looked in antiquity and round out questionable areas. They determine whether damage is natural – a product of geologic factors over centuries – or intentional. TT110, for example, includes damage from the Amarna Period, a brief time when the pharaoh Akhenaten transitioned Egypt to a monotheistic country and destroyed certain words and imagery. There are specific ways to represent these kinds of damage in drawings, and rules for depicting other details such as the depth and direction in the slope of a stone inscription. These prescribed guidelines ensure scholars everywhere are able to interpret the scenes correctly.

The cartouches of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III from the inside of Djehuty’s tomb

Hazem Shared is a graduate of the epigraphy field school who now works as the project manager. He focused on a cartouche of Hatshepsut’s name, an oval inscription on the tomb’s north end with gold paint peeking through the blackened wall. The symbols smoothed over time, so Shared had to parse out the original carving lines, being cautious not to create any non-historic markings.

“The cartouche might change history, it might make a new publication. You don’t make up anything, you don’t reconstruct anything, you don’t add anything extra. It’s important for all Egyptologists all over the world to know the truth in each tomb,” he says.

In their roles with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, several graduates are leading projects of their own at tombs in Upper Egypt or employing their skills at a science center in Luxor. The practical experience of working in TT110 helps these archaeologists to document with accuracy and conserve with sensitivity.

“We have an obligation to the tomb owners and to the artists who created [these tombs] in the first place,” says Schenck. “We are making the name of the tomb owner live forever, which was the purpose of all of these tombs, and in a way, we are extending the ancient Egyptian idea of an afterlife.”

CategoryAntiquities Endowment FundTopicsArchaeology, Conservation, EpigraphyThemePyramids, Tombs & TemplesHistoric PeriodNew KingdomLocationLuxor/Thebes, Upper Egypt