This week, let’s look at the Middle Kingdom of Egypt and the mummy of an official named Wah! He, and the contents of his tomb, are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Wah was born around 2005 B.C.E. in the Upper Egyptian province of Waset, which is the ancient name for the city of Thebes. This was the capital of Egypt at the time under Nebhepetre Mentihotpe, who was the founder of the Middle Kingdom. In the years before Wah’s birth, the country was separated and thought to be very chaotic. But he was born into an era of peace and prosperity.
Early in Wah’s life, he began studying as a scribe. Scribal training usually began around the age of six or seven and was quite an elite profession. This was a long, painstaking process that was accomplished by copying standard religious texts, famous literary works, songs, and poetry. Scribes would learn both the monumental hieroglyphic script and an informal cursive text, hieratic. He would have had to memorize hundreds of signs and learn how to mix ink and make brushes from reeds.
After Wah had been sufficiently trained, he went to work on the estate of Meketre. Meketre was a wealthy Theban government official who eventually rose to the position of treasurer of the king. He would have owned a lot of lands that needed scribes keeping accounts and writing letters. Funnily enough, Meketre’s tomb was full of models of daily life, that including scribes keeping records of a variety of activities.
Wah eventually became an overseer, or manager, of the storerooms on the estate. He probably oversaw “the output of all of the artisanal shops, as well as the storage of agricultural produce, the paying of taxes, and the doling out of wages in grain, cloth, and other products for work done on the estate.”
Wah was buried in the southern Asasif cemetery on the west side of the Nile from the city of Thebes. The tomb is labeled as MMA 102, as it was excavated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s team in 1920. The tomb was discovered while cleaning the portico of the tomb of Meketre, Wah’s boss.
A rough step to the tomb was discovered hidden by shale chips. The door to the tomb had been blocked with bricks, indicating that it hadn’t been opened since the burial. The tomb was simply a roughly cut, undecorated corridor. The majority of the finds from this tomb (and the tomb of Meketre) were given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the division of finds.
Contents of Tomb
The tomb was modestly filled with some of his possessions and offerings. Small loaves of conical bread (20.3.265-.268), models of food offerings (20.3.259-.264), a jar of beer (20.3.256a-c), and a right foreleg of beef (20.3.258a-d) were placed near his coffin. A mirror (20.3.208), a headrest (20.3.207), a pair of wooden sandals (20.3.9a-b), and three wooden staffs (20.3.204-6) were also found. Some of these were found within the coffin itself.
One wooden statuette of Wah was found (20.3.210). This was intended to serve as a home for Wah’s spirit and depicts him as a young man. The statue was wrapped in linen around the waist. This may intimate the type of long skirt wore by Middle Kingdom officials. Beneath the linen is a carved short kilt that is painted white.
Wah’s coffin (20.3.202a-b) was made of coniferous wood, possibly imported cedar, and painted yellow. Offering texts were written on the lid and around the upper edge of the box. These “spells” would allow for safe passage into the afterlife and offerings for the deceased. A pair of eyes were also painted at the head end of the coffin’s left side. This was customary during the Middle Kingdom, as it was thought to allow the deceased to look outside the coffin and “see” his possessions and offerings. For these types of coffins, the mummies were laid so that their faces lined up with the eyes.
Possessions of Wah
The funerary mask (40.3.54) of was could be see through the layers of linen but is actually quite large. It covered the entire chest and back of the mummy. The face of the mask is covered in gold foil, indicating his high position. The face is quite small and pinched. The mustache and beard are well painted, and the beard was enlarged with a piece of wood jutting down from the chin. He is wearing a striped headcloth which conceals short sideburns and his natural hairline. The chest of the mask is painted with a broad or wesekh, collar made of different beads. If you remember from my Fun Fact Friday last week, the colors of the mask represent the Egyptian thought that the skin of the gods was gold and their hair was lapis lazuli.
All of the jewelry of Wah was found on his mummy, which was carefully unwrapped and documented in 1940. I’ll talk about that process below, but let’s first go through the jewelry found.
Four beaded necklaces were found around the neck of the mummy under the layer after the funerary mask was removed. These included a necklace made with beads of a variety of shapes and materials (40.3.16), gold beads (40.3.17), blue faience beads (40.3.18), and silver beads (40.3.19). The majority of these were probably worn by Wah during his lifetime but may have been restrung for his burial, as the beads show wear and tear, but the strings do not.
Another necklace of blue faience beads (40.3.15) was found in a lower level of the wrappings. Three scarab bracelets were also found in this layer. The scarab was a relatively new invention in the time of Wah, as they began to appear in the middle of the 1st intermediate period, only a century earlier. The first was a simple scarab and bead bracelet (40.3.14). This scarab has a simple oval shape with only a few deep lines on the back to indicate the head and wings and on the sides to indicate the legs of the beetle.
The other two bracelets are of exceptionally fine workmanship, both being made of silver. The scarab on 40.3.13 had interlocking spirals and three hieroglyphs carved on the base. The head of this scarab is damaged, which was a tradition during burials to magically “kill” the beetle.
The second silver scarab (40.3.12) was cast in sections and soldered together. Details of the legs, head, wing cases, and the scroll meander pattern were all carved. There is an electrum suspension tube that runs the length of the scarab to allow it to be strung. The hieroglyphs on the back of the scarab’s wings are inlaid electrum, which is an alloy of gold and silver. The inscription on the left-wing has Wah’s name and his title of the overseer of the storehouse. And the inscription on the right-wing contains the name of his employer, Meketre, who presumably could have had this made for Wah.
The broad collar (40.3.2) of Wah was found in the lowest level of his wrappings. The necklace was tied around his neck and is one of the finest examples of its type from the Middle Kingdom. It is made up of diminishing length faience beads to create the curved form. The layers of the wrappings and the careful unwrapping of the mummy helped preserve the collar with almost all of its original stringing.
Four bracelets (40.3.3-.5) and four anklets (40.3.7-.10) made out of faience were also found in this layer, laid over the lower arms and legs.
The final pieces of jewelry found were small amulets and a ring. A seweret bead (40.3.1) was found clutched in the mummy’s left hand. The bead was made out of carnelian and strung on a small piece of cord, supposedly to make it into a ring. These amulets were typically placed at the throat of the mummy, so it is unclear why it was placed on his hand. And finally, a scarab ring (40.3.11) with little or no decoration was found in the wrappings over the mummy’s wrists.
Wah was buried in hundreds of yards of linen, which was customary for the burial of someone with his important position. Multiple different possessions were found within the wrappings of the mummy. In 1939, x-rays of the mummy revealed the presence of jewelry beneath the linen wrappings. While this is not done anymore, the MET decided the unwrap the mummy to document the Egyptian mummification and wrapping process and also obtain the jewelry. Then they would re-wrap the mummy and make a faithful replica of the complete mummy. This was done in 1940 and heavily documented.
He was wrapped in approximately 500 yards of linen. Some of these pieces had been folded into long pads or mattresses for the bottom of the coffin, while the majority were wrapped around the mummy. The outermost piece of linen (20.3.203a) was at one point dyed red, though it had faded over time. Red-dyed linen had been mentioned in multiple ancient texts, though actual examples are rare. This piece contained a line of hieroglyphs that said, “Linen of the temple protecting Nytankhsekhmet, the justified.” It is not known who this woman was and what her relationship was with Wah.
The conservators and art historians who unwrapped Wah took photos throughout the process. After the outer layer was removed, a layer of bandages with very thin dregs of a pot of resin was found. This was probably smeared over the body with an incantation for Wah’s journey to the afterlife. After more layers and the funerary mask, there was another layer of thick and black resin poured over the body, but not the head or face.
The mummification process wasn’t the best as linen resin swabs, a mouse, a house lizard, and cricket were all found within the layers of linen, typically stuck in the resin. That means that the body was probably left for the resin to dry before wrapping another layer.
In total, there were about 845 square meters of linen in the tombs. Interestingly, many of the pieces of linen were labeled in the corners. 11 sheets were labeled with Wah’s name, like this corner seen here (40.3.38), while the rest bore different names. Some others were dated with Years 2, 5, and 6, of an unknown ruler. Many of these corners were torn off when the body was buried, but the corners were still wrapped up with the mummy.
This is a complete hypothesis on my part, but these sheets may have belonged to multiple workers on Meketre’s estate and were labeled so they could be returned to the proper person after being cleaned. And they were donated for the burial of Wah, which is why only some of them are labeled for him and the other names were attempted to be removed.
Wah was about 30 years old when he died. His body had undergone primitive mummification. His brain and upper viscera were left in place, while the organs of his lower abdomen were removed. He was nearly six feet tall, which was much taller than the average Egyptian. There is evidence that he injured both of his feet at some point in his life. Because of his job as an overseer, he could maintain quite a sedentary lifestyle to avoid pain in his feet. But as a result of this, he became obese. This was of course a sign of great prosperity and wealth but may have factored into his death.
Photos of objects, jewelry – The MET
Black and white photos of the tomb, tomb outline – The MET Bulletin Summer 2002, 17.
Objects from Meketre’s tomb – The MET
Photos of the unwrapping – “The Mummy of Wah Unwrapped” by Henry Winlock