Discovering Senenmut: An exciting Egyptian find at Manchester Museum
Curator of Egypt and Sudan
Making new discoveries is one of the most exciting aspects of working with Manchester Museum’s collection from Ancient Egypt and Sudan. Finding links with the British Museum’s much larger collection has enabled new identifications of objects previously overlooked. This was the subject of animated discussions with colleagues from Egypt and Sudan, who have visited Manchester with the ITP programme. Here, I describe one such ‘discovery’.
This sculptural fragment (Acc. no. 4624) came to the Manchester Museum from the excavations of Edouard Naville at the site of Deir el-Bahri between 1894 and 1907. A more precise provenance for the piece or when exactly it entered the collection is not known. The fragment is 48.5cm high and 31cm wide, made of indurated limestone, and depicts the lower portion of a seated figure at about half lifesize. It is badly damaged but still carries hieroglyphic text on the sides of the seat, base and over the knees. Interestingly, the seat retains an artisan’s red ink guidelines for the inscription. Traces remain of blue pigment within individual hieroglyphic signs, implying that the statue was not, however, left unfinished.
The identity of the individual represented is recorded in our catalogue – based on hieroglyphs on the base – as ‘the priest of Amun, Userhat’ and the piece is there dated to the Middle Kingdom. I had often wondered who this mysterious priest Userhat was. Because the favour formula only begins to appear on elite statues at the end of the Middle Kingdom, I speculated if this was one of the first examples of it. And given that the formula usually only appeared on sculptures of the very high elite at this time, I wondered why a simple ‘priest of Amun’ had been so favoured.
I thought no more about the fragment until the visit in Autumn 2013 of Prof. Rainer Hannig, of the University of Marburg. During an informative discussion with Rainer, I pointed the piece out and – almost as an afterthought – he noted that the hieroglyphs identifying the owner (Hm-nTr n imn wsr-hAt) could be read as a single title: ‘the priest of Amun-Userhat (a name of the sacred barque of Amun at Karnak)’, a title known to be held by only one person: Senenmut – high official under Queen Hatshepsut and one of the most well-known individuals from ancient Egypt.
It was with considerable anticipation that I checked the other titles on the statue (‘nobleman’, ‘governor’, and the slightly more unusual ‘overseer of the priests of Montu in Armant’) and found that each was attested for Senenmut. Knowing that the statue was from Deir el-Bahri, the site of Hatshepsut’s famous mortuary temple, I became really rather excited. On closer inspection of the statue itself, it was apparent that the lap of the figure seemed to rise somewhat before the mid-thigh break and no hands were visible. Could it be that this was a broken example of Senenmut in his innovative pose with Hatshepsut’s daughter, Neferure, bound within his cloak on his lap? This is the pose of a statue of around the same scale now in the British Museum (EA 174), which shows Senenmut supporting the princess in this innovative pose. Both sculptures are said to be made or given by the ‘God’s Wife’ – the title Hatshepsut used before she became a fully-fledged Pharaoh. The BM statue is from Karnak and ours is from the Queen’s mortuary temple on the west bank of Thebes, but their similarity suggests that they may have be conceptualised as a pair.
Senenmut hoped that by dedicating a range of sculptures – many of them innovative in their motifs, and set up in different locations – he would increase the chances of his memory lasting for eternity. Others, it seems, had different ideas. There is evidence that some – though not all – of Senenmut’s images were maliciously attacked. Perhaps this was carried out by those with a unknown person grudge against Senenmut? Perhaps by those who thought his relationship with the Queen inappropriate? Or perhaps by those that hated Hatshepsut herself? Perhaps even by later people for whom the very idea of a female pharaoh was anathema? Whatever the motivation, maybe this is the reason that the Manchester fragment is so badly damaged.
The Senenmut discovery was enormously exciting and illustrates well the synergy between the British Museum collection and those of other institutions around the country.
Read more on the discovery at the Manchester Museum blog: https://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/object-biography-15-a-previously-unidentified-statue-of-senenmut-acc-no-4624/