Visiting Nakhtamun’s Tomb Chapel in VR

As part of a larger survey of Theban tombs, INSIGHT documented the tomb chapel of an ancient Egyptian priest called Nakhtamun (TT341), a name meaning “the god Amun is powerful”. The field work on site in Egypt brought collaboration with chemists in Dr. Philippe Jockey’s lab at Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense. INSIGHT contributed 3D models and digital photography, while Dr. Jockey’s lab concentrated on hyperspectral imaging. Results for our prior collaboration are detailed in this paper.

A cenotaph cut into the cliffs above the Nile at Gebel es Silsileh, as seen in a VR lecture presented in Sansar

The 3D model we created is a proxy for academic study, but we have also used the model for VR lectures held to introduce public audiences to this closed site.  Inara Pey’s comments on the lectures show visuals from the VR experience.

A 3D model of Nakhtaman’s tomb chapel as seen in a live lecture in Sansar VR

Discovered in January 1925, it is one of the 500 known private theban tombs preseved on Luxor’s west bank. These remain rather difficult to access; they are  small and fragile and should remain so. But protecting them shouldn’t mean ignoring them. We decided to complete its documentation because Nakhtamun lived during the reign of the mighty Ramesses II (around 1250 B.C.) and worked as a priest in his foundation of eternity known today as the Ramessesum.

Exterior view of cenotaph cut into the cliffs above the Nile at Gebel es Silsileh, as seen in a live VR lecture presented in Sansar

Nakhtamun’s tomb lies in the lower slope of a hill topped by the shrine dedicated to a local muslim saint known as Sheikh Abd el Gurna, and in fact just a hundred meters to the west of the Ramesseum. Like most theban private tombs, Nakhtamun’s grave consisted of a courtyard, a cult chapel and different subterranean undecorated rooms that were closed after the buriaal to receive the family members’ mummies and coffins. The whole might have been topped by a brick pyramid. It is a very modest affair that was in fact installed into a corner of the court of an older funerary complex dating to the Middle Kingdom (2000 B.C.). In this area, the theban limestone bedrock is not yet reachable and the slope is little better than solidified gravel. For this reason, the tomb chapel’s walls couldn’t be easily decorated with sculptured reliefs. The rooms were hewn in a very rough manner and made plan with a heavy use of a mix of mud and straw called « muna ». The later was covered with a finer coating to prepare the walls for paint. As a whole, no effort is visible to keep the walls at right angle, vertical or at the same height. In fact the angles are rounded, to enable the decoration to develop without restraint of break
along the different walls. For this reason, as Alan Gardiner stated almost 70 years ago, “neither a plan nor an elevation can give a just idea of the appearance of the chambers.”. But a VR experience might be a good way to get close to the real thing.

Entering the main room, it is rather difficult to chose where to look. However, the visitor is soon struck by the fact that a ramesside chapel almost never shows the usual anecdote-filled repertoire of lively daily life scenes. In the only accessible part of the tomb, the scenes have one aim and one aim only, to put the living in contact with the netherworld, evoking a transition between the sad earthly reality of death, grieving and funeral, and the magical tests and final trial enabling the dead to reach the confines of the netherworld and to seat with the gods under the wise rule of Osiris.

This is what we discover to the left of the entrance. The decoration flows along the three walls, ignoring the two rounded corners. It is separated in two registers and as is usual in ancient egypt decoration one must begin its reading from the lower one and somewhat logically right by the door. The first sequence shows the funeral procession leading Nakhtamun to his final resting place. The mummy of Nakhtamun, set into a wooden coffin, is transported on a bark set on a sled, dragged by cattle and men alike, with shaved heads, wearing loincloths and headbands. The mummy lies on a bed furbished with lion feet, a symbol of strength, protection and rebirth. As a new Osiris, Nakhtamun’s mummy is waked and protected by figures of godesses Isis and Nephtys or real women play-acting their role. The bark takes the form of the night sacred sunbark. The best linen clothing of the dead has been gathered into bags, ready for his rising (It has beenremarked that when preserved, these “clothes of tomorrow”, of high quality fine linen, had been turned inside out, their sleeves having been sawn shut, maybe so that no living could actually wear them). The four bovines shall also be used later to symbolically hide the tomb by threshing its surface. Among the crowd the brother of Nakhtamun, Amenherib, and his son Amenabu are singled out. Amenabu appears even twice: in the cortege, supported by his small son Bekenptah, but also in front of it, as the main ritualist, censing the path and making a libation of fresh, pure water. The funerary barge is also followed by chest containing the canopic jars that harbor the viscera of the dead, separated from his body during the mummification process.

The procession is followed by chants that give rhythm to its slow move. Bringing it to life for us, they evoke the grieving of the separation from the living, but also the eventuality of being reborn and welcome by the divinity of the West: “Weary is he who was peaceful for his city, and silent for his town, he who loved Maat and hated duplicity…To the West, to the West, O favoured one, to the West! She receives you within her abode. Those who carry him who is to be buried cry: To the West O favoured of the Master. The men who drag the dead say : to the west, to the west, O favoured one, to the West! Thy son’s son gives thee a hand and though art protected, O favoured one of Osiris, you shall be in front of him. The hersman who is behind the cows which are drawing the dead say: to the west, to the west, O favoured one! To the West where your eyes will be opened, your ears will hear, and your belly shall be filled. He who is besprinkling the dead says: I am purifying the road for you with milk”.

The road is long to the western hillslope and the tomb, and light shadowy sheds have been erected along the way, where stands are pilled high with food and drink, destined ritually for the dead but more logically for the refreshment of the guests. Here priests are making libations, using large red vases they shall then brake
on the earth in a process of magical protection against evil.

Nine women and four men walk in front of the cortege in full mourning, pouring dust mixed with ash on their heads. The women, the persons who wail in front, are lead by a chantress of Amen-Ra named Raia who may be either part of Nakhtamun’s family or a professional mourner. In sign of grief, they have exposed their breast and have loosened their hair. The men are the “friends of the dead” always ritually present and might be brothers but also colleagues of Nakhtamun: “ the chief butcher of the Ramesseum, Peteriswemhebsed, Amenherib and the chief of the doorkeepers in the treasury of Amun, Mehef… the pure priest Hori”. The procession finally arrives in front of the tomb, described by its corniched entrance and topped by a brick pyramid whose east face is pierced by a niche holding a kneeling statue of Nakhtamun holding a stela
inscribed with a solar hymn. The façade of the tomb is also furbished with a purification stela and that is in front of it that the mummy or coffin has been set vertically, adorned by a fresh cone of scented grease. In front of the dead, kneel his wife and daughter. The whole episode take place on a layer of pure sand and is attended by four priests performing the necessary rites, and who may be the four friends of Nakhtamun who were heading his procession. One of them purifies the mummy with pure water, on its four sides, corresponding to the four compass points and thus to his universal protection. This one is reinforced by the magical texts read by a lector-priest, relating to the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth. This ritual is to be enacted through a set of ancient tools that are represented in details. Like in the Christian baptism traditional ceremony of the Epheta, they shall be used to reopen the 7 holes of the head of the dead, enabling him to breeze, see, hear and taste again, thus bringing him magically back to life for eternity.

The last scene visible on the western wall, shows the happy result of the ritual efforts of the priests. Inside the geologic womb of the theban mountain, indicated by a pink hue, sprinkled with black, red, yellow dots, symbolizing sand… Nakhtamun, followed by his wife, salutes goddess Hathor, shown as a beautiful crowned and bejeweled cow coming out of the mountain: “Praising Hathor, Mistress of Djeserou, Lady of the West, the Eye of Ra residing in his disk, mistress of all countries, wide of gait in the Mesktet nightly solar bark, moving freely in the Maandjet daily solar bark, who hides away the many followers of Maat, and makes a home for the just. She extends her protection over every son of earth; and is kind towards him who enters and goes not forth. Great and small are brought to the place of Truth. Let me pass and rest within her. For I am upright. I have not spoken lies knowingly and my mouth is free from offense”. Hathor herself kindly replies: “To the West, to the Est, O favoured one, to the West! Make thy home in the necropolis like the followers of Horus; all thy kinsmen who are within it welcome you, both their hands greeting you…”

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