Socioeconomic aspects of ancient Egyptian private tomb construction – University of Copenhagen

Socioeconomic aspects of ancient Egyptian private tomb construction

Pre-defence seminar by Rune Olsen

External examiner: Dr. Hratch Papazian, University of Cambridge.


The ancient Egyptian New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1069 BCE) was a period of military expansion and regression, as well as economic growth and decline. Ultimately dependant on the king and the economic workings of the royal household the Egyptian noblemen and officials of the state administration were able to build ever larger funerary monuments, i.e. tombs, in honour of their own memories. These tombs, including the closed burial chambers and accessible chapels, were during the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1550-1295 BCE) cut in the rocky hills on the western side of the Nile opposite ancient Thebes, modern Luxor.

The socioeconomic aspect of tomb construction has in the past only briefly been touched upon and usually in connection with the individual tombs. Thus there exists no comprehensive study of the topic on a broader scale, i.e. the gathering of material and documentation for all tombs and seen in a diachronic perspective. Depending on a variety of reasons former scholars have either had a limited time scope, limited funding for a specific monument/part of monument(s) or simply set out to answer a different research question.

The aim of this dissertation is to describe and define the socioeconomic parameters of private tomb construction in Thebes based on the following questions: Is there a relation between the volumetric size of the 18th Dynasty private tombs of Thebes and the economic and socioeconomic reality of the society at the time? How does this relationship manifest itself in the archaeological and documentary sources? And what does the relationship and manifestation mean for our understanding of the importance of tomb construction for the ancient Egyptians?

The approach is twofold, in that the thesis presents tomb construction in a diachronic perspective and relates this to the ancient Egyptian economy. First, this means calculating the volumetric size of the 18th Dynasty Theban private tombs which reduces the funerary monuments to quantifiable numbers and their subsequent statistics. Second, it also means comparing the numbers and statistics to ancient Egyptian work journals and progress reports as well as documents with economic significance to the production of tombs.

The thesis is divided into four chapters, but the pre-defence will focus primarily on chapters three and four; the Senenmut case study and the Private Tombs of the 18th Dynasty. The Senenmut case study is based on both textual and archaeological data, and as such offer an opportunity to correlate between the two types of material. The chapter investigates, analyses, and presents the two tombs of Senenmut (TT 71 and TT 353) in terms of architecture, geology, and placement within the landscape as well as relating these aspects to the textual material that describe the construction process. The Private Tombs of the 18th Dynasty chapter is the statistical analysis of the Theban tomb sizes. As such it presents the data in a number of diagrams that are contextualised in relation to the historical circumstances and draws attention to previously unseen aspects.