Like all tombs of ancient Egypt’s monarchs, the walls of Pharaoh-King/Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple are covered in reliefs. The 200 almost-identical figures carved into the soft limestone are all frozen mid-march, bearing a variety of offerings for the pharaoh.
“Almost” is a key word. Like in a game of Spot the Difference, there are subtle differences between the figures, such as retraced chisel lines and various wigs, suggesting a division of labor between masters and apprentices.
Assuming the ancient Egyptian artists weren’t trying to intentionally depict a plethora of different hair styles, a recent article from the journal Antiquities postulates that these variations may indicate how ancient Egyptian artists crafted these massive friezes, and which tasks their apprentices tended to, messed up, or simply didn’t finish.
The temple of Hatshepsut is the centerpiece of the Deir el-Bahari mortuary complex in Thebes on the western bank of the Nile River. The necropolis is nestled at the base of towering desert cliffs and was constructed in the 15th century B.C.E.
Excavations, conservation work, reconstruction efforts and epigraphic studies have been conducted in the chapel, including fully documenting these approximately 13-meter-long reliefs.
In this process of documentation, Anastasiia Stupko-Lubczynska from the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw studied the chisel marks and believes she has identified traces of almost all of the steps involved in crafting the reliefs.
She even found traces of the square grid used for dividing the wall into sections – one of the first steps in the relief making process.
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The case of the missing wig
Stupko-Lubczynska believes these details and chisel patterns refute prior theories that only trained artists worked on significant architectural projects: it seems training was done there too, at least at the temple of Hatshepsut.
The operation was akin to a Renaissance workshop creating a statue, she posits: apprentices handled the easier parts requiring less attention, like broad torsos, and skilled craftspeople worked on technical subtleties such as facial expressions.
Analysis of differing chisel marks suggests there was a segment in one relief where the master or masters and trainees collaborated on wigs. Parts of some wigs in this section are crafted so well that Stupko-Lubczynska believes this is where the skilled workers demonstrated and taught their apprentices.
“Those wigs were done by this master sculptor because they are so perfectly done you can’t observe it in other wigs,” said Stupko-Lubczynska. “In this case, I believe he was showing off, ‘look how perfect I am, look how you should do this,’ because he is giving volume to those wigs, even though these are only rows of curls.”
Varying degrees of quality between different baskets and jugs suggest that apprentices or at least less skillful workers were assigned some of these items, while the masters committed their efforts to more complex areas, like delicate facial features.
There are also many examples where it seems more skilled workers had to re-carve outlines likely messed up by apprentices.
One wig was largely left unfinished in the corner of the Chapel. Again, assuming they weren’t intentionally trying to depict a wigless, bald Egyptian, it was likely an apprentice slacking because this unfinished head is in the collaborative section.
Stupko-Lubczynska speculates it was left undone because it was in a poorly lit corner. She points out that her study of the chisel marks is done with the help of electric light or under natural light because half of the roof is now gone, whereas the relief makers worked in a fully roofed, dimly lit structure and only had flickering torches. Even during the day, they would have worked in dark conditions without any natural light.
Little attention has been given to the process of ancient Egyptian wall décor, what we today call art, because of the general homogeneity of what they produced. This study, showing the mistakes and variations, gives us a rare glimpse at the process.
Egypt’s glass ceiling is broken
The mortuary complex used to contain many more reliefs of royalty, but over the years many were shipped off to European museums. Fortunately, the Chapel of Hatshepsut survived the centuries relatively intact.
The 200 offering bearers, 100 on each side of the opposing chapel walls, previously ended at reliefs of Queen Hatshepsut (one on each side of the hall) but her likenesses were erased by her successor, former co-ruler, stepson and nephew Thutmose III or his successor. Some think it was out of hatred. Stupko-Lubczynska suspects the desecration was merely political.
In fact attempts to erase her images occurred throughout the empire, but according to Stupko-Lubczynska, they didn’t occur immediately: it took about 20 years. In some places her likeness was replaced with that of her husband Thutmose II.
Some like Joyce Tyldesley of the University of Manchester think these efforts to expunge her rule from the record were because she was a female leader who claimed the title and responsibility of pharaoh-king instead of just waiting for her nephew to grow up.
This earliest known female leader led Egypt through a fragile time after the expulsion of the Hyksos, an immigrant people who rose to power, however briefly. She helped lay the foundation of classical Egypt and set a precedent for following dynasties, and her statues depict her wearing the same garb as male pharaoh-kings and sometimes even sporting a fake beard.
This may have been done to avoid granting legitimacy to a female leader, anthropologists suspect; and she lent a hand to this portrayal in order to legitimize her position as pharaoh. Depictions of her with things like her perfume — a flacon of which was found bearing her name in the Valley of the Kings —have never been found.
Identifying the mastermind
Now work is being done to preserve the reliefs in the Chapel of Hatshepsut, and Stupko-Lubczynska is trying to identify the artistic architect. She is trying to connect between the chiseling artists, their signature-like marks and the people who actually planned the relief.
“Those people who were executing the reliefs just colored coloring books,” she says. “Someone had to figure out where and how to put all those texts and images, and there is meaning behind all of that.”
She actually has a list of candidates from textual documentation and thinks there may be a way to identify an artist’s calling card.
One option is the royal architect Senenmut who may, based on textual documentation, have been in charge of building the chapel, but Stupko-Lubczynska doesn’t think he did it alone.
Another option could have been Puimre, the Second Prophet of Amun under Hatshepsut’s rule. There are also remarkable designs in his tomb which had similarities to those in Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple. Maybe the showoff worked on both projects.