Photos courtesy Royal Ontario Museum
About 3,200 years ago, at a time when Egypt was recovering from civil war, a boy named Nakht worked as a weaver for a funerary chapel.
His diet was poor, he suffered from malaria and ultimately he died in his teenage years, likely not much older than 14.
His occupation may have contributed to his poor health. Ancient records suggest that weavers were near the bottom of the social heap. One man named Dua-Khety, who was trying to encourage his son to become a scribe, wrote:
The weaver inside the weaving house is more wretched than a woman.
His knees are drawn up against his belly.
He cannot breathe the air.
If he wastes a single day without weaving, he is beaten with fifty whip lashes.
He has to give food to the doorkeeper to allow him to come out to the daylight.
(Translation by Adolf Erman)
While this account (dating back more than 3,500 years) is probably exaggerated, it shows that weavers were not held in high regard.
So until recently Nakht appeared to be an open and shut archaeological case. “We thought we knew who he was,” said Gayle Gibson, an Egyptologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto Canada.
But now new research suggests that Nakht`s story is quite a bit more complex. Recently a team from the museum, along with Anders Bettum, a doctoral student from the University of Oslo, took high resolution photos of the boy`s coffin. They also took the chance to re-examine its hieroglyphs and determine what kind of wood the faded box is made from.
Their research was released this past weekend at a colloquium held in Toronto, with Gayle Gibson presenting the results.
She told the audience that when their work was complete the team came to a surprising conclusion – that for a malnourished, un-mummified, teenager Nakht had a high-end coffin. Its quality is such that it seems unlikely that the boy could have paid for it with his own earnings. There is also no evidence that it was re-used or stolen from another tomb.
It is a “very, very nice coffin and very personalized, with lots of images of him,” said Gibson. Among the badly faded drawings the team uncovered is a scarab beetle with sun disks, located near where his hands are crossed. They also found an image of the sky goddess Nut, stretching her wings to protect his genitals. There are even drawings showing Nakht himself, wearing robes and a collar.
“Even if we can just make out these drawings they’re very good quality,” said Gibson.
There’s more. High resolution images of the coffin show that the colour green was often used as a decoration, something surprising considering its cost. “Different colours of paint cost different amounts of money and green was one of the expensive ones,” said Gibson.
The team also examined the base of the coffin, something that is not currently on display. To their surprise the goddess decorating it turned out not to be Isis (a god appearing on the base of many coffins) but rather Neith, a goddess associated with weaving.
“Somebody particularized the goddess on the bottom of the coffin just for him – this is really quite extraordinary,” said Gibson. “Somebody really loved this kid.”
So far the team has been unable to determine what kind of wood the coffin was made of, but they have ruled out sycamore and other domestic sources, meaning that it was likely imported.
“We’ve got a boy who is a weaver, who is suffering from all these diseases, who is (suffering) from malnutrition and yet he’s got a personalized, beautifully decorated coffin, made from imported wood,” said Gibson.
Professor Kathlyn Cooney is an Egyptologist at UCLA and has done research on how much a coffin cost in ancient Egypt. In a recent essay, published in the book To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures from the Brooklyn Museum, she pointed out that most Egyptians could not afford a coffin at all, much less one made with imported wood and decorated with expensive colouring.
“Most Ancient Egyptians could afford only to wrap their dead family members in a textile of some sort, like a palm rib mat, and inter them in a communal grave,” she writes.
“We often assume that all Egyptians prepared a coffin of some kind for their body, but the textual and archaeological evidence proves that only very few could afford to do so.”
So how did a teenage weaver, who was presumably quite poor, pull it off?
We may never know for sure but there is more evidence that this teenager was no ordinary weaver. His coffin was excavated in 1903-1904 by the Swiss Egyptologist Edouard Naville. He was found in a tomb located on the east side of the Temple of Montuhotep II, a building constructed nearly 4,000 years ago.
The tomb was built before Nakht’s time and would have been used by at least one other person before him. Nevertheless the location, so near the temple, would still have been special. “It’s a re-use of a really classy place,” said Gibson.
She believes that the hieroglyphs spelling his name read as “User-ka-re Nakht,” which roughly means “Userkhaure is strong,” a name that is unusual.
“When you put it this way, User-ka-re Nakht, that would be like me calling myself ‘Elizabeth is a great queen,” said Gibson, adding that you can only have a name like that if the pharaoh hired you.
“This is a very odd thing, how can the king have hired this boy who died when he was 14, 15, maybe 18 tops.”
The key to understanding this boy’s special status may lie with the pharaoh that his name appears to pay tribute to.
Setnakht Userkhaure was the first king of Egypt’s 20th dynasty. Ancient records indicate that he came to power following a period of civil war.
“The land of Egypt was overthrown from without, and every man was (thrown out) of his right,” reads a record in the Harris Papyrus (translation by James Henry Breasted). “The land of Egypt was in the hands of chiefs and of rulers of towns; one slew his neighbour, great and small.”
Userkhaure would have had to unite the land by force, raising a large army to fight all who opposed him. “Had Nakht’s family somehow been on the right of this civil war?” said Gibson, “was his father maybe a veteran of the king’s battles?”
Unfortunately the coffin contains no references to Nakht’s parents. It doesn’t even record his mother’s name. “It is quite unusual not having his mother’s name,” Gibson said.
She doesn’t believe it likely that Nakht was directly related to the king – the son or grandson of the pharaoh would probably be better fed and certainly would have a better job than that of a weaver.
Until new evidence emerges the team is left with a mystery. How did a malnourished teenager get a personalized, beautiful, coffin? One which most people in ancient Egypt could not hope to afford?
Did he have a link to the king or perhaps an uncle in the coffin business so to speak? On the other hand maybe we’re wrong about the stature of Egyptian weavers and some of them were well off.“It is really odd that he should get a coffin that nice,” said Gibson. “We’re going to have to look very carefully at these jobs and these children and what their jobs are.”