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The Tomb of Itjefy/Ny-ankh-Pepy

The tomb of Itjefy/Ny-ankh-Pepy, the earliest decorated rock-cut tomb at the site that we know of, has been the least affected by human intervention subsequent to its discovery in 1893 by JJ Tylor and Somers Clarke. A usurped tomb, with two levels of decoration, it proved to be quite a challenge for both conservation and documentation. Its first owner, an official of the late 6th Dynasty named Itjefy, adorned his tomb with painting and carved relief. Little of his decorative scheme is now visible except for the entrance jambs, the false door and part of an offering list, which his usurper Ny-ankh-Pepy retained with modifications for his own use. When Ny-ankh-Pepy took over the tomb in the late 11th -early 12th Dynasty, it was already in a neglected state judging from the number of insect burrows he was forced to grout before he shaved down the raised relief and painted over the earlier decoration, making it his own.

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While the majority of the scenes are dedicated to agriculture and daily life pursuits typical of tomb decoration, the scene on the prominent west wall is unique, as it depicts an event that actually must have happened. Presumably meant to be humorous, it shows Ny-ankh-Pepy seated in his traveling boat(s) setting out on a pilgrimage with a huge trussed cow on deck as an offering.  Yet, however peaceful the owner may appear, his boat has become stuck on a sandbank, shown as a yellow mound between the two boats. Various crew-members have jumped into the water to try to dislodge it, while others haul it by rope from the riverbank. Apparently all is going well until the crocodile is spotted (lower right). Then it is pandemonium, as those in the water desperately try to scramble back on deck with the help of their mates, who at the same time are busy capturing the crocodile in a net. The sadly destroyed labels on this scene suggest that the rescues were successful and the crocodile was netted so we can assume that all members of the journey lived to dine out on the story for years to come. 


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Other scenes in the tomb include a fight between three large cats, apparently a lion and two leopards, as Ny-ankh-Pepy looks on along with a row of Nubian and their hunting dogs, who can be assumed to have captured the cats for their master’s enjoyment.  Equipped with bows and wearing feathers in their distinctive hair, these hunters may be some of the same Nubians we find buried in the contemporary Nubian cemetery at HK27C.

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Adjacent to Ny-ankh-Pepy, the tomb of Horemhawef is one of only three painted tomb known from the Second Intermediate Period. Nearly intact at the time of its initial clearance in 1893, the decoration had gradually deteriorated over time, but in the early 1990s vandalism left less than 20% of the original decoration in place and no scene preserved in its entirety. Several hundred fragments were recovered from the tomb floor, 117 of which could be remounted on the wall. This helped to restore several mutilated scenes including the self-portrait of the artist who painted the tomb, Sedjemneteru, in the important act of censing the offerings before the tomb owner, a position that indicates the high regard in which this master artist was held.

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An artist of considerable inventiveness and wit, his talents can be seen in his clever solution to the protrusions in the wall caused by boulders of intractable stone that could not be removed. Jutting out at various angles, the boulders were plastered over and painted, but left awkward spaces around them. These he ingeniously filled with a figure of a squatting mason, chisel and mallet in hand, pecking away at the protrusion for eternity. So pleased with this idea, Sedjemneteru continued to used the working mason motif even in the perfectly cut tomb of Sobeknakht, the governor of Elkab, across the river, where his authorship is also celebrated with further self-portraits and songs of praise. This self-aggrandizement could not have been done without the owner permission, and Sedjemneteru’s obvious status and celebrity should serve to dispel the still commonplace view of the Egyptian artist as an anonymous artisan.

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Although his tomb has been relatively ignored, Horemkhawef is well known for his limestone biographical stela which was found outside the tomb by Lansing in 1934. Now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the stela records Horemkhawef’s trip to the Middle Kingdom capital of Itj-tawy (Lisht) to receive a new cult statue of Horus and Isis from an unnamed king. A painted version of the same tale appears in his tomb and this event was clearly the high point of his career. At any other site, this would simply be a nice story, but at Hierakonpolis, where an actual cult statue of Horus was found carefully buried in a brick lined pit by J.E. Quibell (in just his first week of work!!), it raises several questions. With its copper body and gold head, it is a statue of superb craftsmanship and beauty. During the course of recent conservation, Chris Eckmann has presented good arguments for a late Old Kingdom date for the metal fittings which were added to an even more ancient wooden original. So why was Horemkhawef fetching its replacement?

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The recent discovery in the above-mentioned tomb of Sobeknakht at Elkab of an inscription mentioning raids by Nubian tribes may provide an answer. The large number of Egyptian artifacts, including pieces from Hierakonpolis, in the royal tombs at Kerma shows that these raids were effective and the Pan-Grave/Medjay peoples stations at Hierakonpolis (see Nubian cemeteries) were probably there not just for show. Putting the pieces together, it seems that either because they had been defiled during a raid or as a precaution against feared incursions, the valuable and portable objects in the Horus temple were honorably and safely buried in special pits by the priests. But once interred, they were effectively dead and in need of replacement. In these troubled times, the task of installing a new image needed to be entrusted to a very loyal guardian, and it is little wonder that Horemkhawef was so proud of his role. 

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Horemkhawef was probably the last to build a rock cut tomb in this part of the hill. Thereafter, due either to lack of useable rock or lack of resources, a series of brick chapels were constructed. Having been explored (but not published) by earlier investigators, we could only assume their function and date, but in 2006 we were able to see for ourselves, when a hole suddenly opened up, revealing a labyrinth of burial chambers of late Second Intermediate / early New Kingdom date. Considering we had walked over this exact area thousands of times during the conservation of the tombs, this new discovery, caused by the collapse of the ceiling, was a big and rather frightening surprise.

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The extremely poor quality of the rock meant we could only explore a limited area within in relative safety, and it frankly wasn’t a place you wanted to spend too much time in, but we still managed to recover the micro-faces from two mummy masks and part of a limestone statue in and amongst the remains of 36 people in this family tomb. Attempts to shore up the ceiling to allow further exploration were thwarted when the floor of the chamber turned out to be the collapsing ceiling of another chamber below! We always suspected the hill was honey-combed with tombs and now we can be sure.

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For more information see:

Nekhen News 11 (1999)

Nekhen News 12 (2000)

Nekhen News 18 (2006)


To follow along with the discovery of the underground labyrinth see:


Davies, W. V., 2001. The dynastic tombs at Hierakonpolis: the lower group and the artist Sedjemneteru [in:] Davies, W.V. (ed.), Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt. London: 112-125

Fischer, H.G. 1963. Varia Aegyptiaca. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 2: 17-51

Hayes, W.C. 1947. Horemkhacuef of Nekhen and his Trip to It-towe, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 33: 3-11.

Houlihan, P. 2001. Wit and Humour in Ancient Egypt. London.

Kees, H. 1921. Studien zur Aegyptischen Provinzialkunst. Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs

Lansing, A. 1935. The Museum's Excavations at Hierakonpolis, BMMA 30: 37-45

Majer, J. and R. Friedman, 2008. Rock Cut Tombs of the Second Intermediate Period. In R. Friedman et al., The 2005-2006 Field Season the The Hierakonpolis Expedition. Annales du Service des Antiquités de l'Égypte 82: 99-100.

Smith, W.S. 1949. A history of Egyptian sculpture and painting in the Old Kingdom, Oxford.

Wreszinski, W. 1927.Bericht über die photographische Expedition von Kairo bis Wadi Halfa.  Schriften der köngisberger Gelehrten Gesellschaft, 4 Jahr Geistwissenschaftliche Heft 2. Halle:  Max Neimeyer



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