Examining the Lives of Ancient Egyptian Women

The case of an ancient Egyptian woman named Tjat

Tjat-1

Tjat, an ancient Egyptian woman, attends Khnumhotep and his family. The caption above her refers to her as “sealer, keeper of the property of her lord, Tjat, born of Netjeru.” Image copyright Melinda Nelson-Hurst.

In the heart of Egypt, about 150 miles (ca. 240 km) south of modern Cairo near the city of Minya, lies a large and ancient necropolis at a site named Beni Hasan (see map). This location has been popular among tourists and academics because several of its massive, rock-cut tombs have beautifully decorated tomb chapels that have survived for millennia. These tombs provide troves of information for scholars to analyze and debate, but today I’d like to focus on one minor person in one tomb: an ancient Egyptian woman by the name of Tjat (see image right).

Tjat appears in the tomb of Khnumhotep II (tomb 3), a local ruler from around the middle of the Twelfth Dynasty (ca. 1900 B.C.). You may have heard about this tomb before because of its so-called scene of Asiatics (people depicted in the typical way that the ancient Egyptians used to distinguish people to the northeast of Egypt)—figures who have been variously interpreted as everything from local nomads to immigrants from the Near East to Biblical figures. However, much less attention has been paid to the woman named Tjat who appears in prominent positions in four different scenes throughout this tomb and is labeled there as a “sealer” (sometimes translated “treasurer”).
 


 
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Who was Tjat and why does she appear within this tomb? Because of her prominent place (and that of her children) within these scenes (see image below), as well as other factors, scholars have assumed for over a hundred years that Tjat was the mistress and/or second wife of Khnumhotep II, who in turn is assumed to be the father of Tjat’s children. However, having studied Khnumhotep II’s family in some depth, I began to feel compelled to reassess this interpretation of Tjat. Might we, as scholars, have been too quick to categorize this woman as a sexual partner of Khnumhotep II because she did not easily fit other familiar categories? I would certainly say, “yes.” While we will never be able to answer all of our questions about ancient Egypt with any certainty, it is only through close study of both the details and the wider social and historical contexts that we might come a bit closer to the ancient realities of life.

Tjat-2

Line drawing of Khnumhotep’s wife Khety sitting by a table piled high with offerings for her afterlife. Behind her stand her three daughters, Tjat with two children, and a nurse. Image: P.E. Newberry and F. Ll. Griffith, Beni Hasan Vol. I, Archaeological Survey of Egypt 1. (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co., 1893), pl. XXXV.

With the wider context in mind, let’s take a step back and look at the position of ancient Egyptian women in society.

Generally speaking, ancient Egyptian women were equal to men under the law, whether in matters of property disputes, inheritance, marriage or crime. Surviving documents show us that women could inherit property from both of their parents and oversee and dispose of their property as they saw fit—practices that contrast with the situation in some other early complex societies in which women had limited property-owning rights. For example, the so-called “will” of a woman named Naunakht,1 who lived at Deir el-Medina—the town where the workers who built the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings lived—outlines which of Naunakht’s children will inherit from her and which are to be disinherited completely. She includes the reason for excluding some of her children: they did not care for her or support her financially in her old age. The disposition of Naunakht’s property is completely separate from that of her husband, whose property would be divided among all of the children unless he wrote a similar document to specify otherwise.
 


 
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Despite this equality under the law, though, it is apparent that the social reality was that ancient Egyptian women and men were not treated equally. Both women and men could file for divorce, but surviving records show that men both filed for divorce and threatened to divorce their wives much more often than women did either of these things. In a letter to her sister, a woman named Ta-khenty-shepse says that she is quarreling with her husband, Mery-Ma’at:

“I am quarreling with Mery-Ma’at. ‘I’ll throw you out!’ so he says,
and he quarrels with my mother enquiring after grain for bread. ‘Now, your
mother does not do anything for you,’ so he says to me”2

One reason for this social inequality is that not as many career options were open to women, and, thus, women typically brought in smaller incomes than men did, putting them at a financial disadvantage if they were to leave a marriage.

Census records from ancient Egypt support such a scenario, as households often included multiple female relatives other than the wife and children of a man. These additional female family members appear to have been widowed or unmarried, including mothers, sisters and aunts. The fact that these women lived with their sons, brothers and nephews suggests that going out on their own would have either been socially unacceptable or too difficult financially (or both).

A papyrus document from the town of Lahun lists the members of the household of a soldier named Sneferu. The list includes:

“his mother, Satsopdu’s daughter, Shepset
mother of his father Harekheni
sister of his father Qat-senut
sister of his father Iset
sister of his father Satsneferu”3

Tjat-4

Line drawing of Tjat standing behind Khnumhotep II’s female family members in the shrine at the back of the tomb. Above Tjat are bags of eye paint and a mirror. Image: P.E. Newberry and F. Ll. Griffith, Beni Hasan Vol. I, Archaeological Survey of Egypt 1 (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co., 1893), pl. XXXVI.

As borne out in similar documents from when Sneferu’s father, Hori, was still alive and acted as the head of household, these female relatives lived in Hori’s (later Sneferu’s) home for some time, though it is impossible to say for exactly how long.

Despite these disadvantages, women sometimes had successful careers outside of their own homes, even holding government positions on occasion, though they seem to have been typically excluded from holding such positions. We must bear in mind, though, that our evidence is not complete. Much has been lost over the millennia and the record was skewed toward a focus on elite men to start with (most literate people were elite men), so women very well may have been involved in many more pursuits than textual or archaeological evidence would suggest.

What we do have clear evidence for is many ancient Egyptian women working in the houses of elite families, oftentimes those of top regional administrators such as Khnumhotep II. In this sense, Tjat has much company. However, the title for her position in Khnumhotep’s house, sealer (khetemtet), is not terribly common and seems to have been almost completely out of use by Tjat’s time.

As a sealer, Tjat would have likely been in charge of security for some of the luxury items within Khnumhotep II’s household through the process of using clay seals to track who last opened and closed doors, boxes, bags and other storage containers (read more on this practice). She may, in fact, have been in the service of Khnumhotep’s wife, Khety, as Tjat never appears in tomb paintings without Khety very near and in front of her. In addition, the men who would have carried out similar duties for Khnumhotep II appear in his tomb in similarly prominent positions very near Khnumhotep II himself. These men’s roles seem to mirror that of Tjat and her relationship with Khety.

Having served in such an economically important role in Khnumhotep’s house, possibly specifically working for his wife Khety, it is clear that Tjat would have been a prominent member of the household in her own right, even if she were not in a sexual relationship with Khnumhotep II. While we have not identified the Khnumhotep house archaeologically, we have evidence from other houses of this period for a variety of women sealing important household commodities. The types of seal impressions that these women left behind and their frequency suggest that they were in charge of securing expensive items, such as mirrors and eye paint. These items sound simple to us today, but they were luxury goods that most people living in ancient Egypt would not have been able to own.

Tjat-3

Scarab finger ring of the chamber keeper Ameny, from Lisht North, south of Tomb of Nakht (493), south cemetery, Pit 453. 12th-13th Dynasty. The inscribed bottoms of scarabs like this one were used to leave a mark in clay seals on everything from doors to papyrus letters. Permalink: http://metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/546686. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art 15.3.135a, Rogers Fund, 1915.


Although we have limited textual evidence for Tjat and no identified tomb or house for her in the archaeological record, we can reconstruct in broad terms what her life would have been like and what her economic role would have been from the evidence we have for her, for sealing practices in general, for men who seem to have had similar duties and for other women who carried out sealing duties in ancient Egypt. Put together, this evidence paints a picture of a woman whom we should not dismiss because of speculation about her relationship with a powerful man—a woman who played a crucial economic role in an elite house in Middle Egypt during ancient Egypt’s “classical age” of the Middle Kingdom.
 


 
Read about scholars Melinda Nelson-Hurst and John Verano’s investigation into Tulane University’s collection of mummies and other Egyptian artifacts in “Unraveling Mummy Mysteries at Tulane” in Bible History Daily.
 


 

Notes:

1 Ashmolean 1945.95 and 1945.97; ca. 1150 B.C. See J Černý, “The Will of Naunakhte and the Related Documents,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 31 (1945), pp. 29–53.

2 O. Prague 1826. See Edward F. Wente, Letters from Ancient Egypt, SBL Writings 1 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), pp. 147–148.

3 UC 32163; ca. 1800-1750 BC. See Mark Collier and Stephen Quirke, The UCL Lahun Papyri: Religious, Literary, Legal, Mathematical and Medical, BAR International Series 1209 (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2004), pp. 110–111.
 


 
nelson-hurstMelinda Nelson-Hurst is an Egyptologist at Tulane University whose interests lie in the social history and archaeology of ancient Egypt. She has worked most extensively on families and their influence within the state administration during the period of the Middle Kingdom. Since starting a new research project on the Egyptian Collection at Tulane University in 2012, her interests have expanded into the modern history of the field of Egyptology and of Egyptian collections. You can read more about Dr. Nelson-Hurst’s research on her blog (drmgnh.wordpress.com). Follow her on Twitter @dr_mgnh.

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  • Melinda says

    Thanks for the variety of feedback, everyone.

    Dr., to answer your question, Ward’s work is not included here because this is a piece for a popular audience, not an academic publication that picks apart the details (I have presented a detailed examination of Ward’s ideas elsewhere). You’ll note that there is no general bibliography in this piece, only citations for the specific items that are quoted in the piece. Feel free to read my published work for more details and references. If you’d like to read anything of mine that you do not have easy access to, contact me. You can also follow the link in my bio to my blog, where I have more details about Tjat.

    A, while I do not dig deeply into Tjat here (for space constraints), I use her case as an example to get into a discussion of ancient Egyptian women more generally. If you would like to read more about my discussion of Tjat, you can follow the link in my bio to my blog.

    All feedback is welcome, but it is not clear what exactly is “political” about pointing out assumptions in past scholarship. Questioning our own preconceived notions and those of our colleagues is what scholarship is all about.

  • Molly says

    It’s easy to just say she was a nurse, housekeeper, or nanny but the fact is women did play important political roles just like they do today (yes it may be uncommon and out of the norm during this time period) just look at Hatshetsut. This is a great analysis. Stop limiting yourselves (and others) these comments are alarming.

  • Rachel says

    Why must women always be seen as nurses, housekeepers and sexual objects? I think it is good to look at the different roles of women during that period.

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