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TitleDijk, Van_The Death of Meketaten
TagsEighteenth Dynasty Of Egypt Pharaohs Of The Eighteenth Dynasty Of Egypt Ancient Egypt Amarna Period Akhenaten
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The Death of Meketaten


Jacobus van Dijk


Rijksuniversiteit Groningen



Back in 1979, Bill Murnane was one of the first Egyptologists I met in the field,
if the bar of the old Luxor Hotel can be counted as such. We kept in regular contact
over the years and his premature death came as a great shock. Bill’s epigraphic acumen
and the lucid style of his brilliant writings on the history of New Kingdom Egypt have
always been an inspiration to me, and I gratefully dedicate the following article to his
memory.

Among the many controversial problems of the Amarna Period is the
interpretation of the so-called birth scene in Room g in the Royal Tomb at Amarna. In
fact, there is a second, very similar scene in Room a, but for the time being we shall
concentrate here on Room g. The scene (Fig. 1) occupies the East wall (A) of a room in
the Amarna royal tomb which appears to have been specially designed for the burial of
Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s second daughter Meketaten.1 On the left a chamber is
depicted; inside, Meketaten, identified by an inscription, is lying on a bed. Her parents
are standing at the head end of the bed and although the scene is very damaged here it
is clear from the parallel in Room a (Fig. 2) that they are mourning the death of their
daughter. Two other unidentified, but nonroyal, persons are mourning at the foot end of
the bed. Outside the chamber are two registers with further figures, both male and
female, all displaying various gestures of mourning; among them is the vizier. All of
these figures face the entrance to the chamber, except three females in the lower
register. The first of these is a woman holding a newborn baby in her arms and breast-
feeding it. She is followed by two other females, each of whom holds a bht fan or
sunshade. The whole context of this scene strongly suggests that there is a connection
between the events inside the bedchamber of Meketaten and this group of three women
with the baby; the logical conclusion seems to be that Meketaten has just given birth to
a child, but has died in the process, and this is indeed the almost universally accepted
interpretation.
Although the inscription above the body of Meketaten on her deathbed is clear
enough, the text inscribed in two columns in front of the woman holding the child has


1 Granite fragments belonging to her sarcophagus or perhaps her canopic chest have been found within
the royal tomb, see G. Daressy, “Tombeaux et steles-limites de Hagi-Qandil,” Recueil de travaux relatifs
à la philologie et à l’archéologie égyptiennes et assyriennes 15 (1893), p. 62; G. T. Martin, The Royal
Tomb at El-‘Amarna I: The Objects (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1974), p. 29 (no. 103), p. 104;
M. J. Raven, “A sarcophagus for Queen Tiy and other fragments from the Royal Tomb at el-Amarna,”
Oudheidkundige Mededelingen uit het Rijksmuseum van het Oudheden 74 (1994), p. 8. Of the four
additional fragments (Martin nos. 251, 303, 592, and 699) mentioning an unidentified princess which
Martin tentatively assigned to Meketaten, only nos. 303 (joined to the named fragments by Raven) and
592 probably belonged to her. No. 592 writes the mr-sign with N36, like the Meketaten fragments,
whereas nos. 251 and 699 use the Amarna form N37, as does the fragment no. 218 which is inscribed for
Merytaten.

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only partly survived, that is, it did until 1934, when what was left of the text and indeed
of much of the decoration was almost entirely destroyed by vandals. This means that
we have to rely on old photographs and handcopies, foremost of which is the
photograph taken in 1893/94 by Gustave Jéquier and published by Bouriant, Legrain
and Jéquier in their Monuments pour servir à l’étude du culte d’Atonou en Égypte.2 The
traces visible on this photograph include a seated person determinative followed by
what looks like a ms-sign at the end of the first column and the cartouche of Queen
Nefertiti followed by the usual ‘may she live for ever and ever’ in the second column.
This leaves us Egyptologists literally with room for speculation. What was in the
missing portion of the text? And to whom does it refer?
In the drawing of the scene3 the inscription is omitted, but in the letterpress of the
volume Legrain, who was responsible for the description of the scenes and the
commentary on the inscriptions,4 provides it in printed hieroglyphs together with his
reconstruction of the missing parts (Fig. 3, reversed):



Fig. 3 Fig. 4



2 U. Bouriant, G. Legrain and G. Jéquier, Monuments pour servir à l’étude du culte d’Atonou en Égypte,
Mémoires publiés par les membres de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale 8 (Cairo: Institut
Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1903), Pl. IX.
3 Ibid., Pl. VII (Fig. 1 above).
4 Ibid., pp. iii and 23 n. 1.

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they were already old enough to participate in ritual events in Akhenaten’s Year 12,
when Meketaten was still alive. This, according to Gabolde, leaves only one other
possibility: the infant is a seventh child of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and since we do not
know of a seventh daughter but we do know of a king’s son called Tutankhaten, the
child in Room g must be Tutankhaten, son of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.
Before we return to the epigraphy, it is as well to ask ourselves what the reason
might be for showing a newborn baby in the arms of its nurse in a scene depicting the
death of a princess. If this child is Tutankhaten, why are not the other surviving
children of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Meketaten’s sisters, depicted in this scene?10 After
all, the daughters are virtually omnipresent in Amarna tomb and temple scenes,
whereas Tutankhaten is almost never depicted. And why is the group of the nurse with
child and the two women holding the fans orientated facing all the other figures shown
in the two registers outside the death chamber of Meketaten, as if they have just left that
room? That this is indeed what they have just done is evident from the parallel in Room
a, where the nurse and child are shown just outside the door of the death chamber,
while the attendant holding the open fan over the child is still inside the chamber.11
Surely these facts must have some significance. Nefertiti herself is present in the scene
in both Rooms a and g, and in both scenes her purported child is shown as a newborn
baby. In Gabolde’s reconstruction of the events this would mean that two or even
three12 of Nefertiti’s daughters died within very short succession of each other shortly
after Nefertiti herself had given birth to a male heir to the throne. This is not in itself
impossible, but the presence of the child in the actual death chamber of his purported
sisters is inexplicable.


10 C. Vandersleyen, “Les scènes de lamentation des chambres alpha et gamma dans la tombe
d’Akhénaton,” Revue d’Égyptologie 44 (1993), pp. 192–4.
11 Bouriant et al., Monuments, Pl. VI (Fig. 2 above); Martin, Royal Tomb II, Pls. 58–59.
12 Gabolde believes that the newly born Tutankhaten is depicted in both Rooms a and g, and that the
scene in Room a depicts the demise of Neferneferure and Setepenre, D’Akhenaton à Toutânkhamon, pp.
107–10. Vandersleyen also assigns Room a to Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s two youngest daughters.

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Fig. 6

In my opinion, a close scrutiny of the remains of the inscription in Room g makes
Gabolde’s reconstruction of the text (Fig. 6) highly questionable, and serious doubts
have also been expressed by C. Vandersleyen, although the latter did not suggest an
alternative reading.13 Gabolde gives the sign preceding the group ms in col. 1 as a
seated man holding a flail; the traces in front of the face of this sign he interprets as the
feet of a quail w. On the photograph published by Bouriant c.s., however, this latter
sign is clearly a t, as expressly stated by Legrain and confirmed by Martin. The seated
man with flail as given by Gabolde has a form that is unattested before the Ramesside
period, i.e. with knees pulled up instead of squatting on the ground (A52) or seated on a
chair (A51). Seated king signs (A42) have their knees pulled up like Gabolde’s
hieroglyph, but they wear a royal headdress with uraeus; moreover, the child was not a
king, and princes, even crown princes, were not depicted with royal regalia. The
published photograph would appear to confirm the seated female sign (B1) read by
Legrain and by Martin and Vandersleyen. These two crucial signs are in my opinion
beyond reasonable doubt and are a clear indication that the child held by the nurse is
female, not male. Further confirmation of this comes from the fact that male children


13 Vandersleyen, RdE 44, p. 193; cf. also M. Eaton-Krauss and R. Krauss, review of D’Akhenaton à
Toutânkhamon, by Marc Gabolde, Bibliotheca Orientalis 58, no. 1-2 (2001), p. 93, who call Gabolde’s
reconstruction ‘methodically unsound.’

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Fig. 1







Fig. 2

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Postscript
The above article is a slightly expanded version of the paper I read during the Ninth
International Congress of Egyptologists in Grenoble, 6–12 September 2004. Not long
after the congress, Dr. Lise Manniche wrote to me informing me that Prof. John Harris
was about to publish an article with much the same interpretation as the one I had
suggested in the Grenoble paper. The article, entitled “En sag om forveksling,” has now
been published in the Danish Ægyptologisk Tidsskrift Papyrus 24 no. 2 (December
2004), pp. 4–13. Harris too reads the name of Meketaten in the scene in Room g and
identifies the child as one of the stages of transformation (xprw) in the renewal of life
of the deceased princess.


List of Figures


Fig. 1. The so-called birth scene in Room g of the Royal Tomb at Amarna

Fig. 2. A parallel scene in Room a of the Royal Tomb at Amarna

Fig. 3. A reconstruction drawing by Legrain of the two columns of text inscribed in front of the
woman holding the child in Room g

Fig. 4. G. T. Martin’s reconstruction of the same columns of text

Fig. 5. Martin’s drawing of the scene, including the two columns of text

Fig. 6. M. Gabolde’s reconstruction of the same columns of text

Fig. 7. New reconstruction of the same columns of text

Fig. 8. A photograph of the scene reconstructed in Fig. 7

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