Egypt Centre Collection Blog: Senenmut’s Astronomical Ceiling


Dell retired from a long academic career in Psychology and now pursues her
interests in Egyptology, art, and gardening. She recently went to Egypt with
the Kemet Klub on their Sacred Landscapes tour and had the privilege of
visiting Senenmut’s tomb (TT353), including its wonderful astronomical ceiling!

many others, I was first introduced to the wonders of ancient Egypt as a child
when I went to the Tutankhamun and His Time exhibition in Paris in 1967.
This started a long-term interest in Egyptology, which has been honed over the
years with trips to Egypt and attending a range of excellent courses. Ken
Griffin’s recent Egypt Centre series Causing Their Names to Live, which
focused on some of the individuals who make up the history of Egypt, is a case
in point.

of the individuals Ken introduced was Senenmut, son of Ramose and Hatneferet.
Senenmut (fig. 1) described himself as Treasurer and Overseer of the House of Amun (ceiling,
TT 353) and Hereditary Prince, Count, Administrator of the Great Ones of Upper
and Lower Egypt, Overseer of Places of Refreshment, and Spokesman who speaks
when other mouths are silent (false door, TT 353). He was also the Steward of
the God’s Wife, and Steward (Tutor) of the King’s Daughter (Neferure). As a
non-royal, he is known for an extraordinary number of statues (at least 25),
many with Neferure. He is probably best known for being the architect of
Hatshepsut’s Memorial Temple complex at Deir el-Bahari, and for supervising the
erection of twin obelisks at Karnak. He disappears from the historical records
in the later years of Hatshepsut’s reign and seems to suffer a Damnatio
after death. Unusually, for a private individual, he also built
himself at least two tombs in the Theban necropolis (TT 71 and TT 353).

Fig. 1: Senenmut (copyright Dr Ahmed Abdul Ella)

is to be found on the northeast brow of the Sheikh Abd el-Qurna cliffs that overlook
Hatshepsut’s temple complex. It is laid out as a typical tomb chapel of the
time; a transverse hall with columns, an inner chamber, and decoration that is
similar in content to contemporary private tombs (funerary procession,
pilgrimage to Abydos, agricultural, and workshop activities). Innovations
include rock cut stelae and the design of the ceilings (Dorman, 1988; 1991).
The tomb appears not to have been used.


the base of the cliffs is a quarry. Carved into its floor Herbert Winlock found
the entrance to Senenmut’s second tomb (TT 353) in January 1927. Thi,s is a
subterranean rock cut tomb, with a ground plan of three chambers laid out
sequentially, accessed via three descending passageways. The first passageway,
with a vaulted ceiling 2m high descends some 61.2m at a 25-degree angle to the
first of the three chambers (Chamber A). A daunting climb, as I found out
recently on a Kemet Klub tour of Sacred Landscapes (fig. 2). 
Towards the end of the staircase is a rare drawing of Senenmut (fig. 1).

Fig. 2: The person pictured is about half way down the stairs!


reason people visit this tomb is because of the decoration of Chamber A and its
wonderful astronomical ceiling. The chamber itself is small (3.6m x 3m), with
dressed and plastered walls. The main focus of the walls is a false door on the
West side opposite the entrance to the tomb. The walls contain what Assmann
(1982) has identified as a new corpus of funerary liturgies, reminiscent of
both Pyramid and Coffin Texts, and some of the earliest known examples of Book
of the Dead spells. These were chosen to provide Senenmut with the topography
of the netherworld and knowledge of how to move freely through it.

ceiling, recorded by Charles Wilkinson (Wilkinson and Hill, 1983) and published
by Neugebauer and Parker (1960–69), is the earliest astronomical ceiling known (fig. 3),
the next being that of Seti 1 (KV 17).

ceiling is divided into two panels of astronomical representations by several
transverse bands of text, containing Senenmut’s name (fig. 4) and Hatshepsut’s titulary.
Each panel is surrounded by rows of stars.

Fig. 4: Senenmut’s name in transverse band


southern panel (top panel in the ceiling overview [fig. 5]) contains a list of named
decans (stars), whose arrangement is related to the star clocks of the Coffin
Texts of the Middle Kingdom. These are clearly laid out on the right-hand side.
They are interspersed with star cluster constellations (for example the ship
and sheep). Left of these are the planets, from right to left Isis, Jupiter,
and Saturn, and in the last columns Mercury and Venus.

Fig. 5: Part of the upper panel


northern panel (bottom in the ceiling overview [fig. 6]) contains the 12 lunar months
(Dorman, 1991) of the year, schematised as 12 circles each divided into 24
sectors (hours of the day?). The top four (of eight) on the right-hand side are
the months of Akhet (Inundation) and the lower four, Shemu (Harvest).
The four on the left-hand side are Peret (Emergence). Each month has
associated feast days, and are accompanied along the bottom by various deities,
including the four sons of Horus.

Fig. 6: Part of the lower panel

me, the most intriguing part of the northern panel is the middle section with
three constellations depicted, the so-called “Northern Constellations”.
Meshketyu (fig. 7), a bull-covered oval body; Anu, a falcon-headed standing figure
piercing the oval bull with a spear; and Sekenet (Serket) the goddess behind
the bull. What is happening here? And what is the figure below doing? The
standing hippo, grasping a crocodile, with a second one on her back is named as
Iset-Djamet-Heb-Pet (Isis-Djamet, Festival of the Sky [fig. 8]). How is she involved
with the Northern Constellations? Are these images part of a theology that
Senenmut was developing to explain the cosmos? And why was the oval bull being

Fig. 7: Spearing Meshketyu


Fig. 8: Iset-Djamet-Heb-Pet

and intriguingly, Dorman notes that “there is no evidence of a burial in Tomb
353, nor was there any article from Senenmut’s burial equipment”. So, either
all the funerary equipment was destroyed, or more tantalisingly, was never
there in the first place. I fondly imagine Senenmut having an afterlife as an
effective spirit interred peacefully elsewhere. But in the meantime, may we “cause
his name to live” and make a voice offering for his ka (fig. 9).

Fig. 9: Offerings for Senenmut


J. (1982) Funerary Liturgies in the coffin texts, Third International Congress
of Egyptology, Toronto, September 1982

P.F. (1988) The monuments of Senenmut: Problems in historical methodology.
New York: Kegan Paul International Ltd.

P.F. (1991) The tombs of Senenmut: The Architecture and decoration of Tombs
71 and 353
. Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian Expedition 34. New York: Metropolitan
Museum of Art.

O. and Parker, R. (1960–69) Egyptian astrological texts. Brown
Egyptological Studies 3, 5, & 6. London: Lund Humphries.

C. and Hill, M (1983) Egyptian wall paintings: the Metropolitan Museum of
Art’s collection of facsimiles
. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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