Updated: Sep 15, 2022
Object Type: Tomb Painting
Date: c. 1390-1349 BC
Period: Dynasty 18
Findspot: Tomb of Nebamun and Ipuky (TT181), Sheikh-Abd-el-Gournah, Thebes
Print Reference: DP75A
The Tomb of the Two Sculptors
Cut into the limestone cliffs of the Sheikh-Abd-el-Gournah necropolis is the shared tomb of Nebamun and Ipuky (TT181). These two men lived during the reigns of Amenhotep III and Akhenaten in Dynasty 18 and worked at Djeseret Iset, the Small Temple of Medinet Habu. They were trained in sculpting and engraving and rose to the ranks of ‘chief sculptor in the Sacred Place’ and ‘Supervisor of the balance’, overseeing craft workshops.
Their unusual joint tomb was never finished, and its paintings have suffered from millennia of deterioration, flooding, mudslides, and vandalism. Since its discovery, much of the decoration has been purposefully removed or damaged beyond recovery, so early reproductions, such as those made by Jean-Vincent Scheil and Norman de Garis Davies, are the only record.
The Craftsmen’s Workshop
My reproduction and partial reconstruction of a painting from the tomb shows the Chief Sculptor supervising a bustling workshop of 32 craftsmen, who are working with wood, stone, metal, and precious stones to create beautiful objects.
The scene provides a wealth of information about the tools and manufacturing techniques used by the ancient craftsmen, which can be used to help interpret archaeological finds. I’m going to explore each figure to help you imagine the sights and sounds of Nebamun and Ipuky’s workshops.
The Chief Sculptor
The largest figure in the scene and therefore the most important is that of the tomb owner (1).
Without hieroglyphs to identify him, this man represented both Nebamun and Ipuky, who shared the same role as ‘Chief sculptor’ and ‘Supervisor of the balance’.
He is dressed in a shendyt loincloth covered with a sheer tunic with sleeves, adorned with a necklace and wearing a wig with small curls.
He sits upon a white chair sat on a papyrus reed mat and is inspecting the handiwork of the craftsmen he supervises piled before him.
In his right hand he holds a bouquet of lotus flowers, whilst the gesture which he makes with the other signifies that he is speaking.
Two men are presenting examples of metalwork and woodwork to the Chief Sculptor on top of woven baskets.
The first man is offering a broad collar and three bracelets inlaid with precious stones (2). The other man carries a scarf, which probably indicated his status, and has brought a djed pillar and a tyet knot (3).
The djed is a symbol of Osiris relating to stability and the tyet knot is linked to the goddess Isis. The tyet is usually painted red to reflect the belief it was the blood of Isis but elsewhere in the scene, they are black to indicate they are being carved from wood.
In front of the two men are objects for inspection made from wood, including a delicate white stool, a wooden chest and a scribe’s stylus box used to store reed pens and paint.
A man is kneeling before a set of scales topped with a figure of the goddess Ma’at who represented balance and order (4).
He is weighing gold in the form of rings against a weight in the shape of a bull’s head and holding the plumbline to check the measurement.
Behind him, the finished products from the workshop are piled and awaiting inspection, including a chest, which was probably filled with gold rings or small items, and a woven basket holding a gold necklace and bowl.
The top register shows a group of woodworkers building a catafalque, a platform to transport the mummy of the deceased to the necropolis and his tomb. They are carving and shaping wood into sacred symbols of the djed pillar and tyet knot to embellish the catafalque and provide divine protection for the mummy.
A man is creating the raw materials for the other craftsmen in the workshop (5). He is sawing a plank of dark wood which is attached by a rope to a post in the ground. He’s depicted with a slightly gormless expression and as having a bald patch ringed with straggly hair and a chin full of bristles.
Above the man are three planks of light-coloured wood which he has already finished sawing.
Behind him a woodworker wearing a wig is seated on a solid stool and is carving a tyet knot out of wood using an adze (6).
Four seated woodworkers are in the process of making decorative djed pillars which will be added to the catafalque being assembled by men #7 and #8. The carved pieces of wood with dowls sticking out of each end they are creating are shown above their heads.
The first two men (9, 10) are carving the main bodies of the pillar out of light and dark wood with adzes, whilst two more (11, 12) are using drills to fix the horizontal bars of the pillar to the column.
Two men are assembling the funerary catafalque, upon which the deceased will be placed for his journey to the tomb. It is decorated with pairs of djed pillar and tyet knots to give them the power of ‘double stability’ and ‘double protection’.
An older man (8) shares the same unfortunate hairstyle as man #5 and is using a small mallet to fix the carved decoration between the shelves. He is assisted by a younger man in a wig (7), who is holding the ends of the shelves whilst #8 works.
The middle register shows craftsmen working with gold and precious stones to create beautiful vessels, statues, and jewellery.
Two men are seated facing each, working together to decorate a wooden chest and fill it with jewellery. Examples of the jewellery made of precious stones are shown above them and include a winged scarab holding a shen symbol and a lotus flower necklace.
A bald man is holding two pieces of turquoise stone (14), which matches the piece shown above his head and the inlay in the jewellery beside it. Before him are copper bowls, one of which contains uncut precious stones covered with a white scarf.
A second man wearing a wig is placing decorative objects into the chest (13). The first is a small statue made of blue stone of the god Horus the Younger, shown as a child sucking his thumb. The other two objects are cartouches with the names ‘Amenhotep, Lord of Thebes’ and ‘Neb-maat-re’, which dates the scene to the reign of Amenhotep III.
A bald scribe is seated on a solid stool and is engraving an inscription on a libation vase, his scribal material sitting on his lap (15).
This part of the painting has now been lost, but old reproductions and descriptions showed it contained a hieroglyphic inscription above the man naming him as ‘the scribe of Amun, Pasanesu, also known as Parennefer’.
Another example of the goldworker's craft is shown above Pasanesu in the form of a beautifully decorated bowl of flowers with the head of birds holding clusters of grapes in their beak.
A seated man with a fine wig is carefully carving detail into a gold statue of a winged sphinx (16). The sphinx sits on top of the table and the man uses a small hammer and chisel to apply detail to the unfinished uraeus cobra on its brow.
A blue faience vase with lotus flower decoration is shown above them as another example of the fine products of the workshop.
Two seated men in fine wigs men are polishing golden libation vases.
One man has secured his small vase on a wooden stand to steady it (18) whilst the other balances his tall vase on the floor (17). Smooth rubbing stones and sands with fine grit are being used to polish the metal.
Above them are some of their finished products including two bowls with fluted sides, a vase and two spare stoppers.
A man is seated in front of a burning furnace which is being used to smelt metals for the workshop (19). He uses tongues to stir the fire and blows into it using a long reed hose to control the air flow and temperature.
The bottom register shows more craftsmen making and working with metal, as well as specialist tasks such as drilling and carving beads and alabaster.
This part of the painting has been so badly damaged it is almost impossible to now make out the detail of the figures. I have reconstructed it based on earlier written descriptions, comparative artwork, and artistic conventions and proportions used in this tomb. See the work of Jean Vincent Scheil for an alternative rendition.
Two seated men are working on golden lampstands. One man in a wig can be seen polishing or hammering out a lamp stand he holds in his hand (20).
A second man holding a scribal palette and reed pen is carefully engraving the upright section of a second vase standing on the floor (21). Above him is a lid for the vase.
A man kneels in front of a small fire, heating a piece of copper he holds with metal tongues using a blowpipe to control the airflow (23). An example of the sheet metal he is making is shown beside him.
Above him, another man sits on the floor with his legs out before him as he polishes or hammers out a sheet of copper made by #23 with a smooth stone (22).
A man sits on a solid stool in front of a black mass on a block (25) and is being assisted by a man who holds a ball of the same black material on his shoulders with both hands (24).
This could show the measurement of raw materials needed for the smelting furnace operated by #26-30 to their right.
A group of five bald men operate a large furnace which is being used to smelt metal. Two ingots are shown above the flames, one represents lead and another in the shape of an oxhide represents copper.
Four of the men hold ropes which connect the bellows they stand on (26, 27, 29, 30). A fifth man leans closer to the furnace and controls the temperature using a reed blowing tube and a stirring rod (28).
The Specialist Craftsmen
Finally, nearest to the entry of the chamber, are three men working independently on specialist craft activities involving stone and glass.
A man in a wig is drilling beads which will be placed in the casket behind him (31). In his right hand he holds a bow, the cord of which is twisted around three drills held in his left hand. This technique was used to drill holes and create beads of glass, stone, and pearl.
A man in a wig is drilling a core into a block of alabaster using a metal rasp to hollow it out and make a stone vase (32). Above him are two examples of the finished product.
A man uses a needle to thread glass beads into a necklace, which he rests on the wooden chest in front of his legs (33).
Above him are more examples of inlaid jewellery which will also be placed in the chest, including a lotus flower and three bracelets.
As already mentioned, much of this scene was damaged and required me to reconstruct parts. Where details are missing, it’s possible to find other pieces of artwork to see the artistic conventions that would have been used. For this scene, there are a number of notable comparable scenes I looked at for inspiration: