a site located on a hillside near the eastern bank of the Nile, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Cairo (27°56′N, 30°53′E). The site is a vast and important provincial necropolis containing about 930 tombs, divided into two ranges of markedly different types that span the late sixth dynasty and the twelfth dynasty (c.2200–1785 BCE). Sometimes included in the designation “Beni Hasan” is Speos Artemidos, a wadi (a dried-up bed of a Nile tributary) 3 kilometers (2 miles) south of the necropolis and the site of a beautifully decorated rock-cut temple built in honor of the lion goddess Pakhet by the eighteenth dynasty woman pharaoh Hatshepsut. In addition, many Late period, Ptolemaic, and Roman tombs pockmark the hills of the wadi.

The upper necropolis at Beni Hasan consists of about forty large rectangular or square chambers cut straight back into the hill. Here were buried the nomarchs (provincial governors) and other important civil leaders of the nome (from the Greek word nomos, for “province”). According to various ancient Egyptian geographical records, Beni Hasan was situated in the sixteenth Upper Egyptian nome. Inscriptions refer to the province as the “[white] oryx nome.” Two ancient Egyptian toponyms used either for Beni Hasan or for nearby regions are menat Khufu (“that which nurtures Khufu”) and djut Heru (“the mountain of Horus”); in the first name, the reference to Khufu, the fourth dynasty builder of the great pyramid at Giza, is not clear.

The date of the upper tombs has been debated widely. Three of the burials (nos. 2, 3, and 14) are reasonably well dated to the twelfth dynasty by their inscriptions, and many scholars regard the remaining tombs in the upper tier as contemporary. Textual, archaeological, and artistic evidence, however, has led to a redating of some of the tombs (nos. 15, 17, 27, 29, and 33) to the late eleventh dynasty or perhaps even earlier to the poorly understood era known as the First Intermediate Period. The lower cemetery contains about 890 pit tombs or L-shaped shafts sunk into the slope of the hill; these burials date from the late sixth dynasty to the first half of the twelfth dynasty. Although Beni Hasan is renowned chiefly for the wall scenes in the large tombs of the upper level—which are the most extensive, best preserved, and most significant paintings from central Egypt—the lower cemetery cannot be ignored. It has yielded a wealth of archaeological material that is invaluable for art history, architecture, social and political history, and philology.

Excavations at Beni Hasan introduced a new era of archaeological method in Egypt. The large tombs of the upper tier were recorded from 1890 to 1891 by Percy E. Newberry and George W. Fraser, who published the first excavation report in the renowned Archaeological Survey of Egypt series, established by the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) in London. One of their assistants was the young Howard Carter, who later discovered Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. Carter's beautiful color drawings constitute the best features of the report, which otherwise consists of overly reduced and in other respects unacceptable black-and-white line drawings of the wall paintings. Nonetheless, the publication is a cornerstone in modern epigraphy because it was a first attempt at facsimile recording.

The best preserved paintings in the upper cemetery appear in the tombs of the officials Amenemhat (tomb no. 2), Khnumhotep II (no. 3), Baqet III (no. 15), and Kheti (no. 17). The repertory of vignettes is enormous; perhaps the most popular topics belong to the genre known as “scenes of daily life” because they depict a wide variety of everyday activities, such as brewing, baking, butchering, cooking, wine making, hunting, fishing, fowling, harvesting, irrigating, laundering, pottery making, stone working, weaving, dancing, singing, and game playing. The tomb of Baqet III has two splendid registers of carefully detailed birds and bats. Many of those scenes may represent the material wealth and the ambience that the tomb owner hoped to enjoy in the next life—therefore, they depict not so much the actual trappings of worldly existence but an ideal, desired situation in paradise. Some pictorial elements in the tombs of Baqet III and Kheti are harder to classify: mythical animals of the desert and several unique hieroglyphs of sexual and cryptographic nature.

Other scenes and inscriptions provide tantalizing glimpses into the provincial Realpolitik. Of interest to the historian are the enormous tableaux of battles on the eastern walls of tombs 2, 3, 15, and 17. Just what conflict(s) they illustrate is not clear: either a confrontation between the rival kingdoms during the First Intermediate Period or the putative difficulties surrounding the accession of Amenemhet I at the beginning of the twelfth dynasty. The inscriptions in tombs 2, 3, and 14 contain vague references to civil strife. In tomb 3 (Khnumhotep II) is a long biographical inscription that details the division of the nome by the kings Amenemhet I and II and Khnumhotep's promotion by the second king to the office of mayor. In the same tomb, a brightly colored and boldly executed painting shows a procession of Near Easterners, whose chief was labeled “ruler of foreign lands,” a designation later applied to the groups who migrated to Egypt during the latter half of the twelfth dynasty and throughout the Second Intermediate Period. In a much later Greek historical record, those people are the Hyksos, which is simply a Greek rendering of the ancient Egyptian term. Egyptian and Greek accounts vilify the Hyksos as aggressors, and the Egyptians indeed engaged in sporadic battles with the Near Easterners during the Second Intermediate Period. Those conflicts represent a later development in Egyptian—Near Eastern relations, however, because in Khnumhotep's tomb at Beni Hasan, the “ruler of foreign lands” and his family are shown as peaceful pastoralists and traders.

According to a longstanding theory, the disappearance of the title of nomarch and the cessation of large tombs at Beni Hasan and elsewhere in Egypt during the second half of the twelfth dynasty supposedly signifies a successful royal nullification of the threat posed by those powerful provincial rulers. An important study (Franke, 1991) has convincingly demonstrated, however, the falsity of that claim, in that provincial officials did not pose a threat to the king, and the title of nomarch had been disappearing gradually since the first half of the dynasty. At Beni Hasan, for example, Amenemhat of tomb 2 was the last nomarch, and he died during the reign of Senwosret I, the second king of the dynasty. Furthermore, far from purging the nomarchs, the pharaohs promoted them to important positions at the capital to centralize provincial wealth and influence.

From 1902 through 1904, the lower necropolis was excavated by John Garstang for the University of Liverpool. The earliest of the almost 890 graves (nos. 481 and 482) are exceptional because they are cut straight back into the hillside, unlike the pit burials. The unpublished tomb 481 is important because it preserves most of its original inscriptions and raised relief. All 890 tombs are modest in size, and not one has wall paintings. Consequently, these tombs do not receive the attention accorded to the renowned tombs in the upper range. Nonetheless, the burials have yielded a wealth of archaeological material, such as pottery, coffins, wooden models of boats and servants, and other funerary equipment; these data are crucial to the determination of the date of the burials in both levels at Beni Hasan. For all its many inaccuracies, particularly in its descriptions and lists of materials, Garstang's eminently readable and still valuable report is a fine synthesis of archaeological discoveries and wider contexts, such as history, funerary practices, and religion.

Despite Newberry's and Garstang's efforts, Beni Hasan has not been completely explored, and the archaeological material has never been thoroughly analyzed. In particular, the burial shafts in the tombs of the upper range have not been completely excavated. Numerous wall paintings and inscriptions from those same burials remain unpublished. The correspondence between the many coffins from the site and the tombs in which they were deposited cannot be determined in several instances. Newberry made little, if any, effort to analyze the pottery found in the upper tombs. Furthermore, because Garstang did not record carefully the distribution of the material that he took from the lower cemetery (see Annales du service des antiquités de l'Égypte 5 [1904], 215–228), the current locations of many items cannot be determined. Consequently, the full significance of the lower necropolis may never be realized.


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Donald B. Spanel