New Kingdom Egyptian Funerary Cones

Funerary Cone of the Royal Herald Intef (Met Museum)

On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) in New York, is a fascinating Ancient Egyptian pottery piece identified as the “Funerary Cone of the Royal Herald Intef.” The cone of the royal herald Intef, honoring him along with the god Osiris, was created sometime between 1479-1453 B.C. during the eighteenth dynasty of the New Kingdom under the joint reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III and excavated from the Dra’ Abu el-Naga’ site in Thebes, Upper Egypt, around 1913. Funerary cones are pottery stamped with a seal that is inscribed to identify someone’s tomb, though some lack a seal, inscription, or the person’s name. It is likely that the cones were produced in large quantities, and after production they were stamped and fired in kilns. The stamps are deep impressions atop the cones. According to the Met, “hundreds of stamped pottery cones like this one have been found in the non-royal cemeteries of the Theban necropolis.” The cones, arranged horizontally along the exterior frames of tombs, were made regardless of class lines and some denote neither rank nor title, but only feature the decedent’s name. Funerary cones have been found in and around Thebes, but they also have been found further south where Egypt extended its claim into Nubia, now modern-day Sudan. Some cones were excavated far from their tombs while others are illegible due to natural environmental damage. However, the majority of these cones are from the Eighteenth dynasty of the New Kingdom. Ancient Egypt is often admired for its varied and intricate burial traditions in which the Old Kingdom is known for its great pyramids while the New Kingdom is remembered for its focus on building tombs underground. Overall, both kingdoms spent countless years creating elaborate burial sites, art, and different objects that went with the deceased, but the New Kingdom’s Eighteenth dynasty exemplified how graves were created and decorated for people across age, gender, and class lines.

Death in Ancient Egyptian society was an elaborate affair. Belief in an afterlife was widespread and it was important to prepare the dead for the afterlife. Tombs and pyramids honored the dead and all that went into them was to aid the deceased in the afterlife. Religion was inextricably linked to society, so funeral rites and mortuary art were of paramount importance in Ancient Egypt. The Pharaoh was a god in human form, therefore death was not the end for the pharaohs, rather it allowed them to rejoin the gods in the heavens. In past dynasties, only high ranking royals were able to engage in elaborate burials. From its earliest formations, Ancient Egyptians cultivated a practice of storing organs in canopic jars, embalming the decedent’s body, burying food and necessities, and consolidating the wealth of leaders by including jewels and gold in their pyramids and tombs. Honoring the dead and the gods were of paramount importance and the most powerful dynasties poured resources into the creation and upkeep of tombs and temples. The New Kingdom expanded on this tradition by developing new temples and tombs carved into the ground in Thebes.

New Kingdom underground burials were just as elaborate as the more famous pyramids of the Old Kingdom. In the New Kingdom, statues, art, and funerary cones were created for their exclusive use in tombs. Items featured prominently in tombs such as pottery, clothing, and toiletries had ritual, religious, and functional use. Funerary cones are one of many types of Egyptian mortuary pottery. Funerary cones were not a gendered item, they were inscribed for men and women. Although some cones were painted, they were not intricately decorated because it was expected that they might deteriorate over time as they were positioned outside the tomb. Funerary cones are inherently connected to Ancient Egyptian religion. This connection is visible in the inclusion of Egyptian gods and goddesses on inscriptions, like Intef’s funerary cone, which has a phrase that possibly translates from the Late Egyptian language as “one revered by Osiris.” This inscription may signify devotion to a specific god or goddess, membership in a particular cult, or the popularity of certain gods across dynasties. Pottery within the tomb could be more elaborate. Some storage and canopic jars inside tombs were plain, lightly decorated, or intricately inscribed, carved, and painted. Heavily detailed artistry on the surface of a piece of pottery did not indicate that the piece had no practical use.

It was also during the New Kingdom that funeral rites were extended beyond the royal family. During times of prosperity, the Ancient Egyptians’ funerary art was especially varied and well-crafted to ensure that they would create a lasting legacy. It was important for people across gender and class lines to have some type of acknowledgment of existence. Women were prominent in the New Kingdom, particularly one of the most famous pharaohs of the Eighteenth dynasty, Hatshepsut. As pharaoh, Hatshepsut created her own mortuary temple, demonstrating the prosperity and stability that defined her rule. However, funerary cones are part of the shift away from earlier customs of only reserving honor for deceased royals. Some cones were stamped with the names of men and women who worked in the theocracy. The inclusion of women shows that they may have possessed a more respected status than our typical assumptions about ancient societies. Both men and women held religious titles, but few women had political titles. Women engaged in theocracy through their work in major and minor temples. The ability of women to hold positions of power and privilege shows that Egyptian society had a stronger emphasis on class hierarchies than strictly gendered positions. In some cases, Ancient Egypt upheld class barriers more often than patriarchy. Overall, the creation of structures like the funerary cones of House Mistress Sitamun, the mortuary temple of Pharaoh Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari, and other artistic monuments for the exaltation of women shows that they were active participants in Egyptian society.

Today, funerary cones are most useful in telling us about societal values and the members of the Eighteenth dynasty’s bureaucracy. The sheer number of funerary cones and the ability of New Kingdom rulers to build new temples and tombs shows that Ancient Egypt during this time had stable leadership that allowed them to prosper. However, funerary cones tell us more than just the names and occupations of the people they memorialize. They show us what was necessary for these people to leave behind. If these cones operated as headstones, they were the only thing some people had to tell their story to the people who came after them. They show us the importance of preparing for the afterlife and remind us of our own mortality. What would you want on your headstone? If all you can leave behind in writing is your name and a few words, what would you want those words to be?

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Yasmine Guy

Yasmine Guy is an undergraduate student at Morgan State University, they are a senior History major with a French minor. They have worked as a digitization intern for the University Archives since their junior year. They are interested in Black diaspora and gender histories, capitalism and imperialism in the Atlantic world, and museum studies and public history. They enjoy using their minor to enhance their understanding and analysis of the history of colonization and imperialism in the Caribbean and the Middle East. They are researching a thesis analyzing race and language in mid-twentieth-century anthropology.

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    Yasmine Guy is a brilliant mind!

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