Mastaba D64 : the decorated areas belonging to Ptahhotep


Ptahhotep - "Ptah is satisfied" - is an anthroponym formed from the name of the god Ptah, head of the Memphite region and its necropolis. This name was carried by several high officials of the Vth Dynasty, who mostly reached the position of vizier, making of them the most important characters in Egypt, after the king. Ptahhotep shares with his father Akhethotep, who was also a vizier, - a double mastaba, of which he occupies only a modest part. Was he himself a vizier ? Even though the title doesn't appear positively in his chapel, it nevertheless appears on his sarcophagus.
In his chapel, Ptahhotep is represented in the company of his two "eldest" sons, of which one carries the name of his father Ptahhotep and the other that of his grandfather Akhethotep. Both held important functions during the reign of Unas, successor of Djedkare-lsesi, and last king of the Vth Dynasty.
Just like his predecessors, Ptahhotep carried many titles, of which some cover actual functions, while others are purely honorary.
Ptahhotep was notably "inspector of the priests of the pyramid of Isesi, of the wab-priests of the pyramid of Niuserre (and) of the priests of the pyramid of Menkauhor".
Among other titles, Ptahhotep especially takes advantage of the title of "priest of Ma'at" or the epithet "who likes Ma'at", denominations indicating a major function comparable to the one of a real minister of the justice. He held more functions in direct relation to royal power. His important functions and moreover his marked affinity to Ma'at - an expression of the first order and of Justice - sometimes were worth him to be identified as the author of the famous Maxims of Ptahhotep, of which we are far from being certain.
Of the other titles held by Ptahhotep, he shared "inspector of canals" with his two eldest sons; while others included :
- First after the King
- Staff of the people
- Governor of the Great House
- Director of the Great Court
- Chief of the secrets of all commands of the King
and many more…


The portion of the whole mastaba attributable to Phathotep is entered by passing through a narrow doorway in the south-east corner of the pillared hall.

The floor level of the first small room, effectively the antechamber, is lower than that of the previous hall by about 0.3m, its roof being no higher than the 2m high entrance, giving the room a height of about 2.33m. On the right hand side is a shelved recess. In the bottom corner of this was found a shell containing red paint. It is possible that it may have been left in that dark place by one of the artists who painted the snails of the chapel within, perhaps the master Ptahenankh himself.

The construction of the mastaba to the east of this antechamber is not fully known. A stairway had been constructed after discovery by Mariette in order that the aristocracy of Egypt could enter Ptahhotep's chamber. This was possibly at the cost of some destruction. It is only by the removal of this and a critical examination of the foundations here that the original plan may in time be recovered.
However, close to the door of the chapel a narrow passage leads to the left into a room built in white limestone and even smaller than the antechamber. This leads to at least two more rooms, which, at the time of Davies, were still filled with fallen bricks and stones.

A doorway at the south end of the antechamber leads to the chapel of Ptahhotep. This doorway, only a metre wide and 2.2m high, is decorated on both sides. Again the floor level is lowered, now being 0.7m lower than that of the pillared hall. This time the ceiling level is raised considerably. It is the chapel of Ptahhotep which will be the main topic of this page. It appears to be very modest by its measurements, 5.3m north-south and 2.3m east-west, with a height of 3.75m (2.75m of which is sculptured, the false doors are of course almost full height, reaching to about 0.5m from the floor). On the other hand, it is absolutely remarkable by the quality of its painted bas-reliefs, which comfortably sustain comparison with those of the . It is partly for this reason that the whole of the mastaba, in an incorrect manner, is called the "Tomb (or chapel) of Ptahhotep".
The ceiling is constructed from two immense roofing stones, the visible side of which has been grooved and painted a warm red, to represent the trunks of palm trees which are laid transversely across the chamber (). The decorated areas of the walls were faced with white limestone before being sculpted and painted. The lower portion, below the decoration, is of a courser purplish stone.

The wall decoration in general

It is almost certain that when Mariette discovered the chapel of Ptahhotep, in the middle of the 19th century, the bas-reliefs would still have retained a good portion and freshness of their colours. But the administrative negligence often coupled with a lack of respect for the elementary techniques of conservation during about fifty years, altered the colourful beauty of a great number of the representations.
Because of its lack of size, the chapel of Ptahhotep doesn't offer anywhere near the decorative surface comparable to those which are offered by the great mastabas of the beginning of the 5th Dynasty. But this restricted surface presents a certain advantage: it concentrates in very little space, the major representations, avoiding certain "repetitions" specific to larger tombs.
Independently of the representations common to all mastabas, bound to the preparation and the indispensable offering contribution for the deceased's survival (here the south and west walls), the chapel of Ptahhotep, is rich with original scenes, combining the precision of attentive observation with that of the remarkable smoothness of execution.
All representations from the chapel are intimately bound together: from the functional efficiency of the hunting scenes in the desert (for example, views and ) or of the most remarkable representations of breeding (for example, views , ) found on the east wall; to the representation of the supply of table offerings for Ptahhotep (for example, views , and ) of the west wall. Inversely, of the effectiveness of the deceased's funerary food, mentioned on the west wall, the place of nocturnal regeneration (solar rebirth) depends upon the pursuit of his daily activities representing on the east wall. The decor of the chapel achieves, thanks to the interaction between different permanent scenes of the "daily" terrestrial life of Ptahhotep, in assuring his funerary future, the funeral representations validating for eternity the action led by the deceased when he was alive.

Entrance doorway

On the two inside thickness walls of the entrance, in four symmetrical registers, appears the transportation of the offerings. The "servants of the ka" bring the necessary elements for provision of the table of offerings, represented on the west wall of the chamber. The majority of the products result from breeding - cattle and birds.

On the east (left) wall, the top register contains oxen. On the three registers below there are miscellaneous offerings brought by "ka-servants" ().

The west (right) wall contains similar content on the lower three registers, but probably the most interesting element, appears in the upper register. In this can be found the most representative inhabitants of the farmyard, of which every species is indicated by name. Appearing successively from top to bottom and from left to right, whose names are found in the hieroglyphic writing: some geese with white foreheads (tjerep), some ducks (pekhet), some pigeons (menut), some common grey geese (ra), some pintail ducks (set) and some other geese (ser).

North wall

Upper part of the north wall

The different representations decorating the upper part of the north wall in its eastern section illustrate the early activities of Ptahhotep: decorated with toiletry and musical episodes, and the attentive listening to the principle official reports submitted to his authority.

Enthroned on his splendid seat, Ptahhotep receives official reports from an official at the front of the third register, while around him servants fuss with his outward appearance: one adjusts his wig and beard, another brings linen and a third, a pedicure expert, smears his feet with a fragrant ointment. From behind him, another brings him a box with legs. Below him a pet handler retains three sloughi and a monkey (which still retains some of its blue colour) on leashes ().

On the top register is a harpist accompanied by another person clapping time, or clicking his fingers. Behind them four dwarfs check their master's jewelled collars and ornaments for his adornment.
The two middle registers each present a succession of six civil servants knelt in attitudes of respectful submissiveness.
On the lowest register are three more musicians - a harpist, a chantress and a flutist (). In front of them a favoured person helps himself from an large pile of provisions; he is the chief stone-mason, Sethef, probably the builder of the tomb.

Lower part of the north wall

Situated to the left of the doorway when viewing it, and distributed on four registers, the scenes again illustrate the contribution of the offerings and the ritual carving of the livestock into pieces ().

The top register contains "Bringing things to the superintendent of the pyramid city… Ptahhotep.".

The second register: "Bringing tribute, sprouting things and all good things by the ka-servants, …".

The third and fourth register contains the cutting up of livestock. These two registers contain the conversations, between the characters, in the hieroglyphic text above them.

On the third register, the fifth man, who holds the leg of the second ox, extends his hand to the "chief wab-priest of Pharaoh, the physician Akhatarna, saying, "See this blood!". The priest replies, "This is pure.".

On the fourth register, the two men on the left speedily cut the foreleg of an ox, whereas their companion exclaims proudly: "see this heart !". On the right, a final participant advances, carrying a large container. He orders the butchers, who busy themselves: "Give me this blood !".

East wall

Developing a rich theme, the eastern wall divides into two great scenes: on the left (= north half) there appears a full size figure of Ptahhotep, accompanied by his "eldest son" Ptahhotep (II). He takes pleasure to gaze upon "the pleasing activities accomplished by the whole country.". On the right (= south half), Ptahhotep (older than on the left), always represented full size, but this time accompanied by his "eldest son" Akhethotep, contemplate "the contributions from the fortresses and the cities from the South and North of the funerary domain…".

The decor presents a very great variety of themes, also evoking the natural setting in its different biotopes which the various activities of a population of peasant-fishermen, underlining all the importance of breeding which constituted the main wealth of senior officials in charge of the administration of the great domains.

The left part (north half)

The group of scenes are distributed in 7 main registers, of which two (registers 4 and 5) are subdivided into half registers.
Ptahhotep is represented full size. He wears a large necklace decorated with four rows of pearls and a pendant in the shape of a heart. Coiffured with a short wig, he is clothed with a triangular loincloth and holds the long staff, insignia of his high office.
Above Ptahhotep, the legend states that he is "seeing every pleasant amusement which is performed in the whole land". The inscription concludes with a list of his titles.
He is preceded by "his eldest son, whom he loves; the sab-ad-mer (meaning: inspector of canals) , Ptahhotep". The son is pictured at smaller scale, holding a hoopoe bird in one hand by the wings and holding the bottom of the staff which his father carries : a picturesque way to underline the hereditary transmission of the his father's office.
Another canal inspector also accompanies Ptahhotep, but at his rear, this is Seshem-ka.

First Register : The upper register is damaged in its left part. Nevertheless, still recognisable there is the traditional passage of the herd crossing water. The continuation of the representation is dedicated to the gathering of papyrus, its processing and its transportation in bundles. The making of those materials used for the construction of (small) boats, an activity represented in the fifth register.

Second Register : This register is dedicated entirely to games and to physical exercises carried out by individual teenagers, detailing the technical aspect of their physical prowess. The second register appears as a symbolic manifestation of the very strong vitality which youth expresses, which thus translates into a promise of vital renewal for Ptahhotep, who contemplates these scenes. However, it may not be necessary to assign to these representations an essentially symbolic character, because these games of dexterity and balance were frequently practised.

span class="listepucenoire">Third Register : The grapevine appears to be attached to a long piece of wood. The scene develops from right to left, illustrating the care brought to the vine until the treading of the grape. At far left, a "servant of the ka" waters a stock plant which develops into a vine, from which a boy and two adults carefully harvest the heavy clusters. The legend clearly indicates "to pick the grape". After the treading comes the pressing of the grape, an operation carried out by 5 men. One of the characters, in full extension, seems to do the splits in suspension over his companions: It is the ingenious way imagined by the artist to suggest a large spatial deployment in a scene treated in two dimensions.

Fourth Register : Distributed in half registers, the scenes take place in the desert zone characterised by vegetation made up of a few rare bushes and dunes. The sharp sense of observation and the exceptional mastery of the animal artist, continue in a vivid manner in this succession of small compact images from life. In these, the principal representatives of the fauna appear, which the Egyptian drove out using the swift sloughi or sometimes even attempted to domesticate, as in the following example with certain antelopes.
Below, and as always, from left to right, a hunter - the servant of the ka, Iry -, draped in a garment which will protect him against the cold night, holds on leashes two sloughi, while observing a cow followed by its calf: the poor wretch has just been seized in the mouth by a dangerous lion (). A little further on, a gazelle and an oryx have been caught and then killed by the swift sloughi ().
A very nice piece of artistic detail is shown towards the right-hand edge of the register, just below the line separating the two sub-registers. This shows two hedgehogs, the leftmost of which has a grasshopper in its mouth (). But also notice how the scale of these is totally out of proportion to the beasts below.

Fifth Register : Various activities now take place on the banks of the stream. In the top section, on the left, a man prepares fish for drying. He opens them with a gesture of precision, by cutting them down the back with the help of a blade of flint or metal.
In the smaller sub-register, at the top, a boy and a craftsman manufacture some ropes, assembling then by twisting them from long fibres of papyrus. These ropes are destined for the manufacture of small boats, of which one sees the successive stages of manufacture below. This work required the involvement of qualified craftsmen, often assisted by their sons, which they progressively train in the technique of shipbuilding. As all apprentices, the young boy starts with small tasks requiring simple handling, as we could guess the surprising conversation between a father and his son: "0, vigorous boy, bring (me) the ropes", orders the craftsman. Challenged, he tightens two rollers, then with these words replies: "0, father, here is the rope for (you) !".

Sixth Register : The marshy zone, bordering the river and the canals, offered refuge and food to many birds which the Egyptians captured using nets and of which several came to enrich the farmyards of the great domain. By the signal given by the chief scribe, Upemneferet, two teams abruptly close the nets and imprisoning many birds, which are then put into a cage.

Seventh Register : The lowest register describes the return of the boatmen who, in a friendly joust, hurry to bring the products of the domain: baskets filled with eggs, poultry, small livestock. On the far left, a middle-aged man is seated in a light craft, partaking of food from a table. He is a favoured friend of Ptahhotep, and he was probably in charge of the decoration of the chapel. The text above him says that he is "his beloved and trusty mehenkh, the chief sculptor, Ankhenptah". Mehenkh is a friendly name given to architects and artists of tombs. With his name being sculpted into the limestone, it guaranteed his survival for eternity, next to the owner. This is an extremely rare fact, because Ankhenptah would then be one of the first Egyptian artists to have "signed" his own work.

The right part (south half)

In perfect symmetry with the north half, the scenes are also distributed on 7 registers, this time only register 4 is subdivided into two half registers. The uppermost register is interupted by a long narrow opening, which allows in both light and ventilation from outside.
Ptahhotep again appears to the right of the registers, again represented full size. This time he wears a longer black wig and he also wears a false beard, He is clothed as before in a triangular kilt and again holding his long staff of office. The text over his head, this time says that he is "seeing the tribute, the contributions of the fortresses and cities of the south and north.".
This time he is preceded by his other "eldest son, whom he loves; the sab-ad-mer (i.e., he is also: inspector of canals) , Akhethotep", named after his grandfather. This son also grasps his father's staff with one hand, whilst holding the hoopoe bird in the other.
Ptahhotep attends the presentation of the animals captured in the desert - mainly of herbivores, one of which he is going to attempt to domesticate - or raise in the funerary domains, primarily those for cattle.

First Register : Six pairs of youths are wrestling; one bears the name Akhethotep, and may be Ptahhotep's son. To the right, six youths drive a prisoner before them.

Second Register : Four men drag two sledges with cages, containing a lion and a leopard. Next two men with yokes carry bound animals, between them a man carries a gazelle on his shoulders. Finally, Khnemhetep leads his hounds.

Third Register : This is a continuation of the above scene, with a parade of animals controlled by six men ().

Fourth Register : This contains herdsmen and scenes with cattle, one of which is calving (see top of ). The narrow sub-register above contains tethered cattle ().

Fifth and Sixth Registers : Various groups of cattle are led or driven before Ptahhotep (, and ).

Seventh Register : The superintendent of the corn store, Kahap, leads a flock of crane. This is followed by two rows, the upper division containing three sorts of geese then a group of swans, the lower division contains ducks, widgeon and pigeons, these are finally followed by chicks. The numbers of each of these birds (numbering in total more than 600,000) is given in the accompanying text.

South wall

In symmetry with the lower part of the north wall, the south wall also develops a rich theme bound to the production, preparation and presentation of offerings destined for the funerary meal of Ptahhotep represented on the west wall.
As on the east wall, the uppermost register is interupted by a long narrow opening, allowing in both light and ventilation from outside.
In the upper double register an impressive accumulation of food is represented, quintessent of state-owned production.
The second and third registers are dedicated to the parade of young women, allegories of the domains of Ptahhotep. The accompanying descriptions give the names of these domains, and more importantly, the names of the nomes in which they are situated.
The fourth register is given over to scenes of butchering. Over the heads of the butchers are the words spoken by these individuals; such as those over the right-most pair, severing a foreleg, "Tug hard", "I am doing".
The fifth and sixth registers is the "Bringing of offerings by the ka-servants of the chief next to the king, Ptahhotep", shown in front of the offering table, on the right of the group. From their titles, these are people of rank, including a canal inspector Ptahhotep (probably the son, shown on the east wall).

West wall

This wall is formed from two massive limestone blocks, each of which occupies half the wall space. In order to produce the cornice moulding of the left door, the projection of the mouldings and the depth of the inner entries, the whole surface must have been reduced dramatically, and so originally they must have been of considerable thickness. Between the two false-door stelae, which are placed at the extremities of the wall, is located a scene with Ptahhotep seated before a table filled to a great height: the funeral meal of Ptahhotep (). This is the culminating representation of the chapel, its effective implementation validates all the scenes represented on the opposite (east) wall, which are a faithful image of his terrestrial life and a preview of his posthumous future.

Centre panel, offerings

Seated before an amply supplied table of offerings, Ptahhotep is dressed in a panther skin, the tail of which drapes over the seat of his chair and which is fastened by a elegant tie over his left shoulder. He raises up to his face, a vessel containing an ointment of which he breathes the regenerative perfume ().
Above him is an inscribed list giving his titles as priest of the pyramids of Isesi, Niuserre and Menkauhor. Note that Isesi is listed first, even though he followed the others to the throne, thus respectfully indicating that he was the reigning pharaoh of Ptahhotep. The leftmost column lists some of his important ministerial functions.
Also at the top of the centre section between the two false doors is a large tabulated list detailing the offerings and ceremonies connected with it.
Facing Ptahhotep, on the right-hand side of the offering table, are four registers of officiants. The upper row consist of priests, washing the slab of purification, burning incense and reciting the order of service. The three rows below are of people of a high standing, all bringing offerings to the table of the deceased.
Although the left portion of the lowest register and the items represented under the table are unpainted they are beautifully inscribed (). Directly under the table, either side of the stand, is an abbreviated list of the offerings in "thousands (a great many) of bread, beer, yarn, cloth, oxen, geese and antelopes.

The left (south) false-door

This false door is entirely inscribed and decorated, summarising on it only the terrestrial career of Ptahhotep, in a complete enumeration of his real and honorary functions ( and ). It is topped by a large covetto cornice, below which the whole false door is sculpted in relief.
On clearing the chamber, Davies found on the floor in front of the false door a simple low offering table. It was of a similar stone to that of the lower part of the wall and showed no sign of being inscribed. The fact that it was still embedded into a thin layer of mud, showed that it was in situ and original (just visible at the bottom of ). This is in keeping with the false door being the exit for the deceased for his participation in the cult ceremonies and his daily wanderings in the land of the living.

The false door is actually designed as a door within a door, each having an inscribed lintel (the outer one being of a more elaborate design) and door jambs each have two columns of text. Between the two architraves is a broad space almost totally filled with an abbreviated version of the scene of the table of offerings of the central area of this wall.
These four jambs are terminated with Ptahhotep's name and representations of him. The two inner ones are of the usual design, being upright representations. The left outer one shows him being carried in a canopied sedan chair by four porters. The right outer one shows him seated within a similar canopied structure () ; the text inside, recited by the small image of a priest (now unfortunately missing, but see bottom right of the ), indicates the fact that he will make a daily "tour" of inspection, as befits the deceased.

The text of the left outer jamb begins "Entering his house of eternity in most excellent peace, he being in a state of worthiness before Osiris…".
The text of the right outer jamb begins "Crossing the water in most excellent peace…, the taking of his hand by his fathers…".
The inner jambs contain the usual style text : "May the King give an offering…".

The right (north) false-door

This false door is not inscribed, it could however represent a simple passage giving access to annexes of the terrestrial house of Ptahhotep, where one temporarily stored all products destined for the funerary cult of the owner of the tomb. This addition to the conventional false door for comings and goings of the deceased, is unusual. The door is symmetrical in design, the left-hand side being a mirror image of the right.

Originally the structure was colourfully decorated in the extreme. At the time of Davies (the beginning of the 20th century) the fragments of paint still remaining were sufficient to make the artificial restoration almost, if not quite, possible. Using the records left by him I have created the door, in what could have been its original glory (see ). For better definition colour detail and indication of the profile, based on those of the Davies publication, see and . These include all of the patterns used on the false door and some of which are repeated in other areas than those shown.
It is difficult to see the depth of carved profile from the only modern photograph available, so take advantage of , taken over 100 years ago.

In the centre, under the rounded lintel (which may have been the only inscribed portion of the false door bearing the name Ptahhotep), the actual door is represented in a deep recess and painted as if created from narrow planks of wood. On either side, the broader vertical spaces are filled with coloured geometric patterns usually found on matting used for decoration of walls. These "mats" are painted as being held down at the base by cords passed through loops. The narrower spaces are filled with patterns having the appearance of chains, believed to represent actual chains used for raising and lowering the narrow hanging mats. At the bottom these loops fall together in a heap, while above they are stretched fully apart.