The tomb of Userhat , TT56

Userhat was a civil servant of middle-upper class in the middle of the 18th Dynasty. His tomb TT56 is located towards the bottom of the hill of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, corresponding to his social status. The tomb was open to the public for numerous years, but only intermittently. Its shape and its decoration are classic, but of a remarkable execution, and the monument represents one from the height of funeral craftsmanship of the time. It owes this in particular to two famous scenes, the one of the barbers, and the one of the chariot hunt, both reproduced in many publications on ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, it will be seen that it is not the only interest of this tomb; indeed, it was produced during a period of transition during which are seen stylistic modifications in relation to tradition, which will then become progressively widespread.


At the beginning of the first half of the 19th century, the tomb of Userhat was never mentioned. However, it must have been accessible since Wilkinson copied some of the inscriptions in 1827. Graffiti - "Eastnor, 1842" - was found close to the scene of the musicians. Richard Lepsius visited the chapel in 1843 and recorded that access was made by an opening in the wall of tomb TT57. From his commentary is the description of the royal scene of the transverse gallery (), and of the capture of birds with a draw net ().
The opening of TT56 didn't take place until the winter of 19O3-O4 by Robert Mond. Whether he emptied the funerary wells is unknown at the moment.
In 1932-36, important restorations were necessary. Mond had noted that because of subsidence in the proximity of the tomb, the ground and walls of TT56 moved. Concrete was used to recover and reinstate the tomb and to thus make it more secure. Nevertheless, no drawings or report of excavations, were published at this time.
In 1956, new cracks entailed a greater restoration and security, which were led by Labib Habachi. From this time, some scenes, such as the hunt () and the barber (), are often reproduced. But others, such as the royal scene, the funeral procession, the nursemaid, were neither scientifically evaluated nor published.
It would be necessary to wait until 1986 before a complete publication was produced by Christine Beinlich-Seeber and Abdel Ghaffar Schedid.


The monument dates from the 18th Dynasty, but a doubt persists about its precise dating. The stylistic and architectural criteria indicate the reign of Amenhotep (Amenophis) II. Mond noticed the existence of a brick stamped with the cartouche of Thutmosis IV. The details of the jewellery, the clothing, the character of the scenes, the comparison of the decor with the Theban tombs TT172 and TT84, are all arguments in favour of being later, TT56 being more finished in relation to the other monuments.
But a comparison with TT74, the tomb of Tjanuni, from the time of Thutmosis IV (military scenes), is also possible; as well as with TT78, the tomb of Horemheb, which has very similar scenes from the point of view of the movement and attitudes of the bodies, but again more perfected.
The conclusion of these observations gives, for the tomb of Userhat, the period corresponding to the end of the reign of Amenhotep II, with a likely movement towards that of Thutmosis IV.


Location of the tomb

Tomb TT56 is in the plain, just at the bottom of the hill of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna. This location well reflects the middle social status of Userhat, because the dignitaries of the time were buried higher up the hill, to the north-east, in sight of Deir el Bahari. It is only later, when the place was full, that the dignitaries would use the lower part of the hill. The tomb is part of a group of monuments dating from the period which extends from Hatshepsut to Amenhotep II.
Thus, the tomb is found close to TT123 of Amenemhat, who was Accountant of the Grain under Thutmosis III (therefore a predecessor of Userhat and under his jurisdiction), as well as TT224, belonging to the tutor of Amenhotep II, Ahmose-Hemi.
The group of tombs underlies that of Khaemhat (TT57) ; it is relatively close to that of Ramose () ; these last two date from the end of the 18th Dynasty.

Type of tomb

TT56 presents the usual shape of the tombs of the 18th Dynasty, consisting of an open courtyard, then two chambers (sometimes with annexes, this one doesn't have any), created in the shape of an inverted "T". The burial chambers were accessible by one or more well-shafts.

Orientation of the tomb

Symbolically the courtyard providing access to the tombs should be oriented toward the east (sunrise, course of the Nile, day, life), while the interior chambers should be at the west (to the setting sun, darkness, kingdom of the dead). TT56, as well as the group of the tombs to which it belongs, deviate from this east-west axis to a more north-south one, because of the alignment of the hill into which it is constructed.
This "deviation" from the norm is not rare, either to avoid existing monuments, or other tombs, the processional path towards Deir el Bahari, the funeral temple, or simply from lack of place.
In the case of TT56, three hypotheses are foreseeable: 1) either a tomb had previously existed on the site of the courtyard, but the poor quality of the rock would not have allowed re-cutting, and that it would have therefore been levelled. 2) either this site had begun to be arranged for Userhat, but the crumbling quality of the rock had forced the master of works to deviate the sense of the burial, while preserving a part of the courtyard previously excavated. 3) this possibility, less probable, would be that the courtyard has been arranged after the tomb was either started or finished.


It is necessary to always have in mind that an Egyptian tomb is a lot more than just a place to deposit a mummy; it marks the place where the deceased remained "available" to the outside world, where people could provide the necessary cult provisions for his survival in the afterlife.
This is why the tomb is conceived as a dwelling, with a courtyard, an entry, a chapel accessible to the public, and an inaccessible private part, the burial chamber

Plans of the tomb based on Kampp: 'Die Thebanische Nekropole'.
All measurements are referenced from these plans.

The tomb complex, including the courtyard, had been hollowed into the solid rock.
The courtyard is almost oblong, with however irregularities due to the rock, which was thus sometimes only roughly cut. It is likely that the initial access was at the west, under the present modern staircase of seven steps.
The entry of the tomb opens up in the rocky wall of the southern end of the courtyard, slightly to the left of centre; it is framed by posts and lintels which are sculpted in the natural stone.
Two steps cut into the rock lead 1 metre below the level of the courtyard, to a longitudinal chamber (the bar of the inverted "T"). This includes at its two extremities the places for cult worship, represented by a stela and a false door on the two small end walls. They are located directly behind two funerary well shafts, of a 1.2m cross section.
At the end of the long corridor, which lies on the same axis as the entrance, stood a human-sized statuary group, carved into the rock, which represented the owner and his wife, and which constituted another place for cult worship. Of this only the lower part of the statue of Userhat'e wife has survived.


Unlike most tombs of the 18th Dynasty, TT56 is almost completely decorated. However, numerous scenes are not finished, and especially the texts, which are missing in places, or the contours of the signs are present, but the hieroglyphs have not been coloured. The walls and ceilings are finished, except for the final part of the right wall, where sketches are still visible.
The conservation of the drawings and inscriptions can be qualified as remarkable, the colours are in particular of an exceptional freshness, apart from the black which has faded.
Major deterioration can be seen in the doorway between the transverse hall and the long hall, and on the rear (south) wall of the long hall, where the statues have almost disappeared. Cracks due to earthquakes are also visible, and have been strengthened.
In the transverse part, towards the south-east, part of the base of the wall has collapsed, causing the loss of a third of the decoration, which related to the upper part of the scene of the festival of the valley. The rear wall, close to the false door is also affected, but the usual succession of scenes makes possible their interpretation.
As already stated, the statues representing the owner and his wife are almost destroyed, as also is part of the texts at the periphery of the niche.

Two types of acts of vandalism, fortunately limited, are visible.

The first, hammerings, date from the Amarnian period and affected the name of the god Amon and his consort goddess Mut, as well as the titles and derivatives of names. The determinative of Anubis can also be seen to have been touched. Voluntarily or not, these targeted depredations were made in an unmethodical and very incomplete way: numerous mentions of Amon-Ra, Anubis, Osiris remain, whereas other non related whole lines have been erased. The vandal probably didn't know how to read. In the post-Amarnian period, a partial restoration of the name of Amon in some of the inscriptions occurred, but only on the entry doorway.
The second wave of vandalism is due to the Coptic monks who stayed in the tomb. They altered some paintings and added crosses and strange tiny creatures.


In the middle of 18th Dynasty, the decoration of a civil tomb consists in a biographic summary of the deceased's life in the transverse part, and of scenes appropriate to the funeral ceremony and the passage into the beyond in the perpendicular corridor. The burial chamber was inaccessible and it was not decorated.

The modest dimensions of the tomb TT56 permits easy visibility of the distribution of the scenes.
After getting used to the semi-darkness, the quality of the decor can be seen to be very striking, the relative scarceness of the texts, and by a clear predominance of pink and sand-coloured tints. The colourful ceilings, for once intact, reinforce the first impression of a quality monument.

A more attentive examination shows curious problems of symmetry (which could be intentional). Even the strict compositions of the stela and the false door include axial deviations. An exception to this rule is located at the beginning of the entry corridor, where the lower registers are drawn as "mirror" images.
All walls are surmounted by a kheker frieze, the exception of the rear wall of the second chamber. The bottom the walls, under the lowest register, have a short colourful border above a blank dado, which separates it from the ground. This is formed with two thick red and yellow bands, surrounded by a smaller yellow band. The vertical and top boundaries of each of the scene areas is edged with the usual ladder frieze, formed from colourful checkerboards, which act as a framework to the scenes.
Generally, the height of the lowest registers of the walls is the smallest, and increases to the upper one.
But these general arrangements, for balanced as they are, are not rigid. The artist varies the distribution of the elements in the space and overlaps the lines of the registers, what provokes an effect which today would be called distance and foreground, the effect of perspective. Thus, the penetration of a character's head into the upper register makes this scene the foreground in relation to the other. The decoration is also marked by the omnipresence of the owner in almost all the scenes, often causing the rupture of the corresponding register lines.
Noticeable is the use of small characters or animals, moving in opposite direction from the progression of the scene; or the accumulation of objects (offerings), or of obstacles (lined with papyrus), or even of the owner of the tomb himself, to close the scene.

The problems of orientation of the monument have already been mentioned. The rigorous traditional planning toward the west having not been respected, the decoration would consciously re-establish a "canonical" ideal of worship and religious orientation.

How many craftsmen worked in the tomb?

The ability and style expressed in the different registers are as good as signatures. So in TT56, work started without sketches, the great contours of the colours were improved and amalgamated with the prime coat, and each phase gradually corrected and supplemented the preceding one. In such a process, it is inevitably the same hand which decides when and how a scene is completed. The treatment of the surfaces in the manner of the royal tombs, by two teams right and left, is here inconceivable. This is because of the narrowness of the places being decorated: this tomb with chambers of 1.80m wide, could support only with difficulty more than 6 or 7 people, painters and operators, with their material.
Christine Beinlich-Seeber doesn't think that the paintings were carried out over successive periods. For her, three contemporary hands are recognisable.

Painter A

He achieved the scenes of the burning of offerings, the festival of the valley, and the false door. These are the scenes of a great classic style, with meticulous details, a technique completely mastered with regard to the contours, the objects and the registers.
The proportions of the characters are good, narrow shoulders, fine heads. This is a painter with talent, impregnated with the classic style of the time of Thutmosis III.

Painter B

In the scenes of hunting, harpooning of fish, capturing birds, the presentation of the harvests to the king and the lower register of the festival of the valley, another hand can be felt, freer, almost spontaneous, who has little respect for linearity and detail. The contours are less stiff, the shapes more rounded, more natural. The characters are less stylised, the heads and the shoulders have volume. This is an artist who has the sense and talent of production; he searches for continuity in the scenes, favours the tightness and the collision of the subjects.

Painter C

This craftsman, who was responsible for the funerary scenes, was the least gifted of the three. The proportions of his characters are not always correct, with big heads on thin bodies, unrefined faces and prominent chins. The horse in the funerary procession is particularly badly rendered. In the difficult stances of the mourners, the connections of the neck and the shoulders are bizarre. It is probably not about hasty or neglected execution, but rather of a lack of mastery of drawing. However, the scene of navigation towards Abydos is much more successful. It would be the same man who, with an assistant, would have painted the ceilings, the two working in opposite directions.

Some iconographic elements concerning the clothing

In this second half of the 15th century B.C., in the middle of the 18th Dynasty, Egyptian artists freed themselves progressively from the strict and antiquated restraints, in order to interpret a new style of themes which had remained unchangeable. A refined mannerism, contemporary of a stable period of prosperity, will express itself in the poses of the characters, and their clothes, giving an impression of sensuality.
Here are some examples of the characteristics of the tomb:

1 - dress and hairstyles of the ladies

 - non use of the tripartite wig clearing the ear
- representation of a new hairstyle: a tripartite wig with plaits covering the ear; one piece wigs
- large front headbands, which hold lotus flowers on the forehead
- semi-spherical perfume cones
- enclosed dresses, reaching the ankles, the hem touching the heel
- drapery and fine lace coverings
- bracelets for the upper and lower arm

2 - dress and hairstyles of the men

 - short, straight or rounded wigs, covering the forehead
- long wigs covering the forehead, clear of the ears or not (TT56 is the only tomb under Amenhotep II to present this peculiarity)
- representation of the slim old style shirt and the ample, transparent shirt, which didn't exist at the beginning of the reign of Amenhotep II.
- smooth shawl, worn without a shirt, again in use under Thutmosis IV
- short kilts and long thin belts, with a pointed end, but also large belts, non decorated, in use only under Thutmosis IV, and whose extremities hang softly.

These criteria of style help towards the dating of the tomb, and point towards the latter third of the reign of Amenhotep II.

The Texts

The texts were not the main concern of Userhat, who preferred images. Another event also explains this relative rarity: the columns destined to contain them often remained empty, because of a premature proclamation to stop work in the tomb, probably bound to the death of Userhat.

In the transverse chamber (A) the scenes are described. Two types of inscriptions are present:

The inscriptions concerning scenes: title and name of the participants, title of the scene, words uttered with the offerings and ritual words.

The independent inscriptions: formulas of offerings, and formulas concerning Amon.

On the framing of the entrance to chamber B, work is in raised relief and well presented, and the signs are painted ().

In the longitudinal chamber (B), only the ceiling, the framing of the statue niche and occasionally some texts above the scenes are inscribed. Even though inscribed, where no paint has been applied these can be extremely difficult to see.



(lit: "Powerful (is) that which is in front", or "The power is in front")

He carries the same name as the processional barque of the god Amon, which was kept in the temple of Karnak.
His titles - as the tomb provides them to us - are "Great confidant of the Lord of the Two Lands", "Royal scribe", "Overseer of the herds of Amon", "Deputy of the first Herald (Iamunedjeh) ("idnw wHmw tpy iAmwnDH") .
His most important function was "Accountant of Bread", more precisely, "Scribe who counts the breads for the Upper and Lower Egypt".
This function probably consisted in verifying the quantities of incoming wheat and to compare these to the number of breads produced, and to ensure that the various weights of grain measures were correct. Indeed, there were several stages between the supplying of the raw grain and the finished product; notably it was necessary to grind the wheat to make flour. Experience had probably found that, during these phases, grain or flour could disappear. In this setting, the provision of the army seems to have been one of his main responsibilities. The paintings of the tomb will fuller illuminate these functions.
No other information concerning Userhat is available than those found in the monument. No other source speaks of him.
This civil servant was of intermediate rank, but probably descended from a good family, because he had been a child of Kep, the royal school (). He had certainly accompanied the princes of kingdom there, and even the future Amenhotep II. It is likely that it was these connections with the court which allowed him to make use of the remarkable craftsmen to achieve his tomb. For Christine Beinlich-Seeber, Userhat was only an obscure lower civil servant who would not have had his tomb without his daughter's influence on the sovereign. I [T.B.] don't share this point of view.

His wife

This was a certain Mutneferet , a name also directly connected to the god Amon, since it represents the one based on the name of his consort goddess, Mut. Mutneferet carried the title "royal ornament", which probably corresponded to "lady of honour".

His children

Two girls are mentioned: Henut-neferet and Nebet-tawy .

Henutneferet obviously enjoyed the best social status, since she carries the titles of "Lady of the court, beloved of her Lord", "Praised by the Good God (=Pharaoh) ". On the completion of the tomb, she was probably still unmarried because she doesn't carry the name "Mistress of the house". It is likely, given her origins, that she had been raised with the princesses of the court, and that she distinguished herself through this.

The couple also had a son. He appears, named as "your son, whom you love, the wab-priest of Ptah", on the west side of the south wall, accompanied by his two sisters. The names of his sisters appear in the text, but the column in which his name should have appeared, has either been erased or was possibly never completed.

During the New Kingdom, it was the custom that the wives or the mothers of high ranking persons filled the role of governess in the royal household and that the boys of these families were raised in the palace with the royal children. The boys would acquire the title of "children of Kep" ("Xrd n (y) kp") . Userhat is one of the rare characters of the time, with his contemporary Amenemhab called Mahu (TT85), to have carried this title, thanks to which their future career in the king's service was assured.