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Elite Theban Women of the Eighth-Sixth Centuries BCE in Egypt: Identity, Status and Mortuary Practice


The roles and status of women in ancient Egyptian society remain imperfectly defined particularly in the Third Intermediate and Late Periods. Egyptology has generally examined women from the perspective of fertility and sexuality, thus defining the social roles of women as wives and mothers who derived their status from their male associations. This dissertation discusses women's roles by investigating the ways in which elite Theban women constructed and displayed their identities in their mortuary practices during the eighth-sixth centuries BCE (Dynasties 22/25-Dynasty 26). In Thebes, the archaeological remains of the eighth-sixth centuries demonstrate conspicuous identity displays by men, but where and how women fit into this period of "big personalities" has not been analyzed in detail.

This dissertation argues that the eighth-sixth centuries BCE was not a time of decay, as it is traditionally characterized in Egyptology, but instead a dynamic era in which its cultural products, especially mortuary practices, exhibited a creative tension between tradition and innovation. Identity construction by the ancient Egyptians during a time of rapid socio-political change is manifested in this tension of tradition and innovation. Women featured prominently in the innovations of cultural practices such as kingship, religion, art and mortuary practices, which suggest that they fully participated in the societal-wide preoccupation of identity construction. Therefore, the eighth-sixth centuries BCE provides a rare opportunity to examine the nuances of elite female identity constructions.

The material evidence for elite Theban women derives primarily from mortuary contexts. Therefore, this dissertation uses the mortuary practices of elite Theban women in the eighth-sixth as its evidentiary core. Relevant mortuary evidence was compiled into two databases: the Tombs and Contents corpus and the Funerary Objects corpus. The first contains information on the Theban tombs and their contents that attested to the presence of women or belonged to women. The Funerary Objects corpus contains information on unprovenanced mortuary objects belonging to women that are attributed stylistically to Thebes. The information in these databases was analyzed for patterns in the allocation of titles, the spatiality of tombs and distribution and type of funerary objects. Furthermore, this project used different theoretical lenses of memory, landscape, gender and identity to analyze elite female mortuary practices in Thebes. The application of these theoretical lenses to the mortuary data revealed the ways elite women created and displayed important elements of their status and identity in death.

The results of the holistic analysis of elite female mortuary practices reveal that elite Theban women of the eighth-sixth centuries operated as active agents to more forcefully express their identities, especially status, albeit within the traditional societal modes and boundaries. Elite female strategies of identity construction were polysemic and complex. Elite female mortuary practices suggest, that, in contrast to traditional Egyptological understanding of women, elite Theban women of the eighth-sixth centuries did not derive their status and identity solely from their male relatives. Instead, their burial practices often reveal a concern with their own status independent of male associations.

Elite Theban women's concern for the display of their identity independent of men has implications for a number of issues concerning the social status of women in ancient Egypt, including the issue of mandatory celibacy of women in the Amen clergy. Another implication of this work is that Egyptology needs to expand beyond traditional frameworks of gender when analyzing women. By analyzing groups of women in their individual historical and socio-cultural contexts, this dissertation expands discussions of ancient Egyptian women beyond the monolithic categories of mother and wife. The archaeological analysis of the burial practices of elite Theban women of the eighth-sixth centuries suggests that ancient Egyptian women were active participants and contributors in societal trends of identity constructions. Elite female strategies of identity construction demonstrate complexities of identity conceptions by women that extend beyond the traditional scholarly characterizations that developed women's identities solely by reference to men.

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