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The Cemeteries of Deir el-Ballas: Non-elite burials of the 17th – 19th Dynasties and their relationship to the royal palace


The site of Deir el-Ballas was an important location in ancient Egyptian history as it appears to have been the forward campaign palace of the Theban ruling family of the late 17th Dynasty. Located 40 km north of Thebes, resources were gathered at this site in the reigns of Seqenere Tao, Kamose, and Ahmose before being deployed against the Hyksos. The palace was abandoned at some point during the reign of Ahmose – presumably after the defeat of the Hyksos – and the court returned to Thebes, but a small, non-elite population continued to inhabit the site. Based on the pottery and other material culture found in the cemeteries, the population seems to have peaked during the reigns of Hatshepsut/Thutmose III, then tapers off sharply in the reign of Amenhotep II/Thutmose IV. There is no material culture from the site reflecting usage during the subsequent Amarna period, and only a few tombs contained material pointing to a very limited presence in the late 18th-early 19th Dynasties.

The site was excavated briefly by James Quibell in 1894-95 (with no information published from his activities) then more thoroughly by the Hearst Expedition in 1900-1901 under the direction of George Andrew Reisner who was assisted by Albert Lythgoe and F.W. Green. Reisner never published his work at the site but several scholars have reviewed the field notes and documentation from the Hearst Expedition and used this information for their studies. Additionally, in the 1980s Peter Lacovara returned to the site for several brief seasons of excavation and clearance in some of the domestic areas. While the palace and settlement have been published to a limited extent (Stevenson Smith 1998, Lacovara 1981, 1990, 1993, 2006), the cemeteries at the site have received minimal attention with only a few vessels from the tombs appearing in publications (discussed in detail in this dissertation). To date, no systematic examination has been made of the tomb assemblages, and thus it is the purpose of this dissertation to present as comprehensively as possible the material from these non-elite burials. Re-examining an excavation from over a century ago presents numerous challenges: The cemeteries were all badly looted prior to the Hearst Expedition’s work at the site, the recording of the excavation work undertaken in 1900-1901 is uneven with many tombs and houses lacking any notes whatsoever, and many of the objects that were unearthed have lost their specific provenience or have suffered damage at some point between their discovery and their present, stable condition at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Nevertheless, despite the frustrations inherent in this type of investigation, the archival material and physical objects deserve to be published so they can shed light on the non-elite community who lived and died in the early 18th Dynasty at Deir el-Ballas. This cemetery material represents both a time period and a segment of the ancient Egyptian population about which there are very few studies, so however compromised and incomplete the primary data may be, it remains important to publish it.

In discussing the material remains from the cemeteries, the social status and burial customs of the population buried at Deir el-Ballas are examined using comparative evidence from Thebes and other nearby Upper Egyptian sites. Differences and similarities in funerary practices are highlighted, providing a picture of the regional specificity of this small, provincial population and the extent to which they did and did not emulate the capital at Thebes. Also in this dissertation, I explore the possible significance between the placement of the three cemeteries at the site and their relationship with the abandoned palace. I hypothesize that the inhabitants of Deir el-Ballas held a cultural memory of the Theban triumph over the Hyksos and maintained a connection with the illustrious past embodied in the abandoned royal palace. To explore this idea, the use of the landscape and the visual relationships between the palace and the cemeteries are analyzed through the lens of anthropological theories of phenomenology, cultural memory, and materiality. Evidence from Thebes and Abydos for worship of the divinized late 17th Dynasty – early 18th Dynasty rulers, especially king Ahmose but also the queen Ahmose-Nefertari, shows that the royal family who lived at Deir el-Ballas was held in particular esteem for generations after they had passed into history. We lack analogous textual or iconographic documentation of royal ancestor worship at Deir el-Ballas due to the lower social standing of its residents and their lack of access to such methods of display. However, by choosing to site the three cemeteries of the site with a direct viewshed of the royal palace, the population may have been connecting with the vestigial prestige and royal power associated with the palace. Several tombs in the cemeteries included faience tiles that were part of the palatial decoration among the grave goods; these tiles may represent a tangible amuletic link between the intercessory power of the royal family and the hoped-for successful attainment of the afterlife by the deceased.

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