This exquisite, wooden figure ensured that Meketre would enjoy fine food for eternity.
The hills of the Theban necropolis, on the west bank of the Nile opposite modern Luxor, are honeycombed with tombs, great and small. Archaeologists from the Metropolitan Museum of Art worked at Luxor for about 30 years in the first half of the 20th century.
The tomb of the royal chief steward Meketre (TT280) was well known to Egyptology. Placed high up a cliff on the West Bank, it had been loosely explored twice in modern times as well as having been thoroughly looted in antiquity. The previous official probings had not been well recorded, so in early 1920, the Met's archaeologist, Herbert Winlock, had his workmen clean out the accumulated debris in order to draw an accurate floor plan of the tomb.
He wasn't expecting to find much, but Winlock's diligence was to be well rewarded.
His men found something that the ancient tomb robbers had overlooked: a bricked-up opening in the floor of the tomb corridor. As Winlock records,"... when one by one we lay flat on the ground and shot a beam of light into that crack, one of the most startling sights it is ever a digger's luck to see flashed before us."
His workmen had uncovered "... a small, totally untouched chamber crammed with myriads of little, brightly painted statuettes of men and animals and models of boats." No one had entered the chamber since it had been sealed almost four thousand years earlier.
The models were designed to secure ample provisions for Meketre's afterlife. Among the boats, animals and craftsmen were two tall (over a metre), slender, female figures bringing food to the deceased. Each balanced a basket on her head in the same manner as you see women carry produce in the Egyptian countryside today.
The two statues were Estate Figures, embodying the products of estates that Meketre hopoed would provide the offerings for his funeral cult in perpetuity.
In the division of finds between the Egyptian Government and the Metropolitan Museum, half of the contents went to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and half went to New York. The New York figure (MMA 20.3.7) carries a basket of food while the Cairo statue carries a basket containing four red jars that are most likely for wine (JE 46725).
Pictured is the Met's Estate Figure, richly adorned with jewellery and wearing a dress decorated with a pattern of feathers, the kind of garment often associated with goddesses. Thus, the two female figures may also reference the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, the sisters of Osiris who are often depicted at the foot and head of coffins, protecting the deceased.
Meketre served under the great King Mentuhotep II of Dynasty 11 who unified Egypt after the First Intermediate Period. His career spanned the reigns of Mentuhoteps III and IV and finally Amenemhat I, founder of the 12th Dynasty.
King Amenemhat revived the art of pyramid-building after a 150-year-hiatus, however Meketre didn't live to see it. He and his Estate Figures were buried during the very early years of Amenemhat's reign, around 1985 B.C.
Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.