Harkhebit’s sarcophagus is different from the imagery of Ancient Egypt that so many of us are used to. When I saw the sarcophagus on the museum floor, I was instantly intrigued. The material, the artistry and the morbid subject of its purpose hooked me in.
The Beginning of the End
Harkhebit’s sarcophagus originates from the Late Period — specifically between 595-526 BC — a relic of a time considered by many experts as the last traditionally Ancient Egyptian period . This was a time when the art and traditions of the Old Kingdom pharoahs was still valued.
After this, Egypt would pass between the hands of one invading country to the next; it would not be an independent nation again until 1952 CE .
Harkhebit’s sarcophagus is considered a technical triumph of late Egyptian hard-stone carving. Though not the very last of its kind, this sarcophagus and tomb would become a symbol of Egyptian traditions long forgotten.
A Visit in Person
In reality, the sarcophagus is imposing. Its stone is dark, almost black. Towering at a height of 8.4 ft., to stand beside it feels somber, perhaps only because I know how ancient it really is. Only when I noticed the half smile on Harkhebit’s face did I want a picture with him.
Religion and State
Harkhebit was not a ruler, but he was active in the political realms of Egypt. Inscribed on his sarcophagus was a list of titles: Royal Seal Bearer, Sole Companion, Chief Priest of the Shrines of Upper and Lower Egypt and Overseer of the Cabinet.
He was a busy guy and he had friends in high places. The label Sole Companion is a term of honor set aside for courtiers or family members who associated with the king or pharaoh. And although only the king himself was considered the highest-ranking priest, religious officials such a Harkhebit were symbolic stand ins for the king.
As you can see, there was a whole lot of overlap between religion and the state. That would come to cause trouble for Egyptian royalty down the road . But at the time, religion enriched the functioning of the government.
The Prestige of Greywacke
People seemed to really like Harkhebit, and a great deal of effort was made to honor his passing. The reason his sarcophagus is still around today is because it was made out of greywacke, the dark and handsome cousin of limestone.
Greywacke is kinda a big deal. It was primarily used for the production of statues for private or royal clients. But a sarcophagus made of greywacke — that is rare.
The Egyptians could procure this heavy stone from the quarries of Wadi Hammamat in their homeland. Yet they would not go through the effort of gathering it unless it was for someone special .
Upon first opening the greywacke sarcophagus, workers found a gilded cedar coffin. And inside of that, the mummy of Harkhebit. He was decked out nicely with a silver-gilded mask, amulets and finger and toe stalls of sheet gold.
Before I looked them up, I thought that finger and toe stalls must be like those foam toe separators they give you at the spa when you get a pedicure done.
I was wrong.
Instead, finger and toe stalls are like little metal outfits for your phalanges, fitting over each like a cap. These stalls are meant to protect the deceased’s delicate fingers and toes during the funerary process and into the afterlife.
You can see the mask and stalls at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo where the cedar coffin, Harkhebit the mummy and a few other goodies from the tomb are also held.
The Metropolitan Museum in New York City purchased Harkhebit’s sarcophagus from the Egyptian government in 1907. And they also have finger and toe stalls from somebody else’s tomb, so if you can’t swing a trip to Cairo, try The Met.
A Popular Necropolis
Harkhebit was laid to rest in Saqqara, a necropolis for Memphis, the capital of Ancient Egypt at the time (not Memphis, Tennessee: iconic blues town and the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll). His tomb is located just 105 yards east of the first pyramid in Egypt to be constructed entirely of stone! Normally I would say that this is a dope place to claim as your gravesite, but the Step Pyramid of Djoser is a famous tourist destination and is totally stealing Harkhebit’s limelight. Fortunately, the treasures from his tomb are now safely held in various museums across the world.
The entrance to Harkhebit’s tomb is a vertical shaft passing through the solid limestone of Saqqara. Its depth surpasses sixty feet — an incredible feat considering how difficult it would have been to create such a structure. Harkhebit’s sarcophagus was laid in a huge chamber at the terminus of this tunnel.
A Thoughtfully Constructed Tomb
By the time the sarcophagus of Harkhebit was excavated, it had been chilling in its underground lair for nearly 2500 years. Though the artisans who made his tomb went to great efforts to keep Harkhebit’s body from being looted, you will see in the image below that upon its excavation in 1902, the sarcophagus was found with its lid pushed aside, presumably by looters.
The limestone chamber itself was without decoration. But whoever buried Harkehebit put thought into ensuring he would be cared for in the afterlife.
Buried with Harkhebit were shabti statuettes. These figurines range in size from four to twenty inches tall and you’ll often find them holding tools in their arms, such as rakes or hoes. The shabti figures were meant to be stand ins for Harkhebit in the afterlife, should he be called by the gods to do manual labor. The idea was the shabti figures would step in for Harkhebit and do the dirty work while he rested or did higher level work in his afterlife.
Deities of the Organs
Egyptians living in this period attempted to preserve many parts of the deceased’s body as they believed the physical body was still needed in the afterlife . Therefore, no Ancient Egyptian tomb is complete without canopic jars.
Canopic jars. You know, those jars that ancient Egyptians used to put preserved organs in. Yes, Harkhebit was down there sleeping with his pickled organs all this time.
Usually you would find at least four canopic jars in a tomb, each with the head of an important deity on the lid who was associated with everyone’s favorite organs: the intestines, lungs, liver and the stomach .
Personalizing the Book of the Dead
Hieroglyphic text from the Book of the Dead is masterfully etched into the top of Harkhebit’s sarcophagus. If you were able to afford it, you could have a script of the Book of the Dead customized with spells and images that you felt would give you the best chance of having a blessed afterlife. Harkhebit was lucky enough to have the incantations customized with his name.
An Egyptian Book of the Dead will focus on prayers and incantations thought to be essential for a quality existence in the afterlife. This includes spells needed to enter the afterlife, receive food and drink there and to be successful in harvesting the Fields of Offerings (those shabti figures will come in handy for that).
Through the case of Harkhebit, I’ve been able to examine the traditional aspects of Ancient Egypt’s culture. But seeing the sarcophagus in person, that truly piqued my personal interest in knowing more about Harkhebit’s story. So many people have been captivated by the stories of Ancient Egypt, but the uniqueness of Harkhebit’s sarcophagus brings something different to the cliches we’re so familiar with.
- Editors of The Metropolitan website. “Sarcophagus of Harkhebit”. The Met. Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/548211 Dec.2019.
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4. Rice, M. (1999). Who’s Who in Ancient Egypt. London & New York, Routledge. Page 33.
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8. Awady, T. E. (2019). “In pictures: the glittering treasures of Tutankhamun”. History Extra. Retrieved from https://www.historyextra.com/period/treasures-tutankhamun-tomb-pharaoh-afterlife-facts-exhibition/ Dec.2019.
9. Editors of The Metropolitan website. “Canopic Jar”. The Met. Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/559935 Dec. 2019.