Lucie: Welcome to Season Two of Museum Secrets. I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every week I’ll be taking you behind the scenes at the Ashmolean. There are a million objects here in the museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times.
When it comes to understanding the Ancient Egyptians, the pharaohs take up a lot of the bandwidth. They carved their faces everywhere, built themselves into the landscape with their temples and tombs, and made sure their exploits were recorded in hieroglyphs. It’s pretty remarkable that thousands of years after Tutankhamun’s death, schoolchildren in a damp corner of Europe are still learning his name. The pharaohs were masters of P.R.
But in comparison, there is a fraction of the evidence about the lived experience of everyday Egyptians. And when it comes to the lives of everyday Egyptian women, it’s a fraction of a fraction.
Which is just one of the many reasons why it’s worth stepping into the Ashmolean. Here, you’ll find one of the few surviving records of an Ancient Egyptian woman in her own voice.
Meet Naunakhte. She was a mother with a grudge.
Naunakhte lived in a village called Deir El-Medina. It was a collection of houses made of mud bricks and stone, at the top of a mountain path on the edge of the desert near Luxor. Its original walls still survive, and if you visit today, you can walk the same streets that Naunakhte did 3,000 years ago.
Deir El-Medina was not your usual Ancient Egyptian village. It was built specifically to house the craftsmen employed by the pharaohs to build their vast tomb complexes in the nearby Valley of the Kings. Around 1,200 people lived there, including the stone cutters who engineered and dug the tombs into the mountainside, the draughtsmen who designed the tombs’ decorations, the sculptors who cut the reliefs on the walls, and the painters who mixed and added the colours. This was a highly skilled community, and as a result they were unusually literate. Whereas it is estimated that just 1% of the general population of Ancient Egypt could read and write, around 40% of the residents at Deir el-Medina could wield a pen. We know more about this remote, tight-knit village than practically any other settlement in Ancient Egypt. They left behind letters, love poems, and prayers, as well as records of dreams, medical prescriptions and disputes with the local police force. We even have the first record of strike action in history. The community wrote a letter to the pharaoh’s top official, informing him that they were downing tools in protest against outstanding unpaid wages.
Deir el-Medina is also the source of a lot of the evidence we have about Egyptian women in this era.
Including - Naunakhte. Her last will and testament survives on a two meter long piece of papyrus, now housed here at the Ashmolean. The document is precisely dated to the third year of the reign of Ramesses V on the fifth day of the fourth month of the flooding of the Nile - in today’s terms, around 1145 BC.
Naunakhte had a bone to pick.
The papyrus tells us that she has eight children, but she’s irritated by three of them, Neferhotep, Henshene and Khanub, who apparently aren’t doing their duty to their venerable old mum. ‘But see’, she says, ‘I am grown old, and see, they are not looking after me in my turn’. Naunakhte’s solution: teach them a lesson by disinheriting them. Of the five remaining well-behaved children, she has a favourite, Ken-hair-hepesh-ef’, who gets a special extra gift of a copper bowl.
So what does this tell us? Well, Naunakhte’s family doesn’t seem so different to one today, caught up in some all-too-familiar arguments: tensions around an inheritance, the responsibility of children to support their elderly parents, and perhaps we detect some undercurrents of sibling rivalry, with the golden child Ken-hair-hepesh-ef’ versus the three rebels who aren’t pulling their weight.
At the bottom there is an added note in different handwriting, from a year later, saying that one of the three disinherited children, Neferhotep, contested the will, but the other siblings upheld their mother’s wishes.
In short, this document contains all the ingredients of a really good soap opera, or a really bad Christmas dinner.
But in the end, the document reveals more than a family feud. Crucially, it shows us that Naunakhte could choose to do what she wanted with her own property. The document specifically states that the three problem children are still allowed to inherit from their father, Khaemnun, and Naunakhte is only talking about the possessions which are hers. Because of this piece of papyrus, we know that women and men of the time had equal legal ownership rights.
And it’s also fascinating to see what Naunakhte was leaving behind, and the children were squabbling over. It’s hardly a fortune. Naunakhte tells us herself that everything she owns she inherited from her father and a first husband who died. It’s all household objects, like that copper bowl, items that would have been at the heart of the family’s home. In fact, thisdocument itself, given the cost of the papyrus and the scribes needed to create it, would have been one of Naunakhte’s most valuable possessions, compared to the furniture and utensils it describes.
Even so, A lot of effort and friction has gone into distributing them among the children. 14 witnesses and two scribes were summoned to create this will - this was a real village affair. And then of course, there’s Neferhotep’s legal appeal against it. Although not worth a fortune in monetary terms, it seems that Naunakhte’s possessions had potent sentimental value to her and her children. They clearly really cared about who got what furniture. That copper bowl meant much more to them than the cost of the copper.
And this feels very familiar too. We all know what it means to cherish an object for its emotional history, to hold something which is priceless to you just because it once nestled in the hands of a beloved parent or grandparents.
There is so much more going on here than just a legal document. It’s a family story about duty, love, old age, inter-generational friction and sibling rivalry, and it’s about why we value what we value. And it’s also a story of a woman with a sense of justice, who refused to put up with bad behaviour. I get the feeling Naunakhte would have been an interesting woman to meet. And if you want to get a sense of her spirit, come and visit the Ancient Egypt galleries when the museum opens later this spring. She’s waiting for you there.
Thank you for listening to Museum Secrets. If you want to take a look at Naunakhte’s will right now, then follow the link in the podcast notes. If you are enjoying the podcast, please do rate, review, and share it, to help other listeners find us. Join me next week, for a story about boardgames and skyscrapers. Until then, stay well.