The monochrome tombs of Deir el-Medineh

The idea that the yellow-ochre backgrounds, in the Theban paintings, characterise the Ramesside period, must be abandoned. They developed with it, but are far from being related to all the tombs of the nobles, which mostly have a white background and sometimes blue. On the other hand, on the site of Deir el-Medineh, all tombs - apart from those with monochrome decoration - have a yellow-ochre base, including the eight tombs decorated during the XVIIIth Dynasty which have survived, for example: (Cherpion).

Throughout the whole Theban necropolis, the themes of the daily life in fashion in the tombs of the XVIIIth Dynasty, gave way, from the reign of Amenophis III, to religious and funeral scenes: funeral processions, opening of the mouth in front of the chapel, , offerings to the deceased or to divinities, formulae from the Book of the Dead, etc. At the time of Ramesses II, this process finished. The reasons which underlie it remain unclear, but there is every reason to see there, more than just an effect of fashion, a change in mentality and another perception of the divine, in a context of new solar religion which imposes itself after the Amarnian period.
At Deir el-Medineh, maybe because of the influence exercised on the workers by the royal tomb decoration, all tombs have this type of purely religious and funeral style, even those of the XVIIIth Dynasty. Only one exception is known: the tomb of Ipuy, TT217, which shows the inhabitants of the village in some of their occupations.

The majority of the funerary chambers of Deir el-Medineh were achieved with a very reduced number of colours and they belong to a group called "monochrome". It is therefore on these that the attention of the following is focused: this will examine their common characteristics and in which way they differ from the rarer "polychrome" (multicoloured) chambers.

Comparison between monochromatic and polychromatic burial chambersComparaison entre caveaux monochromes et polychromes

There is no better introduction to define the monochrome style than the one of the great Bernard Bruyère (originally in French) :
Called "monochrome decorated tombs", the twenty-two funerary monuments which cannot be found anywhere else other than Deir el-Medineh, in which the silhouettes which decorate the walls are achieved in yellow-ochre on a white background, whilst the use of black and red identifies restricted representations, internal details of figures and objects and the delimitation of hieroglyphic inscriptions […] These 22 tombs form a sufficiently homogeneous group in time, space, style and themes to justify their grouping". It may be added that this style is only found in the chambers, with one exception, the surface chapel of TT250.
It is nowadays necessary to amend the definition of Bruyère: at least one monochrome burial chamber exists outside Deir el-Medineh: the at Saqqara,(re)discovered in 1986. It is even older, since Maya was Director of the Treasury at the end of the 18th dynasty (from the reign of Akhenaten to that of Horemheb).

Tomb of Nefertari-monochromatic nicheTombe de Néfertari-Niche monochrome

It is worth mentioning the debatable role played by the tomb of queen Nefertari, one of the Great Royal Wives of Ramesses II, in the success of the monochrome style by the craftsmen. In the sarcophagus chamber, the "room of gold", in a small lateral niche destined to shelter the canopic jars, is represented, in monochrome on a white background, the figure of the winged goddess Nut, with a human body and golden wings, as are the hieroglyphics of the small accompanying text. On the side walls of this niche, can be seen the Four Children of Horus who have been produced in the same way. This type of representation is a reminder of the monochrome vignettes found in the papyri of the Book of the Dead. It is possible that the workers tried to replace the fragile support of the real payrus form by a more reliable one, the actual wall surface of the tomb. Two examples, dating from the XVIIIth Dynasty, attest to the ancient idea of adapting the papyrus to the rock surface in the tombs: for example in those of Tuthmosis III and his son Amenhotep II, in which there are of true papyrus images unfolded on the walls.
The role of the tomb of Nefertari, mentioned by Bruyère, is not formally established: on one hand, the first monochrome tombs of the site date back to the reign of Sethy I, on the other hand, it is thought that it is rather the queen's tomb which presents the signs indicating the influence of the chambers of craftsmen, not the reverse.

Possible reasons for the emergence of the monochrome style

(according to Bernard Bruyère)

The monochrome work, even though it may have been faster, is not a reduction in quality. There was no specialisation amongst the designers and painters, nor the chamber or chapel, or for monochrome or polychrome. The same painter exercised his talent in any part of the tomb, and by any process.
However, the monochrome decoration was born in a particular place, in the middle of a small group of people, for a relatively short period of time, confined to the XIXth Dynasty, and especially the reign of Ramesses II. It therefore possible to think of a genuine school, to which belonged a certain number of painters, all more or less united by kinship relationship (widely speaking) in this microcosm which was the village, where professional heredity ruled.
Gradually this style disappeared during the XXth Dynasty, a period which, it is said, saw much more re-use than new constructions. No trace is found after the reign of Ramesses IV.
Note should be made that the monochrome decoration was not confined to the tombs, because traces can be found in the houses of the workers, notably in the first room.

1)- The religious motif

It was the symbolism of gold which was sought after, but why this interest for the yellow metal?
Gold, the unchanging metal, is the material of the flesh of the gods, supposed to magically protect against corruption (and in particular against putrefaction) everything which is in its radiance. Used initially in the temples (it was in the "chamber of gold" that the divine statue rests in the depths of the temple), it then passed to a royal use, first by the individualisation in the tomb of a "room of gold", then by the use of metal on the mummy itself (sometimes in an excessive way, as with Tutankhamun).
Private individuals had access to gold, but could not buy any for themselves. In the best cases they could possibly obtain some in the form of jewelry, or a small veneer. So they found, as a substitute, the yellow-ochre paint. This could be used extensively on the sarcophagus (including the ones of dignitaries, who were able to plate them with gold) and some who had the idea to use the supposed radiance of the colour to protect all the decoration (and the content) of the funerary chamber.

2)- The economic reasons

It was rare for a craftsman of Deir el-Medineh, if his tomb possessed a chamber and a chapel, that he could decorate both. Often, he had to choose which, and in this case the archaeological survey shows that more emphasis was paid to the burial chamber. This is how Sennedjem, has the famous polychrome chamber in his tomb, TT1, whereas his surface chapel is not decorated. Nakhtamon was the same, but he chose monochrome decoration for his tomb chamber, TT335. On the contrary, architect Kha has a decorated chapel (TT8), but his tomb chamber is uninscribed.
With the sole exception of the chapel TT250, the monochrome decoration is reserved to the burial chamber and the polychrome to the chapel; so there are only 8 polychrome chambers, whereas there are 26 chapels

a) - The cost and availability of the pigments

(Lucas, Lee & Quirke)

The yellow-ochre was easy to obtain, it was found in abundance around Deir el-Bahari. This is goethite, an oxide ore composed of quartz grains surrounded by a thin coat rich in iron, with inclusions of iron and titanium. The small ochre grains of this were reminiscent of gold dust, it was possible that the Egyptians saw in it one of the stages (prior to or otherwise final) with the "life" of the metal itself. It is known that they had established the relationship between the mineral universe and the world of the gods (Aufrère).
The white comes from crushing the local limestone (calcium carbonate) or gypsum (calcium sulphate).
The black essentially comes from soot, more rarely from charcoal.
The red, which served primarily to draw the contours, was provided by hematites, the natural oxides of iron, or by red-ochre (abundant in the country) which is the anhydrate of yellow-ochre, which turns red when heated because heat drives off the water ligands.

In contrast, other pigments come from far away or require a special preparation. Blue can be manufactured from azurite, coming from the mines of Sinai, but more often it was obtained from finely ground frit. This is a ceramic made of a mixture of silica, malachite (copper oxide, also from the Sinai) and heated calcium. According to the proportions and the temperature, a pigment is produced, whose hue varies from blue to green (which is also the main source of the green pigment).
It was not only the cost which made these pigments difficult to obtain, but probably their rarity at a time when the decoration of many royal and princely tombs used much of the production. In addition, as known from John Romer, the activity in the necropolis of the nobles followed the same pattern as that of the royal tombs. This very interesting survey shows that a single authority oversaw the whole, and that in some periods the demands on materials had to be very great; this not only included the pigments, but also the tools, oil for the lighting, etc.

The difficulties in obtaining some pigments doesn't explain everything however. For example, contrary to tradition, the men's skin is painted yellow-ochre, whereas traditionally this would be red-brown. However, the red-ochre is no more difficult to obtain than the yellow-ochre: it is therefore more about a deliberate choice, in the setting of a style. Similarly, the pink, although a simple mixture of red-ochre and gypsum, is not used.

b)- The lack of time

During the great period of prosperity of the reign of Ramesses II, the royal site had to run at full capacity, monopolising the manpower and expertise. This period also corresponds to the one during which the workers themselves, although prosperous, were the more demanding. From where a shortage of manpower and the interest in using the monochrome technique: it saved considerable time, for example, by avoiding painting the background of the walls in yellow before completing the decoration. On the other hand, Bruyère adds: "it permitted the use of a young apprentice to fill the shapes which the draftsman had previously drawn", which must be qualified: so in tomb TT5, of Neferabet, it can clearly be seen that the draftsman applied the outline drawings after the yellow colour had been applied, to rectify the drawing or to highlight certain parts of the images (see image opposite), however it is hard to imagine that a novice painted these solids relatively accurately without guidelines, unless the designer had first made a rough draft.

Comparison between the themes developed in the monochrome and polychrome chambers

It can be found that in various tombs, decorated in monochrome, that some themes are repeated from one to another, just as there is an obvious unity of craftsmanship, as well as a fondness in the choice of the details of the composition: the attitude and orientation of the characters, the selection of accessories, particularities of the faces, limbs and costumes […] Also can be noted the resemblance of the faces, the general indication of the corner of the mouth, the wrinkles in the neck and chest, the proportions of the body, etc. (Bruyère) .

Hanane Gaber analysed the decorative programs of the monochrome and polychrome chambers, and identified the differences in the amount of text, the presence of chapters from the Book of the Dead on the transformation of the deceased into eternity. Firstly the representation of the various deities in the judgement of the deceased, which occurred in the "Hall of the Two Truths (the two Ma'at) ", the fields of Yaru, Isis, Nephthys, the four children of Horus and the presence of inscriptions on the vaulted ceiling indicating north and south. According to her, these differences are sufficient to consider that "two distinct religious thoughts controlled the choice of decoration".

1) - The long texts extracted from the Book of the Dead

Texts are abundant in the polychrome tombs but rare in the monochrome tombs, where they are written in much bigger characters. In the monochrome tombs it is the image which predominates. It is sufficient to compare the scene of Anubis taking care of the mummy in the polychrome chamber of Amennakht, TT218, with the same scene in the monochrome chamber of Nakhtamon, TT335. In the first, are found 25 columns of compact text, written in hieroglyphs of small size, whilst in the second, only a brief formula is spoken by Anubis.
In the monochrome tombs, the long inscriptions from the Book of the Dead disappear, replaced by numerous officiating priests, or by additional scenes.
Another difference, in the polychrome chambers, is that the scribe often starts his chapters with "formula for…, as used in the Book of the Dead, whereas this beginning is only attested twice in the monochrome chambers (Nebenmaat TT219 and Nakhtamon TT335).

2) - The formulas for transformation into a divinity

These formulas are present in most polychrome chambers, but are completely absent in the monochrome chambers, even though the corresponding vignette exists. It is not impossible that these men, who were not all literate, preferred some images to long sentences which they didn't fully understand. Thus, in TT218b can be seen Amennakht, who invokes the divine falcon with the formulae of chapter 78 of the BoD, whilst in TT2 is found Khabekhnet in front of a falcon, identified as the Horus of Edfu (Behdet), with no text other than the name, see opposite.

3) - The representation of the divinities of the divine courtroom

(Chapter 18 of the BoD) These disappear completely in the monochrome tombs, just like the actual "Hall of the Two Truths".

4) - The fields of Yaru

This section (from chapter 110 of the BoD) has also disappeared. Also called the "fields of the afterlife", also "countryside of happiness", these Elysian fields represent the place where the justified deceased sees himself assigned to a patch of land: the harvests there are monumental, effected by nothing disastrous, no grasshoppers no disease, etc. The most famous example is in the multicolour chamber of Sennedjem, TT1 (see ).

5) - Isis, Nephthys and the four Children of Horus

The two winged goddesses sometimes appear on the tympanum (the curved upper area of the end walls), in the monochrome decoration, whereas it is never the case in the polychrome imagery (see ).
The polychrome chamber arched ceiling doesn't include boxed areas dedicated to the four Children of Horus (except in the tomb of Kaha, TT360), whilst these are frequently found in the monochrome vaults.

The association of Isis - Nephthys and Children of Horus, is brought closer in the decoration of the monochrome burial chambers with the use on the coffins and sarcophagi from the end of the Middle Kingdom.
In addition, the association of some of the images from chapter 151A of the BoD is found solely in the monochrome chambers: Isis, Nephthys, the four Children of Horus, and Anubis taking care of the mummy. This shows the importance given by the owners of the monochrome chamber to the safeguard of the mummy, to the detriment of the deceased's activities in the world of the hereafter.

6) - The bands of text situated on ends of the curved ceiling

These columns (two at each end - north and south - of the curved ceiling, see south end image opposite) proclaim: "to the north you belong" and "to the south you belong" are only in the monochrome chambers (exception, Qaha TT360). In the monochrome style, the ends of the curved ceiling are oriented (geographically or fictitiously) to the north and to the south, and this direction is associated also with Isis (south) and Nephthys (north).

The workers of the tombs in the rest of Egypt

It is well established that the royal craftsmen didn't remain confined to Deir el-Medineh, but that they exercised their craftsmanship elsewhere in the country. From Aswan and the first cataract, they brought back a special devotion for the goddesses Satet (Sathis) and Anuket (Anukis), which can be found on the walls of some chambers, such as Nakhtamon, TT335, (see ). In the same way, the Asian gods and goddesses are frequently manifested in the village, notably on stelae (Repesh, Astarte, etc.) but they are never found on the walls of the tombs. The Hereafter is the preserve of the indigenous divinities.

Since 1996, thanks to the excavations of the French Mission of Bubasteion (), elements have accumulated to suggest that some members of the workforce were also employed in Saqqara. Thus the sculptor Qen, owner of the Theban tomb TT4 (unpublished, but will soon be on OsirisNet) would have worked in the Bubasteion tomb I.16 belonging to a very important character, Netcherouymes (or Pirikhnawa). He was one of the ambassadors sent by Ramesses II to sign a peace treaty with the Hittites, the oldest known in history. For example, the theme of the cow, Hathor, emerging from the mountains protecting a Pharaoh is strangely similar to the one found in the tomb of Qen. In the same way, the tomb called "of the artists" (Bubasteion I.19) belongs to two "directors of the scribes in the Place of Truth", Thutmose (Djehutymes) and Kenna. It remains to be formally proven that this represents the same "Place of Truth"…

List of the 22 monochrome chambers
Owner Era
TT2b Khabekhnet Ramesses II - Ramesses III
TT4 Qen Ramesses II
TT5 Neferabet Ramesses II
TT10b Penbuy & Kasa Ramesses II-Ramesses III
TT211 Paneb Sethy I-Ramesses II
TT213 Penamon Sethy I-Siptah
TT214 Khawy Ramesses II
TT216 Neferhotep Ramesses II
TT219 Nebenmaat Ramesses II
TT220 Khaemteri Ramesses II
TT266 Amennakht Sethy I-Ramesses II
TT292 Pachedu Ramesses II
TT298 Baky & Wennefer Sethy I-Ramesses II
TT299 Inerkhau Ramesses II-Ramesses III
TT321 Khaemopet Ramesses II
TT323 Pached Sethy I
TT335 Nakhtamon Ramesses II
TT336 Neferrenpet Ramesses II
TT337 Ken Ramesses II
TT355 Amenpahapi (?) Ramesses IV
TT356 Amenemwia Ramesses II
N°1413 unknown XIXth Dynasty
Only one chapel is monochrome
TT250 Ramose Ramesses II
List of the 6 polychrome chapels
of the XVIIIth Dynasty
TT8 Kha
TT291 Nakhtmin
TT325 Smen
TT338 Maya
TT340 Amenemhat
TT354 unknown
List of the 8 polychrome chambers
of the XIXth Dynasty (7 owners)
TT1 Sennedjem
TT3 Pached
TT6 Neferhotep & Nebnefer
TT218 Amennakht (2 chambers)
TT265 Amenemipet
TT290 Irinefer
TT360 Qeha
List of the 4 polychrome chambers
of the XXth Dynasty (2 owners)
TT267 Hay (2 chambers)
TT359 Inherkhau (2 chambers)
8 tombs with associated polychrome chapel
and monochrome chamber
TT4 Qen
TT5 Neferabou
TT10 Penbuy & Kasa
TT216 Neferhotep
TT219 Nebenmaat
TT266 Amennakht
TT292 Pached
TT298 Baky & Wennefer