Archive | December 2013

“Son of a count!”

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“Son of a count!”

No, this isn’t an ancient Egyptian swear.  It’s the phrase that sometimes labels sons of the female administrator named Tjat in the tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hasan.  In a recent post, I discussed the interpretation of Tjat’s role in Khnumhotep’s household and my doubts about her having been the mistress or second wife of this man.

There are many pieces of evidence that scholars have mentioned or which could be pointed out as a justification for the idea that she and Khnumhotep II had a sexual relationship.  The best and most commonly cited evidence are the following factors: Tjat’s two sons are sometimes labelled “son of a count” (sȝ ḥȝti-ʿ), Tjat and her sons take a prominent place in multiple scenes within Khnumhotep’s tomb, and Tjat’s son Khnumhotep IV started building a massive tomb next to that of Khnumhotep II (it was left unfinished).  In this post and future ones, I will address each of these pieces of evidence, as well as some more minor ones, and how they fit into the larger context of ancient Egyptian social, artistic, and writing conventions.

We know that Tjat had at least two sons because these sons are described as being born by Tjat.  It is helpful that during the Middle Kingdom ancient Egyptians had a preference for recording their mothers’ names with their own in this fashion, but this only gets us so far, as in most cases the name of the father is not mentioned.  Because of this ambiguity, we often are not able to identify a person’s parentage with certainty.  Thus, other evidence – such as artistic conventions for where and how people are depicted in tomb scenes or the administrative titles that people held – is often used to try to fill in the gaps.  The former practice can be decently reliable in some types of cases in which Egyptian conventions are well-understood and will be the subject of a future post.  However, the latter can be more problematic.  Today I would like to focus on the interpretation of the title (or, more accurately, “label”) “son of a count” as identifying Tjat’s sons – Khumhotep and Nehri – as sons of Khnumhotep II.


Following Khety’s sons, Tjat’s son Nehri stands at the far right. He is labelled: “Son of a count, Nehri, born by the sealer Tjat, true of voice.” (Newberry, Beni Hasan I, pl. XXXV)

I must start by saying that the use of the label “son of a count” for Tjat’s sons in the tomb of Khnumhotep II is decent evidence for a father-son relationship and is the best of all possible evidence for this relationship.  However, that Tjat’s sons were sons specifically of Khnumhotep II is not the only option.  To understand why, we have to take a step back and look at the Khnumhotep family as a whole (or rather, as whole as the evidence will allow).

First, one must note that every elder male member of Khnumhotep II’s family named in his tomb is said to be a “count” (more accurately rendered as either “mayor” or as a general term for a “high-ranking official,” depending on the context, but for the sake of consistency I will continue to translate this title as “count” here).  This title is extremely common among the high elite in Middle Kingdom Egypt and often seems to denote a level of status or rank, rather than an administrative position with specific duties.  Khnumhotep II and his male family members all have administrative titles that are more specific in addition to “count” in their titularies.

We do not know as much about the father of Khnumhotep II and his family as we do about Khnumhotep II’s mother’s family.  However, we know that his father also held the title of “count” and that while he was probably from another area of Middle Egypt, he lived and worked near the capital of Itj-tawy when he married Khnumhotep II’s mother.  In addition to the use of this title by his father, maternal grandfather, and maternal uncle, the mother of Khnumhotep II is called both “daughter of a count” (sȝt ḥȝti-ʿ) and “countess” (ḥȝtit-ʿ) in his biography.  Thus, we know that both sides of his family used the title of “count” quite extensively, denoting their place in the high elite.

Khnumhotep Family Tree-medium

The Khnumhotep Family Tree. The men designated as “count” in Khnumhotep II’s tomb are shaded green.  Copyright Melinda Nelson-Hurst.

Khnumhotep II’s wife, Khety, is also called “daughter of a count” and “countess.”  We also know that she came from the ruling family in a neighboring nome (geographic district).  The biography of Khnumhotep II states that his eldest son by Khety, Nakht II, took over the position of his maternal grandfather (Khety’s father), making him also a “count” and ruler of the neighboring nome.  Therefore, we know from these texts that the Khnumhotep family was intermarried with high-ranking families of at least two other geographic areas, all of whom carried the title of “count.”

The commonality of the title “count” among these interconnected elite families means that Tjat could have been married to a family member of Khnumhotep II or Khety, who would have held the title “count” by virtue of the family’s status.  In such a scenario, Tjat’s sons would still be related to Khnumhotep II (which also could account for their appearance in his tomb), but not as his sons.  They could be his nephews, cousins, in-laws of some type, or even his grandsons.  Of course, they might also be from an unrelated family, but that possibility seems unlikely, since Khnumhotep II was in some way related to multiple elite families (that is, the people who would hold the title of “count”) in the region surrounding Beni Hasan.  Thus, the label “son of a count” by itself is not as solid evidence for Khnumhotep II having fathered Tjat’s children as it initially sounds, though it is still one of the possibilities.

Now that we’ve reached the end of this post, some of you may be thinking “But why, if Tjat were married, is she shown without a husband in the tomb scenes and does not carry the title of “lady of the house” (nbt pr) within Khnumhotep II’s tomb?  These are questions that I will address in later posts.

Works referenced:

Newberry, P.E., and F. Ll. Griffith. Beni Hasan. vol. I, Archaeological Survey of Egypt 1. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co., 1893.