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About Beni Hasan

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Beni Hasan (also spelt Beni Hassan) was one of the most important provincial necropoleis for the high officials in Middle Egypt during the Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasties (c. 2010 - 1650 BC). The site boasts large and beautifully decorated rock-cut tombs hewn into the cliffs belonging to some of the most notable nomarchs (administrators) of the period, including Amenemhat Ameny, Khnumhotep II, Khwty and Baqet III, as well as over 800 shaft tombs in the lower cemeteries. These latter tombs were excavated by British Egyptologist John Garstang in the early 20th century and, owing to the mechanism by which excavated finds were shared between interested parties, meant that a number of objects, including complete coffins and coffin fragments, came into the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Garstang was interested in finding the burials of the less important people at the site, and created an excavation committee and syndicate to fund his explorations. He succeeded in obtaining the necessary money, and his excavations were very fruitful: in 1907, after further work at Beni Hasan, he published a book entitled The Burial Customs of Ancient Egypt as Illustrated by Tombs of the Middle Kingdom; Being a Report of Excavations Made in the Necropolis of Beni Hasan during 1902–3–4. The Fitzwilliam Museum’s director at the time, M. R. James, was a member of Garstang’s syndicate, holding shares both as an individual and in partnership with three other people. On 20 July 1903, James received a letter from Garstang inviting him to attend a meeting of the Beni Hasan Excavation Committee in order to share out the finds from the 1902–3 season. The objects were to be displayed at the Society of Antiquaries in London, for viewing by the shareholders, before the meeting at the same place two days later. Garstang had grouped the objects into eight shares of approximately equal value; on the day, lots were cast to establish the order in which shareholders made their selection. James seems to have been fourth to choose and opted for ‘The complete tomb deposit of Khety’, which consisted of a coffin and a group of models of daily life that were found with it. After all the choices had been made, one share remained, which went to James and his three partners. This included the coffins of a warrior named Userhet, whose inner coffin came to the Fitzwilliam Museum, while the outer coffin went to the University of Liverpool, where it is now displayed in the Garstang Museum.

In the same letter of 20 July 1903, there is mention of finds ‘distributed previously by arrangement’, although the nature of the arrangement is not explained. Several other coffins from this season of Garstang’s excavations are now in the Museum’s collection, including the coffin of Nakht and the cartonnage mask of Tjay. Since they do not appear in the list for consideration by Garstang’s syndicate members, they must have been among the finds ‘distributed previously’. Additionally, in the Fitzwilliam’s archives is a letter dated 17 July 1903 from an architect called Edward Towry Whyte, written to M. R. James, offering the Museum ‘a wooden coffin from the Garstang find at Beni Hasan’. In a second letter from Whyte, dated 20 July, he explains that the coffin was given to him by F. G. Hilton Price, the director of the Society of Antiquaries at the time and also a syndicate member. From the dates of Whyte’s letters, it appears that this coffin too was one of the finds distributed ‘by arrangement’ before the syndicate chose their share.

James obviously accepted the offered coffin and it was sent to the Museum on 29 July 1903, Whyte writing a third letter to James, saying, ‘I did not pay carriage as I have a strong idea that much greater care is taken of a thing when that is not done’. The coffin is in fact made up of parts of the coffins of two individuals named Senuitef and Warethotep. In his first letter, Whyte says, ‘it came to me in planks and I have put it together with deal pins so that it can be easily taken to pieces again’. It seems likely that the coffin was found in pieces, and it may be that Garstang’s workmen confused planks from two co ns during excavation.

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