The Middle Kingdom of Egypt: The Discoveries of Herbert Winlock

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

Herbert Winlock, an excavator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, made some of the key discoveries about the Middle Kingdom of Egypt and the Eleventh Dynasty. What do these discoveries tell us about life in ancient Egypt?

Grainy image of an Egyptian tomb from the Middle Kingdom, with hills visible in the background.
Herbert Winlock made some of the most important discoveries about the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, including the tomb of Intef III or Intef Nakht-Neb-Tep-Nefer pictured here. (Image: Herbert Winlock/Public domain)

The Parts of an Egyptian Soul

The ancient Egyptians believed that the soul was made up of different parts. One was the ba, which was the personality, and it was usually shown in the form of a bird with the head of the deceased. In other words, a human-headed bird. The ba could flit around while the dead person was lying in their tomb waiting to be resurrected. Then there was ka, which was the double, the spiritual shape. When someone died, priests had to make offerings to their ka, because the ka needed sustenance, as well.

If one was wealthy enough they would hire a priest forever. They would leave an endowment, as well as the land, as part of the deal. The priest would come to their tomb once a day and make the offerings to their soul. On holidays, the priest might have to stay for two days. Also, part of the deal would be a continuation plan, so when the priest died, or if he got too old, his son would take over. The son would be allowed to keep the land, and forever make sure that the ka would get its bread and beer in the next world.

Learn more about ancient Egyptian thought.

The Heqanakht Letters

Heqanakht was a ka priest and ka priests very often would have to almost live in a tomb a couple of days to make the offerings. When Herbert Winlock excavated a small tomb, he found the equivalent of an ancient Egyptian wastebasket. From the things that the priest threw away in the tomb and sort of buried in his wastebasket (he would just drop them in there and cover them with dirt), we learn a little bit about his life.

Agatha Christie is a well-known English writer, popular for her detective novels.
Agatha Christie’s novel Death Comes as the End was based on the Heqanakht Letters. (Image: Joop van Bilsen/Anefo/CC0 1.0/Public domain)

When Heqanakht came to the tomb, he would write letters to his family. He was a very garrulous guy. He was always writing to his sons on his estate and sort of micromanaging everything, telling them, pay this amount of grain for this kind of cattle, and he would always end his letters with “and make sure my concubine isn’t mistreated”.

Winlock found these letters. They are called the Heqanakht letters today, and because he excavated them they are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

But what’s really interesting about these letters is that Agatha Christie—whose husband, Sir Max Mallowan, was a Near Eastern archaeologist—based a novel on these Heqanakht letters. It’s not the one you might think, Death on the Nile. That’s set in modern times. The novel is called Death Comes as the End, and it’s quite accurately based on the Heqanakht letters.

Learn more about the history of ancient Egypt.

The Chamber Under the Tomb of Meket-Re

Excavators are not always looking for objects, but they are certainly looking for knowledge all the time. And this search for knowledge is sometimes rewarded with unexpected discoveries.

The tomb of Meket-re, who had been the chancellor of Montuhotep, had been thoroughly excavated. There was no chance of finding anything else. Winlock, who had been part of the excavation, had a few extra days and a couple of workmen. He decided he would clear the tomb completely so that he could measure it accurately to map it. This would allow him to create an architectural record of the tomb.

The team had just about cleared the tomb so they could start measuring it, when a sharp-eyed workman, who was sweeping out the sand, saw that some of the sand was disappearing into a crack on the floor of the tomb. He knew that probably there was something beneath. Maybe another tomb, or maybe just a hole in the rock. He informed Winlock, and they discovered an intact chamber. A little chamber with funerary models.

In the Middle Kingdom, the belief was that when someone went to the next world, they wanted to have their servants with them. They wanted all the comforts of life, and they used to make little models of the kinds of amenities and the servants they had in the previous world.

Winlock and his team found models that look like dollhouses or dioramas in the little chamber. The team also found a diorama of a butcher shop, in which men can be seen slaughtering the cattle and the meat hanging up to dry. They also found models of a bakery and a brewery. These two were always built next to each other in Egypt, because of the yeast. Meket-re’s tomb even had a model of his house, with servant girls carrying the produce back from the market.

The models today are in two museums. People often ask if excavators get to keep the stuff they find? Today, the answer is, no. The excavators dig up the area just for knowledge, and the only thing they keep are the records. Today, whatever the excavators find stays in Egypt, but during Winlock’s days, the standard acceptable process was a 50-50 division of the finds. The excavator took half back to the institution he worked for, such as a university or a museum, and the Egyptian government kept the other half. So, half of these models are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where Winlock worked, and the other half are in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Tomb of Wah

After discovering Meket-re’s tomb, Winlock found another intact tomb. This tomb belonged to an employee of Meket-re, a man named Wah, which means ‘established’.

Wah had an interesting bit of jewelry on his neck. He was buried with a silver scarab, which was to help him exist in the next world. It’s a carved beetle, or in this case, it’s a molded beetle out of silver. When they buried Wah, they ritually killed the beetle. In other words, they took the silver amulet, and they hacked out the eyes and the mouth so it couldn’t by magic come to life and damage Wah—a little bit of ritual killing.

Learn more about mummification – how we know what we know.

Common Questions about Herbert Winlock and His Discoveries

Q: What were the two parts of an Egyptian soul?

The ancient Egyptians believed that the soul was made up of two parts. The first part was called the ba, which was your personality. It was typically depicted in the form of a bird with the head of the deceased. The second part was called ka, which was your spiritual shape. After death, priests had to make offerings to your ka, because the ka needed sustenance.

Q: Who was Meket-re?

Meket-re was the chancellor of Montuhotep.

Q: Who discovered the chamber under the tomb of Meket-re?

Herbert Winlock, an excavator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art found the chamber under the tomb of Meket-re.

Q: Why did the ancient Egyptians buried the models of servants with the dead?

The ancient Egyptians believed that the deceased wanted all the comforts of life in the next world. So, they buried the models of the servants with the dead.

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