A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The life story of Meresamun, an Egyptian woman who lived in ancient Thebes in about 800 B.C., is subject of an exhibition presented by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. The highlight of the show is Meresamun's coffin. About 70 objects similar to those she would have used at work and at home give a vivid idea of her lifestyle, and new CT scans of the coffin and mummy tell more about her life and health.
Coffin of the Egyptian priestess Meresamun, ca. 800 B.C. (OIM 10797) (Anna Ressman)
The brief inscription on Meresamun's coffin states that she was a "Singer in the Interior of the Temple of Amun at Karnak." She, along with other women from elite families, served in the temple, playing music for the god as the priests laid offerings and purifications before the deity. We know from other sources, that singers like Meresamun were probably trained by their mothers, and often several generations of women from a single family worked as temple singers. In Meresamun's era, women held the post of singer inside the temple, although men played instruments in rituals held outside the temple. Her title "Singer in the Interior of the Temple" indicates that she had a level of purity that allowed her to enter the most scared part of the god's complex.
Two musical instruments were especially associated with musicians inside the temple. A sistrum is a type of rattle that produced a clanging metallic sound. The other instrument, called a menat, is a beaded necklace that was shaken to produce a swishing sound. When accompanying the god in processions outside the temple, musicians like Meresamun would have played a wider range of instruments like harps and clap sticks that were used as castanets. Although we do not know what ancient Egyptian music sounded like—there was no system of musical notation until a much later period—the lyrics of songs are preserved, giving the impression of lyric song rather than simple chanting.
Working as a temple singer was a part-time position, with the singers serving one month, then three months off, and so the exhibit also discusses what home life was like for a woman like Meresamun. She probably lived in a multistory townhouse, or a sprawling estate. She would have supervised a house staff made up of bakers, brewers, and perhaps weavers, and she may have been literate enough to handle household accounts. The richness of her coffin, the style of mummification, and her job title all indicate that Meresamun came from a wealthy family.
Although in ancient Egypt women had the same legal rights as men, allowing them to institute divorce, serve as witnesses to contracts and in trials, and to hold their own property and dispose of it as they wished, as noted in Demotic papyri, those legal rights for women were tempered by social conventions. An upper-class woman like Meresamun's main pursuits when not on duty in the temple would have been to stay home and tend the household. The exhibition includes objects that Meresamun would have had, such as a comb, a hand mirror, hairstyling tools, amulets that protected any children she may have had, and everyday objects like dishware.
The exhibition The Life of Meresamun: A Temple Singer in Ancient Egypt is on view at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum through December 6, 2009.
Emily Teeter is an Egyptologist and curator at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum.