Crafting Memories: Tomb Design and Public Engagement

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


Immortality in Ancient Egypt was intimately connected with remembrance. Remembrance, as defined by Jan Assmann, “is a matter of emotional ties, cultural shaping, and a conscious reference to the past that overcomes the rupture between life and death.” As such, immortality and remembrance are both dependent on the living: however, studies on the decoration of non-royal tombs of the Old Kingdom often downplay the role of the human audience who entered and experienced the architecture and the decoration of the tomb.

This paper explores the role of the non-royal tomb as a social space, suggesting a novel approach for understanding how individual and collective memories regarding deceased individuals were shaped by the physical space and decoration of their tombs. Space is a social production and an inextricable part of human experience: more than a physical area for the movement of people, it has meaning, which is constantly negotiated by human interaction. As such, this paper considers the design of the Old Kingdom tomb as crucial to the experience of its visitors and, therefore, to the way the deceased was memorialized and remembered by the living. Focusing on the mastaba of Akhmerutnisut (G 2184) as a case-study, this paper foregrounds the importance of physical and visual aids in the crafting of memory and remembrance, considering both the individual agency of the tomb owner in designing and building the tomb as a monument to his/her memory, and the importance of the experience of the tomb visitor as an agent in perpetuating the memory of the deceased.

Together, architectural space and iconographic programme conveyed a certain narrative to the tomb visitor. To better understand this narrative, this paper uses analytical approaches from the disciplines of science and cultural communication, particularly from the subfields of narrative models and techniques, public engagement, and neuromarketing. This approach offers a deeper understanding of how the brain is affected by certain visual and cognitive messages passed on through material and visual culture, and how the audience was engaged by different narrative techniques. For instance, the study of the placement and distribution of the decoration programme within the tomb (what is shown and where? Which image(s) are at eye level? What is the size of the decoration?) can reveal which areas of the tomb would have more likely retained the focus of the observer and influenced what would be remembered. The intersection between these disciplines and areas of study offers a promising understanding of the relationship(s) maintained between tomb owner(s) and visitor(s) through the tomb space, producing a more informed understanding of how gender, class, and lived experience could have influenced the crafting of memory and meaning within the tomb.

Thus, this paper proposes that Old Kingdom tombs are living and adaptable spaces, emphasizing the physical (or material) and visual aspects of the tomb as important mechanisms of persuasion in the production, construction, and negotiation of memory between the dead and the living, as well as among the living themselves.
Period22 Jun 2022
Event titleOKAA 8 - Old Kingdom Art and Archaeology 8th International Conference
Event typeConference
LocationJaén, SpainShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational