Material Afterworld

I’ve been thinking about Hafnefer, an Egyptian “mistress of? the house” during the 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom.

Hafnefer (or Hafnefret, as it is alternatively transliterated) and her husband Ramose. were the parents of Senemut, who was himself the chief architect, vizier and/or lover (depending on who you read) of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsup.  No doubt, in their lifetimes, their high-achieving son gave them a nice villa and round the clock care.  By the time his mother died, he was also in a position to provide her with an absolutely top drawer burial.

Without that maternal reward, Hafnefer would likely have disappeared into history without a trace.  But her hair was dressed with false braids, she was carefully mummified and she was laid to rest behind a gold-leave funerary mask.  She was surrounded by elegant grave goods: a magnificent heart scarab, on a chain of plated gold; a beautifully carved wooden chair; chests filled with carefully folded linen; thin soled sandals; a leather tambourine; a highly polished bronze mirror, like a full moon on a stick.

Hundreds of years later, archaeologists broke the seal. She should have disappeared without a trace, but she left her trace — her name and those of her husband and son, and the grave goods that provide footnotes to the outline of a life that scholars have cobbled together for a “mistress of the house.”

Do we know who she really was?  what she did, what she thought or felt?  There’s no way to know any of that from what was left behind.  But even when people leave behind masses of documentation, there’s a compulsion to try and understand them through their belongings. When the possessions of Marilyn Monroe were auctioned off a few years ago, I remember a cookbook being discussed as the key to a new understanding of the “real Marilyn.”

I’ve often thought about what I will or won’t be leaving behind.  The traditional routes to immortality are to produce children, or institutions or great art.  Maybe it’s not such a dead end (so to speak) to leave nothing behind but stuff.  Whatever you leave behind, it seems the important thing is to make certain someone knows its yours.  What the future makes of you will be history.

Many of the burial goods belonging to Hafnefer are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.  If you angle yourself properly in front of the case, you can see yourself reflected in her mirror.