The walls of the ancient Egyptian Chapel of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari are covered with carved reliefs. Little is known about the individuals who created such works, but recent research is revealing new insights into on-the-job training of apprentices and the role of people of different skill levels working at the site.
On the north and south walls of the Chapel at the Temple of Hatshepsut, mirrored reliefs show a procession of figures bringing offerings to the enthroned female pharaoh, who ruled c.1473-1458 BC. Researchers have fully documented these reliefs by rendering the wall surfaces on to plastic film sheets attached to the walls. They were then scanned and processed as vector graphics, during which Anastasiia Stupko-Lubczynska from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw, noticed traces of the various stages in the production process – and the work of different hands – preserved in the soft limestone walls.
Interestingly, differences in skills among the artists are apparent. The study, recently published in Antiquity, says the number of people working on the Chapel is a matter of speculation, but it seems these people included both masters and apprentices working side by side. Trainees were not necessarily relegated to less important areas, as Stupko-Lubczynska explained, ‘On the south wall, the areas demonstrating poor quality or containing many corrections are observed at the very beginning of the offering procession (which is the closest to Hatshepsut’s image – the most important element of the whole composition). What is more, these areas are in the lowermost row and can be assessed by someone standing on the Chapel’s floor! I mean, in the upper parts of the walls you cannot see the details so easily, as they are too far and it’s too dark in there – this could be the place to train artists with no harm to the final appearance of the entire room, but in the Chapel it wasn’t done that way.’
Wigs were particularly time-consuming, and in some the difference in quality is noticeable. Some seem to have been started by a more skilled hand and finished by an apprentice. In one of these examples, there is a particularly detailed section, perhaps executed by a master as a perfect model for students to learn from.
There are also differences between the south and the north walls, suggesting that a separate crew worked on each wall.
Stupko-Lubczynska is currently involved in work in the main sanctuary of Amun in the Temple of Hatshepsut, built before the Chapel, where she plans to adopt the same approach, and potentially see ‘areas worked by less assured hands’ in this earliest part of the Temple.
IMAGES: Maciej Jawornicki/Antiquity Publications Ltd; Aleksandra Hallmann.