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“The Astronomical Ceiling of Senenmut: a Dream of Mystery and Imagination”

Juan Antonio Belmonte

Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Spain

Mosalam Shaltout

Minufiya University, Egypt

To be published in the SEAC2005 Proceedings on

“Light and Shadows in Cultural Astronomy”

Edited by Mauro Zedda and Juan A. Belmonte Cagliari (2005)

The Astronomical Ceiling of Senenmut:

a Dream of Mystery and Imagination.



The most ancient complete representation of the Egyptian (and of any other people) sky is to be found in the ceiling of the first chamber at the tomb of Senenmut at Deir el Bahari (Tomb 353 of the Theban western necropolis). Since the discovery of the tomb, the astronomical ceiling was compared with other representations of the same celestial diagram found in other monuments, such as the nearby Ramesseum or the tomb of Sethy I. One important point was stressed, the absence of the planet Mars in Senenmut´s representation. Consequently, some scholars have tried to show that the diagram represents a real celestial map and have tried to demonstrate that the ceiling was designed in such or such epoch, when Mars was not visible, or visible in peculiar position, in an attempt to date Senenmut´s carrier and, consequently, a very important period of Egyptian history, the reign of queen Hatshepsut. In this paper, we try to show that all these hypotheses are based on erroneous foundations and that the absence of Mars can be explained in a much more prosaic and simpler manner. Other problematic aspects of the astronomical ceiling will be also briefly discussed.


Senenmut’s astronomical ceiling (see Figure 1) is the oldest representation of the Egyptian “Firmament” and the first of a series of celestial diagrams that culminated in the “zodiacs” of the Greco-Roman period. Dated in the first half of 15 th century BC, under the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, it is centuries older than other astronomical ceilings and almost a millennium older than the first Mesopotamian astrolabes. Numerous specialists have described the ceiling since the tomb was first discovered by Winlock (1928), the earliest description being that of Pogo (1930), the most detailed that of Neugebauer and Parker in the excellent “Egyptian Astronomical Texts” (hereafter EAT) or one of the most recent by Etz (1997).

However, some scholars have recently tried to demonstrate that the ceiling is something more than a pictorial astronomical scheme and that it actually represents a certain view of the starry sky for a certain night. For example, on the one side, for Leitz (1991), it shows the night sky for different nights in the year 1463 BC and specially that of November 14 th (all dates, unless expressed, are in the Julian Calendar) when Mars was not visible (see Figure 2), and, on the other side, for von Spaeth, the night of May 22 nd 1534 BC, identifying Mars with another star within the diagram (see Figure 3). It is the intention of this paper to briefly analyse the different areas in which the celestial diagram can be divided, to study various related “mysteries”, and to demonstrate the improbability of both hypotheses. As shown in Figure 1, we have divided the astronomical ceiling in six areas.

Area I stands for the northern constellations and it is related to area II which includes the name of the months and the unique representation of twelve circles divided in 24 sectors. According to Leitz (1991) the northern constellations are represented as they

were visible in the night of March 19 1463 BC. However, as we show in Figure 4, it is highly unlikely that the constellations depicted represent the real sky at a certain moment. Also according to Leitz, who follows Parker (1950) in the identification of the months of area II as those of the lunar calendar, they are representing the night of Wepet-Renpet, or the heliacal rising of Sirius, in July 16 1463 BC. Clagett (1995) has demonstrated the non-equivalence between Wepet-renpet and the rising of Sirius and the first author has shown (Belmonte 2003b) that these are obviously the months of the single calendar ever used in the Egypt of the pharaohs, the civil one. Hence, Leitz’s ideas for these two areas of the ceiling should be dismissed.

Area V Area VI Area IV Area II Area I Area III Area III
Area V
Area VI
Area IV
Area II
Area I
Area III
Area III

FIGURE 1. Senenmut´s astronomical ceiling showing the most relevant areas of the celestial diagram: northern constellations (I), the calendar and associated circles (II), series of “lunar” deities (III), decans and southern constellations (IV), the “triangular” decans and inner planets (V), and the outer planets (VI). (Adapted from Dorman 1991).

Area III is frequently referred as that of the series of “lunar gods” (EAT). This hypothesis is based on the similarity between some of the names (actually less than 40%) and those of names of the gods of the days of the lunar month as found in depictions of the Greco-Roman period. More than twelve centuries separate both series of personages and another striking elements, such as for example the case of Nehes (the fourth in the left series), which is also the name of one of the gods within the nightly solar boat, put a challenge to that simple hypothesis. There is even a text in the late tomb of Petosiris (where a similar although not “mysterious” ceiling is visible) that identifies them with the imperishable stars (EAT, Wilkinson 1991). Hence, many uncertainties remain open yet.

Area IV stands for the decans and the southern constellations. Apart from the actual long lasting discussions on the identification of the stars, asterisms and constellations of that area (see e.g. EAT, Locher 1983, Böker 1984, Leitz 1995, Belmonte 2002 or Lull 2005, 261-262) no special problems are found there. One exception would be the unrealistic identification (see Figure 3) of the decan Tjemes en Khentet with Mars as proposed by von Spaeth (2000). Area V includes the “inner” planets, Mercury and Venus, in that order, and the “triangular” decans, so-called because they appear in an area with the form of a rectangular triangle in the diagonal star-clocks. They are believed to be decanal stars or asterisms associated to the Epagomenal days. We will come back to this peculiar group of stars at some stage in the future.

FIGURE 2. The main “mystery” of Senenmut´s astronomical ceiling is the absence of Mars in

FIGURE 2. The main “mystery” of Senenmut´s astronomical ceiling is the absence of Mars in the representation of the outer planets, where only Jupiter and Saturn are mentioned. The list is completed with the inner planets, Mercury and Venus after the “triangular” decans. However, other important unresolved “mystery” is why Saturn is called the “Mother of the Bull of Heaven” instead of the standard name of the planet as “Horus, the Bull of Heaven”. (© J.A. Belmonte).

as “Horus, the Bull of Heaven”. (© J.A. Belmonte). FIGURE 3. The diagonal star-clock in the

FIGURE 3. The diagonal star-clock in the coffin-lid of Hekat, dated to the Middle Kingdom, showing the decans of the constellation of the boat. Among these, the “Red of the Prow” (Tjemes en Khentet) is represented on five occasions as time-keeper in five different decades (columns) of the Egyptian calendar. Identical images are found in several other star-clocks of different epochs. This demonstrates, without a doubt, that the equality of Tjemes en Khentet with Mars in the decan list of the tomb of Senenmut, as proposed by Ove von Spaeth (2000) is completely erroneous. (© J.R. Belmonte).

FIGURE 4. A sector of the “northern” constellations in the astronomical ceiling. There are obvious

FIGURE 4. A sector of the “northern” constellations in the astronomical ceiling. There are obvious traces of a preliminary location of the constellations of the lion and of the crocodile (even the hieroglyphs of its name can still be seen upon the skirt of the standing man). For reason unknown to us, both figures were erased and represented further to the left and top in a smaller scale. Instead, the figure of the “standing man” was painted. This figure is alien to this way of representing the celestial diagram, with examples such as the Karnak clepsydra (see Fig. 7) or the Ramesseum. However, it is typical of another kind of celestial diagrams, with Sethy I´s ceiling as the most representative example. This fact probably speaks of the strong unrealistic representation of the sky we are dealing with. Could the “standing man” be the earliest representation of the “Giant” constellation (Nekht) of later Ramesside star-clocks? See text for further discussions. (© J.A. Belmonte).

However, the most interesting and “mysterious” area in Senenmut´s astronomical ceiling is by far number VI, that of the outer planets, because of the endless discussions it has generated. Why? the question is that the planet Mars, which should appear after Jupiter and Saturn, like another representation of the sky-god Horus (actually as one of the hypostasis of the god Horakhty), is absent of the celestial diagram (see Figure 2). Indeed, that represents a great “mystery”.

Accordingly, various hypotheses have been proposed to explain that “absence”. We have already discarded that of von Spaeth (2000) who found Mars in an impossible position within the astronomical ceiling. However, the one that has obtained much credit is that of Leitz (1991), despite of the severe and justified critics raised by Krauss (1992, 1995). Leitz proposes that areas IV, V and VI of the astronomical ceiling actually represent the sky as was visible in the night of November 14 th 1463 BC, when Mars was invisible. Thus, the diagram was designed (and probably tomb 353) within the accepted dates for Hatshepsut usurpation of power. This speculation has been well accepted by the Egyptological community as it has been reported by Dorman (1991, 138) in his otherwise excellent monograph on Senenmut´s tombs and repeated, without further questioning, until present (see e.g. Bedman and Martín-Valentín 2004, 173).

However, Leitz´s idea is completely wrong as demonstrated in Figures 5 and 6. His calculations were intended for November 14 th 1463 BC in the Julian Calendar and that night not only Mars but also Mercury were invisible in the sky (already argued by Krauss 1995), although Mercury is obviously present in the ceiling (see Fig. 2). Even if we accept an error of definition and we consider the night of November 14 th 1463 BC Gregorian as the one intended by Leitz (which is not the case), we would still have to

explain why Venus was visible in the sky before Mercury (see Fig. 6), which is not the situation represented in the ceiling. Hence, we can be almost sure that no single part of the astronomical ceiling of Senenmut represents the real sky of a certain night.

As a matter of fact, the absence of Mars is not the single “mystery” associated to area VI, that of the outer planets. In every other celestial diagram Saturn is defined, among other titles, as “Horus, the Bull of Heaven”. However, in Senenmut’s astronomical ceiling the planet is named as the “Mother of the Bull of Heaven”, where the falcon god has been substitute by the vulture (see Fig. 2). In the cases that this “fault” is noticed in the description of the diagram, as in EAT, it is normally assigned to a scribal error, a quite frequent resource in Egyptology when there is no simple answer for a certain problem.

However, in this case, there is a probable simpler answer not only to this mystery but also to the absence of Mars. Figure 7 shows a lateral view of the decoration of the Karnak clepsydra. More precisely, of that side that in the inner water-clock corresponds to the month of the Flooding (Akhet) season. The clepsydra was decorated, and thus possible constructed, during the reign of Amenhotep III, around the second quarter of the 14 th century BC (ca. 1370 BC). However, according to the interior monthly hour- marks, the clock was possibly designed for a much earlier epoch, possibly following the earliest description of a water-clock made by the sage Amenemhat (ca. 1520 BC) in the walls of his tomb in Thebes (Lull 2004, 136).

There are several important facts connected to the outer decoration of that particular water-clock that are most relevant to our discussion: (i) Mercury and Venus are represented in the standard order of most representations, (ii) there is a scene where the King is making an offer to the god Re-Horakhty, in the presence of the lunar god Thot; (iii) the presence of the “northern” constellations in an arrangement that is similar to Senenmut’s, but before the modification was made to include the image of the “standing man”, and (iv), and most important, that only Jupiter and Saturn are represented, after Sepdet and before the triangular decans (see Figure 7). Besides, the King is represented standing close to each planet as a sort of planet-twin and identified by his cartouche and his Horus title (including the standard epithet Strong Bull) which is not clear if it refers to the king or to the planet (actually this title is located before each planet). As a matter of fact, Mars is again absent! But, not Horakhty, who is represented in another scene in his guise of solar god.

Does this mean that Mars would have been a sort of nocturnal aspect of Re-Horakhty and thus it was not needed to be represented for a second time? This is a challenging hypothesis connected to many aspect of ancient Egyptian religion and iconography, so a whole discussion about this particular topic would clearly surpass the scopes of the present paper.

The hypothesis we would like to defend in the present paper is that the astronomical ceiling of the tomb of Senenmut is a gigantic copy of a papyrus draft of a celestial diagram that would have existed and used to be represented in clepsydrae (as that of Karnak). Because of the lack of space, when moving the design from a conical to a flat surface, part of the decoration was lost. This could have been the case for the image of the King (in this case it should have been Hatshepsut) offering to Re-Horakhty. As a matter of fact, only two outer planets would have remained in the final representation.

Hence, the explanation for the absence of Mars would be very prosaic, merely iconographical and not related at all with astronomy. Indeed, we would like to mention that the hypothesis that an astronomical ceiling might represent an extended design of a clepsydra was already defended by Spalinger (1995), but in reference to the astronomical ceiling of the Ramesseum, where the three outer planets are represented. Thus, that particular ceiling should correspond to a later and improved design of water- clock decoration.

The “clepsydra” like astronomical ceiling of Senenmut would include some other peculiarities. The outer planets were also named also after the Horus title of Queen Hatshepsut, which as a matter does not include the epithet “strong bull” (see Fig. 2), presumably because she was a woman. As a consequence, her twin-planet could not be “Horus, the Bull of Heaven”, and was transformed to the “Mother of the Bull of Heaven” (no blame for the scribe, who did an excellent work). However, the most important of these peculiarities would refer to areas I and II of the celestial diagram.

would refer to areas I and II of the celestial diagram. FIGURE 5. Mercury and Mars

FIGURE 5. Mercury and Mars in almost conjunction with the sun at sunset of November 14 th 1463 BC (in the Julian Calendar). For the latitudes of Egypt, it was almost impossible to see any of these planets during that particular night. Hence, Senenmut´s astronomical ceiling, where Mercury is obviously present, can not represent the actual sky of that night as firstly proposed by Christian Leitz (1991), and continuously repeated since then by many scholars, even after Krauss (1995) severe and justified critics

even after Krauss (1995) severe and justified critics FIGURE 6. The sky before sunrise in Thebes

FIGURE 6. The sky before sunrise in Thebes at the morning of November 29 th (night of 28 th ) 1463 BC, according to the Julian Calendar (November 14 th in the Gregorian Calendar). Curiously, on this occasion Mars is still in conjunction with the sun but Mercury is already visible at dawn. However, even if the date of November 14 th Gregorian is considered as that presumably proposed by Leitz, we still have to deal with the problem that Mercury appeared after Venus, a fact which is not found in Senenmut’s astronomical ceiling where both planets are represented in the opposite order.

FIGURE 7. Karnak clepsydra snapshot of the area of Akhet season. This time-keeping device is

FIGURE 7. Karnak clepsydra snapshot of the area of Akhet season. This time-keeping device is dated to Amenhotep III (ca. 1370 BC) but very likely it is a copy of a previous exemplar designed in the second half of the 16 th century BC. As in Senenmut´s ceiling, Mars is also absent within the group of the outer planets. However, Saturn is appropriately named as Horus Bull of Heaven and the “standing man” is not represented, with the lion and the crocodile in the original positions (as in Senenmut’s before being erased and relocated). Is the astronomical ceiling of Senenmut a draft copy of such a diagram with some curious appropriate modifications induced by the owner of the tomb? See text for further discussions.

by the owner of the tomb? See text for further discussions. FIGURE 8. A close-up of

FIGURE 8. A close-up of the stellar charts in the Ramesside star-clock of the tomb of Ramesses IX. The sitting figure had been normally identified, since the earliest proposal by Sloley (1931), as that of a hour- priest who served as a reference for the observation of the transiting hour-stars. However, it is impossible to imagine this figure as a priest because he wears a beard, exclusive element of gods and kings. Similar representations in the tomb of Ramesses VI rather suggest that he actually is the image of a god of time. This may drive to a complete different approach to the problem of identifying the constellations, asterisms and individual stars mentioned in these astronomical devices as the one suggested in Belmonte (2003b). The earlier working date of these charts (ca. 1470 BC) might suggest a connection with some intriguing facts of Senenmut´s ceiling. (© M. Sanz de Lara).

There we have, without a reasonable answer, the adding of the “standing man” and the presence of the 24-division circles associated to each month of the civil calendar. The explanation might have to deal with the interpretation of the Ramesside stellar clocks (see Figure 8). These are table of 13 stars (or asterisms) used to measure time (i.e. 12 hours) during the night for periods of half a month. Thus 24 stars would be necessary to measure time during a month of the civil calendar. In Belmonte (2003b), the first author obtained quite reasonable identifications for several of these stars (and the corresponding constellations) by simply ignoring previous limiting ideas of transiting stars near the southern horizon with a hour-priest used as a reference frame (Sloley 1931, see Fig. 8). These ideas had frustrated previous attempts, such as that performed by Leitz (1995) or the much better made by Lull (2004, 269-272). On the contrary, Belmonte’s proposal locates in the “northern” sky (i.e. north of the Ecliptic or of the Equator), constellations such as the Hippopotamus (Reret), the Lion (Mia), the Mooring Post (Menet) or the Giant (Nekht). This clarify the outstanding possibility, already defended by Le Page Renouf in the 19 th century for other celestial diagrams, that part of the constellations found in area I of the astronomical ceiling and the ones mentioned (but not represented) in the Ramesside star-charts are exactly the same.

Although found in tombs of the 12 th century BC, the Ramesside charts apparently represent an astronomical device that, due to the displacement of the civil year against the seasons, was most useful in the first half of the 15 th century BC (Le Page Renouf 1874, EAT), surprisingly at the time of Senenmut. In his first description of the astronomical ceiling, Pogo (1930) made the hypothesis (between brackets and with a question mark) that the 24 sectors in the circles would be “unfinished monthly star- charts”. Our idea recovers this hypothesis and identify the 24 sectors with the 24 stars or asterisms of the Ramesside clocks that would have been useful to measure time during each month of the civil year. However, it would be a matter of discussion if the intention was to write the names within the 24 sectors, and the charts were left unfinished although there was enough space, or not.

As a logical corollary of this discussion, an important question might arise: Would Senenmut have invented, or helped to develop, the Ramesside system of time-keeping around 1470 BC and tried to represent it within his tomb? He lived at the correct time when apparently the devices were designed, he had the knowledge and opportunity, and the decoration of his astronomical ceiling gives us some clues in the positive sense. This hypothesis could explain our last unsolved “mystery”; why the “standing man” appeared suddenly in the decoration of the tomb (see Fig. 4). We speculate with the idea that it could represent the Nekht constellation of the recently “invented” system of time keeping (the constellation could be much older) and consequently it should occupy its deserved position in the sky close to, among many others, his time-keeping relatives the Lion, the Hippo or the Mooring Post.

A final point to discuss is the orientation of the tomb. From the outer chamber of tomb 353, where the astronomical ceiling is found, a small section of the sky is perfectly visible. This corresponds to an azimuth of ~99º and an inclination of the access corridor of ~25º (nearly the local latitude). Hence, either by chance or by design, the corridor was facing the climbing in the sky of the bright star Aldebaran and the Hyades cluster nearly at the epoch of construction of the tomb. There has been much speculation about whether the constellation represented by four stars encircled by an ovoid, prominently

located within the southern constellations and called the “Asterism of Water”, might represent the Hyades (also related to water in Greece) or not. Unfortunately, the Karnak clepsydra is broken exactly where this asterism should have appeared and we do not know if its pre-eminence within the constellations is particular to Senenmut tomb or not. If the former were the case, it would be possible that, for an unknown reason, it could represent the Hyades and the tomb could have been orientated accordingly.

As a final remark, we can conclude that the astronomical ceiling of the tomb of Senenmut at Deir el Bahari (# 353) does not represent any real astronomical event but rather a schematic celestial diagram that might have been used previously to decorate water-clocks (where Mars was not present within the outer planets because Horakhty was already represented somewhere else as a manifestation of the sun-god Re). That diagram was copied to the ceiling in the first chamber of tomb 353, incorporating new elements that were relevant to Senenmut particular situation such as the “new” female name of the planet Saturn, the out-of-place image of the “standing man” (the constellation Nekht?) or the monthly hour-circles (earliest unsuccessful attempt to represent the stellar charts of the Ramesside clocks?), not to be repeated in any other celestial diagram.


We acknowledge the Egyptologist Prof. Miguel Angel Molinero for some comments and corrections that greatly improved the paper. The measurement of the orientation and the local study of the iconography of tomb 353 was made under the frame of the Egyptian-Spanish Mission on “Ancient Egyptian Archaeoastronomy” under the auspices of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. This work has been partially financed by the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias under Project P07/93 “Arqueoastronomía” and by the Spanish “Plan Nacional de Astronomía y Astrofísica” under Project AyA2004-01010 “Orientatio ad Sidera”.


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