Third Intermediate

When the mummies were produced: the Third Intermediate period


But though  the Sea Peoples phenomenon caused chaos throughout the East Mediterranean, Egypt did comparatively well and throughout the long period of decline running from the death of Rameses II in 1213 to the Persian conquest in 525 BC,  it is possible to provide a more or less coherent account of its history. It is a period known as the Third Intermediate period,  when Egypt was divided and its rule was chaotic. Throughout this period, north and south  mostly went their own way, each being conquered by or greatly influenced by two outside neighbours: first the Libyans from the west and then the Nubians from the south. However, political chaos can be accompanied by artistic splendour and some of the finest art and some of the finest mummy cases belong to this period.

In the later period, the capital of Egypt moved from Memphis, at the foot of the delta, up into the delta itself. It was first at Pi-Ramesse, near Avaris, then to Tanis, Bubastis, then to Sais on the west, and finally to Alexandria.

The north continued to be ruled by pharaohs, strong men who claimed to be the rulers of the whole of Egypt.  Their power base moved away from Memphis at the base of the delta of the Nile, up into the delta itself where the capital constantly shifted due to the shifting of the various channels of the Nile,  going from Pi-Ramesse, to Tanis, to Bubastis and then to Sais.

The most distinguished Pharaoh of this early period was Rameses III (1186 – 1155), the second pharaoh of the 20th dynasty.  He ruled for 31 years, which in this period of decline was something of a record, and he spent most of his reign fighting the Sea Peoples, his successes being gloriously recorded, his failures being less well known. In one battle he was so successful that the only way to count the number of the fallen enemies was to cut off all the hands of the women and all the penises of the men, and to count  the piles of the relevant organs – recorded in detail on an inscription in his mortuary temple.

His greatest achievement was to build the last of the great mortuary Temples at Medinet Habu, but he also received the dubious distinction of being the object of the first known strike in history, when the workers in the workman’s village at Deir el Medina were not paid and therefore went on strike and decamped to his temple.

Great Harris papyrus

The Great Harris Papyrus recording the deeds of Ramesses III is in five sections. The first three sections record the gift by the pharaoh to the temples of the three main towns: Thebes, Memphis and Heliopolis. Each section is prefaced by a little vignette. This is the heading of the section of the gifts at the temple at Memphis. It shows Ramesses III (right) presenting gifts to Ptah, the chief deity of Memphis and the lion headed Sekhmet and Nefertum, the god of the lotus. (BM)

The best information about his reign comes from what is known as the Great Harris Papyrus. This was a huge papyrus bought by the merchant Anthony Harris in 1855 and subsequently sold by his daughter to the British Museum in 1872.  It was originally 41 metres long, but was cut up into nine more manageable pieces.  The text falls into five main sections.

The first three sections are devoted to gifts given by the pharaohs to the temples at Thebes, Memphis and Heliopolis.  The size of these gifts was enormous: for example the temple at Thebes received 309,950 sacks of grain as well as huge amounts of metal and precious stones.  One wonders whether these donations form the core of the later problems: much of the subsequent story is an account of how the temples and the priests became too powerful, and took over as the rulers of large chunks of Egypt.   The final section is the historical section covering Ramesses III’s campaigns against the Sea Peoples.

What the papyrus does not tell us is that his reign ended with a harem plot to murder the king during the annual Opet festival in Thebes and put a rival on the throne. Another papyrus reveals details of the plot, and how it did not succeed and the criminals were forced to commit suicide. However, a recent CT scan of his mummy revealed a large wound to his neck which he was unlikely to have survived. However, as his son succeeded him, the  question of his survival must remain open

In the latter part of the 20th dynasty, the Egyptian state fell to the ultimate degradation:  they began officially tomb robbing. An attack on Nubia failed, and thus their access to the gold of Nubia was cut off and as they needed gold, they resorted to robbing the gold stored up in the tombs. The tombs were broken open , the gold and the jewellery was taken away, but the bodies were then wrapped up and labelled and buried in caches of several pharaohs together. Some of these caches have been discovered by modern excavators, so we can analyses the mummies of some of the pharaohs even though we have none of their grave goods.

The conditions at this time are well illustrated in the Tale of Wenamun, a papyrus now in Russia. Wenamun was a priest in Thebes who was sent on a mission to Byblos to buy wood, some of the famed cedars of Lebanon which were needed to build ships. On his trip to the north he was robbed, but when he reached Byblos they demanded down payment for the wood, so he had to wait around for over a year until the payment arrived – gold, silver, linen garments, 500 rolls of papyrus, 500 cows’ hides, 20 bags of lentils and 30 baskets of fish. In return 7 great cedar logs were sent to Egypt: more were promised.  Eight huge cedar trees were then dispatched, but on his way home Wenamun was blown off course and landed in Cyprus – and at this point the papyrus breaks off. But the story well illustrates the down graded position of Egypt: Lebanon or rather Syria was no longer a vassal state, so gift exchange no longer worked, a down payment was needed. Egypt had come down in the world.

But though the north continued to be ruled by pharaohs, the south was dominated by the High Priests of Amun at Thebes.  Temples are always a problem because they can easily grow too powerful (ask Henry VIII).  We have already seen from the Great Harris Papyrus how Rameses III boasted of the huge gifts he gave to the major temples of Egypt:  this was very foolish because they thus became even more powerful.  The temples were very rich in themselves; they possessed vast tracts of land which paid their tithes to the temple, and being temples they paid no taxes so they became ever richer and more powerful. Thus their wealth and power began to rival, if not exceed that of the pharaoh himself.  And since this was a gift exchange economy, since the temples received most of the income, they were expected to perform the redistribution functions too: see the story of Joseph in the Bible and the seven fat years followed by the seven lean years.  And thus the priesthood became the de facto rulers.

This young lady is Merytaten who was the fourth daughter of Rameses II, and later became the Great Royal Wife to his successor.
From our modern perspective it is interesting to note that she wears an elaborate crown, a full wig and a wide necklace, but that her breasts are exposed and the nipple displayed as a flower. In our modern ethos, this  is reversed, and providing a lady keeps her breasts suitably covered she may expose her face, her hair, her neck. But not her breasts.

The situation became even more complicated with the advent of women in the priestly hierarchy.  The gods were the source of fertility and if the gods were to be kept fertile they needed women to stimulate them,  and thus noble women were appointed as God’s Wife.  And since the God’s Wife had to be a virgin – gods do not appreciate being offered second hand goods — they could not have any offspring, so they therefore appointed their successors which is a far better way of producing strong rulers.  So the God’s Wives soon became very powerful indeed.

The 22nd Dynasty marks what should have been a great shame for the true born Egyptian, for the Libyan immigrants seized the throne.  The Libyans had long been infiltrating Egypt, particularly the delta. They were dwellers in the lands along the Mediterranean to the west of Egypt and looked enviously at the fertility of the delta and wanted to move in. The Egyptian records always report victories against the Libyans, but even if the Egyptians won the big battles, the Libyans won the small ones.    And when they moved in they were often employed as mercenary soldiers, so the Egyptian army soon became an army of immigrants. One thinks of the similar situation in Roman Britain when the invading Anglo Saxons infiltrated very gradually and were employed as mercenaries, until eventually, in the 5th century they took over.

However the 22nd Dynasty, the Libyan dynasty began well, when the pharaoh Sheshonq (a good Libyan name) invaded to the north east up into Palestine where he is recorded in the Bible as Shishak (2 Chronicles XII).  He invaded with 1,200 chariots and 60,000 horsemen, captured Jerusalem and carried off the treasures from the temple.  According to the Bible,  the ruler of Judah, Rehaboam, the son of Solomon had forsaken the Law of the Lord and was punished by the invasion of the Egyptians.  However he humbled himself before the Lord and the Egyptians were repulsed.

The Libyan episode was followed by an invasion from the south, from the Nubians. The Nubians had been building up their own empire over the centuries.  There had been a successful empire centred around Kerma around 1600 BC, but then in 1504 Tutmoses I defeated them and made them a province of Egypt.  The Nubians ejected the Egyptians, but  for long remained quiescent. Then in the eighth century, they suddenly woke up and were united into a single kingdom which pushed down into the area around Thebes and then conquered the North as well to form the 25th dynasty.

But then they too were ejected, this time by the Assyrians.  The Assyrians had been the big power in Mesopotamia in the 2nd millennium and had then declined, but now the neo-Assyrian empire had become the major dominating force and began to take an interest in Egypt.  They expelled the Nubians but then they too had trouble at home and withdrew from Egypt.

Into this gap in a new dynasty arose, headed by a Pharaoh called Psamtek (664 – 610),  who launched the 26th dynasty, which was to be the last homegrown dynasty headed by Pharaohs who were actually Egyptian. Psamtek was a powerful ruler who united the country from his base at Sais, on the western side of the Nile Delta, so that the new dynasty is called the Saite dynasty. Having at first allied himself with the Assyrians, he soon ejected them with the help of mercenaries, mostly Greek, and succeeded in uniting the country by force and charisma. He was determined to be a great Pharaoh and instituted one of the last great spells of building throughout the country.

The Saite dynasty ruled 139 years (664 – 525) , and under him and his successors the country flourished. The Greeks established a colony at Naucratis in the Western Delta, 20 miles from Sais, and Egyptian art flowed to the West and played an important role in the emerging Greek artistic style, and Greek writers began to show knowledge of Egypt. However a new power was arising in the north, the Persians, and in 525  the Persian ruler Cambyses invaded and defeated the by this time, geriatric Egyptians, and  the 26th dynasty comes to an end. Egyptian culture was to linger on for a further millennium, but the Persians, Greeks and Romans were to be the rulers.


Mummy of Harwa the Chief steward of the God's Wife of Amun, Amenirdis I, during the 25th Dynasty.

The mummy of Harwa, the Chief steward of the God’s Wife of Amun, Amenirdis I, during the 25th Dynasty. Now in the Turin museum

But the big surprise of this ‘intermediate’ period is that it produced some excellent art, particularly in mummies and in metal-working. The changes may be due in part to changes in religion. Whereas before, elite burials were made in underground sepulchres, accessed by a long corridor with much of the art decorating the walls of the corridors, now communal burials became the norm, often clustering round within a temple enclosure both to be close to the gods and to be safe from tomb robbery. The burial places became far simpler, and as a result all the artistic endeavours were devoted to the actual mummies, which thus became ever more elaborate.

The third intermediate is the great period of mummies, and many of the more glamorous – dare one say gaudy? – mummy cases that one sees in museums today, belong to the third intermediate period. All the effort of making a glorious display of death was devoted to the actual mummy case, and the elaborate outer covering, often in the form of cartonnage (basically primitive papier mache made from linen and plaster) was gorgeously decorated

Two of the highly decorated mummies of the late period, in the Turin museum. Left is Taiefmutmut, chantress of Amun: note her wig coming down and touching her breasts. One arm is stretched across her midriff, the other stretches down to her leg. The mummy on the right has lost one of her hands.  

This is sometimes attributed to the Libyan influence: the Libyans being nomadic did not have elaborate burial places and therefore concentrated the burial ritual on the actual burials.  In the traditional Egyptian style you spent half your life preparing for your death, digging out elaborate tunnels underground and decorating them with elaborate wall paintings, and then building a fine temple tomb above ground.  Now tombs became much simpler, often they were moved within the temple complex. There was a lot of reuse of old tombs and there were no longer the walls of tombs on which to lavish time and attention.  This meant that all the attention could be paid to the mummy itself, sometimes two or three mummies, in two or three-storey mummy cases, and their decoration was no longer just of the face and neck but covered the whole length of the mummy often in garish colours. The finest mummies that are on display in museums tend to come from this Third Intermediate Period.

Gold mask of Psusennes I

The most remarkable find comes from the very beginning of the period when a complete royal tomb was discovered – that of Psusennes (1039 – 991 BC). He was a moderately successful pharaoh who ruled for forty eight years, but in 1939 his tomb was discovered intact by the French archaeologist Pierre Montet.  This is the only tomb of a pharaoh to be discovered intact – the tomb of Tutankhamen had already been twice ransacked before it was finally sealed.  However whereas Tutankhamen’s tomb was in the dry desert and so all the wood was preserved, the tomb of Psusennes was down in the delta and damp and therefore no wood survived, only the magnificent jewellery.   The tomb was in a necropolis in which two other pharaohs were also buried with similar riches.  Psusennes was buried in three cases, the outer two cases being recycled from earlier pharaohs.  But the inner tomb had some of the finest jewellery ever discovered in Egypt of which his bust and a pectoral, and a very fine wristlet are particularly well known.  Two later pharaohs were also buried in the same complex with slightly less finery.

A gold pendant with a Udjat eye above a scarab with horus wings.

A bracelet of Shishenq II. The main feature is the eye known as an udjat eye which stands on a basket.


Collar of Psusennes I from his tomb at Tanis. On the front of the collar is a clasp showing a winged scarab beetle, and attached to the clasp are gold chains.

The changes may be due in part to changes in religion. Whereas before, elite burials were made in underground sepulchres, accessed by a long corridor with much of the art decorating the walls of the corridors, now communal burials became the norm, often clustering round within a temple enclosure both to be close to the gods and to be safe from tomb robbery.

The royal necropolis at Tanis, with the tomb of Psusennes marked in brown.

The burial places became far simpler, and as a result all the artistic endeavours were devoted to the actual mummies, which thus became ever more elaborate. The third interregnum is the great period of mummies, and many of the more glamorous – dare one say gaudy? – mummy cases that one sees in museums today, belong to the third intermediate period.

Great advances were also made in metalwork.   Firstly, advances were made in embellishing the surface of bronze vessels with strands of gold or silver. There was also an advance in the lost wax technique where statues were produced with hollow casts, making them lighter – and cheaper. These advances soon spread around the Eastern Mediterranean and were taken up avidly by the Greeks, particularly in Samos. Similarly faïence (glazed ceramic material) became more common, and shabtis, the figures representing servants who were often buried with the dead, were increasingly made of faïence.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this period is that, although it was a Dark Age across the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt is one place where it is possible to tell a more or less coherent history can be told, with the help of written evidence and not just conjectured from the archaeology. The age generally may be dark, but Egypt was considerably less dark than the rest of the Western world.


On to The Persian Era


Header: Mummy of Meresamun, a female musician in the cult of Amun, now in the Ashmolean Museum.