BMCR 2023.11.39

The tomb of Parennefer, butler of Pharaoh Akhenaten: Theban tomb 188

, The tomb of Parennefer, butler of Pharaoh Akhenaten: Theban tomb 188. University Park: Eisenbrauns, 2022. Pp. 192. ISBN 9781646021925.



King Akhenaten of ancient Egypt’s 18th Dynasty (ca 1353–1336 BCE) undertook religious and social reforms that are considered by many Egyptologists to have been radical. These included establishing a largely henotheistic system of religion, and the shifting of Egypt’s religious, administrative, and political capital from ancient Thebes (in modern Luxor) to a new city, Akhetaten (modern Amarna). This beautifully presented volume from Eisenbrauns provides the current definitive archaeological study of the Theban tomb of Parennefer, “butler” to Akhenaten (designated TT 188). It presents decades of archaeological excavation and analysis undertaken by Susan Redford, director of the Akhenaten Temple Project’s Theban Tomb Survey. The volume is divided into chapters that deal with the location and description of the site, and the tomb, the architecture, decorative programme, and chronological context. Chapters that deal with scene restorations and the catalogue of talatat limestone wall blocks follow. The volume is concluded with a discussion by Donald B. Redford regarding the tomb owner, Parennefer, and the evidence for his life and career under Akhenaten.

The introduction to this book provides a historiographical basis for Redford’s work, grounded the excavation and documentation of Parennefer’s tomb by excavators working at the turn of the twentieth century.. Parennefer is introduced as having been the childhood tutor of the young king Amenhotep IV. Amenhotep IV subsequently raised Parennefer to an even higher status in the royal court when he became king. Parennefer’s tomb is one of the very few that can be securely dated to the beginning of the reign of Amenhotep IV, and that developed during the transitional period during which Amenhotep IV restyled himself as Akhenaten. Parennefer was never interred in TT 188, since Parennefer is known to have had a second tomb constructed at Amarna, when he moved to Akhenaten’s new city with the rest of the royal court (p. 82).

Redford’s archaeological presentation of TT188 is detailed and engaging. The complexity and extensive nature of Parennefer’s tomb complex is testament to his high social status (p. 20).[1] The discussion of the artistic schema in Parennefer’s tomb is of particular interest. While the ceiling decorations in TT 188 are typical of ceiling décor in New Kingdom Theban nobles’ tombs, Parennefer’s wall-by-wall evidence in the tomb show the changing artistic styles in the early years of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten’s reign (pp. 82, 101-107).[2] TT 188 displays the only currently extant example of a depiction of  a “married couple” in Amarna tomb scenes that were not the royal couple, Akhenaten and Nefertiti (p. 107). The hieroglyphic inscriptions in Parennefer’s tomb are also an interesting mix of “traditional” tomb inscriptions, with the developing Amarna style. As Redford notes, Parennefer’s tomb potentially presents the earliest known (to Egyptologists) example of a “sun hymn” to the Aten (pp. 40-41).

In Chapter 5, Redford et al.’s reconstructions of TT 188’s artistic scenes and hieroglyphic texts are impressive, given the photographic evidence of the exceptionally poor condition of the tomb’s pillars.

Nonetheless, there are points that should be addressed. Translations of the hieroglyphic signs refer inconsistently to the hieroglyphs for “Aten” sometimes as “Aten”, sometimes as “disc”, and at other times as “disk (pp. 93, 95, 98-99). A few generalisations are also worthy of note. For example,  Redford states that apparent political machinations in Parennefer’s tomb inscription “… can be nothing else than the redirection of income to the endowment of the planned new temple” (p. 140). While the evidence is strong that this may have been the case, more moderate language in assessing ancient motives would be advisable. Furthermore, while Akhenaten’s religious and political machinations may have been a shock to the ancient Egyptian political system, Akhenaten’s “monotheistic” (e.g., p. 105) religious attitudes are now largely considered by Egyptologists to be closer to henotheistic.

Finally, there are concerns regarding the use of language in the English translations of Parennefer’s hieroglyphs. For example, the translation of Parennefer’s title of “butler”. The literal translation of this hieroglyphic title is “[one who is] Pure of Hands”. One might suggest that Parennefer fulfilled similar duties a butler in western (particularly English) civilisation.[3] However, the title of “butler” has connotations in the modern world that would not have parallels in the ancient Egyptian world. Another of Parennefer’s titles within the hieroglyphic text, literally “overseer of priests of all the gods,” is translated as “archbishop,” a term which is modern and specifically Christian.[4]

Overall, this is a beautifully produced volume that addresses, in detail, the archaeology of a historically important ancient Egyptian monument. The Theban tomb of Parennefer provides an almost unparalleled glimpse into the socio-political contexts of the transition period of Amenhotep IV’s becoming Akhenaten during the New Kingdom. Perhaps most significantly, Redford’s definitive guide to this tomb, and to Parennefer himself, provides unique insight into the changes in art and culture at that time, especially at a non-royal level of society.



Hellum, J. (2016) Presentation: “The ancient Egyptian language through European eyes.” Feminism and Classics 7: Visions Conference, Seattle Washington, U.S.A.

_______ (2017) Presentation: The question of the concubine: Re-examining translations of ancient Egyptian vocabulary pertaining to women.” VIIIth European Conference of Egyptologists, Lisbon, Portugal.

_______ (2020) “The Questions of the Maidservant and the Concubine: Re-examining Egyptian Female Lexicology.” In (eds.) A. Warfe, J.C.R Gill, C.R. Hamilton, A.J. Pettman, and D.A. Stewart, Dust, Demons and Pots Studies in Honour of Colin A. Hope. Peeters, 269-278.

Nyord, R. (2022). “On interpreting ancient Egyptian funerary texts.” Claroscuro. Revista del Centro de Estudios sobre Diversidad Cultural: 1-23. 10.35305/cl.vi19.48.

Sanchez, G.M and E.S. Meltzer (2012). The Edwin Smith Papyrus: Updated Translation of the Trauma Treatise and Modern Medical Commentaries. Lockwood Press.

Westerfeld, J. (2016) “Decipherment and Translation: An Egyptological Perspective.” CR (East Lansing, Michigan) 16, no. 1: 29–36.



[1] For this, Chapter 8 is a fascinating summary of Parennefer’s life and career, for which there is a surprising amount of dateable evidence present in TT 188.

[2] See also p. 139 for more on this.

[3] That is, one who is clean enough to closely serve a monarch or person of high status, and who may take care of that individual’s everyday needs. There are several recent publications (as well as ongoing and forthcoming projects) that specifically focus on the use of western, male-, and colonial-centric language in the translation of ancient Egyptian texts. See, among others, Hellum (2016), Hellum (2017), Hellum (2020), Nyord (2022), and Westerfeld (2016). Considerations in these regards have also led to the retranslation and evaluation of texts such as the Edwin Smith papyrus. See Sanchez and Meltzer, 2012.

[4] See pp. 56, 69, 136 (but the literal translation is used p. 136, footnote 12).