Was Senenmut really a spunk?
Senenmut profile 129px

'It is the student’s drawing, rather than the official version, that tells us what Senenmut really looked like.'

Senenmut was, without doubt, the most important man in Hatshepsut’s life. During his long career in the royal administration, he accumulated over ninety titles, including the Great Steward of Amen, Tutor to Hatshepsut’s daughter, Neferure, and even Overseer of the Royal Bedroom and Bathroom. The wide range of his titles indicates that Senenmut was a man of many talents and great intelligence. He had an interest in astronomy (the larger of his two tombs, TT 353, is decorated with the earliest known astronomical ceiling). He enjoyed word games and had his own peculiar ways of writing and spelling, which indicate that his education did not take place in a royal scribal school. Although he came from a humble family—they were so poor that they could not afford to mummify his father—he was a self-made man, rising to a position of unprecedented influence in the royal administration.

Senenmut the horseman

Senenmut & Neferure Senenmut & Neferure Senenmut Senenmut with cryptogram sistrum
Statues of Senenmut showing variable facial features

Twenty-five statues of Senenmut have so far been discovered, more than almost any other non-royal individual in the history of ancient Egypt. Although we ought to be able to tell what Senenmut looked like from all these statues, the facial features vary considerably. Most of the statues show a standard portrait of a high official of Hatshepsut’s era, with bland, anonymous features. The ancient Egyptians idealised their official representations, so it’s difficult to tell how accurate they are. However, several quick sketches of Senenmut, done on ostraca (limestone flakes) were found in the vicinity of his tombs. One ostracon closely resembles a hastily executed sketch of Senenmut on the wall of the corridor of his later tomb, TT353. Because these sketches are unflattering, Egyptologists believe that they are more likely to be accurate representations.

Ostracon with sketch of Senenmut
Ostracon that was probably a preliminary sketch for Senenmut’s tomb portrait
'Whatever attracted Great Royal Wife Hatshepsut to Senenmut, it was certainly not his good looks.'

Dennis Forbes, editor of KMT magazine

In an article about Senenmut in KMT magazine, editor Dennis Forbes said, ‘Whatever first attracted Great Royal Wife Hatshepsut to Senenmut, it was certainly not his good looks.’ Forbes’ opinion perhaps tells us more about men’s difficulties in understanding women than it does about Senenmut’s appearance. Forbes went on to describe Senenmut as ‘a pinch-featured mature man with a pointed high-bridged nose and fleshy lips that seem pursed; with a weak chin tending to jowliness and eyes that might be judged a bit shifty.’ Egyptologist Herbert Winlock remarked on Senenmut’s ‘aquiline nose and nervously expressive, wrinkled face.’ This sounds like unpromising material for a romantic hero.

Senenmut double ostracon
A double portrait of Senenmut

However, one of the ostraca, shown above, bears a double portrait of Senenmut and gives us a crucial clue about his actual appearance. Ostraca bearing two versions of the same picture are examples of ancient art lessons; one picture was drawn by the student, and the other version by the teacher. Sometimes the teacher would make a drawing first, and the student would try to copy it, and at other times the student would attempt a drawing and the teacher would then make corrections beside it. On Senenmut’s double ostracon, the student’s drawing was done first and the teacher’s version was drawn over it and a little to the right.

The student's drawing vs. the teacher's drawing

I digitally separated the two images and compared them. The wig on the teacher’s sketch is abnormally small, since it was limited by the edge of the limestone flake. For the student’s sketch, before I superimposed the wig, I enlarged it to the proportion indicated by the faint line of the wig fringe drawn by the student. The two portraits differ substantially—so much so, that some Egyptologists have speculated that they represent two different men (though there is no evidence to support this view).

comparison of the two profiles of Senenmut
The teacher changed Senenmut’s features to the official royal style

When we compare the portraits and examine the corrections the teacher made, the student’s error becomes clear—he sketched Senenmut’s actual profile! The student may even have drawn this likeness from life, while Senenmut was supervising construction work in the vicinity of Hatshepsut’s temple. The teacher ‘corrected’ the sketch to make it conform to the official royal style. The official royal style dictated that everyone should resemble the ruling king, and we can see that the teacher’s sketch altered Senenmut’s features to mirror those of Hatshepsut: almond shaped eyes, delicately arched eyebrows and a small mouth with full lips. Hatshepsut was definitely a beautiful woman, but what suits the face of a petite female doesn’t necessarily produce a pleasing male countenance. The student’s sketch shows a well-proportioned masculine profile with high cheekbones and smouldering dark eyes. Senenmut looks as if he’s about to rebuke someone, which is why I think the drawing was made from life. It is the student’s picture, rather than the official version, that tells us what Senenmut really looked like.

I reconstructed an Egyptian-style portrait of Senenmut by using the student’s profile sketch and adding the long, fringed wig that Senenmut wears in many of his statues.

Senenmut profile 400px
The real Senenmut

The kneeling portrait shows him worshipping Hatshepsut’s royal names. It is based on the many images of Senenmut that were discreetly positioned around the beautiful mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri that he designed for his beloved royal mistress.

Senenmut kneeling 600px
Senenmut as he appeared at Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri

Senenmut was intelligent, multi-talented, a good horseman and had eyes that rival Mr. Darcy’s. If we could ask Hatshepsut if her most ardent devotee was really a spunk, I think she would have answered an enthusiastic, ‘Yes!’


For more information see:

Dorman, Peter F. 1988. The Monuments of Senenmut: Problems in Historical Methodology. London: Kegan Paul International.

Dorman, Peter F. 1991. The Tombs of Senenmut. New York: The Egyptian Expedition Publications of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 24.

Forbes, Dennis. 1990. The Queen’s Minion, Senenmut. KMT vol. 1 no.1, pp. 14-19.

Hayes, William C. 1942. Ostraka and name stones from the tomb of Sen-mut (No.71) at Thebes. New York: The Egyptian Expedition Publications of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 15.

Lansing, Ambrose and Hayes, William C. 1937. The Egyptian Expedition, 1935-1936. Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 32 section II.

Winlock, Herbert E. 1928. The Egyptian Expedition, 1925-1927. Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol 23, section II.

© Patricia L. O'Neill · All Rights Reserved