The archaeologists who first started professionally excavating Egyptian sites in the 19th century CE may not have had access to their records and even the structures they found without the work of Khaemweset. The fourth son of Ramesses II and his queen Isetnefret, Khaemweset is known as the “First Egyptologist” thanks to his efforts in preserving ancient monuments and temples, and the names of those who had built them.
According to World History Encyclopedia, Egypt’s history was already ancient by the time of the New Kingdom (c.1570-1069 BCE). Many of the structures from the Old Kingdom (c.2613-2181 BCE) were in ruins. Prince and high priest Khaemweset decided to restore these structures and make those behind them known.
With that, he preserved Egypt’s past while also creating new monuments to honor events that occurred during his own time. Khaemweset would have succeeded his father Ramesses II. However, Khaemweset died before he could do so and the throne then went to his brother Merenptah. But due to the fact that he collected antiquities, he remains best known of Ramesses II’s many children after Merenptah, who became pharaoh.
History says that even though Khaemweset’s name actually means ‘Manifest in Thebes’, the religious capital in the south of Egypt, he spent most of his life at the ancient capital Memphis in the north. Born around 1285 BC, Khaemweset took part in military campaigns with his father when still a child.
He was well-educated that by the time he was 18, he had become a Sem-Priest (a junior rank of priest) of Ptah, the creator god of Memphis. To hold this post, one must study to become a scribe and then be educated in becoming a priest. Khaemweset did all that, including serving as an apprenticeship under a higher-ranking priest.
Around the age of 32, Khaemweset was already High Priest of Ptah at Memphis. As High Priest, he was expected to care for the god’s statue and temple, oversee daily rituals in Memphis, officiate at state funerals and see to it that temples and other monuments are well maintained.
As he performed his priestly duties, he was able to have access to the finest temple libraries in Egypt, according to history. He then started reading the works of earlier times. And as he gained knowledge of the past, he was inspired to study the monuments all around him at Memphis and its nearby cemetery at Sakkara or Saqqara, where numerous significant archaeological finds have been found in recent years.
At Sakkara, Khaemweset found a vast necropolis of tombs and temples that were already over a thousand years old. The site was dominated by the great Step Pyramid of Djoser and attracted scores of tourists even at that time. However, many of these ancient buildings had fallen into disrepair. Khamwese began restoring these temples and monuments.
A report by the BBC said, “The finished tombs and temples were then inscribed with the name of the monument’s original owner, the name of the current pharaoh, Ramses II, and a brief description of the work carried out, inscriptions which have been described as ‘the largest museum labels in history’.”
The World History Encyclopedia writes that the major temples of Egypt at the time all had a section known as the Per-Ankh (House of Life), which was part scriptorium, writing center, classroom, and library. Khaemweset used these records to identify ancient monuments which needed to be restored, placing new inscriptions on them. For instance, in restoring the mastaba tomb of Shepsekaf (2503-2498 BCE), the last king of the 4th Dynasty, at Saqqara, Khaemweset had the following inscribed:
“His Majesty instructed the High Priest of Ptah and Setem, Khaemwise, to inscribe the cartouche of king Shepsekaf, since his name could not be found on the face of his pyramid, inasmuch as the Setem Khaemwise loved to restore the monuments of the kings, making firm again what had fallen into ruin.” (Ray, 87)
Khaemweset also worked at Giza, restoring the Great Pyramid built by Khufu around 2580 BC. He also restored the statue of Prince Kaweb, son of Khufu, and had the following inscribed upon it:
“It was the High Priest and Prince Khaemwise who delighted in this statue of the king’s son Kawab, which he discovered in the fill of a shaft in the area of the well of his father Khufu. He acted so as to place it in the favour of the gods, among the glorious spirits of the chapel of the necropolis because he loved the noble ones who dwelt in antiquity before him, and the excellence of everything they made, in very truth, a million times.”
In fact, Khaemweset restored the whole of the site at Giza, which had been the royal necropolis of the Old Kingdom and was almost abandoned. Today, thanks to the efforts of Khaemweset, Giza is one of the most visited sites in Egypt.
But some have criticized Khaemweset for having his father’s name inscribed on a number of ancient structures. Indeed, many ancient sites in Egypt today mention Ramesses II, who remains one of the well-known rulers of Egypt. Some scholars, therefore, accuse Khaemweset of using the ancient structures he worked on for his father’s glory and that of his own.
It has been documented that Khaemweset was not the first to excavate antiquities, as King Tuthmosis IV, as early as c.1402 BC, had excavated the Sphinx from the sands of Giza. Others like King Amenhotep III also collected ancient artifacts. Still, as the BBC puts it, it is Khaemweset “with his all-round antiquarian interests” who is known as “the first Egyptologist”.
He died around the age of 56 and was buried either at Saqqara or Giza.