A Domestic Horizon: Household Niches and Ancestor Worship


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This paper focuses on the analysis of niche emplacements in domestic contexts during the New Kingdom, with a goal of shedding new light on their significance and function in relation to transformational ancestor worship rituals. Appearing throughout the settlements of Amarna and Deir el-Medina, such niches share significant similarities in design, as recesses in a wall, extending to the floor, with a threshold, two jambs, and a lintel, and painted primarily red, frequently incorporating yellow embellishments. Previous interpretations linked their function to a need to achieve architectural balance and to serve as a location for cultic acts. To investigate this topic further, an in-depth examination of previous research, combining archaeological data together with relevant ritual texts, and employing both an emic and etic perspective in the analysis, has facilitated a reconstruction of the role of such niches in ritual performance.From an etic perspective, the location of niches in houses seems to correlate with the configuration of “reception rooms” consistent with the concept of architectural balance, although this does not reflect their function. An emic perspective reveals that niches within domestic structures formed a locus for ancestor worship, while also exhibiting the lineage of the household and serving as a mode of conspicuous consumption. Through a stylistic and philological evaluation, the evidence indicates that the niche design becomes a microcosm reflective of the macrocosm of the solar circuit, functioning as an akhet-shrine, a representation of the akhet-horizon, and the proper receptacle to house the akh-spirit. Employed not only to “akhify” a deceased relative, to transform him/her into an akh-spirit, but also as a place to leave regular offerings, niches attest to the significance of private religion, especially ancestor veneration, in daily life.

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