Those especially familiar with the history of ancient Egypt may regard Prince Khaemwaset as the world's first archaeologist, historian, and restorer of monumental architecture; such has been his claim to fame in popular writing on the subject of the 19th dynasty. However, in studying the wider historical and social context within which he lived it becomes possible to suggest that his actions were dictated as equally by social norms as by personal desire.
Prince Khaemwaset was the fourth son of the great Egyptian king, Ramesses II, after Amunherkhepershef, Ramesses B, and Pareherwenemef. His mother, however, was not Nefertari, Ramesses II's principal wife, but rather another queen named Isisnofret who had previously mothered Ramesses B. The genealogy of Ramesses II's children can be confusing, but for our purposes here this shall be the extent of it.
Khaemwaset was likely born during the reign of Seti I and, like his elder brothers, would have been raised within the martial atmosphere typical of the latter portions of Seti I's reign and the early reign of Ramesess II. While only a teenager at the time, inscriptions from the temple of Beit-el-Wali in Nubia suggest he likely took part in the famous Battle of Kadesh, the siege of Qode, and the siege of Dapur in modern Syria. Depicted as fighting in a chariot alongside his eldest brother, Amunherhkepershef, inscriptions indicate he was intrinsically linked to the early military campaigns led by his father, however nothing is known of his military rank or individual rewards or actions. Unlike his father, Khaemwaset would not come to be known as a great military leader, but rather a sage somewhat on par with Hordjedef and, in later periods, perhaps that of Imhotep as well.
In the 16th year of his father's reign, Khaemwaset was appointed to the position of sem-priest of Ptah at Memphis, during which period he was responsible for the burial of several Apis bulls at Saqqara and, later, the construction of the Serapeum itself. It is, perhaps, this accomplishment more than any other which contributed to a reputation in later periods as a great magician and one who “knew the secrets of the kingship”. Being better suited to the priesthood as opposed to the military, as a scholar and antiquarian, Khaemwaset flourished in his role and was even in his own time looked highly upon and revered for his intelligence. His brothers, Ramesses B and Merenptah, became professional soldiers while Khaemwaset dove enthusiastically into his ritualistic role as deputy to Huy, High Priest of Ptah.
It is important at this junction to clarify the duties of a sem-priest of Ptah, and the role of the Apis bull in the 19th Dynasty, in order to better understand Khaemwaset's apparent fixation with restoration work later undertaken in the Memphite necropolis. Ptah's abstract theology as the patron god of Memphis perfectly suited the young, cerebral prince. As sem-priest attached to the glorious temple of Ptah at Memphis, Khaemwaset's responsibilities included participation in the mortuary/funerary rituals undertaken in the Memphite necropolis; the most important of these being the rituals during the burial of the Apis bull. The Apis bull was literally seen as a god-king, compete with its own palace, regal dress, and harem of pretty cows in life. Upon death, it was expected that its burial would fittingly correspond to it's regal station. Very soon after Khaemwaset had been appointed sem-priest the Apis bull died and the prince participated in the embalming an interment of the bull in the sacred cemetery at Saqqara. 14 years later Khaemwaset was in charge of the entire proceedings of his second Apis bull burial. The prince broke with tradition and buried the second bull in the same burial chamber as the first (the only Apis burial ever recovered fully intact; by Mariette). It was hereafter that Khaemwaset decided to construct an entirely new set of chambers at Saqqara specifically dedicated to the purpose of Apis bull burial, known now as the Serapeum, which would see continual use until the 7th century BC.
As the sem-priest was responsible for the rituals associated with funerary activities within the domain of Ptah's influence as patron god of the Memphite area, and as Khaemwaset in serving this position had detailed and personal experience with the Memphite necropolis, it is somewhat obvious to note his motivations for professional, and perhaps personal, concern for the state of the monuments within his religious jurisdiction. With Egypt recently exiting three significant periods of social discord (the expulsion of the Hyskos, the aftermath of Hatshepsut's reign, and the Amarna period), followed by a period of dedicated military expansion, there was a compelling desire to reemphasize the period of Egyptian history which was then deemed most glorious: the Old Kingdom. One might speculate that this was a primary concern with the construction of Seti I's more archaic megalithic project at Abydos, along with his detailed king list in his temple there, as well as Ramesses II's efforts at the same location. Khaemwaset's endeavor to repair and associate himself and his father with the most enduring of monuments and characters within the Old Kingdom Memphite necropolis must be viewed within this socio-historical context.
In fact, it wasn't only those intimately linked to the king who viewed the Old Kingdom with reverence. Graffiti from those belonging to what may be deemed as the “middle class” dating to Ramesses II's reign has been found all over the Memphite necropolis. One such example, belonging to a Treasury-Scribe named Hednakht reads:
“Year 47, 2nd month of winter, day 25 [January 1232 BC], the Treasury-Scribe Hednakht, son of Tjenro and Tewosret, came to take a stroll and enjoy himself in the west of Memphis, along with his brother Panakht...He said: 'O all you gods in the West of Memphis...and glorified dead...grant a full lifetime in serving your good pleasure, a goodly burial after a happy old age, like yourself...”
As can be seen by the above inscription, the land itself and all those previously buried within it was seen as sacred which might still be called upon to influence the life of those living during Ramesses II's reign.
Thus culturally motivated, Khaemwaset carried out conservation work on the tombs of Djoser, Khufu (probable, according to Herodotus), Khafre, Menkaure, Shepseskhaf, Userkhaf, Sahure, Niuserre, and Unas:
“...inscribed the name of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Unas, since it was not found on the face of the pyramid, because the priest Prince Khaemwese loved to restore the monuments of the Kings of Upper and Lower Egypt.”
In addition, he also rebuilt the temple of Ptah, cataloged royal and temple libraries, and restored the tombs of significant Old Kingdom nobles, such as that of Kawab. He inscribed on Kawab's statue:
“Hereditary Prince, He of the Curtain, Dignitary and Vizier (?), Kawab
Around Throne: It is the Chief Directing Artisans (=High Priest of Ptah in Memphis) and Sem-Priest, the King's Son, Khaemwaset , who was glad over this statue of the King's Son Kawab, and who took it from what was cast (away) for debris (?), in [...] .. of his father, the King of South and North Egypt, Khufu.
Then the S[em-Priest and King's Son, Kha]em[waset] decreed that [it be given] a place of favor of the Gods in company with the excellent Blessed Spirits at the Head of the Spirit (Ka) chapel of Ro-Setjau, -so greatly did he love antiquity and the noble folk who were aforetime, along with the excellence (of) all that they had made, so well, and repeatedly ("a million times").
These (things) shall be for (for) all life, stability and prosperity, enduring upon earth, [for the Chief Directing Artisans and Sem-Priest, the King's Son, Kha]emwaset , after he has (re)established all their cult procedures of this temple, which had fallen into oblivion [in the remembrance] of men.
He has dug a pool before the noble sanctuary (?), in work (agreeing) with his wishes, while pure channels existed, for purity, and to bring libations from...of Khafre, that he may attain (the status of) 'given life'.” -JE 40431.
In the 52nd year of Ramesses II's reign the Crown Prince, Ramesses B, died. Khaemwaset took his place and was set to become king of Egypt upon the death of his father. In the 55th year, however, Khaemwaset died and was buried at Saqqara, a site to which he dedicated his life. In addition to his conservation work and oversight of ceremonies related to the Apis bull, the prince also planned several of his father's Heb-sed festivals, symbolically reestablishing the vitality of the king every two years after the thirtieth year.
Khaemwaset had eventually become High Priest of Ptah, succeeding Huy, Pahemneter, and Didia. Shortly after his death, Khaemwaset's own son, Ramesses, would follow in his father's footsteps and likewise serve as High Priest of Ptah
While Khaeswaset is generally given credit for being the first to make efforts to preserve monuments from the past, there was a growing appreciation for Egypt's history in the general public of the period as well, evidenced by the offering-basin of Amenwashu (TT-111, Temple Scribe) showing him and his wife, Iuy, a chantress of Bast, adorning a statue of Teti. It is likely, therefore, that Khaemwaset's campaign to restore monuments from antiquity was not a unique passion for history but a product of a widespread cultural need to re-identify with the glorious deeds of the past, present throughout various levels of society at the time.
Recent news of interest: Discovery of the tomb of Khaemwaset's daughter, Isisnofret