Earlier this year, a tomb was discovered in the Egyptian necropolis of Saqqara, a “stone’s throw” from the Pyramid of Pharaoh Djedkare Isesi.
Down a robust wooden ladder into a darkness where the light shines only out of torches, around an L-shaped bend, archaeologists stepped into a picture of the past.
The walls are decorated with beasts and men, plates piled high with food and beautiful, haunting hieroglyphs. The profiled faces on the wall look down on the explorers, but do not judge them, for that is the domain of jackal-headed Anubis alone.
This is Khuwy’s tomb, and his numerous titles are recorded amongst the hieroglyphs. One of them is strangely touching: “sole friend”. The decorations in the tomb indicate that Khuwy was held in high regard, though his precise relationship to the Pharaoh is not known.
The paintings on the walls of the tomb are especially well preserved. The rich hues of the past rise up at us: blue and green and deep, burnt ochre, the colour of skin. There are patches, here and there, where the paint has worn away—of course—to remind us we are fragile. And there is the mummy of Khuwy himself, dismembered. The urns used to store his bodily organs now containing little more than black ichor.
And yet, amongst all this solemnity: a sudden moment of exultation. An archaeologist, face flushed, calls the camera crew over to inspect a mark on the wall. There, barely distinguishable against the white limestone brick is a small black smudge: a fingerprint.
The mark was almost certainly left by whoever painted the walls of the tomb. Beneath the shapes of cats and birds and hieroglyphs painted more than 4,000 years ago is a lingering, tangible reminder of what it is to be human.
At the press conference outside the tomb, against a picture perfect backdrop of palm trees and sand dunes, Egypt’s Antiquities Minister, Khaled al-Enani, does not only mention the art, or the remains of poor dismembered Khuwy (which are to be carefully examined); but he also mentions that seemingly insignificant black smudge.
There is the art and the pictographs. There is the engineering expertise that was used to cut and shift the limestone slabs in order to create such a robust structure. There is the rich mythology of the ancient people of this land decorating the walls, along with those official titles held by Khuwy himself.
Yet, amongst it all, it is that single black smudge that is most affecting.
Some 4,000 years after it was built, a tomb built to honour a man—Khuwy, called “sole friend”—can perhaps teach us something altogether different than expected.
Life—and history—is not only about the rulers and their chosen few. It is not only about the gods and the demigods that spark our imagination and are born again and again into life on our screens and in our stories.
Instead, it’s about the mistakes that we make—those subtle imperfections, those black smudges, that may yet go unnoticed for another 4,000 years. It’s about those small acts of defiance—perhaps a fingerprint left as a signature by an otherwise unnamed artist.
No matter how grandiose the world around us may seem and how insignificant we may feel beneath the shadows of that grandiosity, remember:
Sometimes a black smudge on a wall may be the most important thing of all.