Beyond #BeardGate – What else has happened to Tut?

Museum displays, labels, and blogs provide an excellent way for us to look beyond the headlines and get to grips with the full picture. While the hubbub surrounding #beardgate has died down, I’ve kept thinking about it. In my last blog, I included a picture of Tutankhamun’s mask without its beard, photographed during the 1920s. I meant it as a reminder that, whatever happened during the news-grabbing re-attachment of the beard, it wasn’t ‘snapped’ off. The mask was displayed without its beard in the Cairo Museum for over a decade.

Egypt Blog Beard 1937

Courtesy R. Hölzl

A friend then sent me a photograph taken in the museum by her grandfather in 1937. Mask at top, beard lying below. But what’s the lump on the bottom left? It’s part of a collar of gold and faience beads that had been attached around the neck of the mask.

Egypt Blog Mask and necklace

Burton photograph p0750a Copyright Griffith Institute, University of Oxford

Here you can see the collar (and beard) in position on the mask as the mummy lies in the coffin. If you look closely at the mask today, you can still see the holes punched on either side of the neck to fix it in position. The collar itself is still displayed detached from the mask. It took fifteen years or so for the beard to make it back on to the mask, but the collar has still not been re-attached. Egyptologists are naturally conservative people, but this takes some beating. When the mask was taken abroad on tour in the 1970s, the exhibition catalog says that the necklace was removed from the mask for display “to reveal the neck.” Slim and elegant though Tutankhamun’s neck is, I don’t find this very satisfactory. Should we consider replacing it and restoring the mask to what it really was like?

Like most questions Egyptologists ask, this isn’t expecting a yes/no answer. It’s looking for more information.

Tutankhamun’s collar, with its flat disc-shaped beads, is a costlier example of the same type of necklace (shebyu for the Egyptians) as you can see in the Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Courtesy Chiddingstone Castle

Courtesy Chiddingstone Castle

For non-royals, shebyu necklaces were marks of honor, royal gifts for good service. Receiving the ‘gold of honor’ was an event that merited being carved or painted on your tomb walls; when the mummy of the architect Kha, now in Turin Museum, was x-rayed, his shebyu necklace could be seen still proudly around his neck (along with some serious gold hoop earrings).

For the king, the shebyu had a slightly different function: it emphasized his divinity and union with the gods – the same thing that the rituals of mummification and burial were designed to achieve once he died. It’s not surprising that the shebyu collar was an essential component of Tutankhamun’s burial, since wearing it showed that the dead king had successfully joined his fellow gods for eternity. I wonder if the reason Howard Carter could remove the necklace easily when he extracted the mask was because it was meant to be put on as part of the funerary rites that activated Tutankhamun’s mummy. What we now think of as a permanent fixture on the mask may have been intended for ‘performative’ use.  Perhaps the opening of the mouth ritual that activated statues and mummies needed extra components when carried out on a royal mummy?

We now see the mask first off as an icon of Egyptian culture, or a masterpiece of Egyptian art. For the craftsmen and priests who made it and installed it on Tut’s wrapped mummy, however, it was just one piece of a jigsaw of objects, spells, smells, and gestures that gave the dead king magical protection and kick-started his afterlife.

Tutankhamun’s burial equipment, from the mask – beard, necklace and all – to the three coffins, stone sarcophagus, and gilded wood shrines surrounding them, was never made to be seen. It was made to do a job: to transform his body into something eternal, divine, and protected. Alter one part of this arrangement and perhaps the job would be sabotaged.

Given this, there’s no single ‘right’ or ‘original’ way for Cairo Museum to display Tutankhamun’s mask and burial equipment, nor for us to display our Egyptian material at HMNS. What we can do in museums is to look after the objects in our care and make them accessible to anyone who is interested. We can keep thinking about what they may have meant to the people who made and used them, and how we can convey this in displays and labels (and, now, blog posts). Every so often, new interpretations and new objects allow us to change the way we view and display our collections.

And this is the long lead in to say that we will be making some changes to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS. By the start of March, we’ll have added some new objects and tweaked our labels – and we look forward to hearing what you make of the changes.

Finally, if you’re interested in finding out more about Tutankhamun’s burial, and more generally what wrapping, mummification, and burial meant to the Egyptians, here are two suggestions for further reading. The first is the Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation website, run by the Griffith Institute at Oxford University. The Griffith houses the Tutankhamun excavation archive, and has placed most of this online. You can read transcripts of Howard Carter’s notes, and see the excavation photographs taken by Harry Burton. To see how the mask related to Tutankhamun’s mummy, follow this link and browse the ‘object card’ section for object number 256 (the unwrapped mummy) and its hundred-odd sub-divisions.

The second is Unwrapping Ancient Egypt, by Christina Riggs (full disclosure: Dr Riggs taught me at university). Christina looks at what it meant for the Egyptians to wrap things up – to make things and then carefully hide them away under layers of cloth – and what it has meant for us, in the last two hundred years, to unwrap and display them.

Huh? Nope, it’s Heh: How the Egyptians measured time and thought about eternity

The week is finally over! While only five days long, the workweek can certainly feel like an eternity. Which got me thinking (as many things do) about how the Egyptians measured time and thought about eternity.

Houston HehBarely an inch in height, this small hammered gold object depicts a man kneeling, wearing a knee-length pleated linen kilt and a long wig which comes down in two lappets on either side of his face – the typical get-up of Egyptian gods. His right hand stretches out to grasp a tall element with a curving top; his missing left hand originally did the same.

His pose and accessories identify him as the god Heh. Larger, more detailed representations show that the curved objects he holds are palm ribs, notched to tally up the years. The ‘years’ often rest on crouching frogs or tadpoles, the hieroglyphic sign for ‘100,000;’ these in turn sit on top of tied rings, symbolizing enduring protection.

Big HehWith all this in mind, it’s no surprise that Heh was considered the god of eternity, and was himself used as the hieroglyphic sign for ‘1,000,000’ – the largest number the Egyptians wished to write. Images of Heh in temples and on royal objects provided an eternal framework for the rituals that surrounded them. Tutankhamun was buried with a mirror in a Heh-shaped case, keeping him forever safe and youthful.

Our Heh is smaller and less finely worked than these, but is still made from expensive gold and would have been a cherished possession of its owner. A loop soldered to his back allowed him to be attached to a cord, where he would have served as an amuletic charm on a necklace, or possibly an element of a diadem.

Excavated parallels to our Heh date to the late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period (which we Egyptologists abbreviate to ‘FIP’) of Egyptian history (Dynasties 6-10, around 2300-2000 BC), and illuminate the problems we can run into when studying the past. Literary accounts of the First Intermediate Period describe it as a period in which the legitimate king was unable to exercise his authority: chaos, fighting, and famine ensued until the kings of the Middle Kingdom were able to reunite the country.

Excavations of FIP cemeteries, however, reveal a different picture. Valuable metal objects like weapons and our Heh are preserved in far higher quantities from FIP graves than Old Kingdom graves. If the FIP didn’t benefit the king and his court, less privileged people used the weakening of royal control as an opportunity to enrich themselves in this life and the next.

The amulet of Heh will go on display in the Hall of Ancient Egypt in the summer. Keep an eye out for him!

Trust but verify: Was an artifact in our new Hall of Ancient Egypt made from a meteorite?

Back in a June issue of the HMNScoop (our weekly e-newsletter that you should totally be subscribed to, ahem), we told you about an exciting discovery made amongst the artifacts in our new Hall of Ancient Egypt: we suspected that one of them was made from a meteorite!

So we put it to the test. A simple magnetic test, that is. To see if this figurine of a human head, on loan from Chiddingstone Castle in the UK, contained any meteoric iron.

01.0424_1

We turned to our in-house experts to verify or debunk the assertion: Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, our Curator of Anthropology, and James Wooten, our Planetarium Astronomer (and the voice behind your monthly stargazing reports here on BEYONDbones).

The verdict?

photo 4JPG

photo 2

photo 9

photo 8

Sorry, folks.

Don’t believe everything that you read, because those scrawled words aren’t telling the truth. The object wasn’t magnetic, and it wasn’t made out of a meteorite, either. Bummer.

But now we know, right?

Preserving Egypt’s cultural past: A conversation about conservation with Dina Aboul Saad

Editor’s Note: Today’s post was written by Dina Aboul Saad, Director of Development at the American Research Center in Egypt.

ARCE Collage

Ancient Egyptian, Roman, Coptic and Islamic sites further our understanding of the rich cultural history of Egypt, but there’s much more to Egypt than digging up artifacts. Have you ever thought about what happens to the sites and objects once they are uncovered? And why do we endeavor to preserve Egypt’s cultural past?

The American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) answers these questions through the most extensive program of conservation and training in Egypt today. In recent years the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) has conducted large-scale preservation and training activities at important archaeological sites throughout Egypt in collaboration with Egyptian colleagues and the Ministry of State for Antiquities.

On Nov. 7th at HMNS, you have an opportunity to see some of the iconic sites ARCE works to conserve and document.

fruitcake egypt

Working in Egypt since 1948, ARCE supports scholarly research in Egypt in a variety of areas including archaeology, training, site documentation and mapping, and conservation.

Brian Eno, the British rock musician and avant-garde artist, once remarked, “We are convinced by things that show internal complexity; [things] that show the traces of an interesting evolution. That is what makes old buildings interesting. Humans have a taste for things that not only show that they have been through a process of evolution, but which also show they are still part of one. They are not dead yet.”

We feel disconnected when the opportunity to involve ourselves with cultural history, even from a distance, is taken away.

Don’t miss Dina’s presentation, where she will give an overview of ARCE’s archaeological projects and the impact these projects have in Egypt. This event is co-sponsored by the Egyptian American Society of Houston here at HMNS on Thurs., Nov. 7 at 6:30 p.m. For advance tickets, call 713-639-4629 or get them online.