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!

Emails from the other side: When it comes to ushabtis, is it possible to miss something you never had?

Our correspondence with Ankh Hap, the original Museum mummy, continues this week with a discussion of ushabtis — miniature funerary figurines placed in ancient Egyptian tombs and meant to take the place of the deceased should they be called upon to perform any manual labor in the afterlife.

Apparently one can’t even count on death as a reprieve from hard work! And according to Ankh Hap, one doesn’t know luxury until one knows the benefits of an ushabti army.

For more of Emails from the Other Side, review past Beyond Bones posts here.

Troop of funerary servant figures shabtis in the name of Neferibreheb

Emails from the other side: The Museum mummy reaches out


Emails from the other side: The Museum mummy reaches out


Emails from the other side: The Museum mummy reaches out


Emails from the other side: The Museum mummy reaches out
Meet Ankh Hap in-person and survey his new digs when the Hall of Ancient Egypt opens next week!

As the Dung Ball Rolls…

Dung beetles are perhaps some of the most well known insects throughout the world. They have played a role in pop culture, in literature and they were the quintessential image of the sacred scarab beetle in Ancient Egypt. Now, we are the proud owners of two separate species of dung beetles! I have always thought dung beetles were neat, but it was not until i saw them in action that they completely stole my heart!

Many people don’t realize exactly how crucial dung beetles are to our environment. They are responsible for not only waste removal, but they enrich the soil by recycling the nutrients back into the earth. They also eliminate breeding sources for important pests such as flies, that can pester and even harm livestock.

We are very lucky to have several species of dung beetles native to the United States. They save the country around 380 million dollars a year by removing the waste themselves! Some countries are not as fortunate. Australia, for example introduced 23 species of dung beetles from South Africa and Europe between 1965 and 1985 to help improve the quality of their pastures. The beetles also cut the population of bush flies, a major pest there, by 90%! Many other developing countries have benefited from dung beetles which have improved standards of hygiene.

Most dung beetles feed exclusively on feces of herbivores and omnivores. They can be divided into 3 categories: roller, tunnelers, and dwellers. Rollers are the most charismatic of the three and are very fun to watch. They will construct a perfectly round ball of dung and roll it away from the pile. Usually a male and female can be seen together with a ball, although the male does most of the work while the female hitchhikes! Once they find a suitable spot, they bury the ball. The female lays an egg inside the ball and the larva feeds and develops inside. Tunnelers simply bury the dung they find, and dwellers live inside of the dung.

We have acquired a species that is a roller, Canthon pilularius, and one that is a tunneler, Phanaeus igneus. Canthon Pilularius are also known as tumblebugs. As soon as I gave them dung, they started to construct and roll balls around. They have kept me entertained for a long time as they are extremely comical to watch! Phanaeus igneus are also known as rainbow scarabs and are beautiful beetles with a metallic red head and thorax and a metallic green abdomen. The major males have a long horn extending back towards their abdomen. They do not roll, but they are very active and visible on the surface of the substrate and can be seen busily preparing their burrows in hopes for a mate. I was able to capture both species on video and it was so cute I just had to share!

Reebie Scarab - Kodachrome-esque

Creative Commons License photo credit: swanksalot
a depiction of Khepri, the sun god

Probably the most interesting thing about dung beetles is their role in Ancient Egyptian culture. Simply known as the scarab, it’s image represented transformation, renewal, and rebirth and can be found throughout Egyptian religious and funerary art. They were linked to the god of the rising sun, also known as Khepri. Khepri was said to, as the dung beetle rolls balls of dung, roll the sun across the sky and into the underworld at night, only to safely return it to the sky each day. The god was often depicted as a whole scarab or a man with a scarab for a head. Images of the scarab have been found all around Ancient Egypt. They are usually small beads carved from bone, ivory, stone, or even precious metals. Similar beads can still be found today in bead shops! These scarabs would often accompany the dead into the afterlife by being placed on the chest of the deceased during entombment. They were known as heart stones, the most famous of which was was found buried with Tutankhamen. They were to help protect the soul in the afterlife. Other images of the scarab were very large and sometimes contained long inscriptions. Some of these massive sculptures can be seen at the Luxor Temple and many other places in Egypt.

Scarab, back

Creative Commons License photo credit: marioanima
a Scarab Sculpture

The Ancient Egyptians were very smart to revere this little beetle, even though, at the time, they didn’t know exactly how important they were to the environment. Many insects play an important symbolic role in ancient cultures and for good reason. I don’t even want to imagine where we would be without beneficial insects such as these. Every little bug, down to the most annoying or insignificant (to us) plays a crucial role in the delicate balance of nature. We all should realize this as our ancestors did!

You can celebrate the legacy of the dung beetle by coming to see them on display at the Cockrell Butterfly Center along with many other fascinating creatures. Until next time, happy bug watching!

Lessons from Faberge: Skill Trumps Modern Technology

Today’s guest blogger is Neal Immega. He has a Ph.D. in Paleontology and is a Master Docent here at HMNS. In his post below – originally printed in the Museum’s volunteer newsletter – Neal discusses the lessons that can be learned from Puabi, Pharaohs and Peter Carl Fabergé.

I sometimes think that I can surely produce objects that are superior to those on display in our halls. After all, my technology has to be superior because it is thousands of years more recent and that should make up for my lack of training in whatever skill is being used. I do get commissions to produce “Nealafacts,” things for the touch carts that mimic ancient originals. I fancy that my copper chisel would please a workman on Pharaoh’s tomb, but what about more difficult things? I can just see my father, raising one eyebrow at me, as if to say “Can you do it?”

The exhibit “Royal Tombs of Ur” contained drilled agate beads, some more than 2 inches long and with walls about a millimeter thick. I fancy myself an expert in making jewelry from agate but I would have trouble drilling thin-walled beads like those even with sintered diamond tools. The craftsmen from Ur accomplished this task 4,500 years ago!

In the “Birth of Christianity” exhibit there was a limestone drinking cup that appeared to have been turned on a lathe, except that its handle stuck out and would have gotten in the way of the turning process. In the Egyptian exhibit that used to be on the first floor, there was a pot (borrowed from the Menil Collection) that was made out of hard igneous porphyry. It also looked like it had been turned on a lathe but, this time, it had hanging lugs would get in the way. I wonder how they did that?

My most recent humbling experience comes from the Fabergė exhibit.  One signature Fabergė technology is transparent enamel over patterned metal. The process used to draw the swirling lines on the metal is called guilloche after the gentleman who created the process in order to make banknotes hard to counterfeit. The process uses gears that run inside of other gears to make the pattern – you can readily see the mechanism if you look at the modern toy called a Spirograph. Select a toothed wheel, a toothed circle for it to run in, and a position inside the toothed wheel for your pencil and, wow! you get perfect mathematical loops. If you used a cutting tool, you could mark the engraving plate used to print bank notes or stock certificates. Though the US Mint probably has a much better ruling engine (because it draws on printing plates) the process is the same.

Spirograph, a plastic toy used to draw curves.
Picture taken from a specimen produced and
old in the USSR (kept in author’s private collection). 
Photo by: Alexei Kouprianov

Marking up bank note printing plates is comparatively easy compared to ruling this little egg.  This is because it has the pattern turned all the way around it, above and below it. I bet there is a pattern follower that can track about an object but I do not know.

The engraved surface on the egg has been enameled:  covered with ground up glass and metal oxides, all melted together. The Faberge factories were famous for the fancy colors they could produce. Ladies of the court would have dresses made to complement the new colors. I suppose it just would not do to clash with your cigarette case color. The large number of colors (maybe 170) made it possible for the factory to claim that each object is unique.  The Fabergé craftsmen used transparent but colored enamels to allow the fancy guilloche patterns to show through.

I guess it is a bit retro to be using machines built in 1920, but the results are fabulous. Almost no one but the high end watch companies still use them because it can take an engraver many hours to do a watch face. Embossing a finish on metal with a hydraulic press is a much more common technique. If you need to do better, computer-controlled milling machines are now priced within the range of many shops (say $20,000) . We might expect to see some really new designs from these in the future.

Want to try your hand at guilloche? There is an interactive site where you can vary all the parameters and produce the most amazing patterns in real time. This is what I wanted – the ability to create an infinite number of patterns without the cost of carving them into metal. The only problem is how to transfer the pattern on to metal, but that is a problem for a 21st century Fabergé shop.

I think my father would be pleased with my discovery that there are no shortcuts to producing quality work. A craftsman today might have better tools than someone in the past, but skill does seem to trump technology.

Rats, I guess there are no easy solutions.

If you are interested in reading more by our guest blogger Neal, click here to read his previous post.


Puabi Beads picture

Rights to use Puabi beads photo.

Guilloche explained

Discussion on the technique of creating Faberge designs

A nice photograph of a ruling engine.


Computer controlled Milling Machine

Hobby Grade Milling machine

Mathematically construct guilloche patterns