All Tied Up – A New Addition to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS

Over the last couple of weeks, eagle-eyed visitors to the Hall of Ancient Egypt may have noticed that things look somehow different. If it’s not any bigger than before, the Hall is certainly better stocked than before – we have added something in the region of sixty new objects to the displays. Most of these come from the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, and join a number of pieces they have already loaned us.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting some of these new objects, and talking about why they’re special and what getting them on display involved – some of them have been specially conserved for display.

The first piece, which you can see in our case on war and weaponry

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does not look typically Egyptian at first glance. A hand-modelled clay figure shows what looks to be a naked woman. Her head is shaved except for four plaits. Her long legs taper away into an abstracted point, rather than feet, but otherwise she looks cheerful enough. Turn her round, though, and it’s a different story.

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Her hands are tied behind her back, making her a helpless prisoner.

Figures of naked women, made of fired, red-slipped clay (like ours),

‘Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, UC59288’

‘Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, UC59288 (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/petrie)

 

stone,

Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, UC59284, rear view

Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, UC59284, rear view (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/petrie)

 wood,

Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, UC16148’

Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, UC16148 (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/petrie)

or glazed faience,

Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, UC16725

Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL,  UC16725 (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/petrie)

were made in large numbers in the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period of Egyptian history (about 2040 – 1570 BC). Like our piece, they often have shaven heads with plaits, schematic faces, and stumpy or missing feet. Earlier scholars had fun calling them ‘concubines of the dead’, assuming that they were provided to keep the male tomb owner company in the afterlife.

Present interpretations are less single minded. We now call them ‘fertility figures’, and identify them as generic images of women used (by men, women, and children) in rituals and as conduits of prayers associated with birth and re-birth. Magic and medicine were linked together in Egypt, and figurines like these could have been used in healing rites, magically becoming the goddesses needed to fight illnesses. Our figure could be one of these ‘fertility figures’, but what about her bound hands? Is this a case of Fifty Shades of Terracotta?

It’s more likely that our figure is not connected with fertility but hostility. She is a captive, and as such joins a rarer group of objects. Almost all of these are made of fired clay, and depict figures with hands pinioned like our figure. One figure is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge UK, but the largest group is in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Credit ‘Courtesy E. Waraksa

Courtesy E. Waraksa

Like the fertility figures, these images also had magical associations, although presumably of a rather different sort. They could represent or stand in for people that the owner of the figure wished to harm, or had succeeded in harming. A slightly different type of these ‘execration figures’ is inscribed with a lengthy text naming the chiefs of neighboring countries “who may rebel, who may plot, who may fight, who may think of fighting, or who may think of rebelling in this entire earth” – a fine early example of legal boilerplate. Many of these figures are broken, and it seems likely that breaking them was the climax of one type of ritual. Attacking the stand-in figures also attacked the persons they represented.

Egyptologists tend to steer away from the question of whether the Egyptians really practiced ritual executions, or just vented their anger on these execration figures. A spectacular recent discovery has forced us to come back to the issue. A team from Johns Hopkins University discovered the trussed and pinioned remains of a man buried inside the temple complex of the goddess Mut at Luxor. Dating around the Second Intermediate Period, like our figure, he had probably been killed by having his neck twisted from behind – almost like wringing a bird’s neck.

I’ve called our figure a woman, but is this correct? A colleague pointed out the difficulty of assigning gender to figures like this, and that clay execration figures are all male – or, at any rate, none are definitely female. What I saw as a naked woman with a big chin and rather small bosom could be a bearded man wearing a triangular loincloth made of slashed leather, typical for foreign soldiers, and probably also worn by the figures in the photograph above.

What I think makes our figure different, though, is its hairstyle. Only women are shown with a shaven skull and plaits; for me this makes the identification as female almost certain. Women were named alongside men in execration texts, so why, sometimes, couldn’t they be given personalised figures? Come and have a look and decide for yourself.

Finally, if you are interested in finding out more about Egyptian magic and execration figures, the standard text on the subject, Robert Ritner’s The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice can be downloaded free from the University of Chicago.

Chiddingstone Castle curator Maria Esain lays out her all-time favorite objects

Editor’s Note: Today’s blog post comes to us from Chiddingstone Castle curator Maria Esain. Chiddingstone, located in Edenbridge, Kent in the United Kingdom, loaned significant artifacts to HMNS’ Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Many visitors to Chiddingstone ask me the same question: what is your favorite object? I find it the most difficult question to answer, and I can’t choose just one. I tend to like objects that bring plenty of historical information about the people behind them. Particularly in the case of archaeological objects, such as the Ancient Egyptian ones on loan to HMNS.

The selection below is a good example of this. I believe each artifact is an incredible source of information; some with the bonus of being breathtakingly beautiful.

Ibis figure in alabaster and bronze.  Late Period 661-332 BC

Chiddingstone curator Maria Esain shares her favorite ancient Egyptian objects on Beyond Bones

The Ibis was a sacred animal in Ancient Egypt, associated with the god Thoth, who was responsible for writing, mathematics and time. I find it quite impressive that more than 3,000 years ago the Egyptians were such a developed society. They became aware of the importance of recording things and developed hieroglyphics. Other objects demonstrate that their knowledge of mathematics was also incredibly developed.

Monkey khol pot in basalt. Middle Kingdom, ca 2,000BC – 1,750BC

Chiddingstone curator Maria Esain shares her favorite ancient Egyptian objects on Beyond Bones

Another characteristic about Ancient Egyptians that astonishes me is how conscious they were about their personal grooming. This is visible in the many different shaped kohl containers in our collection. Both men and women wore eye make-up for several reasons, including to protect their eyes from the sun’s glare. Wearing make-up also had magical purposes. Animal-shaped containers are recurrent, the most common animals featured being monkeys.

Painted pottery vessel. Predynastic Period, ca 4,500BC – 3,000BC

Chiddingstone curator Maria Esain shares her favorite ancient Egyptian objects on Beyond Bones

This vessel is full of information. As all pre-dynastic objects, it is an invitation to reflect on the length of the Ancient Egyptian civilization. I always explain to our visitors standing in front of our timeline of Ancient Egypt that Cleopatra was as unfamiliar with the Great Pyramids as we are with her.

Shabti of Tamit. Painted wood. New Kingdom. 1550-1086 BC

Chiddingstone curator Maria Esain shares her favorite ancient Egyptian objects on Beyond Bones

The work on this figure is so delicate and intricate, even the eyebrows are carved. This object became very mouldy back in 2008 when the castle had to close for two years, and the Egyptian collection was left with no environmental control. Luckily it was conserved and brought back to all its splendor. Shabtis were funerary figures placed by hundreds inside tombs so that they could undertake agricultural works on behalf of the dead.

Visit our permanent Hall of Ancient Egypt and pick your own favorite artifacts!

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!