Learn Hieroglyphics When You Become a Volunteer Docent at HMNS!

by Gillian Callan

Egyptian hieroglyphs. Once thought to be magic writings that contained the secrets to life, they were deciphered by Thomas Young and Jean Francois Champollion in the early 1800’s. What mysteries did they contain? For the majority of the visitors to the Hall of Ancient Egypt, the glyphs are still a mystery – a bunch of squiggles with pictures of animals interspersed. But for the HMNS Hieroglyph Study Group, they are a chance to learn and practice the language of ancient Egypt.

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Egypt fascinated me from early childhood, but I thought I would never get to study or visit Egypt (I did visit nine years ago, and it was fantastic!). So I thought about what I could learn about Egypt without a degree or a plane ticket. I decided that I would learn hieroglyphs. Mark Collier and Bill Manley wrote a book called How to read Egyptian Hieroglyphs. From them, I learned the basics. Then about four years ago, I met a fellow HMNS volunteer who was also interested in hieroglyphs. Another year passed and another volunteer joined HMNS and mentioned that he was also interested in hieroglyphs and asked if we could start a study group. And that’s how we got started.

In order to make our study time worthwhile to the museum, we tasked ourselves with translating as many of the inscriptions in the Egypt hall as we could. To date, we have completed seven of the longer inscriptions and started on several more. The inscriptions fall into two categories: formulaic writings and hymns. The formulaic writings are offerings to the gods. While they follow a set format, we usually find something different in each of them. The hymns are much more difficult. Poetry in any language is harder to interpret than prose, and Egyptian hymns are no different. It also helps if you understand something of the culture of ancient Egypt.

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Hieroglyphs on the coffin of Ankh-Hap. His name appears in the lower left-hand corner of this photo.

While our translations have not been published to the volunteer website, we did create a flip book with useful translations from objects in the hall. In the flip book, we included a translation of Ankh-Hap’s name on his coffin. Ankh-Hap is the mummy owned by HMNS. We found the name of Gemshuankh (aka the Jolly Green Giant) on his coffin, but then he got renamed to Ankhemma’at, so we revised his translation. We located Ptolemy’s cartouche on the replica Rosetta Stone. (We even located it in Demotic and Greek!) By the way, all the cartouches on the Rosetta Stone belong to Ptolemy V, Epiphanes – no Cleopatra, no wives’ names, just Ptolemy. The idea behind the flip book is that someone working or giving a tour in the hall can take the flip book out of the touchcart (there is one book in each cart) and take it to an object in the hall and show visitors appropriate glyphs and what they mean. One of my favorites is to show the bird in Bakenrenes’ name, followed by the rest of her name. It is repeated several times on the cartonnage coffin and visitors get a kick out of being able to recognize the glyphs.

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The coffin of Bakenrenes. Hieroglyphs appear in the yellow bands across the coffin.

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A close-up of the bottom band.

Egyptian hieroglyphs are not a phonetic script, nor are they picture writing. They are a complex combination of phonetics, picture writing and “syllables”. They can be written left to right, right to left and in columns that also have either a left/right or right/left orientation. The favored direction was right to left. But on coffins, the glyphs were written from head to foot. Writers of hieroglyphs also, on occasion, used shortcuts. They fitted the message into the space available and left out what they could, making it difficult at times to read the message correctly. Kind of like today’s usage of text shortcuts like LOL (laugh out loud) or BTW (by the way).

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The HMNS Hieroglyph Study Group meets every Sunday in the Volunteer Library around noon. Our current members are Gillian Callen, John Cochran, David Santana and Scott Brown, all HMNS volunteers. I also teach basic hieroglyphs to willing volunteers. Last summer I taught a three-day session on glyphs including grammar and sentence structure. While I am self-taught and by no means an expert, I can introduce you to the basics and give you a feel for the ancient Egyptian language. These classes are only open to HMNS volunteers and staff. So, if you are interested, find out about becoming a volunteer and then you can sign up for a class. Then when you walk through the Hall of Ancient Egypt, those squiggles will jump out at you and make at least a little bit of sense. Happy translating!

Editor’s Note: Gillian is an HMNS volunteer docent.

Amid King Tut Tumult, Hardwick Re-Caps What We Really Know About this Famous Pharaoh

Over the weekend in Cairo, conflict broke out in the archaeology community. Ground-penetrating radar has revealed peculiar results that some believe indicate additional rooms behind a solid wall in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Others reject this new theory.

British Egyptologist Nicolas Reeves offered up this theory last year following scanning results that he says suggest two open spaces filled with metal and organic matter. Zahi Hawass, famous Egyptologist and former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, remains dubious.

Those backing Reeves are pushing to excavate, but to the naysayers, causing damage to the ancient burial chambers to follow a hunch is something antiquities of this magnitude can ill-afford. But one thing’s for certain in this battle of the minds — the issue has renewed interest in the exploration of these chambers that once housed one of pharaonic Egypt’s most iconic figures, a boy-king buried behind a magnificent golden mask.

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Burial Chamber. North wall of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, Valley of the Kings. Some archaeologists believe an additional space exists behind this ancient artwork.

As the world of archaeology continues to bring to light new information on the issue, Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Consulting Curator of Egyptology Tom Hardwick is keeping his eye on the ball. No matter what news should erupt from Egypt in the next few weeks, he believes a return to the science of King Tut is of greater importance.

“In point of fact, we still know relatively little about him, and yet we try to read our own interests and preoccupations into the evidence,” Hardwick said. “The facts we in the 21st century want to know about people, who their parents were, what they thought, is information which the evidence from an Egyptian burial context doesn’t give you.”

Tut’s character as a “poor, sweet little boy” are fabrications of our own culture, Hardwick said, a kind of ontology that requires as much the injection of our society’s values into ancient history as the discoveries we’ve made from exploration, interpretation and scientific testing. And the marriage of the two is a big problem.

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King Tutanhkamun’s famous death mask.

 

“It’s a matter of conjecture and filling in the gaps, and what we use to fill in the gaps tells us far more about us than what it tells about Tut and his family,” Hardwick said. “You’re trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but the way in which you do it is invariably influenced by who you are and your own preoccupations.”

From evidence unearthed from the tomb of a single pharaoh like Tutankhamun, we can learn more about the society and culture of entire Egyptian states in 1300 B.C. than we can about the pharaoh’s life. Hardwick will explore this thesis in an HMNS Distinguished Lecture Wednesday night. His presentation will compare the solid facts the archaeological community has accumulated over time with the stories we’ve invented to enrich the science with narrative.

“It’s interesting how things change over time,” Hardwick said. “It’s like a game of telephone. Conjectures get solidified into facts, then used as the base for further conjectures.”

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Egyptologist Tom Hardwick.

The story of the original discovery of King Tut’s tomb highlights another central issue involving the international trade of Egyptian antiquities — where do these finds belong? In the countries of the archaeologists who discovered them or the nations in which they were discovered? In Hardwick’s words, King Tut was “a wind-vane of our own preoccupations” at the time of his discovery.

When British archaeologist Howard Carter found Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1920s through painstaking research and excavation in the Valley of the Kings, the several thousand exquisite objects inside became the subject of great contention between Egypt and Great Britain. In the years following, the tug-of-war elevated King Tut to an iconic status as a symbol of the struggle of two governments to come to a mutual resolution in the interest of human history.

Visit HMNS Wednesday night to hear these stories and more as news develops in Cairo. To see our own collection of historical treasures, explore the Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Last Chance to See Ramesses II and Horemheb! Australian Artifacts Move Home Next Week

by Tom Hardwick and Dirk van Tuerenhout

When the Houston Museum of Natural Science planned our Hall of Ancient Egypt, filling its 11,000 square feet with artifacts was not an easy job. Our own collection of Egyptian material is rather small, and that made looking for long-term loans from other museums a logical — and necessary — choice. We reached out to museums across the world to borrow material to display in Houston.

It was sometimes a bit of a long shot since while asking for a short-term loan (typically three to six months) is standard, asking for a long term loan of several years is a different undertaking altogether.

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Ramesses II

We are extremely grateful that so many museums agreed to lend us some of their wonderful Egyptian objects. As the day of the opening approached, artifacts from museums in North America and Europe started to arrive in Houston. Some came from as far away as Australia. Yes, Australia!

In 2013, two star pieces — a giant granodiorite head of king Ramesses II (between 1280 to 1210 BC) and a bust of a non-royal man from a little earlier — traveled from the Nicholson Museum in Sidney halfway across the world to Houston. Affiliated with the University of Sidney, the Nicholson Museum is Australia’s oldest university museum and home to the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere.

A well known pharaonic face at the end of the columned corridor beckons the visitor

A well known pharaonic face at the end of the columned corridor beckons the visitor.

Ramesses II’s bust, representing one of Egypt best known pharaohs, took up a strategic location in our exhibit. Positioned at the end of a long line of sight, this royal image drew visitors deeper into the exhibit. It symbolized the double role played by Egyptian kings: that of worldly leader as well as representative of Egyptian gods on Earth. Ramesses was not just the king who worshipped the gods; he was also a god himself. For the many people who were denied access to the interiors of temples, colossal statues like the one our head came from (he must have been a good 20 feet when complete) were the only images of the king or the gods they could interact with. No surprise that some colossi were also worshipped as gods in their own right.

The bust of a private man, whom many believe to be Horemheb, the general who took the throne after Tutankhamun’s death, was tucked away in our display of burial in the New Kingdom, where visitors could have a more intimate encounter with him.

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Bust believed to be Horemheb.

All good things come to an end, however, and the Nicholson’s objects will be leaving us next week to go home. Following established museum procedures, a courier from the Nicholson will come to supervise their removal from their cases, will check their condition, and will see them safely crated up for their long journey home.

We’ll be sorry to see them go, but there’s one bonus — for me, at least. During the de-installation, I will get to look at them out of their cases, and in different lights. For Horemheb, this will just be pure pleasure: it’s one of the finest pieces of carving from the period.

For Ramesses, however, I have a mission. Arielle Kozloff, former Curator of Ancient Art at Cleveland, told me that she thought Ramesses’s face might have been re-worked, either before or after his reign. Ramesses was a prolific builder, and often economized by recycling statues of earlier kings. Sometimes Ramesses just put his cartouches (the king’s name, written in an oval ring) over the previous king’s; sometimes he went to the trouble of re-carving the previous owner’s face to harmonise with his own. In cases like these, sweeping a torch over the surface, and (gently) running your hands over the surface, can make you aware of different textures, possibly indicating different tools and different phases of working, that normally escape your notice. I’m not convinced that this is one of Ramesses’s retreads, but this is the perfect opportunity to test Arielle’s theory.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, curators abhor empty cases: I’ll introduce you later to the objects that have replaced Ramesses and Horemheb. Before they go, though, you have the rest of this week to admire them at HMNS.

Discreet Hoarding: The Mystery of the Disappearing Horses and Cabinets of Curiosity

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool museophile (no, I did not just make that word up). I love to look at collections of amazing specimens and artifacts. Turns out I also love to hoard things — oh, I mean collect items of great interest and importance. I like to believe my propensity to collect is an adaptive instinct that has been exponentially amplified over millions of years of selective evolution. This impulse to collect benefited my ancestors because they were driven to collect and accumulate scarce objects that could be used when times were tough. I’ll admit, if this is the case, my compulsion may have become somewhat maladaptive, though extremely satisfying.

I have different strategies and reasons for my collections. Some based on possessing as many objects as possible related to a specific subject and others amassed as a result of a shared relaxing activity, such as collecting “sea glass.” Still others evolved in an effort to collect and hold onto memories in a tangible way.

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Since we’re opening the Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit today at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I have spent the week recalling the various collections I have assembled over the years. Some I’ve hung onto, others have been dismantled and distributed to others through garage sales, gifts, and donations to Goodwill. My first collecting experience centered on tiny plastic horses. I can’t recall where any of them came from or where most of them went (I still have one; more on this later), but I do remember how much joy arranging and rearranging them on my windowsill brought me as a child.

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The next memory is of my marble collection. Collecting marbles of all sorts became an absolute obsession and my friends and I spent hours negotiating trades, which could get quite heated. My collection was kept in a homemade blue drawstring bag and I took it everywhere. The final disposition of this collection is a mystery to me, one which still bothers me when I have occasion to think about it.

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As a child who attended elementary school in the 1980s, I had the obligatory sticker collection. Stickers stuck carefully to the slick pages of a photo album, repurposed to house a growing collection. The most prized members of the collection were the puffy stickers with googly eyes and the scratch-and-sniff stickers carefully peeled from homework assignments that were well done. Strategic trades were made at the bus stop and trading with boys was to be avoided at all costs because their collections were not well-curated.

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Around this same time I began collecting “sea glass” with my mom, grandmother, and great aunt along the shores of Maine. This was a time-honored tradition that they felt compelled to pass down to me. There really is nothing like it. The feeling of finding a rare piece of blue cobalt glass is truly indescribable, it might as well have been gold. A full jar sits proudly on my bathroom counter and I still get pleasure from gazing at the colorful shards with the well-worn edges and remembering the cool summer mornings combing the shores of Maine with my mom, my grandmother (now deceased) and great-aunt Mimi.

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Later, gargoyles were the object of my desire. I spotted my first gargoyle strategically placed in my brother’s garden, hiding beneath the fern fronds. When I saw it, I was hooked on these dark and macabre figures who were inexplicably cute while still being scary. I was beyond excited when I found my first one at a price I could afford. The collection slowly grew over the next 10 years. Now, pieces of this once-prized collection reside in many different places and serve a variety purposes, such as props for the Medieval Madness camp and guardians for a very special friend of mine, perched high atop a kitchen cabinet keeping a watchful eye. One sits atop my prized collection of “sea glass,” ensuring it stays safe.

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I then turned my attention to collecting items associated with death and funerary rituals, a proclivity my mother objects to, asking, “Why can’t you find something more uplifting to be interested in?” The objects range from those related to El Día de los Muertos to replicas and art related to mummification in ancient Egypt, the most prized piece being a full-size replica of an ancient Egyptian mummiform coffin made to hold CD’s.

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Last but not least, is the antique printer’s drawer hanging on my bedroom wall. It is full of tiny priceless items that spark memories from many different stages of my life. Some pieces are more interesting than others, like the replica medieval dice engraved with skulls and the only small plastic horse to survive the mysterious disappearance of my first childhood collection. It also has some of my most precious childhood memories, like my first house key and the name tag from the collar of my first dog.

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Home Cabinets Social Media Contest

Have a collection of your own? We want to see it! Post images in the comments section on Facebook or on Instagram under #HMNS. Include what excites you and why you collect certain items. HMNS Marketing will put entries to a vote, and the owner of the most impressive cabinet will win four tickets to the permanent exhibit halls, which includes entry into our new Cabinet of Curiosities. We’ll also feature images of the winning cabient across our social media platforms. HMNS is accepting entries until May 20. Winner will be announced the first week of June.