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.

Einstein Scavenger Hunt: Guess That Hall!

Editor’s note: This post was created by HMNS Concierge and Discovery Guide Corey Green.

Einstein at HMNS

 

Our good friend Einstein came to visit the museum and went through many of our exhibit halls. Can you name the halls he’s pictured in? (Click the pictures for answers!)

Einstein at HMNS Einstein at HMNS Einstein at HMNS Einstein at HMNS Einstein at HMNS Einstein at HMNS Einstein at HMNS Einstein at HMNS

 Want to go on a scavenger hunt with your very own Einstein? Good news! You can get him at the Museum Store!

 

 

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!

C’mon, get snap happy! Grab your camera (any camera) and Pixel Party with us on Sunday

Oh yes, photographers, it’s that time once again. Time to dust off ye olde DSLR, point-and-shoot, or even that fingerprint-smudged smartphone — and pony up to a photo party at your favorite science museum after hours.

In case you haven’t heard by now, our Pixel Party is the next generation of photography soirees from HMNS, where photographers of all cameras can set up shop in our latest and greatest exhibits — and get a crowd-free glimpse of the goods.

This month, we’re lifting the veil off three (!!!) major titans for your photographic pursuits: the stunning new Hall of Ancient Egypt, the intriguing Scenes from the Stone Age: the Cave Paintings of Lascaux exhibition, and the timeless Hall of the Americas (where photography is traditionally prohibited — until now).

pxlp1

In order to get the opportunity to snap those masterful exhibits, we ask that you meet three simple requirements:

(1) Register for the Pixel Party

Yup, register. It’s totally free, but we’ve gotta know you’re coming. You can do that registration thing if you point your little mouse right here and click. After you register, you’ll receive an email confirmation that your registration is good to go.

Oh, and you might wanna take note of the deadline, because there is one. Registration must be received by 5 p.m. on Fri., Feb. 21. We won’t accept registrations after that, no matter how hard you beg or how many barrels of cupcakes you promise to bring. Sorry. Them’s the breaks.

(2) Bring a camera

Maybe that goes without saying, since this is a photography party and all, but hey, we’re saying it anyway. This means that everyone in attendance must have a camera in hand. We actually don’t care what kind of camera — smartphone, fancy camera, credit card-sized camera, and the like — but whatever you’ve got has to be capable of taking photos.

But this also means no +1. It means no family, no friends, and no one without a click-click-clicker in hand. Just photographers.

(Now if your loved ones take photos, too, that’s another story. So, um, psst. Make ‘em register.)

pxlp2

(3) Have an active photo sharing profile on the Interwebs

You know, we wanna check out the spectacular photos you take of our exhibits. Let’s face it: you make us look good. And maybe we’re a little vain, too. But we wanna see ourselves in the glow of your adoring gaze. So, indulge us.

To that end, you must have an active Flickr, Instagram, 500px, or other photo sharing account; a dedicated Facebook Fan Page for your photography; or an active photography portfolio online.

We have to make sure that you are who you say you are — a photographer. Because why show up to a picture party if you don’t really like to take them?

That’s it. Capisce?

Doors will open at 5:30 p.m., and you can chill in the Grand Hall until the event begins at 6 p.m. We’ll have kibbles for you on our front patio from The Hungry Lumberjack (so bring cash), and, of course, the chance of a lifetime to explore three fabulous exhibits after hours.

Think you can hang with some snap-happy folks at the Museum? Then register, why dontcha?