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.


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.


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.

Is Nefertiti still buried in Tutankhamun’s tomb? Archaeologists examine a new theory

Tutankhamun has been in the news again, following online publication of Nicholas Reeves’s article that suggests that Tut’s tomb may still be keeping a very big secret: the burial of the king who ruled before him, hidden behind the painted walls of Tut’s burial chamber. To cap it all, this mysterious predecessor, Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare, was probably Tut’s mother-in-law Nefertiti, who changed sex and ruled as king after the death of her husband (and Tut’s father) Akhenaten, in about 1330 BC. No wonder Tut’s life was turned into a miniseries earlier this summer…

Burial chamber

Burial Chamber. North wall of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, Valley of the Kings.

Nicholas Reeves knows more about Tutankhamun and his family than almost anyone, so his theory has been widely discussed. His book The Complete Tutankhamun, is an unsurpassed guide to the tomb, and Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet takes a wide-ranging look at the the changes in religion and society that Akhenaten tried to impose as king.

Dr. Reeves’s theory builds on his extensive study of the Valley of the Kings and Tutankhamun’s Egypt, but at its heart are two simple practical observations. Looking at the high-resolution scans of Tut’s burial chamber made by Factum Arte, he noticed vertical and horizontal disturbances in the surface of the north and west walls of the burial chamber. Second, the paintings on the long, northern wall look different from those on the other walls and have been carried out using a different technique.

Dr. Reeves’s suggestion is essentially that the disturbances correspond to the doorways of two chambers that had been sealed off and painted over to conceal them before Tut’s burial. The chamber behind the west wall may have been intended for more of Tut’s belongings, while the chamber behind the north wall could contain the burial of Tut’s predecessor, Smenkhkare/Nefertiti, for whom the tomb was originally made. The paintings on the north wall were executed just after Nefertiti’s burial in order to conceal her mummy and tomb equipment from robbers, a common practice in royal tombs.

When Tut died, nine years after Nefertiti, his own tomb was nowhere near finished. In order to bury him quickly, his burial party used the rooms in front of Nefertiti’s sealed burial chamber. This room then became Tut’s burial chamber, and the three still unpainted walls were painted with scenes of Tut’s funeral and afterlife. The already painted north wall received a few tweaks to transform it from a depiction of Nefertiti’s funeral to Tut’s.

There’s a simple and uncontroversial way to test whether there’s anything behind Dr. Reeves’s theory: ground penetrating radar. Firing this at the walls in question should show what, if anything, is behind them. It sounds as though the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities has given permission. Watch this space!

But first, we should watch the walls. I know little about how one evaluates wall surfaces, so can’t say whether the horizontal and vertical disturbances really are consistent with a couple of sealed doorways. However, I’ve worked on artistic styles – the way representations change over time and circumstance – and I am not convinced by Dr. Reeves’s theory that the north wall of the burial chamber was painted for Nefertiti, nine years before Tut’s burial and the rest of the paintings.

The north wall has three groups of figures. From left to right you can see Osiris, god of the dead, embraced by Tut and his ka (spirit); the sky goddess Nut offering water to Tut; and Aye, Tut’s successor king, wearing a leopard-skin outfit as he performs the opening of the mouth ritual on Tut’s wrapped mummy.

Dr. Reeves argues that images of Nefertiti were painted where we now see Tut, and Tut was painted where we now see his successor Aye. When Tut died, the names were changed to change the identities and the background painted yellow to make the north wall look like the other walls. The figures themselves were not touched, so Tut actually looks like Nefertiti and Aye actually looks like Tut. All clear?

The trouble is that the Tuts don’t look like Nefertitis to me, and Aye doesn’t look much like Tut. Instead, Tut looks like Tut and Aye looks like Aye, as we have always assumed. What is going on?

Tomb Tut head

Tut or Nefertiti? Detail from the north wall of the burial chamber of Tutanhamun.

Dr Reeves says that the ‘oromental groove’ – the fold at the corner of Tut’s/Nefertiti’s mouth – is “a defining feature” of Nefertiti’s representations. I disagree. You see them on plenty of representations of other people – male and female – at this time. Here you can see one of Tut’s sisters (and Nefertiti’s daughters) eating a duck and showing off her oromental groove.

Princess eating duck

Artist’s sketch of an Amarna princess, Cairo Museum. Courtesy

It’s harder to tell in 3D sculpture, where you’re carving a subtle groove rather than drawing a single line, but this statue of Tut himself in the Oriental Institute Chicago, seems to have a little groove at the corner of his mouth.

Habu Tut

Colossal statue of Tutankhamun from Medinet Habu © The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

And this statue of a god with Tut’s features also has a noticeable fold.

Karnak Tut

Statue of Amun with the features of Tutankhamun, Temple of Karnak.

If Tut looks like Tut, and not Nefertiti, then does the painting of King Aye, Tut’s successor, really look like it started out as Tut? He certainly doesn’t look like the Tuts/Nefertitis next to him on the wall.

Tomb Aye head

Aye or Tut? Detail from the north wall of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun.

For me, again, the answer is no.  While most representations of people in Egypt are relatively generic – expressing, in part, closeness and obedience to the king – representations of Aye have a number of fairly individual traits. One is a longish, straightish nose which sticks out sharply from a slightly receding forehad. You can see that on the profile of “Aye” in Tut’s tomb as well as this example.


Nile deity with Aye’s face, from a statue of Aye as a king. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This slightly earlier image of Aye, from the tomb he made for himself before he was king, also shows a similar nose, and a pouch under his round chin.


Aye holding his official insignia. Worcester Art Museum.

Dr. Reeves describes “Aye’s” slight double chin as “a feature not present in any image currently recognizable as “Aye” and indicating that the original king painted must have been a chubby young Tutankhamun. Again, I would disagree with this. Just compare Aye’s chin above to the representation in Tut’s tomb. They are pretty similar.

The final object that I think speaks against this hypothesis is a plaster cast of a face taken from a statue of an old man with a heavily wrinkled forehead.

Aye Berlin

Head of an elderly man from Tell el Amarna. Egyptian Museum, Berlin.

This was discovered in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose at Akhenaten’s capital, alongside the well known Bust of Nefertiti. The head has no inscription but has often been identified as Aye. I’d agree with this – just compare the noses – but either way, look at his magnificent double chin. At this period, then, double chins aren’t necessarily a sign of youth, but also of age. So this is no young Tut burying Nefertiti, but as the inscriptions themselves say, old Aye burying Tut.

You can see that I’m skeptical of Dr. Reeves’s interpretation of the wall paintings. Does this mean that there’s nothing behind the wall(s)? Not necessarily. The wall paintings form only one part of his hypothesis, and I don’t know enough about structural mechanics and architecture to be able to decode or comment on the surface features he has identified as plastered-up doorways. So I’ll be very interested to see what the results of the ground-penetrating radar examination reveal, and I’ll be delighted if my skepticism is shown to be mistaken. Using radar is only the start of what could be a long process, though. Any anomalies revealed may be something very different from chambers full of gorgeous gold. For example, the floor of the Valley of the Kings is shot through with cracks and fissures which show up on radar as anomalies; the soil of the valley has been churned over by two hundred years of excavators, and is also full of modern holes. There are plenty of unfinished niches in other tombs, and perhaps Tut’s architects just neatly plastered over two in the burial chamber. We’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of Tut and Nefertiti (sorry, but no Aye) in the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS. In addition to our head of a god with the features of Tut, and our replica of the Bust of Nefertiti, come and look at this amulet.

Chidd Amulet

Amulet of a crouching royal. Trustees of the Denys E. Bower Bequest, Chiddingstone Castle.

It is tiny, about the size of a little fingernail, but the faience paste has been molded in some detail. You can make out a crouching figure clad in the long pleated kilt of the elite of the time of Akhenaten. The figure has one hand lifted to its mouth, sucking its index finger in the gesture used to identify children in Egypt. On its head is a skull-hugging cap with streamers hanging down the back, and a protective uraeus snake at the front. This is a royal person of the Amarna period reborn as a child, just as the sun rises again every day. The cap crown worn by the figure is worn by only one person: Nefertiti. Even if Nefertiti may not be awaiting rebirth in her hidden burial chamber, you can see her reborn every day in the Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Egyptian Nefertiti replica ends in a bust: ‘Ugly’ statue brews social media storm

A mini controversy has just broken out in social media about a rather ugly new rendering of the famous Nefertiti bust. The original bust, currently on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin, is one of the most iconic pieces of Egyptian art, recognized as easily as King Tut’s gold mask. It was not a surprise, therefore, that Egyptian authorities recently decided to erect a larger-than-life replica of the same bust at the entrance to the city of Samalut, to honor her memory.

This effort ended in – pardon the pun – a bust in its own right. The image, which only bears a very superficial resemblance to the original, has caused a storm in Egyptian social media, attracting worldwide attention. While the original bust is very well known, the story of its discovery is perhaps less well known. Nefertiti’s bust was discovered in the ruined workshop of the sculptor Thutmose on December 6, 1912 by a German archaeological team.

Bust being handed over to German archaeologist

Presentation of the Nefertiti bust shortly after discovery in 1912. (Left to right: Hermann Ranke, Paul Hollander and Mohammed es-Senussi)

Although the bust is uninscribed, Ludwig Borchardt, the dig director, immediately realized who was represented: the tall blue crown with uraeus serpent must belong to the queen. “No use describing it, you have to see it” he wrote.


Handwritten note by Ludwig Borchardt on the discovery of the bust. Aside from a quick sketch, it contains the remark “No use describing it, you have to see it.”

The Egyptian government gave the bust, and other finds, to the German expedition at the end of the season, according to a custom of the time, known as “partage.” It was not until ten years later, after World War I, that the bust was put on display in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The reaction was immediate: Nefertiti became an icon and the Egyptian government demanded her return, claiming that she had been allowed to leave the country by subterfuge. The matter remains unresolved to this day, and Nefertiti has survived two world wars in Berlin.

Nefertiti was the principal wife of the New Kingdom pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1350 – 1335 BC). Akhenaten tried to revolutionize Egypt, outlawing the worship of a host of gods, headed by Amun, the king of the gods. In their place he proposed the worship of the Aten, the sun-disc that gave life to the world. He moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a virgin site 250 miles to the north. This new capital he called Akhetaten (“horizon of the sun disc”), the modern site of Tell el-Amarna. Akhenaten’s changes did not find favor, and after his death the site was abandoned by his successor – the more familiar Tutankhamun – as the capital moved back to Thebes. Amun had restored the status quo.

A new religion required a new artistic style to express itself. Set against earlier Egyptian objects, Amarna art can appear more naturalistic, softer and more intimate. Images of Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and their six daughters were the icons of this new creed, and Amarna was filled with sculptor’s workshops producing decoration for the city. The bust of Nefertiti, with its unusual shape, was probably a model used to define and standardize images of the queen.

The latest update on the “controversy” tells us that the Samalut bust is to be replaced with a statue of a peace dove. So all is well that ends well.

The original bust continues to attract huge throngs of tourists in Berlin. A museum quality replica of the same bust, manufactured by highly talented artists at the Neues Museum, has been on display in the Hall of Ancient Egypt at the Houston Museum of Natural Science since 2013. She looks forward to seeing you there.


Her Majesty awaits your visit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

A Lost Persian Army Returns

Spirit of Osiris
Creative Commons License photo credit: h.koppdelaney

The place is the famous Siwa Oasis in Egypt. The time is 525 B.C.  Ancient Egypt is but a former shadow of itself. Tutankhamun has been dead and buried for 800 years (and his tomb plundered twice already by now). Slowly but surely, Egypt’s power was fading as it was drawn into the orbit of mightier empires in the region.

During the 6th century B.C., Egypt was plagued by massive internal unrest. Egyptian armies were involved in expeditions heading south into Nubia, as well as into southern Palestine. Greek-speaking mercenaries were now gainfully employed in Egypt. Greek merchants even received permission to settle in their own city, Naucratis, in the Nile delta. Things were definitely different in Egypt and they were about to take a turn for the worse in 525 B.C.

Cambyses II, ruler of the Persian Empire, invaded Egypt in that year. Psammetichus III faced the Persian army at the great frontier fortress of Pelusium eastern gateway into Egypt. The Egyptian forces and their Greek mercenaries were no match. The king fled to Memphis, where he was captured and taken to Susa, the Persian capital. One can only imagine what his fate was.

Mui ne -  Sanddüne - Vietnam
Creative Commons License photo credit: marfis75

Greek historian Herodotus, father of history writing, lived a mere 75 years later and wrote about this momentous event. He relates how the Persian king sent off an army – of 50,000 soldiers no less – to destroy the oracle located in the Siwa Oasis. It is alleged that the oracle had predicted the king’s downfall, and Cambyses was having none of it. Yet the oracle proved to be right. The army never reached its destination and was swallowed up by the desert. Cambyses did eventually bite the dust as well in 522 B.C.

Then the sands of time and the desert covered up the story of the army that set off to destroy the oracle. Eventually, it was relegated to the realm of legend. Numerous expeditions were launched to find it, but without success.


Until relatively recent discoveries in the desert now seem to have located the unfortunate Persian army. Relatively recent indeed; it appears that for the last 13 years two Italian brothers, Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni, undertook five expeditions in search of Cambyses’ troops. They claim they have found good evidence of Persian-era and Persian-style military gear in the Egyptian desert. The media are buzzing with the news. Numerous online videos have popped up on the subject, showing the Italian and Egyptian teams working at a rock shelter in the desert and finding Persian arrow heads, a partial sword or dagger and bits and pieces of horse gear.

Is this for real? Are we dealing with something else altogether? Time will tell. For now, it appears very likely that the lost army has been found. As they say, stay tuned. I am sure a documentary will soon appear on TV. I wonder if a book is coming out soon as well….