Most Egyptologists are not superstitious people. When I first noticed that one of our Middle Kingdom statuettes (Acc. no. 9325) had been turned around 180 degrees to face the back of its case in our new Ancient Worlds galleries, I wondered who had changed the object’s position this without telling me. The Egyptians themselves would have appreciated the concern to make visible for passers-by the text on its back pillar – a prayer for offerings for the deceased. Yet the next time I looked into the case, the statue was facing in another direction – and a day later had yet another orientation. None of the other objects in the display had moved. The case was locked. And I have the only key.
The statuette had always intrigued me. It entered the Manchester collection in 1933, as part of a donation of five objects from Miss Annie Barlow of Bolton – three of which at one time were considered to be modern forgeries.
The inscription on the back pillar reads: “An offering which the king gives to Osiris, Lord of Life, that he may give a voice offering, consisting of bread, beer, oxen and fowl for the Ka-spirit of’. As is known for other statues of this date and type, the man’s name – Nebsenu(?) - is inscribed on the front of the statue’s base. He bears what Alan Gardiner called as “obscure” title: Hry (n) tm. The distribution of the inscriptions suggests that the statuette was prefabricated with the standard offering formula on the back pillar and that the man’s name was added later to the base.
Logical attempts to explain the statues movement centre on the subtle vibrations caused by outside traffic, causing imperceptible movement. Lill, a colleague on the visitor services staff, suggested that perhaps the man wanted us to say the prayer for him – yet when this text is visible his name is impossible to read. What is very strange is that the statue has spun in a perfect circle – it hasn’t wobbled off in any particular direction. The intriguing suggestion that the statuette was carved of steatite and then fired may imply that it it now vulnerable to magnetic forces. But is so, why did it not move on its glass shelf in pretty much the same position in the old Egyptian Afterlife gallery?
I lied – others do have a key to the case, and it is just possible that someone is playing a trick. But I doubt it.
The simplest solution seems to be to apply a tiny amount of museum wax to the base to stop the movement. But what if the statue continued to keep moving? What would our explanation be then..?