Curator’s Diary June 2018: Up Close with the Sphinx, Ancient and Modern

Last month I had the chance to spend a couple of days in close proximity with the Great Sphinx at Giza whilst filming a documentary for Discovery Channel (a crash course in pithy communication, ideal for museum curators). Unrestricted admittance to the Sphinx enclosure (usually off-limits to visitors) prompted me to consider the degree of access ancient people might have had to this iconic monument, and how those ancient monuments have in turn shaped our expectation of the tourist experience today.

sphinx-kiss

In modern times, hundreds of tourists and local Cairenes pose for thousands of photos at the Great Sphinx each day. The recent cult of the selfie has assured the iconic status of this human-headed lion, whose colossal profile is particularly suited to ‘kissing’ photos. This sort of interaction has been enabled and encouraged by the convenient modern viewing platforms flanking the Great Sphinx to north and south.

This has not always been the case. Until the mid-20th Century, the Sphinx was largely covered in sand. Visitors to Giza saw the colossal head sticking out of the sand, and recorded their impressions of its forlorn, sad nature – playing perfectly into the Romantic 19th Century image of picturesque vestiges of a lost civilization. Colossal royal statues in particular fit the narrative of the despotic, Oriental ruler undone, dethroned by the progress of History. As with Shelley’s Ozymandias, ‘nothing beside remains… lone and level sands stretch far away’ from the Sphinx. As Mark Twain observed in 1869, the Sphinx is ‘grand in its loneliness.’ But the advent of photography meant that the Sphinx didn’t remain alone for long.

SPHINX-1882

Of many similar images, perhaps the most resonant is this (above) from 1882 – the year Britain tightened its colonial grip on Egypt and the same year the Egypt Exploration Fund was founded. The British officers in full dress kilts and pith helmets, some with hands imperiously on hips, make clear the sense of entitled ownership of Egypt as an imperial possession.

Any photograph is, of course, not a neutral record of ‘what happened’ – especially in archaeology, as Christina Riggs has recently demonstrated for the Harry Burton Tutankhamun archive. These colonial set-pieces with the Sphinx have at their core the same highly constructed projections as any modern selfie. Photos of the Sphinx are also a useful index of the restoration work done to beautify – and ostensibly ‘restore’ – the sculpture for popular consumption. The Sphinx is prepared today for the mass tourist market, but only VIPs can actually get up close to it.

In contrast, surprisingly little is known about ancient perceptions of the Sphinx. Leaving aside the debate of who was actually responsible for its construction (Khafre is favoured by current Egyptological consensus, and who Discovery plump for in the doc), it may seem surprising that there is no Old Kingdom reference to it at all. Only in the New Kingdom (c. 1400 BC) do textual sources talk about the statue in terms of an identity – a divine identity – as ‘Horus in the Horizon’ (Horemakhet).

Although the term ‘shesep ankh’ (lit: ‘living image’) is often cited in Egyptological publications as the term for ‘sphinx’, in fact it rather appears (by the mid-18th Dynasty at least) that this was simply an epithet of the Pharaoh as a ‘living image’ of a god, usually the deity Atum. Ancient Egyptian terms for ‘statue’ are more nuanced than the space here allows (that’ll have to wait until my book on Egyptian statues…) but it was really only the chance to spend time with Sphinx at Giza that brought these issues into focus for me.

Shesep ankh

Tuthmose III described as ‘Living Image of Atum’ at his Karnak ‘Festival Hall’

In New Kingdom texts the Sphinx enclosure is referred to as ‘setepet’ (meaning ‘most select/chosen place’) and massive mudbrick walls would have restricted access to it, even views of it, perhaps only to the highest elite. This is in contrast to the assumption we may form based on the hordes of visitors the Sphinx receives nowadays and on apparent evidence of a Roman Period ‘viewing platform’.

The quizzical (envious? outraged?) looks I received whilst poncing about on camera between the great paws of the Sphinx, brought home to me that access is rarely equal – even to as impressive a divine image as the great Sphinx. Did I have any more right to get up close to the Sphinx than the Egyptian school children on a day out?

The Discovery documentary (due to air Stateside late Summer) gives a rather televisual interpretation of the Sphinx as a ‘Mythical Beast’, but was an opportunity to feed in my own interpretations which – I hope – make the final edit. Perhaps instead of thinking of colossal royal statues in terms of bland ‘propaganda’, we should think in terms of the divisive nature of access (physical, ritual, intellectual) to them and how this shaped ancient and modern interactions with the past.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Curator's Diary, Uncategorized

Curator’s Diary March 2018: Flowers reunited with mummy of Perenbast

It is something of a love story: a man and woman (perhaps husband and wife) buried together for almost 3000 years. Their small tomb chamber at Dra Abu el Naga, on the west bank of Thebes, was excavated by W.M. Flinders Petrie’s workers in 1908-1909.

Both individuals were provided with a single coffin, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure, and boxed shabtis. In a trend particularly prevalent during the Third Intermediate Period, floral material was left on both mummies. As part of the finds division system, one mummy (belonging to a temple singer named Perenbast) and her associated objects were sent to Manchester and those of her companion (‘Mr Perenbast’) sent to Bristol.

Some 10 years ago, while working on their new Egyptian gallery, Bristol Museum World Cultures curator Sue Giles recognised that their mummy had been provided with several flowers covered in black resin – when there was no resin on the mummy. The mummy of Perenbast in Manchester, however, had been covered in a thick coat of black resin and must have had some of her flowers inadvertently sent to Bristol.

Sue_Campbell_Bristol

Sue Giles pointing out the flowers on the mummy of ‘Mr Perenbast’. Photo: Dyan Dodson.

In March 2018, thanks to Sue’s efforts, an official transfer – signed by the Mayor of Bristol – was organised to reunite Perenbast with her flowers. Their identification as lotus flowers may obscure the fact that they are in fact blue waterlilies, about which there has been much debate. Regardless, the intended symbolism is of rebirth and regeneration.

Blue-lillies.jpeg

Pressed blue lillies + illustrations in our Botany collection. Photo: Rachel Webster.

Perenbast and her coffin has been the subject of particular interest of late. They are featured in both a recent documentary about Karnak and an upcoming film on the discovery of KV 64, in which Dr Aidan Dodson of Bristol University and I discuss Perenbast’s station in life. It is intriguing that both the (secondary) owner of KV 64 (Nehemesbastet) and Perenbast share the element ‘Bast(et)’, the feline goddess associated with the Delta, in their names. Perhaps the individuals were related, or at least part of a small group that had the same distinctive black coffin with decoration picked out in yellow or white. Both were beneficiaries of the intense reuse of tombs in the Third Intermediate Period.

1 Comment

Filed under Curator's Diary

Deir el-Medina Double Lecture by Cédric Gobeil 07/04/18

“Life in the Royal Workmen’s Town of Deir el-Medina”
by Dr Cédric Gobeil, Director of the Egypt Exploration Society

Tattoo

Manchester Ancient Egypt Society and the Egypt Exploration Society
Join us for two lectures by EES Director Dr Cédric Gobeil about his excavations at Deir el-Medina and his research on the tattooed mummy recently identified at Deir el-Medina
Saturday 7th April 11am – 2pm
Kanaris Lecture Theatre, Manchester Museum
The University Of Manchester, Oxford Rd, Manchester, M13 9PL

10:30am – Doors open

11am – Introduction from Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan

11:10 – 12:00 Lecture 1

12:00 – Lunch

13:00-14:00 Lecture 2

14:00 – Close

 

Tickets £20
Booking form here: EES MAES booking form

Leave a comment

Filed under Egypt events at the Manchester Museum

Understanding ancient Egyptian attitudes to animals

Our award-winning touring exhibition ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’ opens at its fifth venue – the National Trust property at Lyme Park in Cheshire – next weekend. As part of the BBC Civilisations Festival, it seems timely to consider the popular understanding of that distinctive aspect of ancient Egyptian civilisation: the role of animals in Egyptian religion.

Ancient Egypt is synonymous in the public imagination with animals and animal imagery. Gods and hieroglyphs could take a vast range of two-and three-dimensional animal forms (the British Museum’s ‘Gayer Anderson Cat’ is one iconic example). Yet, the idea of animals as gods still fundamentally strikes us – in the West, at least – as faintly ridiculous.

Cats-comic

The Roman writer Juvenal (1st-2nd Century AD) asked his (Roman) readers/listeners the rhetorical question: “who knows not what monsters demented Egypt worships?” In contradistinction to the Greeks and Romans, who venerated exclusively anthropomorphic deities, the Egyptians were being mocked as primitive, deranged. Juvenal’s impressions of Egypt, as a Roman, were informed by misunderstandings, built on stereotypes and reinforced xenophobic assumptions – knowing his audience would lap it up. Something like a UK Daily Mail journalist today.

This is ironic as there is plentiful evidence for the continued patronage of Egyptian temples and cults by Roman emperors and elite members of society well into the Second Century AD. The famous Roman Period painted mummy portraits further attest to the ongoing investment in Pharaonic funerary customs. Yet Juvenal hits a nerve when he sneers at the “demented” Egyptians, exploiting his audiences’ anxieties about otherness.

Those anxieties continue to be shared today. Most visitors to our Gifts for the Gods exhibition were unfamiliar – if intrigued – with the nature of Egyptian animal mummies. Most believed that they would learn more about the Egyptians’ pets. Trying to explain the finer points of votive animal mummification on an industrial scale is challenging, given the limits on word-length and attention-spans in most museums today.

IMG_1969

The exhibition tries to persuade visitors to adopt a different perspective, based on an alternative set of values, and to suspend many modern preconceptions. Visitors were invited to leave messages to three different animal gods, using hieroglyphic stamps to add the relevant animal image of each deity. Analysis showed that most responses recognised the associations outlined in the exhibition interpretation (e.g. the ibis god Thoth with writing and knowledge).

IMG_2416.JPG

The exhibition’s ‘votive interactive’

In the UK, the pet industry accounts for billions of pounds a year. At the latest count, British people spend an average of £1150 a year on their pets. Yet pet ownership is a modern affectation, little attested in the ancient past and – interestingly – not very popular in Egypt today.

The scale of the modern pet industry is no less than Egyptian production of votive gifts – images of the gods (statues, mummies) – were produced in tens of millions and presented to temples and shrines in the earnest hope of divine favour.

Now, animals are fetishized in the West in a way that would leave the ancient Egyptians incredulous. I can imagine the reaction of an ancient time-traveller: “You spend how much on animals – in what you claim to be a Christian/secular country – and you think WE’RE weird?!”

The question is one of shifting values and of understanding the concerns and priorities of cultures in many ways different from our own. We have inherited something of Juvenal’s tabloid-worthy sneer of others, but research shows the impact exhibitions can have in countering this. It is to be hoped that the BBC’s Civilizations series tackles some of these sorts of misconceptions and follows in one of the core missions of Manchester Museum, to promote understanding between cultures of the past and of the present.

Leave a comment

Filed under Curator's Diary, Research projects

Interpreting the Two Brothers (I): Alternative readings, brothers and lovers

Manchester Museum’s well-known ‘Two Brothers’ were recently the subject of DNA analysis using a Next Generation Sequencing technique, which demonstrated a genetic link between the two men through the maternal line – confirming the texts on their coffins naming a common mother, Khnum-aa. Like most such scientific analysis, however, the DNA results (‘facts’) do not act as a ‘magic wand’ to reveal everything about the Brothers; in fact very little can be ‘revealed’, despite the widespread appetite for revelation and discovery. Theories concerning the (social, personal) identities of the Two Brothers tell us perhaps more about our own interests and anxieties than about ancient people.

_D0V4739, 4740 (3)

During the UK’s LGBT History Month, I would like to re-visit one theory that has gained (perhaps surprisingly) little traction among the museum-going public in metropolitan Manchester, and very little attention from Egyptologists. Gregory Reeder, an independent scholar based in the US, has written several articles about a pair of much earlier (twin?) “brothers” Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep – who are depicted in their joint Old Kingdom tomb chapel at Saqqara using iconographic conventions usually reserved for husband and wife (more on this below).

niankhkhnum

Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep from the 5th Dynasty tomb at Saqqara

Reeder’s 2005 article in the American popular journal KMT takes up the subject of the “mysterious brothers” of Manchester Museum. In a valuably critical reappraisal of the details of the tomb group, Reeder suggests a close bond between Khnum-nakht (who died around 30-40 years of age) and Nakht-ankh (who died, possibly the following year, around 60 years of age). Both men claim to have a mother who was called Khnum-aa, and a father who was a district governor, although the 1908 autopsy of the brothers’ bodies showed differences considered strikingly different at the time. For Reeder the degree of difference “almost certainly rules out that they were blood relatives”, and he favours Rosalie David’s interpretation that one or both of the men was adopted into the family – a claim made several times in biographies of do-gooding contemporary governors.

Reeder also discusses the repeated assessment of Nakht-ankh’s skeleton as that of a eunuch. The unfortunate image conjured of the Oriental harem, and a modern equation with effeminacy, is, however, deserving of critique. The resulting impression of the “elderly eunuch” adopting “the much younger [“virile”, according to an 1910 anatomist] priest into his household” is evidence for Reeder (quoting David) of their “deep affection”.

brothers20looking20left.jpg

Statuettes of the Manchester ‘Two Brothers’ found in the coffins

To further illustrate this bond, Reeder cites the presence of a small statuette of each man in the coffin of the other. Reeder raises, but skirts around, the problematic (and persistent) theory that because the profiles of the statuettes of each man more resemble the skull of the other, they must be mislabelled. Aside from the sinister spectre of eugenics in this assessment, the implication that we must know better than the ancient Egyptians is laughable. For Reeder, the placement of the statuettes is meaningful and “subtly indicate(s) something about the relationship between the old eunuch and much younger priest.”

Here we must be cautious. Very few intact coffins from the Twelfth Dynasty survive to show how common such statuette placement was – but we do have cases where the statuettes of children are included deliberately in a parent’s coffin. To my mind, the (social, ritual) role of Khnum-nakht was most plausibly that of ‘son’ towards Nakht-ankh – the elder, and better-equipped (in materials terms, at least), half-brother.

Reeder, like many others, hoped that DNA might provide definitive proof. The recently-published evidence of a genetic link, confirming the stated familial relationship, does cast doubt on the implied idea of (quasi-)sexual intimacy between two unrelated men.

At a conference on Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt held at Swansea University in 2006, I particularly remember Richard Parkinson (formerly a curator at the British Museum and long-term advocate of LGBT visibility in museums, now Professor of Egyptology at Oxford) declaring that “as an out, gay Egyptologist,” while part of him wished to see the Old Kingdom “brothers” Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep as a same-sex couple, there simply wasn’t the evidence for it. As an out gay Egyptologist myself, I am inclined to agree with him.

The cultural construction of identities (especially of past cultures) is notoriously difficult to interpret, and previous interpretations seem bound to have favoured hetero-normative readings. In each case, we ought to acknowledge that any modern reading is contingent, and coloured by what we might hope to find.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Egyptian mummies

Book Review – ‘Nefertiti’s Face: The Creation of an Icon’ by Joyce Tyldesley

Joyce Tyldesley’s new book concerns Ancient Egypt’s most well-known poster-girl: Nefertiti, or – more accurately – a painted limestone and plaster bust of her now in the Neues Museum in Berlin. Tyldesley has already written an excellent biography of the lady herself, and uses this opportunity to discuss her most famous representation – and how it skews our entire impression of who she was. The book follows the successful format of the biography of a single object adopted by Laurence Berman, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in his accessible study of the Late Period ‘Boston Green Head’. As a fellow curator, the idea of spending a whole book on a sole museum object is particularly appealing to me.

nefertiti-s-face-the-creation-of-an-icon.jpg

Now, I must confess personal bias here – Joyce is a friend and University of Manchester colleague, and we have discussed the content of the book extensively. Yet the finished product is one of the most important popular and accessible books now available in Egyptology. It chimes in with a welcome mood of reassessment of the history of Egyptology explored very provocatively – though sometimes in rather acerbic terms – in more academic works; the real value here is that, thanks to the popularity of her previous books and online courses at the University of Manchester, the general public are actually likely to read Joyce Tyldesley’s work.

Joyce_Nefertiti

Joyce and the Manchester Museum replica of the bust.

The book is divided into two parts: the ancient context of the bust and the importance of image production in ancient Egypt (a personal research interest of my own); and the modern reception of the object. The ancient archaeological setting is an especially fascinating one: a sculptor’s workshop at the centre of the production of a vast and still-experimental series of royal images. Nefertiti’s bust is rarely considered in the context of contemporary sculptural practice, which is surprisingly well-attested at Amarna. Tyldesley packs a lot in: notably, the vexed question of how the bust actually left Egypt, a convincing rebuttal of theories that it’s a fake, and the intriguing history of official replicas of the bust. From Adolf Hitler’s fascination with her beauty to the unlikely appropriation of its imagery for Sci-Fi movies, the bust of Nefertiti has had a powerful effect on Twentieth and Twenty-First Century popular culture.

A description, attributed to Hitler, expresses a populist tone that has a sinister and familar ring to it today:

“Oh, these Egyptologists and these professors! I don’t attach any value to their appraisals. I know this famous bust. I have viewed it and admired it many times….”

Who needs an expert to know anything? This reminds us that an object can mean many things to different people, whether or not we like those people is a different matter.

Most importantly, Tyldesley eloquently argues against an exception status for the queen herself. The one-in-a-million chance that such a (seemingly) exceptional piece should be so exceptionally well-preserved has vastly inflated our expectations of her role. As Tyldesley points out, the best comparison is with Nefertiti’s mother-in-law, Queen Tiye (who was actually more ‘famous’ before the seductive bust was found).

Ancient culture in general, and the Nefertiti bust in particular, is so over-loaded with modern meanings and significations that it is a wonder the queen’s slender, elegant neck hasn’t snapped under the strain.

 

‘Nefertiti’s Face: The Creation of an Icon’ is launched at Manchester Museum on Thursday 25th January, and will be on sale in our shop thereafter.

2 Comments

Filed under Egypt events, Egypt events at the Manchester Museum

ITP 2018: Applications for Egypt now Open!

An opportunity for Egyptian curatorial colleagues…

BM International Training Programme

Deadline for applications, 12:00pm (midday) on 16 February 2018

Application form
Contact: itp@britishmuseum.org

The British Museum is delighted to offer two fully-funded training positions for museum and heritage professionals working for the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt.

The International Training Programme is aimed at those looking to increase their knowledge of museum practices and share skills across the sector, while having the opportunity work with specialists relevant to their personal interests and roles.

The programme will run from Saturday 30 June to Saturday 11 August 2018 (inclusive of travel dates) and comprises two parts:

A four and a half week programme at the British Museum with sessions covering a wide variety of topics including but not limited to:

  • Collections management, storage and documentation; exhibitions and galleries; conservation and scientific research; national and international loans; learning, volunteers and audiences; fundraising, income generation and commercial programmes; leadership, strategy, museum management and communication.

A…

View original post 166 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized