Object biography # 26: A fragment of a fish-shaped palette (acc. no. 7556)

In a special guest post for our Object Biographies series, palettologist Matt Szafran describes an unassuming fragment from both a typological and an experimental archaeological perspective. 

Figure1

Figure 1 – Digital reconstruction of Manchester Museum No. 7556.

In 2018 I was privileged to visit the Manchester Museum’s Egyptology collection, as a part of my on-going study into the manufacture and use of Predynastic palettes. The visit was primarily to collect data on flint tools, but I did also have the opportunity handle a variety of different palettes from the collection.

The palettes I chose to handle were mostly broken pieces, and one very unusual piece which will feature in its own paper once research trips are allowed again and I can undertake an advanced imaging study. Unlike a complete object, a broken one allows you to inspect the inside. I had several palettological research questions which were not possible to answer from looking at an intact palette, but which could be easily answered by studying broken palettes.

It can be very easy to overlook a broken object in favour of intact examples, but sometimes they can be the key to research and can have their own interesting stories every bit as intriguing their complete counterparts – if not more so!

Object number 7556 is one such piece. It was rediscovered in a rubbish deposit at the settlement of Hemamieh in a British School of Archaeology excavation led by Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Guy Brunton between 1922 and 1924. On cursory viewing it is simply a small (92×48 mm) section of greywacke stone (Figure 2), probably from a Predynastic palette. However, to a trained eye there are certain features which give clues to its original form. The biggest of which are the presence of small indentations and the drilled perforation on the top edge of the palette. These are a clear indication that this was originally a fish-shaped palette – or at least they’re clear when you have studied and catalogued almost 1200 palettes, and over 200 of those are fish-shaped!

Figure2

Figure 2 – Predynastic palette fragment Manchester Museum No. 7556.

Whilst some other styles of palette do feature a perforation, a palette fragment of the size and shape of 7556 is unlikely to be anything other than an animal-shaped (zoomorphic) palette and the indentations are likely to be the fin details of a fish-shaped palette. Whilst the true use of the drilled hole is not known with certainty, the most prevailing theory is that it was for suspension – most likely threaded with cord. There is continued scholarly debate about whether this was for storage, for wearing, or even as part of the use of the palette.

Using these remaining features, and the compassion of them to the corpus of intact palettes, it is possible to approximate how 7556 may have originally looked. Many fish-shaped palettes feature symmetrical shapes, which means we can use the surviving perimeter edge of 7556, assuming the suspension hole was central, to extrapolate its original size and shape. This approximation, as seen in Figure 3, indicates that as a complete object 7556 would have been approximately 170×95 mm – which is a comparative size to many of the surviving intact fish-shaped palettes.

Figure3

Figure 3 – Manchester Museum 7556 with geometrical guidelines suggesting its original size and shape.

This guiding geometry can then be filled in digitally using features and textures from intact artefacts, and the results of which can be seen in Figure 4. As with all reconstructions, there is an amount of speculation and the use of ‘most common’ and ‘average’ data to estimate the most likely original condition. This reconstruction is based on fish-shaped palettes with both horizontal and vertical lines of symmetry; however, it should be mentioned that not all fish-shaped palettes are symmetrical. There is speculation that this variation in shape and design is indicative of the representation of different genera of fish, commonly the Tilapia, but also Mormyrus and Tetraodon genera. Additionally, not all fish-shaped palettes contain the same number of and shape of their fins and, equally, some palettes have simple drilled eyes with others having shell or bone inlays. Aside from 7556, there are no surviving (or at least attributed) fragments of the palette’s perimeter and so it is impossible to accurately reproduce the exact position and number of detailed features. Therefore, the details such as fin shape and location, and the type and location of the eye of this reconstruction, are speculative and based on common features seen in the extant corpus of intact fish-shaped palettes.

Figure4

Figure 4 – Digital approximation of the original form of Manchester Museum 7556.

Unfortunately, whilst the reconstruction can give us an idea of how an intact 7556 may have looked, it doesn’t give us any insight into its use. Scholars continue to debate the use of palettes. My personal view is that their use, meaning, and symbolism evolved over the thousands of years of their use; with different tribal groups having differing views to each other, and ultimately there is no simple answer. There seems to be a human compulsion to categorise everything, especially in archaeology and Egyptology, but trying to retrofit classifications and categories to ancient cultures (especially those with no written records) can ignore subtle nuance and lead to reductive descriptions – palettes were certainly much more than a make-up device for beatification or sun defense, as has been claimed in the past. It is clear from pigment traces on extant palettes that many of them definitely played a role in pigment processing and use. However, not all palettes have these traces, and we also see that palettes rediscovered in settlement contexts display different pigment traces to those found in burials. This distinction adds credence to the theory that palettes may have held a different use in daily life than in the funerary ritual.

With 7556 specifically, it is interesting to note that it is a broken fragment which was found within a rubbish deposit of a settlement. This may indicate that it was broken during use, broken accidentally (for example dropped on a hard surface and shattered), but it may also indicate that it was broken during manufacture and the craftsperson discarded the broken pieces. The fragment does not show any trace of attempted reworking, even though its size would be sufficient for recurving into one of the so called ‘amulet’ palettes. This implies that, when broken, the raw material was sufficiently abundant meaning reuse was not necessary. This is an interesting point, as the prevalence of palettes diminishes as the Egyptian state begins to grow and restrict both resources and craftspeople to work them. The lack of reuse of 7556 implies that when it was broken this restriction had not taken place and greywacke was not as rare a commodity as it would ultimately become.

As the fragment itself unfortunately does not show any examples of use wear, either pigment traces or the presence of any tool marks, it is not possible to say whether it was ever used or not. With it being discovered in a settlement’s communal rubbish deposit we do not know if it had an owner or if it was spoil from a craftsperson’s workshop. However by studying what appears to be a small broken stone we have been able to uncover an interesting story, and perhaps future excavation (or museum collection study) will yield new fragments of the original palettes and help, literally, piece together more of the story of the original palette and what it may have been used for.

Further Reading

Baduel, N. (2008). ‘Tegumentary paint and cosmetic palettes in Predynastic Egypt: Impact of those artefacts on the birth of the monarchy’, in B. Midant-Reynes, and Y. Tristant (eds.) Egypt at its origins 2: Proceedings of the international conference “Origin of the State, Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt,” Toulouse (France), 5th – 8th September 2005. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, pp. 1057-1090.

 Brunton, G. and Caton-Thompson, G. (1928). The Badarian Civilisation and Predynastic Remains near Badari. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt.

Ciałowicz, K. (1991). Les Palettes Égyptiennes Aux Motifs Zoomorphes et Sans Décoration. Kraków: Uniw. Jagielloński.

Stevenson, A. (2007). ‘The Material Significance of Predynastic and Early Dynastic Palettes’, in R. Mairs and A. Stevenson (eds.) Current Research in Egyptology 2005. Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Symposium. Oxbow Books Ltd, pp. 148–162. 16

Stevenson, A. 2009. ‘Palettes’, in W. Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz001nf6c0 [Accessed 17 Sep. 2019].

Szafran, M. 2020. ‘Object Biography: Manchester Museum 7556’. Birmingham Egyptology Journal 7: 70-86.

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Object biography # 25: A ‘stick shabti’ of Teti-sa-Intef

Although among the rather less prepossessing artefacts in the Manchester collection, this crudely carved wooden figurine holds significant interest. Often called a ‘stick shabti’, the figurine may in fact not really be a shabti – in the conventional Egyptological sense of a ‘servant’ – at all.

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Acc. no. 6038. Photo by Glenn Janes.

Often described as ‘mummiform’ in shape, several examples of similar crude wooden figurines have been found in small wooden coffins and/or wrapped in linen. They apparently all date to the late Second Intermediate Period and early New Kingdom. A recent find by an Egyptian-Spanish team at Dra Abu el-Naga consisted of several such figurines wrapped in linen, some within a small wooden coffin. These were uncovered underneath the outer courtyard of the tomb of Djehuty (TT 11, reign of Hatshepsut) and appear to have been left there by a donor some time after the funeral – perhaps on the occasion of the ‘Beautiful Festival of the Valley’, when friends and family of the deceased would visit the tomb chapel.

Indeed, unlike most shabtis, which were buried close to the deceased in the inaccessible parts of the tomb, stick shabtis are mainly recorded as being found buried in the outer, open areas of tomb chapels – often in significant numbers. Texts are usually inked onto the wood but rather than the standard ‘shabti spell’ (Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead) these consist of names, titles and perhaps an offering formula, suggesting a different function to most shabtis.

The fact that these figurines are ‘crude’ to our eyes need not imply they were created or dedicated by less well-off people – several seems to have been commissioned by wealthy and important members of society. The choice of wood may represent a deliberate means of employing reworked detritus from coffin manufacture, imbued with a special power and connection to the deceased. There is also an intriguing suggestion that the use of the figurines in contexts such as the ‘Beautiful Festival of the Valley’ influenced the later perception recorded in Herodotus and Plutarch that a figure of the mummy was sometimes exhibited at Egyptian feasts.

VISTAS AEREAS DE LA EXCAVACION EN DRA ABU EL-NAGA (10º CAMPAÑA 2011)

Aerial view of Dra Abu el-Naga, 2011, by J.  Latona/©Proyecto Djehuty

This example is dedicated to (rather than by) a man called Teti-sa-Intef (meaning ‘Teti son of Intef’, Intef being a name of some significance at Dra Abu el Naga from the Middle Kingdom onwards). Several other figurines are known donated in honour of this individual, known to come from the tomb of the mayor of Thebes Tetiky (TT 15, a monument from which parts of relief had been stolen) from the very beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty and excavated by a team working for Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1908. The Manchester example, although its precise find spot is not recorded, probably derived from the same area.

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The Power of Images: Statues and Society

One of my main research interests is in the ancient Egyptians’ attitude to their own monuments, in particular to statues. Modern Western society tends to dismiss people, past or present, that place significance in the power of the sculpted image. Although we are perfectly happy to acknowledge, for example, the psychological impact of two-dimensional messaging, sculpture is difficult for many modern people to relate to.

Colston

Statue of Edward Colston, Bristol, June 7th 2020

The recent, very public removal of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston – and the intense revaluation of other public statues of contentious figures – highlights that the lives (and significance) of statues extend well past their creation, erection and dedication. Sculptures are endowed with different meanings as time goes on, making them dynamic, active agents in the social landscape – not simply passive observers as some might imagine. We are often used to thinking of statues in the sense of a children’s game: once-moving people suddenly fossilised, stock-still as if in attempt to deflect attention. But statues represent – whether intentionally or not – ideas, and not just people.

One of the most persistent fantasies about ancient Egyptian sculpture is that it presented people as they actually appeared. There are various sinister theories – related to eugenicist comparison of ‘races’ – that underlie this assumption; these require separate discussion. Suffice it to say here that in no way were Pharaonic statues intended to be mimetic likenesses of living people. In an important sense statues were three-dimensional hieroglyphs, showing the essential components of a person in order for the statue to function as a vessel for a god, king, or non-royal person for eternity. Neither were statues simply ‘commemorative’ in the modern Western sense (remember, Edward Colston’s statue was created over 100 years after the subject’s death; a not uncommon situation in more modern times).

Yet statues are special. While they can personify idea(l)s, they take the form of people. And we find the human form – particularly the face – particularly alluring. Egyptologists have been fascinated by the faces of Pharaonic sculptures to the detriment of understanding the functions of statues in context.

The ancient Egyptians did not – as far as we can tell – have public spaces as in Greece and Rome in which statues were displayed. Statues were chiefly restricted to (elite) tomb and temple spaces, the latter only open to properly purified and initiated people. Regular contact with statue forms was a privilege.

Egyptian statues required a ritual known as the ‘opening of the mouth’ to activate them for use by a spiritual entity (I have previously been misquoted on this by the press, *eyeroll*). Yet they were also routinely adapted, reinscribed, reused, deactivated, damaged, destroyed – and then reactivated all over again. They offer an object lesson in the dynamism of sculpture, a set of lessons that many in the West may not have considered given our detached attitude to the sculpted form. Take two examples of Pharaonic sculptures in the form of a sphinx; a hybrid lion-man, with leonine body and the head is almost always of the king (sometimes a royal woman) wearing a royal headress.

Sphinx of Hatshepsut | New Kingdom | The Met

Reconstructed colossal granite sphinx of Hatshepsut MMA 31.3.166 https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544442

The first belongs to the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (c. 1473-1458 BCE). As a sculptural statement of super-human power, the form was favoured by Hatshepsut perhaps because it offered a way to obscure her female sex and make her at once more ‘kingly’ – and divine. Yet at some point attitudes to her changed. This sculpture, like countless others, was dragged out of the queen’s impressive temple at Deir el-Bahari, hacked up into hundreds of pieces and flung into a pit – almost as much work as carving and installing the sculpture itself – only to be discovered by Egyptians working for an American expedition in the early 20th Century. Hatshepsut’s various sculptures were pieced back together, making judicious restorations to elide the extensive damage, and the results are exhibited as great works of sculpture. The destruction of Hatshepsut’s statues was not the result of popular protest against her rule (as some early, misogynist commentators supposed of a powerful female ruler); rather, it was a ritual requirement, to remove her presence from the temple and refocus its ritual energy on another king.

Tanis sphinx

Sphinx from Tanis: my graphic

Compare that with another, maned sphinx originally carved some 400 years before Hatshepsut. This example has a full lion’s mane rather than a royal headcloth, and the striking features of a king of the late Middle Kingdom – most likely Amenemhat III. The sculpture is one of an identical set of such sphinxes found at Tanis, in the Nile Delta, where it was likely moved towards the end of its ritual life in Pharaonic times. This sphinx, however, carries the names of at least three subsequent kings: Ramesses II, his son Merenptah and a later king called Psusennes. None of these later kings meant any ill-will to the original king the sphinx was carved to represent; it was a way if not of honouring that king then of harnessing some of his divine power. This suggests a deep belief in the power of the materiality of the sculpted image – a power restricted largely to the elite, never intended for dissemination to (or debate by) a wider ‘public’.

Today our attitude to sculptured human images is usually rather more detached. Yet not all statues stand passively in public spaces, blending into the urban backdrop – they can still be powerful agents, flashpoints of feeling, living images. With our digital saturation of the human image in two-dimensions, perhaps we have forgotten the power of the three-dimensional.

As the University of Manchester’s Professor of Public History, David Olusoga, has argued the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston does not constitute an attack on history, it is history in action.  The lives of Pharaonic sculptures are reminder that this dynamism has been ongoing for millennia; it is our changing attitudes to statue forms that make ‘history’ – not the statues themselves.


For more thoughts on this, see my chapter on ‘Statuary’ in I. Shaw and E. Bloxam (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Egyptology (OUP, published this Summer); an article in press on “public” access to statues in Pharaonic Egypt in C. Dickenson (ed.) Public Statues Across Time and Cultures (Routledge); and a book in preparation – Perfected Forms. Contextualising Elite Sculpture in Late Period Egypt (Brepols).

I will be delivering a 5-day course on ‘An A-Z of Ancient Egyptian Statues’ for the Bloomsbury Summer School, July 27-31st 2020. Places still available here.

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The Cult of Imhotep (Part 2): Depiction in Popular Culture

In the second part of his look at the impact of the historical figure of Imhotep, Matt Szafran charts the character’s role in recent mummy movies. An exhibition on this topic is under discussion… 

ImhotepStoryboard

Depiction of Imhotep from original storyboard for The Mummy Returns (2001).

In Part 1 we considered the ancient, and modern, cultists of Imhotep and what they worshipped. Today, outside of Egyptology and medical history, Imhotep is most known for giving his name to characters in popular culture – especially in monster movies (although not exclusively). To the proverbial ‘person on the street’ the name of Imhotep is only known from popular culture, predominantly through representations in movies. The name Imhotep was first seen used on film for Boris Karloff’s titular character in The Mummy (1932), however in more recent times the name is probably best known for Arnold Vosloo’s portrayal in The Mummy (1999) and reprised in The Mummy Returns (2001).

Whilst the Imhotep of these productions is a priest, this is essentially where the similarity to the real-world Imhotep ends. Unfortunately none of these representations draw any historical parallel or venerate Imhotep for his intellect, ingenuity or medical prowess and instead depict him as a (virtually) unstoppable force, with a host of supernatural powers, acting as a malevolent force working against the movies’ protagonists to bring about the end of the world.

The Mummy (1932 film) - Wikipedia

Poster for the 1932 move ‘The Mummy’, with Boris Karloff as Imhotep

The 1932 Imhotep worked alone, and the movie did not contain any form of cult to him. In his 1999 outing Imhotep does have followers, however Imhotep’s cultists are essentially portrayed as mindless slaves who follow Imhotep in a mob chanting his name and used as mindless instruments to enact their master’s will. It is not until the 2001 reprisal that we see a more recognisable cult to Imhotep.

This version of a cult of Imhotep is evident in the movie through their ‘uniform’ of red and black robes and turbans – something more akin to the modern day context of a cult member. This cult appears to mostly be comprised of thugs, with little interest in the worship and adoration of Imhotep and his achievements, as with their ancient world counterparts, and more interested in the strength and power granted Imhotep in the 1999 movie’s ‘Hom-Dai’ ceremony (itself issued as punishment for Imhotep’s adulterous actions with the wife of the king). These movie cultists wish to use Imhotep as a mindless force for destructions, something which is diametrically opposite to the real-world cultists who venerated Imhotep’s wisdom and powers of healing.

CuratorAndImhotep

British Museum Curator, and leader of the cult of Imhotep, Baltus Hafez and the re-animated mummy of Imhotep in The Mummy Returns (2001).

It is only the cult leader, Alun Armstrong’s Baltus Hafez character, who demonstrates any form of academic inclination in his role as curator at the British Museum. Even so, Hafez is still always seen in his uniform red and black turban – even when wearing civilian clothing. Hafez does perform rituals to Imhotep however rather than trying to take on Imhotep’s attributes, as with ancient the ancient cultists, these are instead almost the opposite and are to essentially attempt to control Imhotep – analogous to the use of a golem or a voodoo zombie. The Hafez character leads his cult in pursuit control of the ‘armies of Anubis’, hoping to use Imhotep as a ‘blunt instrument’ to further this goal, in a bid for world domination – something Campbell has assured me is not the typical behaviour for Egyptology curators!

We therefore see that the popular culture depictions of the cult of Imhotep bear very little resemblance to that of the ancient cults; instead of focussing on knowledge they focus only on the power Imhotep could bring them. It should also be noted that the Ancient Egyptians viewed the mummy, or saH, as a ritually purified divine entity and not something which should be ‘re-animated’ for use under the control of a cult to abuse its power.

It is unfortunate that most people will only know this nefarious power-hungry version of Imhotep and that Hollywood has subverted the name of the original man and his undeniable achievements and influence. Today only scholars of Egyptology truly know the reality and extent of achievements of Imhotep – at least until a more accurate version of him graces the silver screen.

– Matt Szafran

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Texts in Translation # 18: The stela of Horenpe (Acc. no. 6041)

A guest post by Dr. Nicky Nielsen, Lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Manchester, on a Late Period piece now published in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology.

This fine limestone stela in the Manchester Museum collection has no clear archaeological provenance. It most likely came to the United Kingdom in the collection of the early Egyptologist James Burton Jr in the early 19th century and from there passed into the collection of the banker Samuel Rogers (1763-1855) whose nephew, Samuel Sharpe, published a transcription of it in 1837. Upon his death, the stela was sold at auction in London and eventually ended up the collection of the Manchester cotton magnate Jesse Haworth. The stela was first published in translation by the founder of the Egypt Exploration Society Amelia B. Edwards in 1888.

Horenpe stela

Acc. no. 6041

The stela is divided into three fields: at the top is a lunette with a winged sun-disk, two Wadjet-eyes and two jackals. The second field contains five figures: at the far right is the stela’s owner, Horenpe and standing before him are four deities identified as Re-Horakhty, Hersiese, Isis and Nephthys. Some traces of red paint are preserved on the body of Re-Horakhty, on Nephthys and on Horenpe himself.

The text is divided into two sections. The first comprise a brief prayer and a series of labels above the various figures: Words spoken by Ra-Horakhty, Great God, Lord of Heaven in order that he may give a good burial in the Necropolis! Horus Son of Isis, Divine Isis, Nephthys Mistress of Heaven. [The Osiris], the God’s Father Horenpe, the Justified before the Great God.

 The main text is in the third register under the figures and starts with a standard Offering Formula: An offering which the King gives to Osiris, Foremost of the Westerners, Great God, Lord of Abydos so that he may give a voice offering of bread, beer, oxen and fowl, incense upon the fire, wine, milk, vegetables(?) and everything good, pure, sweet and pleasant for the ka [of] the Osiris, the God’s Father Horenpe, son of the similarly titled Osirimose, born of the Mistress of the House Mutenpermeset.

Horenpe stela transcription

Transcription by Nicky Nielsen

The stela’s origins are unclear, but based on style it seems likely that it dates to the 26th Dynasty and may have originated from a workshop at the Middle Egyptian site of Abydos. A very similar stela also belonging to an individual by the name of Horenpe was found at this site in 1906 by the British archaeologist John Garstang and is now in the Garstang Museum of Archaeology at the University of Liverpool.

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The Cult of Imhotep (Part 1)

In the first of two guest posts, Matt Szafran – independent scholar, palettologist and movie prop collector – examines the cult of the legendary Imhotep in ancient and modern times.

Imhotep is most commonly remembered as the architect of the Step Pyramid of the Third Dynasty (c. 2686-2610 BCE) king Djoser at Saqqara, which was the first known stone structure created. It is also worth remembering that Imhotep was responsible for the design and construction of an expansive mortuary complex of courts and chapels, the design of which was never replicated. The step pyramid is currently regarded as the first Egyptian pyramid, created from six layers of limestone mastaba style structures stacked atop each other. The pyramid was an enduring shape within Ancient Egyptian visual culture, which remained in use long after monumental pyramid building fell from favour. Perhaps this was, in part, the beginning of the cult of Imhotep, as the sculptor (referred to in later periods as a sankh or ‘one who gives life’) of such a revered design.

Fig. 3. Saqqara

The Step Pyramid complex, seen from the south west

The tomb of Imhotep is yet to be re-discovered, or at least remains unattributed, and so the contemporaneous accounts of him all come from inscriptions on other artefacts and monuments. For example, a statue of king Djoser was found at Saqqara with an inscription, exceptionally, naming Imhotep and a list of his epithets, such as ‘the builder, sculptor and maker of stone vases’, the ‘overseer of masons and painters’, ‘royal chancellor’, ‘ruler of the great mansion’ and the ‘greatest of seers’. However the most unusual title discovered is that of ‘The King of Lower Egypt, the two brothers’, whilst there is debate over the actual meaning of this title it appears to imply that Imhotep was somehow an equal to the King – something completely unparalleled in Egyptian history and unique to Imhotep.

The Search for Imhotep: Tomb of Architect-Turned-God Remains a Mystery

Statue base of Djoser with name and titles of Imhotep. Imhotep Museum, Saqqara

Imhotep’s reputation endured after his death, with the development of a funerary cult which venerated his literacy and his scribal and physician skills – something which must imply he was considerably talented in these areas. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri suggest that Imhotep became a medical demigod during the rule of the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2613-2494 BCE) king Menkaure – a mere 100 years after his death. We see this paralleled today, even in our modern disposable and ephemeral society, with scientists and engineers being remembered for their achievements decades or centuries after their death. Brunel for example continues to have monuments created and displayed all over the United Kingdom, in addition to giving his name to engineering universities, trains and being featured on modern coinage and in lists of the ‘Greatest Britons’.

Middle Kingdom (c. 1975-1640 BCE) tombs, such as that of king Intef, featured verses of the ‘Harper’s Song’. Some of these verses contained references to Imhotep and his teachings, illustrating that even royalty revered Imhotep’s work sufficiently to want it included in their funerary rituals.

This cult endured for centuries, with the ‘Turin Papyri’ illustrating that Imhotep’s epithets were increased during the New Kingdom (c. 1570-1077 BCE) where he gained the titles of ‘chief scribe’, ‘high priest’, ‘sage’ and the ‘son of Ptah’ – the latter essentially making Imhotep a demi-god. It was during this period that Imhotep also became the patron of scribes. Offering formulae on statuary include dedications that ‘the water in the cup of any scribe’ be offered as a libation for Imhotep’s Ka spirit. Perhaps scribes would have personal statues and dedications to Imhotep to offer prayers to in return for assistance in their work, just as they may have for Ptah and Thoth. In visual culture these depictions of Imhotep are always as a seated man, with a bald head or cap (similar to that of Ptah) and typically with a scroll opened on his lap.

Votive statuette of Imhotep. MMA 26.7.852a, b

Imhotep continued to be worshipped into the Saite Period (c. 664-525 BCE), over two millennia after his death, culminating in becoming one of the few non-royals in Ancient Egypt to be fully deified. He remained as the son of Ptah and his mother then became either Nut or Sekhmet, it was also around this time that Imhotep became associated with Thoth and was considered to be the god of medicine, wisdom and writing.

This association persisted into the Ptolemaic Period (c. 332–30 BCE) with the Greeks identifying Imhotep with Asclepius, their god of medicine. This association helped the cult rise out of the Memphis region and spread throughout Egypt. Imhotep’s main cult centre was, appropriately, established near to the Step Pyramid in Memphis, with other temples at Deir El Bahari, Deir El Medina, Karnak and Philae. His cultists would make pilgrimages to these sites to give offerings in return for curing health problems and for help and advice with difficulties in their daily lives. An inscription on a statue found in Upper Egypt lists six festivals created in honour of Imhotep each year, all of which would have involved music, dancing and banquets.

Retro del tempio di Ptah, gli immortali architetti Imhotep e ...

Figure of Imhotep, accompanied by Amenhotep son of Hapu to the right, at the temple of Ptah at Karnak

Imhotep’s cult waned with the Arab conquest of North Africa, with his medial writings surviving as long as the Christian era. However with the European re-discovery of Ancient Egyptian culture in the 19th Century reignited interest in Imhotep and his accomplishments. This renewed interest wasn’t solely by Egyptologists, and Imhotep took his place as a forefather of modern medicine. There are now medical papers and books written about Imhotep and the role he played in the history of medicine, the Faulty of Medicine building of the Paris Descartes University even has a carved relief of Imhotep.

The modern day cult of Imhotep may not make pilgrimages or hold festivals in his honour but it does still build monuments to him, it venerates his knowledge, wisdom and skill and it continues to writes about him. So really is the modern day cult all that different to that of millennia previous?

Part 2 – on the modern cultists of Imhotep – to follow… 

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The gilded mummy of Lady Isaious

During W.M. Flinders Petrie’s third season at Hawara, in 1911, his workers continued to unearth huge numbers of Graeco-Roman Period mummies. Most were undecorated and, according to Petrie, they were ‘heaved over by the dozen ever day’. The few mummies with gilded masks or strikingly life-like painted panel portraits were rarely identified by name. One particularly striking lady was labelled in Greek letters at the top of her gilded cartonnage mask. Initially interpreted as ‘Demetria, wife of Icaious’ this is more likely to be a patronymic: Isaious (or Isarous) daughter of Demetrios (Ἰσαι̣οῦς/Ἰσαρ̣οῦς Δημη[τρίου]).

11630.6web

Lady Isaious dates to the First Century CE, and exemplifies multicultural expectations for eternity among the elite of the Faiyum area of the Graeco-Roman Period. The upper part of the mummy is covered by an elaborately modelled mask; the resulting impression is of the idealised appearance of a Roman lady of high status. The deceased holds a wreath, wears an elaborate coiffure of lightly waved hair and tight corkscrew curls, and has a full face reminiscent of some Ptolemaic ideals. The rich jewellery comprises necklaces set with semi-precious stones and snake bracelets of the sort that harnessed the serpent’s protective power from more ancient contexts. While an obvious signifier of wealth, the use of gold left alludes to the concept of divine flesh being made of gold – and the act of gilding as being a means of protection. Thus, by being provided with scintillating flesh for eternity, the deceased becomes divine in order to successfully reach the afterlife and become one with the immortal gods who dwell there.

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Elsewhere, the mummy is also provided with a rich armour of traditional Pharaonic iconography. On the back and underside of the cartonnage mask are traditional Egyptian motifs. On the outer, mainly red-pigmented shroud, hangs a broad (‘wesekh’) collar. Under this, the sky goddess Nut kneels on the hieroglyphic symbol for gold and extends her wings flanked by scenes of the gods Anubis and Thoth. Beneath, the jackal-headed Anubis appears again tending the mummy of the deceased on a bier – equipped with canopic jars that no one would have used in the Roman Period. Finally, a rather faded libation scene appears; in this and in the scenes that flank the sides of the body, the deceased lady is shown in entirely traditional Pharaonic mode and, far from being ‘blundered’ (in Petrie’s expression), the hieroglyphs in the captions to the scenes are almost all readable. This shows the range of possible representations and styles that might be used in a single funerary composition.

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On the underside of the cartonnage footcase – and thus eternally trampled – are depictions of bound enemies on the soles of the feet. That these are in fact the enemies of the deceased and not generic ‘prisoners’ is stated explicitly by captions in some examples – ‘your enemies under your sandals’ – an adaptation of a standard phrase that accompanies depicted interactions between gods and the Pharaoh in temples: ‘I (the deity) give to you all foreign lands under your sandals.’ In Graeco-Roman times, the trampled enemies may represent a more general metaphor of triumph over death and the resulting attainment of eternal peace. The fact that elements such as footcases appear on both the sculpted and painted-faced mummies points towards a common underlying expectation for the deceased. The traditional opposition in scholarly and popular terminology between ‘portrait’ (a revealing likeness) and a mask (a means of concealing or altering the identity) obscures this close connection. Neither need represent a mimetic portrait as we would understand it today.

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Mary Shaw and Harry Spencer reconstruct the mask of Isaious

When the mummy was discovered, the face of the gilded cartonnage mask was damaged. At Manchester Museum in the 1930s, Egyptologist Mary Shaw and Technician Harry Spencer undertook the ‘reconstruction’ of the mask of Isaious – perhaps with reference to other masks discovered at Hawara. Such ‘cosmetic’ procedures were very common in museums, although rarely acknowledged – improving on the damaged remnants of ancient objects. The desire to (re)create the face of an individual is best known from facial reconstructions based on skulls, but despite claims to scientific objectivity these faces may say more about the expectations of the modern maker than the ancient person.

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Negative showing the mummy of Isaious shortly after excavation, Hawara, 1911

Lady Isaious is one of eight mummies and more than 100 other objects currently in the United States as part of Manchester Museum’s first international touring exhibition, ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt’. The show is at Buffalo Museum of Science for an extended period, and will later open at North Carolina Museum of Art. A book to accompany the exhibition – Golden Mummies of Egypt: Interpreting Identities from the Graeco-Roman Period (Manchester Museum/Nomad Exhibitions) – will be published later this Summer.

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Texts in Translation # 17: The stela of Pawerem (Acc. no. 8134)

Although without a certain archaeological provenance, this fine basalt stela (H: 40.5cm) illustrates a concern for commemorations to be legible for eternity. It shows the donor adoring the figures of Osiris and his wife-sister Isis and their sister Nephthys, captioned in hieroglyphs. Although Osiris was increasingly a god worshipped by the living in the First Millennium BC, the character of this stela carries a funerary function too.

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Acc. no. 8134. Photo by Julia Thorne (@Tetisheri)

The stela’s main inscription opens with a short line in Demotic, the everyday script of Egypt from around Seventh Century BC onwards. This identifies the owner as Pawerem, son of a man called Djedhor and a woman named Tahor. Beneath, the longer text in hieroglyphs gives an offering prayer: An offering which the kings gives (to) Osiris, Foremost of Westerners, Great God, Lord of Abydos, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, who is in Sha(?)-hetep(?), Isis the Great, Divine Mother, Nephthys, divine sisters doing protection for the Osiris Pawerem, son of Djedhor, born of Ta[hor].

While Demotic script was most likely more easily read by a greater number of people, hieroglyphs provided the age-old magical activation for the words carved on the stela. These explicitly state that the ‘divine sisters’ – Isis and Nephthys – will act as protectors for the deceased Pawerem as they did for their deceased and reborn brother, the god Osiris. This role is made explicit in a number of funerary motifs, especially during the Late, Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. By associating with Osiris, Pawerem hoped to join in his rebirth. Although the use of Demotic may have made the text easier to read – and therefore to commemorate Pawerem by reading his name aloud – by more people, one wonders if perhaps the Demotic text was a more functional notation to a sculptor to include the correct personal details in hieroglyphic signs.

The stela was acquired in Egypt by a German shipping merchant and émigré to Manchester named Max Emil Robinow (c.1845-1900) and formed part of a significant collection of Egyptian antiquities donated by the Robinow family to Manchester Museum in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Robinow seems to have had a particular taste for items from the Graeco-Roman Period, and it is to this time that the stela of Pawerem should be dated.

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Max Emil Robinow

Pawerem’s stela is one of more than 100 objects currently travelling in the United States as part of Manchester Museum’s first international touring exhibition, ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt’. The show is at Buffalo Museum of Science for an extended period, and will open at North Carolina Museum of Art thereafter. A book to accompany the exhibition – Golden Mummies of Egypt. Interpreting Identities from the Graeco-Roman Period (Manchester Museum/Nomad Exhibitions) will be published later this Summer.

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Unwrapping Wonderful Things…

#MMChristmas2019

DSF2552-1000Re-wrapped divine image from Manchester Museum’s 2015 exhibition, ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’. (Photo: Julia Thorne / Source)

Unwrapping wonderful things…

The thing is, unlike the gifts in shiny paper underneath the tree, the Egyptians never intended their bodies – or statues – to be unwrapped. Yet just like at Christmas, concealing and revealing has become part of ancient Egypt’s popular appeal.

Christmas morning and Egyptology are similarly characterised by a curiosity to find out ‘what’s inside?’ – the promise of treasures unknown – be it Howard Carter’s infamous first glimpse of gold in the tomb of Tutankhamun, or the allure of the secrets within the wrappings of the ancient dead. And especially over the last century, value has been placed ‘knowing’ in the same way as ‘owning’. Medical technologies like CT scanning are now much used in the study of mummies as they are not…

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by | December 22, 2019 · 7:29 pm

Tutankhamun’s ‘Guardian’ Statues: Symbolism and Meaning

One of the most striking objects in the exhibition ‘Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh’, which recently opened to sell-out crowds at the Saatchi Gallery in London, is a life-sized striding statue of the king. One of a pair (its mate remains in Cairo), in many ways these statues exemplify many of our misapprehensions about Ancient Egypt in general and Tutankhamun in particular.

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In dramatic black and gold, the statues were said to be really ‘life-size’ because they represented the pharaoh at the same height as discoverer Howard Carter claimed the ‘boy king’ had been in life after measuring his mummified body.

The Tutankhamun exhibition – of which I was lucky to get a preview – emphasises the status of the king’s funerary assemblage as priceless, luxurious, consisting of one-of-a-kind treasures. In fact, it is clear from the broken remains of the contents of other tombs in the Valley of the Kings and elsewhere that such statues were part of a standard set of funerary furniture that a king of Egypt’s New Kingdom could expect to be buried with. Tutankhamun’s was if anything a pared down version of the set.

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Tutankhamun’s statues, with remains of shrouds, in situ. Photo by Harry Burton. Griffith Institute

The closest parallels to Tutankhamen’s statues come from the tomb of Ramesses I (KV 16). Giovanni Belzoni describes their discovery in the burial chamber in 1817:

…in a corner a statue standing erect, six feet six inches high, and beautifully cut out of sycamore-wood: it is nearly perfect except the nose… in the chamber on our right hand we found another statue like the first, but not perfect. No doubt they had once been placed one on each side of the sarcophagus, holding a lamp or some offering in their hands, one hand being stretched out in the proper posture for this, and the other hanging down.

Two similar, though less well-preserved, statues come from the tomb of Horemheb (KV 57). Like those of Ramesses I, these are somewhat over-lifesize in scale. One other statue of this type originates from the tomb of Ramesses IX now in the British Museum, and is roughly lifesize. All of these are resin-coated, and seem to have originally been gilded. The presence of this statue type throughout the Eighteenth Dynasty is indicated by fragments: in KV 20, the tomb of Hatshepsut/Thutmose I, the excavators noted “a part of the face and foot of a large wooden statue covered with bitumen”; Amenhotep II was provided with a resin-coated example in the same pose as later statues but at only 80 cm in height and fragments of sculpture on the same scale come from the tombs of Thutmose III and IV. Parts including “two left ears and two right feet” for “lifesize wooden statues” were found in the cache tomb WV 25 but perhaps washed in from the neighbouring tomb of Ay (WV 23). Taken together, this evidence suggests that such royal images increased in scale over time. Depictions of statues exactly similar to Tutankhamun’s appear in a scene of sculpture being produced in the tomb of the vizier Rekhmire (temp. Tuthmose III/Amenhotep II) – suggesting a consistent iconography over time.

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Scene from the tomb of Rekhmire (TT 100)

In Tutankhamun’s pair, one wears the nemes headdress and the other a khat bag-wig. The same head coverings also occur on the pair of statues of Ramesses I, although other statues are insufficiently preserved to know if this pattern was standard. The khat-wearing statue of Tutankhamun has a text on the kilt apron labelling it as: “The Perfect God… royal Ka-spirit of (the) Horakhty, (the) Osiris… Nebkheperura, justified”. This favours the interpretation of the statue(s) as a home for the royal Ka-spirit.

The supposed function of these sculptures as “guardians” arises from the position at the doorway of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun’s (albeit truncated) tomb, the seemingly threatening maces they hold and especially the over-lifesize scale of the Horemheb and Ramesses I examples.

Carter initially coined the term “guardian statue” and the contemporary press accounts emphasised this apparently defensive function in descriptions; that is still how the statue is described in the Saatchi exhibition interpretation. However, in no simple way is the statue a ‘guardian.’ The root of this persistent misinterpretation – absolutely typical for Egyptology – may lie in a deep-seated anxiety that the tomb was not supposed to be entered – the same apprehension that has fuelled countless examples of mummy fiction.

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Fifth Dynasty falsedoor of Khainpu (Acc.no TN R4567/1937), showing the same iconography in two dimensions as Tutankhamun’s ‘guardian’ statues show in three-dimensions

One wonders if the statues actually represent a much more general freedom of movement and power for the deceased; spells from the Book of the Dead are illustrated by vignettes of the deceased holding a cane and sceptre and the same iconography notably occurs frequently on falsedoors from the Old Kingdom onwards. These images are not usually interpreted as ‘guardians’ of the tomb – although the precisely parallel in two-dimensions the ‘scene’ set up in front of the door to Tutankhamun’s burial chamber in three-dimensions.

As ever, Tutankhamun’s ‘treasures’ say more about our modern anxieties about looking inside the tomb than they do about the ancient functions of objects such as sculptures.

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