The Reception of Manchester Museum’s ‘Hippo Bowl’ (Acc. no. 5069)

Another post from guest blogger and Predynastic specialist Matt Szafran – on one of Manchester Museum’s most iconic objects.

The so-called ‘hippo bowl’ (accessioned as no. 5069) is undoubtedly a beautiful and unique object, as can be seen from its inclusion in numerous books, postcards, documentaries, scholarly articles, and exhibitions – most recently the Garstang Museum’s ‘Before Egypt : Art, Culture and Power’ exhibition at the Victoria Gallery and Museum at the University of Liverpool, and to Bolton Museum and Art Gallery while Manchester’s Ancient Worlds galleries are closed.

Unfortunately, Predynastic material culture typically garners significantly less attention than later Dynastic periods – especially anything gold or jewel encrusted. The Manchester Museum’s current curator, Dr Campbell Price, has been vocal on his appreciation of this object, but what did his predecessors think? Thankfully archival research allows us to answer this question.

The bowl was rediscovered at the site of el-Mahasna as a part of an Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) sponsored excavation led by British archaeologists Edward Russell Ayrton and W.L.S. Loat during the in 1908-9 season. The bowl was found in a large square tomb, designated as H.29, alongside many other ‘elite’ status items (such as carved ivory, stone beads, malachite, and greywacke palettes) in what Ayrton and Loat would describe as the ‘richest grave found on the site’ in their 1911 publication. The bowl itself was described as ‘superb’:

The EEF held an exhibition at Kings College on the Strand in London between the 8th and the 31st of July 1909, showcasing objects excavated that season by EEF archaeologists at both Abydos and el-Mahasna before their distribution between various institutions. The EEF also published an exhibition catalogue, with a cover price of sixpence, which even though a small and limited book still featured a detailed description of the H.29 tomb group. Upon conclusion of the 1909 Abydos and el-Mahasna exhibition all objects were crated and distributed between the Egyptian Museum, Cairo and 27 different international institutions who had subscribed to support the EEF. The distribution of the 50 creates of objects was handled by E. W. Morgan & Co. LTD, with two of those crates finding their way to the Manchester Museum:

Both the acting director of the museum, Sydney J. Hickson, and his secretary acknowledged the receipt of the two crates by letter to the EEF on the 26th of August 1909. Hickson’s letter was essentially a ‘fill in the blanks’ template and made no special mention of any of the objects. However Hickson handwrote a letter to the EEF on the 11th of September 1909 to confirm that the crated objects had been unpacked and had ‘arrived safely’ and thanking the EEF’s president and committee for the donation, he went on to make a special mention of the ‘unique pre-Dynastic bowl’ and saying that it’s an ‘interesting and valuable’ addition to the Museum’s collection. Whilst the letter doesn’t explicitly say that this is the ‘hippo bowl’, there were no other significant bowls included in the distribution to the Manchester Museum and it is therefore extremely likely that this letter is proof of Hickson’s admiration for the ‘hippo bowl’:

Winifred M. Crompton was appointed as the Assistant Keeper of Egyptology in 1912, a role synonymous with a ‘curator’ today. During her tenure at the museum before this posting she was tasked with organising and cataloguing the Egyptian collections. This led to Crompton writing to the EEF on the 16th of September 1909 to request purchasing copy of the object catalogue of the el-Mahasna and Abydos exhibition. Sadly, Crompton does not refer to the ‘hippo bowl’ in this letter, although she does add a postscript note saying that the Manchester Museum received additional jars than were on the object distribution list – including one from the H.29 tomb group:

From the archival evidence it would therefore appear that the ‘hippo bowl’ has been able to capture the attention of both Egyptologists and non-Egyptologists alike. One would assume that its original owner was just as awed by the bowl, although with no written sources from the Predynastic period it is impossible to truly know what meaning and significance was truly ascribed to the bowl and the hippopotami it represents.

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Object Biography # 27: A ‘stick shabti’ of Teti-sa-intef (Acc. no. 6038)

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.

Acc. no. 6038. Photo: 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 laste 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.

Dra' Abu el-Naga' - Wikipedia
Dra Abu el Naga: Wikipedia

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) 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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Re-Framing Petrie: Of Skulls, Faces and Time

William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) took a particular interest in the human face. A significant number of important finds from three seasons of excavations he directed at the site of Hawara were exported to Britain and acquired by Manchester Museum. Many currently form part of our Golden Mummies of Egypt touring exhibition, which – along with an accompanying book – aims to highlight the long shadows cast by Petrie’s evaluations.

Of the discovery of the so-called ‘Faiyum portrait’ mummies at Hawara, Petrie remarked in his journal that it a was ‘a great point anthropologically to have skulls of persons whose living appearance as to colour and feature is preserved to us by the portraits’. He was keen to match the exposed skulls of mummies with their associated panel painting in the apparent hope of something like facial reconstruction, and he was ruthless in his quest. In February 1888, Petrie records removing a cracked wooden panel painting from the wrapped body of a woman: ‘her mummy was not in very good condition as to the wrappings, so I secured her skull … and abandoned the rest’.

Petrie assumed – like most commentators after him – that the panel paintings represented a mimetic likeness, depicting the deceased as they had been in the prime of life. These ‘portraits’ remain popular with museum visitors in part because of their humanity, but also because of their technique and the apparently timeless illusion created by which observers are reminded of people they know today.

Detail of Alma-Tadema’s ‘Love’s Jewelled Fetter’ (1895)

The chance find of what Petrie referred to as an ‘Oxford frame’ – a design that now appears rather twee but which was popular in Victorian England – led him to assume that ‘portraits’ may have once hung in domestic settings. Here was a very clear case of an interpretation of ancient material rooted in modern experience of objects, and of observing images. A visitor to Petrie’s 1888 Summer exhibition of finds from Hawara was the Dutch painter Laurence Alma-Tadema, whose 1895 painting ‘Love’s Jewelled Fetter’ imagines a panel painting in just such an ‘living’ context.

The painted-during-life theory would not, however, explain the significant number of children and young people who could not yet have been considered at the height of their powers or influence when they died. One panel painting in the Manchester collection – one of only around 100 still attached to the mummy – represents a young man with gilding added to laurels in his hair and between his lips, motifs of divinity. Recent re-examination of the CT scan of the mummy suggests that the individual within the wrapping – who indeed only seems to have reached his later teenage years, was markedly obese. This would rather seem to contradict the slim young man whose face is painted on the panel; idealisation depends of the ideals of the people responsible for effecting it.

Mummy of a young man, with gilding in laurel and between lips (Acc. no. 1768)

Petrie’s fascination with matching skulls with mummy masks is perhaps most eerily illustrated by the discovery of a skull and an associated painted plaster mummy mask during Egypt Exploration Fund excavations at Diospolis Parva (now both in the British Museum). A photo in EES archives show’s Petrie’s apparent experiments with photography to superimpose images of both skull and mask together, perhaps in attempt to ‘prove’ a match. Similar assumed affinities are the basis of much facial reconstruction today, a ‘science’ developed in part at Manchester Museum. Yet, for me, none are to be seriously believed, at least not from the perspective of Egyptian conceptions of the eternal image suitable for the afterlife.

Skull and mummy mask superimposed. Image: Egypt Exploration Society archive

Insofar as it is a matter of elite record at different periods, the ancient Egyptians conceptualised two types of time. Neheh-time – the cyclical movement of night and day, of seasons and years, and Djet-time – the linear stretch of time, the time of monuments, hieroglyphs, and mummies. Things that exist in the latter dimension are eternal and in emulation of the gods.  Pharaonic statuary and mummy masks were conceived to exist in Djet-time. The do not show people as they were, subject to the cycles of life we all face – but eternal beings able to exist into everlastingness, rubbing shoulders with immortal gods, permanently memorialised – a timelessness that may in part explain their popularity today.

Based on his writings, Petrie (and many others before and since) were not aware of this distinction. In his 1912 eugenicist book Revolutions of Civilization, published at the close of his third and final Hawara season, Petrie asserted that sculpture could be used as the basis for a comparison between civilizations, because ‘it is available over so long a period, in so many countries, and so readily presented to the mind, that it may be well to begin with that as a standard subject for comparison, and afterwards look at other activities’; for him, sculpture was ‘the definite test’. Such confidence in the readable ‘truth’ of ancient images was well-established for Petrie. He had previously been funded by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and prominent eugenicist Francis Galton to record the ‘Racial Types’ represented on Theban monuments, a project rooted in colonial anxieties about the ‘other’ and predicated on the assumption that such representations were crafted to reflect some sort of objective, observed reality – rather than the stylised, subjective, ‘hieroglyphic’ image-world of Pharaonic Egypt.

Cast from Petrie’s ‘Racial Type’ series, now in Manchester Museum

This representationalist approach was marshalled by Petrie to further his (somewhat confused) arguments about the advancement of civilisation through migrations of people – but warns of the need to prevent such ‘racial mixing’ in future. Petrie concludes Revolutions with: ‘Yet if the view becomes readily grasped, that the source of every civilisation has lain in race mixture, it may be that eugenics will, in some future civilisation, carefully segregate fine races, and prohibit continual mixture, until they have a distinct type, which will start a new civilisation when transplanted. The future progress of man may depend as much on isolation to establish a type, as of fusion of types when established.’

While the explicitly racist agenda inherent in this discussion is clearly repugnant, Petrie’s insistence in the veracity of Egyptian sculpture remains persistent in some assessments of Egyptian statuary, and particularly in the panel paintings from Graeco-Roman mummies. The need to tie images to the depiction of real people say much more about the cultural anxieties of modern commentators than it does the skill of ancient artisans.

Some of these issues are discussed more extensively in a new book, Golden Mummies of Egypt. Interpreting Identities from the Graeco-Roman Period (Manchester Museum and Nomad Exhibition, Glasgow, 2020) now available from the Manchester Museum shop.

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Just published! ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt: Interpreting Identities from the Graeco-Roman Period’

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Published jointly by Manchester Museum and Nomad Exhibitions, the book accompanies a major international touring exhibition of over 100 objects.

Ancient Egypt is synonymous with gold, sex, art, and death – a combination as intoxicating as it is enduringly popular with book readers, documentary watchers, and museum visitors. But to what extent are these concepts representative of ancient concerns or realities, and how might modern interpreters – collectors, archaeologists, curators, writers, artists – have shaped the ancient past to fit a narrative attractive to themselves and their audiences?

The Graeco-Roman Period (c. 300 BCE-200 CE) of Egyptian history, so-called because Egypt was ruled at this time by Greeks then Romans, is one of the most overlooked in the popular telling of Egyptian history. Excavations at the important Graeco-Roman site of Hawara produced mesmerising painted mummy portraits, delicate glass and jewellery, and mummified bodies sheathed in gold. Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester, holds one of the most significant collections of material from Hawara anywhere in the world, the result of the division of finds at the height of British colonial control of Egypt.

Manchester Museum is delighted to have partnered with Nomad Exhibitions to produce, for the first time, a major publication based entirely on the Museum’s internationally significant Egyptology collections.

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Richly illustrated with new photography by Julia Thorne and drawing on little-known archive material, Golden Mummies of Egypt showcases for the first time this extraordinary range of artefacts, examining how and why they came to Manchester, the ancient identities these objects helped to construct, and the ways in which they have been interpreted in the Western world.

250 pages

Colour photography throughout

Accompanies a major international touring exhibition, Golden Mummies of Egypt.

Author: Dr Campbell Price is Curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum. He is Vice-Chair of Trustees of the Egypt Exploration Society, Honorary Research Fellow in Egyptology at University of Liverpool, author of Pocket Museum: Ancient Egypt (Thames & Hudson, 2018) and editor of Mummies, Magic and Medicine in Ancient Egypt (Manchester University Press, 2016).

*Front matter and Table of Contents available HERE*

You can now purchase copies of the book (for 25 GBP) by contacting the Manchester Museum shop on 0161 275 6256 Mon-Fri 10am-2pm.

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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.

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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.

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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.

6038

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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