This wooden figurine (20.2 cm high) is among Manchester Museum’s most discussed Egyptian objects. It represents a naked female, with the face of a lion and two movable arms, attached with pegs. In each hand she holds serpents made of metal. The figurine is just one piece from an intriguing group found amidst debris at the bottom of a late Middle Kingdom (c. 1773-1650 BC) shaft burial known as the ‘Ramesseum tomb.’ This name derived from the location of the shaft at the rear of what later became the mortuary temple of Ramesses II. Many of the other objects from the tomb are also in the Manchester collection.
Between 1885 and 1886, W. M. Flinders Petrie and James Quibell discovered and cleared the shaft. The tomb’s contents included ivory protective ‘wands’, ivory clappers, model food offerings, and female fertility figurines. In association – but not connected for sure – with these was found a box containing 118 reed pens (Acc. No. 1882) and a large number of texts written on papyrus. These are known as the ‘Ramesseum papyri’ and are held in the British Museum and other institutions. Information on this fascinating set of documents has now been made accessible by the BM’s Richard Parkinson in an online research catalogue on the museum’s website. The papyri contain largely magico-medical texts, but also literary compositions together with an onomasticon, hymns, and rituals. This unusual collection of evidence suggests the tomb belonging to a skilled, literate individual who used objects such as our wooden figurine in performance. A lector priest – or ‘magician’ – is commonly assumed, hence the burial became known as the ‘magician’s tomb’.
The Ramesseum group is of special importance because, collectively, it suggests a social context for the use of objects and texts together in performance. Could these have belonged to a literate, ritual expert – a practitioner of magic – in the late Middle Kingdom? These issues will be explored using Manchester’s Ramesseum objects in the new Egyptian World gallery.
Acc. No. 1790 is certainly one of the most well-published pieces in the collection (her entry in our digital catalogue has 19 images – while many have none!). She is often used to illustrate the practice of ritual and magic – though no one is quite sure how she ‘worked’. That the figurine was used is indicated by signs of alteration to fit the feet into a base. Does she actually represent a deity, or wear a mask? Which divine face is it: female version of the lion-headed dwarf gods Bes or Aha? And are the serpents she grasps – thus rendering them harmless and under her control – the same as the snake ‘wand’, now in the Fitzwilliam, found entangled with hair in the Ramesseum tomb? She raises many more questions than she answers.
I recently discussed the meaning of the figurine with some Manchester University anthropology students examining the archaeological evidence of ritual. One of the group inferred a sexual connotation to the figure’s nudity, but was rebuffed by a colleague who thought this an imposition of a modern, Western perspective. While there is plentiful evidence from Pharaonic Egypt for nude female fertility figurines, including several from the ‘Magician’s’ tomb’, 1790 does not fit easily into this category.
It is, I think, important for Egyptologists and museum professionals to admit to the limits of our knowledge when examining objects. While we can offer educated guesses based on comparable material and cultural context, admitting uncertainty about an object’s function ought not to be taboo. 1790 and its findspot in the Ramesseum tomb group offer a more tantalising glimpse than most.