Object biography #6: The crown from a colossal statue of Ramesses II (Acc. No. 1783)

Acc. no. 1783.

Acc. no. 1783.

As Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, it seemed appropriate to highlight this magnificent fragment from a colossus of another monarch who celebrated 60 years on the throne. It comes from an over-lifesize granite statue of Ramesses II, named in the inscription on the back pillar as celebrating his heb-sed or jubilee festival. Ramesses II was one of only two pharaohs to rule for over 60 years. It is conceivable that the statue from which the crown comes was created for such a jubilee.

The form of the crown is complex. It comprises the tall ‘atef’ crown, with rams horns and flanked by plumes and rearing cobras (or uraei). It is supported from the back by a falcon – an image familiar from the famous statue of King Khafre in the Cairo Museum. The atef is surmounted by a solar disk with a scarab beetle carved within it, thereby combining a range of divine allusions: to Osiris, god of the dead and rebirth; Horus, god of kingship; and Khepri, the new-born sun. This iconographical mixture is very appropriate for a sed festival. This was an occasion to renew the king’s power and legitimacy as a semi-divine ruler after 30 years on the throne, and was repeated at various intervals thereafter. Assimilating with the of the gods – particularly their solar aspects – is a hallmark of the jubilees of Ramesses II.

The crown was found by William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) in the Ptolemaic temple of Isis at Coptos. Nearby, a lifesized statue of the king seated between the goddesses Isis and Nephthys was also discovered. Petrie suggested that this monument had been reemployed in the Ptolemaic temple. Although it cannot be determined when the colossus fell, it may have been reused and reinterpreted in the same way during the Ptolemaic period – almost a millennium after it was first set up.

Cartouches of Ramesses II, over the hieroglyphs for ‘jubilee festival’, framed by notched palm ribs – symbols for ‘years’.

Manchester was just one of several museums that received impressive fragments of monumental statues from sites in Egypt. This inspired 19th Century writers, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley. His famous poem Ozymandias laments the broken state of another of the colossi of Ramesses II, from his mortuary temple at Thebes. The romantic image of the isolated, ruined statue continues to dominate popular perceptions of Egyptian kings today – of vain, tyrannical, larger-than-life figures.

Yet, this crown is only one part of a statue that would have been set up within a temple, and it would have functioned as part of the architecture. It could only have been seen by those with privileged access to the temple. Very few are likely to have been able to fully decode its elaborate symbolism. Rather than simply being intended to impress ordinary people, as is often assumed of colossi, such statues were equally – if not predominantly – addressed to the gods. Colossal statues like the one this crown comes from were statements to the gods that the king was on a par with them.

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