Monthly Archives: January 2013

Event: Ancient Egyptian woodworking 09/02/13

Woodworking_NebamunWorking with wood in Ancient Egypt: a practical demonstration

In conjunction with our ‘Collecting Trees’ project and as part of our ‘Discover Archaeology’ Big Saturday on February the 9th, the Museum is delighted to host Dr. Geoffrey Killen, an expert on ancient Egyptian woodworking, who will demonstrate ancient craft techniques – LIVE! Watch Geoff use replica ancient Egyptian tools to make furniture, the Egyptian way. There will also be a chance to see Egyptian wooden items normally kept in storage.




Ancient Egyptian Woodworking

Saturday 9th February

11:30am and 2:30pm

Manchester Museum



Filed under Egypt events, Egypt events at the Manchester Museum

Texts in translation #10: The Stela of Hesysunebef (Acc. No. 4588)


Stela Acc. no. 4588. Photo by Paul Cliff.

This limestone stela is a unique record of some very interesting people who lived during the Ramesside Period. It was discovered near the Ramesseum in 1896 by Flinders Petrie, working on behalf of the Egyptian Research Account. Many of the individuals who are represented on the stela are known from Deir el-Medina, the New Kingdom community of workers on Theban royal tombs.

The top register in the round part of the stela (the ‘lunette’) shows Neferhotep, the foreman of the gang of workmen who lived at Deir el-Medina. He stands on the prow of the boat used to carry the statue of the goddess Mut. The middle register shows another man, called Hesysunebef, and his family, who are all kneeling in adoration before the foreman Neferhotep. The lower register shows five more people including the parents-in-law of Hesysunebef.


After J. Quibell, The Ramesseum, 1898, pl. 10, 3.

The inscription on the top register says that the stela was ‘Made by the Chief of the Gang in the Place of Truth (Deir el-Medina), Neferhotep, justified’. Above the shrine of Mut, the hieroglyphs identify the goddess as ‘Mut the Great, Lady of Isheru’ (her temple at Karnak).

The hieroglyphs in the middle register caption the figures beneath: ‘[Made/done/praise] by the workman of the Lord of the Two Lands Hesysunebef, justified; his son Neferhotep (ii), his wife, the lady of the house, Huenro, justified; his daughter Webkhet, justified; his daughter, Nubemiry, justified’.

The hieroglyphs in the lower register list ‘The workman in the Place of Truth, Amenemope, justified; his wife, the lady of the house, Iset, justified; the temple-singer of Amun, Webkhet, justified; the workman in the Place of Truth, Mery-Re, justified; the lady of the house, Weretanu, [justified]’.


Hesysunebef and family. Photo by Oliver Smith.

It appears that Neferhotep was the benefactor and adoptive father of Hesysunebef, whose name means ‘He who is praised by his lord’. It is unusual that Neferhotep is depicted standing in the sacred boat (or ‘barque’) of the goddess Mut. Ordinary people were not usually permitted this honour – not even the Pharaoh. At Deir el-Medina the carrying of such a barque in procession would have happened on a fairly regular basis; such priestly duties would have been shared by several workmen.

We know from other sources that Hesysunebef appears to have risen to the high rank of Deputy – the second-in-command at the village – although he started life as a slave before his adoption by Neferhotep.

Huenro was the wife of Hesysunebef. It is known that Huenro lived with the workman Pendua before she married Hesysunebef, and that she was unfaithful to both men with the infamous chief workman of the gang called Paneb. When he found out, Hesysunebef divorced Huenro in the second year of King Sethnakhte (c. 1190-1187 BC). After her divorce, Huenro was left penniless. She was given charity by one individual in the village who gave her a monthly ration of grain.

The stela has been subject of pioneering work with interactive technology by Loughborough University. This allows us to tell the stories of these colourful characters in a more comprehensive way than was previously possible.


Filed under Texts in Translation

Real royal portraits in ancient Egypt…?

DoC portraitThe strong opinions expressed about the first official portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge, unveiled this week, highlight the continuing interest in depictions of royalty. But how do modern experiences and expectations of a royal image compare to those in ancient Egypt? Catherine’s portrait – completed, the artist stated, mainly from photographs – captures a highly recognisable face, without any setting or regalia to imply status. It is, clearly, an ‘art work’.

Quite in contrast, Pharaonic scenes are functional rather than purely aesthetic. Many focus on the king: he is recognisable by his scale, insignia, and position in a scene. Viewers are left in no doubt about who he is. Royal family members are identifiable for the same reasons. But was any attempt made to make these individuals look like themselves?


In this relief (Acc. no. 3303), Ahmose I and Osiris are indistinguishable apart from their insignia.

In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh was at all periods, in some sense, the image of a god. A finely carved scene from the temple of Ahmose I at Abydos in the Manchester Museum highlights this. The king embraces Osiris – the god’s facial features are indistinguishable from his own. These are not recognisable ‘portraits’ in the modern sense. We may speak of a particular portrait ‘type’ or ‘types’ – promulgated at the start of a reign (and perhaps again at other key moments), and applied to royal family members and even the elite. Yet these are not intended as reflections of reality. Egyptian visual culture was essentially idealising. This was because it was created for an eternal audience, not to capture a fleeting moment – unless that moment was something that might impress the gods.

It didn’t matter what the king, or his family, looked like in scenes or statues. It is doubtful that very many people would have got close enough to the pharaoh to even register his facial features and ‘recognise’ them in a temple wall scene or statue. We are today very familiar with famous faces: the new portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, has already been replicated millions of times around the world. Most people, in Britain at least, would know her if they met her. In ancient Egypt, such recognition was simply not important, nor was it to be expected: the content of a scene or statue make clear which VIP was who. For those with some familiarity with the meaning of hieroglyphic signs, or even their general arrangement, a cartouche captioning the image would provide additional information.


Cast of a bust of Akhenaten from Amarna. A genuine attempt at royal portraiture?

A modern eye may see what it perceives as portraiture in the ‘careworn’ features of some Middle Kingdom kings, or at other times when representations of the human face deviated from the idealising. Yet, we must be aware that there is a difference between a face being ‘life-like’ (resembling an unknown living person) and ‘true-to-life’ (an image of a specific individual). If nothing else, a life-like face is more arresting, more inviting than an idealised one – and a chief purpose of sculpture was to attract attention from the living, but also from the dead and the gods.

The claims of sculptors during the reign of Akhenaten to have been instructed by the king himself indicate no more than a desire to express closeness to the pharaoh. The issue of what Akhenaten looked like, behind all the ideological filtering of his wide range of images, is a vexed one. It is, however, likely that – whatever others may have thought – Akhenaten approved of his images. What the Duchess of Cambridge really thought of her own portrait we may never know.


I will discuss the existence of royal portraiture, amongst other issues, in a ‘Museum Meets’ study day next Saturday, the 19th of January: ‘How Did Statues Work in Ancient Egypt?’


Filed under Egypt events at the Manchester Museum

Trees in Ancient Egypt

Tree_climbing 655

Faience vessel showing a boy climing a palm tree to collect dates (Acc. no. 655).

As we enter 2013, here at the Museum we’ve been thinking a lot about trees. Trees in ancient Egypt were comparatively rare, and quality timber had to be imported from abroad. Native species included acacia, tamarisk, date and dom palm, persia and sycamore fig (Ficus sycamorus). The goddess Hathor was ‘Lady of the Sycamore’ and the tree was also associated with Isis and Nut, as well as appearing in funerary scenes wholly or partly as a ‘tree goddess’ who offers refreshment to the deceased.

Sling 102 (8)

Palm-fibre sling probably used to climb trees (Acc. no. 102)

The ished tree – a fruit-bearing deciduous species, probably the persia – had solar symbolism, and was the tree on which the king’s name and number of regnal years was inscribed. From love poetry, there is even evidence of talking trees!

In addition to associations with life, fecundity and rebirth, trees were also a source of food, such as dates and dom nuts. The Manchester Museum holds two complementary objects that illustrate the Egyptians’ dexterity in the practicalities of retrieving this produce. From the Middle Kingdom pyramid-builders town of Kahun comes a palm-fibre sling (Acc. No. 102), most likely used as an aid in climbing trees. On a New Kingdom faience bowl from Gurob (Acc. No. 655) is a lively scene of a small boy doing just that – perhaps helped (or discouraged?) by another figure at the foot of the tree. The harvesting of dates can still be seen in Egypt, albeit done with more modern climbing equipment, and British supermarkets often stock this popular export.

Date collecting in the Faiyum. Photo courtesy of Anna Hodgkinson.

Date collecting in the Faiyum. Photo courtesy of Anna Hodgkinson.

The Museum has embarked on a tree project, which aims to actively collect further specimens (many people believing that we no longer add to the Museum’s collections) and explore the cultural significance of trees in the past and for living cultures. Working with my colleague Rachel Webster, Curator of Botany, I look forward to investigating the resonances of trees – both practical and symbolic – for the ancient Egyptians.

Do you collect things tree-related? What do you think of this strategy of adding to the Museum’s collections? We’d love to hear from you.


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