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.
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.
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.