Monthly Archives: March 2013

Object biography #12: A wooden shabti of King Seti I (Acc. no. 13906)

Seti I shabti

Acc. no. 13906. © Glenn Janes

Shabti figures are very popular, especially when they depict royal personages. Some of the most common royal shabtis you are likely to encounter are those of King Seti I (c. 1294-79 BC). Estimates vary, but it is probable that Seti had over 1000 shabtis – the largest number of any New Kingdom king. Materials for the shabtis varied, and included faience, alabaster and steatite – but the most common material was wood.

After his 1817 discovery of the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings (KV 17), the strongman explorer Giovanni Belzoni gave an account of its contents. He described “scattered in various places, an immense quantity of small wooden figures of mummies six or eight inches long, and covered with asphaltum to preserve them.” Modern analysis has identified the species of wood as juniper. It is said that  many of these resin-coated wooden shabtis – as a convenient, combustible material – were set alight and used as torches by visitors to the tomb! Fortunately, many survived and Egyptian collections across the world now frequently boast one or two examples.

Seti’s assemblage must originally have represented the most elaborate provision of royal shabtis, varying considerably in quality of craftsmanship. But why would a pharaoh need actually need shabtis? As a god king, among other gods in the afterlife, it seems unlikely that the deceased pharaoh would be obliged to actually do any work in the Fields of Reeds.

Shabti of Set I in 'Pharaoh' exhibition

Fine faience shabti of Seti I now in the British Museum. BM EA 22818.

Like many of the objects placed in the royal tomb, they represented an insurance policy for any eventuality. Shabtis had been a standard part of private burial equipment since the Middle Kingdom, and the Egyptians were perhaps inclined to retain the custom rather than do away with it – just in case the king happened to need extra help in the afterlife. By their sheer number, Seti’s army of shabtis seems to echo the large numbers of people the king could command in life. By the New Kingdom, shabtis were conceptualised as servants rather than substitutes for the deceased – so perhaps it was fitting for the pharaoh to have labour at his disposal.

I have a particular fondness for the wooden shabtis of Seti I for another reason. When I was still at school, and already keen to pursue a career in Egyptology and museums, I volunteered at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Whilst there, I was privileged to be able to help the curator update catalogue records – focussing on an extensive collection of shabtis. Whilst we were going through the collection, I noticed that one dark wooden example bore a cartouche – though a royal name was not noted on the catalogue card. Upon closer inspection the hieroglyphic elements proved to be ‘Men-maat-Re’ – the Prenomen, or Throne name of Seti I. After consulting a reference book I was very excited to discover one of Seti I’s shabtis in Glasgow… only to discover that there were hundreds all over the world!

I remember wondering why the king took so many shabtis to the grave. Now, I would say without hesitation that the general Pharaonic funerary belief applies: better safe than sorry!

This post is based on part of a chapter that will appear in the Oxford Handbook to the Valley of the Kings, edited by Kent Weeks and Richard Wilkinson.


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Masks and masking in ancient Egypt


Acc. no. 123

The Manchester Museum holds two very important objects that provide evidence for the use of masks in ancient Egypt. The first is one of the very few surviving masks that appears to have been worn by the living, rather than placed on a mummy. The Manchester example (Acc. no. 123) is made of layers of linen and plaster, and has been painted black – with signs of paint being applied over broken patches of plaster, implying ancient repair. There are holes for the eyes and nostrils, indicating practical considerations for the wearer. A green triangle has been painted between the brows, and the eyes, cheeks and lips have been picked out with red paint. Despite the common assertion that the Manchester mask represents the dwarf-god Bes, this does not seem obvious from inspection of the mask itself.

The mask was found by archaeologist W.M. Flinders Petrie during his 1888-9 excavations at the pyramid-builders’ town of Kahun. It was discovered in a room of one of the houses there. In the next room, in a hole in the floor, was found a group of objects including a pair of ivory clappers and a wooden figurine of a woman with a lionine face(mask). Although the latter was stolen from the excavation, it is comparable with another example from the Ramesseum tomb group – also in Manchester. These objects have been interpreted as the tools of a ritual performer, whose use was connected with music and magic. The exact context of such use is uncertain.

Ostracon 5886 second version

Acc. no. 5886

The other object is a flake of limestone (known as an ostracon), from western Thebes, probably of New Kingdom date and donated by Sir Alan Gardiner. It bears a unique ink sketch: a scene of a funeral. The sketch shows a tomb shaft – of the type known from Deir el-Medina – with a group of female mourners gathered around it. Within the shaft a man is seen descending, and within the chambers of the tomb itself the burial party carry a coffin into place. A striking detail is that one of the party has a jackal head. Given the informal medium, the sketch is likely to show the burial as it happened, albeit in schematic fashion. The implication is that one of the party is wearing a jackal-headed mask. A famous example in Hildesheim may represent such a mask, used for the impersonation of Anubis, the god of mummification.

Ancient Egyptian ritual centred on the knowledge and action of a ritual practitioner, not on abstract “beliefs”. Masking enabled ritualists to act as gods, bringing divine knowledge and power to confront a given problem or participate in ceremonial acts. Religious texts contain many assertions that the speaker is a specific deity. Such a declaration of authority enabled mortals – both men and women – to impersonate gods, and make their ritual actions more effective. The resulting positive psychological effects are well-attested.

Masks enabled ancient Egyptians to become divine, both during life and after death. Manchester is fortunate to have these two outstanding objects, which shed light on an otherwise sparsely-documented practice.


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#AncientWorlds -related #ComicRelief fun @McrMuseum!

Ancient Worlds

This photo shows some of my colleagues tucking into cakes and assorted pastries at the afternoon tea in aid of Comic Relief and Red Nose Day. We made cakes and biscuits inspired by archaeology, archaeological sites and the collections more generally. My own humble offering was inspired by the Manchester wordsquare with its inscription ROTAS OPERA TENET AREPO SATOR.

The shortbread biscuits with piped chocolate icing lettering were well and truly knocked into a cocked hat by the ancient Egyptian hippo cake modelled on a predynastic pot in  the Museum collection.

But pride of place has to go to a cake that sadly suffered a mishap en route. Kate’s display case cake was a spectacular creation. So good was it that when I saw it later I actually photographed the pile of the broken pieces of the gingerbread sides of the cake in the mistaken impression that it was the cake itself! The rostrum…

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Curator’s Diary 13/3/13: Early Photographs of a Prince’s Journey in Egypt

Nakhtmontu stela

Stela of Nakhtmontu © HM Queen Elizabeth II

Last week I attended the opening of a new exhibition, ‘From Cairo to Constantinople’, at the Queen’s Gallery of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. The exhibition presents photographs taken by Francis Bedford – the first official photographer to accompany a royal tour – on the trip around the Middle East made in 1862 by the then-Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).

The Royal Collection houses a number of objects that the Prince brought back from his travels, several of which are displayed in the exhibition. The most striking is the black granite statue of a 12th Dynasty queen (to an unnamed king), called Senet. Sadly the piece, which is less than half-life-size, lacks an exact provenance and the face of the statue has been damaged and restored in modern times. The Royal Collection is currently lending several objects to our temporary exhibition, ‘Breed: The British and their dogs’, and it was a pleasure to see some of their Egyptological material on display.

In addition to ancient scarabs mounted in gold as jewellery presented to Edward’s wife Princess Alexandra, the exhibition contains two further ancient Egyptian antiquities. The first is a painted wooden stela of early Ptolemaic date belonging to a priest named Nakhtmontu – mounted in a rather fanciful, Egyptianising gilt frame. The Prince records the stela’s discovery in his diary: “I was looking at some excavations… behind the Memnonium [the Ramesseum]; the Viceroy had been kind enough to give permission for them, and that everything that was found I might have; only a small mummy and a tablet were however found, wh[ich] I took with me.”


Late Period wooden stela, Acc. no. 10939.

Although the ‘concessions’ awarded to the Prince were not scientifically recorded, it is satisfying to have some idea of provenance of this object. The Ramesseum location matches both the Theban titles mentioned in the text and known Late – Ptolemaic Period burials in the area. A similar, if somewhat earlier, stela in Manchester may derive from a similar context – all that is recorded is that it comes from the collection of a Lady Marten, and was given in 1953 (right).

Finally, perhaps most important in terms of its connections to other known objects, is a set of sheets cut down from the papyrus of a man called Nesmin, showing the Amduat, found ‘upon a mummy in a tomb…’ Only one sheet (out of seven) is on display, but highlights the crisp penmanship of scribes producing the best papyri at this period. Nesmin is most likely to be the same man that owned the early Ptolemaic Bremner-Rhind Papyrus in the British Museum.

The superbly displayed objects in the exhibition combine with the photographic and diary record to really bring to life this royal tour. The photographs themselves are a valuable record of many monuments before they were ‘cleaned up’ for more popular tourism, and they compare well with those of the Zangaki brothers and others (prints of which we found at the Museum in 2011), taken around the same time.

As a record of the exhibition and of the tour, the catalogue is a sound investment and highlights the key role of temporary exhibitions of this nature in putting on view material that is rarely, if ever, seen.

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A superb round-up of our first hieroglyphs study day at the Museum yesterday

Seshat's Journal

Yesterday I spent the whole day at the Manchester Museum for a Museum Meets event titled Every object tells a story – What do hieroglyphs mean?.
This was an event where anyone could learn a little bit about hieroglyphs: how did they evolve, what do they mean and even to learn to read them a bit.

The event was meant for anyone, whether they know hieroglyphs or not. I have been trying to learn them for a few months now through various books and a few study days and I have to say I found yesterday’s event extremely useful. My best friend, who was kind enough to join me, has barely scratched the surface, but could also easily keep up. In that respect the day was a huge success.

In the morning Dr Campbell Price (Curator of Egypt and the Sudan at the Manchester Museum) gave a lecture on…

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