Object biography # 16: A pyramid temple column reused by Ramesses II (Acc. no. 1780)

Granite column, with decoration of Ramesses II and Merenptah (Acc. no. 1780)

Column, with decoration of Ramesses II and Merenptah (Acc. no. 1780)

Manchester’s imposing (3.8m tall) red granite column (Acc. no. 1780) is one of eight which once fronted the pronaos of a temple dedicated to the ram-headed god Herishef at Herakleopolis Magna (modern Ihnasya el-Medina), 15 miles west of Beni Suef in Middle Egypt. The temple was excavated by Swiss Egyptologist Edouard Naville in 1891, and the columns were distributed to museums around the world shortly thereafter. Other columns from the temple are in the British Museum; Bolton Museum and Art Gallery; South Australian Museum, Adelaide; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and University Museum, University of Pennsylvania. English archaeologist W. M. Flinders Petrie re-excavated and planned the site in 1904. The columns were recently studied by Japanese Egyptologist Yoshifumi Yasuoka, who identified traces of the original panels of decoration on them and re-examined their architectural arrangement.

The temple of Herishef was expanded during the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BC), at which time the eight palm-form granite columns were brought to the site from elsewhere. The columns were in fact already ancient when Ramesses reused them. Their proportions and form of their palm-capitals are typical of the Old Kingdom, and it is likely that they originally derived from an Old Kingdom pyramid complex of the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2494-2345 BC). Such recycling of older building material is characteristic of Ramesses II, and of Pharaonic Egyptian architecture in general.

Ahnas

Ruined columns at Herakleopolis Magna, as excavated by Edouard Naville. 1891.

The most likely candidate for the new construction work at Herakleopolis Magna is Ramesses’ fourth son, Khaemwaset, High Priest of Memphis. Prince Khaemwaset is well-known to have taken a particular interest in Egypt’s past, leading to his designation as the “first Egyptologist.” Khaemwaset was particularly active in the Memphite necropolis, where he was responsible for ‘labelling’ the monuments of ancient kings. In the course of such ‘survey’ Khaemwaset would have become aware of sites too ruined to save – but whose elements might be re-purposed for his father’s ambitious building programme elsewhere. In honour of Ramesses II new decoration was added, showing the king worshipping the ram-headed Herishef. The long-lived Ramesses was eventually succeeded by the thirteenth son, Merenptah, who added further columns of hieroglyphs with his own names in poorer quality inscriptions. Given Merenptah’s advanced age at his accession, he would have been keen to make his monumental mark as quickly as possible. By adding texts to standing monuments, his artisans were able to assert his presence and associate the elderly king with his famous father.

Petrie's reconstruction of the original appearance of the Ramesside pronaos

Petrie’s reconstruction of the original appearance of the Ramesside pronaos

The Manchester column was originally set up in the University’s Whitworth Hall in the late Nineteenth Century but was moved to the entrance hall of the Museum between 30th November and 2nd December 1979.

The column leaving Whitworth Hall... and arriving at the Museum. 1979.

The column leaving Whitworth Hall… and arriving at the Museum. 1979.

It is perhaps appropriate that a monument ‘salvaged’ by History’s first Egyptologist is the first object to greet visitors when they arrive at our Museum (and when they exit, via the gift shop). After all, in one of his inscriptions, Khaemwaset is said to have been one “who so loved antiquity and the noble people who came before, along with the excellence of what they made.”

4 Comments

Filed under Object biography

4 responses to “Object biography # 16: A pyramid temple column reused by Ramesses II (Acc. no. 1780)

  1. This is fascinating. I love to hear of the provenance/provenience of museum items, especially when they have an interesting ancient history, like this column. It would be interesting to see parallel illustrations of the other columns (BM, Bolton, Boston, Penn, Adelaide) alongside. I have long been interested in the black column fragments which survive at Heliopolis, the Cairo Museum garden, and the complete example in the BM. I was told at the Heliopolis obelisk site that they had come from a Turkoman mosque. The BM catalogue only speculates that they came from Memphis. They are interesting for carrying the cartouches of Merneptah, and, round the capitals, Sethnakhte; but especially for cartouches of Amenhotep III, apparently recut (cut back). I’d be fascinated if anyone has done a comparable study on these.

  2. Campbell@Manchester

    Thanks Dylan. I know the black granite columns you mean – but am not aware of any work having been done on them. Perhaps Peter Phillips knows?

  3. david caldecoat

    Interesting read its fascinating to find out where around the world are the other columns I have seen the one in Adelaide which is out side the Adelaide
    museum. it is also interesting to read about other Egyptian objects and how the get scatted around the world. I have just finished reading about the burial of Amenhotep who was the chief builder and how his objects are scatted around to different Museums with his mask in the metro museum
    in the states etc.

  4. Glynis Greaves

    Really fascinating. I was very interested to learn that the column was not originally placed in the temple in the OK but was “recycled” from another site. I have often wondered about the poor quality inscriptions of Merenptah, and speculated that they might have been left unfinished for some reason?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s