Category Archives: Object biography

Object Biography 29: A gilded statuette of Osiris (acc. no 4849)

Despite the loss of the head of this figure, its identity is easily discernible as Osiris, the god of rebirth and regeneration. Unlike the other commonly shrouded gods like Ptah and Khonsu, the arm positions indicate the figure was intended – perhaps only conceptually – to hold the crook and flail: elements of rulership that are commonly associated with Osiris. His tall atef-crown (of which only the streamers running down the neck and back remain) would also have made the head susceptible to breakage, thus even without an identifying inscription, it is clear that this gilded figurine represents Osiris.

Acc. no. 4849, from Giza. H. 23.8 cm. Photo by Julia Thorne/Tetisheri

The use of gold leaf to cover the statuette indicates not that this was a cult image – used as a focal point of rituals – but that it was a particularly rich version of a common object type: a votive image, given as a gift for the gods in petition, prayer or thanks. Untarnishable gold was viewed as the flesh of the gods, an appropriate material for objects the effected divine presence. The appearance of finely etched kneeling figures with an offering table between them at the front of the base further assert this votive function, and the form of this small composition – which seems to consciously evoke much earlier styles – is an indication of the date of this piece, in the Saite era – or Twenty-sixth Dynasty.

Detail of side of plinth, with djed and tyet symbols. Photo: Julia Thorne/Tetisheri

An interesting feature of religious culture in Egypt during the First Millennium BCE was the growth and expansion in the popular cult of the god Osiris. This figurine was found by workmen excavating for Flinders Petrie in 1906 at Giza, a site that was constantly reinterpreted after the construction of the great pyramids. The cult of Osiris – and of his wife Isis – was very significant at Giza in the Late Period. The presence of both ‘djed’ and ‘tyet’ symbols, motifs of Osiris and Isis respectively, on the base of the statuette emphasise their connection.

Eastern side of queens’ pyramids at Giza, showing Late Period temple of Isis. Photo: MFA Boston/Digital Giza.

On the eastern side of the small pyramid of one of Khufu’s wives, Queen Henutsen, developed a chapel to the goddess Isis, which became an active site of elite devotion in the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty and later. A monumental stone tablet – called the Inventory Stela – was discovered in the vicinity of this chapel, listing sacred images both within the temple and elsewhere at the site, including the great Sphinx. One entry reads, ‘Osiris. Gilded wood. Eyes inlaid’ – a description of the sort of object now in Manchester Museum.

This item is part of Manchester Museum’s ‘To Have and To Heal’ project, an attempt to use ancient Egyptian material culture – visualised through the photography of Julia Thorne – to address big questions in the post-pandemic world while Manchester Museum is closed (August 2021-late 2022) to complete its capital building project. Find out more at the website: https://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk or on social media @McrMuseum @EgyptMcr.

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The Authenticity of a Lizard-Shaped Predynastic Palette (Acc. No. 5474)

A guest post from palettologist and independent researcher Matt Szafran on an intriguing item that may not be all it at first appears…

Figure 1 – Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) specular enhancement of lizard-shaped Predynastic palette, Manchester 5474.

Predynastic Egyptian palettes were rediscovered in late 19th and early 20th century excavations. Archaeologists in the 19th century initially attributed their use as being for the processing of green malachite pigment for use in eye makeup (hence why palettes are sometimes referred to as ‘cosmetic palettes’), however more recent research points to the use of palettes being more nuanced and forming a part of the ritual landscape of the Predynastic cultures.

Whist palettes are one of the most frequent objects found in Predynastic burials, palettes would have been exclusively owned by the rulers and elites of society. The Predynastic Palette Database (PPDB) project has catalogued over 1257 palettes in 44 different collections, spread across the almost 1500 years of which palettes were used between 4000 BCE and 3150. Manchester Museum number 5474 (Fig. 1) represents one of the more unusual palettes which has been catalogued in the PPDB.

Figure 2 – Collections catalogued in the Predynastic Palette Database.

The Manchester Museum’s Egyptology collection holds the 2nd biggest collection (Fig. 2) of palettes in the PPDB, housing 116 (9.2%) palettes. This collection is built from excavation finds, such as those obtained through the Egypt Exploration Fund’s partage scheme, and also from donations – particularly those from textile magnate Jesse Haworth. One such donated piece the ‘lizard’ shaped palette, accessioned as museum number 5474. This object was purchased by British Egyptologist James Quibell in 1900 (Fig. 3), on the behest of Haworth. In a letter to Haworth, Quibell commented that the ‘carved green slates’ (palettes) were extremely rare and described Manchester 5474 as being of importance and stated it would be a fine piece for any museum’s collection (Fig. 3). It should be noted that Quibell was extremely familiar with Predynastic palettes at the time he wrote this letter, as he studied under Flinders Petrie and excavated at multiple Predynastic sites, including rediscovering the Narmer Palette in 1898 at Hierakonpolis, and began working as chief inspector of antiquities in the Delta and Middle Egypt in 1899.

Figure 3 – Copy of original letter between James Quibell and Jesse Haworth confirming the purchase of lizard-shaped palette Manchester 5474.

However, whilst Quibell was convinced of the authenticity of this object, in more recent years it has been looked at with much more scepticism, and the current Manchester Museum object catalogue lists 5474 as a possible 19th century forgery. These suspicions are mostly based upon the shape of the palette. Whilst lizard/crocodile shapes do exist in other Predynastic visual culture, such as on decorated pottery vessels, there is only one other comparable palette. The Petrie Museum collection holds a lizard/crocodile shaped palette, accessioned as UC15773, however this palette is also suspicious as it has red glass eyes – so at best it’s been modified in more recent time and at worst it is a complete forgery.

In an effort to determine whether or not Manchester 54474 is an authentic Predynastic palette or a modern forgery, it has been studied using microscopy and also Reflective Transformation Imaging (RTI). The RTI capture process uses multiple lighting angles of the subject which are combined in software to create a texture map which can then be manipulated with a virtual light source, this helps to highlight surface textures and can show manufacturing tool marks.

These investigative techniques were used to study certain features of Manchester 5474, and compare those to provenanced palettes which are known to have not been altered.

Suspension Hole

Most of the animal-shaped (zoomorphic) palettes have a so called ‘suspension hole’ on their top edge. The use of this one continues to be explored in scholarly debate, with suggestions of it being threaded for storage in the home or on the person, or even for suspending the palette to strike it to produce sounds as a part of ritual use.

Figure 4 – Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) specular enhancement of ‘suspension hole’ in fish-shaped Predynastic palette, Manchester 1737.

Experimental archaeology has shown that these holes were likely drilled with flint drills, which create conical holes with spiral striations – and this can be seen in provenanced palettes such as Manchester 1373 (Fig. 4), which was rediscovered in grave B46 at the site of el-Amrah in Upper Egypt as a part of an Egypt Exploration Fund excavation.

Figure 5 – Suspension hole in Manchester 5474, viewed at 40x through a Dino-Lite AM4113T, with measurements taken in DinoXcope.

In contrast to this, 5474 has a very different profile (Fig. 5) much more like a modern twist drill. Twist drills were invented in the late 19th century, with Stephen Morse first patenting the design in 1863. The diameter of the hole in Manchester 5474 is 3.77 mm, which is close to 1/8th of an inch (3.18 mm) – a very standard and common size for a drill bit. 

Shape

Figure 6 – Manchester 5474 with hypothetical guidelines indicating a possible original rhomboid shape.

The silhouette of the palette appears to fit very closely into a rhomboid shape (Fig. 6). It is also interesting that the cuts which removed the material to produce the neck describe an almost perfect semi-circle (Fig. 6). This would be extremely difficult to produce with the stone tools available to the Predynastic craftspeople, but extremely easy to produce with modern tools – for example a half-round file or cylindrical grinding wheel.

The legs of Manchester 5474 have been formed in a way which is extremely consistent with provenanced turtle-shaped palettes. So, if this palette is a modern modification, then it was undoubtably created by someone with a familiarity for animal-shaped palettes and their intricacies – perhaps why it was judged as authentic by Quibell.

Figure 7 – Morphologies catalogued in the Predynastic Palette Database

Rhomboid shaped palettes are the 3rd most common shape of the palettes catalogued in the PPDB (Fig. 7). The significance of this is twofold; firstly it would provide an excess of palettes available for reworking, and secondly it would mean that they would be deemed less valuable on the art and antiquities market due to their relative simplicity and prevalence.

Object biography of Manchester Museum lizard palette accession number 5474
Figure 8 – Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) specular enhancement of lizard-shaped Predynastic palette, Manchester 5474

The eyes of the palette are unusual when compared with other animal-shaped palettes, where typically the eyes fall into four main categories:

  1. None
  2. Pierced (i.e. drilled through the palette)
  3. Round indentations drilled into the surface
  4. Round indentations with round eggshell or bone inlays

In contrast the eyes of 5474 are almond-shaped and have been gouged, not drilled, out of the surface of the palette (Fig. 8). There has also been an attempt to create an outline to the eye by removing material to leave a raised ring around the eye (Fig. 8). The curved nature of the eyes would have been extremely difficult and time consuming to produce for the Predynastic craftspeople using stone abraders and flint chisels – there is no evidence of any drilling used to form the eyes.

Conclusion

The ‘suspension hole’ does not have the profile of having been made with flint drills, instead it appears to have been made using a commonly sized 1/8th inch modern twist drill. It is possible that the suspension hole was drilled into the palette in modern times and no other changes were made, but this seems highly unlikely.

The shape and the style of 5474 are both suspicious, however this is a very difficult quality to objectively quantify, and this alone cannot disprove the palette’s authenticity. The shape of the eyes is unlike other zoomorphic palettes, but it is still possible that this was the style chosen by a Predynastic craftsperson for this specific palette. We cannot say for certain that the palette was re-carved, but we can say it is incredibly unusual and its outer shape does conform to having once been a rhomboid which has been re-carved. Comparing it to the other shapes of the palettes in the PPDB it is certainly an outlier, and this combined with the modern tool marks all point to this being modified in the late 19th century.

Why would someone do this? As this was purchased from the art and antiquities market, the most likely answer is that the palette was re-carved in order to make it more desirable and more expensive. This was apparently so well executed that it fooled the serving chief inspector of antiquities and future keeper at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

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Object biography # 26: A fragment of a fish-shaped palette (acc. no. 7556)

In a special guest post for our Object Biographies series, palettologist Matt Szafran describes an unassuming fragment from both a typological and an experimental archaeological perspective. 

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Figure 1 – Digital reconstruction of Manchester Museum No. 7556.

In 2018 I was privileged to visit the Manchester Museum’s Egyptology collection, as a part of my on-going study into the manufacture and use of Predynastic palettes. The visit was primarily to collect data on flint tools, but I did also have the opportunity handle a variety of different palettes from the collection.

The palettes I chose to handle were mostly broken pieces, and one very unusual piece which will feature in its own paper once research trips are allowed again and I can undertake an advanced imaging study. Unlike a complete object, a broken one allows you to inspect the inside. I had several palettological research questions which were not possible to answer from looking at an intact palette, but which could be easily answered by studying broken palettes.

It can be very easy to overlook a broken object in favour of intact examples, but sometimes they can be the key to research and can have their own interesting stories every bit as intriguing their complete counterparts – if not more so!

Object number 7556 is one such piece. It was rediscovered in a rubbish deposit at the settlement of Hemamieh in a British School of Archaeology excavation led by Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Guy Brunton between 1922 and 1924. On cursory viewing it is simply a small (92×48 mm) section of greywacke stone (Figure 2), probably from a Predynastic palette. However, to a trained eye there are certain features which give clues to its original form. The biggest of which are the presence of small indentations and the drilled perforation on the top edge of the palette. These are a clear indication that this was originally a fish-shaped palette – or at least they’re clear when you have studied and catalogued almost 1200 palettes, and over 200 of those are fish-shaped!

Figure2

Figure 2 – Predynastic palette fragment Manchester Museum No. 7556.

Whilst some other styles of palette do feature a perforation, a palette fragment of the size and shape of 7556 is unlikely to be anything other than an animal-shaped (zoomorphic) palette and the indentations are likely to be the fin details of a fish-shaped palette. Whilst the true use of the drilled hole is not known with certainty, the most prevailing theory is that it was for suspension – most likely threaded with cord. There is continued scholarly debate about whether this was for storage, for wearing, or even as part of the use of the palette.

Using these remaining features, and the compassion of them to the corpus of intact palettes, it is possible to approximate how 7556 may have originally looked. Many fish-shaped palettes feature symmetrical shapes, which means we can use the surviving perimeter edge of 7556, assuming the suspension hole was central, to extrapolate its original size and shape. This approximation, as seen in Figure 3, indicates that as a complete object 7556 would have been approximately 170×95 mm – which is a comparative size to many of the surviving intact fish-shaped palettes.

Figure3

Figure 3 – Manchester Museum 7556 with geometrical guidelines suggesting its original size and shape.

This guiding geometry can then be filled in digitally using features and textures from intact artefacts, and the results of which can be seen in Figure 4. As with all reconstructions, there is an amount of speculation and the use of ‘most common’ and ‘average’ data to estimate the most likely original condition. This reconstruction is based on fish-shaped palettes with both horizontal and vertical lines of symmetry; however, it should be mentioned that not all fish-shaped palettes are symmetrical. There is speculation that this variation in shape and design is indicative of the representation of different genera of fish, commonly the Tilapia, but also Mormyrus and Tetraodon genera. Additionally, not all fish-shaped palettes contain the same number of and shape of their fins and, equally, some palettes have simple drilled eyes with others having shell or bone inlays. Aside from 7556, there are no surviving (or at least attributed) fragments of the palette’s perimeter and so it is impossible to accurately reproduce the exact position and number of detailed features. Therefore, the details such as fin shape and location, and the type and location of the eye of this reconstruction, are speculative and based on common features seen in the extant corpus of intact fish-shaped palettes.

Figure4

Figure 4 – Digital approximation of the original form of Manchester Museum 7556.

Unfortunately, whilst the reconstruction can give us an idea of how an intact 7556 may have looked, it doesn’t give us any insight into its use. Scholars continue to debate the use of palettes. My personal view is that their use, meaning, and symbolism evolved over the thousands of years of their use; with different tribal groups having differing views to each other, and ultimately there is no simple answer. There seems to be a human compulsion to categorise everything, especially in archaeology and Egyptology, but trying to retrofit classifications and categories to ancient cultures (especially those with no written records) can ignore subtle nuance and lead to reductive descriptions – palettes were certainly much more than a make-up device for beatification or sun defense, as has been claimed in the past. It is clear from pigment traces on extant palettes that many of them definitely played a role in pigment processing and use. However, not all palettes have these traces, and we also see that palettes rediscovered in settlement contexts display different pigment traces to those found in burials. This distinction adds credence to the theory that palettes may have held a different use in daily life than in the funerary ritual.

With 7556 specifically, it is interesting to note that it is a broken fragment which was found within a rubbish deposit of a settlement. This may indicate that it was broken during use, broken accidentally (for example dropped on a hard surface and shattered), but it may also indicate that it was broken during manufacture and the craftsperson discarded the broken pieces. The fragment does not show any trace of attempted reworking, even though its size would be sufficient for recurving into one of the so called ‘amulet’ palettes. This implies that, when broken, the raw material was sufficiently abundant meaning reuse was not necessary. This is an interesting point, as the prevalence of palettes diminishes as the Egyptian state begins to grow and restrict both resources and craftspeople to work them. The lack of reuse of 7556 implies that when it was broken this restriction had not taken place and greywacke was not as rare a commodity as it would ultimately become.

As the fragment itself unfortunately does not show any examples of use wear, either pigment traces or the presence of any tool marks, it is not possible to say whether it was ever used or not. With it being discovered in a settlement’s communal rubbish deposit we do not know if it had an owner or if it was spoil from a craftsperson’s workshop. However by studying what appears to be a small broken stone we have been able to uncover an interesting story, and perhaps future excavation (or museum collection study) will yield new fragments of the original palettes and help, literally, piece together more of the story of the original palette and what it may have been used for.

Further Reading

Baduel, N. (2008). ‘Tegumentary paint and cosmetic palettes in Predynastic Egypt: Impact of those artefacts on the birth of the monarchy’, in B. Midant-Reynes, and Y. Tristant (eds.) Egypt at its origins 2: Proceedings of the international conference “Origin of the State, Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt,” Toulouse (France), 5th – 8th September 2005. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, pp. 1057-1090.

 Brunton, G. and Caton-Thompson, G. (1928). The Badarian Civilisation and Predynastic Remains near Badari. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt.

Ciałowicz, K. (1991). Les Palettes Égyptiennes Aux Motifs Zoomorphes et Sans Décoration. Kraków: Uniw. Jagielloński.

Stevenson, A. (2007). ‘The Material Significance of Predynastic and Early Dynastic Palettes’, in R. Mairs and A. Stevenson (eds.) Current Research in Egyptology 2005. Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Symposium. Oxbow Books Ltd, pp. 148–162. 16

Stevenson, A. 2009. ‘Palettes’, in W. Wendrich (ed.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz001nf6c0 [Accessed 17 Sep. 2019].

Szafran, M. 2020. ‘Object Biography: Manchester Museum 7556’. Birmingham Egyptology Journal 7: 70-86.

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Object biography # 25: A ‘stick shabti’ of Teti-sa-Intef

Although among the rather less prepossessing artefacts in the Manchester collection, this crudely carved wooden figurine holds significant interest. Often called a ‘stick shabti’, the figurine may in fact not really be a shabti – in the conventional Egyptological sense of a ‘servant’ – at all.

6038

Acc. no. 6038. Photo by Glenn Janes.

Often described as ‘mummiform’ in shape, several examples of similar crude wooden figurines have been found in small wooden coffins and/or wrapped in linen. They apparently all date to the late Second Intermediate Period and early New Kingdom. A recent find by an Egyptian-Spanish team at Dra Abu el-Naga consisted of several such figurines wrapped in linen, some within a small wooden coffin. These were uncovered underneath the outer courtyard of the tomb of Djehuty (TT 11, reign of Hatshepsut) and appear to have been left there by a donor some time after the funeral – perhaps on the occasion of the ‘Beautiful Festival of the Valley’, when friends and family of the deceased would visit the tomb chapel.

Indeed, unlike most shabtis, which were buried close to the deceased in the inaccessible parts of the tomb, stick shabtis are mainly recorded as being found buried in the outer, open areas of tomb chapels – often in significant numbers. Texts are usually inked onto the wood but rather than the standard ‘shabti spell’ (Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead) these consist of names, titles and perhaps an offering formula, suggesting a different function to most shabtis.

The fact that these figurines are ‘crude’ to our eyes need not imply they were created or dedicated by less well-off people – several seems to have been commissioned by wealthy and important members of society. The choice of wood may represent a deliberate means of employing reworked detritus from coffin manufacture, imbued with a special power and connection to the deceased. There is also an intriguing suggestion that the use of the figurines in contexts such as the ‘Beautiful Festival of the Valley’ influenced the later perception recorded in Herodotus and Plutarch that a figure of the mummy was sometimes exhibited at Egyptian feasts.

VISTAS AEREAS DE LA EXCAVACION EN DRA ABU EL-NAGA (10º CAMPAÑA 2011)

Aerial view of Dra Abu el-Naga, 2011, by J.  Latona/©Proyecto Djehuty

This example is dedicated to (rather than by) a man called Teti-sa-Intef (meaning ‘Teti son of Intef’, Intef being a name of some significance at Dra Abu el Naga from the Middle Kingdom onwards). Several other figurines are known donated in honour of this individual, known to come from the tomb of the mayor of Thebes Tetiky (TT 15, a monument from which parts of relief had been stolen) from the very beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty and excavated by a team working for Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1908. The Manchester example, although its precise find spot is not recorded, probably derived from the same area.

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The Power of Images: Statues and Society

One of my main research interests is in the ancient Egyptians’ attitude to their own monuments, in particular to statues. Modern Western society tends to dismiss people, past or present, that place significance in the power of the sculpted image. Although we are perfectly happy to acknowledge, for example, the psychological impact of two-dimensional messaging, sculpture is difficult for many modern people to relate to.

Colston

Statue of Edward Colston, Bristol, June 7th 2020

The recent, very public removal of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston – and the intense revaluation of other public statues of contentious figures – highlights that the lives (and significance) of statues extend well past their creation, erection and dedication. Sculptures are endowed with different meanings as time goes on, making them dynamic, active agents in the social landscape – not simply passive observers as some might imagine. We are often used to thinking of statues in the sense of a children’s game: once-moving people suddenly fossilised, stock-still as if in attempt to deflect attention. But statues represent – whether intentionally or not – ideas, and not just people.

One of the most persistent fantasies about ancient Egyptian sculpture is that it presented people as they actually appeared. There are various sinister theories – related to eugenicist comparison of ‘races’ – that underlie this assumption; these require separate discussion. Suffice it to say here that in no way were Pharaonic statues intended to be mimetic likenesses of living people. In an important sense statues were three-dimensional hieroglyphs, showing the essential components of a person in order for the statue to function as a vessel for a god, king, or non-royal person for eternity. Neither were statues simply ‘commemorative’ in the modern Western sense (remember, Edward Colston’s statue was created over 100 years after the subject’s death; a not uncommon situation in more modern times).

Yet statues are special. While they can personify idea(l)s, they take the form of people. And we find the human form – particularly the face – particularly alluring. Egyptologists have been fascinated by the faces of Pharaonic sculptures to the detriment of understanding the functions of statues in context.

The ancient Egyptians did not – as far as we can tell – have public spaces as in Greece and Rome in which statues were displayed. Statues were chiefly restricted to (elite) tomb and temple spaces, the latter only open to properly purified and initiated people. Regular contact with statue forms was a privilege.

Egyptian statues required a ritual known as the ‘opening of the mouth’ to activate them for use by a spiritual entity (I have previously been misquoted on this by the press, *eyeroll*). Yet they were also routinely adapted, reinscribed, reused, deactivated, damaged, destroyed – and then reactivated all over again. They offer an object lesson in the dynamism of sculpture, a set of lessons that many in the West may not have considered given our detached attitude to the sculpted form. Take two examples of Pharaonic sculptures in the form of a sphinx; a hybrid lion-man, with leonine body and the head is almost always of the king (sometimes a royal woman) wearing a royal headress.

Sphinx of Hatshepsut | New Kingdom | The Met

Reconstructed colossal granite sphinx of Hatshepsut MMA 31.3.166 https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544442

The first belongs to the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (c. 1473-1458 BCE). As a sculptural statement of super-human power, the form was favoured by Hatshepsut perhaps because it offered a way to obscure her female sex and make her at once more ‘kingly’ – and divine. Yet at some point attitudes to her changed. This sculpture, like countless others, was dragged out of the queen’s impressive temple at Deir el-Bahari, hacked up into hundreds of pieces and flung into a pit – almost as much work as carving and installing the sculpture itself – only to be discovered by Egyptians working for an American expedition in the early 20th Century. Hatshepsut’s various sculptures were pieced back together, making judicious restorations to elide the extensive damage, and the results are exhibited as great works of sculpture. The destruction of Hatshepsut’s statues was not the result of popular protest against her rule (as some early, misogynist commentators supposed of a powerful female ruler); rather, it was a ritual requirement, to remove her presence from the temple and refocus its ritual energy on another king.

Tanis sphinx

Sphinx from Tanis: my graphic

Compare that with another, maned sphinx originally carved some 400 years before Hatshepsut. This example has a full lion’s mane rather than a royal headcloth, and the striking features of a king of the late Middle Kingdom – most likely Amenemhat III. The sculpture is one of an identical set of such sphinxes found at Tanis, in the Nile Delta, where it was likely moved towards the end of its ritual life in Pharaonic times. This sphinx, however, carries the names of at least three subsequent kings: Ramesses II, his son Merenptah and a later king called Psusennes. None of these later kings meant any ill-will to the original king the sphinx was carved to represent; it was a way if not of honouring that king then of harnessing some of his divine power. This suggests a deep belief in the power of the materiality of the sculpted image – a power restricted largely to the elite, never intended for dissemination to (or debate by) a wider ‘public’.

Today our attitude to sculptured human images is usually rather more detached. Yet not all statues stand passively in public spaces, blending into the urban backdrop – they can still be powerful agents, flashpoints of feeling, living images. With our digital saturation of the human image in two-dimensions, perhaps we have forgotten the power of the three-dimensional.

As the University of Manchester’s Professor of Public History, David Olusoga, has argued the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston does not constitute an attack on history, it is history in action.  The lives of Pharaonic sculptures are reminder that this dynamism has been ongoing for millennia; it is our changing attitudes to statue forms that make ‘history’ – not the statues themselves.


For more thoughts on this, see my chapter on ‘Statuary’ in I. Shaw and E. Bloxam (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Egyptology (OUP, published this Summer); an article in press on “public” access to statues in Pharaonic Egypt in C. Dickenson (ed.) Public Statues Across Time and Cultures (Routledge); and a book in preparation – Perfected Forms. Contextualising Elite Sculpture in Late Period Egypt (Brepols).

I will be delivering a 5-day course on ‘An A-Z of Ancient Egyptian Statues’ for the Bloomsbury Summer School, July 27-31st 2020. Places still available here.

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The gilded mummy of Lady Isaious

During W.M. Flinders Petrie’s third season at Hawara, in 1911, his workers continued to unearth huge numbers of Graeco-Roman Period mummies. Most were undecorated and, according to Petrie, they were ‘heaved over by the dozen ever day’. The few mummies with gilded masks or strikingly life-like painted panel portraits were rarely identified by name. One particularly striking lady was labelled in Greek letters at the top of her gilded cartonnage mask. Initially interpreted as ‘Demetria, wife of Icaious’ this is more likely to be a patronymic: Isaious (or Isarous) daughter of Demetrios (Ἰσαι̣οῦς/Ἰσαρ̣οῦς Δημη[τρίου]).

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Lady Isaious dates to the First Century CE, and exemplifies multicultural expectations for eternity among the elite of the Faiyum area of the Graeco-Roman Period. The upper part of the mummy is covered by an elaborately modelled mask; the resulting impression is of the idealised appearance of a Roman lady of high status. The deceased holds a wreath, wears an elaborate coiffure of lightly waved hair and tight corkscrew curls, and has a full face reminiscent of some Ptolemaic ideals. The rich jewellery comprises necklaces set with semi-precious stones and snake bracelets of the sort that harnessed the serpent’s protective power from more ancient contexts. While an obvious signifier of wealth, the use of gold left alludes to the concept of divine flesh being made of gold – and the act of gilding as being a means of protection. Thus, by being provided with scintillating flesh for eternity, the deceased becomes divine in order to successfully reach the afterlife and become one with the immortal gods who dwell there.

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Elsewhere, the mummy is also provided with a rich armour of traditional Pharaonic iconography. On the back and underside of the cartonnage mask are traditional Egyptian motifs. On the outer, mainly red-pigmented shroud, hangs a broad (‘wesekh’) collar. Under this, the sky goddess Nut kneels on the hieroglyphic symbol for gold and extends her wings flanked by scenes of the gods Anubis and Thoth. Beneath, the jackal-headed Anubis appears again tending the mummy of the deceased on a bier – equipped with canopic jars that no one would have used in the Roman Period. Finally, a rather faded libation scene appears; in this and in the scenes that flank the sides of the body, the deceased lady is shown in entirely traditional Pharaonic mode and, far from being ‘blundered’ (in Petrie’s expression), the hieroglyphs in the captions to the scenes are almost all readable. This shows the range of possible representations and styles that might be used in a single funerary composition.

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On the underside of the cartonnage footcase – and thus eternally trampled – are depictions of bound enemies on the soles of the feet. That these are in fact the enemies of the deceased and not generic ‘prisoners’ is stated explicitly by captions in some examples – ‘your enemies under your sandals’ – an adaptation of a standard phrase that accompanies depicted interactions between gods and the Pharaoh in temples: ‘I (the deity) give to you all foreign lands under your sandals.’ In Graeco-Roman times, the trampled enemies may represent a more general metaphor of triumph over death and the resulting attainment of eternal peace. The fact that elements such as footcases appear on both the sculpted and painted-faced mummies points towards a common underlying expectation for the deceased. The traditional opposition in scholarly and popular terminology between ‘portrait’ (a revealing likeness) and a mask (a means of concealing or altering the identity) obscures this close connection. Neither need represent a mimetic portrait as we would understand it today.

Mary Shaw and H Spencer - Isaious

Mary Shaw and Harry Spencer reconstruct the mask of Isaious

When the mummy was discovered, the face of the gilded cartonnage mask was damaged. At Manchester Museum in the 1930s, Egyptologist Mary Shaw and Technician Harry Spencer undertook the ‘reconstruction’ of the mask of Isaious – perhaps with reference to other masks discovered at Hawara. Such ‘cosmetic’ procedures were very common in museums, although rarely acknowledged – improving on the damaged remnants of ancient objects. The desire to (re)create the face of an individual is best known from facial reconstructions based on skulls, but despite claims to scientific objectivity these faces may say more about the expectations of the modern maker than the ancient person.

Fig. 143 Isaious Hawara

Negative showing the mummy of Isaious shortly after excavation, Hawara, 1911

Lady Isaious is one of eight mummies and more than 100 other objects currently in the United States as part of Manchester Museum’s first international touring exhibition, ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt’. The show is at Buffalo Museum of Science for an extended period, and will later open at North Carolina Museum of Art. A book to accompany the exhibition – Golden Mummies of Egypt: Interpreting Identities from the Graeco-Roman Period (Manchester Museum/Nomad Exhibitions) – will be published later this Summer.

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Object Biography #24: An erased stela of Tutankhamun(?)

This unobtrusive limestone stela (Acc. no. 2938) was found by Egyptian workmen employed by Egyptologist Arthur Mace (1874-1928) at the sacred site of Abydos. Like many other monuments set up there over the centuries, it might be assumed simply to be a tribute to the local god, Osiris, but the iconography and composition of the scene is unusual. Although found broken, and with clear evidence of erasure to the identifying inscription, is one of the most intriguing – but little-known – pieces in Manchester’s collection.

2938-Tutankhamun-stela

Stela 2938. From Abydos. Photo: Julia Thorne @tetisheri

To begin with the lower register; this shows the expected figure of Osiris, seated at the right, with five figures approaching him – four of them uncaptioned and therefore unidentified. These consist of two women and two men, each of apparently elite status and in the pose of adoration – in keeping iconographically with depictions of kinship groups on many late New Kingdom stelae. However, the group is led by a royal male figure identified as ‘Djeserkare’ – the revered king Amenhotep I. This is unusual, as the overall iconography of the piece dates to very late Dynasty 18  – long after Amenhotep I had died. Usually, posthumous depictions of this deified king show him as passive and in receipt of offerings; it is also uncommon to find a king (let alone a deified king) leading – and in some sense in the same sphere as – a group of apparently non-royal people.

Met A I

Detail of the stela of the sculptor Qen, showing the deified Queen Ahmose-Nefertari and King Amenhotep I. MMA 51.93

The upper register is even more intriguing. It shows three royal figures approaching Amun-Re, who is captioned with his name and the epithet ‘Lord of the Sky, Ruler of Thebes’. He is accompanied on this top register by the standing figures of (from left to right) the deified Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, the ‘Lord of the Two Lands’ Nebpehtyre (= Ahmose I), and an active (i.e. living/reigning) king, whose name has been erased. The stela thus shows no fewer than three historical royal figures – reflecting an awareness of history at Abydos that is echoed in another Abydos monument (possibly a statue base) naming several kings also in Manchester. In addition to being regarded as a founder of the New Kingdom, Ahmose I is well-known as a builder at Abydos – while Amenhotep I and his mother Ahmose-Nefetari were venerated at the Theban workers town of Deir el-Medina.

Ahmose_Osiris

Ahmose I(?) embraces Osiris. Detail of a block from his Abydos complex. Manchester Museum 3303

The style of the figures, and the offering Pharaoh in particular, have a distinctly Amarna feel – but given the scene shows the worship of Amun, it can hardly show Akhenaten or his immediate successor(s). Tutankhamun is a strong possibility, perhaps a way of reasserting the dominance of Amun even at Abydos and reconnecting with the orthodoxy symbolised by older rulers. Certainly, Tutankhamun’s name was erased after his death because of his association with the Amarna interlude. His short-lived successor Aye may also be considered for the same reason. Horemheb and Ramesses I are also a less-likely possibility, as it is not clear why their names would have been subsequently removed.

It is perhaps ironic that the pharaoh who commissioned the stela to show his connection with great kings of the past should have been so conspicuously forgotten.

 

The stela will appear with several other objects from Manchester Museum in the exhibition ‘Toutankhamon. À la découverte du pharaon oublié’, in Liége in Belgium between December 2019 and July 2020.

The exhibition ‘Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh’ opens at the Saatchi Gallery, London, on Saturday 2nd November.

 

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Object Biography #23: A False Door of Kha-Inpu (Acc. no. TN R4567/1937)

This pair of finely executed limestone reliefs comes from a larger false door emplacement. They entered the Manchester Museum from the collection of pharmaceutical baron Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), whose vast numbers of objects apparently included material acquired from the collection of Victorian socialite Lady Meux (1847-1910) – including the present object. Pieces from the same tomb chapel are now in the Field Museum of Chicago and the Louvre. When first identified in the Wellcome collection, the limestone was marred by salt encrustations. Fortunately it has now been conserved.

Kha-inpu

The false door of Kha-Inpu

The purpose of the false door was to channel the presence of the deceased (or of a deity in some temples) into a sacred space in order to receive offerings. The eternal needs of the ‘ka’ (the spirit of sustenance) mirrored to some extent the needs of the living to interact with the deceased, and the relationship between the two were hoped to be reciprocal. The false door was thus the focal point of the architecture of the elite Old Kingdom tomb chapel, although the false door motif continues on the sides of Middle Kingdom coffins and even appears on those of the Late Period. Depicting a door remained a key metaphysical conduit between the worlds of the dead or divine and the living.

Asru-Falsedoor-motif

The false door motif on the coffin of Asru, c. 650 BC

In design, stone false doors varied considerably over time but tended to include several key elements: the recessed and bolted door itself, a curved drum above this, usually with the name of the deceased, and a central offering scene showing the deceased (and sometimes their spouse) seated at a table. The image, name and titles of the deceased are often repeated multiple times – perhaps to ensure that were one or other damaged then the spirit of the deceased would ‘survive’ through the others, although this is conjecture and apparently not stated explicitly in the ancient sources.

Here, Kha-Inpu is designated as the ‘overseer of the gold of the storehouse of the double house of the palace’, a role associated with resource management – a typical concern for the redistribution of goods that temples had even in the Old Kingdom. He served the cults centred on pyramids of the deceased Fifth Dynasty kings Neferirkare and Niuserre, located just next to each other at the site of Abusir. The ancient name of the pyramid temple of King Niuserre was Men-sut-Niuserre (‘Enduring are the Places of Niuserre’) and that of King Neferirkare, Ba-Neferirkare (‘Soul of Neferirkare’). A Czech Mission at Abusir recently identified the location of Kha-inpu’s tomb there, although previously it has been thought to have been located at Saqqara. We know about the functioning of the cultic activities in which Kha-inpu is likely to have been involved from the ‘Abusir archive’, a rich and important set of papyrus documents detailing the organisation of temple staff and their regular duties.

Abusir-Giza

The pyramids of (l-r) Neferirkare, Niuserre and Sahure at Abusir, with Giza (the arrangement on which they appear to have been modelled) behind. Photo: Ian Mathieson

The active, temple-based worship of Niuserre may have survived into the Middle Kingdom, with the presence of the tombs of two officials named Herishefhotep indicating that a functioning cult for the king lasted into at least the First Intermediate Period. The Manchester false door is an eloquent – and very finely-executed – testament to that cult.

Although our Ancient World galleries are temporarily closed, I am re-starting the Object Biography series with this post – which will be published in parallel by Ancient Egypt Magazine. 

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The Use of Steatite in Ancient Egypt

A guest blog on the well-attested stone known as steatite from experimental technologist Matt Szafran…

Neb-iww

Statuette of Neb-iu, the ‘spinning statue’. Photo: Paul Cliff.

Steatite, sometimes called ‘soapstone’, is a green/grey/brown coloured metamorphic rock made from talc-schist which will naturally darken as it oxidises. This colouration can cause steatite to sometimes be confused with serpentinite – a different and unrelated metamorphic rock with a hardness of Mohs 3-5, which is also used for statuary (such as the Manchester Museum’s world famous ‘Spinning Statue’ – accession number 9325 (left)). Steatite occurs in the Eastern Desert at sites such as Wadi Abu Qureya and immediately north and south of Wadi Barramiya. In its natural state steatite is a heavy rock and its high talc content makes it very soft – with a hardness of only Mohs 1. Bronze has a hardness of Mohs 3, horn and bone have a hardness of Mohs 2.5 and flint has a hardness of Mohs 7; meaning that steatite can very easily be worked with even the most basic of tools – often yielding very finely detailed results. Whilst it’s used in multiple cultures (up to and including modern times), in an Ancient Egyptian context steatite was used in both Predynastic and Dynastic periods but it does appear to be limited to smaller statues, shabtis, beads, amulets and seals. Whilst large sections of steatite could have been quarried, there are no extant examples of use for larger statuary or other larger carved objects.

In its raw state the softness of steatite make it extremely easily damaged, and simply wearing or using a carved object would damage the carved detail. Steatite has an interesting property, when it is fired it will convert from steatite into enstatite. Unlike steatite, enstatite has a hardness of Mohs 5.5 which is close to that of granite – making it extremely hard wearing and resistant to damage, whilst still retaining its carved detail. Steatite has also been glazed since the Predynastic era for objects such as beads and amulets. Glazing can be achieved in one of two ways; either the object can be buried in a glazing medium during firing (a process called cementation), or it can have a glaze applied to its surface prior to firing. These glazes would be very similar to Egyptian faience and be made from powdered quartz and copper (the latter providing the blue/green colour).

Firing at a temperature of ~950°C will cause steatite to dehydrate and crystallise into enstatite. Clay will begin its vitrification process ~800-900°C and firing will generally require temperatures in excess of 1100°C , therefore the steatite to enstatite conversion can be achieved using similar technology as is required for firing clay objects. A wood fuelled open fire can easily reach temperatures exceeding 1100°C, and can be used for firing ceramics and also for converting steatite to enstatite. However as this requires a large volume of fuel this is unlikely to have been the method used in Ancient Egypt, where wood has been a scarce resource in various periods. A kiln requires less wood to reach firing temperature than an open fire; however it still may not have been the fuel of choice. Ethnographic studies have shown that modern Egyptian and Sudanese cultures are using dung fuelled kilns for the firing of pottery. This is therefore likely to have been something which was undertaken in ancient times. Unlike wood an open dung fuelled fire will only reach a maximum of ~650°C and will not reach the temperature required for the steatite to enstatite conversion. Therefore if dung was used as a fuel it would require a kiln to reach the necessary temperature for conversion.

Perhaps the only factor which prevented the production of larger steatite objects in Ancient Egypt was simply a lack of available technology and materials to fire large objects and convert them into enstatite. An unfired statue would be vulnerable to damage and if left outside would be abraded very quickly by nothing more than the sand blown on the wind.

Certain descriptions of the use of fired steatite for statuary imply that it is a less expensive alternative for individuals who could not afford, or did not have access to, granite or the craftsmen to work it – as once these statues have been fired they would then have an appearance and feel similar to granite. Whilst this is likely the case for certain examples, it would be naive and cynical to assume that this was the only reason to choose steatite over an alternative material.

UC2311

Shabti of Khaemwaset (UC 2311). Photo: Matt Szafran

The Petrie Museum holds an extremely finely carved shabti of Khaemwaset (UC2311). This shabti has intricately carved fabric folds of everyday wear (rather than the more typical wrapped ‘sah-iform’ shape commonly employed for shabtis), a beaded collar, the Sem-Priest side-lock hairstyle and hieroglyphic inscription. Prince Khaemwaset was the fourth son of Ramesses II, was the crown prince briefly between the 50th and 55th year of his father’s reign and High Priest of Ptah. He can therefore certainly be thought of as being an ‘elite’ who had access to the highest quality and ‘elite’ only materials (such as granite or basalt), and who had access to the best craftsmen and the wealth to commission them. Therefore the use of steatite for his shabti was a deliberate choice neither governed by affordability nor the lack of access to materials such as granite.

There is no simple answer as to why steatite is used as a sculpture medium, and any such statement should be treated with caution. It is highly likely that in some cases the use of steatite was indeed because the more ‘elite’ materials were unaffordable or unavailable, however in in other cases the choice to use steatite was very deliberately made because of the material’s ability to be intricately carved and fired to produce an object which could not be created in another medium.

Further Reading

Connor, S, Tavier, H and De Putter, T. ‘Put the Statues in the Oven: Preliminary Results of Research on Steatite Sculpture from the Late Middle Kingdom’. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 101 (2015).

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Object Biography # 22: A sculptor’s trial piece of Akhenaten(?) drinking

img_3617

Fragmentary trial piece of figure drinking from a cup, Manchester Museum

Ancient Egyptian art was governed by a strong sense of decorum – i.e. what was permissible to depict and how it was presented – especially in relation to the Pharaoh. This system changed significantly during the reign of Akhenaten (c. 1352-1336 BC), when new scene-types were introduced. The king, queen and royal family are represented in previously unparalleled moments of intimacy: apparently ‘playing’ with children, holding hands and even kissing. Such acts would be unthinkable for Senwosret III or Tuthmose III, and were perhaps shocking to an ancient audience – although the impact of visual culture, and the composition of the audience, is difficult to model.

Another activity in which the king is usually never shown partaking is eating and drinking. Egyptian kings present offerings to gods; non-royal people sit impassively in front of heaped offering tables. eii-toastDespite the great importance placed on eternal sustenance, the act of eating itself is conspicuous by its absence. Even mouths – of any
human figure – are almost never shown as open.

In a modern Western context, it is often considered undignified for leaders to be seen consuming food. Queen Elizabeth II is often shown toasting a visiting head of state at a banquet – but she is never pictured eating. Elected politicians are more likely to be compromised when photographed eating because they appear vulnerable – and, consequently, foolish.

miliband

British politician Ed Milliband looks undignified when caught eating on camera

img_3612

Detail showing cup or chalice, with spindly fingers

The present object is a reconstructed single limestone plaque (31 x 17cm), rather than a section of relief. It may therefore have been a sculptor’s trial piece but may have also had a (secondary?) votive, devotional function at Amarna, where images of the king (and royal family) were key objects of cult. There is no preserved text to identify the figure, who is shown seated and holding a goblet or chalice to his mouth.

The spindly fingers, voluminous kilt and languid (to modern eyes, at least) pose might indicate suggest a depiction of Akhenaten himself – especially as the face of the figure has been deliberately effaced – a fate meted out to images of the king after his death. A close parallel for the pose of the present image occurs in a scene of the royal family ‘feasting’ from the tomb of Huya at Amarna.

huya-feast

Scene in tomb of Huya at Amarna of royal family ‘feast’, with drinking figures of Queen Tiye (at left) and Akhenaten and Nefertiti (at right)

In fact, these and other scenes do not actually show the royals consuming anything – their mouths are all closed and their faces are impassive – but about to consume the food and drink they hold. The same restraint occurs in a small plaque – perhaps an instructive parallel to the present piece – showing a princess about to eat a cooked duck. What is

princess-duck

Amarna princess about to consume a duck, Cairo Museum

innovative is that food and drink is shown being the king or royal family at all.

One major problem of interpretation, especially with Amarna Period representation, is that we often impose modern parallels on ancient evidence to describe what is going on; like so-called ‘jubilees’ and ‘durbars’, this is not a ‘banquet’ in a modern sense. It targets other concerns that are not likely to be fully understood by a modern audience.

As Margaret Murray wrote in 1949, Akhenaten “appeals by a mixture of religion and sentiment”. In creating the innovative image world of Amarna, artisans had to learn new motifs and scene types. Perhaps this explains the significant number of so-called ‘trial pieces’ and models found at the site of Amarna. The present piece was perhaps one of many experimental stages in refining the royal image – creating innovative poses, such as the king drinking, attested in tombs of officials like Huya.

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