Tag Archives: Bes

Dwarfs in ancient Egypt

The Manchester Museum holds two examples of an unusual category of object, peculiar to the Middle Kingdom (Acc. nos: 279-280). These take the form of two figures of dwarfs, supporting a vessel for either a lamp wick or to burn incense.

Acc. no. 280

Acc. no. 280

Acc. no. 279

Acc. no. 279

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of our pieces is of limestone, the other is of pottery. Further limestone examples from Kahun are in the Petrie Museum in London. A very similar example was recent excavated by Dr. David Jeffreys of the Egypt Exploration Society in a Middle Kingdom settlement at Memphis.

UC 16520

Petrie Museum UC 16520

These find-spots suggest a common domestic context for the lamps, and it is perhaps best to view them as items of household ritual furniture, rather than the equipment of a formal chapel or temple.

The squat proportions of the figures are in contrast to the traditional ancient Egyptian canon of proportion for the human figure, and given the presence of non-Egyptians at Kahun – and presumably at other Middle Kingdom sites too – it cannot be ruled out that the form derives from elsewhere. However, the figure of the dwarf has considerable significance in Egyptian culture, and dwarves are represented throughout the Pharaonic period.

The statue of the dwarf Seneb and his family. Cairo Museum JE 51280.

The statue of the dwarf Seneb and his family. Cairo Museum JE 51280.

Dwarfism appears not to have been uncommon in ancient Egypt and dwarves were clearly accorded high status from the Old Kingdom onwards, and appear in skilled trades such as jewellery making. They could also occupy high positions at court, as was the case with a dwarf named Seneb – an ‘overseer of palace dwarfs’, ‘chief of the royal wardrobe’ and a priest in the funerary cult of King Khufu. An association with the divine may have existed in the Old Kingdom, although it is not articulated explicitly.

Another Middle Kingdom limestone lamp in Leiden – which, according to the dealer who acquired it, came from Asyut  – has a pronounced belly and grasps a snake in each hand. It may therefore represent a female version of lamps, which are assumed to be male in other cases. This piece has been suggested by Maarten Raven as a possible early form of the Pataikos figure, which has strong associations with the protection of family life. More generally, the benevolent aspect of the dwarf is evoked most strongly by Bes, the fearsome god particularly responsible for driving off danger during childbirth. These attestations come mainly from the New Kingdom and later, but fit with the domestic setting in which provenanced Middle Kingdom examples have been found.

Middle Kingdom lamps are thus among the first objects to make explicit the connection between dwarves and protection in a religious context. Our two ‘dwarf lamps’ are best seen in Egyptian positive view of dwarfism. They add to our understanding of Middle Kingdom social practice, evidence for which is so richly represented in the collection at Manchester.

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Curator’s Diary 10/7/12: Pagans, Christians and Muslims – Egypt in the First Millennium AD

The Egyptian god Bes dressed as a Roman soldier (Acc. no. 11244)

The Egyptian god Bes dressed as a Roman soldier (Acc. no. 11244) © Paul Cliff

I have just returned from the Annual Sackler Egyptology Colloquium at the British Museum, this year on the theme of Pagans, Christians and Muslims: Egypt in the First Millennium AD. Out of a total of around 16,000 objects, the Manchester Museum’s Egypt and Sudan collection contains approximately 1500 from this period. Along with most other museums, this material has in the past been over-shadowed by our more well-known Pharaonic material. The colloquium gave an insight into the vibrancy of Egyptian culture at this time – highlighting aspects of both significant change and of continuity. It was particularly informative to hear presentations about the archaeological context of some of our objects (from Late Antique sites such as Oxyrhynchus and Antinoopolis), and types of objects that feature in our collection, such as textiles and glass.

The colloquium also provided a chance to present an overview of our First Millennium AD collection to other curators. Along with colleagues Roberta Mazza and Frances Pritchard, it was an excellent opportunity to highlight the strength and diversity of collections held by the University of Manchester. Our collection of Roman mummy masks and portraits are relatively well-known. The role of collectors in Manchester (‘Cotton-opolis’), and the North West of England generally, in gathering post-pharaonic textiles was rightly emphasised.

Many objects of First Millennium AD date will be used in our new Ancient Worlds galleries to illustrate Roman, Christian and early Islamic life in Egypt and Sudan. In the meantime, our Roman mummy portraits will be part of an exhibition entitled Face and Voices, which opens at the John Rylands Library on 19th July.

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