Tag Archives: Egyptology

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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Book Review – ‘Nefertiti’s Face: The Creation of an Icon’ by Joyce Tyldesley

Joyce Tyldesley’s new book concerns Ancient Egypt’s most well-known poster-girl: Nefertiti, or – more accurately – a painted limestone and plaster bust of her now in the Neues Museum in Berlin. Tyldesley has already written an excellent biography of the lady herself, and uses this opportunity to discuss her most famous representation – and how it skews our entire impression of who she was. The book follows the successful format of the biography of a single object adopted by Laurence Berman, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in his accessible study of the Late Period ‘Boston Green Head’. As a fellow curator, the idea of spending a whole book on a sole museum object is particularly appealing to me.

nefertiti-s-face-the-creation-of-an-icon.jpg

Now, I must confess personal bias here – Joyce is a friend and University of Manchester colleague, and we have discussed the content of the book extensively. Yet the finished product is one of the most important popular and accessible books now available in Egyptology. It chimes in with a welcome mood of reassessment of the history of Egyptology explored very provocatively – though sometimes in rather acerbic terms – in more academic works; the real value here is that, thanks to the popularity of her previous books and online courses at the University of Manchester, the general public are actually likely to read Joyce Tyldesley’s work.

Joyce_Nefertiti

Joyce and the Manchester Museum replica of the bust.

The book is divided into two parts: the ancient context of the bust and the importance of image production in ancient Egypt (a personal research interest of my own); and the modern reception of the object. The ancient archaeological setting is an especially fascinating one: a sculptor’s workshop at the centre of the production of a vast and still-experimental series of royal images. Nefertiti’s bust is rarely considered in the context of contemporary sculptural practice, which is surprisingly well-attested at Amarna. Tyldesley packs a lot in: notably, the vexed question of how the bust actually left Egypt, a convincing rebuttal of theories that it’s a fake, and the intriguing history of official replicas of the bust. From Adolf Hitler’s fascination with her beauty to the unlikely appropriation of its imagery for Sci-Fi movies, the bust of Nefertiti has had a powerful effect on Twentieth and Twenty-First Century popular culture.

A description, attributed to Hitler, expresses a populist tone that has a sinister and familar ring to it today:

“Oh, these Egyptologists and these professors! I don’t attach any value to their appraisals. I know this famous bust. I have viewed it and admired it many times….”

Who needs an expert to know anything? This reminds us that an object can mean many things to different people, whether or not we like those people is a different matter.

Most importantly, Tyldesley eloquently argues against an exception status for the queen herself. The one-in-a-million chance that such a (seemingly) exceptional piece should be so exceptionally well-preserved has vastly inflated our expectations of her role. As Tyldesley points out, the best comparison is with Nefertiti’s mother-in-law, Queen Tiye (who was actually more ‘famous’ before the seductive bust was found).

Ancient culture in general, and the Nefertiti bust in particular, is so over-loaded with modern meanings and significations that it is a wonder the queen’s slender, elegant neck hasn’t snapped under the strain.

 

‘Nefertiti’s Face: The Creation of an Icon’ is launched at Manchester Museum on Thursday 25th January, and will be on sale in our shop thereafter.

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Collections Bites talk 01/05/13: ‘The Statue of the Admiral Hor’

Acc. no 3570 © Paul Cliff

Acc. no 3570 © Paul Cliff

Wednesday 1 May, 1.15-2pm.

Collections Study Centre, Manchester Museum

Join our series of guest speakers for lunchtime conversations discussing key objects from the collection. This month’s conversation will be:

The Kneeling Statue of the Admiral Hor: Ships and Sculpture in Sixth Century BC Egypt.

Often overlooked because of its damaged state, the kneeling statue of Hor [Acc. no. 3750] represents an important military man of the Egyptian Twenty-Sixth Dynasty (c. 595-589 BC). Hor was Admiral of Egypt’s royal Mediterranean fleet at a time of increasingly strained international relations. Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and the Sudan at the Museum, will discuss Hor’s role and the meanings of his temple statue.

FREE. Book on 0161 275 2648 or museum@manchester.ac.uk

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100 years of Egypt on display at Manchester: Ancient Worlds are open!

On 30th October 1912 a group of dignitaries assembled for the opening of a new building in the Manchester Museum, designed to house the important Egyptology collections. Exactly one hundred years later, we have now opened our new ‘Ancient Worlds’ galleries – and they are already proving very popular.

The new galleries consist of three main parts. The first gallery (previously the rather claustrophobic ‘Egyptian Daily Life’) introduces archaeological methods and explains how we know about the past, through a number of guides related to the field. This section, for example, explains Manchester’s unique contribution to facial reconstruction of ancient peoples, and Flinders Petrie’s ‘sequence dating’ based on pottery typology. Further digital content – including text, images, audio commentary, and 360 degree photography – can be downloaded using codes that appear on object labels. A visitor services assistant can unlock this information for those without a smart phone. This information can also be viewed online, at www.ancientworlds.co.uk.

The second space – formerly the Egyptian Afterlife gallery – is now Egyptian Worlds. Objects are arranged chronologically, with a timeline running around the top of the wall cases – making clear to visitors when, relative to main ‘periods’ of Egyptian history, material is situated. This timeline is illustrated with pots, to show changes in ceramic styles over time. Within this chronological framework individual themes are developed, such as the importance of writing in the Old Kingdom and Manchester’s unique evidence for magical practice in the Middle Kingdom. A smaller adjoining space now houses our rich collection of painted mummy portraits from Roman Egypt, including two of the rare examples of mummies with portraits still in place.

Finally, in our third gallery ‘Exploring Objects’ – what previously housed Mediterranean Archaeology – we present dense displays of several categories of artefacts found in abundance in museum collections, such as Roman glass, pottery lamps, or Egyptian stone vessels. One section that has already proved popular is our case packed with shabti figures, arranged roughly in chronological order to show changes in colour with time. The reason behind creating these densely-filled cases was simple: museum visitors expressed an interest in seeing more material on display. More objects than ever before are now on view in all three galleries, many for the first time in over 50 years. With around a thousand whole and fragmentary shabtis in storage, we wanted to show many more than the dozen or so examples that had been on display in the old galleries. The result is an aesthetically striking display – as evidenced by the popularity of this case with photographers!

In the year since I arrived at the Museum, ‘Ancient Worlds’ has dominated almost every aspect of life. It has been a wonderful opportunity to bring objects from one of Britain’s (and, indeed, Europe’s) great collections from Egypt and Sudan to a new audience. Yet, it has also been very satisfying to hear people express surprise as seeing an object from the old galleries in a new context – in this way many familiar pieces are getting a second look.

This photo from the 1912 opening shows the gallery’s major benefactor Jesse Haworth (standing in the picture), archaeologist William Flinders Petrie (seated third from right), the museum’s first curator William Boyd Dawkins (first on right), and anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith.

A project of this size obviously runs into its fair share of challenges. Yet even when things didn’t go quite according to plan, solutions were found – and the results, we hope, speak for themselves. It was a particular pleasure to work so closely with a team of such tireless, talented, and enthusiastic people at the Museum. We all hope that our new galleries bring Ancient Worlds to life in new and exciting ways for our visitors.

You can see all of Paul Cliff’s photos from the opening at the Museum’s Flickr page.

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Curator’s Diary 30/09/12: CIPEG meeting in Brussels

This week I attended my first meeting of CIPEG (The International Committee on Egyptology, part of ICOM – The International Council of Museums), an annual event now in its 29thyear. The conference was held in the impressive surroundings of the Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels, and provided an excellent opportunity to meet and discuss matters of common interest with other curators working with Egyptology collections. I presented a paper on the new Manchester Museum galleries, discussing in particular how we highlight both current and past research on the collection, and an update on the ACCES network.

Participants at the CIPEG conference in Brussels. Thanks to Paula Veiga for the photo.

Papers covered a range of topics, from acquisitions histories to museum-led fieldwork projects. In addition to updates on current and planned redevelopments and exhibitions, it was interesting (and somewhat reassuring) to hear of the challenges being faced across Europe. Unfortunately, a common theme was the pressure felt by cuts in government funding. The case of local authorities responsible for museum collections selling objects was raised, and the dangerous precedent this could set. Despite the generally gloomy picture, it was good to hear of the creativity and inventiveness of some museums in these financially-straitened times. The Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest was one such example, using competitions for schools to design museum exhibitions on an Egyptian theme. This not only interested young people, it equipped them with a broad range of learning outcomes and skills applicable to a variety of jobs. New uses of digital technology, which we will make extensive use of in the Ancient Worlds galleries, are being considered in a number of other museums. Each institution has its own unique circumstances, so it will be interesting to compare digital developments and how they have been adapted to individual museums in the future.

CIPEG will meet again at the next International Congress of Egyptologists, in Alexandria in September 2013.

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Event: Travellers from an Antique Land: Early Travellers and Visitors to Ancient Egypt 15/09/12

Society for the Study of Ancient Egypt 2012 Day School will take place on:

Saturday 15 September
at the Library Lecture Theatre, New Beetwell Street, Chesterfield
9.30 am to 5.00 pm


“TRAVELLERS FROM AN ANTIQUE LAND: EARLY TRAVELLERS AND VISITORS TO ANCIENT EGYPT”

Featuring Guest Lecturers:

• Dr Robert Morkot: ‘1798 – A Beginning and an End: Napoleon, travellers and the birth of Egyptology’.

• Dr Campbell Price: ‘Early Travellers and their Perception of Pharaonic Art’.

• Dr Joyce Filer: ‘The Black Pall of Oblivion: Harriet Martineau’s Egyptian experience’.

• Dr Paul Nicholson: ‘Early photography in 3D’.

Tickets Prices: £25.00 SSAE Members, £30.00 Non-Members and £7.00 Buffet Lunch

More info at the society website

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Event: Ancient World Tours conference, 18th-19th August 2012

Ancient World Tours (AWT) will hold its annual conference on Saturday and Sunday 18-19th of August 2012, at University College London. More information is available on the AWT website.

 
Speakers include:

Mansour Boraik, Director General of Upper Egypt Antiquities.

Since Dr. Mansour last visited us in London at our 2010 conference, Egypt has changed dramatically in the aftermath of revolution. We are delighted that he now returns to give us the latest news on the effect of the revolution on his work in saving the monuments including finance, damage, restoration and excavation.

Aidan Dodson

The Land of Kush.

Aidan takes us on an exploration of Upper Nubia, now part of modern Sudan, the home of the ancient Kushite civilisation, and host to more pyramids than Egypt. These include tombs of the kings of the Egyptian 25th Dynasty, when millennia of Egyptian occupation were reversed by a century of Kushite dominion.

Stephen Buckley

New Research into New Kingdom Mummification: from King’s Valley to King’s College.

Stephen presents results of his project on 18th Dynasty mummification, undertaken with Jo Fletcher and televised in 2011. With the mummified body they created, now housed in the teaching museum of King’s College London, Stephen will discuss their findings and their implications for our understanding of mummification.

Philippa Walton

Zeugma: The archaeology of a Hellenistic and Roman town on the Euphrates.

Founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals in around 300 BC, Zeugma developed into a flourishing Roman town. Philippa will look at what was found during excavations when a team of archaeologists worked the site as it was flooded during the construction of a hydro-electric dam in 2000. We have an update on what’s happening at Zeugma now.

Campbell Price

Redisplaying Ancient Worlds at Manchester Museum.

On October 30th 2012, The Manchester Museum – Britain’s 5th largest Egyptology collection – will open its refurbished Ancient Worlds Galleries, 100 years to the day after Flinders Petrie inaugurated the first Egypt galleries there. Curator Campbell Price will discuss planning and preparation for the redisplay, the reasons behind object selection and new methods of interpretation.

 

Sunday will be dedicated to:

 

Bill Manley

Travellers’ Hieroglyphs.

Bill Manley, hieroglyphs expert and popular author, will show us how to read some common inscriptions from tombs and royal monuments of Ancient Egypt. An accessible, no-nonsense guide to making sense of hieroglyphs, which assumes no previous knowledge.

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New webpage: Egyptology online @ Manchester

Egyptian bronze mirror

New Kingdom bronze mirror (Acc. no 10963) – one of many objects that will contribute to teaching on the online programme. © Paul Cliff

New Egyptology online @ Manchester website launched today

 

I’m looking forward to contributing to this new webpage and to the content of Manchester’s successful online Egyptology programmes, run by friends and colleagues Dr. Joyce Tyldesley and Dr. Glenn Godenho. We already have plans to record lectures, conduct virtual tours of our stores and spotlight objects. The website will be a hub for all things Egyptology at Manchester.

 

Watch this space!

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Texts in translation #4: an Akh-iqr-n-Ra stela of Ptah-hesy (Acc. no. 1554)

Acc. no. 1554  © Paul Cliff

Acc. no. 1554 © Paul Cliff

This is a fine example of a rare type of stela, made to honour the ‘effective spirits of Re’ (Akhw iqr n Ra). Only around 60 are known, and these date exclusively to the later New Kingdom (c. 1295-1069 BC). This limestone example is 29cms in height and was found by W.M.F. Petrie in the first court of the mortuary temple of Merenptah (c. 1213-1203 BC) on the Theban west bank.

The text above the main figure (and recipient of the offerings) reads:

‘The effective spirit of Re, Ptah-hesy, justified’

Ptah-hesy (‘favoured-of-Ptah’) is shown in the classic pose of the ‘effective spirits’: seated and holding a lotus blossom to his face in one hand. In the other, Ptah-hesy holds an ankh – the sign of ‘life.’ This is extremely unusual in scenes depicting ordinary mortals, usually only being the privilege of deities and kings. These attributes indicate the supra-human state of the ‘effective spirits of Re’. They were believed to be the blessed dead, close ancestors who had made a successful transition to the afterlife and were able to journey with the sun god Re in his barque across the sky.

.”]”]Line drawing of Acc. no. 1554, after R. Demaree 1983, p. vi [A20]

Line drawing of Acc. no. 1554, after R. Demaree 1983, p. vi (A20)

The solar barque depicted in the upper register of this stela illustrates this concept. Those privileged enough to be on board this divine cruise ship across the heavens were thought particularly well-placed to intercede in the lives of the living and act beneficially for them. Prayers in the form of letters are known, which address the Akhwdirectly. Stelae such as this would have been dedicated to win the favour of the ‘effective spirits’, and were often set up by relatives.

The text above the figure of the donor of the stela identifies him:

‘Made by the guardian of the temple of millions of years, Pen-renut, justified, of Thebes.

We are not certain of the relationship of the two men. The ‘mansion of millions of years’ in which Pen-renut worked is not specified, but must be a mortuary temple on the Theban west bank where the cult of deceased kings would – it was hoped – be celebrated for ‘millions of years’. Here the term is probably intended to imply the mortuary temple of Merenptah, where the stela was found.

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