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Curator’s Diary March 2018: Flowers reunited with mummy of Perenbast

It is something of a love story: a man and woman (perhaps husband and wife) buried together for almost 3000 years. Their small tomb chamber at Dra Abu el Naga, on the west bank of Thebes, was excavated by W.M. Flinders Petrie’s workers in 1908-1909.

Both individuals were provided with a single coffin, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure, and boxed shabtis. In a trend particularly prevalent during the Third Intermediate Period, floral material was left on both mummies. As part of the finds division system, one mummy (belonging to a temple singer named Perenbast) and her associated objects were sent to Manchester and those of her companion (‘Mr Perenbast’) sent to Bristol.

Some 10 years ago, while working on their new Egyptian gallery, Bristol Museum World Cultures curator Sue Giles recognised that their mummy had been provided with several flowers covered in black resin – when there was no resin on the mummy. The mummy of Perenbast in Manchester, however, had been covered in a thick coat of black resin and must have had some of her flowers inadvertently sent to Bristol.

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Sue Giles pointing out the flowers on the mummy of ‘Mr Perenbast’. Photo: Dyan Dodson.

In March 2018, thanks to Sue’s efforts, an official transfer – signed by the Mayor of Bristol – was organised to reunite Perenbast with her flowers. Their identification as lotus flowers may obscure the fact that they are in fact blue waterlilies, about which there has been much debate. Regardless, the intended symbolism is of rebirth and regeneration.

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Pressed blue lillies + illustrations in our Botany collection. Photo: Rachel Webster.

Perenbast and her coffin has been the subject of particular interest of late. They are featured in both a recent documentary about Karnak and an upcoming film on the discovery of KV 64, in which Dr Aidan Dodson of Bristol University and I discuss Perenbast’s station in life. It is intriguing that both the (secondary) owner of KV 64 (Nehemesbastet) and Perenbast share the element ‘Bast(et)’, the feline goddess associated with the Delta, in their names. Perhaps the individuals were related, or at least part of a small group that had the same distinctive black coffin with decoration picked out in yellow or white. Both were beneficiaries of the intense reuse of tombs in the Third Intermediate Period.

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Curator’s Diary 13/6/12: Egyptian Collections and Collectors in Brussels

A painted stela from Gurob in Brussels, showing the adoration of a deified Tuthmosis III. Paralleled by a number of similar examples in Manchester .

I have just returned from a short break in Brussels, a city which is home to one of the most significant Continental collections from Egypt and Sudan – and one I’ve always wanted to visit. Housed in the Royal Museums of Art and History in Cinquantenaire Park, it contains about 11,000 objects – many on view in an impressively large display space. The strength of the collection owes much to the vision of curator Jean Capart (1877-1947), who both facilitated donations and purchases as well as encouraging archaeological fieldwork in Egypt by Belgian missions.

Highlights of the Brussels collection appear on the Global Egyptian Museum website, and give a flavour of the breadth of the holdings. There are plenty of parallels with material in Manchester. Some notable examples included a comparable collection of Predynastic slate palettes, Middle Kingdom wooden tomb models, and Roman plaster mummy masks. Other highlights for me were the extensive and still-brightly painted New Kingdom ‘Book of the Dead’ papyrus of Neferrenpet and a diverse collection of First Millennium BC private sculpture – a particular interest of mine. Needless to say, my “morning” museum outing became four hours spent in the Egyptian section!

By chance, I was in town at the same time as the Brussels Ancient Art Fair (BAAF), centred on a small number of venues in the Sablon area of the city. This provided an opportunity to view objects usually only seen in sale catalogues, on display within a conveniently close area. Tasteful shop-fronts and the clink of champagne glasses invited the attention of potential buyers. Small items predominated: shabtis, votive bronzes, and painted vignettes on cartonnage. Despite some eye-wateringly expensive prices, interest appeared to be keen.

To mark the 10th anniversary of BAAF, a special exhibition called ‘Ancient Egypt. Masterpieces from Collectors and Collections’ had been arranged. This showcased 120 small objects that are rarely seen because they are in private hands, supplemented by some museum objects held in Basel and Hannover.

Because there was no labelling of individual objects in the exhibition, the curious visitor was obliged to buy the sumptuous catalogue. This served as an important record, not just of the exhibition – but of the objects themselves. Most pieces had never been published, and as many of the objects were very small – literally gem-like – in size, they required specialist photography to appreciate properly.

A greater proportion of material than is often realised is held in private collections. Some collectors are very keen to share information on the objects they own, and some loan pieces to museums. However, many objects held in private hands are essentially invisible, because they their whereabouts is unknown to all but a very small group of Egyptologists.

Manchester Acc. no. 7053

One small vessel in particular struck me. It was made from slate and alabaster in the shape of a lotus flower. The exhibition catalogue stated that only one comparable piece is known, in Cairo, and dates it to the First Dynasty. In fact, we have an exact parallel in Manchester (Acc. no. 7053), excavated from Qau el-Kabir and most likely to date between the late Second to early Third Dynasty. I know of at least one other example at the Ashmolean in Oxford. Exhibitions like that at BAAF are important not only so the objects can be seen and appreciated by a wider audience. By comparison with objects with a known provenance, much more can be said about pieces in private hands – which, by their nature, often lack a sound archaeological context. More exhibitions and catalogues like that in Brussels will hopefully give greater insights into aspects of Egyptian material culture – held both in public and private collections.

Did anyone else catch the Brussels exhibition? I’d be keen to hear your thoughts!

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