Tag Archives: mummy mask

Object Biography #17: An Anonymous Gilded Mummy Mask (Acc. no. 7931)

The mask on display

The mask on display

This striking gilded cartonnage mummy mask (Acc. no. 7931) came into the Manchester Museum from the collection of William Sharpe Ogden in 1925, and reputedly derives from the Luxor area. At some point after its arrival in the Museum the mask was subject to modern reconstruction for display. The mask’s unusual appearance resulted in it being given a ‘Late Period’ or ‘Ptolemaic’ in some records.

In fact, based on the work of Aidan Dodson, the mask is likely to be one of a small number of examples from the early New Kingdom (c. 1550 BC). The feathered (or rishi) pattern is a distinctive feature of many of these, which exhibit proportionately rather small faces. A comparison may be drawn with a well-known gilded mummy mask in the British Museum (EA 29770), identified by John Taylor as belonging to Queen Sit-djehuty of the 17th Dynasty. Based on this comparison, it may be suggested that our mask belonged to a very high-status women, perhaps even a member of the royal family.

8106A common feature of such early New Kingdom masks is a projecting ‘tab’ or ‘bib’ at the bottom of the broad collar. By chance, a fragment is preserved in Manchester (Acc. no. 8106) that is a strong contender for our missing ‘tab’.  This fragment was also part of the Sharpe Ogden collection and, although the fragment bore a different sale number than the mask, a join is likely because of the pattern 7931_conservationof the edge of both mask and fragment. The mask was in poor condition when it arrived at the museum and it is conceivable that the ‘tab’ snapped off long before it arrived, being given a separate number for sale because it carried a visually appealing set of inked hieroglyphs. These spell out a standard offering formula for the ka of the deceased. Unfortunately, like several other examples of this type, it does not carry a name, almost as if it was a prefabricated piece awaiting magical personalisation (and activation) through the addition of a name. The high quality of the masks with anonymous tabs would seem to argue against an ‘off-the-peg’ arrangement – perhaps  the filling in of the name was a ritualised part of the funerary preparations and was never (properly) completed, or done in less durable pigments than those that have survived?

6 Comments

Filed under Object biography

Masks and masking in ancient Egypt

123

Acc. no. 123

The Manchester Museum holds two very important objects that provide evidence for the use of masks in ancient Egypt. The first is one of the very few surviving masks that appears to have been worn by the living, rather than placed on a mummy. The Manchester example (Acc. no. 123) is made of layers of linen and plaster, and has been painted black – with signs of paint being applied over broken patches of plaster, implying ancient repair. There are holes for the eyes and nostrils, indicating practical considerations for the wearer. A green triangle has been painted between the brows, and the eyes, cheeks and lips have been picked out with red paint. Despite the common assertion that the Manchester mask represents the dwarf-god Bes, this does not seem obvious from inspection of the mask itself.

The mask was found by archaeologist W.M. Flinders Petrie during his 1888-9 excavations at the pyramid-builders’ town of Kahun. It was discovered in a room of one of the houses there. In the next room, in a hole in the floor, was found a group of objects including a pair of ivory clappers and a wooden figurine of a woman with a lionine face(mask). Although the latter was stolen from the excavation, it is comparable with another example from the Ramesseum tomb group – also in Manchester. These objects have been interpreted as the tools of a ritual performer, whose use was connected with music and magic. The exact context of such use is uncertain.

Ostracon 5886 second version

Acc. no. 5886

The other object is a flake of limestone (known as an ostracon), from western Thebes, probably of New Kingdom date and donated by Sir Alan Gardiner. It bears a unique ink sketch: a scene of a funeral. The sketch shows a tomb shaft – of the type known from Deir el-Medina – with a group of female mourners gathered around it. Within the shaft a man is seen descending, and within the chambers of the tomb itself the burial party carry a coffin into place. A striking detail is that one of the party has a jackal head. Given the informal medium, the sketch is likely to show the burial as it happened, albeit in schematic fashion. The implication is that one of the party is wearing a jackal-headed mask. A famous example in Hildesheim may represent such a mask, used for the impersonation of Anubis, the god of mummification.

Ancient Egyptian ritual centred on the knowledge and action of a ritual practitioner, not on abstract “beliefs”. Masking enabled ritualists to act as gods, bringing divine knowledge and power to confront a given problem or participate in ceremonial acts. Religious texts contain many assertions that the speaker is a specific deity. Such a declaration of authority enabled mortals – both men and women – to impersonate gods, and make their ritual actions more effective. The resulting positive psychological effects are well-attested.

Masks enabled ancient Egyptians to become divine, both during life and after death. Manchester is fortunate to have these two outstanding objects, which shed light on an otherwise sparsely-documented practice.

3 Comments

Filed under Object biography

The function of a mummy mask

Acc. no. 7931. Early New Kingdom.

A mummy mask provided protection – both physical and magical – to the head of the mummy. Masks were introduced in the First Intermediate Period (c. 2181-2955 BC) and were used until Roman times (30BC-395AD). They show the deceased in an idealised form, like a god who has triumphed over death. The use of gilding on masks of the wealthy symbolises the golden skin of the gods.

Spell 151 from the Book of the Dead – the ‘Spell for the Head-of-Mystery’ – makes the function of the mask explicit:

Anubis speaks, the embalmer, lord of the divine hall, when he has placed his hands on the coffin of [the deceased] and equipped him with what [he] needs: ‘Hail, O beautiful of face, lord of vision, whom Ptah-Sokar has gathered together and whom Anubis has upraised, to whom Shu gave support, O beautiful of face among the gods!

Your right eye is the night boat, your left eye is the day boat, your eyebrows are the Ennead. The crown of your head is Anubis, the back of your head is Horus, your fingers are Thoth, your lock of hair is Ptah-Sokar. You [the mask] are in front of [the deceased], he sees by means of you. [You] lead him on the goodly ways, you repel Seth’s band for him and cast his enemies under his feet for him in front of the Ennead of the great House of the Noble in Heliopolis. You take the goodly way to the presence of Horus, the lord of the nobles.’

Acc. no. 2178a. Ptolemaic.

This text appears on the famous golden mask of Tutankhamun, inscribing an object with its function in order to ensure that it would ‘work’ for the dead king. The spell makes clear that the mask was to protect the deceased (magically) from their enemies. As is common in such spells, the text is a command from a god to an inanimate object – divine authority used to spark to life a lifeless substance.

The spell emphasises the power of the mask to restore to the deceased the ability to see. An important part of the funeral ritual was a rite known as the ‘Opening of the Mouth’, which restored the power of speech, as well as the other senses to the mummy (set up outside the tomb, probably wearing the mummy mask). The senses were required for a successful rebirth into in the afterlife as a fully-functioning person, as in life.

In a label written to accompany a mummy mask displayed in our exhibition ‘Unearthed’, a schoolgirl wrote that she thought the mask in the case looked like it was “about to start speaking.” Although this is not the sort of label museum curators write, the girl highlights the essential function of one of the most important items of Pharaonic funerary equipment. Far from being made to simply look pretty, masks were made to give their owners the power of sight – and speech.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized