Tag Archives: mummy’s curse

Object Biography # 19: The Book of the Dead of Padiusir

For the first time in its history, Manchester Museum is currently displaying (sections of) a copy of the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’.  Despite the negativity implicit in its modern title, the ‘Book of the Dead’ is, in fact, an extremely optimistic document. Hollywood has a lot to answer for in, Sam Raimi’s ‘Evil Dead’ series and ‘The Mummy’ franchise having conjured up an image of a forbidden text that must not be read aloud for fear of waking demonic forces.

BoD -The Mummy

The ‘Book of the Dead’ in The Mummy (1999)

In fact the ancient Egyptian name for the collection of texts can be translated as ‘Spells for Coming Forth by Day’. These spells – and accompanying images – act as both a guidebook and a passport to the afterlife, assuring a successful transition to the blissful ‘Field of Reeds’ after death. The key part of that transition is the judgement before Osiris, god of rebirth, and the most well-known vignette in the Book of the Dead is the scene of this judgement. The deceased is shown before a set of scales on which his or her heart is weighed against the feather of Truth. Usually, the feather is shown as heavier than the heart and thereby a positive outcome for the trial is magically assured.

Hieratic 3.6

Papyrus Rylands Hieratic 3 – with judgement vignette

Other texts – or ‘chapters’ – in the Book of the Dead are designed to protect the deceased against misfortune on the journey to, and existence in, the afterlife. Copies of the Book can run to many metres in length and would have been rolled up into scrolls, deposited in the tomb, within the

Warrington-Osiris.jpg

Hollow statuette for papyri – Warrington Museum

coffin or directly wrapped with the mummy. Hollow statuettes, known as Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures, were common in elite burials of the 19th-22nd Dynasty as receptacles for Book of the Dead papyri.

The Book of the Dead currently on loan to Manchester Museum from the John Rylands Library is early Ptolemaic (c. 300 BC) in date. In common with many such papyri, the long roll has been cut up into sections for sale, which are now located in museums around the world. This copy was made for a man named Padiusir, and shows the deceased a number of times in standard vignettes. There are clear examples in some cases of a prefabricated papyrus, with the name of the deceased added secondarily.

Sections from late copies of the Book of the Dead, similar to Padiusir’s, have in the past been interpreted as key texts within The Church of Latter-Day Saints, and are the subject of extensive debate. Egyptologists tend to agree that this most common of ancient Egyptian religious compositions was for the benefit of the deceased, and is in no way likely to bring about a curse for the living.

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The mystery of the spinning statuette

9325 statue

Acc. no. 9325. Photo by Paul Cliff

Most Egyptologists are not superstitious people. When I first noticed that one of our Middle Kingdom statuettes (Acc. no. 9325) had been turned around 180 degrees to face the back of its case in our new Ancient Worlds galleries, I wondered who had changed the object’s position this without telling me. The Egyptians themselves would have appreciated the concern to make visible for passers-by the text on its back pillar – a prayer for offerings for the deceased. Yet the next time I looked into the case, the statue was facing in another direction – and a day later had yet another orientation. None of the other objects in the display had moved. The case was locked. And I have the only key.

 The statuette had always intrigued me. It entered the Manchester collection in 1933, as part of a donation of five objects from Miss Annie Barlow of Bolton – three of which at one time were considered to be modern forgeries.

Feb 2013 005The inscription on the back pillar reads: “An offering which the king gives to Osiris, Lord of Life, that he may give a voice offering, consisting of bread, beer, oxen and fowl for the Ka-spirit of’. As is known for other statues of this date and type, the man’s name – Nebsenu(?) – is inscribed on the front of the statue’s base. He bears what Alan Gardiner called as “obscure” title: Hry (n) tm. The distribution of the inscriptions suggests that the statuette was prefabricated with the standard offering formula on the back pillar and that the man’s name was added later to the base.

Feb 2013 007Logical attempts to explain the statues movement centre on the subtle vibrations caused by outside traffic, causing imperceptible movement. Lill, a colleague on the visitor services staff, suggested that perhaps the man wanted us to say the prayer for him – yet when this text is visible his name is impossible to read. What is very strange is that the statue has spun in a perfect circle – it hasn’t wobbled off in any particular direction. The intriguing suggestion that the statuette was carved of steatite and then fired may imply that it it now vulnerable to magnetic forces. But is so, why did it not move on its glass shelf in pretty much the same position in the old Egyptian Afterlife gallery?Feb 2013 008

I lied – others do have a key to the case, and it is just possible that someone is playing a trick. But I doubt it.

The simplest solution seems to be to apply a tiny amount of museum wax to the base to stop the movement. But what if the statue continued to keep moving? What would our explanation be then..?

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Object biography #4: The Riqqeh Pectoral (Acc. no 5966)

Riqqeh pectoral. Acc. no 5966. Front. © Paul Cliff

Acc. no 5966. Front. © Paul Cliff

This small (4.2cm wide) object has perhaps the most dramatic biography of any in the Manchester Egypt collection, and one which would not seem out of place in a Hollywood movie script. Known today as the Riqqeh Pectoral after the site at which it was discovered, this ornate chest ornament, with two loops for suspension indicating that it was worn on a necklace, is an undoubted highlight of the Manchester Museum. The piece was created using a technique termed cloisonné, in which separate gold sections are filled with semi-precious stones. Lapis lazuli (dark blue), carnelian (red) and turquoise (blue/green) give the pectoral its colourful appearance and gem-like lustre. The reverse is chased in gold with details of the figures: two wedjat eyes (or ‘eyes of Horus’) flank a sun disk above two falcons (sometimes described as ‘crows’) on symbols for ‘gold’. The composition is arranged symmetrically around a stylised papyrus umbel suggesting a sekhem sceptre – a symbol of power. Two inward turned papyrus stalks frame the group.

Riqqeh pectoral. Acc. no 5966. Reverse. © Paul Cliff

Acc. no 5966. Reverse. © Paul Cliff

The pectoral was found in association with two other items, each in the form of a king’s name: Senuseret II (Khakheperre) and Senuseret III (Khakaure). It can therefore be reliably dated to the second half of the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1900-1840 BC). It is a fine example of delicate jewellery on a small scale, typical of the best Middle Kingdom royal pieces.

But it was the archaeological context of the pectoral that is most remarkable. Between 1911-12 English Egyptologist Reginald Engelbach was excavating in a cemetery at el-Riqqeh, near the entrance to the Faiyum lake region. At the bottom of a deep tomb shaft (no. 124), Engelbach discovered an apparently-intact chamber, the roof of which had collapsed in antiquity. At the centre of the chamber was a coffin containing a mummy – but with the arm-bones of another body lying on top of it. The remaining bones of this second individual lay nearby. According to the excavator, “it appeared as if it had been suddenly crushed while in a standing, or at least crouching position when the fall occurred.”

Group of jewellery with which the Riqqeh pectoral was found.

Group of jewellery with which the Riqqeh pectoral was found (R. Engelbach, Riqqeh & Memphis VI, 1915, pl.I)

Within the mummy wrappings several items of jewellery, including the pectoral, had apparently been partially dislodged. All the evidence suggests that a robber must have been crushed in the act of rifling for valuables when the roof collapsed. Tomb robbery was a well-known fact of life in ancient as well as post-Pharaonic Egypt. Many objects are likely to have been stolen not long after they were interred. Yet it is exceptional to have the circumstances of a robbery preserved in such a fashion: a gruesome snapshot of the “mummy’s curse” in action.

The pectoral is one of the most often-illustrated items in the Manchester collection, and the most popular – judging by considerable postcard sales for this image. Few people, however, know the story behind its discovery. To put the pectoral into its proper – albeit unusual – archaeological context, the group of jewellery from Riqqeh tomb 124 will feature in Gallery 1 of our Ancient Worlds redisplay, as part of a narrative told from the point of view of a tomb robber – one of several guides to the exploration of archaeological finds.

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