Tag Archives: ostracon

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.

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Texts in translation #5: An ostracon showing Amun-Re as a ram (Acc. no. 9658)

Acc. no. 9658. © Paul Cliff

Acc. no. 9658. © Paul Cliff

I recently received an enquiry about the short inscription on this pottery sherd – or ostracon. The piece comes from the collection of Mr George Spiegelberg, a merchant in Manchester and brother of the famous German Egyptologist Wilhelm Spiegelberg (1870-1930). The ostracon shows the head of a ram deity with a rearing cobra before it, sketched first in red and then gone over in black.

The vertical caption reads: Beloved of Amun-Re, Lord of the Sky, Great God.
The text above the ram’s head reads: Amun-Re, the Light of Day.

The provenance of the sherd is most likely to be the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069 BC) village of Deir el-Medina, built to house the workers involved in the construction of tombs in and around the Valley of the Kings. Hundreds of similar sketches on limestone flakes or pottery sherds – in some sense the equivalent of modern ‘post-it’ notes – have been discovered there. Deir el-Medina was home to a variety of deities, local forms – differentiated by the addition of various epithets – of the gods worshipped in major state temples. Amun-Re was worshipped on the opposite side of the river to the village, at the great temple of Karnak, and is well attested in other contexts in the form of a ram. Here his epithet is ‘Shu en heru’. Shu was the god of air and sunlight, so a literal rendering of the text is ‘the light of day’.

The ostracon was most probably a draughtsman’s trial piece. Apprentices learnt to sketch in red, before a more experienced draughtsman went over this outline in black, correcting any mistakes. While the flake may have had a functional use as a practice piece, it could have served a votive function – as a record of piety – in and of itself.

Although no one is named as being ‘beloved’ of the god (it seems unlikely to me that the name has broken off), the rest of the text all appears to have been written entirely in black. The hieroglyphs fit around the image, within the edges of the sherd – suggesting the text is by a different, more confident hand than the first red outline. By the addition of this short caption, a draughtsman’s sketch is transformed into an explicit depiction of a god.

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