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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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New light under old wrappings (II): The temple singer Perenbast

Perenbast about to be CT-scanned at the Manchester Children's Hospital

Perenbast about to be CT-scanned at the Manchester Children’s Hospital

The British Museum opens its latest exhibition, Ancient Lives, New Discoveries, this week. Here in Manchester, which the exhibition acknowledges is the home of mummy studies, we have been carrying out similar research on our 20 human mummies, and many of the discoveries we have made tie in with those presented in the BM exhibition.

Between 1908 and 1909, while clearing the courtyards of some New Kingdom tombs on the Luxor west bank at Qurna, W. M. Flinders Petrie discovered an unopened tomb of “about the 25th Dynasty.” This camped space turned out to contain the burials of a man and a woman, presumably husband and wife, which can now be dated to the 22nd Dynasty based on their funerary provisions and the iconography of their coffins. In addition to the coffins, the burial contained a Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure and two shabti boxes for each occupant. Most of the objects are wooden, covered in a black resin, with details on the coffins picked out in yellow and white paint. The assemblage belonging to the male mummy (whose name is not preserved) was sent to Bristol Museum and the group belonging to his (presumed) wife, a temple singer named Perenbast, came to Manchester.

Perenbast and her presumed husland after Petrie's discovery of their tomb

Perenbast (right) and her presumed husband after Petrie’s discovery of their tomb

X-rays taken in the 1970s as part of the Manchester Egyptian Mummy Project revealed some dense shapes in the area of Perenbast’s chest. These were identified as likely to be amulets but it was only in 2013 that their precise nature was understood. Using the latest CT-scanning technology, it is possible to visualise the objects at high resolution. What appeared as grainy masses on the older X-rays were revealed to be a plaque on the left side of the abdomen, used to cover the embalming incision, a scarab beetle and detached wings, and an ‘ib-shaped’ heart amulet. It is not clear if these objects are made of metal, faience, or perhaps wax.

Scan showing heart scarab and 'ib' amulets. (Image courtesy of Professor J Adams, Central Manchester Healthcare Trust)

Scan showing heart scarab and ‘ib’ amulets. (Image courtesy of Professor J Adams, Central Manchester Healthcare Trust)

It is now also possible to isolate objects such as amulets and print then in three dimensions, using resin. Such 3D renderings are displayed in the BM show and are planned for Perenbast to enable visitors to handle copies of objects which will never be seen for real. It would be interesting to know what, if any, similar amulets occur in the wrappings of “Mr. Perenbast” in Bristol.

The “revelation” of the “secrets” of Egyptian mummies – whether through physical unwrapping or more modern non-destructive methods such as CT-scanning – has a perennial favourite with the general public for over 200 years. And for just as long there have been (often circular) arguments about the ethics of investigation and display. In a provocative new book, Christina Riggs, formerly Curator of Egypt and Sudan here at the Manchester Museum, charts (and challenges) our obsession with mummies, evaluating ancient intentions and modern preconceptions.

The response to the latest British Museum exhibition shows that, more than ever, we want to probe underneath the mummy’s bandages in new and visually stimulating ways. The value of the answers these investigations provide depends, I suppose, on the value of the questions we come up with in the first place.

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