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Curator’s Diary June 2018: Up Close with the Sphinx, Ancient and Modern

Last month I had the chance to spend a couple of days in close proximity with the Great Sphinx at Giza whilst filming a documentary for Discovery Channel (a crash course in pithy communication, ideal for museum curators). Unrestricted admittance to the Sphinx enclosure (usually off-limits to visitors) prompted me to consider the degree of access ancient people might have had to this iconic monument, and how those ancient monuments have in turn shaped our expectation of the tourist experience today.

sphinx-kiss

In modern times, hundreds of tourists and local Cairenes pose for thousands of photos at the Great Sphinx each day. The recent cult of the selfie has assured the iconic status of this human-headed lion, whose colossal profile is particularly suited to ‘kissing’ photos. This sort of interaction has been enabled and encouraged by the convenient modern viewing platforms flanking the Great Sphinx to north and south.

This has not always been the case. Until the mid-20th Century, the Sphinx was largely covered in sand. Visitors to Giza saw the colossal head sticking out of the sand, and recorded their impressions of its forlorn, sad nature – playing perfectly into the Romantic 19th Century image of picturesque vestiges of a lost civilization. Colossal royal statues in particular fit the narrative of the despotic, Oriental ruler undone, dethroned by the progress of History. As with Shelley’s Ozymandias, ‘nothing beside remains… lone and level sands stretch far away’ from the Sphinx. As Mark Twain observed in 1869, the Sphinx is ‘grand in its loneliness.’ But the advent of photography meant that the Sphinx didn’t remain alone for long.

SPHINX-1882

Of many similar images, perhaps the most resonant is this (above) from 1882 – the year Britain tightened its colonial grip on Egypt and the same year the Egypt Exploration Fund was founded. The British officers in full dress kilts and pith helmets, some with hands imperiously on hips, make clear the sense of entitled ownership of Egypt as an imperial possession.

Any photograph is, of course, not a neutral record of ‘what happened’ – especially in archaeology, as Christina Riggs has recently demonstrated for the Harry Burton Tutankhamun archive. These colonial set-pieces with the Sphinx have at their core the same highly constructed projections as any modern selfie. Photos of the Sphinx are also a useful index of the restoration work done to beautify – and ostensibly ‘restore’ – the sculpture for popular consumption. The Sphinx is prepared today for the mass tourist market, but only VIPs can actually get up close to it.

In contrast, surprisingly little is known about ancient perceptions of the Sphinx. Leaving aside the debate of who was actually responsible for its construction (Khafre is favoured by current Egyptological consensus, and who Discovery plump for in the doc), it may seem surprising that there is no Old Kingdom reference to it at all. Only in the New Kingdom (c. 1400 BC) do textual sources talk about the statue in terms of an identity – a divine identity – as ‘Horus in the Horizon’ (Horemakhet).

Although the term ‘shesep ankh’ (lit: ‘living image’) is often cited in Egyptological publications as the term for ‘sphinx’, in fact it rather appears (by the mid-18th Dynasty at least) that this was simply an epithet of the Pharaoh as a ‘living image’ of a god, usually the deity Atum. Ancient Egyptian terms for ‘statue’ are more nuanced than the space here allows (that’ll have to wait until my book on Egyptian statues…) but it was really only the chance to spend time with Sphinx at Giza that brought these issues into focus for me.

Shesep ankh

Tuthmose III described as ‘Living Image of Atum’ at his Karnak ‘Festival Hall’

In New Kingdom texts the Sphinx enclosure is referred to as ‘setepet’ (meaning ‘most select/chosen place’) and massive mudbrick walls would have restricted access to it, even views of it, perhaps only to the highest elite. This is in contrast to the assumption we may form based on the hordes of visitors the Sphinx receives nowadays and on apparent evidence of a Roman Period ‘viewing platform’.

The quizzical (envious? outraged?) looks I received whilst poncing about on camera between the great paws of the Sphinx, brought home to me that access is rarely equal – even to as impressive a divine image as the great Sphinx. Did I have any more right to get up close to the Sphinx than the Egyptian school children on a day out?

The Discovery documentary (due to air Stateside late Summer) gives a rather televisual interpretation of the Sphinx as a ‘Mythical Beast’, but was an opportunity to feed in my own interpretations which – I hope – make the final edit. Perhaps instead of thinking of colossal royal statues in terms of bland ‘propaganda’, we should think in terms of the divisive nature of access (physical, ritual, intellectual) to them and how this shaped ancient and modern interactions with the past.

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Curator’s diary July 2016: Egyptomania at Biddulph Grange

Yesterday several curators from Manchester Museum had the pleasure of visiting  Biddulph Grange, a National Trust property in north Staffordshire. We are particularly interested in exploring the theme of migration – of people, objects and ideas – and in ways of capturing the connections. Biddulph Grange represents a wonderful example of multi-cultural influences in the later Nineteenth Century that stretches across traditionally separate areas of Botany, Geology and Egyptology.

In 1840, the horticulturist James Bateman (1811–1897) moved to the 15 acre estate and with help of friend Edward Cooke, developed splendid gardens. Edward Cooke is known to have visited Egypt himself and to have been acquainted with the famous Scottish painter David Roberts, whose many drawings and watercolour sketches made while he was in Egypt heavily influenced British ideas about the country. Together Bateman and Cooke created several discrete areas in the Biddulph gardens: China, the Himalayas, Egypt and a didactic geology gallery.

biddulph1

Biddulph’s Egyptian court was created between 1859 and 1862. It combines topiary in the form of a pyramid and two squat obelisks with stone features: two pairs of sphinxes, a cavetto corniced doorway leading to a passageway ending in a dimly-lit chamber with (rather creepy) baboon statue. The statuary is the work of sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894). Hawkins created sculptures of dinosaurs in concrete for the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace and was likely to have been inspired by the impressive Egyptian court designed by Owen Jones there. Jones’ designs are, however, more faithful to the ancient originals.

At Biddulph, cultures have been mixed in an eclectic, Orientalising soup – a great example of the migration – and melding – of ideas. Part of the Chinese garden has a gilded bovine statue, provided with a sun disk between its horns – making it resemble the sacred Apis Bull of Egypt rather than a decorative feature found in the Far East.

apis

The Pharaonic gateway has the a winged sundisk – however the usual rearing cobras (uraei) either side of the disk have been re(mis?)interpreted as the heads of birds. Combined with the feathered wings and disk, these seem intended to represent peacocks!

biddulph-wings

Within, sits a statue of a baboon or ‘Ape of Thoth’ – a type of statue we have in the collection. Like our example, the baboon sits with hands on knees; the Biddulph example has stylised fur and pectoral ornament handing from its neck. The face, however, is much more intentionally grotesque than a Pharaonic example and may be the result from borrowing from a Chinese dragon. The overall effect – with red-tinted sky-light above – is reminiscent of the focal point of an animal mummy catacomb. It is intriguing to imagine that a tourist visit to such a catacomb (which were common in the 19th Century)  may have inspired this spooky space.

bidd-ape

To anyone familiar with ancient Egyptian art, the two pairs of sphinxes look rather severe – but they carry all the essential elements: the striped ‘nemes’-headcloth worn by the Pharaoh, a beard attached to the chin by a strap, an unidentified object in place of the expected rearing cobra (uraeus) on the brow, and even an identifiable inscription. Although somewhat weathered, this was clearly an attempt to represent the two main names of the Pharaoh in oval-shaped cartouches: one, the ‘Son of Ra’ name and the ‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt’ name. Perhaps the name of Ramesses III was the model.

biddulph-sphinx

Although Egyptianising (and genuinely ancient) pieces are not uncommon in stately homes of the Nineteenth Century, what is usual at Biddulph is that the use of Egyptian imagery is so consistent and self-contained in one area of the estate. Set amongst other elements, the ‘Egyptomania’ of the Egyptian court is a fine illustration of how exotic ideas and motifs moved and morphed over time and space.

 

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