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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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Object biography #21: An inscribed base from a statue of Hathor (Acc. no. 3309)

 

A guest blog from University of Exeter researcher Tara Draper-Stumm, who is researching the numerous Sekhmet sculptures of Amenhotep III at Kom el-Hettan. Here we reveal a previously-unidentified fragment from the Museum’s storerooms, likely from the same context. 

This inscribed rectangular granite base with a pair of feet in the striding position, both broken at the ankles, are all that remains of a standing statue of the goddess Hathor (acc. no. 3309), commissioned by Amenhotep III. An inscription in two columns on the base reads:

Son of Ra, Amenhotep, Ruler of Thebes, given life

Beloved of Hathor, Lady of jubilees

The inscription suggests that the statue was commissioned in preparation for the first of Amenhotep III’s three Sed (‘jubilee’) festivals, which took place in his 30th regnal year.

3309

Acc. no. 3309

The base measures 43 cm in length by 22.5 cm wide, and is 14 cm in height, with a cracked surface. Statue bases associated with the well-known life-size (or larger) standing statues of the goddess Sekhmet are approximately 30%-40% larger than the Manchester statue base, with three columns of inscription. The size of the Manchester piece therefore suggests it comes from a statue that was smaller than lifesize, perhaps 1 metre or so in height.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sekhmet statues from Kom el-Hettan in the British Museum

While we know that Amenhotep III commissioned hundreds of statues of himself and the gods in the run-up to his Sed festival, embellishing temples the length of Egypt, the inscription would indicate this statue fragment came from Kom el-Hettan in Luxor, the site of Amenhotep III’s funerary temple, where his Sed festival was likely celebrated.

This statue fragment entered the museum’s collection in 1895-6, the gift of Jesse Haworth, a major supporter of the work of Flinders Petrie and the newly established Egypt Exploration Society. In return for his support, Haworth received a selection of Petrie’s finds. In the 1895-96 season Petrie excavated a group of funerary temples on the west bank at Luxor, his results being swiftly published as Six Temples at Thebes in 1897. Petrie did not excavate at Kom el-Hettan, since “de Morgan [Director of the Antiquities Service] informed me that he reserved the site of the great funerary temple of Amenhotep III for his own work.” However, Petrie was allowed to investigate the ruins of Merneptah’s funerary temple, near Kom el-Hettan. Here Petrie “discovered a large amount of sculpture which had belonged to the temple of Amenhotep III, as that had been plundered for material by Merneptah.”

3309-text

Detail of Acc. no. 3309.

Petrie makes no mention of this statue fragment in his report, and no photographs of it survive in the archives of the Petrie Museum, where photographs associated with this excavation are to be found. However, Petrie does mention finding parts of statues of jackals “split up into slices…and laid in the foundations of Merneptah,” along with parts of sphinxes, inscribed blocks and parts of statues of Amenhotep III, among the foundation fill. It seems possible therefore that the Manchester Museum’s statue base could also have been used in Merneptah’s foundations and was found there by Petrie. The condition of the statue base would certainly suggest this. Petrie also made mention of the area being “under the high Nile level”, with evidence buried statuary much “swelled and cracked,” presumably from water damage over time. This description also relates well to the damage to the Manchester statue base.

Such a statue of Hathor may once stood in a shrine inside Amenhotep’s funerary temple, one of many hundreds of statues commissioned for the temple and employed in ceremonies associated with the King’s Sed Festival. It is unclear what happened to the rest of the statue. It may have been broken up and used in the foundations of Merneptah’s temple, like so many other statues from Amenhotep’s funerary temple. Presumably if the body or head had survived in decent condition in association with the statue base Petrie would likely have kept them together. Since this area of Luxor has been dug up repeatedly since at least the early 19th century, including by Drovetti, Salt, and Belzoni, among others, it is also possible that a further fragment of the statue survives in another museum or private collection.

19.2.5

Hathor cow head. MMA acc. no. 19.2.5

Evidence survives for smaller than life-size divine statues being made in the reign of Amenhotep III. A head of the goddess Hathor as a cow is in the MMA in New York (acc no. 19.2.5). Made from porphyritic diorite, the head is only 28 cm wide at the ears, and the back pillar measures 15 cm wide. While this is probably not the head for our statue base, it could suggest what the statue looked like when completed

While we may never know for certain where this statue base was found, or how it originally looked, it adds to an ever-developing picture of Amenhotep III and the incredible rates of statuary production during his reign.

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