Tag Archives: statuette

Curator’s Diary 20/05/15: Discussing & Displaying Tutankhamun

Last week I attended a conference on the complexities of moving and displaying objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun. These world-renowned artefacts, from perhaps the greatest archaeological find in history, have already begun to be moved from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to a new home in the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) in Giza, which will display objects focusing on the themes of kingship and eternity – including the Tutankhamun tomb group. International participants met between 10-14th May in various venues in Cairo to discuss possible approaches.

Dr Tarek Tawfik, Director of the Grand Egyptian Museum Project, opens the conference

Dr Tarek Tawfik, Director of the Grand Egyptian Museum Project, opens the Tutankhamun conference at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC)

The issues posed by the move are manifold. How to conserve often very fragile objects that have rarely – if ever – left their 90 year old display cases? How to transport them safely? How to interpret them in their new display space? There is no doubt that Tutankhamun is a world-wide celebrity, and that his mummy mask is an iconic, instantly recognisable image of ancient Egypt around the world. Ever since the discovery of the tomb by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in November 1922, the objects have spawned an interest in popular culture – ‘Tutmania’. The ongoing interest in aspects of the discovery, clearance, and subsequent popular influence of the tomb’s contents was well-illustrated in a recent exhibition – ‘Discovering Tut’ – at the Ashmolean in Oxford.

View from the Grand Egyptian Museum site towards the three pyramids at Giza. A visitor centre is planned for Spring 2016, with an initial opening in 2018.

View from the Grand Egyptian Museum site towards the three pyramids at Giza. A visitor centre is planned for Spring 2016, with an initial opening in 2018.

But despite all this attention, Egyptologists often falter when asked to explain the importance of the tomb. And this is a significant part of the problem: Egyptology doesn’t really know how to handle the success of Tutankhamun, and so the challenge for the new display will be to harness the extraordinary public interest in the Boy King and at the same time to correct assumptions and misconceptions about the king, the tomb, and ancient Egypt in general.

At the conference we discussed how to present individual objects and object categories, the broader historical context of Tutankhamun’s time, and the value of digital interpretation. These are a set of issues many museums face, including here in Manchester. One big task is trying to distil recent scholarship and present it in an engaging way. Most visitors to the current Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square are foreign tourists on package holidays; these people tend only have time to see highlights and so a priority will be to allow free flow of movement for these groups whilst also providing access for visitors with more time. A recommendation that was welcomed by participants is a dedicated space in the new Grand Egyptian Museum to showcase research – the everyday work of conservators and Egyptologists that increases our understanding of the objects.

Burton's photo of statuettes wrapped in linen, from the so-called 'Treasury'

Burton’s photo of statuettes wrapped in linen, from the so-called ‘Treasury’

Another point of discussion centred on how to arrange the objects – for example, the ancient importance of objects being carefully wrapped in linen before being sealed in the tomb. While this is acknowledged by Egyptologists as endowing and maintaining the sanctity of statuettes of the king, deities and other ritual objects, the linen is often removed for display and is mostly unknown to visitors. I was interested to hear, therefore, about an option to ‘re-dress’ some of the statuettes for display, as they appeared in famous 1920s photographs by Harry Burton.

Towards the end of the conference we discussed the value of replicas. Confirming my own impressions, colleagues from Germany reported that the majority of those who visited replica exhibitions of the tomb were more likely to want to go and see the original objects. This reflects a broader effect of Egyptian collections worldwide; having seen some objects, interested people will want to travel to see more. The innate public desire to know more is a big motivation for the team developing content for the galleries. I wish them luck in this impressive task; the initial opening of the GEM is expected in 2018.

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Object biography #13: The upper part of a female statuette from Kahun (Acc. No. 269)

Audrey_CThis fragmentary piece of sculpture has for several months featured on the Museum’s handling table, to enable visitors to touch pieces. The fragment comes from the town of Kahun, built to house the workers that constructed the pyramid of King Senwosret II (c. 1877-1870 BC). The town continued to be inhabited by priests whose job it was to maintain the cult of the king after his death. The style facial features of this piece imitate royal portrait types of the middle and end of the 12th Dynasty: hooded eyes, folds beside the nose and prominent ears. There is no question of this being a ‘portrait’ designed to replicate the features of one particular non-royal lady – these are the features of a standardised royal portrait type.

Penn

Penn 59-23-1

On the woman’s left hand side is a break, show that she was attached to someone or something else. During the Middle Kingdom, there appears to have been a decline in the display of intimacy between figures depicted in group sculpture. Pair statues are much rarer than in either the Old or New Kingdoms and when they do occur, the individuals depicted appear to be unhappily enduring each other’s company. Much more likely than a pair statue at this period is a group composition, showing several members of one family together. This imitates the arrangement of large numbers of individuals on the same stelae. A good indication of what sort of group statuette our lady may have come from is in the Pennsylvania Museum (No. 59-23-1). She may have been seated, but a standing pose such as shown in the Penn. example seems more likely.

The precise find spot of our statuette at Kahun is not recorded but two settings can be envisaged. A tomb chapel may be possible – but a temple context seems more likely: papyri from the site indicate that statues of officials (and their families) were set up there, apparently an practice permitted first during the Middle Kingdom.

Who knows, maybe the rest of her family will turn up somewhere… and we may find out her name!

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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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Texts in Translation #3: A statuette of Shesmu-hotep (Acc. no. 6135)

Statuette of Shesmu-hotep (Acc. no. 6135)

Statuette of Shesmu-hotep (Acc. no. 6135)

This small statuette of an official dates from the late Middle Kingdom (c. 1780-1700 BC). It was found amidst debris in a shaft tomb (no. 606) in Cemetery E at Haraga, close to Lahun. The statue would originally have been set into a brick-built structure belonging to one of the nearby tombs.

During the Middle Kingdom, greater surface areas of non-royal statues were covered with inscriptions than ever before. Here, the text extends from the front of the robe/cloak, across the lap and over the knees.

hieroglyphs

On cloak/robe

The text begins by associating Shesmu-hotep with Anubis – an important local god at Lahun in the Middle Kingdom – proclaiming the official to be: “Favoured by Anubis, Lord of Life.” It then goes on to give a standard list of provisions for the man’s spirit in the afterlife: “An offering which the King gives (and a) voice offering (consisting of) bread, beer, beef and fowl, alabaster, fine linen, and cool water for the Ka-spirit of the Overseer of […], Shesmu-hotep, justified.” Variants in the writing of this formulaic expression show the statue to belong to the late Middle Kingdom.

On lap (reading right to left)

Shesmu-hotep’s title is not clearly written, but has been read by others ‘overseer of the palace’. The god Shesmu was worshipped in the Faiyum area, and associated with the winepress, perfumed oils and slaughter in the underworld. The deity is rarely attested in names, with only one other example known of a ‘Shesmu-hotep’.

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