The King and I: The politics of royal statue dedication and patronage at Deir el-Medina

Recent research into an ‘impossible’ statue at National Museums Scotland led me to discover a previously unrecognised statue-type from Deir el-Medina, the village of Egypt’s royal tomb-builders. These unique statues reinforced the community’s special relationship with the king. They offer insights into the role that statues play in reinforcing power structures.

The ancient settlement of Deir el-Medina on the West Bank of Luxor (ancient Thebes)

The settlement of Deir el-Medina is located in the desert near the Valley of the Kings, so the craftspeople could be close to the royal tombs that they were building. Its isolation meant it remained well-preserved and it has become a vital source of information about ancient Egypt.

Limestone statue of a kneeling ancient Egyptian official wearing a wig and pleated kilt (face damaged) presenting a statue of a king wearing the Blue Crown (NMS A.1956.139). Image © National Museums Scotland.

The statue at National Museums Scotland initially puzzled me since its existence seemed entirely impossible according to the rules of ancient Egyptian decorum. According to Egyptological understanding of Egyptian statuary, “a private person is never sculpted together with the king” (Freed 1997) … but this statue shows the impossible: a wealthy state official kneeling to present a statue of a king. How could this statue even exist?

A vital clue came from the archives of Scottish archaeologist Alexander Henry Rhind, which described described a statue that could only be this one as ‘Found in course of excavations near Der el Medinet’.

This clue sent me to review all of the statuary that had been excavated at Deir el-Medina by the French expedition of Bernard Bruyère, which led to two other complete statues of officials dedicating royal statues, as well as fragmentary remains of several other statues! The statues depict viziers (aka prime ministers) presenting statues of a deified form of the reigning king, Merneptah and Ramses III respectively.

Left: Statue of Vizier Panehesy offering a statue of Merneptah and a royal wife (Deir el-Medina no. 250). Right: Statue of Vizier Hori offering a statue of Ramesses III in a ram-headed shrine (Deir el-Medina no. 91). From Bruyère, Rapport sur les fouilles de Deir el Médineh (1935–40), II, 1952, pls. 41, 29.

They were found in a chapel at Deir el-Medina built to honour the deified Ramses II, who strengthened his power by presenting himself as a god. There is also a statue fragment at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that shows a statue of Ramses Il with the hand of the dedicant. It’s unprovenanced, but an epithet in the inscription connects it to Deir el-Medina.

Fragment of a statue of an official offering a statue of Ramesses II (MMA 90.6.1).

So clearly a unique phenomenon occurred at Deir el-Medina: high officials broke with tradition to show themselves dedicating statues of the king. This began with a chapel dedicated to deified King Ramses II by the Vizier and his right-hand man, the Chief Scribe of Deir el-Medina, Ramose.

So who is depicted in the statue at National Museums Scotland? No inscription survives, but the floral wreath offers a clue: this rare feature appears only on male statues around the reign of Ramses Il. This suggests the king may be Ramses II himself, who is often shown wearing the blue crown, as in this statue. If so, the most likely candidate for the dedicant would be Chief Scribe Ramose, who helped set up the chapel to the deified king, along with numerous statues of himself, some similar in style to this one.

Left: Statue of an official, possibly Chief Scribe Ramose (i), presenting a statue of a king wearing the Blue Crown, possibly Ramses II (NMS A.1956.139). Image © National Museums Scotland. Right: Statue of Ramose (i) dedicating a statue of Osiris, Nephthys, and the four Sons of Horus. Louvre E16378. Image © Louvre.

These unique statues were introduced because it was mutually beneficial for the king to allow Deir el-Medina high officials to have this status-enhancing privilege. It celebrated their close royal connection, reinforcing the officials’ loyalty and the king’s supreme power. Royal burial was an important part of Egypt’s political system and royal succession; the tomb builders at Deir el-Medina were among the few who knew the secrets of the pharaohs’ tombs, and it was worth investing in their support. These statues are 3D representations of a system of patronage – the dynamic of mutual support between the king and those he favoured – which underpinned political power in ancient Egypt.

Statues don’t just passively reflect power structures, they play an active role in reinforcing them.

This research has just been published in the open access proceedings of the Museo Egizio’s conference on Deir el-Medina: check it out, it’s available open access online for free along with lots of other fascinating contributions.

Left: Fragment of monumental statue of Ramses II on display at the British Museum. Right: Monumental statue of Ramses II on display at the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza.

Nature and Power

The king’s arm is raised in a graceful arc, high in the air, poised in the moment just before it smashes down to brutally shatter his enemy’s skull. In one of the oldest images of an ancient Egyptian ruler, King Narmer’s power and authority is expressed through violent domination. The scene is repeated in the top right using symbols from the natural world: a fierce falcon subduing an enemy on a papyrus plant, an emblem of Egypt.

Plaster reproduction of the Narmer Palette (NMS A.1974.104). The original is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (CG 14716) and dates to c.3100–2900 BC.

People had lived along the Nile for thousands of years before the rise of the first Egyptian kings, but from this period onwards, their rule was established and maintained often with violence. The natural world was a key element in how these rulers expressed their power. The image of the sphinx was intended to show the king as superhuman, conveying his strength and superiority by depicting him with the body of a lion. The power of the king was also expressed through images and stories of him dominating dangerous animals like lions and hippos. For example, inscribed scarabs distributed to the public by King Amenhotep III describe his unbelievable success in a lion hunt, sometimes recorded as a total of 102 lions killed, other times 110! Unsurprisingly, human and environmental pressures meant that lions and hippos later became extinct in Egypt.

The most powerful state officials followed the king’s example in using the natural world to convey their authority. One of the main scenes in decorated tomb chapels is an image of the official demonstrating their sporting prowess, spearfishing in the marshes and hunting birds with a throwing stick (an Egyptian form of boomerang). They’re often shown spearing multiple fish at once with the greatest of ease. These sporting achievements were intended to convey their mastery of the natural environment. I’ve had the privilege to study these scenes up-close during my fieldwork in Egypt, observing the incredible details that depict the verdant marsh-life in colourful splendour.

Scenes of the official Khnumhotep II spearfishing and bird catching above the smaller figures of labourers, in his decorated tomb chapel at Beni Hassan, Egypt (c. 1890 BC). © Margaret Maitland.

The tomb owner and his family are shown at leisure, taking pleasure in the beauty of a landscape that represents pure enjoyment for them. Making the marshes into a place of aesthetic pleasure, where an elite official could ‘do my heart desires’, was another way of expressing authority and cultural sophistication. The official is shown spearing fish effortlessly, while below, in miniature detail, tiny figures of ordinary fishermen and bird-catchers toil away, hauling their catches in nets, as a group effort, rather than a heroic feat of individual strength. The techniques used by the official – the spear and the throw-stick – served to distance him from his prey and the mess of the kill. Attendants retrieve and clean the carcasses so that the official remains clean and pure, unlike the fishermen who are said to stink.

The exaggerated scale in these scenes shows the official as larger-than-life, an authoritative figure towering over everything else, while the tiny people, animals, and plants become insignificant, simply things for the official to use or enjoy. The fisherman are also often portrayed as weak, lazy, and undisciplined, for example, the boisterous, fighting boatmen in the scene above, or the reclining fisherman, dangling a line in the water while seemingly asleep in the scene below. In contrast to these common stereotypes, the official is poised, controlled, and divinely-favoured. In the inscriptions that accompany these scenes, the ownership of the fishermen’s catch is attributed to the tomb owner with their success being said to be due to the marsh-goddess favouring the official. Sometimes this message is even put into the mouths of the pictured fishermen themselves, for example the caption: ‘look, the goddess Sekhet is good; she has caught a ‘Welcome!’ for this Friend, whom she loves and favors, the Lord Djehutihotep’.

Tiny fishermen (circled in red) shown beneath the prow of the tomb owner’s skiff. From the tomb of Ukhhotep III. After Aylward M. Blackman, The Rock Tombs of Meir III: The Tomb-chapel of Ukh-hotp and Mersi (B, No. 4) (London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1915), pl. 6.

The natural environment of the marshlands contained resources that Egypt’s rulers wanted to exploit. These animals and plants simply existed in the wild, but the fishing and fowling scenes became a way to show that they could be dominated and owned. In reality, since the majority of the work of managing these natural resources was conducted by subordinates on behalf of the official, these scenes of fishing and hunting likely took on added significance as a demonstration of authority, in contrast with the stereotyped depictions of their subordinates. Furthermore, despite the violence on display, the texts that accompany these scenes frame the officials as guardians and stewards. Officials claimed that it was their management of the land that made it productive: ‘every field flourishes, for [we] have nourished the marshes’.

Another common ancient Egyptian image is a scene of numerous servants bringing offerings to the king or official, who receives a vast array of the bounties of nature, from ducks and gazelles to piles of dates and figs. All the natural world is presented to them as their property, no matter how big or small. The poem The Eloquent Peasant states that for a just and caring leader, ‘the fish will come to you already caught, you will catch only fattened fowl’. Inequality is presented as an entirely natural state.

Section of wall relief depicting a scene of statue-dragging before the tomb owner, with offering bearers below, from the tomb chapel of Niankhnesut, Saqqara, early 6th Dynasty (NMS A.1958.46).

The king and his officials used their ability to dominate the natural world to justify their right to dominate the rest of society. By comparing society to the natural world – a world of predators and prey – social hierarchy was made to seem inevitable. While the king and his officials were portrayed as apex predators, ordinary labourers were mockingly compared to pigs or marsh-birds grubbing in the dirt, stinking ‘more than fish eggs’. Stereotypical images of fishermen, bird-catchers, and herdsmen show them as unruly, aggressive, unkempt, diseased, and emaciated, in contrast to the idealised images of the king and his officials, who are always shown in perfect condition, poised, clean shaven, and beautifully dressed. In this way, the people who actually worked the land and its natural resources were disparaged and discredited from any claims to rights or ownership. Inequality was justified by portraying some people as superhuman and others as less than human.

From ancient times, the willingness to exploit people and animals was built on ideas of innate superiority and inferiority, many of which persist today. We often marvel at Egypt’s pharaohs and their magnificent monuments, but even the ancient Egyptians told stories of the cruelty of King Khufu, who commissioned the building of the Great Pyramid, and his willingness to inflict suffering. And even though ancient Egyptian culture normalised exploitation thousands of years ago, this system was not always sustainable back then either. The yearly life-giving Nile flood brought rich fertile soils that sustained an immense agricultural output, but a poor flood in any given year could result in widespread famine. The first recorded strike in history (c. 1157 BC) occurred after the craftspeople who built the royal tombs were forced to endure long delays in their payment, typically made in food and drink, partially due to environmental factors. The workers downed tools and protested through sit-ins in a royal temple, declaring, ‘We have come here because of our hunger!’. They eventually won their dispute.

Ceramic statuette of an emaciated man carrying an , c2345-2181 BC (NMS 1954.10).

While today we often think of sustainability in environmental terms, achieving a sustainable world involves finding a balance between environmental, economic, and social factors. Industrialisation and its impact have laid bare the deep flaws in a model which has prioritised the economic gains of a few over the lives of workers and other living things on our shared planet. The strains put on the world by climate change and other environmental issues are causing suffering on a massive scale and destroying social cohesion.

In ancient Egypt, there was an awareness of the delicate balance in the world. Over three thousand years-old, the poem the Dialogue of Ipuwer and the Lord of All warns of a world in chaos, beset by environmental, economic, and social disasters: ‘O, but the Nileflood is rising, but no one has prepared for it. Every man is saying, “We do not know what has happened throughout the land.”… O, but laughter is dead, there is only mourning throughout the land.…People cannot find seeds, plants, or birds, and feed is taken from the pig’s mouth. No one can be benevolent when they are bent double with hunger.’ The poem highlights our dependence on the environment and the devastating impact that natural disasters can have on us all. The poem urges, ‘Indeed it is good…when the need of every man is fulfilled’. A more sustainable and more equitable world is one that can meet the needs of everyone, including the natural world. Can we hope to learn lessons from the past to build a better future: one that creates a balance amongst all living things?

A version of this article was originally published in National Museums Scotland’s Explorer magazine. My article ‘Fishing and Fowling for Pleasure versus Produce: Ancient Egyptian Representations of Social Status in relation to Animals and the Natural Environment’ was published earlier this year in the book His Good Name: Essays on Identity and Self-Presentation in Ancient Egypt in Honor of Ronald J. Leprohon edited by Christina Geisen et al.

Ancient Egypt Transformed: Middle Kingdom Egyptian Objects on Loan from National Museums Scotland to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wooden statuette of a foreign woman excavated at Beni Hassan, Egypt [A.1911.260]. © National Museums Scotland
Wooden statuette of a foreign woman excavated at Beni Hassan, Egypt [A.1911.260]. © National Museums Scotland
Almost 4,000 years ago, a woman travelled hundreds of kilometres to Egypt carrying an infant child on her back, seeking to trade or perhaps to settle there, presumably looking for a better life. They were immortalised in an extraordinary wooden statuette, which was excavated in a tomb at Beni Hassan in Middle Egypt thousands of years later. She stands only 15 cm tall but her face is full of character. Her appearance is very different from depictions of ancient Egyptians: her skin is yellow and she wears a long red woollen cloak and boots.

This type of small wooden statuette was usually part of a larger group of wooden figurines depicting scenes of food production and craftsmanship on the tomb owner’s estate, so they may originally have been part of a larger processional scene. The woman and child are also unusual in the level of detail in the carving, which is unlike most other wooden tomb models. The modelling of the woman’s face is deeply furrowed and highly expressive.

A wooden tomb model of a bakery from Beni Hassan, Egypt [A.1914.71]. © National Museums Scotland
A wooden tomb model of a bakery from Beni Hassan, Egypt [A.1914.71]. © National Museums Scotland
Whether they represent individuals or a stereotype is uncertain, and where they came from is debated, but possibly the Eastern Desert or Levant like other foreigners depicted in a tomb painting at Beni Hassan. These depictions of foreigners in the tombs of wealthy Egyptian officials may have been intended to lend prestige and clout to ‘overseers of the Eastern Desert’, or they may have evoked ritualistic connections to the goddess Hathor, mistress of foreign lands, who was an important deity in Middle Egypt. Continue reading “Ancient Egypt Transformed: Middle Kingdom Egyptian Objects on Loan from National Museums Scotland to the Metropolitan Museum of Art”

Emojis vs. Hieroglyphs: why is ancient Egyptian writing still dismissed as primitive almost 200 years after its decipherment?

emoji copyIMG_0300

4000 years ago, a learned Egyptian scribe penned this advice: ‘Do not be proud because you are wise! Consult with the ignorant as with the learned! Perfect speech is more hidden than malachite, yet it is found with the maidservants at the millstones’. While wisdom may be found in unexpected places, unfortunately ignorance may be also. I was disappointed last week when the BBC and the Guardian published articles that inaccurately dismissed hieroglyphs as a more primitive form of writing than emojis.

Professor Vyv Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, was quoted as saying: ‘As a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop’. While emojis are a fun and creative method of casual digital communication, they’re definitely not yet on the same level as ancient Egyptian, which was actually a structured, grammatical language capable of communicating complex, abstract ideas.

To compare the two, you can look at some fun emoji news headlines that the BBC put together. They manage to convey some very basic ideas, but only really work if you’re already familiar with the news stories to which they allude. For example, this one which is apparently ‘One in four people don’t know the dodo is extinct, a poll finds.


Compare an equivalent ancient Egyptian news-vehicle: the commemorative scarabs of King Amenhotep III. These were circulated with short inscriptions to celebrate the pharaoh’s successful hunts, marriage, and building projects. Much more can be conveyed since the script includes numerals, has phonetic symbols to spell out names, and has a grammatical structure through the use of word order, adverbs, adjectives, and pronouns. This scarab gives the names and titles of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiye and celebrates the fact that between years 1 and 10 of his reign the king shot a total of 102 lions!

Glazed steatite scarab incised with the lion-hunt text of Amenhotep III, 18th Dynasty (A.1960.572). Image © National Museums Scotland.

Following Evans’ BBC interview, Jonathan Jones wrote a rather scathing blog post in the Guardian, condemning emoji as a sign of modern cultural degeneracy and ancient Egypt as a form of dark ages: ‘After millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away. We’re heading back to ancient Egyptian times, next stop the stone age. Such ethnocentric attitudes exhibit a disappointing cultural chauvinism in judging the ‘evolution’ of other societies by Western values. But it’s not entirely surprising. Even the misinterpretation of hieroglyphs dates back to ancient times.

After Egypt had been absorbed into the Roman Empire, the last known hieroglyphic inscription was carved by a priest on August 24, 394 AD on the island of Philae, and the script was subsequently forgotten. The misconception of hieroglyphs as ‘picture writing’ began with the 4th century Greek grammarian Horapollo, who encouraged speculation about their mysterious symbolic significance. It was not until the rediscovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 and the decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822 by Jean-François Champollion that script was finally understood again.

Hieroglyphic symbols don’t simply function as pictograms that stand for what they depict. Some do, but most symbols actually hold phonetic values and represent sounds. Often symbols have multiple functions depending on their context. For example, the  ‘house’ hieroglyph can be used as a pictogram to write the word pr, meaning ‘house’ (left below), but it also holds the phonetic value pr, which can be used to write other words, such as pri, meaning ‘to go forth’ (right below).

pr hieroglyphs

Continue reading “Emojis vs. Hieroglyphs: why is ancient Egyptian writing still dismissed as primitive almost 200 years after its decipherment?”

Oldest papyri ever discovered document pyramid building, or More reasons why the aliens did not build the pyramids


I was recently interviewed by David McRaney for a fun podcast called You Are Not So Smart, about self-delusion and the nature of belief. He asked me to debunk the ever-popular aliens-built-the-pyramids-theory, which I blogged about here back in 2007. I don’t think I realized until our discussion that some people believe the pyramids couldn’t have been built by humans because they think they were built in isolation in the middle of the desert (completely untrue, despite the strategic angling of photographs taken at Giza- check it out for yourself on Google Streetview!). You can listen to our discussion in the full podcast here. Re-visiting the topic prompted me to write a short update about some of the recent discoveries that further prove the true origins of the pyramids.

Despite what the media might lead you to believe, we actually know quite a lot about the Giza pyramids and their construction, but new discoveries are constantly expanding our understanding. One of the most interesting recent finds has taken place at a site far away from Giza, at Wadi el-Jarf, where archaeologists have been excavating the oldest known port in the world, dating back about 4,500 years to the time of the pyramids.

One of the galleries at Wadi el-Jarf, used for storing dismantled boats, photo by G. Marouard
One of the galleries at Wadi el-Jarf, used for storing dismantled boats, photo by G. Marouard

Excavations at the Red Sea site led by Pierre Tallet from the University of Paris-Sorbonne, and Gregory Marouard from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, have revealed the remains of dismantled boats used for trade and mining expeditions stored in remarkable galleries, measuring up to 34 metres in length, carved into the rock cliffs. But their most fascinating find so far has been a group of papyrus fragments, which forms the journal of a team who helped built the Great Pyramid at Giza.

This is an astounding discovery: actual documentary evidence of the pyramid building process.

Merer's logbook, including mention of pyramid ('Horizon of Khufu')
Merer’s logbook, including mention of pyramid (‘Horizon of Khufu’)

Over a hundred fragments make up a personal log book recording the daily activities of a team led by the inspector Merer, who was in charge of a team of about 200 men. A timetable written up in two columns records the transportation of fine limestone blocks from quarries at the site of Tura to Giza, where they were used for the outer casing of the pyramid. It took four days, using the Nile and connecting canals, to transport the blocks about 10km to the pyramid construction site, which was called the ‘Horizon of Khufu’. The logbook documents these activities for a period of more than three months.

Wadi el-Jarf papyri in situ, photograph by G. Pollin
Wadi el-Jarf papyri in situ, photo by G. Pollin

Merer’s journal mentions regularly passing through an important administrative centre, ‘Ro-She Khufu’, en route, one day before his arrival at the Giza construction site. The text specifies that this site was under the authority of Vizier Ankh-haf, half-brother of Khufu. It was previously known that Ankh-haf had served as vizier and overseer of works for King Khafre, Khufu’s successor, and it is thought that he probably oversaw the building of his pyramid and also the Sphinx. Merer’s log book now confirms that Ankh-haf was also involved in some of the final steps of the construction of the Great Pyramid.

Bust of Ankh-haf (MFA 27.442), photo by K. Schengili-Roberts
Bust of Ankh-haf (MFA 27.442), photo by K. Schengili-Roberts

The journal was found alongside administrative accounts dated to the reign of King Khufu, the year after the 13th cattle count. Since the cattle count regularly took place every two years, this indicates regnal year 27, the highest attested year for Khufu’s reign. This suggests that the outer casing of the pyramid was being completed at the very end of the Khufu’s reign.

Continue reading “Oldest papyri ever discovered document pyramid building, or More reasons why the aliens did not build the pyramids”

Treasures from Harageh Tomb 72 at National Museums Scotland

The cultural achievements of Middle Kingdom Egypt are many, but its jewellery must surely be counted as one of the greatest: the craftsmanship of the period was never surpassed in its attention to intricate detail and technical skill. One of the finest examples, a gold pendant in the form of a catfish (A.1914.1079), resides in National Museums Scotland. The intact burial assemblage in which it was discovered was excavated at the site of Harageh by Reginald Engelbach and Battiscombe Gunn for the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. They excavated this site in one season during the winter of 1913-1914, which they published later in 1923.

gold fish

The site of Harageh is a series of cemeteries dug in an area which lies like an island of desert sand and bedrock surrounded by cultivated land between the river Nile and the Fayum. The cemeteries there date to various periods ranging from the earliest period of Egyptian civilisation to the Coptic Christian era. Middle Kingdom burials relate to the nearby pyramid of the 12th Dynasty King Senwosret II (c. 1880-1874 BC) and the town of Lahun, which was home to the workers who built the pyramid and served the king’s cult.


Many of the tombs at Harageh were robbed in antiquity. While Englebach and Gunn were excavating Cemetery A, they found a tomb (no. 72), which at first appeared to have suffered the same fate, but they were soon to discover a hidden chamber that the ancient robbers had missed. Tomb 72 was a large tomb consisting of a vertical shaft cut about 2.5m deep into the bedrock leading to two chambers on the north, and one chamber on the south, each measuring about 1.5m2. All of these had been robbed, although they still contained a large quantity of gold leaf, probably lost from wooden coffins, and eight ceramic vessels.

Image Courtesy of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL
Plan of Tomb 72 Courtesy of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL

However, on the west side of the south chamber was another shaft just under a metre deep, which appeared to be untouched. It contained the burial of a young girl, wrapped in linen in a wooden coffin, which had decayed. Her body was adorned with a large quantity of beads: three necklaces of gold foil beads, Red Sea shells tipped with gold, and hundreds of beads made from semi-precious stones – carnelian, amethyst, turquoise and lapis lazuli. These probably formed six necklaces. One of the beads was in the form of a tiny green frog.Harageh semi precious beads copy

The other finds included a scarab of glazed steatite, the base decorated with scroll-work and rimmed in gold, two uninscribed turquoise scarabs, cosmetic vessels in calcite, and a pottery vessels, whose form indicated the burial dated to the late 12th Dynasty. The British School of Archaeology in Egypt donated this grave group to National Museums Scotland.

Harageh tomb finds

The most spectacular objects found in the burial were five gold catfish pendants, three larger ones and two very small ones. Ancient Egyptian representations, such as a cosmetic jar in the form of a girl (BM EA 2572) and a tomb relief depicting the daughter of Ukhhotep III at Meir, depict fish pendants being worn by girls at the end of plaits. A fish pendant also serves as a central narrative device in a story about King Sneferu in Papyrus Westcar, a Middle Kingdom literary composition (P. Berlin 3033). The king is bored, so his chief lector-priest arranges a boating party rowed by young women dressed only in fishing nets; when the lead oarswoman’s fish pendant accidentally drops into the lake, she refuses to row any further until the priest uses his magic to retrieve it.

A girl wearing a fish pendant, from the tomb of Ukhhotep III at Meir
A girl wearing a fish pendant, from the tomb of Ukhhotep III at Meir

Continue reading “Treasures from Harageh Tomb 72 at National Museums Scotland”

Decorative Box of Pharaoh Amenhotep II

This post is reblogged from my Object of the Month post for National Museums Scotland. All images are © National Museums Scotland:

This box of Pharaoh Amenhotep II, decorated with an image of the protective god Bes, is one of the finest examples of decorative woodwork to survive from ancient Egypt. It is thought to have been found by pioneering Scottish archaeologist Alexander Henry Rhind in the mid-19th century.

The fragmentary box is richly decorated with exotic materials from different areas of the ancient Mediterranean, signifying the extent of the king’s empire and its wealth. The main body is made of cedar wood, which was imported from Lebanon and valued for its quality, as suitable sources of wood were not abundant in Egypt.

The gold may have been mined in Egypt’s Eastern Desert or in Nubia (ancient Sudan). The box is overlaid with ivory plaques, made from either hippo or elephant tusk. Elephants were not native to Egypt and ivory was imported or given as tribute from further south in Africa. The veneers of ebony, a highly-prized dark hardwood, probably came from the land of Punt with whom the Egyptians traded. Our name for this wood, ‘ebony’ actually comes from the ancient Egyptian name for it, hebeny.

Above: A less ornate wooden box also dating to the 18th Dynasty, from Sedment.

The box is a much more elaborate version of the types of wooden containers often found in ancient Egyptian tombs, other examples of which are on display in the Ancient Egypt gallery at the National Museum of Scotland. The decorative box of Amenhotep II was probably used to hold cosmetics or expensive perfumes. It likely belonged to the king himself or a member of his family, although it is also possible that he could have given it as a gift to an important high official. The closest parallels to such an elaborate wooden box as this are those found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (1336-1327 BC), and in the tomb of his grandparents Yuya and Tjuyu.

Amenhotep II

Amenhotep II was not originally the intended heir to the throne; he only became crown prince after his elder brother died, and he came to the throne at age 18. While still a prince, he served as a military commander, and he was renowned for his athletic prowess, much like his father. It was said that he once shot four arrows through four copper targets, each one palm thick, while riding on horseback.

The stela (large inscribed stone slab) of Amenhotep II at Giza tells of his strength and endurance:

Strong of arms, untiring when he took the oar, he rowed at the stern of his falcon-boat as the stroke-oar for two hundred men. Pausing after they had rowed half a mile, they were weak, limp in body, and breathless, while his majesty was strong under his oar of twenty cubits in length. He stopped and landed his falcon-boat only after he had done three miles of rowing without interrupting his stroke. Faces shone as they saw him do this.

Amenhotep II led numerous military campaigns over the course of his reign, but later in his reign he seems to have achieved peace with Egypt’s neighbours.

Head of an 18th Dynasty king thought to be Amenhotep II.

The protective household god

The main figure depicted on the decorative box of Amenhotep II is a protective god and household guardian known as Bes. A number of similar such deities are known from ancient Egypt, but in the absence of an inscription identifying the figure specifically, he is usually referred to as Bes.

Bes is depicted as a dwarf with lion-like features and sometimes wears a Nubian-style headdress with feathers. In ancient Egypt, dwarfs were thought to be emblematic of good fortune and many such individuals worked as entertainers; they were also considered to be very skilful, working as expert craftsmen, or even as important state officials to the king.

As a joyful symbol of good luck, Bes is sometimes shown dancing and playing the tambourine, while his protective role is evident from his rather fearsome appearance, which was intended to scare off potential dangers and evil spirits. He is often depicted brandishing knives and sticking out his tongue. He is somewhat comparable to more modern European gargoyles whose presence on churches was intended to ward off evil. Bes’ popularity spread throughout the ancient Mediterranean and depictions of him have been found in Cyprus, Assyria, and elsewhere.

Other images of Bes in the collection.

As a household guardian and protector of the family, Bes frequently appears as a decorative and protective element on amulets, and household items such as headrests and furniture. Another wooden figure of Bes in the National Museums Scotland collection probably comes from a piece of furniture, possibly from the back of a chair.

Although he is generally thought of as a domestic god, worshipped in the home, as opposed to one of the state gods, such as the sun god Ra, who was worshipped in huge temples built by the pharaohs, Bes was obviously still considered worthy enough to feature on a household item in the palace of a king.

A rich symbolism

The box of Amenhotep II features a number of other decorative elements in addition to the main figure of the god Bes. The oval-shaped ivory plaques depict a name of Amenhotep II within a cartouche, an oval used to encircle royal names, which symbolised eternity. Ancient Egyptian names generally took the form of phrases that described their owner in positive terms, often in relation to a god or goddess.

An Egyptian king generally had five names: his birth name, plus four new names which he adopted at his coronation in order to emphasise his divine right to rule and convey a kind of mission statement for his reign. Two of the king’s names were typically written in cartouches, the birth name and the throne name.

Only Amenhotep II’s throne name, Aakheperure, appears on the box, but it is clear that there are several inlays missing which would have contained his birth name, Amenhotep. Aakheperure means ‘Great are the manifestations of the sun god Ra’, while Amenhotep means ‘the god Amun is satisfied’.

Together all of the decoration on the box served to ensure a long and successful reign for King Amenhotep II.

Continue reading “Decorative Box of Pharaoh Amenhotep II”

Tutankhamun in the National Museum of Scotland

This blog post is reposted from the Feast Bowl, the blog of National Museums Scotland, where I’ve recently joined as Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean.

Today, 90 years ago on 26 November 1922, a small group gathered in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt at the entrance to a tomb after five years of excavating. They waited as archaeologist Howard Carter painstakingly chiselled an opening through the sealed door. Initially he could see nothing in the flickering candle light, but he described how as his eyes adjusted to the light:

‘The details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold everywhere the glint of gold. Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” It was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things”.’

That day transformed our knowledge of ancient Egypt forever. Despite being a hastily arranged burial for a relatively minor king who died in his teens, the contents of the tomb over six hundred objects, ranging from thrones and chariots to game boards and underwear was one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time, an unparalleled time capsule from 14th century BC Egypt.

The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb fuelled many Egyptologists’ early interest in the subject, including one of our former curators, Cyril Aldred, a notable Egyptologist who served from 1937-1974. While still at school, he met Howard Carter, who tested him on his Egyptological knowledge and was sufficiently impressed to introduce him to the great Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie. Carter urged Petrie to take the young man on excavation with him, but Aldred was deterred when Petrie requested that his father contribute to financing the excavation! Despite this initial set back, Aldred had a long and influential career in Edinburgh.

When I arrived as the new curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at the National Museum of Scotland just one month ago and started exploring the incredible ancient Egyptian collection here, I felt something akin to what I imagine Howard Carter must have felt.

Knowing how famous Tutankhamun is today, it is hard to believe that a hundred years ago he was almost completely unknown, even to Egyptologists. Very few occurrences of his name had been found before the discovery of his tomb, but it is possible that an object in our collection may have been amongst the very earliest a bright blue bezel finger ring stamped with the throne name of Tutankhamun. It is known to have been in the collection of the National Museum of Antiquities in 1900 (the National Museum of Antiquities later merged with the Royal Scottish Museum, to form what is now National Museums Scotland). This suggests that it was amongst the objects brought back from Egypt in the 1850s by the Scottish antiquarian and early archaeology pioneer Alexander Henry Rhind. Rings like this are thought to have been produced because the divine nature of the king’s name held magical, protective qualities.

One of the discoveries that led Howard Carter to find Tutankhamun’s tomb was a find made ten years earlier by Theodore Davis of another tomb in the Valley of the Kings, KV58, which contained gold foil, probably from a royal chariot, and faience furniture knobs decorated with the name of Tutankhamun’s successor Ay. Davis mistakenly ascribed this tomb to Tutankhamun and declared ‘I fear that the Valley of the Tombs [i.e. the Valley of the Kings] is now exhausted’. Rarely has anyone been proven more wrong! Moreover, it was these objects that suggested to Carter that Tutankhamun’s tomb must be nearby.

National Museums Scotland has an object very similar to those first furniture handles found by Davis. It is made from a glazed ceramic composition called faience, decorated with Tutankhamun’s throne name, and would have originally adorned an elaborate, decorated wooden box. All of the beautiful wooden boxes from Tutankhamun’s tomb have very similar handles.

In addition to these small finds, the museum also holds two somewhat mysterious statue heads, which certainly date roughly to the era of Tutankhamun, but over which scholars have debated for decades. Cyril Aldred wrote that he and Bernard V. Bothmer of the Brooklyn Museum had argued over the head for years without reaching finality.

Both heads are made of granite and wear the royal nemes headdress and have been variously identified as Tutankhamun; an elderly Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun’s grandfather; Ay, Tutankhamun’s vizier and immediate successor, and Horemheb, Tutankhamun’s general who succeeded Ay as king.

Granite head that may represent Tutankhamun, on display in the Ancient Egypt gallery at National Museum of Scotland

Their hooded eyes and deep furrows from the nose to the downturned mouth are strongly reminiscent of late Amarna art and I can certainly see the resemblance to other statues identified as Tutankhamun. Further research is required, but it is important to remember that royal statues were never intended as portraits and were executed by different artists, so definitive attribution is unlikely. Many scholars have had different opinions on who our mystery pharaohs are what do you think?

Hieroglyphs from the North: new Champollion correspondence on the 190th anniversary of his decipherment

Images courtesy of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, the Great North Museum: Hancock.

190 years ago today, on the 27th of September 1822, a young scholar delivered a paper just eight pages long and rather unassumingly titled ‘Letter to Monsieur Dacier’, but which would completely change the world’s understanding of ancient history. The scholar was Jean-François Champollion and his paper was the first truly significant breakthrough in the decipherment of hieroglyphs. By cracking a code that had defeated scholars for hundreds of years, he revealed the key to ancient Egypt’s secrets, opening up over three thousand years of history and one of the world’s oldest civilisations. After almost two millennia of relying on ancient Greek and Roman historians’ somewhat spotty understanding of the much older history of Egypt and the persistent misinterpretation of Egyptian writing as purely symbolic, with Champollion’s breakthrough the ancient Egyptians were finally able to speak for themselves. Champollion’s achievements were certainly the work of a genius but he also worked unbelievably hard, which probably contributed to his sudden death at age 42, and his great grammar and dictionary had to be published posthumously by his brother. Arguably the first Egyptologist, despite a relatively short career, he was already a hard act to follow.

Although the French scholar is famed for his work on the Rosetta Stone, the trilingual Egyptian inscription now in the British Museum, he was more interested in the insights it could offer than the text itself. In fact he never actually bothered to publish a full translation! When I began my work with the British Museum’s Future Curator programme, it was unsurprisingly that I got drawn into answering public enquiries about the Rosetta Stone and learning more about Champollion’s work. But I little expected to continue this research at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle upon Tyne, where I was posted for a year as part of the BM programme’s expertise sharing.

To my astonishment, the archivist there, June Holmes, casually mentioned that the museum had in its possession an incredibly rare letter written by Champollion, part of the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Egyptian collection. I was astounded. Further investigation revealed an additional letter, though preserved only in copied translation, written even earlier, just one year after Champollion’s initial breakthrough, when his understanding of the ancient Egyptian language was still in its early stages. Object enquiries are now a routine part of museum work, so it was rather delightful to instead find the museum itself applying to someone else to interpret its objects! It was exhilarating to read Champollion’s sometimes faltering yet surprisingly confident and competent early work on one of the objects on display in the museum, the mummy of Bakt-en-Hor. Before Champollion was able to decipher the inscription, absolutely nothing was known about her and the usual stereotypical assumptions about her being a ‘princess’ abounded. Though he did not succeed in reading her name, his efforts gave the first real insights into her identity and beliefs.

Image courtesy of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, the Great North Museum: Hancock.

It was also just fascinating to read the words of the great man himself and find a rather different story to the generally accepted narrative of ‘the usual rivalry and animosity between the British and the French’ (Usick 2002, 77). Access to the Rosetta Stone and accurate copies of its inscription had been the source of some friction between Champollion and his English rival Thomas Young. When Champollion later failed to acknowledge a debt to Young’s early insights, his relationship with English scholars grew even frostier. The letters somewhat contradict this though, revealing a warm correspondence between the great man and the liberal scholarly community in the North East, which likely stemmed from a mutual interest in Egypt and shared political beliefs.

Newcastle was home to an enlightened scholarly community community at the time (the city’s Literary and Philosophical Society was host to the first public room to be lit by electric light, as well as many other scholarly achievements), as well as having rather radical political leanings towards social, political, and religious reform, including strong support for the French Revolution. The Champollions’ reformist ideals and dangerous support for Napoleon over the monarchy certainly adversely affected their careers. At the time, Champollion’s initial achievements were questioned, but the forward-thinking scholars of Newcastle upon Tyne embraced his breakthrough. The letters demonstrate that the inscription on the Great North Museum: Hancock’s mummy, Bakt-en-Hor, was amongst the earliest hieroglyphic texts read by Champollion, and offer new insights into the early process of his decipherment.

For Champollion, at a time when he had not yet been able to achieve his dream of travelling to Egypt, any hieroglyphic texts were precious and vital to his continuing progress with the script and language. As Richard Parkinson has stated, ‘The decipherment of the Egyptian scripts is not a single event that occurred in 1822, but a continuous process that is repeated at every reading of a text or artifact. Like any process of reading, it is a dialogue.’

Before leaving Newcastle next week at the end of my post, I wanted to seek a new dialogue by bringing those historic dialogues to light again- both Champollion’s dialogue with the ancient Egyptian language and with the scholars of Newcastle. On Thursday 4 October I will give a free lecture at the Great North Museum: Hancock to share my findings and honour the 190th anniversary of the decipherment. I will be presenting a work-in-progress, but I hope to finish this very soon and publish the letters. Many readers won’t be able to make it to the lecture, but to learn more about Champollion, I highly recommend Andrew Robinson’s recently published very readable and informative biography Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-Francois Champollion, and Richard Parkinson’s Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment, from the British Museum 1999 exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of the Stone’s discovery.

Pharaoh: King of Egypt, my new book

In over three thousand years of history, ancient Egypt was ruled by hundreds of kings; to the untrained eye, they may often seem undistinguishable in their idealised representations, but their stories are more varied and extraordinary than might be imagined. In my new book, written to accompany the British Museum UK touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt, I explore many of these fascinating stories through the fabulous objects in the British Museum’s collection, from beautiful gilded palace tiles to a papyrus account of royal assassination. The aim of both the exhibition and the book is to juxtapose the ideals of kingship with the more complex realities faced by Egypt’s rulers.

For example, Amun-Ra, king of the gods, was frequently invoked by the Egyptian kings who sought to align themselves with him, but no one could have imagined the many ways in which his name would be used by the pharaohs over the centuries: Hatshepsut, who declared herself the first female king (not queen), told of her own birth as resulting from an assignation between her mother and Amun-Ra in disguise as her father; the kings of Nubia (ancient Sudan) justified their invasion of Egypt as a rescue mission for Amun-Ra, who they alleged was no longer being properly honoured in his own country; Alexander the Great sought out the oracle of Amun-Ra at Siwa Oasis where the god (or his nervous priests) acknowledged the Macedonian conqueror as his son.

The book has been a joy to write, but it actually almost never happened. The plan for the exhibition had always been to focus on creating an open online catalogue so we could offer free access to further object information, which is exactly what we did and you can visit the online catalogue here. It was only just as the exhibition was opening that BM Press broached the possibility of creating of a small affordable illustrated book to accompany the exhibition. The objects themselves are so stunning, from the huge wooden tomb guardian statue of Ramses I to the most delicate gold jewellery of the Middle Kingdom, that the prospect of working further with them was very appealing. In some ways the late start proved quite useful because it offered the opportunity to explore in the book some of the great stories that hadn’t made it into the exhibition.

For example, almost everyone knows of the boy-king Tutankhamun and the incredible discovery of his tomb’s treasures, but fewer will be familiar with the confusion over royal succession after his untimely death. Having died barely out of his teens, Egypt was left without a royal heir to inherit the throne, his only two children having been still born and interred with their father. It’s recorded that a royal widow of that period, probably Tutankhamun’s, wrote in her desperation to a foreign ruler, the Hittite king: ‘My husband died. I do not have a son. But, they say, many are your sons. If you would give me one of your sons, he would become my husband’. But the Hittite prince never made it to his coronation. En route to Egypt, the Hittite prince was murdered and Tutankhamun’s vizier Ay took the throne instead. Ay performed the traditional ceremonies usually carried out at the pharaoh’s funeral by his son, thereby smoothing the path to his succession. Over and over through ancient Egyptian history, the ideals of kingship were used to help soften the much harsher realities of ancient life and maintain stability and power.



While the exhibition consists of 14 sections ranging from royal titulary to temple building, family life to war iconography, my approach for the book was to condense these into a simpler framework of five chapters, each one exploring a key aspect of the king’s duties and mythologized roles, and how different the reality often was from the ideal:

  • ‘The son of Ra’, supposedly descended from the gods, but often crowned through circumstance, conspiracy or invasion
  • ‘The Lord of the Two Lands’, responsible for maintaining order and the unity of Upper and Lower Egypt, though their failure sometimes plunged the country into civil war
  • ‘He who builds the mansions of the gods’, serving as high priest, building temples, or rather taking the shortcut of reusing older monuments
  • ‘A champion without compare’, a warrior-king, supposedly protecting Egypt from her enemies, but being conquered in turn just as often
  • ‘Lord of Eternity’, when the pharaoh was buried and thought to become one with the gods, after which he might subsequently be worshipped, maligned or forgotten

Each chapter is lavishly illustrated with brand new colour photographs and introduced by two quotations, one framing the idealised vision of the pharaoh in a particular role, the other presenting a starkly different view, to give the ancient Egyptians a chance to speak for themselves in their own words.

For the final chapter, ‘Lord of Eternity’, a quotation from the poem The Tale of Sinuhe illustrates the mythological beliefs surrounding the death of the king and the manner in which his subjects were expected to honour him:

“The God ascended to his horizon; the Dual King Sehotepibre, mounted to heaven, and was united with the sun, the divine flesh mingling with its creator. The palace was in silence, hearts were in mourning.”

In reality, deceased kings could generally expect to be treated much more harshly, as this account by tomb robbers in the Amhurst Papyrus demonstrates:

“We stripped off the gold which we found on the noble mummy of this god. We found the royal wife likewise and we took all that we found on her too. We set fire to their inner coffins.”

I hope that the book Pharaoh: King of Egypt will be an enjoyable introduction to ancient Egyptian kingship and some of the amazing objects in the British Museum’s collection (and it’s only £9.99!). For those in the UK who haven’t yet seen the exhibition, it’s currently on at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 14 October, after which it will be in Glasgow from 3 November 2012 to 24 February 2013, and finally Bristol from 15 March to 9 June, 2013.