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.

Pyramid_at_Lahun

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 copyThe 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

Of the five Harageh fish pendants, the modelling of the main fish is incredibly lifelike and the details of its speckles, gills, and fins are intricately worked, despite measuring only just over 3cm in length. The incredible high quality of the main fish pendant is comparable to the gold craftsmanship found in the burials of 12th Dynasty royal women at Lahun and Dashur. However, the other fish found in the same burial, while very similar in form and size, are of much lesser workmanship. Could it be possible that the main fish pendant was a royal gift? Perhaps the others might then have been commissioned to complement it.

fish 2

It is not only the gold fish that indicate the importance of the family who was buried in tomb 72. Many of the other materials used were obtained from distant places, which would have increased their value—turquoise from the Sinai, shells from the Red Sea, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. The level of effort expended on excavating the multichambered rock-cut shaft tomb, and the level of material wealth in the grave, not all of which actually survived, suggests that the family of the young girl in tomb 72 would have been wealthy state officials who served the king, perhaps even at the pyramid town of Lahun.

 

At National Museums Scotland, we are currently in the process of analysing the jewellery from this tomb, as part of a larger project (PICS 5995) investigating ancient Egyptian gold in collaboration with the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), so as to better understand the techniques and materials used to make these beautiful objects. We will be presenting our results at a workshop at the National Museum of Scotland on Thursday October 16th, along with other papers from distinguished speakers such as Ian Shaw, Marcel Maree, Campbell Price, and others. There are a few places still available for the workshop, which can be booked online here.

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.

Above: 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.

Above: 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’.

Only six of the hieroglyphs from the inscription survive and the rest is broken off, so the inscription lacks context and it is difficult to be certain of a translation. The hieroglyphs may be epithets referring to the king as ‘the beautiful Eye of Horus, Lord of the Scimitar’.

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

A pioneering Scottish Egyptologist

The origin of the Amenhotep II box is something of a mystery, although it is thought to have probably been brought back from Egypt by Alexander Henry Rhind (1833–1863), a young Scottish archaeologist, who was the first person to pioneer archaeological recording in Egypt in the 1850s.

2013 marks the 180th anniversary of his birth in Wick, Caithness on July 26th, 1833. The National Museums Scotland holds several hundred objects brought back by Rhind, including a complete burial assemblage from an intact Roman Egyptian tomb, which he discovered in Thebes. The start to his remarkable career was cut short when he died at the age of just 29, but the legacy he left to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland continues in their annual Rhind lectures.

Above: Rhind’s plan of the tomb of Montu-sebauef at Thebes.

Despite Rhind’s high standards of recording for the era, the exact origin of the box is not clear. It was reportedly found broken in several pieces in a box of Rhind’s miscellaneous finds by the curator of the National Museum of Antiquities, Joseph Anderson (1832–1916), in the late 19th century.

A later museum curator, Egyptologist Cyril Aldred (1914–1991), proposed that the box must been excavated by Rhind in the same tomb in which he had made another remarkable discovery: the mummies of the daughters of Thutmose IV (1400–1390 BC), the son of Amenhotep II.

The tomb in which they were found, in Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna on the west bank of Thebes (modern Luxor), would not have been their original burial place. To protect the royal mummies from the extensive looting going on during the 21st Dynasty (1069-945 BC), they were carefully labelled with each of the princesses’ names and titles, and then reburied in a more hidden and anonymous tomb.

Although the mummies found by Rhind were the granddaughters of Amenhotep II, there is no evidence the decorative box was found here as well, as Rhind did not mention it in his published account of the discovery of the tomb. Its exact origin remains a mystery.

Above: Several of the mummy labels of the daughters of Thutmose IV.

The box of Amenhotep II survived in a fragmentary state. Curator Cyril Aldred meticulously recorded the box in its original state in a detailed line drawing and watercolour before he commissioned its restoration, probably in the 1950s. The lid, base, and back of the cylindrical box are still missing, but other damaged elements of the figure of Bes have been restored. If you compare the drawings to the object today, you can see that Bes’ right arm and foot as well as his tongue were originally missing and have now been reconstructed.

Above: Drawing of the box by Cyril Aldred, 1946.

The box drew the fascination of another pioneering archaeologist, Sir Flinders Petrie, who wrote an article on the box in 1895. Petrie is often called the ‘Father of Egyptology’. Alexander Henry Rhind first employed systematic recording techniques almost 30 years before Petrie started working in Egypt, but his young career was cut short while Petrie was able to develop further advanced techniques over the course of his career of almost 60 years.

Petrie was intrigued by the Amenhotep II box’s beauty and decorative symbolism, and concluded his article by writing:

The whole piece is a very interesting example of the fine work of that most wealthy and luxurious period, the 18th Dynasty.

Today, the box of Amenhotep II remains a masterpiece of craftsmanship, one of the best examples of decorative woodwork to survive from ancient Egypt.

The box of Amenhotep III is currently on display in the Ancient Egypt gallery at the National Museum of Scotland.

The Women of Egypt and Egyptology: ancient, past, and present

In honour of international Women’s Day, an offering of a brief post celebrating the women of Egypt.

Women in Egypt were probably better off than in other ancient cultures, as they could travel and conduct business freely, retain control of their dowries, divorce their husbands, and inherit property, but their lot was still not an equal one and the rudimentary medicine of the age meant childbirth could often spell a death sentence. Nevertheless, there are many inspiring women of the age, not least the dazzlingly influential queens of the New Kingdom. Queen Ahhotep was praised by her son King Ahmose as ‘one who cares for Egypt. She has looked after her (Egypt’s) soldiers; she has guarded her; she has brought back her fugitives, and collected together her deserters’. She was awarded the military honour, ‘the golden fly of valour’.

Many Eighteenth Dynasty queens used powerful, kingly imagery. For example, Tiye appears as a sphinx at the temple dedicated to her at Sedeinga, Sudan, and Nefertiti is depicted smiting foreign enemies.

As Laurel Ulrich’s oft-quoted saying goes, well-behaved women rarely make history: Cleopatra VII, the famed last queen of ancient Egypt, came to the throne at 18 and was supposed to share power with her 10-year old brother, but instead took control of the country for herself. She was the first member of her Macedonian-Greek ruling family in almost 300 years to actually learn the Egyptian language!

As well as the ancient women who continue to fascinate us today, the achievements of women in Egyptology, both the pioneers of a hundred years ago, and the scholars of today should also be celebrated. Amelia Edwards, author of ‘A Thousand Miles Up the Nile’, is justly celebrated as instrumental to the foundation of the Egypt Exploration Society, the Petrie Museum, and the Egyptology chair at University College London. She bequeathed the foundation to UCL as it was the only place in England at the time where degrees were given to women.

But in addition to Amelia, there are many other women (too many in fact to enumerate here), often overlooked, who made significant contributions to the early development of Egyptology. Margaret Murray worked at Manchester Museum, excavated alongside Petrie, was an active suffragette, and was appointed Assistant Professor of Egyptology at UCL in 1924.

Many early Egyptology greats were accompanied to Egypt by their wives who helped run the excavations, as well as recording and drawing finds. Winifred Brunton, wife of Guy Brunton, drew all the illustrations for his publications of sites such as Qau el-Kebir and Badari, and drew the objects found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. She also painted very beautiful reconstructed portraits of Egyptian rulers. Lady Hilda Petrie even joined an all-woman expedition to the tombs of Saqqara.

Today, women in academia are still underrepresented; the higher up, the fewer women. As this study shows, in the US, only 24% of full professors are women and they earn 20% less on average. As such, today on Twitter, I’ve been gathering suggestions of inspiring women Egyptologists from around the world today. This very very short list only beings to scratch the surface, in terms of both individuals and their achievements, and there are so many more scholars I’d like to add, but the exercise has certainly made me think about just how many great women Egyptologists are out there! I hope readers here will share their own suggestions here in the comments.

  • Janet Richards has done great work on Egyptian society and social hierarchy, especially her Society and Death in Ancient Egypt. You can also read about her work at the tomb of Weni the Elder.
  • The work of Dorothea Arnold, curator of Egyptian art at the Met, has influenced our understanding of the Old and Middle Kingdom. You can read her paper ‘Amenemhat I and the Early Twelfth Dynasty’ here and watch her discuss the tomb of Perneb in an iTunes U video.
  • Yvonne Harpur’s ‘Old Kingdom tomb scenes’ is a great achievement and her online Scene-details Database is a very useful tool.
  • Willeke Wendrich & Elizabeth Frood lecture at UCLA & Oxford and edit the online UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, which makes available online introductory but scholarly articles.
  • Julie Anderson of the British Museum excavates at Dangeil in the Sudan & discovered the most southerly royal Egyptian statue yet found.
  • Kate Spence who lectures at Cambridge has excavated at Amarna, and in this video she introduces Akhenaten, his religious revolution, and his new capital at Amarna.
  • Ann Macy Roth is associate professor at New York University and Director the Giza Cemetery Project. Online you can read her book A Cemetery of
    Palace Attendants
    and articleLittle women: gender and hierarchic proportion in Old Kingdom mastaba chapels’.
  • Janine Bourriau, Elisabeth O’Connell, Renee Friedman, Salima Ikram, Patricia Spencer, Gay Robins, Joanne Rowland, Dominique Valbelle, Christina Riggs, Maria Cannata, Angela McDonald, Angela Tooley, Rosalind Janssen, Rita Freed, Denise Doxey, Joyce Tyldesley, Lana Troy, Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood,  Janet H. Johnson, Diana Craig Patch, Catharine H. Roehrig, Patricia Usick, Susanne Woodhouse, Marie Vandenbeusch, Chloe Ragazzolli, Nadine Moeller, Lynn Meskell, Katja Goebs, Sally-Ann Ashton, Hourig Sourouzian, Irene Forstner Mueller, Emily Teeter, Lise Manniche, Fayza Haikal, Ola El Aguizy, Tohfa Handoussa, Zeinab El-Kordy and many many many more

In the meantime, in Egypt itself over the past year, Egyptian women have made some remarkable achievements in striving for equality, but the struggle is ongoing:

In the country’s first election after Mubarak’s ouster, parliament saw very low female representation. Eight women elected and two appointed women make up less than 2 percent of the 508 seats in the People’s Assembly. Considering the proportion of women who applied, the chances weren’t big. In Cairo for example, only 80 women ran compared to 1,010 men. –dailynewsegypt.com

However, today thousands of women marched the streets of Cairo in protest. Presidential hopeful Khaled Ali, who was among the protesters, said everyone should support the demands of Egyptian women. “Women are an integral part of Egyptian society and the Egyptian revolution, and so [they have] to be fairly represented in the constitution and constituent assembly,” he said, suggesting that women constitute at least 30 percent of the assembly.

This excellent slideshow celebrates some of the many who are striving for women’s rights in Egypt today.

Prominent columnist Mona Eltahawy also joined the march saying that as a feminist, she believes “the women’s revolution is the most important revolution.”

“Women in Egypt have two revolutions; one against an oppressive regime and one against an oppressive society,” Eltahawy told Daily News Egypt. Eltahawy added that the large turnout sends a strong message that women are an integral part of the revolution and are demanding their rights. “We are here and we are not going anywhere,” she said.

The Pharaohs go north

Siltstone head of Thutmoses III

For the past three and a half months, I’ve been privileged to be working as a trainee curator in the ‘Future Curators’ programme at the British Museum, where I’ve had the opportunity to work on the UK touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt. Developed in partnership with Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums and the Great North Museum: Hancock, the exhibition explores both the ideals and the realities of ancient Egyptian kingship. The exhibition includes extraordinary objects, such as the sed-festival label of King Den, one of the earliest rulers of Egypt; an Abusir papyrus, a record of temple accounts and one of the oldest surviving papyri; the iconic siltstone head of Thutmoses III; a wooden tomb guardian statue from the tomb of Ramses I; beautiful decorative tiles from royal palaces; a doorjamb from the tomb of General Horemheb before he became king; several Amarna letters with diplomatic correspondence between Akhenaten and foreign powers; and monumental reliefs from the temple at Bubastis and mortuary temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el-Bahri.

King Den jubilee label

It’s been incredible getting to work with British Museum curator Neal Spencer and the rest of the department of the Ancient Egypt & Sudan, as well as the Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums staff, especially at the Great North Museum: Hancock. It’s been a diverse experience, from helping writing objects labels with the curators, sourcing quotations for the walls of the exhibition space to give voice to the ancient Egyptians, and assisting the museum assistants in unpacking, checking, and manoeuvring objects into position. You can read more about the exhibition and the process of installing it in my posts on the British Museum blog, which I will continue to update in the future.

I’m also looking forward to giving a lecture at the Great North Museum on Monday, September 5th entitled ‘Fallen pharaohs: Egypt’s civil war and cultural renaissance’, focussing on the revaluation of the role of the king during the First Intermediate Period and early Middle Kingdom.

Tomorrow, July 16th, 2011, Pharaoh will finally open to the public. I hope that some of you will have the opportunity to visit the exhibition in one of its many venues around the UK or at least explore the objects through the website that we are continuing to develop. Everyone loves to marvel at the extraordinary craftsmanship of the royal monuments of ancient Egypt and the exhibition has no shortage of exquisite jewellery and imposing monuments, but it is fascinating to see them juxtaposed alongside the real-life challenges of ruling the ancient Egyptian civilisation for over 3000 years.

The first visitors enjoying Pharaoh: King of Egypt

 

 

Wonderful new gallery of Ancient Egyptian Life and Death at the British Museum now open

It may have seemed just a typical grey winter’s day in London yesterday, but in a small room on Great Russell Street some very different scenes were unfolding. Beautifully attired men and women gathered for a banquet, watching musicians and dancers, with huge vats of wine wreathed with floral garlands and tables heavily laden with a rich array of food and bouquets of exotic flowers. Nearby, a family was out together on the water for a pleasure cruise and hunting trip, enjoying the beauties of nature as flocks of brightly coloured birds, fish, and butterflies rose in great swirls of movement around them.

Yesterday at the British Museum, the tomb paintings of Nebamun, some of the most famous images in Egyptian art, were finally unveiled again in a new permanent gallery after 10 years of conservation.

On Tuesday night I attended a reception for the opening of the gallery. It was a moment that many people worked long and hard for, from the conservators to the museum assistants, and not least its curator Richard Parkinson. And it was a triumph. It is not only the extraordinary paintings, beautifully restored, that make the gallery such a success–the remarkable reorganization of their display and the design of the gallery completely transforms the way visitors will interact with the museum’s Egyptian collection.

In the past, hundreds of monumental stone sculptures and crowd-thrilling mummies have dominated the museum’s displays, but now visitors will have a chance to see the Egyptians as ordinary people just like them, filled with hopes, fears, and desires. The design of the gallery with its lovely limestone panelling conveys the feeling of the actual tomb. The gallery is small enough to give it a feeling of intimacy, without feeling confined–I only hope it can withstand the extent of the crowds that often swarm through the museum.

Before the paintings were removed from display for conservation purposes (a complex process that involved everything from removing harmful plaster of paris backing to reversing Victorian ‘corrections’ made to the paintings!), they were previously displayed in frames, arranged along the wall as if in an art gallery. The paintings are now arranged according to their likely original locations in the tomb, exhibited on a slightly reclining angle to protect them. Their new integrated display allows the tomb’s message to speak, rather than imposing a Western concept of art on them. It allows the paintings to be exhibited in a way that conveys a sense of their original connectedness, giving a sense of the original unified design space–a place commemorating Nebamun, where friends and family could visit and bring offerings for his spirit in the afterlife. To further convey the sense of what the tomb would have been like, there is video display of a digital recreation of the site and tomb interior, which should also be online soon in an interactive version.

Another remarkable touch is that if you look through the cases that display daily life objects from that era, you can see through to the paintings hanging beyond and actually see the painted depictions of incredibly similar items being used by Nebamun, his friends, family, and workers. Amazingly the cases containing the paintings themselves use non-reflective glass so there’s no glare to impede your view- it almost feels like the glass isn’t there at all.

Several people spoke during the evening, including the director of the museum and the Times Briton of the Year, Neil MacGregor, who spoke amongst other things about how the gallery would bring visitors in touch with real ancient Egyptian people, for example the amazingly preserved loaf of bread that still bears the fingerprints of the baker.

Sir Ronald Cohen, known as the father of venture capitalism, who generously contributed to the funding of the gallery. His personal involvement in the region is an extraordinary story. Cohen is the British son of a Syrian Jew and was born in Egypt. In 1998, he was presented with Israel’s highest tribute, the Jubilee award, as “one of the visionaries who have done the most to facilitate Israel’s integration into the global economy”, and then in 2005 he established the Portland Trust to help the Palestinians “build up a powerful economy . . . based on a deep level of interdependence with Israel”. He spoke very eloquently about naming it in honour of his father Michael Cohen, a lovely gesture that echoes the image of Nebamun being honoured by his son.

The new Egyptian ambassador to Britain, who officially opened the gallery, used his speech to highlight parallels between the current situation in the Middle East and the Amarna correspondence, written shortly after Nebamun’s life, in which chieftains in the region of Palestine wrote to the Egyptian pharaoh asking for help defending themselves against attacking forces. During the course of the evening, I also spotted Cherie Blair eagerly looking around the gallery.

If you’d like a little taster of what to expect, there are some great videos featuring footage of the paintings and the new gallery itself and interviews with Dr. Richard Parkinson, the Egyptologist who masterminded the whole project at the Telegraph and the Times.

Much has been written about the gallery over the past couple of weeks. One of the most informative is a wonderful piece in the Guardian Weekly in Dr. Parkinson’s own words. There have been numerous other very positive and well-written articles about the gallery, all of which I’ve found interesting reading, for example in the Guardian, and also from an Egyptian perspective,
Over the past few years, I myself was very lucky to have  the amazing opportunity to work the paintings over the summer months that I spent as a curatorial intern at the British Museum. When I was a teenager, I actually had a poster of the painting of Nebamun fowling in the marshes in my room, so needless to say it was an extraordinary experience. One of the things I was able to do was contributing to the descriptions of the paintings  in Chapter Three of the book ‘The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun: Masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art in the British Museum‘.

Nebamun

The Nebamun tomb paintings in storage
For this task, my fellow intern Ally and I sat in front of them for hours, examining them in minute detail and considering the individual brushstrokes. Every time I looked at them, a new detail would catch my eye. The paintings are incredibly skillfully produced, exhibiting numerous delicate techniques used to produce various textures and effects. But at the same time, they are no means perfect, the erosion of the paint revealing original sketch lines, corrections, and gridlines. There is a liveliness to the innovative composition, tightly interweaving figures to produce both movement and a wonderful sense of harmony. While many of the images are standard scenes that had been appearing in tombs for hundreds of years, the artists managed to breathe fresh life into them, in ways never seen before in Egyptian art.

In the course of their conservation and examination, wonderful details were newly noted that had somehow never been observed before since the paintings arrived at the British Museum 190 years ago, such as the real gold used on the cat’s eye and the green paint on the left-hand side of the garden scene that can be reconstructed as a large sycomore fig tree.

The value of the paintings lies not only in their artistic merit though, but also in what they can tell us about Egyptian life. The gallery isn’t solely devoted to the paintings of the tomb chapel of Nebamun. Under the curatorship of Dr. Richard Parkinson, objects that further illuminate the lives of the people illustrated in the paintings have been woven into the gallery to infuse our understanding of the idealized Egyptian life depicted in the paintings with details of the realities. You can see the colourful painting materials and slightly unwieldy-looking brushes with which the artists worked their magic, as well as the possessions of both the rich and the poor, from fishing nets to board games to dazzling jewellery.

It was very interesting to see the process of choosing the objects to be displayed go through various stages of selection and whittling down. Like most museums, the British Museum can only display a fraction of their collections, partially due to space limitations and repetition of objects, but also because there is a delicate balance to be achieved in what is useful to furthering visitors’ knowledge and how much they can absorb. While it would be nice to include as many objects as possible, cluttering a small space might mean that people miss seeing key artifacts and lose sight of the message the gallery is trying to convey. It’s not just a desire for clarity that can be restrictive though, there is also consideration of the preservation of the objects. The most impressive object that didn’t make it into the final gallery was a magnificent finely-woven linen tunic, which would have needed such low lighting to preserve it from further degradation that you wouldn’t have been able to see the rest of the objects!

One of the other tasks I helped out with in preparation for the new gallery was a final desperate attempt to shed more light on the whereabouts of the lost tomb from which the paintings had been brutally removed so long ago. Although we know Nebamun’s tomb was located in Dra’ Abu el-Naga, we know little more. In vain, I scoured published archaeological records like Friederike Kampp’s survey of Theban tombs for any shred of evidence that might point to a known tomb being a potential location for Nebamun. While there were quite a few other Nebamuns buried in the area, all of them had details that ruled the BM’s Nebamun out. I wasn’t even able to identify a single tomb dated to the right era that was lacking any other defining information. There is a slim possibility that Nebamun’s tomb may still lie buried under further accumulations of debris, waiting to be rediscovered, but it may be so completely destroyed that it will forever remain unidentifiable.

The good news though is that now that the paintings have been restored and put on display again, Nebamun can be rediscovered by millions of people from around the world, and the gallery will breathe life once again into our understanding of the lives of the ancient Egyptians, who were so much more than just the sum of their statues and mummies.

Qurna