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.

Wall painting of a group of foreigners in the tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hassan, Egypt. © Margaret Maitland

Wall painting of a group of foreigners in the tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hassan, Egypt. © Margaret Maitland

The statuette of the foreign woman and child, the only one of its kind ever discovered in Egypt, eventually made its way to National Museums Scotland, and more recently it has travelled further than ever before, along with other National Museums Scotland’s objects, to be part of a landmark exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Ancient Egypt Transformed focusses on the Middle Kingdom (c. 2030-1650 BC), a period of Egyptian history that was as celebrated in ancient Egyptian times as it is largely unknown to wider audiences today. Its literature became the classic poems and stories that continued to be read in Egypt for over a thousand years, while its powerful kings became the stuff of ancient legend.

The Middle Kingdom arose out of a previous period of disintegration and civil war. Earlier kings used their immense wealth and power to build the astonishing pyramids at Giza, but their power had waned and control of Egypt became fragmented. From among the warring local rulers, finally one emerged victorious: King Nebhepetre Montuhotep II of Thebes (c. 2051-2000 BC), the founder of the Middle Kingdom. The Egyptian concept of kingship unifying the Two Lands of Upper and Lower had been shaken, but the victory of Montuhotep II reinvigorated it. His innovative mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri on the west bank of Thebes became a symbol of reunification and the focal point of building activity for many subsequent rulers who sought to align themselves with his successful image.

Relief fragment depicting King Nebhepetre Montuhotep II from his mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, Thebes, Egypt [A.1906.349]. © National Museums Scotland

Relief fragment depicting King Nebhepetre Montuhotep II from his mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, Thebes, Egypt [A.1906.349]. © National Museums Scotland

The Metropolitan Museum exhibition provided the opportunity for the reunification of several relief fragments from the tomb of the wife of Montuhotep II, Queen Neferu. Met curator Kei Yamamoto spotted the connection between the two fragments and they were re-joined in the exhibition for the first time since antiquity. The scene depicts a procession of offering bearers carrying decorated wooden boxes, containing cosmetics, jewellery, and clothing, to the tomb to provision the queen in the afterlife. Carefully crafted mounts were designed to hold the relief fragments in position as close as possible without actually touching. In the exhibition, they are displayed alongside actual examples of beautiful wooden boxes, wonderfully preserved, just like the ones depicted on the tomb wall of the queen.

Private stone statuary dating to the Middle Kingdom [A.1952.158 and A.1965.8] © National Museums Scotland

Private stone statuary dating to the Middle Kingdom [A.1952.158 and A.1965.8] © National Museums Scotland

The Middle Kingdom witnessed an artistic renaissance, including extraordinary humanising royal sculpture, which subsequently provided inspiration for the statuary of private individuals.

Some of the finest Middle Kingdom craftsmanship produced extraordinarily delicate gold jewellery. The exquisitely crafted gold catfish pendant currently on loan from National Museums Scotland to the Met is astonishingly lifelike in its detail, achieved through careful chasing, engraving and almost invisible soldering. It was excavated in the tomb of a young girl at Haraga near the pyramid of King Senwosret II, along with other gold jewellery items that have recently been the subject of scientific analysis at the museum.

Unpacking the gold catfish pendant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art [A.1914.1079]. © National Museums Scotland

Our museum conservators carefully packed the objects to ensure their safe transport to New York, and it was a thrill to finally unpack them and reveal them to eagerly awaiting colleagues at the Met, where they took their place among a carefully curated selection of over 230 objects documenting an extraordinary, transformative period in Egyptian history. They are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until Sunday January 24, 2016, after which they will return to form part of our Ancient Egypt gallery currently in development for 2018.

Installing the statuette of a foreign woman at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. © National Museums Scotland

Installing the statuette of a foreign woman at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. © National Museums Scotland

This blog post originally appeared on the National Museums Scotland blog.

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.

‘When belongings are snatched by the deprived…’

Here in the UK these days, most people are preoccupied by the widespread unrest in our cities. Now I don’t write about politics, but I do research and write about social differences in ancient Egypt. I find it interesting to note that the debates we’re having today about criminality, deprivation, & social responsibility can also be found in ancient Egyptian poetry dating back to almost 4000 years ago. Despite the vast inequality in ancient Egyptian society between pharaohs and peasants, despite corporal punishment being commonplace and literacy rare, an Egyptian poet was still able to eloquently question the condemnation of criminal acts by the poor over those of the rich. The poem entitled ‘The Eloquent Peasant’ (the inspiration behind the name of my blog) tells the story of a peasant whose only possessions are stolen by a wealthy official and his subsequent articulate pleas for justice, which move even the pharaoh.

This is the passage that came to mind recently:

A lord of bread should be merciful, whereas might belongs to the deprived,

theft suits one without belongings, when the belongings are snatched by the deprived;

but the bad [are those who] act without want—should it not be blamed? It is self seeking.

Criminal responsibility is a controversial topic. Although one can’t really properly contrast a fictional robbery committed by a government official in ancient Egypt with the rioting of thousands of teenagers in deprived areas, it is fascinating to see that the social issues we struggle with today are the same as those of ancient Egypt. Humans have been around for tens of thousands of years, but human nature has not greatly changed in the past few millennia. Plus ça change…

You can read the rest of ‘The Eloquent Peasant’ in Richard Parkinson’s book of translations of ancient Egyptian poetry, ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’. I’ll be giving a talk on the lives of the rich and poor in ancient Egypt in the Nebamun gallery at the British Museum this Friday, August 10th.

Echoes from the past, fears for the future

Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC

Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC

the Dialogue of Ipuwer and the Lord of All

from the poem The Prophecy of Neferti,
With all of the ongoing change happening in Egypt right now, there is the danger that what has existed there for millennia could be lost in just a moment. The people have been fearlessly standing up and making their voices heard, but the fire and chaos in Cairo is threatening the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Reports coming in via Twitter told of the protestors forming an incredible human chain around the museum to protect it until the army could come to take over. Now tweets are reporting Al Jazeera showing scenes of looting within the museum. The sad news has come of Dr. Zahi Hawass confirming damage and the destruction of at least two mummies. With the continuing upheaval, I am fearful for both the people and the vast repository of beauty, wisdom, history, and monumental human achievement concentrated in that one building. Many know the museum as the home of Tutankhamun’s treasures, the single greatest collection of burial goods from ancient Egypt, including not only the gold mask, but everything from chariots to underwear. But the museum holds so much more.

To any student of Egyptology who visits for the first time, the experience is mind boggling. Object after object is a masterpiece, telling fabulous stories of the birth of civilization, genius architects, powerful kings, master artists, great generals, eloquent writers, and the ordinary people who lived and died on the banks of the Nile. From the serene beauty of the statues of King Menkaure or the dazzling treasures of Tutankhamun’s grandparents, to the delicate perfection of the painting of the Meidum geese or the exquisite Middle Kingdom jewellery, copied by Art Deco jewellers.

Papyrus Boulaq 18 records the day-to-day working of an ancient Egyptian palace, including the wages that were paid, while the actual beautifully decorated floors from the palace at Amarna, on which Akhenaten and Nefertiti would have walked, are also preserved in the museum.
The magnificent models from the tomb of Meketre come from another time of transition in Egyptian history. Meketre served the king who managed to reunite the country after its first long period of decentralization. The enormous wooden model depicting cattle stocktaking is absolutely unique in ancient Egypt. The amount of detail in this, and other models, give us insight into daily life, ancient technology, and social relations. Even the bodies of the pharaohs themselves lie in state in the museum, like Ramesses III, who battled invasions by the Sea Peoples and whose wife, son, and officials conspired to assassinate him.
What I am possibly most afraid for though is all the unknown, undocumented treasures that lie buried in the basement of the museum. Most museums only have a few percent of their entire collections on display, but in the Egyptian Museum the number of artefacts in storage is so vast that no one entirely knows what’s down there. There are often stories of amazing artefacts being ‘rediscovered’. The first 30 seconds of the video below gives just a glimpse of the labyrinth of objects that lies below the museum. If anything were to happen to these pieces, not only would they be lost to future generations, but the potential knowledge they offer would never come to light. Their destruction would be complete, as if they had never existed.
For now, my thoughts are with the people of Egypt, both the modern and the ancient, but I am consoled by the thought that if Ramesses the Great, who may have been up to 90 years old when he died, has managed to survive for over 3000 years with even his hair dye still intact, then perhaps it will take quite a lot more before this particular old man goes anywhere…
I shall show you the land in catastrophe,
what should not happen, happening:
arms of war will be taken up,
and the land will live by uproar….
To the heart, spoken words seem like fire;
what comes from the mouth cannot be endured.
Shrunk is the land–many its controllers.
It is bare–its taxes are great.
Little is the grain–large is the measure,
and it is poured out in rising amounts.
The Sungod separates Himself from mankind.
He will rise when it is time,
but no one knows when midday occurs, no one can distinguish His shadow
~from the poem ‘The Prophecy of Neferti’, written over 3500 years ago
With all of the ongoing change happening in Egypt right now, there is the danger that what has existed there for millennia could be lost in just a moment. While the people have been fearlessly standing up and making their voices heard, the fire and chaos in Cairo has been threatening the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Reports coming in via Twitter told of the protestors forming an incredible human chain around the museum to protect it until the army could come to take over. Now tragic reports have come in from Dr. Zahi Hawass himself of some damage by looters and the destruction of at least two mummies. With the continuing upheaval, I am fearful for both the people of Egypt and the vast repository of beauty, wisdom, history, and monumental human achievement concentrated in that one building. Many know the museum as the home of Tutankhamun’s treasures, the single greatest collection of burial goods from ancient Egypt, including not only the gold mask, but everything from chariots to underwear. But the museum holds so much more.
To any student of Egyptology who visits for the first time, the experience is mind boggling. Object after object is a masterpiece, telling fabulous stories of the birth of civilization, genius architects, powerful kings, master artists, great generals, eloquent writers, and the ordinary people who lived and died on the banks of the Nile. From the serene beauty of the statues of King Menkaure or the dazzling treasures of Tutankhamun’s grandparents, to the delicate perfection of the painting of the Meidum geese or the exquisite Middle Kingdom jewellery, copied by Art Deco jewellers.
Statue of Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh and pyramid builder Menkaure

Statue of Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh and pyramid builder Menkaure

Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC

Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC

Papyrus Boulaq 18 records the day-to-day working of an ancient Egyptian palace, including the wages that were paid, while the actual beautifully decorated floors from the palace at Amarna, on which Akhenaten and Nefertiti would have walked, are also preserved in the museum.
The magnificent models from the tomb of Meketre come from another time of transition in Egyptian history. Meketre served the king who managed to reunite the country after its first long period of decentralization. The enormous wooden model depicting cattle stocktaking is absolutely unique in ancient Egypt. The amount of detail in this, and other models, give us insight into daily life, ancient technology, and social relations.
Cattle count model of Meketre

Cattle count model of Meketre

Weaving model of Meketre

Weaving model of Meketre

Even the bodies of the pharaohs themselves lie in state in the museum, like Ramesses III, who battled invasions by the Sea Peoples and whose wife, son, and officials conspired to assassinate him.
What I am possibly most afraid for though is all the unknown, undocumented treasures that lie buried in the basement of the museum. Most museums only have a few percent of their entire collections on display, but in the Egyptian Museum the number of artefacts in storage is so vast that no one entirely knows what’s down there. There are often stories of amazing artefacts being ‘rediscovered’. The first 30 seconds of the video below gives just a glimpse of the labyrinth of objects that lies below the museum. If anything were to happen to these pieces, not only would they be lost to future generations, but the potential knowledge they offer would never come to light. Their destruction would be complete, as if they had never existed.
For now, my thoughts are with the people of Egypt, both the modern and the ancient. I am watching with baited breath for further news of the fate of the objects kept in the museum, a repository of the country’s history and a monument to human achievement. My hopes are buoyed only by the thought that if Ramesses the Great, who may have been up to 90 years old when he died, has managed to survive for over 3000 years with even his hair dye still intact, then hopefully this particular henna’d old man is not going anywhere…

The Tale of Sinuhe at the British Museum

If you live in or near London, I highly recommend heading over to the British Museum tomorrow evening (Thursday, November 18th) for a repeat performance of the Tale of Sinuhe at 6:30pm in the atmospheric Egyptian sculpture gallery. It involves a reading of the classic poem by terrific actors Gary Pillai and Shobu Kapoor, with an introduction by Dr. Richard Parkinson, assistant keeper at the museum and expert in Middle Kingdom poetry. Having previously studied the poem both at Toronto and Oxford, I know it fairly well, but I was totally unprepared for the emotional impact of hearing it performed. It’s performed in front of a backdrop of a trio of statues of King Senwosret III, their stern, unforgiving stare a potent reminder of pharaoh’s awe-inspiring power, the failure of which drives the poem’s protagonist to flee Egypt.

It’s thrilling to hear the fear, utter despair, joy, and humour in these ancient words brought to life by through the warmth of  the actors’ voices and Dr. Parkinson’s brilliant translation. Many lines in the poem stand out in a way you’d never notice otherwise, bringing additional layers of nuanced meaning. It is a poem filled with great humanity and lyricism, and a beautiful story of exile and redemption. Never have I felt so near to the people and places that I study everyday. This is ancient Egypt brought to vivid life.

A model discovery

There are still fascinating discoveries being made almost constantly in Egypt, but I am particularly excited about the latest one at the site of Deir el Bersha in Middle Egypt. The completely intact tomb of Henu, dating to the late First Intermediate Period, has been found by a team from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium under the direction of Professor Harco Willems and Marleen De Meyer. The tomb dates to over 4000 years ago from a turbulent period of Egyptian history, when the kingship failed and the state fragmented. The report posted online by the archaeological team includes some striking photos of the finds here.

It’s especially exciting since it is relevant to my current research; it shows us something about the Egyptians themselves, as real people, not just in death but how they lived and worked. Some of the objects I’m working with are the models of daily life that were part of burials during the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom. The models are wooden figurines and buildings carved and painted in wood to depict tableaux of workers, doing a variety of activities such as weaving, carpentry, sailing, food production, etc. They are so incredibly detailed that they actually can provide us with a great deal of informationTomb model about ancient technologies and living practices. For example, a great deal can be gleaned from models about boat design. Some of the best examples are in the Metropolitan Museum from the tomb of Meketre, for example this bakery and brewery, or this model of a cattle count. The cattle count presents a fascinating microcosm of Egyptian society and its hierarchical organization; you can see the officials seated under a great canopy with their scrolls, the only literate people, while one of the peasants who has defaulted on his taxes is beaten before them as punishment.

The examples from the tomb of Henu include a scene of three women grinding grain (wearing real miniature linen skirts!), a rare depiction of mud brick production, a baking and beer brewing model, a boat with rowers, and a large statue of Henu himself. As the project report states, the models ‘are characterized by realistic touches and unusual details such as the dirty hands and feet of the brick makers’. While grand temples and pyramids are always impressive, the little human touches in these simple wooden models bring us closer to the real Egyptian people themselves.