Inside the Collection

Death in the museum- part 3: Ancient Egypt

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

I’m starting to notice a bit of a theme amongst some of the entries for our 1st birthday competition – stories about mysterious sightings in the Museum, ghosts and other morbid tales! So, perhaps it’s a good time to raise some objects from the dead again in part 3 to our ‘Death in the Museum’ series! The following provides a snapshot of the Museum’s small, but representative collection, of Ancient Egyptian funerary objects which I presented at one of the Museum’s Talks After Noon sessions to cooincide with Halloween last year.

Many people assume that the Ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death and for good reason – they spent their whole lives preparing for it! But, in fact, it was quite the opposite. The Ancient Egyptians were actually obsessed with life. They believed that death was a necessary interruption to achieving eternal life, so long as on earth they practiced piety to the gods, mummification and were buried with statuary and other funerary equipment in their tomb.

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Our first object is the earliest grave good in the Museum – it is an example of ‘black-topped’ Predynastic ware. It most probably comes from el-Badari in Upper Egypt and dates to around 4500BC. Remarkably, vessels like this were hand formed and burnished rather than glazed. They typically appeared in small quantities in the graves of private individuals.

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

This is a kohl jar used for holding black cosmetic eye paint. It is made from Egyptian alabaster and dates to the Middle Kingdom, around 1900BC. Kohl jars like this first appear in the mid-late Old Kingdom in the burials of women, often with mirrors, palettes and jewellery such as…

Collection: Powerhouse Museum

…this pair of faience beaded necklaces. Faience is a ceramic material made from crushed quartz or quartz sand with small amounts of lime and plant ash or natron and glazed. We do not know the date or provenance of these examples, and it is possible that these beads were loose and re-threaded into jewellery in contemporary times.

Collection: Powerhouse Museum
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Faience was also the preferred material for shabtis figures. Shabtis are small statuettes of the deceased, which are mummiform in shape that performed the laborious tasks required for the production of food for their owners in the afterlife (such as sowing seeds, harvesting crops and irrigating the land). This blue-glazed shabtis (above) comes from Deir el-Bahri and is inscribed “The Osiris, overseer of granaries, Djed-khonsu-iwf-ankh, justified”. Shabtis became so important to the Egyptian belief system that by the New Kingdom, shabtis boxes were developed which held 365 worker shabtis (one for everyday of the year) and 36 overseer shabtis which told the workers what to do.

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

An overseer shabtis was distinguished by a whip held in one hand. This particular example belonged to In-peh-ef-nakht and dates to the Third Intermediate Period (around 1000BC). Shabtis from this time are characterised by the seshed headband which hangs down the back.

Collection: Powerhouse Museum
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

This is a bronze statuette of the god, Nefertum, who is identified by the lotus flower surmounted by two tall plumes on his head. Nefertum was linked with the gods Ptah and Sekhmet and formed part of the divine family of the Memphite area.

Collection: Powerhouse Museum
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

This is Harpocrates – the Greek name for the child god Horus, identified by the side lock of hair and finger in his mouth. To the Greeks, Harpocrates was the god of silence and secrecy. This particular example most probably dates to the Ptolemaic period around 300BC.

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Apart from statuary, gods were immortalized in the form of amulets. Amulets are protective charms which were frequently worn on necklaces and wrapped inside mummy bandages. This amulet depicts Isis seated with her son, the child god Horus suckling her breast (unfortunately, Isis’ head and shoulders are missing) with his head propped up in her left hand. Amulets like this served to protect both women and children in the physical world as much as in the afterlife.

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

This amulet is of the Hippopotamus god Taweret, who was the protector of women and childbirth. This example dates to the Saite Period and probably comes from Saqqara or Memphis.

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The scarab beetle, the embodiment of the god Khepri, was an important symbol to the Egyptians of rebirth. Scarab amulets like this were typically threaded onto a larger beaded net which shrouded the mummy of wealthier Egyptians, along with the four sons of Horus – Imsety, Duamutef, Hapi and Qebehsenuef.

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

This is a true little souvenir of the late 19th – early 20th century; a fragment of mummy cloth and a lock of a female mummy’s wig, possibly that of a Queen from the 18th Dynasty, mounted and framed by Professor Grafton Elliot Smith, an Australian born Egyptologist. And, underneath the mummy cloth it says, “Piece of mummy wrapping of Rai, nurse of Queen Nefertari, wife of Ahmosis I”.

If you would like to discover more about the scope of our collection of Egyptian and related antiquities, click here. My colleague, Paul Donnelly, also published a very comprehensive article on our Egyptian amulets collection in Mediterranean Archaeology in 1999.

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