Okay, everyone, we’ve (finally, for some of you) reached the last of week of my self-guided tour of the Carnegie Museums. This week, I want to walk through the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s (CMNH) Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt.
As I alluded to last week, as a science, Egyptology’s roots are deep in colonialism and foreign exploitation, which makes most museums’ collections at best problematic, if not outright racist. For the interested, here is the museum’s personal statement on their Egyptian antiquities. Walton Hall is currently in a bit of flux— about two years ago, they were soliciting input from their resident scientists and interested friends of the museum as how to better improve the organization and display of the collection, but admittedly Covid and its intendant financial impact has likely stalled any planned renovations. Although invited to one of these planning meetings, I was unfortunately unable to attend, but my understanding of the direction the museum would like to take is to refocus the collection around the ecology of life on the Nile Delta, which would have the added benefit of making the collection fit better into a natural history museum.
I think the idea would also incorporate an expansion to the hall, which is, in a word, cramped. Walton Hall is small enough that it was really the only place in the museum where occupancy limits were being monitored by staff while I was there, and to further illustrate the limits of the space, Covid precautions capped the limit at no more than ten people at a time. Further directed through the hall by velvet roping to keep everybody moving, I can tell you that even being in there with maybe five other people felt very claustrophobic. The lead picture shows the most expansive area of the whole space, and even there you can see we’re definitely not talking the British Museum here.
In fact, some of the largest pieces of the collection aren’t even in the hall proper, but rather in the main staircase area, both as a matter of size and being made of materials that doesn’t require the preservation temperature control that most of Walton Hall is kept at. One of these is a large granite replica of a statue of the war goddess Sekhmet from the British Museum. Unlike perhaps the plaster casts downstairs, this replica is made of stone and is virtually indistinguishable from the original. Arguably what might give it away to an expect is the replica is in pristine condition, while as you can see below, the original bears the scuffs and scrapes of the millennia.
Unlike most goddesses who are almost always shown in full-length shifts that go from their shoulders to their ankles, even if their breasts may or may not be exposed, it isn’t unusual for Sekhmet to be shown more minimally dressed or even naked. This is a manifestation of Sekhmet’s power, her strength more in line with the male Egyptian gods than most of the other goddesses. Arguably, this is even reflected in her divine marriage: her gentle Hathor side is usually paired with Horus, but Sekhmet is the consort of the mummy-wound Ptah. That is why this statue shows her topless, and wearing a kilt-like garment closer to what a male deity would wear, even if the kilt’s length is feminine.
Like most depictions of the goddess, she is crowned by a solar disk (because, as a daughter of Ra, Sekhmet/Hathor is technically also a solar deity), and the uraeus, the rearing cobra of sovereignty and divinity. The uraeus is representative of the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt, who is usually called Wadjet, though because that is also the Egyptian term for the Eye of Horus, my readers know that I tend to refer to her by one of her alternate names, Iaret, to limit confusion. The uraeus was a protective charm, the rearing cobra ready to strike out at the enemies of the wearer. Which is why it is usually on any royal crown, as you can see on the models below.
Another object that resides outside of the hall proper is a lawn-ornament-sized sphinx dating from the Ptolemaic period. Sphinxes of this size would have lined the main avenue of a temple, and could have a variety of faces (lions, rams, human, etc.). I know this one is in really rough shape, but the museum says this one has a lion’s head with a human face. Personally, I would also buy full lion-head. The stone used here is limestone, but more specifically fossiliferous limestone, which accounts for its sedimentary appearance where the stone has been worn down. Limestone is formed by calcite and aragonite precipitating out of water that contains dissolved calcium. Because it forms in contact with water and organic life, that’s why fossil structures are fairly common in it. Often fossiliferous limestone is specifically chosen for its attractive fossil patterning, as was likely the case with this sphinx.
Now, some of you probably thought, “Gee, that lawn ornament comment was an oddly specific way to demonstrate the size of this artifact…” But in truth, it was closer to the truth than you might have thought, because before it enjoyed its little glass box in the grand staircase, this sphinx lived on the grounds of ketchup king Henry J. Heinz’s mansion, Greenlawn, in Point Breeze. But before you blame fat-cat capitalist exterior decorating and the truly monumental levels of Pittsburgh environmental pollution of the time for the state of this sphinx, it is likely it came to Heinz mostly in its current condition. Because it is believed this sphinx is one of many artifacts dredged out of Ptolemaic Alexandria, which, as we’ve previously discussed, is now principally under modern Alexandria’s harbor. Which is one of the less effective to preserve Egyptian antiquities.
Finally ducking back into the air-conditioned splendor of Walton Hall, the curators would tell you that the centerpiece of the museum’s five thousand-odd-piece Egyptian collection is a full-sized solar funerary barque, excavated at Dashur in the pyramid complex of Senwosret III, a pharaoh who reigned roughly 3,800 years ago. This vessel is another reason I believe the museum hopes to recenter its exhibit on the ecology of the Nile, because it would have the opportunity to perhaps move the barque into a more central location within the hall and use the Egyptians’ vast interdependence on the river to radiate out into a more connected display, much as they have used environments to focus its Inuit and Native American wings.
Because of the fragility of the ancient wood, the barque is in an additional hermetic glass enclosure that is difficult to photograph, so instead below I’ve included a picture of the barque in situ at Dashur, and below that, a model of a similar barque belonging to Khufu found in the Great Pyramid complex, to give you an idea of what the intact boat would have looked like.
As a side note to my less-nautically knowledgeable readers, in my books I use the alternate spelling for my boats, choosing “bark” over “barque.” While I find barque more elegant on the page, I came across bark first in my research in regards to the solar ship of Ra and the corresponding ship of night, and was struck by the evocativeness of the homophonic duality. So, rather than perhaps the more accepted “barque”, I chose to refer to these ships as the Day-bark and the Night-bark because I liked the idea that these vessels might announce themselves in a metaphorically audible way as well, perhaps accompanied by the sounds of sunrise and twilight. Anyway, these are among the thousands of little stylistic decisions one confronts in writing and I like highlighting them mainly as way to show that I really believe anyone can write— you just needs to get comfortable with your own voice. It’s one of many reasons I’m trying to get consistent writing here on the blog; because while how I write here is different than how I write in my books, it gives me a space to flex in style and language. Not to mention a space to break down things like word choice and why I use a really obscure name for Egypt’s cobra goddess.
Outside of Senwosret’s barque, most of the CMNH’s Egyptian collection is small objects, and I thought we’d look at a few that caught my eye on my latest tour while I was enjoying the collection, but wishing for the solitude and wide open spaces of the Hall of Architecture.
Anyway, in keeping with the barque, and the importance of the Nile and water in general to the Egyptians, you might not have been aware that the ancient Egyptians used water for time as well as all of the usual purposes. The picture below shows a small clepsydra, or water clock (from the Greek κλέπτειν and ὕδωρ, to “steal water”). Clepsydrae are one of the earliest timepieces and were especially used at night, when sunlight and shadow couldn’t be used to mark the passage of time. A clepsydra would be filled at the opening in the top and chambers within the column would release water through the hole at the bottom at a set rate. The oldest Egyptian clepsydra was unearthed in the tomb of Amenemhet, a court official during the 16th century BC, and identifies him as the inventor of the device.
In this clepsydra, water would be placed in the water column at the top and the passage of time would be marked by water dripping out of the hole beneath the baboon. Because of its exceptionally small size (palm-sized), the simple appearance of its water column, and the shallowness of the reservoir at the baboon’s feet, I suspect the particular votive clepsydra in the CMNH’s collection is likely meant to mark the turn of no more than one hour, making it more like an ancient timer than a clock. But if one is baking bread before sunrise or completing nighttime temple rituals, sometimes you need a stopwatch more than a Rolex. Like many Egyptian objects, the clepsydra is made of faience, which in ancient Egypt is a fired quartz ceramic that they called tjehenet. The firing process would create a vitreous glaze of bright blue or green. The clepsydra is damaged enough that you can see the plain ceramic underneath the glaze. As for the baboon, as we’ve mentioned before, baboons were sacred to Thoth, and as the god of wisdom and the Lord of Knowledge, he was also the patron god of scribes and record keepers. Making him a perfect person to guard your water clock.
Speaking of priests and their offerings, sometimes rather than simply handing a gift off to the gods (like the jars Seti is holding out to Horus in the model), sometimes a priest or offerer would use a device like the one above to hold out their offering as an added layer of deference. Notice this bronze rod even has a tiny hand that supports the vessel. The end is hawk-headed, likely representing one of the many hawk solar deities. The hole in the top of the hawk’s head might have once had a solar disk like the one in the painting below. This relief also seems to suggest the cup offered contained incense (because of the wavy lines rising from it), which makes sense in that seems a likely use for the secondary opening in the middle of the rod as well.
The broken ceramic vase below from the Predynastic Period (c. 3150 – 3100 BC) has a quickly sketched serekh of the pharaoh Qa on it. A serekh is more commonly called a cartouche, a device meant to enclose the name of a pharaoh (or sometimes another royal personage) and separate the name from any surrounding hieroglyphs for clarity. Its design is meant to mimic the gated facade of the palace, crowned by a falcon meant to represent the god Horus. The serekh is one of the five ruling names of a pharaoh, sometimes called the Horus name (though not to be confused with their Golden Horus name). For example, Cleopatra’s serekh is Weretnebet-neferuachetseh (“The Great Lady of Perfection, Excellent of Counsel”). While Horus was generally the ruling deity of this name, but there was ancient precedent for ceding this name to the power of another deity, most notably among several rulers to Set, as my readers know I also do for Arsinoë. If you were to construct her serekh, it would probably look similar to the one of pharaoh Peribsen that I’ve included below, with Set at the top and her serekh name (Meretkaset, “Beloved of the Ka of Set”) inside.
Speaking of Set and my girl, they have a fondness for one of Set’s last large cult centers, the city of Ombos, located in Upper Egypt in the last large bend in the Nile as it turns south to the first cataract in Elephantine. By the Ptolemaic Period, Ombos is a small town of no significance, but in Egypt’s earliest recorded history, it was a truly ancient civilization center, known for a series of eras known as the Naqada Periods (from Ombos’ Arabic name). The Naqada civilization covered a period from 4000 – 3000 BC, divided into three hundred-year stretches referred to as Naqada I, II, and III. The mummy from the CMNH’s collection below is obviously not what one thinks of as an Egyptian mummy, but this person lived during the Naqada period, which was prior to the discovery of artificial mummification and Egyptians’ famously wrought funerary practices. People of this period were buried in the fetal position with a simple collection of grave goods, mostly pottery (also a fairly new invention at the time). Sand and the dry, high desert air of Egypt are natural preservers, leaving bodies with perfectly desiccated skin and musculature, as you can see here. The pottery displayed shows a range of styles and sophistication covering all three of the Naqada periods, and later burials would have included knives and small figurines.
As for classic Egyptian mummification, we think of that as the purview of pharaonic Egypt, but for those who could afford it, mummification remained the funerary practice of choice well into the Greco-Roman period. This is in part demonstrated by the Greek-language mummy tag below from the first half of the 1st century AD. Mummy tags served exactly the purpose you’d imagine: to identify each mummy and keep it from being misplaced, either during the mummification process or after burial. My readers can think back to the Alexandrian catacombs, which were large enough to walk around in and visit, although this tag comes from the necropolis of Faiyum, a major city center in Middle Egypt (about sixty miles southwest of Cairo). Faiyum’s mummies are famous for their beautiful, life-like mummy portraits that came into vogue during the Roman provincial period and are a wonderful example of Egypt’s early 1st century cultural blending. The CMNH’s tag says it belongs the mummy of a young woman named Tkoualatein, the wife or daughter of a man named Eponychos.
Obviously this is just a tiny sampling of the CMNH’s collection, much of which is composed of small pieces no bigger than a mummy tag, objects both as sacred as statues of the gods and mundane as a kohl stick. While not the largest nor the most impressive collection I’ve visited, I do think it presents a thoughtful picture of life (and death) in ancient Egypt. People lived and worked and worshiped and died in ways that not so far removed from how we do, and left these objects behind for us to interpret and learn from. And on that semi-serious note, enjoy some of my favorite murals and pictures from the hall that are not ancient, but always make me laugh while I’m trying to learn.