I talked a little while ago about the length of Egyptian civilisation and its continuity using Khaemwaset’s reconstruction work on Unas’s pyramid as my example, and today my photo is of another example of the deep, deep roots of Pharaonic Egyptian culture.
The implement in the photo is a pesesh-kef, a knife which was used in one of the key funerary rituals throughout ancient Egyptian culture – the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. This was performed on the mummy and it rendered the deceased able to breathe and eat in the afterlife.
It was a ceremony that was also performed on statues, rendering them able to be vessels for the deceased’s ka. This was a key part of what we might think of the soul of a person, and it was this part of your person that received food offerings left at the tomb after your death.
And this example of a pesesh-kef dates to waaaay before the time of Pharaonic Egypt: it was excavated at a place called el-Ma’mariya and it dates to the Naqada I period around 3800-3500 BCE, so something like five to eight centuries before Narmer unified Egypt.
Of course we can’t be at all sure that it was used for the same purposes, but it does demonstrate that the rituals grow out of deep roots in the local Egyptian culture and that even before the concept of Egypt as a country existed elements of that later culture were developing.
This is a scene from the far left end of a much longer papyrus (around 4m) which is a funerary text belonging to a man called Sethnakhte who was a Tax Master and Steward during the 19th Dynasty (around 3,300 years ago). It was read from right to left so this is the final part.
It shows Sethnakhte on the right, in a very high quality linen garment – the pleats are marked on in red, and the linen is of such good quality that you can see his limbs through his clothing. On the left is Osiris-Wennefer-Khentyamentiu, a composite deity with a falcon head.
Sethnakhte is holding one hand up in front of himself in adoration of the funerary deity, who is actually a statue on a pedestal. In front of the divine statue is an offering table, and Sethnakhte is also holding up a small figure of the goddess Maat.
The whole scene is taking place within a shrine – you can see the top of it has feathers of Maat and uraei snakes alternating as protective elements, and the walls double up as the lines separating the vignette from the rest of the text.
Its provenance is unknown, but it’s now in the Met Museum, acc. no. 35.9.19
This statue depicts a man called Harbes holding onto a statue of Osiris (you can tell it’s a statue of the god because it’s standing on a pedestal on top of the pedestal Harbes is standing on). It dates to the 26th Dynasty, around 2600 years ago.
There are inscriptions on the sides & back that tell us about Harbes: he is the Chief Scribe of the Great Prison who lived in the time of Psamtik II. He also used the name Psamtiknefer (Psamtik is good), which was a common piece of sycophancy used by officials at this time.
The inscriptions also make offerings to Osiris and to Amun-Re, the god he is holding and the god in whose temple the statue was set up. It was eventually found in the cache of statues hidden beneath the floor of Karnak temple and had once been on view in the temple itself.
This is the inner coffin of a woman called Tabakenkhonsu who lived and died during the 25th Dynasty around 2600 years ago. She was buried in the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri, and I shared a photo of her bead shroud a few weeks ago.
She was buried in 3 coffins and you can see parts of them all in this photo. The outer one was rectangular and the other two are person shaped – you can see the lower part of the outer one with bedpost like corners at the far end, as well as the lower part of the middle one.
The inner one is displayed here with the lid as well as the base. On the foot end is a very typical decoration for this period – the deceased is shown as a mummy being carried by the Apis Bull towards the tomb.
These coffins were found at Deir el Bahri and are now in the Met Museum, acc. no. 96.4.3.
I don’t actually know very much about this statue. It was in the Cairo Museum but unlabelled when I took the photo in 2016. Judging by the other items around it in the museum, and the way it looks, I’m guessing that it’s an Old Kingdom statue of a family group.
It’s suffered from the depredations of time, there’s an arm missing off both the two chaps where clearly it’s been bashed about at some point, and the paint is chipped and rubbing off. But despite that you can still see that this was once a pretty nice statue.
The three individuals have been represented as prosperous and well off. They’re dressed in fine white linen, carefully pleated for the men’s kilts and a close fitting sheath dress for the woman. They also all wear jewellery and look like they are healthy and well fed.
I particularly like all the detail on the woman’s dress and accessories. The dress, necklaces and bracelet clearly make a cohesive outfit, and I wonder if this was something she would’ve worn in life or an idealised outfit designed for eternity.
As I said, it’s in the Cairo Museum or at least it was in 2016, but I’ve no idea where it came from, when it was made, nor the accession number. If anyone has more information then do let me know! 🙂️
Ancient Egyptian history didn’t just happen an awfully long time ago, but their civilisation also lasted an almost unimaginable length of time. It’s often noted that Cleopatra is closer to our time than she was to the time of the builders of the pyramids at Giza.
And the Egyptians knew it. They didn’t have tales of giants building the ancient monuments, they didn’t think it was some vanished race of superhumans, they knew that this was their ancestors constructing these buildings in the same way that their own king commissioned his own.
This is one of the ways that we know this – the vaguely pyramid shaped heap of stone on the left of the picture is the pyramid built by Unas, who ruled around 2350 BCE as the last king of the 5th Dynasty during the Old Kingdom.
And the cleaner looking slabs laid up against it are a (reconstructed) inscription commissioned by a man called Khaemwaset (who was one of the many, many sons of Ramesses II) around 1250 BCE during the 19th Dynasty in the New Kingdom.
The inscription talks about how he found that the pyramid was in ruin, so restored it and made sure that Unas’s name was on it once more. This ruined pyramid wasn’t just a heap of rubble to him, but was known to be the tomb of a specific king some 1200 years after it was built.
This little piece, only a little over 9 inches wide, is a model tambourine made of faience. This sort of object was given as an offering to Bastet at festivals and the scene visible on this side shows Bastet’s sacred boat sailing on her sacred lake at one of these festivals.
You can see quite a few details on the boat – at the rear is a gazelle head decorating the prow. Next to this are a pair of large oars like you see on model boats, and a little (hawk headed?) chap who may be tending them or may be gazing at the central shrine.
The shrine in the centre contains another sort of a shrine, a naos shrine. On the side of that (or inside, I’m not sure which) is presumably Bastet or her statue flanked by two winged protective beings. To the right is another figure, kneeling and possibly holding a flagpole.
This stela is quite an unusual object, as it combines both a stela and a miniature chapel (with niches to hold statuettes of the commissioner and his family). Both individual parts are known from other monuments, but the combination is rare or perhaps unique.
This commissioner was a man called Sehetepib who lived during the 12th Dynasty and was the Overseer of the Troops. The text also names his father Senbebu and his grandfather Heqaib, and it’s possible that these men are also known from statues found on Elephantine.
However this stela was probably erected at Abydos, alongside many hundred other monuments commissioned by officials of the Middle Kingdom to line the processional route at this site of pilgrimage – a way of partaking in the ceremonies honouring Osiris forever.
This object is now in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden (acc. no.: AP 78), but I took this photograph at an exhibition in the Met Museum in 2013.
At first glance this is a collection of rather unprepossessing little objects. Squares of ivory, with a small hole and hieroglyphic sign or two etched onto the surface. They’re not terribly big, just about the size of the museum’s number for the objects.
And that juxtaposition illustrates what they are – they are labels. Very very old labels with some of the first evidence for the use of hieroglyphs. They were found in Tomb U-j at Abydos, which had been looted in the distant mists of time but some of the labels remained.
It’s thought that they were attached to the various funerary goods that were buried with the tomb’s owner. There are numbers on some of them, others are thought to name towns – including what looks like the names of a couple of towns in the Delta region far to the north.
It’s not entirely certain whose tomb this is, but it probably belongs to a ruler called Scorpion – probably not the one with the famous macehead but an earlier one, who may’ve unified Upper Egypt around 3150 BCE.
These are now in the Cairo Museum, but I don’t have accession numbers for them.
This is another detail from the outer coffin of a man called Amenemopet who lived during the 22nd Dynasty (around 3000 years ago), I shared a photo of the interior a few months ago and this is the outside of the foot portion of the coffin.
I love looking at and taking photos of coffins from this era, because they are so covered in motifs and decorative elements – every time you look at an object you see something you’d not seen before!
The central panel of this piece is heavy on protective snake motifs, just in this photo alone there are three of them. And between them are solar and Osirian images, with more protective beings (and more snakes).
The top panel shows the scarab beetle, Khepri, pushing the sun up (protected by paired snakes) from what looks awfully like a palace facade motif. He’s flanked by two mummiform jackal headed beings, kneeling on the ground and each holding a crook and flail.
Below is an analogous scene with different participants. The sun disc and flanking snakes sits on top of a tyet knot, the symbol of the goddess Isis, and the mummiform beings are human headed and seated on chairs.
And there’s loads more, if you go to my photo site you can look at a larger version using the drop menu on the top right of the page and see more of the details to the left & the right. The coffin itself is in the Met Museum, acc. no.: 17.2.7a.