This is one of my favourites from the Manchester Museum collection (acc. no.: 5069) so it was nice to see it pop up in the Garstang Museum’s Before Egypt a couple of years ago, which is where I took this photo.
It dates to the Naqada I period, which makes it really quite old – something like 6000 years old (+/- a few centuries). And unusually for an object as old as this we also know where it came from: it was excavated by the EEF at the site of el-Mahasna and was found in tomb H29.
It’s not a unique design idea, either – there’s another similar bowl in the British Museum (EA63408), excavated in Matmar by Guy Brunton for the British Museum. It’s got 4 hippos and a crocodile on the rim, and isn’t nearly as impressive looking: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA63408
This is another relief from an Old Kingdom tomb at Saqqara, but a little bit younger this time – it’s from the 5th Dynasty tomb of Pehenuka (which means it dates to about 2450 BCE). It’s now in the Brooklyn Museum (acc. no.: 64.147).
It’s a bit of an odd chunk to have chosen to hack out of the tomb for display elsewhere – whilst it is nicely centred on the head of the male antelope, all the little vignettes are broken off. Maybe that was the original block edges, or maybe the collector didn’t care.
I do like the way the original designer composed the scene (even if the collector mutilated it) – the breaking up of the formal registers by having the head of the antelope stick through the baseline provides a striking focal point and brings interest to the image.
This is a desert scene, but it’s a fertile desert – for instance the central antelope is mounting his mate and the one in the bottom right corner is giving birth. The wider scene was of hunting so it was eternally portraying both creation and the imposition of order on chaos.
This is a relief from the tomb of Akhtyhotep which shows the man himself labelled in front of his face reading right to left. Although I can’t read hieroglyphs I can recognise the hotep bit which is the block of three at the left, the bird & initial semicircle are the Akhty bit.
He lived during the early Old Kingdom in either late Dynasty 3 or early Dynasty 4 – about 4600 years ago, and possibly before the Great Pyramid at Giza was built (or maybe he got to see it being built!). He himself was buried in Saqqara, which isn’t that far from Giza.
This serene face, gazing into eternity, belongs to the coffin of a man called Thothirdes. It was probably found in Saqqara and is now in Brooklyn Museum (acc. no.: 37.1521 NB the museum disagrees with itself about provenance, I’ve gone with the online catalogue).
I don’t think we know anything about his status or job, but he must’ve been middling wealthy – the coffin is nicely decorated, but his mummification is described as “average” and the structural fabric of the coffin has deteriorated a lot.
However they are sure about his sex and dating – he’s been radiocarbon dated to between 768 & 545 BCE, which correlates nicely with the 26th Dynasty date that his coffin style suggests. And the latest CT scan shows he’s anatomically male (it was in doubt after previous X-rays).
The objects that survive from Ancient Egypt are often beautiful things, to enjoy looking at. Or practical items that remind us that they were people too, just like us. But there are also less palatable remnants – like this mace from Predynastic or Early Dynastic times.
This roughly 6000 year old carefully smoothed and shaped piece of stone with a hole for the handle painstakingly (and slowly) drilled through it was not intended to inspire or delight, it was intended to be used to hit someone else with until they stopped fighting back.
It’s also a symbol of power – from the Narmer palette through to every temple pylon facade there’s the image of Pharaoh holding an enemy by the hair and raising his mace up to execute his victim. Not all of Egyptian history is gold and beauty, some of it is power and fear.
It’s in the Garstang Museum, either E.611 or E.614. I saw it at the Before Egypt exhibition they put on in 2019.
I’ve shared a couple of close-ups of this coffin in the past, but this is my photo of the whole thing. It belonged to a man called Teti, who worked painting the tombs in the Valley of the Kings in the mid-18th Dynasty. It’s in the Brooklyn Museum, acc. no.: 37.14E.
It’s one of the earliest known yellow painted coffins, and the decoration is still evolving towards what would be come standard for that style. The gods that are in the four panels along the side are Imsety, Anubis, Duamutef and Thoth.
Yellow painted coffins make me think of a talk by Meghan Strong about artificial light that I went to – part of her work involved investigating how these coffins would’ve looked as the sun went down during the funerary ritual and candle light was the only illumination.
In the sun the coffin looks like a painted piece of wood, but as the flickering light of wick-on-a-stick lamps takes over the coffins shimmer like gold, representing the transformation of the deceased into an akh.
These canopic jars come from a place whose modern name is Harageh, near the more famous site of Lahun (where the Pyramid of Senwosret II was built). They are (roughly) contemporary with this pyramid, as they date to the 12th Dynasty (nearly 4000 years ago).
Each of them once held one of the mummified internal organs of a woman called Senebtisi, preserving them so they were there for her in the afterlife. The organs were buried separately for practical reasons – it’s easier to dry everything if the internal organs are removed first.
Each of the organs was under the protection of a particular one of the four Sons of Horus. The inscriptions on the front of the jars not only name the deceased but also the god who is asked to protect the contents of each jar.
They are now in the Brooklyn Museum (acc. no.s: 14.662, 14.663, 14.664, 14.665).
Come! Listen! I shall tell you a tale of days when the gods still walked the lands, a story of the contest between uncle and nephew for the inheritance of Osiris and the rage of a son betrayed by his mother!
For it was that in those days Seth of the desert, the impetuous, had lost the kingship of the Two Lands condemned by his own words to give up his rule in favour of his brother’s son, the rightful heir, Horus. Yet even with the face of Ma’at herself set against him, even so Seth the powerful, Seth the strong refused to accept the judgement of the gods against him and in his anger he challenged his young nephew to a contest of strength to determine who was fit to rule.
“Come my nephew, let us become hippopotamuses!” “Come my nephew, let us retreat to the depths of the waters, to the depths of the Great Green itself!”” “Come my nephew let us remain there until only the strongest of us survives to rule the Two Lands!”
And Horus, youthful and full of courage, at once joined Seth as a hippopotamus in the depths. Three long months they were to remain there, three long months without rising to greet Shu of the air above, three long months to prove their strength!
But Isis the mother, Isis the sister, Isis the widow, Isis was full of trepidation for Seth had tricked their brother, her husband, Osiris to his death. She feared her son, Horus the rightful heir, would meet the same fate at the hands of his uncle, her jealous brother Seth! And in her fearfulness she resolved to avenge herself for the death of her husband at the hands of his brother, and protect her son from his uncle’s wrath.
Taking up a harpoon, a barbed harpoon suitable for hunting the dangerous hippopotamus, Isis the mother of Horus went down to the water’s edge and cast forth her weapon. Strong was Isis and clear sighted, and so her harpoon flew straight and true and struck where she aimed! But one hippopotamus looks much like another hippopotamus, and it was Horus, her son, who cried out in a loud voice:
“Isis my mother! Why do you pierce the flesh of your son? Remove your barb from my flesh that I may not die!”
And Isis weeping tears of sorrow for her mistake used her great magic to return her harpoon to her hand. She used that magic to heal Horus, her son, the rightful heir, so that he was as if she’d never pierced his flesh. And then she cast again, strong, clear-sighted and confident in her target! Seth, her brother, cried out in a loud voice:
“Isis my sister! Am I not your brother? Your only living brother! Why do you pierce my flesh so that I shall surely die?”
And Isis wept once more, for the bond of blood between them meant she could not bring herself to kill Seth, her brother, regardless of his crimes or her fears. So once again she used her great magic to return the harpoon to her hand and make all as if the strike had never been.
But Horus, young Horus, her son and the rightful heir, was enraged by this betrayal from his father’s wife, his mother Isis! He burst forth from the waters wearing the face of the leopard in his righteous fury! Carrying a mighty axe he came forth from the waters to confront his mother, his uncle’s sister, Isis! And with the strength of that fury, with one single stroke of that axe, he cleft the head of his mother from her body!
The gods cried out with grief! The gods cried out with shock! The gods cried out with horror!
And Horus the murderer of his mother, Horus still grasping the head of Isis his mother, Horus turned and fled for the desert and the mountains beyond. All the gods, even Seth the brother of Isis, set out after him to find Horus the mother-killer and to bring him for the punishment he deserved for his crime against the true order of the world!
Seth of the desert, Seth fleet of foot, Seth who knew the ways of the wild places, it was he who found Horus first as he hid in the mountains. Seth was the only one of the gods who was not filled with rage at the death of Isis his sister, Isis the meddler, Isis the one who had tricked him into giving up the lordship of the Two Lands. But this did not make him merciful to his brother’s son Horus, Horus who had the rightful claim to his father’s estate. For here was his chance to destroy his brother’s line both root and branch, his chance to eradicate all competition for the lordship of the Two Lands! And Seth, mighty Seth, over-powered young Horus the rightful heir, plucked out the eyes of Horus the killer of Isis and left him to wait for his death!
Weep not for Horus! Weep not for Osiris’s rightful heir! Weep not!
For Horus was always and forever within the protective embrace of Hathor, the Great Cow, she of the Western Mountain. And Hathor was the next of the gods to find lost Horus, the killer of his mother, weeping bloody tears in the mountains where Seth had left him. With her magic she brought a gazelle to them, and brought forth its milk. With this milk she anointed the sockets where his eyes had been. With her magic she healed the young Horus, son of Isis, heir to the Two Lands, and made him whole again!
And together, Horus under the protection of Hathor, they returned to the Black Land to stand before the council of the gods once more. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.
Hart, George. 1990. Egyptian Myths. British Museum Press. Shaw, Garry J. 2014. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends. Thames & Hudson. Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt.Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.
This is a second episode from “The Contendings of Horus and Seth,” which narrates the struggle between Horus & Seth for the kingship of Egypt – it follows on immediately after From His Own Mouth Condemned. I have taken the basic plot from the resources above, and then retold the story in my own words. Don’t worry about Isis, she doesn’t seem to’ve been harmed by the events of the story, but the surviving version of the story doesn’t give any details as to how she got her head back.
This rather battered and bruised object is a mummy mask that was found at Giza and dates to the 5th or 6th Dynasty in the Old Kingdom – so it’s a bit over 4000 years old! Not entirely surprising that a plaster object like this might not be in the best condition.
There’s not much info on this from the Brooklyn Museum (acc. no.: 48.183), so I don’t know if it would once have been painted to look more realistic or not (my guess is it probably was). Nor do I know if it was found on the actual mummy (probably not).
They do say in passing in their “ask the museum” section that it was moulded directly onto the mummy, but isn’t a cast of the real person’s face. And that this practice was only in fashion for a short period.