Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Middle Kingdom Rectangular Coffins

Figure 1 - head end of the coffin of Khnumnakht
     The painted wooden coffins of the Middle Kingdom are frequently quite beautiful objects to look at. Earlier I posted some pictures of the famous coffin of Djehuty-Nakht, now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This time I have some photos of the coffin of Khnumnakht to show. This coffin is from Asyut and is now in the Metropolitan Museum.

     This coffin is interesting for several reasons, not the least of which is the figure of a goddess on the head end of the coffin. A representation of a goddess on the head or foot end of a coffin  is rare before the Thirteenth Dynasty (Hayes, William. The Scepter of Egypt, vol. 1, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1953, 318 - 9). It is also an unusual representation of a goddess in that it might represent both Isis and Nieth (again, from Hayes, Scepter). Notice that the goddess has two cylindrical oil jars on her head, which is nothing like the representations of Isis and Nephthys which would become common on coffins starting in Dynasty Thirteen.

Figure 2 - hieroglyphs from the coffin of Khnumnakht
Figure 3 - Hieroglyphs from the coffin of Khnumnakht
     Figures 2 and 3 show details of the the hieroglyphs painted on to the coffin. These photos do not do full justice to the talent of the artist who executed these paintings. If you have a chance to visit the Met, please look carefully at this coffin and admire the detail work in these paintings, especially the owl in figure 2 and the quail chick in figure 3.

Photos copyright (c) 2013 by John Freed

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Details in Assyrian Carving

Figure 2 - face of a winged bull of Ashurnasirpal
     One of the the things that I enjoy when I visit a collection of Assyrian art is the detail work that goes into the monumental carvings that decorated royal palaces. For instance, take a look at figure 1, which is the face of one of the winged bulls from the palace of Ashurnasirpal in the Metropolitan Museum. Look carefully at the facial hair. The beard is shown tightly curled at the chin, but has a different style below that. Also, notice how the mustache is curled at the end and how some of the hair is wrapped around the rest of the mustache to help it hold its style. Also, note the lock of hair peeking out below the figures helmet.

     In figure 2, we see a "winged genie" (for the lack of a better term to describe him). The photo here does not show the details of the feathers as clearly as I would like. Trust me, the details of the feathers are delicately carved and well worth a closer look.

Figure 2 - a winged genie carved with beautiful details in the beard and feathers
     Also in figure 2, notice how the genie's beard is also tightly curled at the chin, then styled differently for most of its length, although there are three more places where the hairs of the beard are tightly curled. It must have been a nightmare for Assyrian men to properly style their beards, assuming that Assyrian men really wore their them this way. Also note the how the hair that hangs down behind the neck is styled.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Assyrian Sacred Tree

Figure 1 - the Assyrian "tree of life"(?)
     It is difficult to know what to make of the so-called Assyrian sacred tree. In spite of its name, it is likely not a real tree at all. Rather, it seems to be parts of several trees put together in some way. Different "branches" of the tree seem to be shown as being held together on a trellis or by ribbons and / or metal bands (Figure 2). In figure 1, the trunk of the tree is surmounted by a palmetto (this is typical) and has two sets of three rings holding the different pieces of the trunk together.

Figure 3 - a winged genie with a bucket (of water?)
Figure 2 - multiple branches joined together
     The meaning of this "tree" is not clear, although it does seem to have some religious meaning. Winged genies, possibly known as "Apkallu", in either the form of an eagle headed human or in the form of winged humans, are shown sprinkling water on these trees. The genie holds a bucket (of water?) and dips a pine cone into the bucket, and the sprinkles the water on the cone onto the tree. The significance of this is unclear although a connection to fertility rites has been suggested.

     Whatever this "tree" is, it must have been important to the Assyrians as many representations of winged genies sprinkling water on these trees is an extremely common motif in the decoration of the royal palaces. The photos here are from the palace of Ashurnasirpal and are now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Figure 4 - an eagle-headed genie with a pine cone

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ancient Egyptian "Bean Counters"

Fig. 1 - model of a grain silo with the accountants sitting at the entrance
     Like all economies, the Egyptian economy needed "bean counters" to make sure that "money" got to where it belonged. For most of Egyptian history, grain was the most common "money" in use.

     Crops in the field were measured by "accountants" who figured the taxes a farmer owed. If the farmer did not, or could not, pay the taxes, he might be given a beating in his field by the tax collectors. The tombs of New Kingdom nobles show these types of scenes fairly commonly.

     Once the grain was harvested, it would be brought to a grain silo for storage. In the tomb of Meket-Re (late Dynasty 11) there is a wooden model that shows how grain was processed by the silo.

Fig. 2 - emptying sacks go grain into the silo
     The grain would be brought to the silo in sacks. Accountants at the entrance way would record the number of sacks being brought in (see the lower part of figure 1). Next, the grain would be carried into the silo proper, where the silo employees would carry the sacks up a flight of stairs and empty the sacks into the storage area (see figure 2).

     At some point in the future, the grain would be removed. Possibly it might be used as part of a business transaction, or it might be used to make bread in the home of a wealthy landowner to whom the silo belonged. Rest assured that when it was removed, the bean counters would know how much was removed and whom it was removed by.

All photos copyright (c) 2013 by John Freed

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Cartonnage Collar Restored

A team led by Susan Redford has found (in hundreds of pieces) a cartonnage collar from a mummy at Thebes. Her team has laboriously put the collar back together.

The collar is a painted imitation of a "Weshekh" collar. A "real" collar of this type would have been made of beads and would have been every bit as colorful as this painted imitation is. For more details on this find, take a look at this article.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Did Tutankhnamen's Body Spontaneously Combust?

Once again, Tutankhamen's mummy is in the news after the latest examination of the Pharaoh's corpse. The latest speculation is that the mummy may have experienced spontaneous combustion after the King's funeral. Here is a link to an article on this.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sit Hathor's Alabaster

Fig. 1 - Alabaster canopic jar of the Princess
     I personally like the look of many ancient Egyptian objects carved from a soft stone known as alabaster or calcite. Alabaster is a white, very soft, stone that is used throughout Egyptian history for carving everything from royal statues to canonic jars. There are two examples of alabaster carving in the tomb of Princess Sit Hathor Yunet.

     Figure 1 is an alabaster canonic jar. The stone has some slightly different colored "veins" in it. These "blemishes" are part of the beauty of objects carved from this type of stone. The canonic jar is one of four human-headed jars found in the Princesses tomb.

Fig. 2 - alabaster jars (left), a khol pot (right front) and one of the obsidian jars
     There were also eight alabaster jars for ritual oils found in the tomb. The jars are all very similar and each is roughly 95 mm in height. Some traces of the original contents survived in two of these jars and proved to be a gum resin of some sort.

Fig. 3 - two razors and a pair of whetstones
     Also in figure 2 is a small kohl pot (mentioned in the previous post) and a set of jars made of obsidian and decorated with gold around their rims. A virtually identical set of these obsidian jars were found in a royal burial dating to the same period as these, but located in Byblos in what is now Lebanon. One wonders if these jars were not a gift sent from the King of Egypt to the King of Byblos.

     In figure three, notice the corroded razors and a pair of whetstones (one above the razors and one blow them) used to sharpen the razors. The handles of the razors are made of gold while the blades were made of bronze. The razors are about 17 cm long and weigh about 6.5 ounces.

Photos copyright (c) 2013 by John Freed