Painted Wooden Stela of Neswy

Painted Wooden Stela of Neswy

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Painted Wooden Stela of Neswy - History


Painted in white, red, yellow, green, blue and black on a cream ground, the main scene with the deceased Neskhons standing before a row of deities facing right, including Osiris and the Four Sons of Horus, human-headed Imsety, baboon-headed Hapy, jackal-headed Duamutef, and falcon-headed Qebehsenuef, the deities depicted mummiform, Neskhons and Osiris labeled, an offering stand between them topped with a jar and a lotus blossom, the scene framed on three sides with a khekher frieze, a winged solar disk in the lunette above, with five horizontal lines of hieroglyphic text below reading: 1) An offering which the King gives to Osiris, Foremost of the West, the Great God, of Abydos, that he may give invocation-offerings of bread and beer, 2) oxen and fowl, incense and clothing, wine and milk, all offerings and 3) all food, all good and pure things on which one lives, 4) for [the ka of the Osiris Neskhons(?)], praised/favored of Amen-Re, King of the 5) Gods, great of offering-loaves,, Khons, and Mut, the Great One(?)


The function of the Maya stela was central to the ideology of Maya kingship from the very beginning of the Classic Period through to the very end of the Terminal Classic (800–900). [20] The hieroglyphic inscriptions on the stelae of the Classic period site of Piedras Negras played a key part in the decipherment of the script, with stelae being grouped around seven different structures and each group appearing to chart the life of a particular individual, with key dates being celebrated, such as birth, marriage and military victories. From these stelae, epigrapher Tatiana Proskouriakoff was able to identify that they contained details of royal rulers and their associates, rather than priests and gods as had previously been theorised. [21]

Epigrapher David Stuart first proposed that the Maya regarded their stelae as te tun, "stone trees", although he later revised his reading to lakamtun, meaning "banner stone", [23] from lakam meaning "banner" in several Mayan languages and tun meaning "stone". [24] According to Stuart this may refer to the stelae as stone versions of vertical standards that once stood in prominent places in Maya city centres, as depicted in ancient Maya graffiti. [24] The name of the modern Lacandon Maya is likely to be a Colonial corruption of this word. [25]

Maya stelae were often arranged to impress the viewer, forming lines or other arrangements within the ceremonial centre of the city. Maya cities with a history of stonecarving that extended back into the Early Classic preferred to pair their stelae with a circular altar, which may have represented a cut tree trunk and have been used to perform human sacrifice, given the prevalence of sacrificial imagery on such monuments. [26] An alternative interpretation of these "altars" is that they were in fact thrones that were used by rulers during ceremonial events. [27] Archaeologists believe that they probably also served as ritual pedestals for incense burners, ceremonial fires and other offerings. [4]

The core purpose of a stela was to glorify the king. [11] Many Maya stelae depict only the king of the city, and describe his actions with hieroglyphic script. Even when the individual depicted is not the king himself, the text or scene usually relates the subject to the king. [28] Openly declaring the importance and power of the king to the community, the stela portrayed his wealth, prestige and ancestry, and depicted him wielding the symbols of military and divine power. [11] Stelae were raised to commemorate important events, especially at the end of a kʼatun 20-year cycle of the Maya calendar, or to mark a quarter or a half kʼatun. [29] The stela did not just mark off a period of time it has been argued that it physically embodied that period of time. [30] The hieroglyphic texts on the stelae describe how some of the calendrical ceremonies required the king to perform ritual dance and bloodletting. [4] At Tikal, the twin pyramid groups were built to celebrate the kʼatun ending and reflected Maya cosmology. These groups possessed pyramids on the east and west sides that represented the birth and death of the sun. On the south side, a nine-doored building was situated in order to represent the underworld. On the north side was a walled enclosure that represented the celestial region it was left open to the sky. It was in this celestial enclosure that a stela-altar pair was placed, the altar being a fitting throne for the divine king. [31] Calakmul practised a tradition that was unusual in the Maya area, that of raising twin stelae depicting both the king and his wife. [7]

The iconography of stelae remained reasonably stable during the Classic Period, since the effectiveness of the propaganda message of the monument relied upon its symbolism being clearly recognisable to the viewer. [11] However, at times a shift in the sociopolitical climate induced a change in iconography. [32] Stelae were an ideal format for public propaganda since, unlike earlier architectural sculpture, they were personalised to a specific king, could be arranged in public spaces and were portable, allowing them to be moved and reset in a new location. An important feature of stelae was that they were able to survive different phases of architectural construction, unlike architectural sculpture itself. [33] With the ability to portray an identifiable ruler bearing elite goods, accompanied by hieroglyphic text and carrying out actions in service of the kingdom, stelae became one of the most effective ways of delivering public propaganda in the Maya lowlands. [34] In 7th-century Copán, king Chan Imix Kʼawiil raised a series of seven stelae that marked the boundary of the most fertile land in the Copán valley, an area of approximately 25 to 30 square kilometres (9.7 to 11.6 sq mi). [35] As well as marking the boundary, they defined the sacred geometry of the city and referred to important seats of deities in the ceremonial centre of the Copán. [36]

Ritual significance Edit

Stelae were considered to be invested with holiness and, perhaps, even to contain a divine soul-like essence that almost made them living beings. [37] Some were apparently given individual names in hieroglyphic texts and were considered to be participants in rituals conducted at their location. [38] Such rituals in the Classic Period appear to have included a kʼaltun binding ritual, in which the stela was wrapped in bands of tied cloth. [39] This ritual was closely tied to the kʼatun-ending calendrical ceremony. [40] A kʼaltun ritual is depicted carved onto a peccary skull deposited as a funerary offering at Copán, the scene shows two nobles flanking a stela-altar pair where the stela seems to have been bound with cloth. [39] The act of wrapping or binding a sacred object was of considerable religious importance across Mesoamerica, and is well attested among the Maya right up to the present day. The precise meaning of the act is not clear, but may be to protect the bound object or to contain its sacred essence. The binding of stelae may be linked to the modern Kʼicheʼ Maya practice of wrapping small divinatory stones in a bundle. [37]

A stela was not just considered a neutral portrait, it was considered to be 'owned' by the subject, whether that subject was a person or a god. Stela 3 from El Zapote in Guatemala is a small monument dating from the Early Classic period, the front of the stela bears a portrait of the rain god Yaxhal Chaak, "Clear Water Chaak". [41] The accompanying text describes how the deity Yaxhal Chaak himself was dedicated, not just his image on the stela. [42] This could be taken to imply that the stela was seen as the embodiment of the deity and is also true of those stelae bearing royal portraits, which were seen to be the supernatural embodiment of the ruler they represented. [43] The stela, combined with any accompanying altar, was a perpetual enactment of royal ceremony in stone. [44] David Stuart has stated that stelae "do not simply commemorate past events and royal ceremonies but serve to perpetuate the ritual act into eternity", [30] thus ascribing a magical effectiveness to stela depictions. In the same vein, stelae bearing royal portraits may have been magically loaded extensions of the royal person (uba 'his self'), extremely powerful confirmations of political and religious authority. [45] Stelae bearing images of multiple people, for instance of several nobles performing a ritual or of a king with his war captives, were likely to be exceptions to this idea of the stela as sacred embodiment of the subject. [30]

At times, when a new king came to power, old stelae would be respectfully buried and replaced with new ones, or they might be broken. [46] When a Maya city was invaded by a rival, it was pillaged by the victors. One of the most striking archaeological markers of such an invasion is the destruction of the defeated city's stelae, which were broken and cast down. [47] At the end of the Preclassic, around 150 AD, this fate appears to have befallen the important city of El Mirador, where most of the stelae were found smashed. [48]

Royal artisans were sometimes responsible for sculpting stelae in some cases these sculptors were actually the sons of kings. [49] In other cases it is likely that captive artisans from defeated cities were put to work raising stelae for the victors, as evidenced by the sculptural style of one city appearing upon monuments of its conqueror soon after its defeat. This appears to have been the case in Piedras Negras where Stela 12 depicting war captives submitting to the victorious king is carved in the style of Pomoná, the defeated city. Archaeologists believe that this may also have been the case with Quiriguá after its surprise defeat of its overlord Copán. [50]

Stelae were usually crafted from quarried limestone, although in the Southern Maya area other types of stone were preferred. [51] Volcanic tuff was used at Copán to craft their stelae in three dimensions. [52] Both limestone and tuff were easily worked when first quarried and hardened with exposure to the elements. [51] At Quiriguá a hard red sandstone was used that was unable to reproduce the three-dimensionality of Copán but was of sufficient strength that the kings of the city were able to raise the tallest free-standing stone monuments in the Americas. [52] The Maya lacked beasts of burden and did not employ the wheel [53] therefore the freshly quarried blocks of stone had to be transported on rollers along the Maya causeways. Evidence of this has been found on the causeways themselves, where rollers have been recovered. [54] The blocks were sculpted to their final form while still soft and they then hardened naturally with time. [10] Stone was usually quarried locally but was occasionally transported over great distances. [52] Calakmul in Mexico was one of two powerful cities that shaped the political landscape of the Classic Period, the other being Tikal. [55] It imported black slate for one stela from the Maya Mountains, more than 320 kilometres (200 mi) away. [52] Although Calakmul raised the greatest number of stelae known from any Maya city, they were sculpted from poor quality limestone and have suffered severe erosion, rendering most of them illegible. [7] Stelae could be of substantial size Quiriguá Stela E measures 10.6 metres (35 ft) from the base to the top, including the 3-metre (9.8 ft) buried portion holding it in place. [56] This particular monument has a claim to being the largest free-standing stone monument in the New World and weighs about 59 tonnes (65 short tons). [57] Stela 1 at Ixkun is one of the tallest monuments in the Petén Basin, measuring 4.13 metres (13.5 ft) high, not including the buried portion, and is roughly 2 metres (6.6 ft) wide and 0.39 metres (1.3 ft) thick. [58]

Maya stelae were worked with stone chisels and probably with wooden mallets. Hammerstones were fashioned from flint and basalt and were used for shaping the softer rocks used to make stelae, while fine detail was completed with smaller chisels. Originally most were probably brightly painted in red, yellow, black, blue and other colours using mineral and organic pigments. At Copán and some other Maya cities, some traces of these pigments were found upon the monuments. [10]

Generally all sides of a stela were sculpted with human figures and hieroglyphic text, with each side forming a part of a single composition. [3] Undecorated stelae in the form of plain slabs or columns of stone are found throughout the Maya region. [4] These appear never to have been painted or to have been decorated with overlaid stucco sculpture. [9]

Dimensions of selected stelae
Site name Location Monument Height Width Thickness
Itzimté Campeche, Mexico Stela 6 [59] 1.32 metres (4.3 ft) 0.82 metres (2.7 ft) unknown
Ixkun Petén Department, Guatemala Stela 1 [60] 4.13 metres (13.5 ft) [nb 1] 2 metres (6.6 ft) 0.39 metres (1.3 ft)
Ixkun Petén Department, Guatemala Stela 5 [61] 2.65 metres (8.7 ft) [nb 2] 1.00 metre (3.28 ft) 0.26 metres (0.85 ft)
Kaminaljuyu Guatemala Department, Guatemala Stela 11 [62] 1.98 metres (6.5 ft) 0.68 metres (2.2 ft) 0.18 metres (0.59 ft)
Machaquilá Petén Department, Guatemala Stela 2 [63] 2.1 metres (6.9 ft) 1.2 metres (3.9 ft) unknown
Nakbé Petén Department, Guatemala Stela 1 [64] 1.63 metres (5.3 ft) 1.55 metres (5.1 ft) 0.25 metres (0.82 ft)
Piedras Negras Petén Department, Guatemala Stela 12 [65] 3 metres (9.8 ft) 1 metre (3.3 ft) 0.42 metres (1.4 ft)
Quiriguá Izabal Department, Guatemala Stela E [56] 10.6 metres (35 ft) [nb 3] unknown unknown
Takalik Abaj Retalhuleu Department, Guatemala Stela 2 [66] 2.2 metres (7.2 ft) 1.43 metres (4.7 ft) unknown
Takalik Abaj Retalhuleu Department, Guatemala Stela 5 [67] 2.11 metres (6.9 ft) 1.22 metres (4.0 ft) 0.6 metres (2.0 ft)
Tikal Petén Department, Guatemala Stela 9 [68] 2.1 metres (6.9 ft) unknown unknown
Tikal Petén Department, Guatemala Stela 29 [69] 1.33 metres (4.4 ft) [nb 4] unknown unknown
Toniná Chiapas, Mexico Monument 101 [70] 1.04 metres (3.4 ft) 0.31 metres (1.0 ft) 0.2 metres (0.66 ft)

Preclassic origins Edit

The Maya sculptural tradition that produced the stelae emerged fully formed and had probably been preceded by sculpted wooden monuments. [71] However the tradition of raising stelae had its origin elsewhere in Mesoamerica, among the Olmecs of the Gulf Coast of Mexico. In the Late Preclassic it then spread into the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and southwards along the Pacific Coast to sites such as Chiapa de Corzo, Izapa and Takalik Abaj where Mesoamerican Long Count calendar dates began to be carved onto the stelae. Although at Izapa the stelae depicted mythological scenes, at Takalik Abaj they began to show rulers in Early Classic Maya posture accompanied by calendrical dates and hieroglyphic texts. It was also at Takalik Abaj and Izapa that these stelae began to be paired with circular altars. [12] By approximately 400 BC, near the end of the Middle Preclassic Period, early Maya rulers were raising stelae that celebrated their achievements and validated their right to rule. [72] At El Portón in the Salamá Valley of highland Guatemala a carved schist stela (Monument 1) was erected, the badly eroded hieroglyphs appear to be a very early form of Maya writing and may even be the earliest known example of Maya script. It was associated with a plain altar in a typical stela-altar pairing that would become common across the Maya area. [73] Stela 11 from Kaminaljuyu, a major Preclassic highland city, dates to the Middle Preclassic and is the earliest stela to depict a standing ruler. The sculpted Preclassic stelae from Kaminaljuyu and other cities in the region, such as Chalchuapa in El Salvador and Chocolá in the Pacific lowlands, tend to depict political succession, sacrifice and warfare. [74]

These early stelae depicted rulers as warriors or wearing the masks and headdresses of Maya deities, accompanied by texts that recorded dates and achievements during their reigns, as well as recording their relationships with their ancestors. [75] Stelae came to be displayed in large ceremonial plazas designed to display these monuments to maximum effect. [10] The raising of stelae spread from the Pacific Coast and adjacent highlands throughout the Maya area. [76] The development of Maya stelae coincides with the development of divine kingship among the Classic Maya. [10] In the southern Maya area, the Late Preclassic stelae impressed upon the viewer the achievements of the king and his right to rule, thus reinforcing both his political and religious power. [77]

At the Middle Preclassic city of Nakbe in the central lowlands, Maya sculptors were producing some of the earliest lowland Maya stelae, depicting richly dressed individuals. [78] Nakbe Stela 1 has been dated to around 400 BC. It was broken into pieces, but originally represented two elaborately dressed figures facing each other, and perhaps represents the transference of power from one ruler to his successor, however it also has features that recall the myth of the Maya Hero Twins, and would be the earliest known presentation of them. [79] Around 200 BC the enormous nearby city of El Mirador had started to erect stela-like monuments, bearing inscriptions that appear to be glyphs but that are so far unreadable. [80] Stela dating to the Late Preclassic period are also known from the sites of El Tintal, [81] Cival, [82] and San Bartolo [83] in Guatemala, and Actuncan [84] and Cahal Pech [85] in Belize.

On the Pacific Coast El Baúl Stela 1 features a date in its hieroglyphic text that equates to 36 AD. [86] It depicts a ruler bearing a sceptre or a spear with a double column of hieroglyphic text before him. [74] At Takalik Abaj are two stelae (Stela 2 and Stela 5) depicting the transfer of power from one ruler to another they both show two elaborately dressed figures facing each other with a column of hieroglyphic text between them. [87] The Long Count date on Stela 2 dates it to the 1st century BC at the latest, [88] while Stela 5 has two dates, the latest of which is 126 AD. [89] The stela was associated with the burial of a human sacrifice and other offerings. [81] Stela 13 at Takalik Abaj also dates to the Late Preclassic a massive offering of more than 600 ceramic vessels was found at its base, together with 33 obsidian prismatic blades and other artefacts. Both the stela and the offering were associated with a nearby Late Preclassic royal tomb. [90] At Cuello in Belize, a plain stela was raised around 100 AD in an open plaza. [81]

At the very end of the Preclassic Period, around 100–300 AD, cities in the highlands and along the Pacific Coast ceased to raise sculpted stelae bearing hieroglyphic texts. [91] This cessation in the production of stelae was the most dramatic symptom of a general decline in the region at this time. This decline has been linked to the intrusion of peoples from the western highlands combined with the disastrous eruption of the Ilopango Volcano that severely affected the entire region. [92]

Painted Wooden Stela of Neswy - History

The writer Amelia Edwards travelled to Egypt in autumn 1873, to escape the rain on a walking holiday in France. Instantly captivated by the Nile Valley and its ancient and modern histories, on her return she published an account of her travels, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile (London 1877), an immediate success. In the nineteenth century the protection of monuments had only recently begun, and the plight of antiquities inspired Edwards to action. She was uniquely effective in the efforts to raise funds for excavation in Egypt, leaving as her legacy two leading institutions in British Egyptology:

  • the Egypt Exploration Fund (since 1914 Egypt Exploration Society), founded in 1882 with Edwards as a leading founding supporter
  • the first Egyptology teaching position, with supporting library and collection, in England

The teaching position was created by bequest: Edwards died in 1892, and in January 1893 her favourite archaeologist in Egypt, William Matthew Flinders Petrie, became the first Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology, at the age of 39. The bequest was offered to University College London, in preference to Oxford and Cambridge, because at that date UCL was the only place in England where degrees were given to women.

As part of the bequest, Edwards left her collection, the core of what is today the Petrie Museum. Numerically it is overshadowed by the quantity of finds from Petrie excavations, and the collection that Petrie himself formed from his purchases in Egypt and Europe. In the history of science, Edwards predates the development of archaeological techniques of recording information at the moment of finding an object. Precisely for this reason the Edwards collection forms an instructive contrast to the later acquisitions from excavations. In addition to some remarkable highlights, it offers a guide to the general range of material in a standard collection of a mid- to late nineteenth century enthusiast for ancient Egypt.

Three objects of particular importance are known to have been in the collection of Amelia Edwards:

head of small statue of Amenemhat III

fragment of coffin of Amenemipet

For other items, the identification as pieces in her collection is complicated by the continued use of the term 'Edwards collection' for the objects in University College London used for teaching Egyptian archaeology and language: many of these were added from excavations and purchases after her death. In 1913 Petrie sold his own collection to the College, and the term 'Edwards Collection' seems to have fallen out of use as inappropriate for this combined resource. Much research needs still to be carried out into the years of accession of items now in the Petrie Museum, to separate its component parts:

1. The Egyptian collection of Amelia Edwards

  • items collected by Amelia Edwards on her travels
  • items given to Amelia Edwards by Petrie and the Egypt Exploration Fund from excavations 1882-1892
  • items given to or sold to Amelia Edwards by other travellers such as Reverend Greville Chester

2. posthumous additions to the Edwards Collection in University College London

  • items from Petrie excavations
  • items from Petrie purchases
  • donations and bequests 1892-1913

3. Other items acquired by University College London

  • items from College alumni and miscellaneous other sources, mainly undocumented, such as coffin UC 14230, and the Langton Bequest
  • items acquired by Petrie for the Department teaching collection at College expense, mainly 1913-192
  • items assigned to University College London in the official distribution of finds from excavations, down to 1980s

4. The Egyptian collection of W M F Petrie

  • items from excavations for which Petrie provided part of the funding, mainly seasons 1888-1895
  • items acquired by Petrie in Egypt up to 1913

Disentangling these components is an important task for the history of this collection, within the assessment of relations between Egypt and Europe in the heyday of colonialism.

An early Petrie inventory for the collection in the 1890s or early 1900s

The Petrie Museum archive includes an undated leatherbound book of gilt-edged squared paper, with the title 'Catalogue of Egyptian Antiquities Books &c.' on the front cover. Many pages are blank, but twenty have pasted sheets of paper on which Petrie himself had compiled printed summary information on objects (a duplicate of one page is also present, loose), and another five are full of handwritten entries.

Unfortunately there are few dates of acquisition, though most references on printed pages are to sites visited by collectors or to excavations in the 1880s this suggests that the focus of the volume is the Edwards collection. Only one item in the printed pages comes from a site excavated substantially later, a blue and black frog figure said to come from Rifeh, not excavated until 1906. Clearly, then, not all items even on the printed pages were already in the collection at the time of her death in 1892. It is also not certain that most or all objects in her collection had been included in the inventory.

The printed pages were designed to be repeatable: for one page there is a loose extra copy in the book. The same block of information on an object might be cut from a duplicate page for use as a label, and when the label and mount survive with the object, it can be identified as probably from the Edwards collection. Theoretically the same block of information might be printed out for more than one object, and new acquisitions of the same form might not be distinguishable.

Despite these complications, the printed pages and briefer handwritten notes on larger items provide a general indication of the range of material ascribed to a separate part of the collection, most likely around the core of the collection of Amelia Edwards herself. Since the Rifeh frog is the only item likely to be from a post-1900 excavation, it is possible that the inventory represents a modestly expanded version of the original inventory of the Edwards collection that Petrie had begun for her during her lifetime.

Assessing the inventory - a task for research

Compare the following summary of the inventory with the vague description by Edwards herself as 'my collection of ancient Egyptian jewellery scarabs amulets statuettes of Deities in porcelain, bronze, and stone funeral tables sculptures pottery writings on linen and papyrus and other miscellaneous monuments'. Which of those categories is entirely missing in the inventory?

Sets of printed pages which provide the following group headings:

  • 'Figures of Gods' bronze, faience arranged by deity rather than material or provenance some items from Naukratis, Kom Afrin, Lahun, Nebesheh
  • 'Figures of Animals' bronze, wood, glass, faience listed by form rather than material some items from Hawara, Naukratis, Karnak, Zuwelen (near Tanis), Nebesheh, Defenneh, Lahun, Thebes one blue and black frog figure is said to come from Rifeh, not excavated until 1906
  • 'Amulets' stone, faience, glass listed by form rather than material some items from Naukratis, Thebes, Saqqara, Nebesheh, Tanis, Zuwelen (near Tanis), Defenneh
  • 'Religious objects' miscellaneous items including an 'incense pan' from Tell el-Amarna - Petrie was digging at this site in 1891-1892, and it is unlikely that an object from the excavation would have reached England before Edwards died early in 1892 other items are from Hawara, Naukratis, and a limestone offering table from Lahun ('Kahun')
  • 'Figures' listed by form rather than material some items from Kom Afrin, Tell el-Barud, Naukratis, Defenneh
  • 'Ushabtis' including items from Hawara, Ahnas, Lahun, Nebesheh, Sakkara

Following these are handwritten pages:

  • 'Funeral cones and bricks from tomb walls' - Petrie published such material from his own travels in A Season in Egypt, 1887
  • 'Fragments from Tell el Amarna' - stone fragments and brick, and the great calcite slab 'presented by H Martyn Kennard' (one of the main supporters of Petrie in his freelance excavations 1888-1892): see the note on 'Religious objects' above
  • Coffin fragments, including the Amenemipet wood coffin fragment published by Amelia Edwards herself, and cartonnage from Hawara
  • four wool socks, two heads wearing headgear/hairpins, wool cap, leather slippers, sandals, basket, pierced leather strip, all from Hawara
  • limestone stela of 'Teduastqebau' presented by Dr de Noe Walker
  • linen hypocephalus fragment from Thebes
  • miscellaneous wooden fragments
  • leather tray wooden tools and models including from Lahun ('Kahun') and Ihnasya ('Ahnas')
  • double duck pottery vessel
  • 11 carved wood heads from mummy cases
  • gilt cartonnage face
  • 8 pottery bowls from Lahun ('Kahun')
  • 4 'Phenician' juglets (i.e. Levantine ware) from Ihnasya ('Ahnas')
  • 2 relief fragments Hawara
  • figured pottery ostracon from temple of Thutmose IV, Thebes (this site was excavated after the death of Amelia Edwards)
  • sherds and flint tools from Amarna
  • 3 jars
  • ibis mummy Thebes
  • crocodile mummy Hawara
  • kitten mummy with photographs revealing adult cat legs
  • mummy leg with photographs showing bones
  • 2 mummy hands
  • bone from foundation deposit associated with Neferuatum, Lahun
  • 7 jugs and bowls from Naukratis
  • 1 basket from Hawara
  • 1 lamp presented by Dr de Noe Walker

Against wall outside of cases

Most of these items derive from Petrie excavations later than the death of Amelia Edwards

Painted Wooden Stela of Neswy - History

By Kevin Li, Meg Swaney, Sanchita Balachandran, and Sean Galvin


Though not part of this exhibition, this upper part of a composite statue was also the subject of recent study and technical analysis. The statue depicts a man from the waist up, with a square tenon for attachment to his lower body protruding from his torso. His arms are likewise formed from separate pieces of wood. The man is bald with exquisitely carved facial features. Two vertical creases run across his brow, suggesting this is not an idealized, youthful Egyptian, but rather a mature man of social standing. Black cosmetic lines outline his almond-shaped eyes with pointed inner and outer canthi, while his pupils are likewise picked out in black contrasting with the white of his eyes. His knowing eyes are hooded, with a curved crease above. His naturalistic eyebrows are rendered in black, while beneath his eyes heavy bags accented by furrows on either side of the nose add to his overall worn appearance. His cheeks appear somewhat hollow, and his lips are pursed in a straight line and drilled at the corners. His strong chin is square and well-formed. On the sides of his face, his ears appear overly large, as is common on other statues dating to this period. Contrasting the somewhat aged appearance of his face, the man’s torso is taught and youthful, with a groove underlining his pectoral muscles. The figure’s proper left arm is held down at his side, while his proper right bends at a right angle near his waist. Both hands are clenched in a fist that has been drilled through the center, likely to hold implements which have since been lost. The overall impression of this strikingly human portrait is one of experienced maturity.

Technical Research

X-radiography of this object provided evidence of exciting new discoveries about this funerary sculpture. First, it was clear that the still movable arms of the figure are attached to the body using fine wooden dowels. In the case of the proper right arm, the hole for the dowel was apparently drilled twice because the first drill hole did not hold the arm in the proper orientation. Another fascinating discovery further investigated by undergraduates Sean Galvin and Kevin Li was the presence of a dense, radio-opaque material that appears as white on the figure’s fingernails. Under the stereomicroscope, they determined that the fingernails appeared to be painted yellow. Using x-ray fluorescence analysis, this yellow as identified as containing arsenic, suggesting that the fingernails were painted with the arsenical yellow known as orpiment. Perhaps these fingernails were originally intended to be understood as golden in color, but the effort taken to add this tiny detail underscores its tremendously high quality of carving and painting.

This upper part of a funerary statue would have slotted into a lower part which presumably was plastered and painted as finely as this is. The wood is smoothly finished with very few tool marks remaining on the (originally exposed) surface. The red coloration visible on the overall surface appears to be an iron-based pigment, while the eyebrows, outlines of the eyes and pupils were all painted in carbon black. A concentration of Egyptian blue pigment particles around the eyes (visible only when the object is imaged in visible infrared luminescence) suggests that the white plaster/pigment of the eyes were perhaps mixed with small amounts of Egyptian blue to “punch up” the white hue of the eyes, a technique commonly used in antiquity.

Painted Wooden Stela of Neswy - History

This exhibition presented the story of one extraordinary tomb, built around 1290BC and reused for over 1000 years.

The Tomb was constructed in the great city of Thebes shortly after the reign of Tutankhamun for the Chief of Police and his wife. It was looted and reused several times, leaving behind a collection of beautiful objects from various eras. These are displayed alongside objects found in nearby tombs, giving a sense of how burial in ancient Egypt changed over time.

The Tomb’s final use occurred shortly after the Roman conquest of Egypt, when it was sealed intact with the remarkable burials of an entire family. The exhibition came ahead of the new Ancient Egypt gallery, which opened at the National Museum of Scotland in 2019.

Mummy shroud for the previously unknown son of the Roman-era high-official Montsuef and his wife Tanuat, named Aaemka, c. 9BC.

Box of cedar wood with ebony veneers and ivory inlays and gilding depicting the god Bes and bearing the cartouches of Amenhotep II: Ancient Egyptian, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, c.1427-1400 BC.

Pair statue in fine yellow sandstone of a Chief of the Police and his wife seated side by side, wearing long pleated robes, collars and heavy wigs: Ancient Egyptian, excavated at Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, Thebes, 19th Dynasty, c.1291-1188BC.

Mummy-mask of gilded and painted linen and plaster cartonnage, depicting Montsuef wearing a lappet-wig: Ancient Egyptian, c.9BC

Stela of wood covered with gesso and painted, showing the Lady of the House Ta-kai worshipping Ra-Horakhty as a falcon-headed god seated on a throne: Ancient Egyptian, from Thebes, 22nd Dynasty, Third Intermediate Period, c.945-715BC.

Shabti box and contents in white painted wood, of rectangular shape with a funerary prayer to Ra-Horakhty: Ancient Egyptian, 25th Dynasty, Third Intermediate Period, c.945-715BC.

Statuette of a jackal in wood, painted black, with eyes and brows outlined in red, probably originally from the lid of a qrsw-coffin: Ancient Egyptian, excavated at Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, Thebes, 25th-26th Dynasty, Third Intermediate Period, c.747-525BC.

Canopy of sycamore-fig wood painted in red, black, blue, yellow and white in the shape of a shrine, with an arched roof and corner-posts : Ancient Egyptian, excavated at Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, Thebes, c.9BC.

Wreath of twelve gold-foil leaves attached to a ring of copper, found on the mummy of Montsuef: Ancient Egyptian, excavated at Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, Thebes, c.9BC

Painted Wooden Stela of Neswy - History

By Ashley Fiutko Arico, Morgan Moroney, Roshan Plamthottam and Sanchita Balachandran


Designed to provide sustenance to its deceased owner in the afterlife, this charming model represents four kitchen attendants hard at work. The scene is arranged on a rectangular base that has been fitted together from two planks of wood. In the front, a standing man balances a circular tray on his left shoulder. It held baked goods, most of which are now missing. Behind him, a miller kneels down to grind grain. To the right of the server, a brewer bends over to strain beer mash in a tall vat, the results of his labor stored in a smaller vessel beside him. The brewer stands in front of a fire stacked with molds full of baking bread, which is being tended by another member of the team, who is seated on the ground. Wooden models included in burials of this period cover a range of subjects, including boats sailing up and down the Nile, offering bearers, and agricultural pursuits. These scenes, inspired by daily life, were meant to aid their owners after death. Because bread and beer were two main staples of the ancient Egyptian diet, depictions of baking and brewing were particularly popular.

Technical Research

Undergraduate Roshan Plamthottam and Egyptology graduate student Morgan Moroney examined the model scene using a combination of x-radiography, stereomicroscopy, multi-band imaging, and x-ray fluorescence. X-rays reveal that the “floor” of the model is composed of two planks of wood now glued together. The individual figures and kitchen elements were separately attached using pegs that slot into holes in the floor. All parts of the model were plastered and painted, and while the pigments likely used were easily available red and brown iron oxide paints and carbon black, the method of paint application provides a liveliness to the figures. Even though much of the paint how now been lost, mostly likely due to a combination of environmental factors as well as past insect infestation, the figures retain enough paint to suggest that their skin tones were painted to contrast with their white garments and the carbon black painting of their nipples and bracelets.

Horus gets a facelift

When I last wrote about transforming a stela, I wrote about removing an old coating on a small stela fragment. Well, stelae come in all shapes and sizes, and I just finished treating another one!

We just opened Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display, which highlights some of the Penn Museum’s Egyptian artifacts while our larger galleries are being renovated. This was the perfect time for some of the pieces that have always been on display to come into the conservation lab for a little bit of TLC (tender loving conservation).

This stela is a black quartzite monument for the pharaoh Qa’a, the last king of the First Dynasty in Egypt, around 2910 BCE. It is about five feet tall and shows a falcon representing the god Horus standing atop a serekh (a boxy decoration representing a palace) containing the hieroglyphs for Qa’a’s name.

The Penn Museum Qa’a stela (E6878) before treatment with old restored areas outlined in red (left) and the Cairo example (right). A letter from Penn Egyptologist Sara Yorke Stevenson to the archaeologist William Flinders Petrie in 1901 declares that the restoration “gives an idea of life”.

As you can see in the image above, the stela was heavily restored with cement in the early 1900s to make it look whole. Unfortunately, the restoration had given Horus a somewhat comical expression. With a big beak and tiny eye, he looked perpetually disappointed and definitely not stylistically appropriate for his time. Fortunately, our statue has a mirror twin in the Cairo Museum, which it would have been paired with on site in Abydos. Because the one in Cairo is mostly intact, we can use it as an example of what ours would have looked like. The head and beak are much smaller and simpler, giving Horus the look of a bird of prey. With the curators, we decided to give Horus a facelift based on the Cairo Museum example.

First, we did some digital mock-ups of how the head would look before I painted the outline directly onto the restored area. Using a Dremel rotary tool with a grinding stone attachment, I shaped Horus’s head and beak to more appropriate proportions, which was a very dusty but very satisfying process. Since we didn’t have any good examples of what the eye might have looked like (the Cairo Museum face is damaged), I filled this area using Paraloid B-72 and glass microballoons. I also sanded down the squared-off edges of the restored border so they sloped down into the background, again like the Cairo Museum stela, and smoothed some of the rougher areas of restoration.

Horus’s reconstructed head before treatment (left), with rough digital sketch (center), and during reshaping with the Dremel (right). Please note that I only reshaped what I knew was the restoration material! Conservators never make changes to original parts of objects.

Once the curators were happy with the shape of Horus’s head, it was time to move on to painting. The previous paint that covered the cement was a color that didn’t quite match any of the tones in the stone – fine for display in a dim gallery, but the stela’s new home would be more brightly lit. Finding the right color was challenging because the top fragment, which was found a few years after the bottom pieces, is a slightly darker color than the rest of the stela. I decided on a mid-tone that worked with the base color of the surrounding original stone, and then used a sponge to layer lots of highlights and darker shades to blend in with the actual artifact. I also used paint to create the optical illusion of “finishing” the bottom left corner of the serekh so that it appears complete from a distance.

The Qa’a stela after reshaping and repainting the old restoration.

You can now see the Qa’a stela and lots of other amazing Egyptian artifacts in Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display. The Artifact Lab has also reopened, and we look forward to being able to talk to everyone about the work we’re doing to prepare for all the exciting changes at the Penn Museum.


Mayan painting was on ceramics, buildings and caves. Colors were obtained from dyes or minerals. In some temple murals, paint was mixed with Mica to make it glow in the sun. Paintings often were narrative drawing or mythological scenes. Bonampak temples have murals depicting scenes of battle, sacrifice and nobility.

The murals at San Bartolo portray the mythological Maize god. Maya Blue was also used to paint the murals. Wall painting in the caves also exhibit Mayan skills.

Painted Wooden Stela of Neswy - History

The Art of the Ancient Kingdoms

Between 3100 and ЗОООвс, the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were united by a king named Narmer, who founded the first dynasty. This was effectively the first great state, with numerous cities including Memphis, where the king resided.
For the Egyptians, art was associated with the creative process of the universe. According to religious tradition, Khnum, the potter god with a ram's head, fashioned the world and modelled every living form on his potter's wheel. The Egyptians were also deeply influenced by magic and faith in transcendental forces, which had to be humoured or appeased in order to counteract their negative effects.

Relief of Itush
Fifth Dynasty, reign of Djedkare-Isesi
Brooklyn Museum of Art

Testimony to the intense cultural activity that characterized the predynastic period (с.5000-𙣼вс) exists in the form of "palettes". These slate slabs, often decorated in relief, are thought to have been used originally for grinding pigments for eyepaint. By the Late Predynastic period, they had taken on a celebratory, official character, and their decoration was inspired by specific historical events. The palette of Narmer was a symbol of power and may have commemorated the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. Its creation heralded the beginning of the historical age, subdivided traditionally into dynasties, in which the pharaoh was the emblem of political and religious power. The compositional elements found in the palette of Narmer were to remain constant in Egyptian art: the division of the background into registers, the greater dimensions given to the figure of the sovereign, and the pictorial value of certain images. The falcon is the personification of the king seizing the Nile Delta (Lower Egypt), which is represented by a papyrus with a human head. Objects are presented as they are conceived, not as they are seen.

The Egyptian artist aimed to reflect social and religious hierarchies in the composition and to assign proportions to the figures and objects whose relationships to one another were constant. For example, the pharaoh-god was greater than man and therefore had to be shown as such. The age of the first and second dynasties (с.2850-2𚍖вс) saw the birth of monumental architecture, including the first mastabas - flat-topped tombs with sloping sides - and pyramids. During this period, the pharaohs had two royal cemeteries, one at Abydos, the other at Memphis architectural elements from both sites have survived. From these seeds developed the awe-inspiring art of the Old Kingdom, third to sixth dynasties (с.2𚍖-2150вс).

King Khafre seated
Fourth Dynasty, reign of Khafre
Egyptian Museum, Cairo

King Menkaure and a Queen
Fourth Dynasty, reign of Menkaure
Graywacke with faint remains of paint
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Triad of King Menkaure
Fourth Dynasty, reign of Menkaure
Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Wall-painting from Thebes
showing Nebamun hunting.
British Museum, London

The name Imhotep is inscribed on the base of a statue of the pharaoh Djoser, found at Saqqara in 1926. Physician, seer, architect, and royal official, Imhotep is credited with directing the construction of Djoser's pyramid and the impressive complex around it. Living in about 2700вс, he was the first architect whose name is known and may have been the first to build in hewn stone. From 525вс, he was worshipped as the god of medicine in Egypt and in Greece.

It was a pharaoh of the third dynasty. Djoser, and his royal official Imhotep who created the complex of Saqqara. This was a vast area enclosed by a white limestone wall, inside which stood the Step Pyramid and several smaller structures. The project was impressive in its unprecendented use of calcareous stone instead of perishable materials, such as the bricks and wood that had been common in the preceding age. During the fourth dynasty, stepped structures, such as the rhomboidal pyramid of King Sneferu at Meidum, gave way to the uniformly smooth-walled pyramids of King Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure in the necropolis of Giza, near Cairo. Erected between 2550 and 2470bc, they were listed by the Greeks as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The grandiose dimensions of these funerary monuments, built to preserve the bodies of the dead kings for eternity, conveyed a sense of timeless-ness and immutability. In this, they were like the circumpolar stars towards which the pyramid sites were orientated and to which the pharaohs, departed from this earth, would return as gods to take their place among the divinities. The pyramids form part of a large complex, including mortuary temples, and mastabas, the burial places of priests, nobles, and high ranking officials.


Scenes of everyday life are depicted in bas-reliefs and paintings in tombs and mastabas from all periods of Egyptian history. Carved or painted on sepulchre walls, figurative scenes re-create scenes of activity from the earthly life, with the aim of ensuring their continuation in the afterlife. Until the time of the New Kingdom, these did not portray specific events but were naturalistic renderings of generalized communal activities, such as ploughing, harvesting, breeding birds and livestock, hunting animals and birds, and fishing.
However, subject matter became increasingly varied during the New Kingdom (с.1550-1070вс). While daily life had previously been portrayed in a continuous succession of typical events, tomb paintings now included imagery evoking personal aspects of past life and extolling the status of the tomb's owner. The wall painting from the tomb of Nakht in Thebes, for example, is a good example of this kind of personal observation: here, we see detailed scenes of grape harvesting, wine-making, and the storage of wine in amphorae. Nakht, a noble and royal astronomer, was also the keeper of the king's vineyards.

The most important paintings and sculptures of the Old Kingdom come from the mastabas. The frieze of geese in the tomb of Itet at Meidum was the lower part of a huge painting depicting the hunting of birds with nets, and is perhaps the oldest surviving wall painting on stucco. The function of bas-reliefs and paintings was to furnish the tomb with enduring pictures that imitated, transcended, and re-created nature. The need to guarantee the survival of the dead and to assemble in one single figure or object the fundamental elements for their magical re-animation lies at the root of the Egyptian iconographical repertory. The desire to show all the essential characteristics of the human figure in a single image led the Egyptian artists to present it in an unnatural way. The face was shown in profile with the eye to the front shoulders and chest were viewed from the front, showing the juncture of the arms and the legs were shown in profile to indicate the direction of movement. Each part was exhibited from its most characteristic angle in order to present the whole figure cm the flat surface.
Similar conventions governed the plastic arts. Enclosed in its cubic structure, the funerary effigy of Khafre is the prototype of pharaonic statues, with its immobile, hieratic, imperturbable pose - the very essence of royalty. Standing or seated, in wood or in stone, such figures, in spite of their rigid attitudes, are independent and vivid entities that immortalize the individual. At Saqqara, the statue of Djoser was positioned inside a stonebuilt chamber next the Step Pyramid, where it could "watch" the performance of rituals for the dead through tiny apertures in the walls.
While it cannot compare to the Great Prvamids in monumentality, its sculpture and painting reveal great clarity and compositional rigour. Typical of Middle Kingdom royal statuary are the colossal red granite sculptures of Sesostris III and the maned sphinxes of Amenemhet III. which personify the pharaoh and his power. Freer of the conventions of official art are the small sculptures in painted wood in which the artists skilfully and naturalistically capture aspects of everyday life. The Second Intermediate Period (13th-17th dynasties, c.1778�bc) witnessed much internal unrest and the waning of centralized power. Virtually defenceless against the incursions of the Hyksos from Western Asia. Egypt was nonetheless to rise phoenix-like from the ashes to enter its most splendid period of artistic achievement - the 18th dynasty.


The Egyptians considered earthly life to be a fleeting moment, the prelude to eternal happiness. Man. absolved of all his sins after death, would continue to live among the blessed in the Fields of lalu, identified symbolically with the god Osiris. At the end of the Old Kingdom, this privilege, once reserved for the pharaohs, became the prerogative of all. Essential elements of the death ritual were mummification, the "opening of the mouth", and the protection of the corpse. To assist the dead person in his or her transition before the tribunal of Osiris was the Book of the Dead, a roll of papyrus containing religious and magical texts. It included the representation of the tribunal of Osiris and answers to the questions posed by the 42 deities sitting in judgment. In order to verify the "negative confession", the heart of the dead person was placed on one pan of a scale, under the supervision of the god Anubis, while on the other was placed an ostrich feather, symbol of Maat. the goddess of truth. The sarcophagus preserved the mortal remains, which were necessary for eternal life. In the Old Kingdom this was decorated with brief texts and. occasionally, panelled decoration. In the period of the Middle and New Kingdoms, it was covered in magical religious inscriptions and images of the protecting divinities.

Stela of King Qahedjet
Third Dynasty
Fine-grained limestone
Musee du Louvre, Paris


The pharaohs of the 18th dynasty, originating from Thebes, chose the left bank of the Nile as their heavenly resting place. Beyond the long line of funerary temples, which extend to the edges of the cultivated land, is the winding Valley of the Kings, with its tombs of the sovereigns of the New Kingdom cut into the cliffs. While the plan of the early tombs was asymmetrical, that of later tombs was symmetrical - best exemplified by the tomb of Seti I. The room where the sarcophagus was placed was originally painted in yellow, with the mummy housed in a gold coffin - the unalterable nature of the metal was believed to guarantee the incorruptibility of the mummy. In the square, columnar hall, were placed the royal chariot and funerary equipment. Walls and pillars were decorated with texts and scenes symbolizing the transformation of the dead king into the sun and the transmission of power to his successor. To the south of the Valley of the Kings lies the Valley of the Queens, resting place of queens and other members or the royal family: a large private necropolis accommodates the tombs of the nobles.

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