Fascinated by ancient Egypt since I was a child, the opportunity to research a previously unknown case of Egyptian artefacts in the museum was one I could not pass by. Although I am by no means an Egyptologist, I want to share with you some insights into a few of the artefacts that have been tucked away in the Victorian classroom.
I’m going to focus on two different types of objects from our Egyptian case. Both of which have become common acquisitions across museum collections and recognisable symbols of ancient Egypt.
Firstly, scarabs. You may have seen these before but what you might not know is why they are significant. In ancient Egypt, scarabs were enormously popular by the early Middle Kingdom (c.2000 BC) and used as amulets and impression seals. Generally carved from stone or moulded from Egyptian faience, they would then be glazed blue or green before being fired. Scarabs were highly significant in ancient Egyptian religion as they related to the sun god, Ra, who was believed to roll across the sky each day. The ancient Egyptians believed this was similar to the way the dung beetle rolls dung into a ball as food and as a place to lay eggs – lovely right? Because of this connection, the scarab was seen as a symbol of this heavenly cycle and associated with rebirth and divine manifestation. The Egyptian god, Kephri (Ra as the rising sun), was often depicted as a man with a scarab head. The ancient Egyptians believed that Khepri pushed the sun across the sky, much like the scarab beetle pushed the ball of dung. From the 25th Dynasty onwards (747-656 BC), scarabs were often used in a funerary context. Uninscribed, flat scarabs were sewn onto the chest of mummies via holes on the edge, together with a pair of separately made outstretched wings. Very similar to the scarab you see below from our Egyptian case.
Moving on, let’s looks at Shabtis. Another type of object that you may have seen in various museum collections. Shabtis (also known as shawabti or ushabti) are generally mummiform figurines found in many Egyptian tombs. These objects have quite an interesting development. Initially the deceased would only be buried with one or two of these figures as they were representations of their owners. In a circumstance where the mummy was damaged, these figures would act as a surrogate, guaranteeing his or her eternal life. During the New Kingdom (1550 -1069 BC), shabtis were often depicted with tools such as hoes or seed bags. This was because their function changed and they developed into mere servants that could fulfil different tasks in the afterlife on behalf of the deceased. Shabtis became mass produced at this time and the number deposited in tombs increased dramatically. Ideally, the deceased would own 401 shabtis. One worker shabti for each day of the year and then 36 overseer shabtis. We often see shabtis inscribed, either with the name and title of the person they represent or with the 6th chapter of the Book of the Dead, one of the most important funerary texts in the entire Egyptian epoch. The term ‘book’ is rather misleading. It was rather a collection of texts that once compiled together, make up a larger written document. It consisted of a number of spells that were intended to assist the dead in their journey through the underworld so that they might make it to the afterlife. Slight digression aside, I am still in the process of deciphering what the ones in our collection are inscribed with…watch this space!
I hope to be back here in the future when I have more to tell you about our Egyptian case and the artefacts inside. But for now, I’ll leave you to ponder this: One of the most famous figures in history and last Pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra, was born 2,500 years after the Great Pyramid of Giza was built.
She lived closer to today than she did to the people who built the Step Pyramid at Saqqara (the oldest pyramid in Egypt) in around 2,650 BC. That is the extraordinary length of ancient Egyptian history…
All the best and stay safe.
Finds Liaison Officer for Cornwall with the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
If you haven’t read Julia’s blog post, please make sure you check it out. Her research into the hidden stories behind our collections has unearthed a captivating story about some of the power women of Egyptology. You can read it here:
You can also watch us both talk about the Egyptian case in our collections tour here.