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Individual and Society in Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of an Exhibition

How can we use the existing record to decipher the indigenous concept of an ancient Egyptian individual, and indeed the individuals themselves within the broader society? How did Egyptians communicate and commemorate notions of identity? Can we track actual people signifying, experiencing, and modifying social and conceptual landscapes, engaging in behaviors such as votive offerings, pilgrimages, tourism, and preparing for death? How did individuals articulate with the larger society, according to visual and literary representations as well as the evidence of archaeology and documentary information? And finally, how do these inquiries contribute to our own conceptions of Egyptian individuals operating within their social contexts?

The exhibition “Individual and Society in Ancient Egypt,” opening Friday, March 7, 2003, explores these questions by combining items from the Egyptian collection at the Kelsey Museum with a small number of loan objects from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the University of Pennsylvania Museum, integrating the information they convey with new data from ongoing Michigan excavations at Abydos in southern Egypt (see Spring 2000 and Fall 2001 newsletters). Recent work in the late Old Kingdom cemetery at the site allows us to consider how Egyptian individuals inscribed notions of identity, power, family, and society onto long-lived mortuary landscapes. Looking at their graves over time reveals how individuals could manipulate the representation of identity, as well as how the memory of certain individuals was desecrated or revered throughout Egyptian history.

Individuals and Votives at Abydos

One discovery in 1999, of a Middle Kingdom pair statue for a man Intef and his wife Ita still standing within its miniature votive chapel, both illustrates the genesis of private votive activity centered on the ancestors and provides an exciting opportunity to link this University of Michigan find to an object in the collections of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Excavated at Abydos in the 1960s, the Pennsylvania limestone stela (UPM 69-29-122), also for Intef and Ita, was dedicated at a place the Egyptians called the “Terrace of the Great God.” In this densely developed zone adjacent to the Osiris Temple, hundreds and perhaps thousands of individuals from all levels of society dedicated stelae, statues, and ostraca to that god, as well as expressing relationships both kin and corporate in their inscriptions. This widening of access to the divine beyond the elite, and the expression of personal piety and commemoration, was a central phenomenon of the later third millennium BCE, representing crucial shifts in social, religious, and political process.

The material byproducts of private votive and commemorative behavior at Abydos dominate the world’s museum collections. The Kelsey’s seated statue of the priest Ren-Seneb (KM 88808) is almost certainly from the Abydos votive zone. Ren-Seneb’s inscription invokes both Osiris as Lord of Abydos and the god Wepwawet, a jackal deity also associated with the site. Statues like this are often displayed as objets d’art with little attention to original context and purpose; a central focus of the exhibition is to recontextualize Ren-Seneb, the Penn Intef stela, and an official’s stela from the Met in a reconstruction of chapels at the “Terrace of the Great God,” evoking the setting within which his ka (“life force”) would have shared eternally in offerings to Osiris at annual festivals, and his status as a man of means—owner of a finely executed basaltic diorite statue—would have been recognized by the living.

Personal Piety, Private Initiative: Late Period Bronzes

This theme of tracking individuals through the material remains of their religious practices, as they moved about in different kinds of landscapes, continues throughout the exhibition, with the consideration of actual modes of transport in the Egyptian Nile Valley as well as the issues of pilgrimage and tourism. The explosion of private votive behavior seen in the Middle Kingdom at Abydos is echoed in another, later category of object held in every collection of Egyptian antiquities: bronze statuettes of gods. Each of these ubiquitous artifacts, most dating from 664 BCE onward, represents an act of personal piety. The enormous range of their size and quality points to an equally wide range of social and economic beings taking part in this practice.

To date, no single bronze statuette has been excavated from its original context, but ideas about the details and the scale of bronze dedication have emerged from the study of secondary deposits of statuettes. One of the most important of these deposits, discovered in 1903, was the cachette—a massive storage area—beneath one of the courts of Karnak Temple. The result of an ancient episode of “spring cleaning” necessitated by the accumulation over hundreds of years of statues, statuettes, and stelae in the sacred precinct, this basement deposit included more than 17,000 bronzes, which would originally have thickly clustered in niches, on the floors, or even hung from the ceilings of chapels in the complex. Pilgrims to the temple, in dedicating one of these votive bronzes, would ask the god for long life, health, or a child; the most frequently petitioned gods included Osiris, Isis with Horus, Atum, and Amun Re. The Kelsey collection of bronzes is extensive, and many will be on display for the first time in this exhibition.

Sacred Animal Cults

Another variety of votive activity can be seen in the ancient Egyptian animal cults, which like bronze dedication was a phenomenon of later Egyptian history. The extensive animal necropolei at Saqqara, Tuna el-Gebel, Bubastis, Abydos, and elsewhere provided another kind of destination for pilgrimage and opportunity for personal interaction with the gods. Along with bronzes in animal form, pilgrims could dedicate votive mummies of cats, dogs, hawks, baboons, and other animals sacred to specific gods. The animals were presented as gifts to these gods, to whom they were also believed to act as messengers.

The popularity of this form of communication led to a veritable industry of animal mummy production, with displays of animal mummies for sale near the public entrances to the Saqqara necropolis and large estates devoted to the raising and slaughtering of the appropriate animals. Archives from the Ptolemaic period hint at corruption within this industry, and the Kelsey’s own “baboon” mummy provides evidence of deceptive business practices. Rather than preserving the actual corpse of a baboon, this mummy contains bones from other animals wrapped together to simulate a baboon mummy, possibly in a deliberate attempt to gull the customer.

Certain animal cults involved the establishment of an actual animal as a living incarnation of the god, cared for and treated in a fashion similar to cult images of gods within temples. From the later Old Kingdom onward, the cult of the ram god Banebdjedet at Mendes in the Delta was the focus of worship at a temple in the northern sector of the town, which also included a hypogeum (burial ground) for several generations of rams. This ram was believed to be the incarnation of the ba (loosely translated as “soul”) of the god Osiris; votive dedication to this god persisted throughout Egyptian history, alongside worship of the ram associated with the New Kingdom deity Amen-Ra and other gods.

The Kelsey’s demotic stela (KM 25803) provides not only an example of a votive dedication to the ram god but also more intriguing evidence for the activities of a wool-shearers’ guild. Citing Shen-Amen-Ope’s practice of paying them satisfactory wages, his establishment of a trust for the nourishment of the ram, and even allowing the ram to be brought into his living quarters (!), these craftsmen dedicated the stela on his behalf, “in order to encourage he who will come after to do excellent things”—thus enshrining Shen-Amen-Ope’s generosity and piety as an example to be followed. Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation at the Kelsey, has recently completed a thorough cleaning of this imposing stela, which will be a centerpiece of “Individual and Society in Ancient Egypt.”

Also considered in the exhibition will be the ways in which we track the “unwritten” people of ancient Egypt: the nonliterate majority, who participated in the social and religious landscapes inhabited by their economically more advantaged compatriots but left no inscriptions detailing their activities. Women, children, and members of the nonelite can be glimpsed not only through representations of them by the elite, but also through the material remains of their own movements in time and space.

The exhibition concludes with a display of two volumes from the deluxe edition of the early nineteenth-century Description de l’Égypte, commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte, whose scholars traveled the length of the Egyptian Nile Valley documenting both details of the natural and social environment of early modern Egypt and also the physical remains of Egypt’s cultural heritage. The votive and commemorative activities of the ancient Egyptians in both cemetery and cult contexts, through more than three thousand years of history, shaped the archaeological record as Napoleon’s scholars saw and recorded it. The publication of these volumes (1809–28) precipitated a worldwide obsession with things ancient Egyptian, out of which the world’s museum collections of Egyptian objects were largely born.

Students and Kelsey Exhibitions

As part of the Kelsey’s ongoing commitment to providing both graduate and undergraduate students with hands-on museum experience, participants in the advanced seminar Ancient Civilization and Biblical Studies (ACABS) 587, “Individual and Society in Ancient Egypt,” are studying not only museum philosophy and practice but also theoretical and practical issues relating to the exhibition. Conservator Suzanne Davis gave students a tour of the Kelsey’s conservation laboratory and a behind-the-scenes look at treatment of objects for the exhibition.

Members of every operational arm of the Kelsey have also generously contributed time to meet with the class, including Director Sharon Herbert, Key Administrator Helen Baker, Associate Director Laurie Talalay, Outreach Coordinator Todd Gerring, Assistant Registrar Kate Carras, and Senior Archivist in Papyrology Traianos Gagos. Karen O’Brien, Collections Manager at the Museum of Anthropology, stepped in to address registry issues, and Ray Silverman, the new director of the University of Michigan Museum Studies Program, will discuss museum careers with the class in November.

Students will also work with Exhibits Preparator Scott Meier to consider graphic design and construction issues relating to “Individual and Society” and to engage in design projects of their own, as they connect objects on display in the permanent gallery to themes of the show. In addition to designing graphics to signal these linkages, they will also author gallery guides to elucidate key issues.

—Janet Richards, Curator, “Individual and Society in Ancient Egypt”