Monday, 6 May 2019

A Protective Demon of the Night on an Egypt Centre Headrest?

While many of the objects in the Egypt Centre collection have been closely examined in the past decades, fresh eyes and new technology often results in new discoveries. This was the case for the frog tattoo on the paddle doll, which had gone unnoticed until just a few weeks ago. Shortly after spotting this frog, I photographed a headrest (AB80) in preparation for my handling class (fig. 1). At first glance, there was nothing particularly exciting about the object, but this changed when I put some of the images through DStretch. DStretch is an image enhancement technique that can bring out faint images that are invisible to the naked eye. The results of this will be outlined below.

Fig. 1: AB80

Headrests, a type of pillow to support the head, have been found in tombs from the beginning of the Old Kingdom and continued through the Ptolemaic Period. AB80 is made out of three pieces of an unknown wood: a curved section at the top, central spine, and the base. Combined, the headrest measures 18cm in its height (fig. 2). The curved section, upon which one would lay their head, is not quite symmetrical. The shape of the curve, besides being practical, represented the hieroglyph akhet, “horizon”, with the sun (or head) emerging from it. Based on its typology, it can be dated to the New Kingdom (Perraud 1997). The headrest entered the Egypt Centre collection, along with around 100 other objects, in 1997 as part of a gift by the University of Wales Aberystwyth. Documentation that arrived with the objects states that the headrest was sent to Mr. J. B. Willams in 1903 by Margaret Murray (1863–1963), the first woman to be appointed as a lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom. It is not known why Murray sent the objects to Mr. Willams, although it is likely that he was a sponsor of the Egypt Research Account (ERA), headed by the famed archaeologist Sir W. M. Flinders Petrie (1853–1942). In fact, a note added to the list of objects sent by Murray says that they were acquired by her at Abydos in 1902–1903, during which time she worked at the Osireion at the site.

Fig. 2: Four sides of AB80

Headrests of the New Kingdom were often elaborate: for example, in the shape of a folding stool and decorated with the head of the god Bes. Figures of Bes also appeared on more conventionally-shaped headrests, adding further protection for the head (fig. 3). The apotropaic function of these images—of Bes and other minor deities or demons sharing iconographic characteristics with him—as well as related texts on headrests are well documented to ward off demons, dangers, or other disturbances threatening people in their vulnerable state of sleep (Szpakowska 2010).

Fig. 3: Bes on Brooklyn Museum, 37.440E - https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/117090

As noted above, there was no evidence that AB80 was decorated with protective beings when I first examined it under natural light. However, given the fact that this type of decoration was common to New Kingdom headrests, I decided to put some of the photos through DStretch. While several areas revealed potential traces of decoration, one side of the central section was particularly interesting. What looked like just a stain to the naked eye, now appeared as figure of Bes—or perhaps even Taweret—facing to the right (fig. 4)! The bowed legs are especially visible, along with what looks like a mane and face. Is the appearance of this “stain” simply a coincidence and am I perhaps seeing something that’s not really there? I’ll leave that up to you to decide. Comments welcome!

Fig. 4: Close-up of the central section before and after using DStretch

AB80 and the other headrests in the Egypt Centre collection will be the focus of a talk by Dr. Katharina Zinn (University of Wales Trinity Saint David)—and will also be available for handling—at our conference in three weeks time. In the meantime, why not come and see the headrest on display in the Egypt Centre’s House of Life!

Bibliography:
Fischer, H. G. (1980) ‘Kopfstütze’. In Lexikon der Ägyptologie III, ed. W. Helck and W. Westendorf. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 686–693.
Hellinckx, B. R. (2001) ‘The Symbolic Assimilation ofHead and Sun as Expressed by Headrests’. Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 29: 61–95.
Killen, G. (2017) Ancient Egyptian Furniture. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxbow Books. 2nd ed.
Perraud, M. (1997) Appuis-tête de l’Égypte pharaonique: typologie et significations. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Strasbourg.
———. (1998) ‘Die Kopfstütze vor der dritten Dynastie’. Göttinger Miszellen 165: 83–90.
Szpakowska, K. (2010) ‘Nightmares in Ancient Egypt’. In Le cauchemar dans les sociétés antiques: actes des journées d’étude de l’UMR 7044 (15–16 novembre 2007, Strasbourg), ed. J.-M. Husser and A. Mouton. Paris: De Boccard. 21–39.
Zinn, K. (2018) ‘Did You Sleep Well on Your Headrest?—Anthropological Perspectives on an Ancient Egyptian Implement’. Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 17: 202–219.

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