The blog post for this week has been written by Egypt Centre volunteer Sam Powell, who has been expertly moderating the museum’s online courses during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Sam is a former student at Swansea University and has recently started her PhD research at the University of Birmingham on the topic of wooden funerary figures.
This week as part of the History of Ancient Egypt through the Egypt Centre Collection course, we covered the Middle Kingdom (2000–1750 BCE). Wooden funerary figures are a common occurrence in elite tomb contexts from the end of the Old Kingdom through the Middle Kingdom. As is often the case with collections, the provenance of the wooden funerary figures held by the Egypt Centre are not recorded, and so can only have tentative dating assigned based on their stylistic features. During my research for my Masters dissertation, I tentatively assigned thirty-nine (over half of the corpus of wooden funerary figures held by the Egypt Centre) to the Middle Kingdom. From the reunification of Egypt during the reign of Nebhepetre Montuhotep II in the Eleventh Dynasty, and into the Twelfth Dynasty in particular, the production of wooden tomb models and funerary figures becomes widespread. This, however, in many cases leads to a reduction in the quality of production.
As a small update to the work on the wooden funerary figures, over the summer Ken (in person), and I (virtually) rearranged the figures on display in the House of Death gallery to incorporate the figures returning from conservation at Cardiff University (fig. 1). The figures are now grouped by the activities being carried out. The reuniting of the figures with their missing limbs makes a massive difference to their interpretation.
|Fig. 1: Redisplay of the wooden tomb figures|
There are several well-known examples of funerary figures, of particular note, those known from the Theban tomb of Meketre, dating to the early Middle Kingdom (fig. 2). A wide range of scenes occur as tomb models by the Middle Kingdom, representing not just scenes of food production, but also manufacture, model boats, model gardens, and military scenes amongst others. The models of a likely Middle Kingdom origin within the Egypt Centre collection are all isolated from their models, and so only likely activities and provenance can be suggested on stylistic grounds. When considering this corpus, the traits of figures are the easiest to identify.
|Fig. 2: Offering bearer from the tomb of Meketre (MMA 20.3.7)|
W687 is a standing figure, likely male, carved from a single piece of wood with peg legs and arms, without the hands and feet defined, and with painted red-brown skin. The hair is a flared cheek-length style, with large eyes in comparison to the size of the face (fig. 3). The legs would have attached to the base by being pegged in and secured with gesso. The shape of the torso, notably the flattened back and pronounced buttocks are commonly seen on models from Beni Hasan dating to the Middle Kingdom. On examination of the object, “380” is written on the reverse of the figure faintly in pencil. This is the tomb number, and matches the handwriting of similar examples from Garstang’s excavations at Beni Hasan. After comparison with Garstang’s excavation reports, this burial did indeed include funerary models from both a boat and a brewing model. Through comparison to contemporary models, it seems most probably W687 is from a brewing model due to the positioning of the arms, but this cannot be determined with any certainty.
|Fig. 3: W687|
W665, W670, W676, W689, and W692
Five figures in particular (W665, W670, W676, W689, and W692) display the red painted skin, crude style, and are depicted with flat-bottomed wigs and fitted kilts (fig. 4). The legs are wider at the top, narrowing to the “peg” terminals, which would have been the method of attachment to a model in the case of the three striding figures, and with a dowel in the seat of the two seated figures. The severity of damage and paint loss is similar on all of the figures. These stylistic characteristics fit within the typology as originating from Beni Hasan in the early Middle Kingdom, most likely as the crew of a model boat. This can be supported by comparison to examples from Beni Hasan tombs 203 (known from excavation reports, current location unknown) and 394 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford AMO 1896-1908 E.1991). These examples both date to between the Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasties. Further supporting evidence arising from the auction details is the name of the previous collector prior to the sale. In this example, the material purchased by Wellcome in 1928, from the collection of Charles James Tabor (1849–1928), but had previously been part of the collection of Rev. William MacGregor (1848–1937), sold at auction in 1922 to Tabor. It is clear that MacGregor contributed to Garstang’s excavations at Beni Hasan between 1902 and 1904, and as such received material from the site in return for his “donation”. Whilst this cannot conclusively prove the origins of the figures in question, it can be seen as supporting evidence towards this likely provenance; the combination of the application of a stylistic typology, comparison to known examples, and the consideration of the figure’s more recent history can all be vital clues when dealing with material of this type.
|Fig. 4: Five wooden figures|
Garstang, J. (1907). The burial customs of ancient Egypt as illustrated by the tombs of the Middle Kingdom. 1902–4. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable.
Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge (1922). Catalogue of the MacGregor collection of Egyptian antiquities. London: Davy.
Tooley, A. M. J. (1989). Middle Kingdom burial customs. A study of wooden models and related materials. Unpublished thesis (PhD), University of Liverpool.
Winlock, H. E. (1955). Models of Daily Life in Ancient Egypt from the Tomb of Meket–Rê at Thebes, Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian Expedition 18, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.