JOURNEY TO THE BEYOND: ANCIENT EGYPTIANS IN THE PURSUIT OF ETERNITY
The Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum of Art
Written by Eva Kirsch and Bryan Kraemer
SAN BERNARDINO, CALIFORNIA –
There, in the bright light of a museum case near a mysterious coffin lid and a haunted Roman mask, a few paces from the figure of a little girl who lost her family, proudly stands a colorful wooden statue once owned by Djedher, son of Psamtik, born of Asetweret. The statue’s black eyes seem caught in a search for something beyond our own gaze, toward the regenerative powers of billowing grain, revered an ocean unknown to its maker, into the heart of a new display at the Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum of Art in California. Perhaps 2,300 years past its creation, the statue is poised for us to contemplate along with other treasures in an enriching, elegant exhibit.
This statue of the composite deity “Ptah-Sokar- Osiris” is one of several keystones of “Journey to the Beyond: Ancient Egyptians in the Pursuit of Eternity” at the Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum of Art (RAFFMA) at California State University, San Bernardino. The statue presents its own mysteries to entice our wonder, not the least of which is the varied paths of its owner Djedher himself. The colorful wooden image is of a type that dates to the Nectanebid or Ptolemaic mummies and the renewing floods of the Nile – perhaps beyond our own fascination with the ancient Egyptian journey into the afterlife. In fact, the painted image came by way of its own journey across desert sand and period, with an inscription indicating origins in the town of Akhmim in Upper Egypt. A Ptolemaic male mummy from Akhmim with the very same name as this statue’s owner is on display in the British Museum in a beautifully decorated, gilt-faced anthropoid coffin. Most likely he is the same Djedher, the resting place of his body far removed from its original home and also from his colorful statue. Yet as with Ptah-Sokar- Osiris, the figure renews our interest in earth, flood, crop and the afterlife.
Set against a backdrop of the San Bernardino Mountains, RAFFMA features one of the largest displays of ancient Egyptian artifacts on the West Coast. After a two-year renovation, sponsored in part by CSUSB’s College of Arts and Letters, RAFFMA has unveiled a new display of its diverse collection. Organized on a theme of the journey into the afterlife, the display explores beliefs of death and the life after it with artifacts from the Predynastic to Roman periods (c. 5000 BCE to 500 CE).
The collection was formed over the last 30 years, mostly through donations and transfers from other museums in Southern California. The heart of the exhibit consists of objects donated and loaned by Dr. W. Benson Harer, with some funerary statues, burial goods, stelae, jewelry and other objects displayed to the public for the first time.
Among the artifacts of special historical or artistic note is the statue of a family-less little girl. The collection opens with this intriguing figure, named Hetepheres. In 1936, John Cooney determined the girl was originally part of a single statue of five figures representing her family. Cooney even connected the girl’s statue to its original base, her family's feet still intact and inscribed with their names. The base was found in 1930 by Selim Hassan in the tomb of Rawer at Giza (G8988). Hetepheres’ other family members reside in statue form in museums in Worcester, Massachusetts; Brooklyn, New York; New York City,
New York and Kansas City, Kansas. Someone probably discovered the entire statue in the 19th century but broke it apart to sell for more money as separate pieces. Each piece coincidentally made its way into separate American collections in a modern immigration story that belies current political debates.
In RAFFMA’s permanent exhibit, Hetepheres illustrates how statues of the deceased focused on the cult of provisioning their kas for the afterlife. Yet our little girl represents more because of where her family’s statue originally rested. Rawer is well known to Egyptologists as an important fifth-dynasty official famous for a unique biographical text discovered in his large tomb. The text describes how King Neferirkare accidentally struck Rawer with his scepter during a festival procession. Because of the king’s ritual power in that instant, the accident apparently endangered Rawer so much that the king then had to cure Rawer magically against any harm that might have resulted. The king ordered a permanent record of the incident, a copy of which Rawer included in his tomb.
Near the little girl, a gessoed and painted wooden statue of Osiris-Khentiamentiu in the exhibit symbolizes the mythological background for Egyptian ideas of the afterlife. The statue represents the god who overcame death, standing upright and revived by the “glorification rituals” (sakhu). Wooden statues of Osiris like this one of the “black-varnish” type have been found in 21st dynasty elite burials, such as those in the royal mummy cache and second priestly cache at Deir el-Bahari. Remarkably, these objects served as secret containers for scrolls of the Book of the Dead. The RAFFMA example is one of the largest ever found. Yet whatever scroll may have been stored there is now lost.
Visually one of the most prominent artifacts in the RAFFMA exhibit is the oddity-laced lid of a painted wooden anthropoid coffin. Once owned by Lowell Thomas (whose films made Lawrence of Arabia famous), the coffin lid passed to RAFFMA from the collection of Charles Sitwell and other collectors in Southern California. The first intriguing feature is that the deceased’s name is spelled with the female version Tadiuser instead of Padiuser, despite the fact that he is acknowledged to be the son of Djedher and Taamun. Also unusual, Padiuser’s wife is represented on his coffin as a little figure on the upper right side below the floral collar. She receives only a single offering formula nestled among the others for her husband. Fortunately, the text reveals her name: Isis-Hesat. Elements of the coffin’s decoration are similar to examples excavated in Middle Egypt from the 25th or 26th dynasties. We therefore can believe the statue came from the same region because the wife’s rare name honors the cow-goddess Hesat, worshipped as a form of the goddesses Hathor and Isis in the town of Aphroditopolis (Atfih) in Middle Egypt. The coffin lid illustrates how the deceased becomes a divine form from embalming, mummification and funerary rituals.
The RAFFMA exhibit is fortunate to include one statue from a royal burial. Senkamenisken ruled over the powerful Nubian Kingdom of Napata (c. 640-620 BCE) at a time when the Saite dynasty ruled Egypt. In 1916-18, George Andrew Reisner excavated the king’s pyramid among the other Napatan royal tombs in Nuri. This serpentine ushabti (funerary figurine) from the king’s tomb would have served as a stand-in for any work he might be called to perform in the afterlife. These assignments were apparently of great concern to Senkamenisken, whose tomb contained the highest number of ushabtis among all of those at Nuri – 1,277, of which 410 were made of serpentine and 867 of faience (glazed pottery). This and the other ushabtis at RAFFMA illustrate the ancient Egyptians’ belief that magical spells and objects could bring a more comfortable existence in the afterlife.
The RAFFMA exhibit also houses a unique statue of a Ptolemaic priest named Imhotep, son of Horus and Asetweret, grandson of Pasenese. The inscription indicates that he was a prophet of the god Thoth who worked as an “hour priest” of the god Amun, probably at Karnak. In this role, he kept time for night rituals performed in the temple. Imhotep also held the title “one able to enter the House of Gold to create the divine images,” which indicates he made statues of the gods in the temple workshop. He is also lauded as “one who fashions shrines of the (divine) boat,” referring to his working with metals to make divine processional equipment. In fact, Imhotep’s cloak is a type worn by priests when they escorted the gods’ statues and processional equipment during festivals. A busy man, Imhotep most certainly was a vital, trusted priest of the Temple of Amun.
One of the latest objects in the RAFFMA exhibit is also one of the most restless. This fragment of a plaster mask is typical of Roman burial in Middle Egypt in the first three centuries CE. These masks represent the deceased as if he or she were rising from bed, dressed in formal garments of a Roman style. With tightly defined strands of hair, this mask’s coiffure forms into a crest along the forehead. The hairnet on top is distinctive of female portraiture of the late second to fourth centuries. Because the faces on funerary masks were made in molds, it is possible to find this mask’s “sisters” in museums around the world. Unlike the other objects at RAFFMA, however, this mask has a reputation of being haunted. Security cameras supposedly have caught the mask moving within the gallery on her own. Perhaps more literally, the mask and other objects from the Roman period illustrate how Egyptian funerary culture changed to include mortuary styles elsewhere in the Roman Empire.
The RAFFMA space dedicated to this and other displays will soon be expanded and enhanced by special spaces dedicated to studying the collection. The exhibition compliments initiatives to teach Egyptology at CSUSB with the new Benson and Pamela Harer Fellowship in Egyptology and Egyptology Scholars in Residence Program in the history department, recently endowed by Dr. Harer. RAFFMA’s staff and volunteers also intend to explore technological innovation, leading to yet another journey into the afterlife for one of the exhibit’s dearest artifacts. That is, the museum may engineer a reunion of sorts for our little girl, Hetepheres. One idea certain to engage the ancient Egyptian beliefs of life after death is to reconstruct the family statue, after so many centuries, using virtual reality.