A really weird package came for me in the mail a few days ago. It was from the marble guy with whom I’m working on the Museum’s marble sculptures. A gilded and pointy thing made out of wood. With it a simple note that said: Can you guess what this is?
As I walked back to my desk, it hit me like a bolt of lightning! It was a little ray of sunshine! Our statue of the Celestial god (possibly Helios, the Greek god of the sun) wears a headdress that has little holes in it. These may have held gilded metal rays to create a radiant crown (a bit like the Statue of Liberty). My colleague had send me the mock-up of a ray to insert in the headdress to determine the correct proportions. Once that is figured out, a set of twelve rays will be made to recreate the golden crown for a photo.
Our verdict: the ray needs to be thinner and shorter.
In the middle of the week, Herakles left the West Building for a visit to the photo studio before heading to the conservation lab. Although he weighs about 1020 lbs(!), it only took a few minutes to move the big guy off his pedestal. All you need is brawn, brain and some smooth materials.
Heracles is a very complexe sculpture and we need to look at him even closer than we did before… Actually, we need to look at his knee joins. I’ll let you know when he gets his quasi-surgical operation!
Just before the holidays, Mark the marble guy dropped by the NCMA to take one last look at the classical marble sculptures before he could hand over his reports and catalogue entries. Again we had to work in the dark galleries of the museum, but luckily we didn’t have to start as late as before… the sun sets much sooner in winter!
Assisted by Caroline “the Younger” (who was my intern in the spring), we reexamined the troublesome Hercules and just a few other sculptures with Mark’s nifty and very powerful flashlight, his new portable microscope and under ultraviolet lights. We also took photographs (UV and VIL/IRR) of details based on our earlier “night at the museum” sessions. This should be the last examination of the marbles and the research on these works of art is pretty much completed… but the project continues with the study of other ancient objects from different Classical cultures and made from different materials.
The research on the NCMA’s classical collection continues and that is making me really, really happy. It might not be related to ancient Egypt or Nubia, but at least it’s ancient! Very late in November, our intellectual travels took us to South Italy and Sicily, where the ancient Greeks established colonies. Keely H, who is an expert on this material, took a look at the small collection from the art historical and archaeological standpoint; she was assisted by yours truly as well as Stacey, NCMA conservation technician. Objects conservator Corey was examining the collection from the conservation perspective.
The collection consists of various ceramic vessels, some of which are wonderfully coloured… but are all these pigments actually ancient? That is the question! We are trying to find the answer by looking at the objects under UV lights, by X-ray fluorescence (which was done by NCMA paintings conservator Noelle who is not on the photos), and hopefully even by sampling for further testing in later months. Stay tuned for that!
After having spent most of the past year being buried up to my neck in Art Deco automobiles and motorcycles, I was more than delighted to get back in to the ancient groove in November and December, even though I worked evenings and weekends to make sure everything was done in time. This involved mostly lectures, talks and PowerPoint presentations, but it was all related to ancient things…
On November 19, I taught my Egyptology Seminar (it had been rescheduled from the spring because of the various deadlines for the exhibition). Also, due to this same lack of time, it was only a half day event instead of a full day affair, but it was very well attended nonetheless. The theme (well, title, really) was “Taking Care of Business at Pharaoh’s Court” and I presented with short lectures a number of important individuals who helped shape Egypt during its long history–Imhotep and Hemiunu (both from the Old Kingdom), Ahmose son of Ibana (New Kingdom) and Mentuemhet, the mayor of Thebes during the Third Intermediate Period and the Late Period. Luckily, Dr. Bonnie Sampsell—the author of the Geology of Egypt, who happens to be not only a geologist but also an amateur Egyptologist—kindly helped by giving one of the seminar talks. She presented Senenmut, Queen Hatshepsut’s trusted architect and royal nanny. That gave me some time to breathe…
On November 21 I spent the whole day at North Carolina State University as guest speaker, invited by Dr. Dru MgGill, archaeologist at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. I presented the scientific methods used in museums to study ancient ceramics for the students taking Special Topics in Anthropology, Pots and People: Ceramics Analysis in late morning. Then, after a tasty lunch with my colleague, I spoke to two groups taking Unearthing the Past: Introduction to World Archaeology. I introduced them to the archaeology of ancient Sudan (Meroe and Dangeil) and mused the work of an archaeologist employed in a museum. Few students actually think of this option when considering jobs related to archaeology and material culture.
These were intense and very tiring months, but at least I was back into the ancient groove!!
My ARCHAEO-Crush for September is not a specific artefact, but an ancient Egyptian symbol that has transcended time and can be found as a decorative motif in other cultures and historical periods.
Winged scarab amulet made from faience (Late Period, Dynasty 26)
Faience amulet of a winged scarab attached to a bead net shroud placed on a mummy (Egyptian Museum, Bologna)
Detail of a mural in the Egyptian Room of the International Museum of Musical Instruments in Bologna, Italy.
Winged scarab logo of Automobiles Avions Voisin, a French luxury car company.
The 1936 Stout Scarab, an Art Deco automobile featuring a lovely winged scarab on its front.
Mirror selfie in the hubcap of the 1936 Stout Scarab.
Closeup of the lovely winged scarab adorning the front of the 1936 Stout Scarab.
Winged scarab on the top of the head of the Coffin of Amunred. Courtesy of NCMA
Civilisation: Ancient Egypt
Date: various periods
ARCHAEO-Crush: In ancient Egypt, the scarab (Scarabaeus sacer) is a symbol of resurrection associated with the rising sun, appearing on the eastern horizon after dying in the West the previous evening. The winged scarab was thus a popular funerary amulet and motif associated with the deceased and his funerary goods. At the NCMA, we find a winged scarab drawn on top of the head of Amunred’s coffin (Late Period) as well as incised in the gilded pectoral of Golden Boy (Ptolemaic Period). In a recent post, I also mentioned the short term loan of a faience amulet of a winged scarab temporary exhibited in our permanent galleries. This type of amulet could be sewn to a bead net shroud that covered the mummified body of the deceased, helping them reach the afterlife and achieve immortality.
The Egyptians’ observation of the natural world was the impetus for the association between the dung beetle and the sun. They had noticed that these beetles pushed around dung balls that contained their eggs and imagined an invisible scarab similarly pushing the fiery ball of the sun across the sky–the avatar of the sun god Khepri. The fact that the scarab babies emerged from the dung ball (from which they had fed as larvae) only reinforced the connection with resurrection, new life emerging from the decay of death.
The scarab beetle is one of the Egyptian symbols that has transcended time and has become a decorative motif in subsequent historical periods and different cultures. In more recent times, we find it beautifully incorporated in decorative art and jewellery.
Bucket list status: Well, the bucket list status isn’t quite applicable in this Beetlemania post, but I do have a new favourite dung beetle: the wonderful winged scarab on the front of the 1936 Stout Scarab, an Art Deco automobile in the Rolling Sculpture: Art Deco Cars from the 1930s and ’40s presented at the NCMA from October 1 to January 15, 2017 (which I curated with guest curator and automobile expert Ken Gross). Although a bit odd-looking, the car is absolutely fascinating! Its interior is spacious and some of the seats can be reconfigured for various activities. The perfect car for an Egyptologist who wants to read, cogitate, nap, work, meet with colleagues or dine (it includes a table and a long couch-like seat)!
Additional information: The winged scarab at the front of the car is undoubted inspired by the fresh new wave of Egyptomania that swept the world during the Art Deco period resulting from the discovery of Tutankhamun’Ts tomb in 1922. This is the perfect finishing touch for a car whose monocoque body and chassis combination resembles the exoskeleton of a bug.
A winged scarab showed up at the Museum on Monday afternoon… the cute little faience thing is a short-term loan related to the upcoming exhibition Rolling Sculpture: Art Deco Cars from the 1930s and ’40s. As you can guess from the title, the show is about vintage automobiles and you might wonder how on earth that is connected to Egyptology.
Unbelievable as though it may seem, there is a connection about the cars and Egyptology. One of the automobiles is a 1936 Stout Scarab that features on its hood a spectacular Egyptian winged scarab. Imagine that, the car is actually painted turquoise, so it even looks like a faience scarab! (I’ll talk more about this car in a later post.) As the NCMA does not have a collection of decorative arts (from any period) and none of the artists represented in our modern art section did not work in the art deco style, the only connection between the exhibition and the permanent collection is the Egyptian scarab. (Who knew?!) We have two scarabs represented on two artefacts in the Egyptian collection–one painted on the top of head of Amunred’s coffin, the other carved in the pectoral of Golden Boy’s gilded cartonnage. I want to show a scarab amulet so visitors could see the scarab as an object in and of itself, not just a decorative motif, so I borrowed one for a few months.(It’s been up for just a few days and security guards have told me that people are very excited about it and find the connection with the car show very amusing!) I’ll talk more about scarabs later… and I’ll add illustrations as well.
I’d like to thanks Nicole B. for sharing her photo of a faience bead net that incorporates a winged scarab amulet. (It’s the photo on the left on the label.) This helps understand what these scarab amulets were used for. Also, a big thank you to the generous lender for sending his wonderful little scarab on a trip to the museum.