Essex’s Tutankhamun? Learning from seemingly incongruous comparisons.

An intact royal burial in Essex

In 2003 Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) found the intact burial chamber of an Anglo-Saxon noble or prince in Prittlewell, Southend-on-sea. The discovery was widely reported and media interest renewed with the subsequent permanent exhibition of the artefacts in Southend Museum in 2019. The excitement, elite nature of the tomb and presence of precious metals prompted comparisons with the discovery of Tutankhamun.

An unexpected comparison

While writing my review of the permanent exhibition I found myself thinking about the comparison between the Prittlewell Princely burial and Tutankhamun. Several commentators on social media had made slightly derisory remarks about it. Did they have a point? I set out to compare the two.

In many respects, the Prittlewell Princely burial and Tutankhamun’s tomb are vastly different. They are world’s away from each other, coming from very different cultures separated by c. 3,500 miles and c. 2000 years (since absolute dating of Egyptian Pharaohs is disputed this figure is approximate). The Prittlewell tomb was smaller than Tutankhamun’s, with artefacts numbering in the 10s rather than the thousands, and it did not contain nearly as much precious metal or jewelry.

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Tutankhamun’s folding stool (JE 62035) in the Cairo Museum (Author Photograph).

The Prittlewell burial was also much less well-preserved than Tutankhamun, requiring every modern technique of excavation and conservation to carefully extract the surviving artefacts. In Tutankhamun’s subterranean tomb the dry, relatively constant environment preserved the wooden and other perishable objects, many of which were carried out on the shoulders of the excavators. At Prittlewell, only modern ‘block’ excavation methods (where a fragile artefact is removed from the site within a large block of soil and fully excavated in the lab) have made it possible to identify and preserve many of the objects.  The difference in preservation is stark and most evident in the folding stools found in each burial.  Tutankhamun’s folding stool (JE62035) is almost perfectly preserved and is on display in Cairo (image above left). The Prittlewell Prince also took a folding stool to his burial, but as the fifth image in this Museum Crush post shows, it did not fare as well as Tutankhamun’s. Although reconstructions are possible on paper (Hirst and Scull 2019, 70) the remains of the stool are not included in the current exhibition, presumably because of its state of preservation. Such artefacts have only been identified and preserved from the Prittlewell burial thanks to careful modern excavation, conservation, and scientific techniques

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Tutankhamun’s cartouches on an Egyptian alabaster vessel (JE 62117) from his tomb (Author Photograph).

There are also considerable differences between the occupants of the tombs. While Tutankhamun’s name is plastered all over the objects in his tomb with typical ancient Egyptian concern for its preservation, the identity of the Prittlewell tomb owner remains unknown. He is now believed to have been a royal prince rather than a King, but any suggestions as to his identity remain speculation (Hirst and Scull 2019, 96-97).

The occupant of the Prittlewell burial was also associated with a much less powerful political entity than Tutankhamun. The Kingdom of the East Saxons was only one of several in what is now England (Hirst and Scull 2019, 99-102). Tutankhamun, by contrast, ruled what can only really be described as an early superpower, with an empire, vast influence across the Middle East, and regular diplomatic interactions with both equals and vassals.

Surprising similarities

What then are the similarities that prompted this comparison, or was it just hyperbole? I came to a surprising answer. There are some important parallels between Tutankhamun’s tomb and the Prittlewell Princely burial and they become more interesting the more you investigate them.

While it wasn’t a worldwide sensation like the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Prittlewell burial certainly caused a stir amongst archaeologists and the public. Newspapers and TV carried the story and in 2005 it featured in a Time Team Special. Such publicity rapidly attracted those who wished to make use of the discovery for their own purpose. Like the many debates and scandals surrounding Tutankhamun, the Prittlewell Prince rapidly became involved in local controversy. Protestors, objecting to the road-widening scheme which originally prompted the excavation of the site, set up the protest ‘Camp Bling’  and argued that the road scheme should be stopped because it would destroy the burial site. Despite the spurious nature of this argument (the burial site having already been removed by archaeological excavation), the road has never been widened.

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‘Camp Bling’ road-widening protest, Priory Crescent, taken 20 January 2006 by David Kemp. Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA).

The discovery of both Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Prince both encouraged the archaeological community. Howard Carter spent years excavating the Valley of the Kings before his discovery of Tutankhamun demonstrated that there were still important discoveries to be made there. The Prittlewell burial, sandwiched between a road and a railway cutting in the middle of a town, demonstrated that significant archaeological discoveries are possible even in heavily urbanised areas. Such discoveries provide huge validation for archaeologists. Your average commercial archaeologist spends most of their career working in all weathers knowing that most of their work will only contribute incrementally to the sum of archaeological understanding. This incremental knowledge is important, but when you are toiling away in the rain, hacking through hard clay to excavate a dull field drain or tree throw, its encouraging to think that one day you might help to recover a truly remarkable find.

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The Valley of the Kings from above (El Qurn). Howard Carter cleared the central part to the bedrock before finding Tutankhamun. (Author Photograph).

Both finds also shed new light (and provoke even more questions) about relatively obscure periods of history; the Amarna period in the case of Tutankhamun, and the Anglo-Saxon period in the case of the Prittlewell Princely burial. We are all intrigued by the unknown, and obscure periods of history often attract the attention of both enthusiasts and scholars. New discoveries offer the hope of new parallels for existing artefacts and architecture, and additional scientific evidence that may fill in some of the historical and cultural gaps in our current understanding. Of course, these hopes are rarely fulfilled and more often than not such new discoveries provoke even more questions than they answer, but it is the excitement that we feel as enthusiasts and researchers that feeds into the public imagination.

Finally, thanks to the excitement and media attention that always surrounds such discoveries, both Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Prince were given fond nicknames, although they might not appreciate being called ‘King Tut’ and the ‘King of Bling’ if they were here to hear them.

Reception and exploitation

Reviewing the similarities between Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Princely burial, a clear pattern emerges. The similarities between these two very different burials are all about our reception of them as archaeological discoveries, rather than any intrinsic similarities between the burials, cultures or people buried.  It is the public and scholarly excitement over the excavation of an intact (or largely intact in the case of Tutankhamun) burial of an elite individual, from a thrillingly obscure or controversial period, accompanied by rich grave goods that are comparable. Such comparisons say more about us than about Tutankhamun or the Prittlewell Prince. They speak to our positive enthusiasm for archaeological discovery, our interest in the past and fascination with obscure or controversial periods of history. Less positively they reflect excitement over ‘buried treasure’ and (sad inditement of our society that it is) speak of a desire to consume and even exploit the past that is present in some quarters.

So yes, in many respects the Prittlewell Princely burial is Essex’s Tutankhamun. Although far removed from each other in time, space and culture Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Prince are highly comparable in terms of the public reaction to their discovery and the use made of them by various groups. That such similarities are present with regard to two so very different archaeological discoveries says much about our culture, and that is a rare and valuable treasure in itself.

References

In addition to the digital references cited in this and my previous post, the main references for the Prittlewell Prince are:

Hirst, Sue and Scull, Christopher. 2019 The Anglo-Saxon Princely Burial at Prittlewell, Southend-on-sea. Museum of London Archaeology: London.

Blackmore, Lyn. Blair, Ian. Hirst, Sue and Scull, Christopher. 2019. The Prittlewell princely burial: excavations at Priory Crescent, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, 2003. MOLA Monograph Series 73. Museum of London Archaeology: London.

There are innumerable references for Tutankhamun, the discovery of his tomb and its fate. The following are good introductions to the discovery, archaeological context of his tomb and the debate about how the discovery has been used and abused since:

Reeves, Nicholas. 1995. The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, The Tomb, The Royal Treasure. Thames and Hudson.

Romer, John, and Romer, Elizabeth 1993. The Rape of Tutankhamun. Michael O’Mara Books Ltd.

The Egyptian Museum of Barcelona

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Serpentine stone head, attributed to the IV Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Author Photograph.

In July 2017 I was able to visit the Egyptian Museum Barcelona. The museum opened in 1994 to display the Egyptian collection of Jordi Clos and introduce the public to 1,100 Egyptian artefacts and various temporary exhibitions. It forms part of the Clos Archaeological Foundation, which also funds archaeological expeditions and training.

The museum is served by the efficient Barcelona metro and easily found between Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia masterpiece and the Passeig De Catalunya, where many other modernist buildings are located. The museum is clean, tidy and well lit and the exhibits are displayed across three floors.

Most of the objects in the museum are typical of this type of small Egyptian collection. The dates range from black-topped Naqada pots to Roman coffins, and the artefacts on display include bronze statues of gods, stone statues of pharaohs and courtiers, shabtis, scarabs, amulets, coffins and cartonnages, stone vessels, jewellery and tomb models. Many of these objects are typical, but there are also a number of particularly interesting pieces worthy of further study.

Highlights

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Large wooden statue of a VI Dynasty nobleman carrying a Sekhem scepter and (restored) staff (E-422). Author Photograph.

Upon entering the museum the first group of exhibits explain the nature and role of the Pharaoh in Egyptian culture through a series of artefacts covering all dynasties of Egyptian history. Amongst the usual royal statuary is an interesting serpentine stone head attributed to the IV Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu (image top left), the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza. If correct this attribution would add an important new portrait to the relatively few known images of this Pharaoh.

There is also an interesting granite shabti of the XXV Dynasty Nubian Pharaoh Taharqa (E-643) and a serpentine shabti of the slightly later Napatan ruler Senkamanisken from their burials at Nuri in the Sudan.

In addition to the royal statuary are a number of private statues of courtiers, individuals and offering bearers in stone and wood. The highlight of these objects is a large wooden statue of a VI Dynasty nobleman carrying a sekhem scepter and a partially restored staff (E-422, image right).

There are several attractive painted scenes including the two priestesses in image at the top of this post (E-652).

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XIX Dynasty relief of a man writing on a tomb (E-644). Author Photograph.

For those that prefer literary and literate objects, there are several inscribed statues and stelae, including a fine New Kingdom false door of Sebekemheb from the reign of Amenhotep III (E-261) and an unusual limestone relief fragment of a XIX Dynasty man writing on a tomb wall (E-644, left). The two VI Dynasty execration texts are less artistic or monumental but just as important as evidence of magical assault upon the enemies of the Egyptian state (in this case the enemies are Nubians).

Other highlights include a lovely wooden bed (E-434) with bovine feet and reconstructed leather strapping, dated to the Early Dynastic period according to it’s label.

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XII Dynasty Middle Kingdom ceremonial apron of faience beads, including a decorative device in the shape of an animal tail (E-844). Author Photograph.

In addition to several wesekh and menat collars (at least some of which have been re-strung from ancient beads) the jewellery section contains a New Kingdom beaded skullcap decorated with gold flower motifs and a faience apron with a decorative feature mimicking a bull’s tail (right, E-844). This apron has been dated to the XII Dynasty by comparison with the similar belt and apron of Senebtisi in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The XII Dynasty coffin of Khnumhotep from Meir is a great example of a Middle Kingdom rectangular-coffin with a beautifully clear offering formula on it. It is also cleverly displayed to inform the visitor about Middle Kingdom funerary assemblages. On top of the coffin are a series of objects typical of Middle Kingdom burials, including wood and stucco model sandals (E-988 and E-999), two stone vessels – including one alabaster example still sealed with cloth, a mirror in copper-alloy and wood, and a wooden headrest. The texts on the coffin and the context for Middle Kingdom funerary assemblages are covered in detail on an adjacent panel, illustrated with images from intact Middle Kingdom Egyptian tombs.

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Typical Middle Kingdom burial assemblage, based around the coffin of Khnumhotep from Meir (E-188). Author photograph.

Informative display

Several of the artefacts have been cleverly displayed to enhance understanding of their archaeological context and Egyptian culture.  While Middle Kingdom burial customs are introduced by the coffin of Khnumhotep (above), tombs of the Old Kingdom are represented by a clever reconstruction of the VI Dynasty tomb chapel of Iny. An information panel introduces the sources for the reconstruction and the content of the reliefs. Iny’s false door stela and three other relief fragments from the tomb are displayed in the reconstruction, which places them in context using information from other fragments from the same tomb that are in other collections. This is an informative way to display multiple fragments from the same tomb, and reconstituting the tomb environment in this way undoubtedly improves visitor understanding of the archaeological and cultural context of the reliefs.

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Part of the reconstruction of the tomb-chapel of Iny, showing the false door stela (centre left) and further fragments of relief in the context of a small VI Dynasty offering chapel. Author Photograph.

The funerary papyrus of the Lady Bary is equally well presented. Although this XIX Dynasty papyrus is extremely fragmentary, the display shows how the surviving papyrus relates to the original vignettes (where these can be reconstructed) and also includes an information panel detailing the conservation and investigation of the papyrus. This format makes best use of an artefact that might otherwise have languished in stores as too damaged for display, and ensures visitors gain an appreciation of what can be learned from even the most fragmentary of objects.

However there are also some missed opportunities in terms of display. While Third Intermediate Period coffins and cartonnage are relatively common, the XXII Dynasty cartonnage (E-345.4) of the Lady of the House Djed-Montu-iues-ani, wife of Pamiu is a good example of the type. This empty cartonnage is displayed above a mirror to show the empty internal space where the mummy was located, emphasising the difference between a mummy cartonnage and anthropoid wooden coffin. The substantial pedestal allowed the cartonnage-covered mummy to stand up in front of the tomb during the funerary rituals. This display would be an ideal opportunity to explain the differences between cartonnage and wooden coffins and/or discuss how such objects were used in funerary rituals. Providing museum visitors with information about how artefacts were used enables them to engage with objects as elements of ancient lives, and contextualise what they see. Unfortunately in this case the information panel is limited to the name and titles of the owner, and an interesting opportunity to contextualise funerary artefacts has been missed.

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XXII Dynasty mummy cartonnage of the Lady of the House Djed-Montu-iues-ani, displayed to show the inside of the cartonnage reflected on the underlying mirror and the large pedestal which contained the feet and allowed the cartonnage to stand up (E-345.4). Author Photograph.

Subsidiary exhibitions

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XVIII Dynasty blue painted pot typical of the period around the reign of Tutankhamun. Author Photograph.

When I visited there were two subsidiary exhibitions within the museum, which made use of artefacts from the collection to explore further specific aspects of Egyptian culture. These subsidiary exhibitions make clever use of artefacts that might otherwise be considered unremarkable or languish in storage.

Most of the lowest floor of the museum is occupied by a fascinating exhibition dealing with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Using excavation photographs, artefacts from the Barcelona collection (such as the typical Amarna period blue painted pot shown in the image left) and a facsimile of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, the exhibition demonstrates how the artefacts that accompanied Tutankhamun were luxurious versions of types in use in other funerary, domestic and ritual contexts. It was a pleasure to see the famous tomb dealt with as a part of a continuum of Egyptian culture rather than as an exotic treasure and the exhibition provided a new angle on an commonly-covered subject.

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Partly reconstructed painted wood Ptolemaic drum (rear) and Middle Kingdom (XII Dynasty) model bed (front) both with leonine legs. Author Photograph.

The Animals Sagrats de l’Antic Egipte exhibition deals with the role of animals in the religion of ancient Egypt, including their deification and dedication as votive offerings. It contained the expected animal manifestations of various deities, appropriate animal mummies, zoomorphic cosmetic palettes and two tomb models including animal figures. As such it’s remit was somewhat wider than the recent Manchester Museum animal mummies exhibition, although it was a smaller exhibition. For me a highlight was a partly reconstructed drum with leonine legs in painted wood dated to the Ptolemaic period (304-30 BC) and a painted wooden model bed dated to the XII Dynasty (right).

Documentation

Although several innovative displays and highly informative panels explain the archaeological and cultural context of certain artefacts, the labels on many of the objects in the Egyptian museum are a little deficient in information. In particular there are no accession numbers on any of the labels and very few give details of the object’s provenance. Unfortunately unlike the Cuban Egyptian Collection there is no single catalogue containing details of the displayed artefacts or highlights of the collection.

The shop sells several catalogues associated with individual exhibitions and themes but none of these contains all the significant objects in the collection and some do not provide accession numbers, provenance and bibliographic information. I purchased a copy of the most informative of these catalogues, Moda y Belleza en el Antiguo Egipto (D’Amicone 2011), which includes many artefacts from the Barcelona Museum as well as other objects borrowed mainly from Turin and Florence for the 2011-2012 exhibition of the same name. Additional information on ancient Egyptian culture and certain objects is also available online on the museum’s website, but although this includes accession numbers it only covers a few of the many objects in the collection. All the accession numbers provided in this post have been gleaned from the Moda y Belleza catalogue or the museum website. Further information could undoubtedly be obtained by active research in the collection and communication with the museum and associated Egyptologists, but these methods would not be available to the casual visitor and are unlikely to be pursued by anyone but an Egyptologist actively researching the collection.

Provenance

There was also very little information on the origins of the artefacts or how they entered the museum. A review of the Barcelona artefacts present in the Moda y Belleza catalogue revealed that they had all been purchased, mostly within the last 30 years, with many documented in auction catalogues since 1992. This is consistent with the history of the collection, which grew rapidly after the foundation of the museum in 1994. A lack of archaeological provenance is a chronic problem with purchased antiquities irrespective of when they were bought, but it might be appropriate to include information on when the artefacts entered the museum and from where (auction, private collection etc) to provide a little additional context on the object labels.

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Possible anorthosite-gneiss bowl, perhaps discoloured by post-depositional processes or fire. Note the darker bluish patches and streaks that are typical of anorthosite-gneiss. Author Photograph.

Further research

Several of the artefacts in the collection would benefit from more research than I have been able to undertake for this review. Among the stone vessels is a discoloured example (right), described as ‘alabaster’, which exhibits the blue-black striations and spots of anorthosite-gneiss from the Gebel el-Asr quarries. Since gneiss is often confused with other stones (typically diorite) and this example is both broken and discoloured some confusion might be expected, but it would certainly benefit from additional research. The discolouration might be product of post-depositional processes, but gneiss stone vessels are a feature of Early Dynastic tombs and at least two of the I Dynasty tombs (tombs S3471 and S3504) excavated by Emery (1949, 1954) at Saqqara were badly damaged by fire. It is possible that this vessel came from a similar context.

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Bead dress described as Old Kingdom (E-843). Note the winged-scarab motif on the bodice. Author Photograph.

Another rather curiously labelled artefact (E-843) is described as an Old Kingdom bead dress (left). Both label and catalogue note that only two genuine bead-net dresses are known, and the Moda y Belleza catalogue (D’Amicone 2011, 195) entry suggests that this artefact is a modern confection created from ancient beads (potentially including beads from multiple periods). This is not explicitly stated on the object label but it would account for the juxtaposition of the funerary imagery of the winged scarab on the bodice (which is typical of much later periods of Egyptian history), and the much earlier style of the rest of the object which is reminiscent of Old Kingdom bead-net dresses like the example in the Petrie Museum.

There are other unusual artefacts in the collection, where the style, stated date or attribution is outside of what might normally be expected. During my online research and discussion immediately after visiting the collection several individuals raised concerns that the collection includes forgeries. Others have questioned whether it is appropriate that a modern museum was created in the late 20th century through the purchase of artefacts on the antiquities market. Further archaeological and scientific research might confirm the presence of absence of forgeries, but the other concerns are more difficult to address. For me writing this post has raised a number of issues relating to the nature and ethical implications of purchased antiquities in museum collections.  These problems cannot be properly discussed in this short museum review, but there is undoubtedly a need for further consideration of our attitudes to forgeries, unprovenanced artefacts and recently purchased antiquities in museum collections.

Conclusion

The Barcelona Egyptian Museum is a very interesting collection with many opportunities for further research. There are a number of very attractive and interesting artefacts, that will undoubtedly please both archaeologists and the public. Artefacts like the coffin of Khnumhotep and the reliefs from the chapel of Iny are treasures in their own right, and have been displayed to enhance their inherent importance by introducing the visitor to their archaeological and cultural context. The subsidiary exhibitions and informative presentation of artefacts like the papyrus of the Lady Bary make good use of artefacts that might otherwise languish in storage to contextualise and explain aspects of Egyptian culture.

It is unfortunate that the museum accession numbers and origins of individual objects (whether archaeological provenance or information about purchase) are not presented on the majority of the object labels. Some labels would also benefit from additional information and in some cases the objects could be used to expound further on ancient Egyptian culture. The cartonnage of Djed-Montu-iues-ani is well displayed but could be used to explain Egyptian funerary rituals in more detail. The museum would also benefit from a comprehensive published guide or guides to the displayed collection. Such publications could incorporate additional research into the origins and parallels for the artefacts in the collection and hopefully resolve some of the unanswered questions about a minority of the artefacts.

References

D’Amicone, E. (ed.) 2011 Moda y Belleza en el Antiguo Egipto. Exposición presentada en el Museu Egipci de Barcelona 20 de Octubre de 2011 – 20 de Julio de 2012. Museu Egipci de Barcelona: Fundació Arqueològica Clos.

Emery, W. B. 1949. Great Tombs of the First Dynasty I. Cairo

Emery, W. B. 1954.  Great Tombs of the First Dynasty II, London

Acknowledgements

I am indebted for Manon Schutz of Oxford University for information about several of the artefacts, including the Early Dynastic bed and to various individuals who have commented on the collection online or privately.

I am also grateful to Lucia Miatello, Dario Nannini, Carlo Rindi Nuzzolo, Campbell Price, Ashley Cooke, the online members of the Facebook groups Sussex Egyptology Society Unofficial Page and the Coffin Club and all the other commentators on various Facebook and Instagram posts, for their comments and suggestions regarding these artefacts and their interest in the museum.

The Egyptian collection in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes, Havana Cuba.

This post comprises a review of the Cuban collection of Egyptian antiquities housed in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes, in Havana. I visited the collection on the 24 May 2017. The museum is easy to access in central Havana, close to the Capitol and major tourist areas. Entry to the Asturian Building, which houses the Egyptian and other Old World antiquities collections, was four Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) when I visited (one convertible peso is equivalent to one dollar). The 2015 guide to the Egyptian collection was a further 20 CUC, but is well written in Spanish and English and was certainly worth the investment. Despite some minor issues with the display, the Egyptian collection contains some real gems and is not to be missed if you happen to be visiting Cuba.

The location and origins of the Cuban Egyptian collection

The Egyptian collection of the Cuban Museo Nacional des Belles Artes is housed in Havana in the building once belonging to the Asturian Society of Havana. This is a large and beautiful building close to the Capitol, where the 114 pieces of the Egyptian collection share a large hall with the Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities.

Antiquities collected by Joaquin Guma Herrera, Earl of Lagunillos form the core of the Egyptian collection, supplemented by some small subsequent donations. These later donations include a predynastic Naqada II vessel and 25th Dynasty lapis heart scarab donated by Christian Loeben, curator of the Museum August Kestnet of Hannover, and a Third Intermediate Period coffin and cartonnage donated by the Republic of Egypt in 1974.

The Earl of Lagunillas’ collection was donated to Cuba in 1955 and first displayed in 1956 with the assistance of Professor Francisco Prat Puig of the Universidad de Oriente. After the revolution of 1959 the museum was reorganised and became a Museum of Fine Arts. The collection was reorganised again and moved to its current location by architect José Linaresin in 2001.

The Asturian Building (below) is a beautiful structure and the Egyptian antiquities are housed in a hall where Asturian Society gatherings once took place. Although the hall is beautiful, information about the exhibits is limited. There are no accession numbers on the labels, which typically only include date, material, object type and case number. Where relevant the labels also include those ancient individuals named or represented on the object. Unfortunately the museum has a strict policy against photography so I am unable to provide images of the objects as exhibited.

Cuba Museo des Belles Artes, Havana..
The Asturian Building of the Cuba Museo Nacional des Belles Artes, Havana. Author photograph.

Sadly the exhibits in the museum aren’t laid out either thematically or chronologically. In one case a Roman period stela, Roman bronze statues of Osiris and Isis and several scarabs of earlier date sit next to canopic jars from the Middle and New Kingdoms. Other bronze statues of divinities are located in a different case in another part of the exhibition, and stelae are scattered across several cases with relief fragments from multiple periods. This apparently haphazard approach to display may be due to a current reorganisation. Some pieces were absent and work was clearly ongoing when I visited. The lighting could also do with improvement. The signage would benefit from more background information for the casual tourist and the inclusion of interesting aspects of the antiquities (such as detailed provenance and links with pieces in other museums) that have been discovered by the authors of the recent catalogue (see below). The present situation does not do justice to the quality of the objects, but hopefully ongoing restoration and future redisplay will provide a remedy.

An excellent catalogue

Happily much more information, including the accession numbers and some excellent pictures of the objects, can be found in the accompanying catalogue (Sosa et al. 2015). The images (by David Rodriguez Camacho of Fotografo Arte) are particularly good, well laid out and very clear, and combined with images of objects from other collections as necessary. This is particularly useful given the occasionally poor lighting in the gallery.

In addition to the images, the catalogue provides useful information for both the casual visitor and those needing more details of provenance and the origins of the collection. After describing the history of the collection, the catalogue is laid out thematically. Each section provides background information regarding the objects presented in it, and there is enough in these sections for the non-specialist to understand the context of the artefacts in the exhibition. Meanwhile experienced Egyptologists will find considerable information about each artefact in the well-researched catalogue entries. So thorough were the authors that even though almost all the artefacts in the museum were purchased on the open market and had minimal provenance, several catalogue entries describe the tombs or temples where the objects originated, thanks to dogged archaeological detective-work. A prime example are the three fragments (MNBA Havana 94-25, 94-26 and 94-27) from the tomb of Irenakhti/Irenptah/Iry, which were purchased without provenance by the Earl of Lagunillas and subsequently identified as coming from tomb G 2391 at Giza, south of the causeway to Khafre’s pyramid.

Cuban gems

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Gneiss statue of 12th Dynasty Pharaoh Senusret I, similar to the granodiorite head in the Cuban Museum (Berlin ÄM 1205). Author photograph.

As the catalogue makes clear, the Egyptian antiquities in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes are a fine example of a mid-20th century private collection. There are shabtis, scarabs, fragments of relief (mostly from false doors), stelae, statues and statue fragments, Greco-Roman period encaustic mummy portraits, canopic jars, a wooden coffin and mummy cartonnage, and a range of Late Period bronze statues. So far so typical! But a list of what are, Egyptologically speaking, the ‘usual suspects’ doesn’t do justice to their quality. Many of the antiquities are very good examples of their type, well preserved and beautifully made. The knowledge of the experts (notably Bernard von Bothner and William C. Hayes) whom the Earl of Lagunillas consulted on his purchases, is evident in the quality of many of the pieces.

The Cuban collection also contains several real gems. There is a very fine small relief of Seti I (MNBA Havana 94-36), and the head of a granodiorite statue of a Pharaoh (MNBA Havana 94-37) that has been identified as Senusret I of the 12th Dynasty. Although somewhat damaged it is physically similar to other images of that Pharaoh such as BM EA 44 and Berlin ÄM 1205 (above left) and an important addition to the corpus of Middle Kingdom royal statuary.

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Late Period head of Amun (MNBA 94-120) after Sosa (et al. 2015, 73).

Both Seti and Senusret are trumped by a black basalt head of Amun (MBNA Havana 94-120) that has become the emblem of the collection. Its photograph (right) is a good exemplar of the quality of the imagery in the catalogue, which more than compensates for the inability to take photographs in the gallery. Dating from the Late Period, this Theban statue fragment has two different surface treatments. The flesh is highly polished, while the crown is coarsely pecked, probably to take a covering of a different material. Traces suggest it was once covered in gold, although other precious stones, metals or inlays may have been used for different elements. The head has been matched to a body in the Louvre (E 12988), which was found during excavations in 1927, attached to the north wall of the corridor on the west side of the temple at Medmud. The archaeological context suggested that the piece was broken when Coptic extensions were made in the temple.

Other key objects in the collection include two reliefs that have been matched with other known fragments. MBNA Havana 94-35 is a beautiful polychrome fragment from the tomb of Neferu (TT 319), wife of Mentuhotep II. The fragment in Havana matches a photo in the Theban Expedition Journal from the 1925-6 season of the Metropolitan Museum excavations at Deir el-Bahri, but the artefact shown in the Journal has not been located. The catalogue authors suggest that it may be in Cairo.

More interesting for aficionados of British Egyptology is MBNA Havana 94-15, an 18th Dynasty scene showing the purification of the deceased outside the tomb (below right). This piece has been matched with one in Birmingham Museum (n. 68866) and the combined image shows a typical New Kingdom scene of mourning before the tomb. Sadly the tomb is unknown as both reliefs were purchased on the antiquities market, but the style suggests it came from Saqqara.

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Line drawing from Sosa (et al. 2015, 128) showing MNBA Havana 94-15 (right) combined with it’s partner Birmingham n. 68866 (left) to form a typical mourning scene of offering to and purifying the deceased.

One exception to the purchased artefacts is the 22nd Dynasty coffin and cartonnage of Tashebet (MNBA Havana 94-39), excavated by Labib Habachi from the tomb of Kheruef (TT192) in the Asassif. This beautiful coffin-set was donated to Cuba by Egypt in 1974, in gratitude for Cuba’s assistance with the archaeological work required by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Both coffin and mummy case are beautiful examples of Third Intermediate Period work.

Complementing Tashebet’s coffins is the Book of the Dead of Bakenweren (MNBA Havana 94-47), which dates to the same period and was found or purchased by William Franklin Hood in Luxor in 1858. It passed through the collections of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Brummer before being purchased by the Earl of Lagunillas in 1949. Like the other artefacts it is a lovely example of its type and is well-covered in the catalogue (see the featured image above).

Among the many other artefacts special mention must be made of a bronze and paste Uraeus (MNBA Havana 94-115), dating from the Late Period and probably attached to a white or atef crown. A Ptolemaic coffin of a falcon (MNBA Havana 94-56) is also worth noting for its similarity to examples of animal coffins from the recent Manchester Museum Animal Mummies exhibition. Of the many Egyptian alabaster jars in the collection, it is likely that MNBA Havana 94-82 and 94-87 originated in the Hatnub quarries, which were very active in the 11th Dynasty when these artefacts were made. Another alabaster cosmetic jar still contains the oily remains of its original cosmetic or unguent (MNBA Havana 94-89) and would be a prime candidate for further scientific investigation. Among the stelae there is a good example of a ‘hearing ear’ stela (MNBA Havana 94-30) with carved ears to help the invoked god hear the prayer, and a polychrome Roman stela without text (MNBA Havana 94-13).

The Cuban collection of Egyptian artefacts in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes is a fantastic small collection. The small defects in its display (which will hopefully be rectified soon) do not detract from the quality of the objects individually and as a group, or their important relationships with other 20th century collections. The collection catalogue is a fantastic example of its type, with enough background information for the causal visitor as well as detailed information on individual objects, their provenance, relationships with other pieces and international ties. If you happen to be visiting Cuba, the Egyptian collection should definitely be on your list, and if you are able to obtain a copy of the catalogue (which sadly appears rarely on the usual websites) it’s well worth doing so.

References

Much of the information and three of the images in this blog are taken from the catalogue of the collection:

Sosa, M. A. Lastra, A. C. and Morfini, I. 2015. La Coleccion Egipcia del Museo Nacional des Belles Artes de la Habana.