April 7, 2017

A visit to The Tomb

From a young age (like many children), I was fascinated with Ancient Egypt, dragging my long-suffering mother to many a museum display full of coffins, mummies and strange, beautiful gods. Therefore, finding myself with no plans for a Saturday last week, I decided to check out the new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland:

The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial tells the story of one tomb constructed in Thebes around 1290BC and the various occupants who used and reused it. The outstanding collection of objects left behind by these different tenants reveals how burial practice in Ancient Egypt evolved and changed through time, from the reign of Tutankhamun, right through to the Roman conquest over a thousand years later. Coming ahead of a brand new permanent Ancient Egypt display due to open next year, this is the first significant show of Egyptian artefacts in Edinburgh since the original gallery closed in 2014. If The Tomb is an indication of what the new galleries are going to be like, I'll be a euphoric museum geek later next year.

Entering the exhibition, I was struck with the layout and décor; the introductory section clearly defined and separated from the rest of the display (a chapel or antechamber to the Tomb itself if you will). An introduction film gives you the story of the tomb before the visitor is into the inner section and the objects themselves. Little design touches such as this make invaluable contributions toward the feel of an exhibition, and in this case, the style of division works very neatly.

Passing the introduction, you turn around the corner to meet its first occupants face on. The Metja or Chief of Police of the city of Thebes was responsible for the guarding of the Valley of the Kings. He was a high ranking official and therefore would have had the wealth and status to commission this tomb for himself and his wife.

Preparation for death was something undertaken as soon as you could afford to at this time, with the powerful and wealthy investing heavily to assure their successful journey to the afterlife. As well as the construction of decorated, rock-cut tombs the dead equipped these with many items used in life, such as jewellery, furniture and even make-up. Burials would also include small figurines called shabti, who acted as handy substitutes to work in the fields of the afterlife on behalf of the deceased.

A group of shabti and their box, from a later burial in the tomb

Objects similar to those likely buried with the couple are displayed nearby. However, a beautiful statue of the Chief of Police and his wife is the only object that survives from this first burial. They gaze at us face on, their arms visible on the other's shoulder, in the act of embrace. Immortalised in sandstone; young and beautiful, they are dressed in their finest clothes and wigs, denoting their high status in life and death.

Statue of the Chief of Police and his wife

The statue would have also been painted, and if you look closely enough, you can still see minute traces of red and black on the figures. This is the sort of detail I find particularly exciting and important to highlight, as people tend to think of these statues as very monochromatic objects, with not much inclination of how they were supposed to look to the Egyptians. It's important therefore to draw visitors towards these details, so they can get a sense of how the tomb may have looked during this time.

The inscription on the back of the statue is damaged, so while we can come face to face with this couple; their names will remain unknown.

The statue viewed from the back. You can see where the inscription is damaged, and the hands on each other's shoulder

Passing the statue, you're then introduced to the neighbours, a group of princesses whose tomb shared a courtyard with the tomb - saving the chief of police some money when he came to build his tomb nearly a century later.

This burial was looted as well, but a set of wooden name tags have survived. The power of a name was an important thing for Egyptian burials, with its preservation considered vital for survival in the afterlife:

Another survivor from the princesses burial is a cedarwood cosmetics box, decorated with an ivory and ebony veneer. These were all luxury materials, imported from great distances across the empire. The box is inscribed with the name of Amenhotep II, the 18th dynasty pharaoh, and grandfather of the princesses in the tomb. The most notable feature of the box though is the depiction of the fearsome looking Bes, who sticks his tongue out at us. As a protector of the household, images of Bes were a common feature in the home. A recently acquired fragment of the same box is shown alongside, which has been used to identify the original decorative pattern.

Cosmetics box with image of Bes, alongside the recently acquired fragment

When the Egyptian empire and economy started to shrink, people had to economise on the preparations for death. This cost-cutting resulted in the frequent reuse of tombs and grave goods. A tactile display gets the visitor to guess between the expensive and cheaper materials used in burials. I particularly enjoyed the smell aspect of this; proving you can make use of all senses in a visitor experience.

Tactile Interactive in the Tomb exhibition, allowing visitors to smell different fragrances used in burials

Another little touch I quite liked here (and throughout the gallery) was the use of the excavation section plans to show on case labels where objects were found in the tomb, a handy visual cue for visitors.

Label using the plan of the tomb to indicate where objects were found

The final section focuses on the last group of burials to take place before the final sealing of the tomb in the early Roman period. These occupants and their grave goods survived intact and hidden from the world until their excavation by Alexander Henry Rhind in 1857.
This discovery of objects buried alongside the official Montsuef and his family, surviving the millennia that passed revealed a new style of burial objects and practise. Examples on display include an extraordinary funerary canopy and personalised funerary papyri; which give us an insight into the lives of Montsuef and his wife Tanuat, not to mention actual birth and death dates.

The star object in this section (and probably the entire exhibition), is the stunning mummy shroud of Aaemka, the son of Montsuef and Tanuat.

Shroud of Aaemka

Recently rediscovered in the NMS stores and very carefully unfolded, an example of a shroud in such good condition is extremely rare (in fact, this is the first time I've seen an intact example, rather than fragments).

Shroud of Aaemka (detail)

I expect this to be a very busy show - after all, the museum visitor can never get enough of the story of Ancient Egypt. More than that though, this is a truly insightful and well-curated display that shows off the world class nature of the musuem's Egyptian collections. Although the actual tomb is lost (a village was built on top of it after the excavation), curators are continuing to discover more through the collections in NMS and other museums.

It is this painstaking research, investigation and academic endeavour that has allowed the story of the tomb and its inhabitants to be pieced together. The resulting exhibition has now translated this knowledge into a story that will captivate and inspire museum visitors of all ages and enthusiasm (which may very well include the next generation of budding Egyptologists). Holding your attention throughout, you will be tempted to take the journey through the tomb again and again.

  • The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial is on show at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh until September 3rd. Admission Free, but expect to queue for entry, especially in peak times. The accompanying book by exhibition curator Margaret Maitland is available from the museum, priced £7.99. More information available on the National Museums Scotland website