In this exhibition, the ancient Egyptians still speak to us through passages taken from their writings and through many objects they left behind. A fine collection of both original objects, and some replicas that complement them, are arranged in this gallery by subject categories such as history, daily life, religion, and writing.
While their kings and queens continue to captivate us, the ordinary, hard-working ancient Egyptians are no less fascinating. On one side of the gallery, a sampling of their tools and crafts are displayed, which are illustrated with scenes from tomb paintings. Most of the objects in these exhibit cases were manufactured more than 3,000 years ago.
This jar represents a particular style in the pottery being produced just before the unification of Egypt, ca. 3100 BC. It is one type among the many varieties of pottery produced by the Naqadan culture.
The Narmer Palette, one of Egypt’s oldest surviving historical records, may record in stone the earliest evidence of the birth of a nation under one ruler. Immortalized on a votive palette slate, a king named NARMER (his name is in hieroglyphics on the topmost register, between the cowlike heads) smites an enemy. His large size befits his importance, a convention of ancient Egyptian art.
On one side of the palette the king wears the tall white crown of Upper (South) Egypt, on the other side he wears the red crown of Lower (North) Egypt—probably representing the unification of the two lands into one.
Snake-necked beasts encircle the centered hollow where ceremonial pigments could be ground, or where a statuette of a divinity or fetish was placed.
Dynasty I Jar Sealings
In 1994 the McClung Museum received two rare clay jar sealing fragments used on pottery jars. One is impressed with the Royal name of King Djer and the other contains the name and title of Chancellor Hemaka, a high governmental official. Both date to Dynasty I, ca. 3200–2980 BC.
The part of ancient Egyptian life that continues to fascinate us the most is their belief in an afterlife, and the practices and rituals they followed to prepare for the eternal hereafter. The room at the rear of the gallery presents this story, including the process we call mummification. Funerary jewelry, scarabs, animal mummies, a human mummy, and other authentic objects illustrate important religious beliefs and are examples of those items that would be placed with the deceased in the tomb.
Additional information is available on the concept of the ba, the place of the ba in religious beliefs and funeral rites, and the function and meaning of the ba-bird figures, as well as depictions of the ba in the Papyrus of Ani.
On the opposite side of the gallery, royalty and divinity are especially represented in sculptures. From the diminutive representations of deities such as a bronze cat symbolizing the goddess Bastet, to the large image of Taweret, patroness of expectant mothers, the importance of religion in the everyday life of the ancient Egyptians can begin to be appreciated.
Additional information is available on this cat mummy mask, the place and treatment of cats in Egyptian society, the extraordinary religious beliefs and customs concerning sacred animals in ancient Egypt, and an overview of embalming procedures used in the animal mummification process.
Deities, hieroglyphic text, and religious symbols—painted in green, white, red, and gold—adorn the coffin lid above, made for the mummy of a man who lived and died more than 3,000 years ago. The lid, bottom of the coffin, and the mummy illustrate the orderly and thorough preparation the ancient Egyptians made for the next life.
Additional information is available on this particular coffin face, anthropoid coffins in Egyptian funerary practices, why some coffins lost their faces, and links to other resources on mummification and the funerary arts in Ancient Egypt.
Karnak Temple Exhibit
The 100-year-old model of the Hypostyle Hall of the temple of the god Amun-Ra at Karnak causes wonder as we imagine what the huge, brightly painted structure looked like during the reign of the great pharaoh Ramesses II. Its grandeur makes us admire the many artisans who decorated it, as well as the architects who designed it and the stoneworkers who constructed the great hall.
The Rosetta Stone, which provided the key to deciphering the writings of Ancient Egypt, was discovered near the town of Rosetta (now Rashid), located in the Nile Delta about forty miles northeast of Alexandria, by a Frenchman, Pierre Bouchard, on July 15, 1799. Captain Bouchard, an engineer officer in Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, was supervising the reconstruction of an old fort as part of the preparations for defending the French from attacks by British and Turkish forces in the area. The Rosetta Stone came to light during the demolition of a wall in the fort. Captain Bouchard saw that the polished black basalt stone contained three sections of different types of writing, and recognized its significance immediately. He sent the stone to Cairo, to the scholars who accompanied the French expedition to Egypt.
In 1801, after two years of warding off attacks by the British, and after their defeat at Abuquir Bay, the French forces in Egypt surrendered. Under the terms of the Treaty of Capitulation, all antiquities in the possession of the French, including the Rosetta Stone, were ceded to the British.
Today, the original Rosetta Stone is in the British Museum in London. The McClung Museum has a replica of this famous stone.
The stone is inscribed with a decree issued by a gathering of priests in the city of Memphis in 196 BC. The decree commemorates the first anniversary of the coronation of Ptolemy V Epiphanes as pharaoh (king) of Egypt, and praises his accomplishments in that first year. Although the proclamation itself has only minor significance, the stone is important because the inscription appears in two languages, Egyptian and Greek, and bears the same text in three scripts:
- At the top—fourteen lines of hieroglyphs
- In the center—thirty-two lines of demotic (a simpler, cursive, form of hieroglyphic characters which is much easier to write, and which therefore became the popular form of writing)
- At the bottom—fifty-four lines of Greek
Although scholars had translated the Greek inscription almost immediately after the Rosetta Stone was discovered, they could not understand the other two scripts.
In 1808, at the age of eighteen, the precocious French linguist and scholar Jean François Champollion began studying a copy of the Rosetta Stone and the writing system of the ancient Egyptians in an effort to decipher the mysterious hieroglyphs. Fourteen years later, in 1822, Champollion confirmed that some hieroglyphs were phonograms (phonetic, or sound, symbols meant to be heard) as well as pictograms (pictures of words, meant to be seen). In 1824 he published a groundbreaking book on Egyptian hieroglyphs in which he set out the fundamental concepts of hieroglyphic writing, provided an Egyptian “phonetic alphabet,” and noted that Ancient Egyptian writing was a complex system that was “symbolical and phonetic in the same text, the same phrase, the same word.”
It was this discovery—that the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system used a combination of ideograms, phonetic signs, and determinatives—that provided the breakthrough in the translation of hieroglyphic writing. This ability to read the ancient hieroglyphs, in turn, opened the door to the history of Ancient Egypt and gave birth to the new discipline of Egyptology.