After death, before display

The Penn Museum presents Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display’

5 minute read
Could you read this funerary stela in the museum? How about in the field? (Image courtesy of Dorling Kindersly/Penn Museum.)
Could you read this funerary stela in the museum? How about in the field? (Image courtesy of Dorling Kindersly/Penn Museum.)

Past civilizations whisper from one end of the Nile valley to the other: Giza, Saqqara, Abydos, Dendereh. For more than a century, University of Pennsylvania explorers have been listening, and what they’ve found is showcased in Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display, an exhibit foreshadowing the next phase of Penn Museum’s top-to-bottom renewal.

Many of these artifacts, some never before exhibited, will inhabit the Ancient Egypt and Nubia galleries set to open in 2022. Discovery to Display, occupying more than 6,000 square feet, offers a behind-the-scenes view of the skills needed to excavate, transport, stabilize, and interpret ancient artifacts for postmodern audiences.

Communicating for, and with, the dead

The exhibit begins in bright and airy Pepper Hall with a display of objects illustrating the Egyptian worldview, concerned with protective gods and goddesses and practices for secure passage into the afterlife. Items on view include tomb goods intended for use after death. The quartzite Statue of Horwedja (664-610 BCE) is a block tomb statue, so called because the figure is positioned sitting with knees pulled up to chest. This form was believed to hold the life force, or ka, of Horwedja, a priest. The figure’s vestment, pulled taut across his shins, forms a flat tablet on which are inscribed messages for the living: “May your children be healthy… May your houses flourish… May your estates be ordered.”

Helpful explanations break down mysterious strings of hieroglyphic pictographs. The sandstone Statue of Sitepehu (1479-1458 BCE), discovered in Abydos in 1900, bears his name in symbols for a duck or goose (sa), a man’s head (tep), and a bull (ihu). While some incised markings remain sharp, others are worn to near invisibility, and visitors are challenged to find specific symbols. The difficulty of locating marks with sufficient light on clean, intact objects emphasizes the task faced by archaeologists in the field.

Not your average bunkhouse

Powerful Egyptians engaged in elaborate funerary practices and burial customs to attain the afterlife, and the exhibit’s second section reveals how the royal and wealthy were prepared after death.

Stepping through a set of glass doors into a more dimly lit hall, viewers are confronted by shelves of mummies. They lie as if in bunks, behind glass, with examples of tomb goods typically placed with the dead—statues of servants and animals, stelae telling their stories and offering prayers, jars and tables holding nourishment for the journey. The room is hushed.

Worldwide, fewer than 30 child mummies have been found, and two are here. One contains a surprise: the wrapping of Mummy of a child in painted shroud (220-270 BCE), indicates a girl but was found to hold a boy, thanks to a recent CT scan.

Mummy of an Anonymous Female (300-200 BCE) is another enigma. Though archaeologists don’t know her identity, the care taken in the 20-year-old’s committal tell them she was from the upper classes and greatly cherished.

What they left

Stelae, which can be wood or stone, are very like modern grave markers, identifying and describing the deceased. The Stela with the Name of King Qa’a (3000-2000 BCE) is one of a pair of five-foot black basalt tablets found at the king’s tomb site in Abydos, Egypt (its mate is in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum). Rounded at the top, it bears an image of a falcon, the god Horus (pharaohs were believed to be human manifestations of Horus).

Tomb models symbolized places and activities. Examples here include a shoebox-sized two-tier room of painted wood where six men stand ready in the loft, while a drummer and a cow wait below along with an impressive rowboat with 14 oarsmen, pulling against the current.

Good signs

Throughout the exhibit, signage is succinct, providing just enough information to appreciate what is being seen. Graphics are particularly informative: A chart depicts Egypt’s pyramid-shaped social ranking, rising from ordinary people to gods (kings became divine upon coronation, gods in death); a timeline depicts the sweep of Egyptian history from 4000 BCE to the seventh century CE, from before the rise of pharaohs to the society’s fall to the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great. A map of the Nile River valley locates Penn expeditions over the decades.

The art and science detectives

Extracting information from fragile materials requires great care. The third section of Discovery to Display brings visitors face to face with conservators as they work in a glass-enclosed circular space, letting visitors closely observe and, at specific times, ask questions. Many artifacts here are being cleaned and stabilized for installation in the new galleries.

Penn Museum’s collection grew over decades in several ways, with most artifacts coming to the institution through university-sponsored or supported expeditions and, to a lesser degree, by purchase and donation. As views of cultural appropriation have changed, so have museum policies: Any artifacts now excavated through Penn archaeological exploration remain in the country of origin, and the museum no longer purchases artifacts—which makes preserving the existing collection even more critical.

In the conservation lab, researchers wield familiar tools in tending to irreplaceable artifacts: a steamer to loosen dirt; deionized water to clean without damage; putty and foam to support; brushes to clean and apply minute amounts of paint; magnets to reshape; and weights to flatten paper and fabric curled with age.

Mummies are never unwrapped, but frayed bits of cloth can be analyzed and radiologic technology can reveal what lies beneath. Discovery to Display does that for nonarchaeologists, enabling us to see the worlds, beliefs, and lives that lie beneath the artifacts before our eyes.

What, When, Where

Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display. On view throughout renovation of the Egyptian Galleries at Penn Museum, 3260 South Street, Philadelphia. (215) 898-4000 or

Penn Museum offers a wide range of programs and services to make its galleries accessible to all. Current renovations may require individuals with limited mobility to use an alternate entrance. For more information or assistance planning a visit, call the museum or visit online.

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