(Procession of model boats, 2010–1961 B.C., Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
|Head of the mummy of Djehutynakht, 2010–1961 B.C., Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston |
|Front side panel of outer coffin of Djehutynakht, Egyptian, Middle Kingdom, late Dynasty 11 – early Dynasty 12, 2010–1961 B.C., Cedar, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.|
|Model of a procession of offering bearers (“The Bersha Procession”) Middle Kingdom, late Dynasty 11 – early Dynasty 12, 2010–1961 B.C., Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.|
From their pyramids to their hieroglyphic script, the ancient Egyptians favored pared-down, geometric forms. But a fascinating exhibition on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through May 16, 2010 presents art of ancient Egypt that blends traditional, idealized forms with sensuous images of life in all its quirky variety.
Entitled “The Secrets of Tomb 10A: Egypt 2000 BC,” the exhibition is the first public display of the largest burial assemblage ever discovered from the Middle Kingdom (2040-c.1640 BC) of Egypt. Tomb 10A held the mummies of Djehutynakht, a head of state comparable to a governor, and his wife, also named Djehutynakht. They presided over a prosperous agricultural region along the Nile. When they died, they received the five-star version of the burial rites due to people of wealth and power in their era.
Their burial furnishings include the finest painted coffin and largest collection of wooden models ever found in an Egyptian burial site. The 200 hand-carved, miniature wooden figures and boats were intended to replicate and regenerate the entire world of the Djehutynakhts in their afterlife. They include a fleet of 58 model boats and almost three-dozen figures such as carpenters, weavers, brick-makers, bakers, and brewers.
The Djehutynakhts may or not have believed these figures would spring to life and serve them after death. But it is undeniable that the figures have the power to conjure a world that existed 4,000 years ago with stirring immediacy.
The MFA gained this extraordinary collection through serendipity as well as science and hard work. During the last century, the museum acquired one of the world’s largest collections of Egyptian art, mainly through excavations by the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition led by Dr. George A. Reisner (1867-1942).
In 1915, a party headed by Reisner’s deputy, Hanford Lyman Story, and Said Ahmed Said, the mission’s expert local foreman, blasted away boulders on a plateau along the Nile in Deir el-Bersha, Egypt. The explosion revealed a shaft and, digging 30 feet down, the team discovered the tomb.
The exhibition displays wall-size enlargements of the researchers’ glass negatives, which show what they found: shattered figures, heaped like broken toys, and a human torso cast aside as so much trash. Robbers had extracted gold inlays and precious jewels from the funeral furnishings, and torched the wooden figures and coffins. But the thick debris smothered the fire. What remained was a priceless trove of the finest art of the era, works that provide an intimate view of its daily life and traditions.
The Egyptian government awarded the tomb’s contents to the MFA, which, after World War I, transported its findings safely to Boston despite a fire onboard the ship.
Most of the models needed repair and reassembly, handiwork that proved almost as painstaking as the process of crafting the figures. Recalling how she removed soot “grain by grain,” Gwynne Ryan was among the five MFA conservators devoted to the project. Working with Nadia Lokma from the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, Ryan came to recognize subtle differences in carving technique, scale and paint color. Such clues helped the team sort, match and reattach about 1,000 wooden parts—arms, legs, rudders and oars—pieces that had not been glued but rather, fit with small pegs.
The exhibition culminates years of scholarship by Rita Freed, chair of the MFA’s Art of the Ancient World Department, and her co-curators Lawrence Berman, Denise Doxey, and Nicholas Picardo. The four also co-authored the exhibition’s lustrous catalog.
The Djehutynakhts’ coffins and 200 models had been buried in an 11’by 11’ vault. Here, the contents occupy two galleries and a room of the same size as the vault. Inside this chamber is a mummified head that was found in the tomb, the face distinct and dignified within its shroud. Alongside it are distracting digital scans by researchers who tried to determine whether the skull belonged to the governor or his wife.
The first gallery dedicated to the tomb contents shows the vast array of boats and figures, a collection that is astonishing in its quantity, variety and detail. Among the various water-born craft, each equipped with its own crew, are kitchen boats, a military transport boat with 18 rowers, a funerary boat, and a skiff for hunting marsh birds. One skiff has a fresh catch of fowl on its deck, along with its pilot and helmsman and another man who is working the nets.
In other display cases, figures are busy making bricks, running granaries, baking bread, brewing beer, feeding cows too fat to stand up and weaving on a ground loom—a tool still in use in the Middle East.
Among the carvings are two figurines of the governor and his wife. She is portrayed as a statuesque beauty, and he is rendered as a youthful, athletic man. Together, they are a svelte and attractive young couple, not remote deities.
In the next gallery, the exhibition turns from scenes of daily life to a portrayal of the afterlife. Instead of figures with folk-art simplicity and charm, the objects on view are works of consummate artistry.
At the entrance to the gallery stands a model considered the finest of its kind, known as “Procession of offering bearers” (c. 2040-1926 BC). About 26 inches long, the work shows four figures carrying all of the essentials to sustain one’s ka, or life force, in the afterlife. Leading the group is a priest carrying an incense burner and a jar of ceremonial oils to reanimate the deceased. Following behind, two women bear food and drink and a third carries a jewelry box and mirror case of cosmetics.
Carved of fine-grain wood, the ensemble sets such lively, animating details as the tiny webbed feet of the ducks in the hands of the women within an elegant, rhythmic design that balances repetition and variation. The figures are of the same height and share a slender, elongated shape. Each moves in parallel, with right foot forward and left arm bent to support an object or basket; but each has a distinctive face, hairstyle and presence.
Behind this model are objects of equal subtlety but grander scale—particularly the governor’s outer coffin, which has been disassembled to show its interior. Its delicately painted images and hand-incised hieroglyphic texts depict an entire cosmos and ensure his exalted place in it.
Both Djehutynakhts had inner and outer coffins made of thick cedar planks from Lebanon; but the imagery carved and painted on his is unsurpassed in its detail and refinement. The curators speculate that the same artist who crafted the procession model may have painted some scenes inside his coffin.
Those who crafted Djehutynakht’s tomb décor adhered to prescribed practices and adapted standard texts and symbols; but they executed these traditional images with extraordinary refinement. The virtuoso handiwork includes colorful kaleidoscopic patterns as well as exquisite illustrations that turn the coffin into a vessel for safe and luxuriant passage into the afterlife.
Traditionally, the deceased was placed on his side in the coffin to face the sunrise and view the daily cycle of rebirth. Painted near the location of the head, the sacred and protective wedjat eyes of Horus, god of the earth, provide the governor with a window into the afterlife.
In text and image, the coffin creates a kind of catalog of the good life—a packing list for an elite journey through eternity. Every inch of the tomb’s artwork is designed to ensure that Djehutynakht spends his days sailing across the sky with the sun god Ra and at night, rests in the underworld with Osiris, ruler of the afterlife.
Illustrated in sumptuous and exuberant detail are such items as a bed and throne with lion’s legs as well as an abundant banquet that includes an ox, a gazelle, an oryx, wriggling geese, trussed cattle, and a dove with an outstretched wing, its every feather precisely rendered. Varying tones of paint to convey depth, a technique rarely found in ancient Egyptian art, the artist depicts plump onion bulbs with languorously curving green stems.
Djehutynakht’s coffin also includes customary protective spells, but by the hundreds, as well as a map through the underworld that zigzags by zones haunted by demons to ensure his safe passage to “the abodes of those who live on sweet things.” The hieroglyphics also state what he plans to do upon arrival—dine, carouse, sleep—and what he refuses to do: eat feces or stand upside down.
Safely ensconced at the MFA, the remains of Tomb 10A achieve a kind of resurrection, bringing an ancient world back to life in intimate and imaginative detail.
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