The intriguing Egyptian artefacts - genuine and fake - to be found on display in Sheffield
A new gallery at Sheffield's Weston Park Museum is home to a host of intriguing Egyptian artefacts. Phil Penfold takes a step back in time.
She was called Nesitanebetasheru, and she lived 2,600 years ago. She was a mother, and she suffered from arthritis. The woman could have passed into total obscurity and we might have known nothing at all about her – except for the fact that, when she was discovered, the "rules" of her society and her religion were imprinted on her coffin.
Her father's name is also painted on one of the brightly covered panels. He and his daughter were clearly wealthy, and people of some status. Their community was Thebes, in Egypt, and Nesitanebetasheru is now centre stage of a compelling new gallery at Weston Park Museum in Sheffield. The gallery has now opened, after months of lockdown, offering visitors a glimpse into her world.
Weston Park has always had a significant collection of artefacts from the time when the Egyptian empire ruled its corner of the Mediterranean. The museum was (largely) assembled when local Yorkshire worthies with some disposable income and enquiring minds concentrated on this significant period in history.
There was a craze for all things Egyptian which started with adventurous Georgian tourists visiting the country, and then Napoleon's attempted colonisation. That interest was reflected in everything from clothing to what appeared on the tables of the wealthy and in the buildings of our towns and cities.
Victorian and Edwardian architects constantly repeated themes and designs derived from the time of the Pharaohs in their drawings, and many of their ideas can still be seen on today's streets.
"I don't think that it has ever really been away," says Martha Jasko-Lawrence, curator of archaeology at Museums Sheffield, who has been one of the driving forces behind this remarkable and diverse display, which showcases hundreds of the many thousands of artefacts, large and (very) small, that Sheffield owns in its vast collections.
Martha spent months deliberating on what should make it through to her final selection. "Not an easy task," she smiles, "because, quite genuinely, I was spoilt for choice. There are so many items that could have been put on display, but in the final analysis, it is what tells the story of this period and its people that counts."
It was difficult leaving some objects out. "I could have easily filled three or four times the amount of space," she says. And, it seems, you have to have a sense of humour, or at least of irony.
For, in one case, visitors will be able to see some "treasures" which are not quite what they seem. These were all made, or reconstructed, over the years and are, to put it simply, fakes. Or at least, made or altered to deceive.
"It isn't a question of value," says Martha, "because they all have individual significance. Today, we have all sorts of carbon dating techniques and skills, a whole range of scans and insights at our disposal. It wasn't so long ago that you had to take someone who offered you something that looked remarkable, entirely on trust. And there are objects which look precisely the real thing."
Martha indicates a wonderful dark piece of stone. It is intricately carved with impressive hieroglyphs. There were over 1,000 distinctive characters in this ancient "alphabet", which combines syllables, logo graphics and letters. It would look wonderful in any collection. The only problem is, despite being beautiful, tactile and superbly decorated, it's a fake.
It looks genuine but isn't, as Martha reveals. "What it says when it is 'decoded', or translated, is complete nonsense. It's gobbledegook. It looks great, but it was meant purely and simply to deceive."
Her own favourite comes from the collection of the eminent archaeologist Sir Robert Mond, whose will decreed that everything he had discovered over the years of expeditions to Egypt should be divided between the British Museum and major regional collections.
"We know from surviving letters that the curator here wasn't best pleased when he got his allocation because several were, shall we say 'slightly questionable' in attribution. Look at the lovely calcite drinking vessel. It's really beautiful. Sadly, it's not even Egyptian, and it dates from between 1800 and 1930. You can accurately date the canvas of a portrait. You can't do that dating on carved stone."
Many things, though, are the genuine article. So how do we know so many things about Nesitanebetasheru? Is she all she purports to be? "Absolutely," says Martha. "Her name is on her coffin along with her title, which is 'The lady of the house'. We know that she was well-off, because only someone with money could have departed in a style like this."
The ancient Egyptians sought to keep their names living on for posterity. "This was the way to give everyone an eternal life, that an after-world looked after you. If they could put a name on something that was very personal, they did.
"It's strange, perhaps, that we all know the names and ranks of our own medieval kings and queens and other notables, but everyone else went, largely, unremarked – until the development of graveyards and cemeteries with carved stone memorials. In Egypt, if it was at all possible, every detail was there to commemorate and identify the person who had died," says Martha.
"Our lady of Thebes is accompanied by another mummy, but this time she's just 14 years old, and she's called Djedma'atiuesank. They are unrelated, and they are also very different for we don't know how this teenager died – she was very young, even in a society where very few lived beyond the age of 35 or 40. There are no signs of disease, so she is yet another mystery."
The new gallery not only tells us a lot about Egypt and its history and societal structures, but also about the people of Sheffield who created their collections. People like Reginald Gatty, a clergyman from the city, whose interest was focused on the flint tools that the Egyptians used to sharpen and hone everyday objects. He was a vicar at Bradfield and then also at Hooton Roberts.
Martha is keen to point out that there are plenty of things for youngsters to do and engage with in the new gallery. "Wherever you go, the Egyptian section in every museum is always one of the most popular," she says. "Here was the chance to enhance our own. Not everyone will want to read each label, or look at everything, but we really hope that there is something for all to enjoy, and to engage with."
The thrill for Martha is giving visitors an insight into the distant past. They may go away having found out that Queen Nefertiti's husband imposed a whole new system of belief on his people, demanding that they forsook their old gods, and worshipped the new ones he personally selected.
They may be fascinated to find out that, incredibly, there were over 2,000 gods that our Egyptian ancestors could worship – and that's not even counting the ones that were very personal to individual homes and communities.
Or they might just wonder at the intricacy of the detail in some of the smallest amulets. "My own favourite? It has to be a small white object, with a slightly raised representation of the human ear," says Martha. It's a 'listening plaque', very personal, and dedicated to the cult of Ptah. The owner could whisper into it, asking for prayers to be answered. How many secrets has it heard? How many devout requests were answered?
"That's the great thing about the new gallery – it is so intensely personal. It links us all, over the centuries. It's about how they all lived then, and what connects us, on the constant thread of life to today".
For more details go to www.sheffieldgalleries.org.uk Admission to all Sheffield Museums and Galleries is free, donations are welcomed.
Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today.
Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you'll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers.
So, please - if you can - pay for our work. Just £5 per month is the starting point. If you think that which we are trying to achieve is worth more, you can pay us what you think we are worth. By doing so, you will be investing in something that is becoming increasingly rare. Independent journalism that cares less about right and left and more about right and wrong. Journalism you can trust.
-- Sent from my Linux system.