ancient artifacts

Egyptian Mummies and Voyeurism

Rosetta Stone

My one main stop en route to Lisbon was to visit The British Museum in London [and visit my dear sister]. I decided that rather than try to see a bit of everything, that I would select one section to view in detail. I picked the Egyptian section as this is hailed as a must-see.   The first object I encountered was the Rosetta Stone. I managed to get right up the front of the crowd have a good close look at the hieroglyphs (they are quite small and fine chiselled) but I was quite aware that I was annoying people.  What I noticed immediately was that many visitors are more concerned with taking a photograph of an object rather than ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ the object in the space of the museum. Yes, I am usually one to photograph an object in a collecting institution (if the practice is allowed). However, I prefer only to take pictures of objects that I am particularly drawn to or that I intend to look at again, and, for pictorial research. Many visitors would point and shoot randomly at objects not even bothering to look at them.  I wondered if these snap-happy visitors would look back at their photos later? Personally, I find it a bit strange to visit a museum or gallery and default to viewing the objects down the barrel of the camera; or in many cases these days via a smartphone held out between the viewer and the object. What does this say about the interaction between the object and the audience?  That it is more important to document the visit to the museum than to encounter the presence of the artifact?   Egypt has become consumed by consumerism.  Like the Mona Lisa, the Rosetta Stone and all Egyptian art have become ‘cultural capital’.  In another direction, there appears to be a simulacrum of Darth Vader upon the surface of the vitrine containing the Rosetta Stone. As part of photographing exhibits in museum cases – the reflection of the photographer and other visitors leave an impression, imprint, or reflected image that layers over the artifact.

IMG_1806Perhaps I am a bit old fashioned but I struggled with the physicality of overcrowding and cacophony of voices in the collection rooms. Headphones allowed me to regain some element of quietness. I made my way through the large Egyptian monuments, statues and sarcophagi downstairs and then upstairs to the rest of the Egyptian collection.  What I encountered downstairs was nothing compared to the room that housed the Egyptian mummy collection.  I experienced complete inter-repulsion (the juxtaposition of desire and repulsion) at wanting to look as these ornate mummy cases containing embalmed and bound bodies while simultaneously feeling repulsed by the voyeurism happening in this room. Coupled with some guilt at participating in the act of taking photographs of ancient objects and remains from pillaged Egyptian tombs.

When I came upon an ornate mummy case that once belonged to a high-born female, I noticed that the Kohl tear running down her cheek was all that remained of her missing lapis lazuli eye evoking an all-pervading sense of ‘trespassing’. The exhibition room was filled with many Egyptian mummies and petrified bodies in vitrines – I felt like the aura of each of the mummies was still present in the space.

At this point, I left the Egyptian section, and around the very next corner I found ‘The Queen of the Night’, terracotta relief from Mesopotamia dated between 1765-1745 BC. This discovery refreshed me and led me to explore all of the Ancient Civilisation sections for the female divine.

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Queen of the Night

aka ‘the Burney Relief’, terracotta, – The British Museum Collection

(http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1355376&partId=1)

This plaque is made of baked straw-tempered clay and is modelled in high relief. The figure of the curvaceous naked woman was originally painted red. She wears the horned headdress characteristic of a Mesopotamian deity and holds a rod and ring of justice, symbols of her divinity. Her long multi-coloured wings hang downwards, indicating that she is a goddess of the Underworld. Her legs end in the talons of a bird of prey, similar to those of the two owls that flank her. The background was originally painted black, suggesting that she was associated with the night. She stands on the backs of two lions, and a scale pattern indicates mountains.

The figure could be an aspect of the goddess Ishtar, Mesopotamian goddess of sexual love and war, or Ishtar’s sister and rival, the goddess Ereshkigal who ruled over the Underworld, or the demoness Lilitu, known in the Bible as Lilith. The plaque presumably stood in a shrine.

The same goddess appears on small, crude, mould-made plaques from Babylonia from about 1850 to 1750 BC. Thermoluminescence tests confirm that the ‘Queen of the Night’ relief was made between 1765 and 45 BC.

The relief may have come to England as early as 1924, and was brought to the British Museum in 1933 for scientific testing. It has been known since its publication in 1936 in the Illustrated London News as the Burney Relief, after its owner at that time. Until 2003 it has been in private hands. The Director and Trustees of the British Museum decided to make this spectacular terracotta plaque the principal acquisition for the British Museum’s 250th anniversary.

For more reading about the ‘Queen of the Night’ please see below.

H. W. and A. F. Janson, History of Art, 6th edition (New York, 2001)

H. Frankfort, ‘The Burney Relief’, Archiv für Orientforschung (1937-39), pp. 128-35

H. Frankfort, The art and architecture of th (London, Pelican, 1970)

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