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magazine home > archives > summer 2001 > features

Ancient Egypt: The mention of a time and place that existed thousands of years ago conjures images of pharaohs, mummies and pyramids. To find the real ancient Egypt, though -- the one of the common people as well as the kings -- one has to dig deeper. A major art exhibit at The University of Memphis is providing just that opportunity.

The Gods of Ancient Memphis
by Lesley Katerski

Funerary figures of Ushabtis
  The funerary figurines above are of Ushabtis of Pa-Sherry-Iset and date to the Third Intermediate Period, Dynasties 21-22 (1070-712 BC). They are on loan from the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, a gift from William W. and Hallie Goodman. The box above for Ushabtis is from the New Kingdom to the Third Intermediate Period (1550-712 BC). It is a bequest from Glenn White.

Excuse Iret-irew for being a bit restless these days.

The Egyptian mummy and University's "oldest" resident at 2,000 years of age has long been the star attraction at The U of M's Art Museum. But because of a major art exhibition on campus, Iret-irew is now having to share equal billing with several intriguing Egyptian artifacts.

"The Gods of Ancient Memphis" runs through Oct. 4 and showcases 120 splendid pieces of major Egyptian artwork, including 24 featured loans from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Other lenders include Boston's Museum of Fine Art, London's British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Memphis' Pink Palace and Brooks Museum of Art.

The exhibit coincides with another major event occurring at The Pyramid in downtown Memphis: the Memphis Wonders Series "Eternal Egypt: The Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum." Running through Oct. 21, this collection is being described at the most important Egyptian art exhibit since the King Tut tour of the 1970s.

"The U of M exhibition is a great showcase for our wonderful collection in conjunction with key, carefully selected loans of Egyptian art from other institutions and private collectors," says Dr. Melinda Hartwig, curator of Egyptian Art at The U of M. "It's also a great way to do something fresh and relevant.

"There are some amazing pieces of Egyptian art that we own here at the University that have never been on display - not minor pieces but really beautiful things," she says. Hartwig and Dr. Steve Harvey, assistant director of the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology (IEAA), are co-curators of the exhibit, which is presented by the IEAA. Dr. Lorelei Corcoran, director of the Institute, conceived the idea.
Like An Egyptian

"Gods of Ancient Memphis" focuses on spiritual worship and daily life in ancient Memphis. It is designed to present ancient Memphis as a lively city teeming with the activities of everyday life - and afterlife.

"With the Wonders' exhibit 'Eternal Egypt,' it's almost as if you picked up every major piece of Egyptian art from London and dropped it down into The Pyramid," says Harvey. "So we knew we had to do something on campus that would be scholarly and intellectual, while showcasing our collection that has grown tremendously since the 70's and 80's.

"Everyone knows about mummies, the interest the Egyptians took in their dead and the pyramids, the places the Egyptians buried their kings," says Harvey. "But not many people know what everyday people did, in terms of their own concerns - how they could make their problems known to the gods and goddesses and how they could take care of their health and well being. We try to enlighten people about everdya life through our exhibit."

A Tale of Two Cities

On the surface, the connection of Memphis, Egypt to Memphis, Tennessee doesn't stretch much farther than the name and a few coincidental similarities - regional capitals, centers of religious activity and major transportation routes.

But according to Harvey, the two cities have many intriguing similarities. "Memphis, Tenn., is a city of many religions, churches, synagogues and temples," Harvey says. "It is also home to a very diverse population - a changing population. We want people to see that the ancient past is not as simple as they tend to think. It's actually a complicated and diverse thing. We hope Memphians can find their reflection in the ancient past."

Memphis, was the capital of ancient Egypt for close to 5,000 years. Located along the Nile on the outskirts of modern Cairo, ancient Memphis was a cultural and religious center bustling with people from a variety of backgrounds. The living city of ancient Memphis was located adjacent to the city of the dead - the burial grounds of Giza and Saqqara. From about 2650 BC until 1800 BC, the Egyptians buried the pharaohs in the pyramids and temples of the necropolis, the city of the dead, believing they would come to life in the next world.

The Powers of the Pyramids

This amulet of Sakhmet dates from the late period (712-332 BC) and is on loan from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

The U of M exhibit showcases several major works of jewelry, metal and stone statues, clay votives, stelae and amulets.

"We were looking for pieces that were pretty and that would tell our story, but especially beautiful things relating not only to wealthy people and kings but also to common people," Harvey says.

The exhibit shows how religious objects were mass produced - objects as simple as small beads and amulets bought and sold as tokens of religious worship. Harvey compares them to modern day lucky charms like a Saint Christopher medal or rabbits' feet.

Similar to ancient Greece and Rome, the Egyptians had a method of organizing their gods and goddesses into families of deities, says Hartwig. Religious traditions were often specific to one particular town, city or region, so the exhibit spotlights religious figures in ancient Memphis.

A gilded and inlaid bronze image of Ptah, the chief god of ancient Memphis and patron deity of craftsmen and artists, shows him in the form of a mummy with a human head. The piece is one of the featured loans from the University of Pennsylvania. A glazed faience statue of Ptah's wife, Sakhmet, shows her as a lioness with a sun disk on her head. This piece was excavated from the site of ancient Memphis.

The Egyptians selected a representative feature and created images to show how they thought the gods and goddesses looked. "They didn't necessarily think of a husband and wife pair as resembling one another," Hartwig says. "They picked a representative feature to portray them. Sakhmet was a lioness who represented the two sides of a cat - the lovingness of a mother but with the destructiveness of a lioness."

Sacred animals were a vital part of religious ritual and processions because they were worshipped as the manifestations of the gods. Egyptians could even purchase mummified animals to present to the gods, says Hartwig.

When possible, Harvey and Hartwig selected objects excavated from ancient Memphis including many discovered by the University of Pennsylvania expedition in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, much Egyptian archaeological material has been dug up without preserving the scientific information.

"Much archaeological material has been looted out of the soil without any information," Harvey says. "The problem is that although you may be able to say that the object is attractive and it is of a certain date, there probably isn't any more information than that."

Stela of deity
  This domestic stela of a seated deity is most likely Imhotep and dates to the Roman Period, First Century AD. The work is a bequest from Glenn White and is part of The U of M's permanent collection.

Fortunately, the colorful history of the Block Statue of Nedjem, a permanent piece in The U of M collection, has been preserved. Excavated from ancient Egypt in 1840, this figure sits with his knees to his chin and a small version of the god Ptah-Tatenen at his feet. Bought by a Yankee sea captain trading in the Mediterranean during the American Civil War, Nedjem traveled across the Atlantic and was captured by Confederate forces and taken to New Orleans. After the war, the statue was taken to Boston where it served as a garden ornament for years, eventually making it to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Finally, in 1975 it was sold to The University of Memphis as one of the 44 pieces in the collection.

The core of The U of M's Egyptian collection was purchased from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with funds donated by E.H. Little, former chair of the board of Colgate-Palmolive. Now a component of the Department of Art and a Tennessee Center of Excellence, The U of M Egyptian Institute has grown to include more than 1,200 pieces of Egyptian art and culture. With three Egyptologists on staff, it has the largest public collection on view in the South.

It's a Wonder

The Wonders' Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Art from the British Museum exhibit was the second stop on an eight-city U.S. tour. From one of the world's best collections of Egyptian antiquities, the British sampling of 144 pieces includes works from the time of the first pharaohs in 3100 BC to Egypt's occupation by Rome in the Fourth Century AD.

This year's exhibit included a 6,600-pound red granite sculpture of a reclining lion that dates to 1390 BC. Other major pieces include a granite bust of Ramesses the Great, gold jewelry and a mummy mask of a woman from about 1500 BC.

The Wonders exhibit was the second major Egyptian collection to appear in Memphis. Ramesses the Great drew almost 675,000 in 1987 and led to the Wonders series creation. Other showcases in the series have included Catherine the Great, Napoleon and Titanic.

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