Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Ashmolean Museum: tour of the new galleries continues

Worshiping the divine cats of Re and Atum. Limestone, painted and inscribed in black over red draft lines: ht 21 cm. From Deir el-Medina, 19th Dynasty, c. 1292 – 1190 BC
Our journey through ancient Egyptian history via the Ashmolean’s new Egypt galleries now brings us to about 1280 BC and the Ramesside Period.

The Amarna interlude is left behind, the pantheon of ancient Egyptian gods reinstated, Akhenaten’s temples dismantled and all traces of the heretic pharaoh removed, and the capital moved to Memphis.

The Theban region is growing in power and great building works begin. And the greatest builder of them all, Ramesses II rides high, recording his military triumphs and creating gargantuan statues of himself and his queen, Nefertari. All is right with the world . . .

But not quite. The fifth gallery in the series, Egypt in the Age of Empires, divides into two halves. The first concentrates on the Late New Kingdom. This was when many of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were constructed.

Ramesses II — one of 11 pharaohs of this name during the 19th and 20th Dynasties — builds massively during a 65-year-long reign, constructing temples in all major cities, the most famous being the rock cut temple at Abu Simbel. But he is also waging war, protecting his country’s borders against invaders, chiefly the Hittites.

The second half of the room deals with Egypt’s decline.

One of the first things you see here is an almost metre high limestone stela (an inscribed slab of stone or wood) covered in hieroglyphic inscriptions and images. It comes from a temple built by Ramesses II dedicated to the god Min at Koptos (see June’s Oxfordshire Limited Edition).

The right side of the stela shows the pharaoh honouring the goddess Isis by casting incense pellets onto a burner. The left side shows Isis making a processional voyage in a boat carried by priests. The text records the answer Isis as oracle gave to a question asked by an official named Penre (the exact question he posed is not known as details are missing, but it seems he was asking the goddess about a promotion).

After that, the gallery takes a good look at the people who built and decorated the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. A lot is known about their lives because of the ostraca, papyri, writing boards and wooden labels they left behind (an ostracon is a piece of limestone or pottery used as a writing surface).

The Ashmolean holds a vast collection of these, and a selection can be seen in the gallery’s new drawer units.

They vary from sketches to receipts for donkey hire, writing exercises to lists of deliveries, from a dispute over a hut to a man’s reason for having a day off — he was bitten by a scorpion!

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, UK, opens the new galleries of Ancient Egypt and Nubia (present day Sudan) on Saturday 26 November 2011

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