The secret life of the Egyptian Collection

Many people come to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to be wowed by the Lower Egyptian gallery’s towering sphinx. Or they may head to the Upper Egyptian gallery, where the preserved remains of mummies never fail to fascinate.

But even if visitors dedicate hours to exploring the Egyptian artifacts on display, they are only viewing a fraction of the Penn Museum’s holdings, which number more than 40,000 in the Egyptian collection.

The balance lies in storage in the basement of the Museum’s original 1899 building. There, artifacts line shelves that reach the ceiling and fill drawers in row upon row of cabinets. Though hidden from the average Museum visitor, these objects are nonetheless helping scholars—and students—expand their knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture.

“This material is used quite heavily by classes here at the University, by Penn researchers, as well as by researchers from other institutions in the United States and abroad,” says Jennifer Houser Wegner, associate curator in the Egyptian Section at the Museum and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

Egyptologist scholars come from far and wide to study the Museum’s artifacts, one of the finest collections in the country. Just last month, the Egyptian Section hosted a researcher who flew in from Japan to spend two days examining a group of 80 funerary cones—decorative pottery that adorned the architecture surrounding tombs.

A bit earlier this year, two researchers from New York’s American Museum of Natural History visited the Penn Museum. They were interested in Nubian pottery depicting representations of animals from the Meroitic period—between 300 and 400 C.E. in what is now Sudan.

“In addition to some standard animals that appear in Egyptian art like vultures and cobras, we have pottery with some wonderful things like giraffes and guinea fowl and scorpions and all sorts of strange and bizarre creatures,” Wegner says.
The investigations may allow the researchers to begin to determine whether certain animals carried special symbolism for Nubians, just as Egyptians believed that certain animals were endowed with special significance.

One of the most frequently studied items in the Egyptian storage collection is a fragment of papyrus upon which the beginning of the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew is written in ancient Greek. The manuscript is from a site called Oxyrhynchus in Egypt and dates to the 3rd century C.E. Wegner says it’s her favorite object to share with visitors.

“People react wonderfully to that piece,” she says. “It’s something that was written so close to the time of Jesus, so I think it’s a very personal artifact for many people.”

Wegner and the other members of the curatorial staff—Associate Curator Josef Wegner (Jennifer Wegner’s husband) and Curator-in-Charge David Silverman—actively research and publish scholarly articles on artifacts in the collection.

Jennifer Wegner is an expert in Demotic, a cursive form of the Egyptian language that was used in later eras, such as during the time of Cleopatra. It appears on the Rosetta Stone, along with ancient Greek and hieroglyphic Egyptian. Wegner began learning Demotic—a notoriously challenging language to read—as a graduate student and is currently at work translating a set of Demotic papyrus manuscripts in the collection, which date to the 2nd century B.C.E.

While pieces from the storage collections occasionally circulate on and off display as exhibitions open and close, a recently opened exhibition at the Penn Museum, “In the Artifact Lab,” has given new life to objects that have been in the collection for decades.

The Artifact Lab brings the work of museum conservators into the open, where they clean and preserve items specially chosen from the Egyptian collection in full view of Museum visitors.

One such artifact is a coffin cover that enclosed the 4,000-year-old mummy of a district governor named Ahanakhte. Made of wood, the inside was inscribed with funerary spells written in hieratic, a script form of hieroglyphs, intended to help the deceased in the afterlife. Silverman has worked on deciphering the inscriptions and translating this text for several years, but progress has been slow.

“The wood was not in the best condition and the carvers were somewhat sloppy in their work, making the text extremely difficult to read,” Silverman says.

With the help of the conservator’s preservation techniques and specialized lighting, Silverman and graduate student Leah Humphrey are now making better progress at translating these spells—some of the earliest of their kind.

“This gives you an idea of the wealth of the collection and one of the reasons that we are always sought after for research purposes,” Silverman says.

The Egyptian collection is by no means unique among the Museum’s collections for its role in advancing scholarship. Artifacts belonging to each of the Museum’s 11 sections are intended to serve researchers. In the American Section, for example, more than 100 researchers visit the collection of 300,000 artifacts each year. Sections also frequently lend out objects to institutions or groups around the world for exhibitions or other purposes.

“Recently we sent a group of fishing lures out to a Native American Tlingit community in Alaska,” says American Section keeper and curator Lucy Fowler Williams. “They were used in a workshop for people interested in learning how to make these wooden tools their ancestors had created.”

The collections also serve to educate anthropologists- and archaeologists-in-training here at Penn. The Egyptian Section’s curators frequently offer tours of the storage collection to classes of Penn students, and teach courses that rely upon artifacts to advance student knowledge. As a result of this hands-on experience with the collection’s treasures, many students—even some undergraduates—wind up with publications to their name prior to graduation.

In a class next semester that will focus on the late Egyptian language, Silverman will share with his students a text dating to 1,100 B.C.E., which records the testimony of individuals charged with robbing tombs. He has recently been working on the papyrus, which comprises the missing bottom half of a text that is now in the British Museum.

“The students are going to be among the first people translating this text,” Silverman says. “It’s sort of a detective hunt for them.”

What they find may answer certain questions about Egyptian culture and, most likely, will generate even more questions for scholars to tackle in the future.

Originally published on December 13, 2012