The Hidden Gems of the Penn Museum’s Egyptian Collection

Penn Museum, home to one of the finest collections of ancient Egyptian and Nubian artifacts in the United States, has more than 42,000 objects in its Egyptian Section.

At any given time, roughly 1,500 to 2,000 objects in the Egyptian collection are on display while the rest line shelves and drawers in the basement of the Museum’s original building, which dates to 1899. In this slideshow, Jennifer Wegner, associate curator of the Museum's Egyptian collection, provides a behind-the-scenes peek at some of the collection in storage.

The remaining 40,000-odd artifacts do far more than lie fallow. Many are the subjects of ongoing studies by Museum faculty, Penn students, and outside scholars who often travel across the world to visit the collection in person.

Most of the collection was obtained during archaeological investigations during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These digs resulted in finds at a variety of sites from across the Egyptian and Nubian territories. Artifacts at the Museum today span the region’s history from roughly 4,000 BCE through the 7th century CE.

Though sphinx and mummies may be the most famous of ancient Egyptian materials—and the collection does not lack for these—the diversity of other kinds of objects is striking. Pottery, tools, jewelry, textiles, portions of a palace floor, and manuscripts are just some of the additional materials that have a home at the Museum.

While the majority of the Egyptian collection is off limits to most members of the public, visitors to the Penn Museum have access to 5,000 years of ancient Egyptian art, culture, and history on two gallery floors. Highlights include a 12-ton red granite sphinx, the largest in the western hemisphere, as well as the gateway, columns, doorways, and windows from the palace of the pharaoh Merenptah, all dating to about 1200 BCE.

Text by Katherine Unger Baillie
Photos by Steven Minicola