British Museum blog

Tomb figures from Ancient Egypt

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of HorendjitefAnders Bettum, University of Oslo and postdoctoral fellow, British Museum

For the past three months, I have had the pleasure of working on the British Museum’s collection of a particular kind of funerary statues, known to Egyptologists as Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures. The Museum has 117 of these figures, originating from various periods and many sites in Egypt. The assessment, documentation and registration of the collection have been possible due to the new postdoctoral fellowships which were granted by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan for the first time this year (next year’s fellowships are now advertised).

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Panakht

Anders in the Enlightenment Gallery, where the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Panakht (EA9749) is on display.

From the 19th Dynasty (ca. 1295-1186 BC) to the Greco-Roman era, Egyptian elite burials were often equipped with a statue of a deity in the form of a mummy (mummiform). The god in question is identified as Osiris in the earlier sources, and later as the composite god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. The name ‘Osiris’ may be familiar to many readers from the myth in which he defeats death and becomes the king of the dead in the Netherworld. Through the funerary ritual, the dead were assimilated with Osiris, hoping they too could live on happily in the Netherworld among gods and ancestors. The statue may therefore have been regarded not only as an image of the god, but also of the deceased. Ptah is one of the principal creator gods from Ancient Egypt, and the merging of this god with Osiris resulted in a powerful promise that death would be followed by new life. Sokar, the third member of the triad, was also a popular Netherworld deity. Like Ptah, he originates from the ancient capital of Memphis, and the two were often associated with one another. All three deities were depicted mummiform in the iconography, Ptah and Osiris as mummified men, Sokar as a mummified falcon.

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Neswy

The magnificent Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Neswy (EA9737)

What I was soon to learn on arrival at the Museum is how complex these statues are. The figure itself, ranging in height from 30 to 60 cm, is carved from one piece of wood, plastered, painted in vivid colours and inscribed on the front and back with hieroglyphic texts. For the richest burials, the face and other details of the figure were gilded. The polychrome decoration is sometimes coated with a black, resinous varnish. Pegged to the head is a composite crown consisting of two elements: a vertical pair of model ostrich feathers emerging from a sun-disc and a horizontal pair of ram horns. The false beard on the chin is sometimes carved as a separate piece. A peg was left also under the feet of the figure, to fit into the mortise in a rectangular base. The base was colourfully painted, in some cases with depictions of water basins, lotus flowers and other symbols of resurrection, power and life. It was also inscribed with hieroglyphic texts. Occasionally, a model sarcophagus was carved as a separate piece and mounted to the front of the base. On top of the sarcophagus, a small mummiform falcon is perched, facing the mummiform figure. A single statue therefore consists of about seven separately carved pieces.

But that is not all. What makes the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures different from all other funerary statues is the peculiar fact that they are not only images of the deceased assimilated to certain gods, but also containers of a certain object. A Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure always has a cavity carved into it, either in the base or in the figure itself. In the 19th to the 22nd Dynasties, the contained object was usually a papyrus inscribed with funerary texts to aid the transformation of the deceased in the afterlife. The famous funerary papyri of Hunefer and Anhai were found inside such statues. In later times, the papyrus was replaced with a part of the mummy of the deceased or alternatively a substitute thereof, a so-called ‘corn-mummy’.

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Horendjitef

Mummy-shaped cavity in the base of the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Horendjitef (EA9736). The content, which appears to be a mummified lump of grass, is still intact.

Throughout the more than one thousand years in which these statues were in use, a great variety of mechanisms for closing the cavity are attested. Most impressive are perhaps the figures that were carved like anthropoid coffins, with a case and lid that were closed and sealed before being inserted into the mortise of the base. Another common type is the model sarcophagus that worked as a sliding lid, and can still be ‘clicked’ into place with a simple push to close the cavity.

It is intriguing to think about the time, effort end skill that went into the production of these objects, and how people living thousands of years ago assembled the statue, filled it with its mysterious contents before sealing the cavity and placing the it in the tomb. These activities were undoubtedly ritualized and carried out by mortuary priests as part of the larger funerary ritual.

Model coffin

This colorful statue (EA 9884) was made as a model coffin. The name of the owner has not yet been deciphered.

With their polychromy and glint of gold, the inscriptions, the complexity and mechanical aspect, the hidden ‘treasure’ inside and its connection to grand mythological and ritual narratives, the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure have always been popular collector’s items. The manageable size of the object must also have contributed to their rapid distribution to museums all over the world. Studying the collection of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures in the British Museum, I have come across no less than 290 related objects. In addition to the 117 figures, the collection consist of a number of loose bases, ram horns, ostrich feathers, model sarcophagi and mummiform falcons that parted with their figure decades, centuries or even millennia ago. Only about a dozen are relatively intact assemblages, but this number will hopefully increase as more parts are matched with one another.

Every piece has now been thoroughly documented for the benefit of researchers and curious visitors. The analysis of the materials contained within still remains to be done, and will undoubtedly cast new light on a funerary custom that is still poorly understood.

Find out more about the Ancient Egypt and Sudan postdoctoral fellowships for 2014

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