Life and Death in Ancient Egypt

Houston Museum of Natural Science

A selection of items from the Hall of Ancient Egypt

Explore the Mummy Room in the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS. This hall covers the themes of writing, religion, natural resources and—of course—mummification in Ancient Egypt.

Painted limestone. Old Kingdom, Dynasty 6, reign of Pepi I or later, 2332-2283 B.C. From Fiza, Tomb of Qar.

The official Qar lifts a throwstick to hunt ducks; behind him stands the scribe Idu, who was probably his son. He holds Qar’s catch. Hunting wild animals in the desert and the marshes was a popular pastime for the elite. As well as providing food, pest control, and sport, it also had a deeper dimension. Depictions of hunting in tombs were seen as metaphors for the dead person’s successful conquest of chaotic spirits and his entry into the afterlife.

Loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Harvard University-Boston Museum Fine Arts Expedition.

Granodiorite. New Kingdom. Reign of Tutankhamun. 1334-1325 B.C. Probably from Saqqara, Tomb of Horemheb.

The figure’s costume, with a long wavy wig and flaring sleeves of pleated linen, identify this man as a high official from the reign of Tutankhamun. The inscription on an almost identical but complete figure, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, names Horemheb. It is likely that the two figures both came from his tomb at Saqqara. Horemheb’s tomb at Saqqara was buried under the shifting sands of the desert. Informal excavations in the nineteenth century brought some of its reliefs and statues to museums outside Egypt, but it was lost again until excavations by a British-Dutch team uncovered it in 1975. Now restored, it is one of the highlights of a visit to Saqqara.

Loan from the Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney.

The Nile was the artery of Egypt, providing water and transport throughout the year. Transport on reed or wooden boats was quick and reliable. One could use the current to travel north, or raise a sail and catch the prevailing breeze to go south. The hieroglyphic signs for ‘to journey north’ and ‘to travel south’ are pictures of a boat with the sail respectively furled and unfurled.

Loan from Hildesheim, Roemer-und Pelizaeus-Museum.

Faience, modern wood terminals. Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 B.C.

Loan from Hildesheim, Roemer-und Pelizaeus-Museum.

Marl Clay. Predynastic Period, Naqada II, 3700-3200 B.C.

Loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. Collected by William A. Shelton, funded by John A. Manget.

Shell. Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12, 1991-1782 B.C.

A number of polished oyster shells are inscribed with the names of pharaohs of Dynasty 12; it has been suggested that these were military awards, or badges of a particular division of soldiers.

Anonymous loan.

Faience. New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, 1350-1334 B.C. Reign of Akhenaten.

It is tiny, about the size of a little fingernail, but the faience paste has been molded in some detail. You can make out a crouching figure clad in the long pleated kilt of the elite of the time of Akhenaten. The figure has one hand lifted to its mouth, sucking its index finger in the gesture used to identify children in Egypt. On its head is a skull-hugging cap with streamers hanging down the back, and a protective uraeus snake at the front. This is a royal person of the Amarna period reborn as a child, just as the sun rises again every day. The cap crown worn by the figure is worn by only one person: Nefertiti.

Loan from the Trustees of The Denys Bower Bequest, Chiddingstone Castle, UK.

Glazed steatite. New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Amenhotep III, 1386-1349 B.C.

Amenhotep III issued a series of large scarabs recording and disseminating the achievements of his reign. This is one of a group with identical inscriptions. After the titles of the king and queen, it states "list of lions which his majesty brought down by his archery from year one of his reign to year ten: one hundred and two fierce lions."

Loan from Rice University, Gift of Charles Wrightsman.

Indurated limestone. Early Dynastic Period, Dynasties 1-3. 3050-2613 B.C. From Zawiyet el-Aryan, tomb 490/4.

Disc-shaped mace heads are replaced by pear-shaped mace heads in the Naqada II period; the shape never changes during the remaining 3,000 years of Pharaonic history.

Loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Harvard University - Boston Museum Fine Arts Expedition.

Gold. Late Period, Dynasties 26-30, 664-332 B.C. Giza, Tomb G 7600 S, Room III.

The dead person was believed to join the sun god in the afterlife, and to bask in his radiance. In the Roman period, mummified bodies would have their flesh gilded to reflect this transformation; in earlier periods mummies were given gold finger and toe caps.

Loan from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Harvard University-Boston Museum Fine Arts Expedition.

Limestone. Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 11, 2010-1998 B.C. Reign of Mentuhotep II. From Thebes, Deir el-Bahri.

The richly painted decoration of Mentuhotep's funerary temple at western Thebes showed him offering to and received by the gods. Here the king can be identified by his diadem wound round by a uraeus serpent, the protective goddess Wadjet.

Loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Egypt Exploration Fund by subscription.

Pottery. Predynastic Period, Naqada I. 4200-3700 B.C.

An ancient crack running down the side of this tall vessel has been repaired with holes drilled on either side. These held leather strips to lash the pot together.

Bronze. New Kingdom, Dynasties 18-20. 1570-1070 B.C.

Men and women shaved their heads and bodies to stay cool, free from pests, and to approach the gods. Cleanliness was next to godliness for the Egyptians.

Loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University.

Painted wood. Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12, 1991-1782 B.C. From Deir el-Bersheh, Tomb of Djehutynakht.

Three rows of carefully drawn and painted hieroglyphs give the name of the coffin’s owner, the lady Satmeket. Columns of cursive hieroglyphs below contain funerary spells, all beginning with the phrase djed medu – “words to be spoken.” Briefer spells are also incised in the joints.

Loan from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Hay Collection - Gift of C. Granville Way.

Limestone. New Kingdom, Dynasty 19, 1293-1185 BC. From West Thebes, Deir el-Medina.

The roughened, recurved surface inside the cartouches, which now name Sety II, show that they originally contained the names of an earlier ruler, probably Sety’s rival Amenmesse.

Loan from the Trustees of The Denys Bower Bequest, Chiddingstone Castle, UK.

Bronze. Late Period, Dynasties 26-30, 664-332 B.C.

Imhotep, the deified patron of architects and doctors, is shown in his typical costume - the clothes of a well-to-do man - and pose, reading a scroll spread out on his lap.


Loan from the Trustees of The Denys Bower Bequest, Chiddingstone Castle, UK.

Porphyritic diorite. Predynastic Period, Naqada II. 3700-3200 B.C. Possibly from Nubia.

Eye paint, ground on stone slabs, was a marker of status. Green copper ore or black lead ore were both popular in the Predynastic Period.

Anonymous loan.

Possibly New Kingdom, Dynasties 18-20. 1570-1070 B.C.

The impossibly figure-hugging dresses worn by women in sculpture, like Renenutet and her daughters, are translations into hard stone of light, semi-transparent linen garments.

Loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University.

Pottery. New Kingdom, Dynasties 19-20, 1293-1070 B.C.

A letter to Montumose, chief of police in the village of the tombworkers: “…look for a he-goat for my woman who is ill, and take possession of it…”

Loan from the private collection of Edward F. Wente.

Copper. Old Kingdom, Dynasty 6, 2345-2181 B.C. From Giza, Tomb of Impy.

Model offering tables were placed in the burial chamber to reduplicate and perpetuate the effects of the offering sets in the cult chamber above ground. The table and vessels are made from largely pure copper. It is not for another 500 years that bronze – a harder and more ductile alloy of copper and tin- becomes common in Egypt.

Loan from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Harvard University-Boston Museum Fine Arts Expedition.

Glass. New Kingdom, Dynasties 18-20. 1570-1070 B.C.

Twisted threads in contrasting colors accentuated the Egyptian earplugs.

Loan from Trustees of The Denys Bower Bequest, Chiddingstone Castle, UK.

Painted limestone. New Kingdom, Dynasty 19, 1293-1185 B.C. Valley of the Kings.

When Belzoni discovered it, Sety’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings was almost pristine. Its carved and brightly-painted walls were a magnet for tourists and scholars. Visitors took plaster casts of the walls, stripping them of their paint; their torches left black smoke stains on the walls; and museums and private individuals took hundreds of permanent souvenirs in the form of pieces of carving, like this cartouche.

Loan from the Trustees of The Denys Bower Bequest, Chiddingstone Castle, UK.

Limestone. Old Kingdom, Dynasty 5, 2477-2467 B.C. Reign of Neferirkare. From Abydos, Temple of Osiris.

The most famous monuments of Ancient Egypt were not made by slaves, but conscripted laborers. Able-bodied Egyptian men paid for the peace and prosperity their Kings gave them with physical labor. The inscription, copying the layout of papyrus letter, reproduces a royal decree of King Neferirkare (named in the right hand column). Neferirkare protects Hemwer, his colleagues, and their dependents from being subjected to conscription.

Loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Egypt Exploration Fund by subscription.

Encaustic paint on wooden panel. Roman Period, C. 150 A.D. From Hawara.

This beautiful panel encapsulates the choices of commemoration available to inhabitants of Egypt during the Roman period. The family of the boy shown, who must have been about ten years old when he died, had him wrapped and mummified in the pharaonic style, instead of being cremated as was the fashion for people who identified as Roman. The body was enclosed in the cartonnage mummy case, decorated with figures of the Egyptian gods. Over the face, however, they placed an image made in the classical medium of encaustic-painted in hot colored wax. It shows the boy wearing a white tunic with purple clavi (vertical bands). Around his head a molded and gilded frame is decorated with vine leaves and grapes, classical symbols of resurrection which were shortly to be taken up by Christianity.

Loan from Salford Museum and Art Gallery.

Plastered and painted wood. Middle Kingdom or later. Possibly Dynasty 12, 1991-1782 B.C.

This coffin fragment demonstrates the role tradition and continuity played in Egyptian culture. Anthropoid coffins are first encountered in the Middle Kingdom. They have plain white bodies, big eyes, large collars, and black or green faces, and were intended to make the dead person look like Osiris, god of the dead. Coffins in the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period became more elaborately painted and colored, but the Late Period sees a revival of interest in older customs. Some Late Period coffins also have plain white bodies, green faces, and beaded collars. How should this piece be dated? It’s hard to be sure, short of destructive sampling and testing, but we feel the present balance of evidence makes it a Middle Kingdom original, rather than a later piece inspired by the past.

Loan from Hildesheim, Roemer-und Pelizaeus-Museum.

Faience. Old Kingdom, Dynasty 6. 2345-2181 B.C. From Giza, Tomb G 5520 D.

An Egyptian text describes the Old Kingdom ruler Sneferu taking a pleasure trip on a boat rowed by girls wearing only fishnets, a fashion echoed in their faience netted dress. While this beadnet dress was worn over a linen backing, the flower pendants at the hemline, the blue-green beads, and the rustle they made as they moved would still have made its wearer irresistible.

Loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Harvard University-Boston Museum Fine Arts Expedition.

Painted wood. Third Intermediate Period, Dynasty 21. 1070-945 B.C. Probably from Thebes.

The coffin and mummy of Neskhons ("the one who belongs to the god Knonsu") were bought in 1900 by Liberty Holden, an Ohio businessman, on holiday in Egypt at the time. Neskhons, who is named on the inscriptions as a priest of Amun, commissioned a splendid example of the ornately decorated coffins of the Third Intermediate Period. Egypt was relatively poor at this time, and large carved and painted tombs were out of most people’s reach. Attention was therefore lavished on coffins, which are painted with all the decoration no longer placed in the tombs – turning them into miniature universes centered on the dead person.

Loan from a private collection.

Granite. New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, 1498-1483 B.C. Reign of Hatshepsut. From Thebes, temple of Karnak.

Pairs of tall pointed-tipped obelisks flanked temple gateways. Usually made from red granite quarried in Aswan, 120 miles south of Thebes, their tips were sheathed in gold to catch the sun. This fragment comes from one of a pair of obelisks set up by the female pharaoh Hatshepsut in the temple of Amun at Karnak. Carved down the shaft were images of her offering to the gods, while its inscription showed her pride in her achievement: “She made it as a monument for her father Amun…erecting for him two great obelisks at the holy gateway called ‘Amun is Great in Majesty’…wrought with fine gold, they illuminate the Two Lands like the sun-disc. Nothing has been made like this since the beginning of time.” One of the obelisks fell and shattered in antiquity. The other still stands in the temple, stretching 90 feet into the sky.

Loan from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of the heirs of Francis Cabot Lowell.

Plastered and painted wood. New Kingdom, Dynasties 19-20, 1293-1070 B.C.

The lion god Bes, shown here playing a double-barreled flute, protected women in childbirth. The holes on the left hand edge, and the rectangular tenon growing out of his head, show that the figure was part of a piece of furniture-probably a bed. Bes would have guarded the dreams of anyone who slept in it.

Greywacke. Late Period, Dynasty 26-30. 664-332 B.C.

The inscription names a man called Nebseny, a priest of the god Onuris.

Loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Hay Collection - Gift of C. Granville Way.

Porphyry. Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 B.C.

Carved from the hard purple stone porphyry, and with the eyes originally inlaid with black and white glass, this bust can only come from an image of a royal person or a god. The uraeus serpent on the brow identifies it as a royal, while the long tripartite wig is worn by women and goddesses. The serene style of the face, and the use of porphyry are typical of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Could this queen be the famous Cleopatra VII, last ruler of an independent Egypt? The odds are against it - she doesn't resemble securely known images of Cleopatra VII.

Loan from the Trustees of The Denys Bower Bequest, Chiddingstone Castle, UK.

Limestone. Old Kingdom, Dynasty 6, 2345-2181 B.C. From Giza, Tomb of the vizier Khnumenti.

Goose and duck were popular foods which the tomb owner would have wanted to take with him to the afterlife. This stone case is carved to look like the trussed and dressed bird it originally contained.

Loan from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Harvard University-Boston Museum Fine Arts Expedition.

Faience, papryus. Third Intermediate Period; Late Period. Dynasties 21-25, 1070-664 BC.

The gods could speak to people through oracles. The most common means of consulting an oracle was to pose a question to the cult statue of a god while it was being carried in a festival procession and interpret an answer from the movement of the shrine holding the statue. Oracular decrees written on scrolls of papyrus were sometimes kept in precious metal containers as a protective amulet and souvenir of the event.

Loan from the Trustees of The Denys Bower Bequest, Chiddingstone Castle, UK.

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