Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display

In the sixth grade, I chose to study the Valley of Kings for my final Social Studies project. With my limited 11-year old research skills and resources, I wrote about famous Egyptian pharaohs, funerary preparations, and the archaeological excavation process. With every flip of a page, I got sucked deeper and deeper into the world of Ancient Egypt - I was fascinated!

As high school took over, I became preoccupied with surviving BC Calculus and scoring well on the SATs. I didn’t think about Egyptian history for years…that is, until this semester. Only Shai (the Egyptian god of fate/destiny) might be able to explain how I stumbled upon the course listing for “NELC 062: The Land of the Pharaohs” while browsing PennInTouch. Suddenly, the long lost memories of my middle school history project flooded my brain and I was hooked. I signed up for the class without a second thought, and now that I’m in one midterm deep, there’s no backing out (not that I want to anyway).

Last weekend, the Penn Museum opened a new special Egyptian exhibition entitled Ancient Egypt: From Discovery to Display. Luckily, my class was scheduled for a tour of the Egyptian collections just two days afterward. When 3:00 pm on Tuesday rolled around, our class met at the Kress/Group Entrance of the Museum and we hiked up three flights of stairs.

Original photograph by Ania Alberski - Colossal Head of Ramses II at the Penn Museum

First, we explored the permanent exhibits in the main hall. If you’re easily enthralled by larger-than-life stone and quartzite statues, definitely take a trip to the Museum before you graduate! Penn’s collection boasts an assortment of royal funerary stelas—including one belonging to the badass female King Hatshepsut—offering (hetep) tables, reed pens, decorated wine jars, funerary amulets, and doorstops made to replicate enemy faces.

In an adjacent room is the hall dedicated to funerary preparations and mummification processes. This exhibit takes visitors along the journey of a deceased Egyptian into the Duat (afterlife). There, in the midst of canopic jars, linen wrappings, and salt jar, you can closely examine a sarcophagus. One of the displays prominently features all of the important hieroglyphs and symbols depicted on the sarcophagus of Nebnetcheru.

Original photograph by Ania Alberski - Coffin of Nebnetcheru at the Penn Museum

Lastly, we ventured off to visit the highlighted exhibit of the day: From Discovery to Display. Before entering the main exhibit space, visitors can wander through the glass cases filled with pharaonic statues and relics from various parts of Egypt (a detailed map of excavation sites is provided on the wall!). The most exciting part of the tour was opening up the giant glass doors that opened to a morgue-like space filled with mummies and coffins. The center of the room highlighted funerary statues—typically large rowboats which would guide the deceased into the Duat.

The walls were lined with shelves of linen-wrapped mummies, Middle Kingdom-dated wooden coffins, and some shabtis (small statues that were believed to take upon themselves the burdens of the deceased in the afterlife). A small screen behind one of the center displays was broadcasting a video of archaeologists taking apart and restringing a turquoise-beaded necklace.

Original photograph by Ania Alberski - Funerary statues at the Penn Museum

As we walked through the next set of doors, we found ourselves in the exclusive Artifact Lab space. Behind a cubicle wall of glass sat three archaeologists who were researching new discoveries, cataloging items, and squinting at microscopes. If you visit at the right time, the windows might be open for you to speak directly with the researchers and archaeologists that put together the displays you walk by!

One of my favorite parts of the special exhibit, however, was one of the last things I set my eyes upon. In the corner behind the archaeologists’ space was a small screen with a note pasted above it that read: See what a conservationist sees! The call-for-action worked for me as I strutted up to the screen and followed the instructions. Small paneled slots labeled with the names of various materials (like papyrus, frayed linen, etc.) were laid across the table. I slid a slot of copper underneath the strong magnifying glass and watched the screen project a bright and sparkly blue hue.

I’ve been visiting museums my entire life, but only recently have I began to realize how important and enlightening it is to explore the cultures of the past through artifacts. Maybe it’s just me, but I am obsessed with that small hint of pride that creeps up through me when I look at something unintelligible to anyone else and am able to explain what it is to them. I encourage you all to explore what cultural or archeological treasures Philadelphia has to offer and fill your minds with a sprinkle of new information. Visit a museum (take advantage of our very own Penn Museum located right across from Franklin Field!) and write down the name of an artifact that really catches your eye. Take the time to read the plagues’ small print and to look up its history when you get home. Be open to understanding the historical significance of an object whose meaning would have otherwise been lost to you. Next time you encounter that piece of history, you’ll know exactly what you’re looking at. Who knows what  you might just discover?