From the Holy Water of Horus to Akhenaten's pot belly

23 January 2015

Some 30 exhibits are witness to 3,000 years of history. They tell of gods and pharaohs, of raising poultry, of magic water, and of unusual fashions. The Egyptology Study Collection at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) may be small, but it offers a lot of material for learning and teaching, for discovery and discussion.

The Egyptian child god Horus stands on the backs of two crocodiles. In his hands he holds an over-sized scorpion, a lion, a gazelle, and snakes. All these animals he has tamed and he has overcome all dangers – thanks in part to the mask of the protective god Bes that appears to float above his head and whose forbidding frown drives away all evil.

The Horus stele is less than 20 centimeters high and has an unbelievable number of details. The back is covered with tiny hieroglyphs. The narrow side is decorated with divine symbols; on the top is a winged sun disk that is another symbol of Horus.

"This is healing stele," explains Professor Ursula Verhoeven-van Elsbergen of the Egyptology unit of the Department of Ancient Studies at Mainz University. "They poured water over it which then absorbed the power of the inscriptions and figures." Thus a magically charged medicine was created.

Precision casting

The stone original of the stele can be found in the Egyptian Museum Berlin. It was created at some point between the 7th and 4th centuries B.C. The display cases in the Egyptology unit on the Gutenberg campus merely contain a cast of the original, a very detailed work produced by the plaster casting department of the Berlin State Museums.

Verhoeven-van Elsbergen has no problem with it being 'merely' a replica. It is now no longer acceptable practice, if not downright illegal, to acquire originals. It is generally accepted that artifacts discovered during archaeological digs should remain in their country of origin. "We usually refuse any objects we are offered by art dealers or that originate from private collections," explains the egyptologist. This is because it is all too often impossible to determine how the items originally came to Europe.

"Security would also be problem for us," says Verhoeven-van Elsbergen. "We would need special display cases, surveillance, and additional insurance." Moreover, it is essential that the collection remains quite literally hands-on from the point of view of the students. The Horus stele is not there to simply decorate the corridor of the Egyptology unit; it is actually passed from student to student in various courses. The students thus learn how to examine, measure, draw, photograph, describe, and decrypt a find in order to document it for an archaeological dig or an exhibition.

The Friends of Egyptology Association

The small study collection was created with the help of the Friends of Egyptology Association at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, which was founded in 2001 by scholars, students, and interested non-specialists. The association now has almost 150 members and plays an important role for the Egyptology unit. It organizes public talks and provides funding for book acquisitions and excursions. Thanks to generous donations from Ulrike Jungnickel, who herself holds a degree in Egyptology from JGU, it was possible for the Friends to build up the collection piece by piece.

"Ulrike Jungnickel, the Friends of Egyptology Association, and our unit get together to decide which pieces to acquire," reports Verhoeven-van Elsbergen. "It's all very amicable." Monika Zöller-Engelhardt, who has just finished her doctorate, was recently put in charge of the collection. On taking up her post, the first things she did were to produce labels with short descriptions of the exhibits and put together material for the new website. "People used to pass by the items and often had no idea what they were looking at."

And there is a lot to see. "We have a fantastic mixture of sculptures, reliefs, and crafted items," says Zöller-Engelhardt. "We now hold exhibits that represent nearly all epochs. We have objects from temples, from private and royal graves, and we've just acquired a pillar." Of course, these are only snapshots of a civilization over a period of 3,000 years of its history.

Horus and the falcon

The official sits with crossed legs holding his writing utensils, a common motif in Egypt art. The original of the statue is 4,500 years old. Over there lurks a falcon-headed crocodile that combines the attributes of various gods. It dates to the late period, 720 to 332 B.C. Such hybrid creatures are typical of the Egyptian gods but their significance is often unclear. "Many postulate that the Egyptians worshiped animals as gods," says Zöller-Engelhardt. "It was because of this that they used the features of animals to represent divine characteristics. Nobody really believed that Horus or Ra had the head of a falcon."

"It is much easier to get into a dialog about the objects in our collection than it is using books or lectures," claims Verhoeven-van Elsbergen. The egyptologist runs her hand over the hieroglyphs on a relief. A married couple is depicted. "He is called Tadpole, her name is Frog." And the carving also includes the tiny figure of a tadpole. "Hieroglyphs are actually a combination of pictograms and phonemes. This writing system worked well for 3,000 years and helps us to read this today." Some of the basic rules are quickly learned: a pharaoh's name always appears within an oval cartouche while the words for buildings or locations are suffixed by a ground plan.

Fashion and poultry

There are only about 30 items, but they provide a lot of fodder for discussion. Art under Pharaoh Seti I was highly detailed while his grandson Ramses II preferred less finicky depictions. In Akhenaten's reign, a completely new style came into fashion. Thus the royal couple is depicted reclining on soft cushions. The arms of the pair are thin, their bellies rounded, their thighs fat. "There is some disagreement as to whether these are supposed to be accurate portraits," explains Zöller-Engelhardt. It is possible that one artistic convention simply replaced another.

However, animals are very realistically depicted. "The natural world was very closely observed," adds Verhoeven-van Elsbergen. One funerary relief includes representations of cranes, ducks, geese, and doves. It seems that the sculptor's client wanted to take all the birds from his poultry farm with him when he left this world. Verhoeven-van Elsbergen deciphers the exact figures: "It specifies 121,200 geese."

One could continue with this all day – 3,000 years of Egyptian history is no small matter. This collection tells some of its stories.