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Near East: AIA affiliated society to auction Egyptian artefacts
Artefacts dating from the 12th dynasty, thought to be from the reign of Sesostris II (1897-1878 B.C.) have been put up for auction at the privately owned Bonhams auction house by the American Institute for Archaeology, St Louise Society Inc.

AIA affiliated society to auction Egyptian artefactsAIA affiliated society to auction Egyptian artefacts

AIA affiliated society to auction Egyptian artefacts
The treasure of Harageh [Credit: Bonham's]

This remarkable Treasure consists of an extraordinary assemblage of silver jewellery and travertine vessels excavated at Harageh by a team working under the direction of the legendary William Matthew Flinders Petrie, universally regarded as the father of modern archaeology. That team was led by Reginald Engelbach whose career in Egyptology included a term as Chief Keeper of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

In October of 1913 Engelbach's team began excavations at the site of Harageh, located near the entrance to the Fayum, that rich agricultural depression 62 miles southwest of Cairo. This site contained an extensive necropolis which the excavators divided into thirteen zones, one of which contained Tomb 124, in which this Treasure was found. The tomb is suggested to have belonged to an elite woman of elevated status, often identified as Iytenhab, on the basis of a funerary stela which may not have been part of the original entombment. The ensemble, dated to the 19th Century B.C. and assigned to the 12th Dynasty of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, has been repeatedly published.

The Treasure includes five objects in travertine, a stone more popularly known as alabaster, of which four are vases. Of these, two are associated with cosmetics. The smallest is a lidded jar designed as three separate elements, carefully sculpted to form a seemingly seamless vessel, the underside of the lid of which exhibits a circular boss to ensure a tight seal when placed over the mouth. Such pots are suggested to have contained kohl, a galena-based cosmetic with which the ancient Egyptians lined their eyes. This was accompanied by a tapered, lidded vessel, sharing a common design with a well-documented classification of contemporary cosmetic vessels. The bag-shaped flask exhibits a series of three delicately sculpted rings ornamenting its lip. The vase with a distinctively designed stopper is a miniature version of much larger magical jars, the inscription on one of which states that its contents were cool waters of the earth which beget every living thing, the use of which would cause the deceased to live and be restored.

The most extraordinary of these five travertine objects is the so-called cosmetic spoon, the handle of which is uniquely designed as an ankh-sign. Such objects appear to have been possessed of symbolic value when utilised as grave goods aiding the deceased in the regaining sexual potency so necessary for the attainment of rebirth in the hereafter.

The jewellery consists of six groups, all created in silver, which is rarely attested as a material within the known corpus of Middle Kingdom jewellery. One notes that on occasion in ancient Egypt, silver was the more prized precious metal, often worth more than gold. There are seven cowrie shells of silver which were originally worn as either a necklace or a girdle on the basis of representations of women of the Middle Kingdom who are depicted so accessorised. The cowrie shell was anciently regarded as an equivalent of the female vulva which, according to ancient Egyptian religious tenets, was possessed of powerful apotropaic properties against the evil eye.

There are additionally fourteen actual sea shells each mounted in silver which are suggested to have originally formed pendants on a necklace. These shells attest to an ever-increasing Egyptian maritime interest in the Red Sea and were probably regarded as rare, deluxe objects in their own right. Their incorporation into jewellery of this period is exceptional, because the excavators regarded these fourteen pendants as the earliest attested use of such real shells in ancient Egyptian jewellery.

There are eleven elements of silver inlaid with a variety of materials, which appear to have formed part of a pectoral, or plaque-like pendant, worn over the chest. Among these are individual elements designed as hieroglyphs which can be arranged to spell the prenomen of Pharaoh Sesostris II of the 12th Dynasty. These elements also include a remarkable composite hieroglyph representing a falcon crowned with double plumes who perches upon a basket, or neb-sign. This image is actually the hieroglyph which introduces the golden Horus name of ancient Egyptian pharaohs. The presence of these elements are the basis for the dating of the Treasure to the nineteenth century BC. Their presence reinforces the suggested elevated social status of the woman who was interred in Tomb 124.

The most exceptional jewel within this silver ensemble is a three-dimensionally designed bee, which Engelbach himself singled out and termed a 'centre-piece'. To the best of one's knowledge there is not a single jewel from the Middle Kingdom which is likewise designed as a truly three-dimensional object. Its inlays are remarkable in that they are used on both the left- and the right-hand sides of the bee and are even visible when the object is viewed from above. The feet of the bee are likewise three-dimensionally designed but are attached to a base which must have served as a bridge by which this object was attached to another of which it formed a part. The nature of that object is moot, but it may have been designed as either a bracelet or headband for which this bee served as the principle, dominating element.

There are no comparable assemblages of such deluxe objects known from tombs, either excavated or published, contemporary with those forming the Treasure of Harageh, although the material from Lisht, not yet published, may be of equal quality. The Treasure is noteworthy for what appears to be the earliest attestation of actual shells in the design of Egyptian jewellery and for the unique travertine cosmetic spoon, the ankh-design of the handle of which is without parallel for the period. The Treasure of Harageh can now be included within the corpus of masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art with the bee assuming primacy of place.

The auction is expected to raise between £80,000 – 120,000 and closes early October.

The Archaeological Institute of America has released the following statement:

"The AIA has learned with the deepest concern that the AIA St. Louis Society proposes to auction certain antiquities in its possession. The St. Louis Society has a long history within the AIA, but, at the same time, is a registered non-profit independent of the national AIA.  The national office of the AIA was not consulted prior to this decision and only became aware of the pending auction when an AIA member reported that the antiquities were being offered on an auction house website. We are urgently investigating this matter and are working to find a solution that conforms to our firmly expressed ethical position concerning the curation of ancient artifacts for the public good."

Sources: Bonham's [September 14, 2014]