Buried in New York – Divas and Rare Jewelry

Henut does Queen Neferu’s hair, 11th dynasty (2051-2000 B.C.) Courtesy: Brooklyn Museum

Henut does Queen Neferu’s hair, 11th dynasty (2051-2000 B.C.) Courtesy: Brooklyn Museum

While New York City is digging out from record snowfalls, there’s some great news about a few items that have been buried for centuries and are none the worse for wear – cosmetic boxes, bracelets, belts, and styling tips of the great divas (male and female) of ancient Egypt. The Metropolitan Museum of Art moved some gems out of the cavernous Egyptian wing – and borrowed a few things from Brooklyn and elsewhere – for its monumental tribute to the 12th dynasty, Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, closing today.

Usually buried among the collections on the first floor, the curators pulled out some of our favorites from the galleries (along the way to the Costume Institute) and presented them as the spectacular showpieces they are. It warrants a shout-out to the effort it took to conceive, mount, and present this terrific show. What a way to leverage the collections that are right inside the city limits!

Queen or Princess as a Sphinx, 12th dynasty (1981-1802 B.C.) Once owned by Emperor Hadrian , later by a Cardinal. From Brooklyn Museum

Queen or Princess as a Sphinx, 12th dynasty (1981-1802 B.C.) Once owned by Emperor Hadrian , later by a Cardinal. From Brooklyn Museum

The story of the transformations happening in Egypt’s 11tth to 13th Dynasties (ca. 2030–1650 B.C.) is big (enough to fill twelve galleries), so we’re just highlighting a few of the things we noticed that modern People of Style might enjoy. Check out our Flickr site.

First, Brooklyn is in the house in the gallery dedicated to royal women: off to the side, there’s a limestone relief fragment (normally at the Brooklyn Museum of Art) showing Queen Nefuru having her tresses done by 11th Dynasty celebrity stylist, Henut. The curators point out that a telltale sign of royals (men and women) is the distinctive winged-eye look that her makeup artist achieved in kohl. The styling is incised in limestone, showing the Queen getting ready to emulate Hathor, the goddess of love and romance. In those days (2051-2000 B.C.), only royals could sport the jeweled necklace or eye makeup style.

Nearby, Brooklyn also contributes a beautifully sculpted head, said to be broken off from a larger sphinx statue from the 12th Dynasty – a protective guardian featuring a fantastic coif that only a queen or a princess would sport. It was all wigs, all the time.

372-piece cloisonné pectoral of Princess Sithathoryunet. Gold, carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and garnet. 12th dynasty (1887-1878 B.C.).

372-piece cloisonné pectoral of Princess Sithathoryunet. Gold, carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and garnet. 12th dynasty (1887-1878 B.C.).

One of the most spectacular pieces is the 372-piece cloisonné pectoral worn by Princess Sithathoryunet. It’s a 12th Dynasty masterwork (1887-1878 B.C.). of gold, carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and garnet. The piece is magical and protective, but instead of being inlaid with the name of the princess, it features the name of the king. The idea is that the king himself is being protected when the royal daughter wears it – not the diva herself. You get what you pay for.

She also had another set of formal jewelry — a cowerie shell girdle and matching bracelet of gold, carnelian, feldspar, and crystal. The imitation shells had small pellets inside, which would have made a tinkling sound when she walked. The same is true for the feline-headed set of jewelry of gold and amethyst.

Feline-Headed Girdle of gold and amethyst from 12th Dynasty (1887-1813 B.C.).

Feline-Headed Girdle of gold and amethyst from 12th Dynasty (1887-1813 B.C.).

Sithathoryunet kept these and other treasures in a beautiful jewelry box, which is displayed nearby alongside a cosmetic box. The Met reconstructed the wood boxes by putting the ebony, ivory, gold, carnelian, blue faience, and silver back into place. Magnificent. Look for it all when these spectacular items go back on display at the back of the Egyptian Wing later this year.

By this time in Middle Kingdom culture, the elites started copying the royals, so some of the buried treasures that the Met found on its early 20th century expeditions belonged more to aspirational upper classes than the royals themselves. Check out the cosmetic case and mirror belonging to Amenemhat IV’s royal butler, Kemeni. Or the faience necklace worn by Wah, the overseer who served Meketre, the royal chief steward serving kings in both the 11th and 12th Dynasties.

The Met found a bonanza of fantastic reality art in Meketre’s tomb – so much that only a few pieces were brought up to the second floor for the special show. The show features a real-life depiction of a grainery and sport fishing boat, but if you look on the first floor as you walk through to the Costume Institute, you’ll see many more boats and several more rooms of day-to-day life – all meant to serve Meketre in the next world.

Cosmetic box of the royal butler, Kemeni, with four ointment jars and a mirror. 12th dynasty (1814-1805 BC.)

Cosmetic box of the royal butler, Kemeni, with four ointment jars and a mirror. 12th dynasty (1814-1805 BC.)

The Met has meticulously documented this show online. Spend a snow day (or not) by taking a tour through all twelve galleries on the Met’s web site and listening to the curators’ take on the on-line audio guide, which also features photos of each of the objects. Here’s where you can search the exhibition objects and find more detail.

Hear the behind-the-scenes chit-chat from the curators on the museum’s blog, including how the Egyptians feasted and how the digital team created the replica of the pyramid complex at the center of the show.

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2 thoughts on “Buried in New York – Divas and Rare Jewelry

  1. Hi Susan
    Love this article. I took a great tour when I visited and the guide raved about the quality of Middle Kingdom jewelry.
    You certainly seem to know what to look for
    Wonderful to see you yesterday.
    Xo
    A

    Arlene Katz

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