Digging for Treasure in the British Museum

My dissertation topic is “The Sekhmet Statues in the British Museum”. So, I knew that I would have to look at these statues before I moved any further with my research. The British Museum Ancient Egypt & Sudan Department holds over 30 examples of these granodiorite statues in its collection. Some are among the earliest examples of Egyptian art to reach these shores, part of the spoils of the war in Egypt against Napoleon, arriving at the along with the Rosetta stone in 1802.

Six of the museum’s Sekhmet statues are currently on display in the museum (Galleries 1 and 4). Some are on loan to museums in the UK (Glasgow, Newcastle, Ipswich) and others are part of travelling exhibitions or on loan abroad (Baltimore, Basel). What remains of the collection of Sekhmet’s are kept in the basement storerooms.

View of the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery at the British Museum, London. 2010. own photo

On Friday September 2nd, as the sun shone brightly after a dreary week, I arrived at the museum for 10am opening, making my way past the Japanese tour groups to the Ancient Egyptian & Sudan Dept. One of the marvellous things about the British Museum is their focus on education and learning – their study rooms and libraries are open and available to students, historians and scholars who wish to consult the museum’s collections. There is no secrecy or drama here, just helpful and dedicated staff who are as eager to learn more about the museum’s collections as those who come to study them.

I was given a warm welcome from Alex on my arrival, and having filled in the necessary forms and handed over a letter of introduction from Birkbeck (where I am studying), Alex took me along corridors and stairwells to the basement storerooms. I cannot describe what a privilege it is to see the British Museum behind the scenes, and to fully appreciate the hard work that it takes to conserve, catalogue, store and move the vast collections of the British Museum. The gallery space is limited, so many objects must remain in store – another reason why the British Museum works tirelessly with other international institutions to arrange travelling exhibitions – that way more of the museum’s collections are made available to the widest possible audience. Some objects, like the Sekhmet statues, can weigh hundreds of pounds, and specialists in handling and moving such precious and large objects are required.

View of Sekhmet Statues in the British Museum storerooms. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

When we arrived in the basement and the lights come on, it was as if I was standing in a Aladdin’s cave, full of treasures. A long row of Sekhmet’s stretched down the hall before me, along with further statues of pharaohs and gods. There were stele and fragments of carvings, all lined up neatly in rows. Other objects were packed in crates, awaiting their departure to various museums across the globe, where they would be enjoyed by new audiences. In another room there were shelves lined with every manner of Egyptian cat – a small lion in stone next to a statue of Bastet with her kittens, and in another corner a section of floor paving from Amarna, delicately painted with ducks taking flight from a papyrus thicket – I imagined Tutankhamun or Nefertiti walking across it and suddenly I felt as if I had been swept back 3500 years.

Seated Statue. EA 88. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

Having caught my breath, I got down to business and began photographing the Sekhmet statues and making notations of anything interesting or unusual about the different examples. Some were nearly intact, the carving of details such as the lioness’ manes, necklaces and bracelets seemingly as crisp as the day they were finished. Others were broken fragments – a complete bust or maybe only the feet and base of a statue. A few still had distinctive white stencilled lettering reading “Salt 1821”, showing that the statues had once been part of the collections of Egyptian objects amassed by Henry Salt (1780-1827), British Consul General in Cairo between 1816 and his death in 1827.

Standing statue. EA 69. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

There are two main types of statue of Sekhmet – standing and holding a papyrus staff and an ankh, or seated on a throne and holding an ankh. The British Museum has excellent examples of both these types. The seated statues seem to have survived better, possibly due to their bulk – it would have been easier to break the standing statues into pieces as they were much slimmer. Each statue of the goddess would have been crowned by a sun disc and uraeus – a symbol of her familial relationship as the daughter of the sun god Ra.

The statues vary slightly in size – some are quite noticeably larger than others, and although in general the faces seemed to adhere roughly to about 12″ x 12″ (from the corners of the mane to the tops of the ears), the variations would suggest multiple quarry/carving teams – although the sheer number of surviving statues points to that fact already. In a few cases the statues had inscriptions with Amenhotep III’s cartouche still clearly readable. So, another job will be copying these inscriptions out if they are not already written down in the museum’s database.

Detail of carved slot for sun disc. EA 85. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

Some statues seem to have been carved entirely  from one block of stone, but others have a pronounced notch at the top of the head, so that the sun disc could be slotted in later – this might have been a practical choice, as moving these bulky statues from quarries and workshops to temple sites might have necessitated travel over long distances, and the thing most likely to break along the way would have been these thin, oval sun discs atop the head.

Detail of EA 72, with red inclusion on face and sun disc. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

The stone itself was quite interesting, and raises more lines of enquiry. The statues are made from granodiorite, a stone similar to granite. The Rosetta stone is also carved from granodiorite. Most of the Sekhmet’s range in colour from back to dark grey, often with flecks of red inclusions – in one case the red inclusion in the granodiorite covers part of the face and solar disc on one statue. In at least one example the inclusions are similar to silver or gold. It seems likely that granodiorite was chosen for these red and gold inclusions, which were associated with the sun god – when highly polished one can imagine these statues shimmering in the blistering Egyptian sun.

After over 2 hours of photography and visual inspection, I had almost filled my camera’s memory card and written many pages of notes. Alex, along with Mark in the Library, helped me track down any statues I had on my preliminary database that were not in the storeroom. We even came across two partial statue heads that I was unaware of.

All in all it was an amazing morning, which has raised as many questions as answers for me. My first task will be to build a database on the British Museum statues and begin to see how they fit in relation to the vast multitude of Sekhmet statues surviving in Egypt and museums throughout the world.

I think I’m going to have a very tiring but exciting year ahead!  I would like to thank the marvellous staff in the Department of Ancient Egypt and the Sudan at the British Museum for their help so far – I hope they are not going to get tired of my visits and questions over the coming months!

Further Reading :

Stephanie Moser. Wonderous Curiosities: Ancient Egypt in the British Museum (Chicago, 2006)

* Check out the British Museum’s excellent website www.britishmusem.org for further information about the Egyptian Collections

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