May 21, 2012

Neskhons' Heart Scarab & Ba-Bird

Beautiful detail inside Neskhons' sarcophagus.
Part of a large, ancient Egyptian sarcophagus acquired and sold by the Merrin Gallery, Neskhons' mummy was accompanied by the traditional amulet and falcon pendants. While dwarfed by the size of the sarcophagus and the elaborate decoration, these items hold great significance.

The amulet, called a "heart scarab", is a large, beetle-shaped object, usually of green stone or faience, that was placed over the heart of the deceased.

Its form is significant. Because the larvae of the scarab beetle emerged from a ball of dung in which they incubated, it appeared as magical regeneration to the ancient Egyptians. It also came to represent the reappearance, each dawn, of the Sun and became associated with the god, Khepri.

Two falcons from Neskhons' tomb as well as the front and back view of the heart scarab - showing inscriptions
The two Ba-bird falcons with their wings spread and heart scarab were found on
Nekhons' mummy. The back view of the heart scarab reveals the inscription.

In rituals prescribed in "The Book of the Dead", the scarab was used in the "weighing of the heart ceremony", in which it was set upon a balance scale against a feather of truth, to determine the individual's fate in the afterlife. An inscription beseeches the heart scarab not to bear negative testimony.

December 6, 2011

Maya Jade Stone: God of Corn

The Maya society flourished in parts of Mexico and Central America from the late first millennium BC until the late first millennium AD. Its height, called the “Classic period”, spanned the years 300–900 AD. The Maya founded numerous city-states, each ruled by a lord and supported by a hierarchy of elite and common folk.

Face of the Young Maize God showing the preserved texture of the jade stone it was crafted from
Maya royal jade stone figure
of the Young God of Corn.

More Valuable Than Gold

As in any stratified society, Maya nobles enjoyed prerogatives denied to their underlings. One privilege was the wearing of precious ornaments that marked their elevated rank. In Maya society, jade was valued beyond all other materials, so the most desirable and expensive adornments were crafted of the hard, verdant stone. The scarcity of jade can be inferred by the frequent uneven edges or asymmetry of completed objects: rather than cut away the “excess” and waste it, the stone was finished to preserve as much jade as possible.

Maya at the Merrin Gallery

Two late Classic period royal jade pendants, acquired by Samuel Merrin for the gallery, are exquisitely carved in the form of human heads, each with its own embellishment of earspools (or perforated lobes for the addition of separately fashioned ear ornaments) and headdress. The leaf-like shape of the headdress elements allow us to identify the individuals represented as the Young Maize God. A similar jade head of a Maize God, though without the perforation that permits wearing, is in the collection of the Museum of the American Indian and can be seen in Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller's 1986 book, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art (no. 560).

Profile of the Maya Young Maize God with elaborate detail and decoration in jade
A channel, perforated through the top
of each pendant, allowed it to be worn.
The variegated green tones of the jade stone make for a particularly appropriate medium to represent this deity — the verdant hue evoking all things green and flourishing. The compact, ovoid form is meant to suggest the seed corn that will produce the mature plant that is the basis of the Maya diet.

Origins: The Corn God

The Young Maize God began his mythic life as a mortal, Hun Hunahpu or Hun Hunahaw (literally, first first lord). He and his brother were ballplayers of uncommon skill. The Popol Vuh, a 16th century Quiche Maya tale that has survived, tells of their invitation to play the ballgame versus the lords of the Underworld and the trickery that was employed in their defeat and execution. It fell to the semi-divine sons of Hun Hunahpu, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, to avenge their father and uncle. After many adventures and the use of great cunning, not only were the so-called Hero Twins successful in this mission, but they also enabled their father and uncle to be resurrected, the former as the Young Maize God, a primary deity for the Maya people.

Frontal view of the Young Corn God figurine, a common deity in Maya mythology
The father of the Hero Twins becomes the Young Corn God after being resurrected.
He is sometimes shown being dressed by maidens prior to his resurrection.

Images of the Maize God appear in a variety of media. He was a favored theme on painted pottery. Mary Miller and Simon Martin's 2004 book, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, depict the deity while dancing, the corn silk and corn husks that wave in a breeze granting graceful movement to the actual plant and appearing like purposeful movements (plate 29). On a painted cup (fig. 15) his sons and a group of beautiful ladies of the Underworld, bring him his jewelry and garments in preparation for his rebirth. A well-known tripod plate depicts the actual moment of his resurrection (fig. 16). Here, the virile, young god emerges from a seed, deep within the belly of a turtle, which represents the Earth. As his sons assist, Hunahpu offering a hand and Xbalanque providing nurturing water, the Maize God rises already bespangled with jade ornaments and a (green) quetzal-feather headdress to emphasize his fecundity.

In texts, the Young Maize God and the Young
Corn God are the same, just different
The Maya lord who wore jade pendants such as the two that are our subject, was not only showing devotion to the deity to ensure good crops for his people, not only proclaiming his status, but also identifying with the god: “since a mortal of Maya lore became a god,” he says, “so have I.”

In fact, in order to replicate the Maize God’s regeneration after death, a Maya lord would be clad in the costume of the Maize God, replete with jade adornments, when he was placed in his tomb. These jade beads were, therefore, precious and also vital to ensure the cycles of dynastic continuity and agrarian fruitfulness.

November 8, 2011

The Great Merrin Sarcophagus

Ancient Egypt: The Merrin Gallery's Sarcophagus (Lid)
This Dynasty XXI sarcophagus is made from
sycamore fig-wood with colorfully painted scenes.
Art experts like Samuel Merrin consider this ancient Egyptian sarcophagus to be among the last great ones in private hands.

The front lid of Neshkons' sarcophagus is truly a marvel of ancient Egyptian art. Proudly acquired by the Merrin Gallery, it depicts the deceased in mummiform, surrounded by various goddesses, mystical creatures, and many other painted scenes commemorating Neshkons' life and wishing well for his afterlife.

Purchased when it went up for auction at Christie's in 2006, Samuel Merrin, owner of the Merrin Gallery on New York's Fifth Avenue, recollects that, “We were prepared to pay three times the price we eventually paid, because we recognized its beauty and rarity. We also knew that this would be known as the most prized acquisition at the auction.”

Htp-D'i-Nsw: The Merrin Gallery's Sarcophagus (Right Side)
The right side of both the lid and trough of Neshkons' sarcophagus features varying scenes of ancient Egyptian funerary art with hyerogylphic inscriptions; further detailed on Sam's Flickr.

The Merrin Gallery's sarcophagus comprises of a lid, trough and the mummy of Neshkons. It was, and still is regarded as a record bid for a sarcophagus and mummy.

Neshkons' Mummy (Part of the Merrin Sarcophagus)
Burried sometime between 900–940 BC, the sarcophagus of Neshkons was excavated in 1900 AD and later shipped from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio, where the mummy was partially unwrapped.

According to Samuel Merrin's appraisal, “The preservation of the mummy is excellent.”

X-ray of Neshkons' Mummy (Part of the Merrin Sarcophagus)An x-ray image of the mummy shows us that a metal plate that was placed over an incision by which his internal organs were removed for ceremonial funerary purposes. The x-ray of Neshkons' mummy, and analysis thereof, also helped determine that he died at 20 years of age.

Mr. Merrin reminds us that, “It is one of the best sarcophagi from the best period — the 21st dynasty.” This is evident as the inside and outside of the sarcophagus display wonders of ancient Egyptian art.
Anubis & Sons of Horus on Sarcophagus (Inside-Left/Outside-Right)

The inside walls of the Merrin sarcophagus are similar in that they depict the Four Sons of Horus and Anubis with various other deities. As far as typography is concerned, a passage known as the htp-di-nsw with additional scripture is featured on both inner sides, but with slight variations. The outer right and left sides are also found to have subtle, intended differences in terms of hieroglyphic scripture, scenes and depictions.

Speaking to Samuel we discover that, “Judging from the elaborate sarcophagus and the amulets founds under the wrappings, Neshkons must have been a man of high rank and repute.” His coffin is decorated with gods, goddesses and notable figures in ancient Egyptian society (e.g. Amenhotep I).

Sphinx & Anubis Inside the Merrin Gallery's Sarcophagus
Among the many other figures, the inside of Neshkons' sarcophagus features a small sphinx to the left of the central figure (Amenhotep I), below which is a standing Anubis. To the right of the Anubis is a table of offerings, and above that there is a small black figure — Anupet, the female Anubis. 

After Mr. Moshe Bronstein of the Merrin Gallery put down his auction paddle after the winning bid, another dealer was said to have exclaimed that it was a great purchase and asked to buy a half-share of the sarcophagus.

“Buying a half-share is common among dealers, but we did not need to bring in any partners. We wanted to be the sole owners of this magnificent sarcophagus. We also knew that its provenance was perfect,” Samuel Merrin concludes.

Ba-Bird in an Ancient Egyptian Sarcophagus
The inside-top part of the Merrin Gallery's sarcophagus features hieroglyphic inscriptions, seated jackal deities, as well as a Ba-bird, Anubis, and Ipt.

August 19, 2011

Egyptian Amulets – Protection Through Ancient Gods

Faience lion and Taweret, goddess of fertility.
What is an amulet? It is a small token or talisman, a precious and portable expression of devotion and the hope for protection from disease, death, infertility, or a myriad of other calamities. "In ancient Egypt, such apotropaic [protective] devices could be fashioned from regular materials — such as stone, ivory, metal, glass, and clay — or faience," explains Samuel Merrin, owner of an antiquities gallery on Fifth Avenue.

Faience is a moldable, self-glazing glassy frit — a baked material composed of quartz, lime, copper, and an alkali. When it was first developed during the late Predynastic Period (ca. 3000 BC), faience was invariably blue-green in color. Later, other colors were achieved. But the original tonalities imbued the material with magical significance, making it much more precious than it's combined components. Egyptians believed that the color blue-green connoted vitality and eternal life.

August 9, 2011

Egyptology – Funerary Shabtis of Ancient Egypt

The origin of the shabti in ancient Egyptian civilization is a debated issue. Nevertheless, by the time of Dynasty XII of the Middle Kingdom (about 1991–1782 BC), shabtis gradually become a fixed feature of the funerary panoply of elite members of Egyptian society.

“Contrary to popular opinion, these statuettes were not anciently regarded as servants who might magically attend to every whim of their owners. Rather, they were intended to serve as surrogates for both aristocrats and pharaohs of both sexes who were expected to respond to the roll call in the hereafter,” illuminates Samuel Merrin of the Merrin Gallery in New York.

Also known as an ushabti, the word “shabti” derives from the ancient Egyptian word for “the responder”. They were to perform specific work of an enigmatic nature which primarily entailed the cultivation of fields, the irrigation of the river banks, and “the ferrying of sand of the east to the west and vice-versa”.

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