Excavating in the Galleries

DSCN3746Today we have an exciting guest post from Josef Wegner, Associate Curator in the Egyptian Section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Associate Professor of Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania. Wegner is also the author of the recently-published The Sunshade Chapel of Meritaten from the House-of-Waenre of Akhenaten, a  contribution to the study of one of the most debated eras of ancient Egyptian history focused on this long-ignored treasure of the Penn Museum's Egyptian collection: the quartzite architectural block E16230, which has been on display in the Penn Museum for 115 years. Here, Wegner explores the experience of studying an already-exhibited but understudied artifact—and summarizes his findings about the block's history.

The term “excavating in storage” is often humorously applied to the idea that archaeologists have as much to discover in museum collections as they do by conducting new excavations in the field. What about when you don’t even have to unlock storage, but remarkable objects of major historical significance are sitting in museum galleries? “Excavating in the gallery” too can be a rewarding and eye-opening process. Such is the situation with a 3300 year old, 8-foot tall architectural remnant in the Egyptian galleries of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The object is one of the largest surviving building elements from the reign of pharaoh Akhenaten and comes from a building dedicated in honor of King Tut’s older sister: Princess Meritaten. The Sunshade Chapel of Meritaten from the House-of-Waenre of Akhenaten delves into the intriguing evidence of this unique, and long ignored object.

The reign of the 18th Dynasty Egyptian king Akhenaten (ca. 1353-1336 BCE) has attracted more interest and debate among Egyptologists—and indeed a greater degree of popular fascination—than any other period of Ancient Egypt. Akhenaten’s abandonment of Egypt’s traditional religious organization by elevating of the Aten—the radiant solar ‘disk’—to supreme religious authority has been viewed by many as an early, and ultimately failed, experiment with a form of monotheism. Akhenaten’s reign of only seventeen years involves the compelling tale of a religious revolution engineered by a man variously classified as a philosopher, poet, prophet, madman and dictator. He abandoned Egypt’s traditional political centers and built a new royal capital, ancient Akhet-Aten, modern Tell el-Amarna, which gives its name to both the city itself (Amarna) as well as the broader historical phase (the Amarna Period) that includes Akhenaten’s reign.

Near the heart of the modern fascination with the Amarna Period are the striking changes that occurred to art styles, transforming the stiff poses of royalty to languid and charming depictions of the royal household. Whereas other kings of this era emphasized military prowess and physical strength, Akhenaten depicted himself a man dedicated to the worship of the solar deity and surrounded by beautiful women. First and foremost in the king’s orbit was that most quintessential of Egyptian queens: Nefertiti. Never before in Egyptian history was there a royal woman afforded such status and so consistently depicted alongside her husband in virtually every activity. Nefertiti’s prominence extended to their six daughters who appear with their parents in scenes of ritual and intimate family scenes drawn from the living room of the palace. Meritaten was the eldest and most prominent of these women.

Anticipating later politicians who have promoted the cult of the personality, Akhenaten endeavored to open up the life of the royal family to public veneration and adulation. Why? Having closed the temples of the traditional gods, and having established a solar religion dominated by the king as sole intermediary with the cosmic creator, he offered the royal family as objects for devotion. Many of the touching family scenes surviving from this era were set up in domestic shrines for private worship. The women so central to the king’s identity were commemorated in buildings called “Sunshades.”  Some of these buildings stood in the capital at Tell el-Amarna itself, while others were erected in other cities where religious buildings dedicated to the Aten cult were intended to restructure the religious landscape of Egypt.

The Sunshade of Princess Meritaten is very much an archaeological mystery that takes us back thousands of years. Prior to its arrival in Philadelphia, the block had been discovered in 1898 in the streets of Cairo close to the well-known Khan el-Khalili market that lies near the palace quarters of Medieval Cairo. There it had once served as the threshold into an unknown building near the heart of Islamic Cairo. Prior to the Middle Ages, the block had served as the base for a sphinx of pharaoh Merenptah (ca. 1200 BCE)  at Heliopolis, the ancient solar cult center north-east of Cairo. But even before that, the block was part of the ornately decorated façade of a Sunshade chapel dedicated to Meritaten, eldest daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. This building was called the “Sunshade of the king’s daughter of his body, his beloved, Meritaten in the House-of-Waenre in Akhet-Aten.”

The crux of this mystery lies in establishing where this Sunshade chapel once stood. As with all detective cases, here “the devil is in the details.” The inscriptions on this building record that the Sunshade of Meritaten was once housed inside a larger building named the “House-of-Waenre in Akhet-Aten.” The House of Waenre was a ceremonial palace of Akhenaten (Waenre is part of the king’s throne name), but where was it located?  It is the analysis of the evidence for the original location of Meritaten’s Sunshade in the “House-of-Waenre” that draws us into the archaeological mystery leading to two alternative scenarios: the Meritaten Sunshade chapel now in the Penn Museum may once have stood at the capital city of Tell el-Amarna. Or, it may derive from a ceremonial complex built by Akhenaten in the northern religious center of Heliopolis where a second Akhet-Aten, named like the main capital, may have been established as a means of absorbing the preexisting solar religion into the Aten cult.

One of the challenges of archaeological research lies in reconstruction and visualization of buildings, environments, and landscapes of the distant past. What was it like to inhabit spaces so removed from our modern experiences? Here the Sunshade chapel block provides an exceptional glimpse into the ceremonial buildings of the reign of Akhenaten. Today the block stands stripped and denuded of a once-astonishing volume of architectural inlay. The reddish brown quartzite of the block was not simply carved and painted. Rather, the décor consisted of intricate polychrome inlay, making use of multi-color faience, but also components in glass, metals, and stones of a variety of colors. Manipulation of brilliant and reflective colors and materials in religious buildings is one facet of Akhenaten’s many initiatives. The book uses Computer Aided Design to help us picture what was once a veritable architectural jewelbox.

Meritaten was the eldest daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. She married a coregent, king Smenkhare, who briefly ruled alongside, but predeceased Akhenaten. Egyptologists now recognize that Meritaten’s mother, Nefertiti, then became a female pharaoh alongside her husband in the aftermath of Smenkhare’s death. But the fate of Meritaten in this era of such prominent royal women remains shrouded in mystery. After Akhenaten’s own death and brief sole-reign of Nefertiti, prince Tutankhaten took the throne of Egypt. Perhaps surprisingly, Tutankhaten was married to princess Ankhesenpaaten, Meritaten’s younger sister. These two were involved in the rejection of Akhenaten’s religious experiment as they restored the traditional gods and changed their names to Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun. The disappearance of Meritaten from power in the time of King Tut is one of the numerous fascinating questions in this intriguing era of ancient Egypt. Meritaten’s Sunshade chapel helps to shed light on the mysteries of this endlessly fascinating era of pharaonic history. The Meritaten Sunshade chapel is a testimony to the benefits of “excavating in storage”… or the Museum galleries for that matter.

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