The following I wrote for a Grad Class, I liked it so much I wanted to share.
Things that are not together…but should be…
I followed my first instinct and looked at the collection of the British Museum, where a cynic might claim contains the stolen cultural treasures of much of the world.
My first thought was of course of The Elgin Marbles, and the Parthenon. Yet, that ground felt too well trod. I continued to think about the British Museum collection and I remembered a sort of quirky one involving the Great Sphinx of Egypt.
Object 1: The Beard of the Sphinx
(Accession Number: 00031296001)
I recently listened to a lecture series by Egyptologist Bob Brier (Great Courses, 1999) in which he related the story of doing research in the British Museum library and nearly tripping over a large stone. Asking what it was, he was told “It’s the beard of the Sphinx!” This anecdote occurred more than 20 years ago, and other documents also mention the beard of the Sphinx “In the basement” of the British Museum (Jackson, 1988).
This was recently rectified and the beard in now on display in the main gallery. The display is nice, if a bit understated. The text describes a little bit about the Sphinx, where this part of the beard would go and a little about dating the beard. Now that the beard is more publicly displayed, it is no surprise that its profile is beginning to rise as an object within the collection of the British Museum.
Dr. Brier brought up this story to show how complicated it can be studying a culture whose artifacts have been spread around the world in a more dubious time period. He mentioned that the British Museum really did not have any real issue with giving back the beard of the Sphinx to Egypt, except it would cause a precedent, and the Egyptian’s next item on the list would be the Rosetta Stone. Because the British Museum has no intention of ever giving back the Rosetta Stone, the Beard of the Sphinx remains in London.
Modern politics are keeping this object from being reunited with the rest of itself.
Interestingly, there is a general consensus that the beard was actually a later addition to the Sphinx, and was not made of the same single rock the rest of it. A false beard in Ancient Egypt was denoting of power and was a common accessory of the Pharaoh. A beard may have been added to the Sphinx for the Pharaohs to claim that the Sphinx was actually a kingly portrait. This means this object was itself created and added to the Sphinx due to ancient politics!
Object 2: The Dream Stele of Thutmose IV
When I chose to write about the Dream Stele of Thutmose IV, I was convinced the original would be in the Louvre, the British Museum or the Egyptian Museum in Cairo; it’s not. It’s in the same place it has been for over 3000 years: between the legs of the Sphinx!
I could not find an accession number for the Dream Stele, but it is managed and protected by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) who is the Egyptian Museum’s managing body. The reason for no museum tag is that it is still in situ as part of the outdoor museum of monuments that is the Great Pyramid complex at Giza. The Dream Stele, between the Sphinx’s front paws, is visible and prominent to anyone who visits the Great Sphinx.
The Stele tells the story of a young Thutmose (circa 1400 B.C.E.) sleeping under the shadow of the Sphinx (original construction circa 2400 B.C.E.) when he had a dream. In Thutmose’s time, the Sphinx was already ancient and had been buried to the neck in sand. In his dream, the Sphinx told Thutmose if he would dig the Sphinx out, the Sphinx would make him Pharaoh. (Thutmose, though a prince, was not next in line for the throne.) When Thutmose woke he excavated the Sphinx and soon was king. In honor to the Sphinx (and himself), Thutmose erected this stele on the now exposed feet of the Sphinx. There is even a belief the either Thutmose may have added the beard to the Sphinx or restored it as part of his excavation (Beard of the Sphinx, British Museum). In the subsequent millennia, the Sphinx and the Stele were both re-buried by the sand and were not seen again until the 19th century.
Just like the Beard of the Sphinx, the Dream Stele was a later addition to the Sphinx. Both were added for political reasons. They were making a statement about those who were in power at the time and using one of the most visible wonders to do so. The Dream Stele also contains a carved image of the Sphinx, which notably does show its beard. Having an ancient drawing of the Sphinx in front of the Sphinx is quite powerful.
Digital solution to bring them together:
I would create a VR tour of the Sphinx, which would allow me to swoop around it, and click on different parts of it. Clicking on the Stella, it would be translated and spoken. I would also have “Points of Interest” and the beard would be one of them. Selecting the chin of the Sphinx, a digital recreation would show what the beard would have looked like attached. Lastly, there would be a “Time Slider” to be able to go back in time and see what the Sphinx looked like at different periods in its history including when it was just built in 2500 BCE and after Thutmose IV excavation, renovation and addition of the Dream Stella in 1400 BCE.
When comparing the political intrigues of today in regard to the location of the Beard of the Sphinx, and the Political intrigue of antiquity which led toThutmose’s IV’s creation of the Dream Stele, perhaps we can appreciated that human nature has not really changed in 3000 years. Human nature still reins whether that is in self promotion, or in refusing to give up something small for fear of giving up something large. These intertwined objects, possibly the least known parts of one of the world most famous artifacts, together tell a story that bridges majority of our world’s written history. The more things change, the more they stay the same!
Brier, B. History of Ancient Egypt. The Great Courses. 1999.
Fragment of the beard of the Great Sphinx. The British Museum. Retrieved on April 2, 2017 from http://www.bmimages.com/preview.asp?image=00031296001
Jackson, D. It’s Time to give back the Sphinx’s Beard. The New York Time. Published March 23,1988. Retrieved on April 2, 2017 from http://www.nytimes.com/1988/03/23/opinion/l-it-s-time-to-give-back-the-sphinx-s-beard-322288.html
Supreme Council of Antiquities: The SCA. Retrieved on April 2, 2017 from http://www.sca-egypt.org/eng/main.htm
Figure 1: Fragment of the beard of the Great Sphinx. The British Museum. Retrieved on April 2, 2017 from http://www.bmimages.com/preview.asp?image=00031296001
Figure 2: Beard of the Sphinx at the British Museum. Retrieved on April 2, 2017 from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/210824826276884698/
Figure 3:The Sphinx. Retrieved on April 2, 2017 fromhttp://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/sphinx-stela.html
Figure 4: The Sphinx. Retrieved on April 2, 2017 from http://www.linearconcepts.com/photos/2007-Israel/DSC_2735_sphinx.jpg