The Pennsylvania University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is full of wonders to be discovered. With exhibitions showcasing objects from places like the Middle East, Asia, and North America, there is something for every museum visitor to find here. Capturing my interest on this trip though was the Egyptian galleries. I have been fascinated with Ancient Egypt since I was a child and couldn’t pass up the chance to look at artifacts I had previously only read about.
Walking through the gallery, this object label immediately jumped out at me. “Lintel of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III”. There have been so few women rulers of the ancient civilization that I recognized her name and it immediately captivated me. Hatshepsut had ruled during the New Kingdom and had been intended to only serve as regent until her husband Thutmose II’s son by another wife came of age. However, Hatshepsut declared herself pharaoh, a title usually only held by men, and ruled in her own right. She depicted herself as the daughter of a god to lend some legitimacy to her power. Hatshepsut took it even farther and dressed as male pharaohs had with a beard. She was known as a powerful and prosperous ruler who had protected Egypt and embarked on great building projects.
After her death though, there was a calculated attempt to erase her from future histories. Iconography of the Pharaoh and inscriptions bearing her name were destroyed or vandalized. This not only essentially wiped Hatshepsut from the record but threatened her afterlife as well. Scholars point to an angry Thutmose III, the son of Thutmose II and his lesser wife Isis, as the culprit of this act. Perhaps he harbored resentment for his aunt who had ruled much longer than was expected of a supposed regent. However, scholars now believe the actions were political in nature and not personal. In fact, less public representations of Hatshepsut were not harmed and therefore ensured her a safe afterlife. Thutmose III needed to downplay the importance and achievements of Hatshepsut in order to support the line of succession to his own son.
It is one thing to read about the history of Ancient Egypt in a book, but completely another to see the evidence in person. I’ve read about the erasure of Hatshepsut from the historical record and been upset by the actions. But seeing the destructive marks in person? I was not anticipating how much more intense my emotions would be. You can really evaluate how much effort it would take from a person to carve that deeply into the stone to remove the section with her cartouche on it. This lintel reminds us that Hatshepsut existed and that there was an effort to erase her legacy. In spite of those efforts, we should remember her anyway.
This large stone once served as a lintel – or the horizontal piece that spans two supports like on a doorway. Out of context, though, it seems as though it could stand alone as a tablet or stele. Although almost two feet tall and nearly four feet wide, the lintel is dwarfed by the gallery it lives in. The Penn Museum’s historic galleries have soaring ceilings that dwarf even the largest statue in the room. Placed in the back of the room between two objects of similar size, the lintel doesn’t stand out in any particular way. In fact, it was only seeing Hatshepsut’s name that caused me to take a second look. Unprotected by any glass, it was so tempting to reach out and feel the groove marks where her name once was.
Currently the piece has a single object label, but this could be an opportunity to add to that interpretation. A recreation of the section of the lentil with the removed name would be an interactive addition. This would satisfy the folks like me who want to feel those marks and make a physical connection with the history. Further, this provides an accessible experience for those who learn through touch or guests who are visibly impaired. Their understanding and interaction with the object would be more complete. As museums strive to be accessible for all of their visitors, adding more hands-on and touchable experiences is one way in which they can do so.
This object also presents the opportunity to explore primary documents – what are they and what power do they have? Ancient Egyptians were aware they were leaving notes for future generations and were very concerned with ensuring their legacies. How do we interpret that as a contemporary audience? This object, and others like it in the collection, could be used in educational programming with school groups investigating the historical method and primary documents. Classes could do before visit work learning the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. On their visit tours of the collection could focus on objects that inform historians of the past. Objects like this lintel are interesting because they serve as both an artifact and a document. While objects inform us about the past, historians work mainly with written documents. A program like this would help students conceptualize what ancient primary documents are and the logistical challenges of working with them.
A visit to the Penn Museum should definitely be on your to-do list. It is interesting to be able to see such a large collection of Egyptian artifacts when their placement throughout the world are being questioned. This is an opportunity to see an amazing collection of artifacts in a vastly different environment than the one they were found in. Whether you’re an ancient enthusiast or a new comer to the era, there is something for everyone to discover at the Penn Museum.