Hetepheres and Company: A New Installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Dr. Lawrence Berman received his Ph.D. from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literature at Yale in 1985. Having specialized in Egyptology while at Yale, he wrote his dissertation on the Pharaoh, Amenemhat I, the founding king of the Twelfth Dynasty. Dr. Berman started his career at the Cleveland Art Museum where he worked on the famed Amenhotep III; Egypt's Dazzling Sun exhibition. Since 1999, Dr. Berman has been on the staff of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, where he has recently completed the reinstallation of material in the MFA's collection from the tomb of Queen Hetepheres, and related Old Kingdom objects.

Dr. Berman noted that the MFA has George A. Reisner and Yale University to thank for it's excellent Old Kingdom collection.

Well before 1905 when Reisner first began excavating in Egypt, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was a large and important museum with a growing collection of Egyptian material. The museum was incorporated in 1870 and in 1877 received it's first major gift . Sir Robert Hay had made a collection of New Kingdom funerary artifacts and objects from Egyptian daily life, including a group of mummies. The collection was purchased by a prominent Boston banker, which was gifted to the MFA after his death.

Another Bostonian/New Englander, John Lowell, traveled in Egypt and collected sizable antiquities, which he gave to the MFA in 1876. About this same time, an American branch of the Egypt Exploration Fund opened in Boston and the MFA was the recipient of objects excavated by such noteworthy archaeologists as Neville and Petrie, when the EEF's share of their finds were distributed.

From Theodore Davis' excavations the MFA received objects from the Valley of the Kings including the sarcophagus of Thutmosis III - the only 18th Dynasty sarcophagus outside of Egypt.

George A. Reisner initially went to Harvard to study law but instead studied Semitic languages, then he went to Europe to study with scholars in Germany. Returning to Harvard, he taught Egyptian language for several years. In 1897 he was commissioned, along with four colleagues, to come to Cairo and write a catalogue for the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. He authored the volume on amulets, model ships and canopic jars.

During the time Reisner was working in Cairo, Phoebe Apperson Hearst was looking for someone to head up an expedition for the University of California, at Berkeley. George Reisner was recommended to her as a good candidate. At just that time, Reisner was offered three jobs: to go to Yale and start a Department of Egyptology, to go to Germany and work with scholars there, or to head Mrs. Hearst's expedition. As we all know, he elected to head Mrs. Hearst's expedition.

He had absolutely no field experience at the time he took on the job, so had to hire people who did and learn from them. He chose to start at sites where he could develop his skill, including Coptos and Deir El Ballas. After a few years he felt he was ready to take on a larger and more conspicuous project. He was incensed by the lack of rigorous control over excavations at Giza and resolved to work there. A Commission for Giza had been given to a member of Parliament, a Lord Ballard, and Reisner complained. Ultimately, perhaps as a result of such complaints, the plateau was parceled out between the professional archaeologists from Italy, the United States and Britain, to ensure that unsupervised excavation would not occur. Reisner received the smallest of the three Giza pyramids, that of king Menkaure [Mycerenas] and its enclosure. The Western Cemetery was divided among the three professional groups as was the Eastern cemetery. When the Italians eventually pulled out, in 1905, Reisner assumed responsibility for all of their holdings as well so ended up with the larger portion.

Phoebe Hearst had to pull out of her support of Reisner's work when some of her investments failed, so Reisner and Lethko approached Harvard and the MFA requesting that they take over the excavation. They both agreed, with the MFA sponsoring the excavation and Harvard sponsoring the publication of the work.

Initially the MFA was a little concerned about whether the expedition would be worth supporting, however the first year produced great results - 7 reserve heads, the great triads of Menkaure [two of which came to Boston] and many other exceptional pieces. In 1911 a pair statue of Menkaure and a queen came into the collection. As a result, George Reisner was made Curator of Egyptian Art at the MFA and the future of the expedition was assured.

For a year, in 1909-1910, George Reisner excavated in Palestine but Egypt was his first love. He only returned to the US five times between 1910 and 1942 when he died at the age of 85 and was buried near his beloved Harvard Camp in Cairo.

On February 13, 1925 while he was away on one of his few trips, the secret pit tomb of Queen Hetepheres, wife of Sneferu and mother of Khufu, was discovered. A photographer found white plaster on the feet of his tripod, but didn't initially recognize it as something significant. When the plaster was uncovered and removed it was found that it led to a staircase, which in turn led to a deep shaft plugged with heavy limestone blocks. The shaft , when cleared, proved to be 100 feet deep and at the bottom was a burial chamber. Reisner's assistant, Roe, first looked into the chamber at about 11:00 one morning, using reflected sunlight. On the east side of the chamber he saw a large sarcophagus made of alabaster, but no name was evident. On top and on the floor beside the sarcophagus were the remains of gold gilt and the decayed wood to which it had originally been affixed. Roe was able to read the name of Sneferu on one fragment. Among the gold and decayed wood, were also copper and bronze basins, headrests, etc.

Roe cabled Reisner immediately describing what he had found, and Reisner replied, "Close tomb and await my arrival." It would be nearly six months before Reisner, in fact, returned. During the next year, Roe left the excavation and was replaced by Dows Dunham who returned with Reisner to excavate the tomb, now dubbed "700X". Work was started on January 13th. Upon seeing the burial chamber, Reisner immediately thought it to be a reburial, as everything was "higgledy-piggledy" in the chamber.

George Reisner considered the recovery of Hetepheres tomb to be his crowning accomplishment. He wanted to record it in such a way that , if required, it could be duplicated exactly. Every layer was photographed and drawn, then moved to the Harvard Camp where Dunham tried to reconstruct the objects. The carrying chair was the first piece reconstructed. Its reconstruction allowed the excavation to firmly identify the owner of the tomb. The palm capitals on chair's carrying poles had dropped the hieroglyphs affixed to them. When they were carefully recovered, the name of the queen emerged.

Other objects found in the tomb included stone and copper vessels, and inlaid bracelets which were worn stacked on each arm like bangles. Atop the sarcophagus, what appeared to be a fine lacery laying directly on the lid, proved to be the parts of an inlaid, wooden canopy curtain box.

In April 1927 the sarcophagus was finally ready to be opened. To the astonishment of all present, when the lid was lifted the sarcophagus was empty and appeared never to have ever held a body. In a plaster-sealed niche the Queens canopic jars were found - the only remains of Queen Hetepheres to have survived. Of course, the big question was "Where was the Queen?" Dr. Berman noted that the following theory was put forth Reisner - a man who donated a personal collection of 1300 murder mysteries to Harvard. He theorized that the plundering of the original tomb - probably near that of her husband at Dashur - was the work of the cemetery guards and workers. The sacrilege was reported to the Chancellor /Vizier who had all possible witnesses arrested and executed. The Vizier reported to the king that his mother-s tomb had been robbed, but that the queen's remains were in tact - even though they were not. He then recommended that the burial be moved to Giza to be reburied near her son's great funerary monument. There are other less dramatic theories as well, postulated in the years since Reisner set forth his theory. First of all, there is no evidence that the queen was ever buried near her husband at Dahsur. Mark Lehner suggests that perhaps that was the original plan but it was never carried out. A German scholar has suggested that it may be an error to call "700X" a tomb. Rather perhaps it is a ritual funerary deposit. Regardless of the theories, the remains of the Queen have never been found.

Hetepheres would have known the funerary complexes of Djoser, the Bent, the Red and the Maidum pyramids. The motifs on her furniture mimic the motifs in use throughout the Old Kingdom. The canopy is of a type that is illustrated in tomb reliefs. The same type of canopy is on the boat of Khufu, and the same tent pole motif can be seen in later dynasties as well.

The reconstructed original furniture found in the tomb of Queen Hetepheres remained in Cairo. Reisner did not claim anything for Boston, and felt strongly that all the material should go to the Cairo Museum - and made sure that it did. He considered the behavior of other excavators, such as Carter and those who helped him, to be reprehensible. Much later, Boston, did receive some of the minor objects from the tomb - some pottery and two of the bangle bracelets. Therefore, the suite of furniture from the tomb of Hetepheres in the MFA is a reproduction of the reconstructed pieces, which was made in the late 1930s and sent to Boston. In 2000 when the museum was preparing Old Kingdom material to go to Nagoya, Japan for an exhibition, many of the objects, including the Hetepheres furniture, were conserved and restored. At that time it was decided to re-house them in a gallery which was climate controlled. A new gallery was designed and the room was gutted, then everything was reinstalled. Included in the new gallery, in addition to the Hetepheres furniture, is a mastaba wall with two false doors that is particularly interesting. The wall is from the mastaba of Ahkmeretnesut. The wall has an offering statue and is beautifully painted with animal scenes.

Reisner excavated about 200 tombs during his years on the Giza plateau, but only two of them were intact; that of Hetepheres from Dynasty 4, and that of Impy from Dynasty 6. Impy's tomb had a wood sarcophagus, lots of copper objects and miniatures, and some stunning jewelry. They included an intact serdab group, and many serving statues - relatives of the deceased, placed in the tomb to perform services for the deceased. A false door is covered with scenes of people bringing things into the tomb - food, models, etc. and some 80 tiny vessels.

The MFA also boasts in its collection such treasures as 6th Dynasty statues of court officials, fragments of a statue similar to an intact one of Khafre in Cairo, statues of Menkaure - both a colossal and a small ivory one. Objects such as a magic wand that may have been used for Khufu, beautiful bowls, and a gold cylinder seal of Djedkare Isesi, are also to be found in the MFAs collection.

The MFA has a breathtaking collection of Egyptian material, and it has recently started a major building plan, which when completed may ultimately provide much more space for this fine collection.

Nancy Corbin

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