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A Doorkeeper, A God And A Feast: Burial Object In NHMU Exhibit Paints A Vivid Picture Of Ancient Egypt

Caroline Ballard
The vivid colors and overall good condition of the stela are due in part to mineral pigments used to paint the scene and the dry, dark climate of the burial chamber.

Thousands of years ago, ancient Egypt was a thriving civilization with art, culture and military power. The Natural History Museum of Utah's exhibit — The Time of the Pharaohs — takes visitors on a journey to learn more about Egypt's history and the lives of everyday people.

KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with Salt Lake City based Egyptologist Cynthia May Sheikholeslami, who studied some of the objects in the collection as part of her research. Sheikholeslami focused on one object in particular, called a stela. It came from the tomb of a man named Kharu-Sheri. It's a small, painted wooden tablet shaped a little like a tombstone.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: Can you describe the stela?

Cynthia May Sheikholeslami: On the left is a seated falcon headed figure, the God Ra-Horakhty. On the right hand side of the stela is a representation of Kharu-Sheri himself with his arms opened up in front of him, which is the sign of adoration or prayer. Between the falcon-headed god Ra-Horakhty and Kharu-Sheri is a very elaborate table of offerings — bread, meat, fowl, beer [and] wine — in hopes, of course, that the god will provide for him in the other world and ensure his rebirth.

CB: Say more about the life of Kharu-Sheri, the man depicted in the stela.

CS: It belongs to a person who is the doorkeeper of the Temple of Amun, and it's one of the most elaborate sets of burial equipment that we know from this period of the 25th dynasty in Egypt. And it tells us something about his background, too. Because often doorkeepers are thought by Egyptologists to be rather low-ranking people, more at the level of a janitor rather than someone who would have the status and the financial wherewithal to have a very elaborate set of burial equipment.

CB: What exactly is a stela? What purpose does it serve within the burial chamber?  

CS: It was one of the ways that the deceased ensured that he was going to make the passage from this world into the next and have a happy afterlife. This would have been placed somewhere along the outside of the coffin, probably leaning against it. But the pictures and the writing on it were believed by Egyptians to be able to magically communicate their purpose.

CB: This stela is very vivid — beautiful blues and yellows and reds. How has it been so vividly and well-preserved? 

CS: The reason the colors remain so bright is that they are mineral pigments. So they don't fade, and it wasn't exposed to the light either. And that atmosphere of the burial chamber and the climate of Luxor, Thebes, where this burial was, is very similar to that of Utah, is very dry. And so anything would last and last and last.

CB: What does this painted stela and other burial equipment reveal about how ancient Egyptians thought about death and the afterlife?

CS: The Egyptians didn't believe that they died forever. They knew that the physical body died, but they wanted to preserve it so that other elements of the personality which they called the Ba and the Ka could survive, and they needed to have a body to reside in. They needed to receive food offerings, [so] food offerings are placed in the tomb. And if they couldn't be present, pictures of them symbolically would suffice.

CB: Well the Egyptians were right, in a way. I mean, we're looking at them thousands of years later.

CS: And one of the things that they thought was most essential is that their name always be remembered. So when we have learned how to read hieroglyphs again and can say their names like Kharu-Sheri, we're remembering them for thousands of years.

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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