If there’s one impression that a visitor might get from your average Ancient Egyptian exhibit, it’s of a culture obsessed with preservation. Mummies, carefully replicated clay tools, records on parchment… Then again, future archaeologists may well get the same idea from modern industrial culture. After all, we make even the simplest objects from materials that take thousands of years to decompose. (Or there might be a dissertation in the way we use undying plastic for food storage containers, while storing great works of art on the most ephemeral electronic media.) The artifacts we leave behind reveal us remarkably well. And remarkably personally.
Last year, the Oriental Institute created an exhibit around a single mummy, headed by Emily Teeter (hear her discuss their work). Meresamun—her name is recorded on her coffin—served as a temple singer at Karnak around 800 B.C.E. She made music for the god Amun, both performing in rituals and as an ongoing act of worship. Careful examination of her body tells us a great deal about her life. Through artifacts, we can guess at still more.
Meresamun, a temple singer for Amun circa 800 B.C.E.
Meresamun’s mummy and coffin are of the highest quality, from the decorations to the amount of linen used to wrap her. Linen was expensive in ancient Egypt, as were good artists. Her wealth and status are also supported by the condition of her body. There are no signs of malnutrition, suggesting that she had access to plenty of protein and a relatively varied diet. Paintings show the wealthy eating beef, pork, and poultry, supplemented by leeks, fruits, and vegetables. For most Egyptians, though, the primary source of nutrition was bread. This was true for Meresamun as well. The one exception to her good health is her teeth—ground into concave shells by the gritty results of stone-ground grain.
Temple singers enjoyed high status, high pay, and good hours. Most worked in the temple for one month, then took three months off. In addition to singing, they made music for their chosen deity on drums, harps, and wind instruments. One common instrument in Meresamun’s time was the sistrum. Archaeologists have retrieved the instruments themselves, and their use is also recorded in paintings. Many songs were written down, but the lack of a musical notation system means that we don’t know exactly how they sounded. We can guess, though, and attempt to reconstruct.
Bronze sistrum from between the third and first centuries B.C.E. Metal disks on the crossbars (now missing) provide rhythm when shaken.
In her time off, a woman with Meresamun’s riches would probably have directed a large household. Although women were legally the equals of men, this sort of oversight was generally considered to fall squarely in their domain. Her staff would have taken care of the household’s needs for food, drink, and textiles. Although we don’t have them for Meresamun, she would probably have kept careful accounts similar to those that have been found elsewhere. Combs, amulets, and dishware from the exhibit illustrate the most common possessions in such a house.
Wooden comb, circa 332 B.C.E. to 395 C.E.
If you add in a few electronics, it’s not so different from what most of us leave around, waiting to intrigue archaeologists of future ages.
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