Glencairn Museum News | Number 7, 2017
Today the Egyptian Collection at Glencairn Museum is displayed chronologically and thematically on the fourth floor of the museum in a dedicated gallery space. However, one unusual Egyptian object remains in a space which Raymond Pitcairn designed especially for the piece when building his house in the 1930s. The room in which this artifact stands is known as the “Bird Room,” due to the preponderance of avian motifs on the walls and ceiling. The focal point of the room is an arched niche decorated with a beautiful glass mosaic of a large white peacock. In front of the mosaic is an impressive ancient Egyptian basin for liquid offerings, carved from a single block of dark stone (E1178).
This niche was, throughout the years the Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn family lived in the home, a popular place to take family photos and to photograph important guests who came to visit. The basin itself was apparently a favorite object of the Pitcairns, and family lore reveals that the Pitcairn children used to raise baby turtles in this ancient libation bowl!
So, what of the origin of this Egyptian basin? Both Raymond Pitcairn and his brother Theodore had an interest in ancient art. Both frequented dealers, largely in New York City, and they made a number of significant art purchases in the 1920s. This bowl was purchased by Raymond on behalf of Theodore from the dealers George and Lucien Demotte in 1923. The Glencairn Museum Archives preserves a wealth of correspondence about the acquisition of the basin. Raymond writes in a letter to Theodore:
“It is a very good and rare piece in my estimation. I felt this on seeing it several times at Demotte’s and this view was confirmed by a very good letter from the director of the Egyptian Department at the Metropolitan shown to me by Demotte” (Letter dated 2/2/1923).
Raymond further notes that if Theodore isn’t happy with the purchase, “I like it sufficiently well to be ready at any time to take it off your hands if you do not care to have it.”
As it turns out, Raymond’s wife Mildred was so fond of the bowl that her brother-in-law, Theodore, ultimately gave the basin to her as a gift. And in 1939 it was permanently installed in Glencairn, the family’s home.
Raymond, it should be noted, was quite correct in his estimation of the bowl as a significant work of art. This libation basin is an example of a well-known, but uncommon category of artifacts dating to the New Kingdom (1539-1075 BCE) and later. Approximately three dozen examples of objects of this type (or fragments thereof) have been collected and studied in detail by Egyptologists such as Dietrich Wildung, Regina Hölzl, and Kirsten Konrad, among others. It can be argued that Glencairn’s libation bowl is among the best preserved of this type of vessel and it is certainly an unusual example of its genre.
Examples of Egyptian statuary consisting of a human figure kneeling while supporting or presenting an object—be it a stela, a shrine (naos) or a divine image—are well known from the New Kingdom through the Late Period, and many examples exist in museums around the world. Basins with kneeling figures, however, are considerably less common. Bowls of this type seem to appear in the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom, with an early example possibly dated to the reign of the pharaoh Tuthmosis III. Examples of basins with kneeling figures continue through the Ramesside period, and a few examples of basins with kneeling figures date to the Late Period. Similar round basins without kneeling figures also appear in the New Kingdom and Late Period, and while they lack the kneeling figure, they do share the round shape and divine imagery that some of the basins with kneeling figures display.
These basins with figures can appear in rectangular or round forms. Typically, an inscription by the dedicant in the form of an offering prayer (referred to by Egyptologists as a hetep di niswt, meaning “an offering which the king gives”) appears on the rim (and occasionally on the exterior faces of the basin). Typically one kneeling figure is present, but a few examples exist with multiple kneeling figures—either a pair of figures, or in one case, a group of three individuals. Variations in the posture of the figures appear with some of the figures crouching with their hands resting atop the rim of the basin (typically we see this with the round basins); while with the rectangular basins, the figures appear to hug, or hold, the water receptacle in their arms.
With regard to ancient provenience, unfortunately, for many of the kneeling figure basins this is not known. This is the case for the Glencairn bowl as well. Excavated examples have come from Memphis, Abu Sir, Hermopolis, Medinet Habu, and Deir el Bahri. A recently discovered fragment of one of these bowls was found at the Mut Temple complex in Luxor. Dietrich Wildung suggests that many of the unprovenienced examples likely have a Memphite origin.
Concerning their function, it is well-established that liquid offerings were an essential part of Egyptian cult practices, both in tomb and temple settings. Basins for liquid offerings have been found in Old Kingdom (2625-2130 BCE) tombs, and offering tables from tombs dating to the Middle Kingdom (1980-1630 BCE) through the Greco-Roman Period (332 BCE and later) have receptacles for liquids. Water is also ubiquitous in temple cult rituals, used for both purification and as a liquid offering.
So where were basins of this type used in ancient times? A relief now in the collection of the University College London, perhaps of Memphite origin, seems to suggest these kneeling figure basins were set up in temple contexts. In this relief we see two kneeling figures, a man and a woman, at the edge of a water container, into which liquid is flowing from an offering table adjacent to the basin. The appearance of colossal statuary and columns suggest that the locale is a temple, rather than a tomb locus.
Turning to the Glencairn basin in detail, we can see that it shares features with other known examples of the type. Carved of a single block of granodiorite, the basin measures 65 centimeters in diameter. It is in a very good, if not excellent, state of preservation with little loss to the decoration and only minor losses to the inscriptions. The bowl has a rounded bottom, carinated sides, and a recurved upper body. The area on which the figure sits projects from the side of the bowl in a trapezoidal form.
A beautifully carved small female figure perches with her chin resting on the edge of the basin. Her head, wig and face are finely detailed, while the carving of her body is less distinct. There is nice detailing on the pleated sleeve of her dress, but unlike other complete examples of these kneeling bowl figures, her lower extremities are not indicated.
Her hands rest atop a carved depiction of an offering table, which takes the shape of a hetep sign, the hieroglyph (and word?) for offerings, which consists of a loaf of bread atop a mat, the loaf of which projects slightly into the bowl. The female figure gazes slightly downwards into the vessel, and directly opposite her is a protome of a head of the goddess Hathor carved in high relief. This Hathor decoration on the interior is faced on the exterior of the bowl with a matching image of the goddess. Hathor was, from very early in Egyptian history, one of the most important goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon. Depictions of Hathor could vary from fully human in appearance to fully animal in form, or a combination of human and animal elements. Most Egyptian deities had an association with an animal avatar, and in the case of the goddess Hathor, the cow was the animal most closely linked with this deity. When Hathor appeared as a human female, she typically wore a crown adorned with a set of bovine horns with a round disk of the sun in the center. Depictions of Hathor in completely bovine form exist, but perhaps more common was the representation of the “Hathor Head,” which had a human face (although typically more triangular in appearance than a human’s), a large wig, and cow’s ears. It is this type of depiction of Hathor that we see on the Glencairn basin.
Hathor was worshipped in both large state-run temples as well as in small domestic household shrines. Her main sanctuary was at the site of Dendereh, where a massive temple complex dedicated to her was built. This temple remains one of the best preserved Egyptian temples and it is an awe-inspiring place to visit today. Dendereh was the location of her largest shrine, but she was worshipped throughout Egypt and her cult was long lasting. Hathor was considered a daughter of the sun god Re, and had close ties to the king. Hathor’s name in ancient Egyptian was “Hwt-Hr,” which means the “Mansion of Horus.” Horus was the son of Osiris and Isis and the living king represented the god Horus on earth.
While Hathor had these lofty associations, she was also a goddess to whom people could turn on a private level. As a goddess of fertility, sexuality and love, Hathor was particularly esteemed by women who sought the goddess’s assistance and protection on a variety of personal issues. Votive offerings to this goddess, presented or dedicated by hopeful worshippers, range from very humble gifts one could imagine even the poorest dedicants might be able to afford, to beautifully crafted objects created by master artisans (such as this offering basin, perhaps).
Atop the Hathor heads, in a raised rectangular area on the rim, there is a short two column inscription which has suffered some damage, particularly in the area of the cartouche. The inscription reads, “The King of Upper and Lower Egypt [/////////] beloved of Hathor, Lady of Hetepet, given life.” The damage to the king’s name and its encircling cartouche is severe. University of Pennsylvania Egyptologists Joe Wegner and Kevin Cahail carried out RTI (Reflective Transformation Imaging) photography in an attempt to see if we could bring out more of the signs, but it seems the inscription is truly lost. The only sign within the cartouche which seems clear is a circular sign reading “Re.” Unfortunately, as many kings’ names include this element, the appearance of this sign doesn’t help us to determine with any certainty which king is named. Stylistic details on the figure, however, do suggest a date of Amenhotep III, and his name, Neb-maat-ra, would certainly fit.
The flat rim of the basin is inscribed with two parallel texts that start at the rectangular raised portion and read towards the figure. These inscriptions are standard hetep di niswt prayers invoking the goddess Hathor and naming the dedicants of the basin, a man named Mery-ptah and his wife, Ruiu. (The name Mery-ptah was quite common during the New Kingdom. The name Ruiu is less common.)
The inscriptions read as follows: “An offering which the king gives and which Hathor, Mistress of Offerings, Lady of Heaven, Mistress of the Gods, gives that she may give life, prosperity and health to the ka of the one praised of the great god, the Royal Scribe, the Scribe of Recruits/elite forces Mery-ptah (and) his wife, his beloved, the Lady of the House, the Chantress of Amun, Ruiu,” and “An offering which the king gives and which Hathor, Mistress of Offerings, Lady of Heaven, Mistress of the Gods, gives that she may give praise before(?) [BREAK] for the ka of the Royal Scribe, the Overseer of the Royal Harem, the Steward, Mery-ptah (and) his sister (i.e. wife), the Lady of the House, the Chantress of Amun, Ruiu.”
From this inscription, we learn that Mery-ptah held a number of important positions: “Royal Scribe,” “Scribe of Recruits/elite forces,” “Overseer of the Royal Harem,” and “Steward.” His wife, Ruiu, bears the titles, “Lady of the House” (a common title for a married woman) and “Chantress of Amun.” As a Chantress, Ruiu would have taken part in singing in religious ceremonies in the cult of the great state god Amun. Scholars have studied the position of the Chantress of Amun and it is interesting to note that Ruiu is a previously unknown Chantress. If we accept the date of the reign of Amenhotep III as the date for the creation of this basin, this adds to the relatively small number of Chantresses identified by Suzanne Onstine dating to this king’s reign. Onstine also notes that during this period women who hold the title of Chantress come from the upper echelons of society. The titles of Mery-ptah, combined with the high quality of craftsmanship of this piece (and its likely expense of production) suggest that Mery-ptah and his wife were certainly well connected.
Examining the figure of the lady in more detail, we can see she wears a large and elaborate long wig. Two details stand out. First, the wig has the addition of a triple braid that runs down the back. Joanne Fletcher in her study of Egyptian hairstyles notes that this plaited element appears during the reign of Tuthmosis IV and is often found on depictions in statuary and paintings of women who hold the title of “Priestess of Hathor.” While this title is not listed for our Lady Ruiu, a particular devotion to the goddess Hathor is suggested by the appearance of the Hathor protomes on the bowl, as well as the invocation to Hathor present in the hetep di niswt prayer.
Another striking element of the lady’s wig is the appearance of the woman’s natural hairline at the top of her forehead. This was a decorative element frequently seen in women’s hairstyles of the Old Kingdom (2625-2130 BCE). This wig detail became less popular during the Middle through New Kingdoms, but seems to have been revived, perhaps as a conscious archaizing style during the reign of Amenhotep III, when several images of his wife, Queen Tiye, sport her natural hairline under a large and elaborate wig. This hairstyle can also be seen on the figure of Menana from the pair statue of Menana and her husband Khaemwaset, which has also been dated to the reign of Amenhotep III.
When one combines this detail together with the almond-shaped eyes and plastic eyebrows of the lady’s face, which are a hallmark of the art of the reign of Amenhotep III, it seems fairly certain that we are looking at a libation basin created during this king’s reign.
Turning again to the question of the identity of the individuals named on the basin, we have noted that the name Mery-ptah is common during the New Kingdom. An intriguing connection to the Mery-ptah on the Glencairn basin might be found on an ancient cubit rod sold at auction at Sotheby’s in 2010. This green schist implement is inscribed for a Royal Scribe and Steward named Mery-ptah. These are two titles of the Mery-ptah named on the Glencairn inscription. This cubit rod, like the Glencairn basin, has no known provenience, but another similar cubit rod dated to the late Eighteenth Dynasty, made for a man named Ptahmose, a high Priest of Ptah, now in Leiden, is said to have come from the Memphite area. Intriguingly, there is a family monument of two men, a Ptahmose and a Mer(y)-ptah, which comes from Memphis, and may reference the owners of the cubit rods. However, it should be noted that our Mery-ptah does not have any of the priestly titles listed on the Glencairn bowl. So while we cannot say for certain that the people named are the same individuals, it is an interesting possibility.
The Glencairn bowl, while an example of a known type, is in fact quite unusual as it is the only example that I am aware of to depict a solo female figure and to depict a female figure with such a truncated body shape. It is also interesting to note that when we compare rectangular basins with round ones, none of the rectangular basins bear Hathoric imagery, while most of the round ones do.
It seems safe to say that this basin dates to the reign of Amenhotep III and likely originated in the Memphite area. Research will continue on the piece as part of a broader project to fully publish the collections in Glencairn Museum, making this and the museum’s other important pieces widely accessible to a variety of audiences near and far.
Jennifer Houser Wegner, PhD
Associate Curator, Egyptian Section
A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.