Chicago’s Field Museum of Natura History: Inside Ancient Egypt

As we traverse Stanley Field Hall, the central main-floor atrium of the Field Museum of Natural History, we notice off in the southwest corner, behind a row of arches, what looks to be an ancient Egyptian mastaba. Well, close — it’s a reconstruction of a mastaba, more precisely, the mastaba at Saqqara that housed the tomb on Unis-Ankh. As we approach the entrance,we see a series of signs along the way that provide some background — Egypt’s place in Africa (the mastaba is next to the exit of the Museum’s “Africa” exhibit), distribution of early humans on the continent (this one needs an update: it lists Neanderthals as “a variety of Homo sapiens; they are now considered a separate species) a short history of Egypt, and we are then greeted by a sign that informs us that two chambers of the tomb were purchased in 1908 in Egypt and shipped to the Museum. There is also a diagram showing the location of Unis-Ankh’s tomb in relation to the pyramid of this father, Unis, and the funerary complex of the pharaoh Zoser.

As we enter, off to the left is a side corridor leading to a storage chamber, where the appurtanenaces of offering were kept — bowls, jars, and the like. Straight ahead is an open-roofed courtyard; to one side is a hole the floor that looks down on the face of a mummy — not Unis-Ankh’s, but a mummy from the collection placed to mark the spot where someone else was buried in the tomb, possibly as much as 2,000 years later. (The ancient Egyptians were long-term thinkers, especialy when it came to the afterlife.) We then enter the original two sections (everything so far has been a reconstruction), an antechamber and an offerings chapel. This leads to a stairway to the roof, which in turns gives access to a spiral stairway down to the “burial chamber”. (If you don’t want to deal with the stairs, or tight spaces — the spiral staircase is rather constricted — there is another entrance on the ground level, right next to the west elevator.)

It’s not really the burial chamber but a small room with, on one side, an empty sarcophagus (Unis-Ankh’s mummy has never been found) and a couple of cases containing items that the tomb robbers missed. Frankly, between the rather dim lighting and their location on the floor, these items are hard to see unless you want to get down close and personal. (And note: there are several labels discussing tomb robbers, their methods, likely suspects (the laborers who built the tombs), and goals (plunder — lots of gold and precious stones in these tombs, which were, after all, the final resting places of the wealthy), and even a confession from one of them. As you pass along toward the rest of the exhibit, there’s a case containing objects the robbers missed — earrings, gold scarabs, bracelets, and the like.

Then you pass the mummy you saw from the hole in the courtyard floor above. The label points out that this mummy was not from Unis-Ankh’s tomb. Opposite is a case of fake artifacts, and a short discussion of the prevalence of fakes in Eyptian archaeology This leads to a gallery that I found somewhat problematic. I’ll admit that I favor a strong narrative line in exhibitions as well as fiction, and here we have a somewhat circular layout containing artifacts from burials from different periods — coffins; ushabti figures, representing servants for the deceased, offering utensils, a scroll containing a version of the Book of the Dead (sort of a user’s guide to the afterlife). These are mostly from the Middle Kingdom and later. Keepin mind that a museum exhibition of this sort must rely heavily on the institution’s holdings in the area; given the state of Eyptology in the early to mid-twentieth century, not to mention the depredations of the tomb robbers, gaps are not surprising.

Inside Ancient Egypt

There are also small dioramas depicting various aspects of preparation for the afterlife, including one showing the process of embalming. Sadly, these are placed to be more accessible to children than to adults, but if you can hunker down, they are instructive. Also, tucked away between the cases, is a hole in the wall, with a label describing Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankamen. You’re invited to peek through the hole and see what Carter saw.

Next is a large open area with, on the right, a boardwalk that takes you along the bank of the Nile (see if you can spot the hippo hiding in the reeds). It also passes by a boat that may or may not have been used to transport the mummy of pharaoh Senwosret III to its final resting place — like so many things in archaeology, there is some debate among scholars.

Progressing on, as we leave the boardwalk, we come face to face with a copy of a wall painting from the tomb of two barbers depicting scenes from the marketplace. On the right is an allcove displaying animal mummies, and across from that a village shrine to the goddess Bastet, depicted as a cat. (Cat owners will not be at all surprised.) There is a short discussion of the Egyptian belief that gods could manifest as animals — a fairly common belief, as we see from the mythology of places a diverse as Africa, India, and the Americas. That explains all the animal-headed gods and goddesses in Egyptian art.

In the center of this area are a number of stations with large cartoon panels showing individial scenes from the tomb paintings that introduced this are –shoppers haggling with merchants, a wealthy man visiting a barber, another having a pedicure, a suspected miscreant being detained by a policeman and his baboon. Interspersed among these panels are cases containing artifacts that relate to the scenes — knives for cutting fabric, barber’s tools, weights for measuring out grain and the like. There is also a station where you can hear a translation of the hierogllyphics displayed there.

And then you’re out into the main hallway of the ground level. In spite of my reservations about linear narratives, it’s an absorbing exhibition, with a lot of information to be gleaned — you can easily spend an hour going through it, at least.

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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