Made to be buried

Made to be buried

This week museum technician Dale Hudson chose a pair of ancient Egyptian ushabti.  To reach this exhibit – and exhibit it is, being on display on the mezzanine floor – we passed through various interesting colours. In association with the Sarjeant Gallery, the museum has built an exhibition around colour schemes, where the only qualification an artifact/item needs is its colour. For example, there’s a black room – with such things as an old typewriter and a scary-looking dental X-ray unit. They’re black, so they qualify.

It was in the blue room where we found the two small statuettes known as ushabti.  They go under various names, but ushabti will do. They were a mass produced funerary statuette, made to be buried with the dead to be employed as servants in the afterlife.

Dale says these things were around from about 1900BCE until the Ptolemaic period, about 2000 years later.  “They were usually inscribed with Chapter Six of the Egyptian Book of the Dead,” he says, referring to an ancient best seller.

The two in the Whanganui Regional Museum are typical ushabti, carved to look like a mummified body but just a few centimetres in height. They are a generic shape, representing no particular gender nor any particular person.  They are often portrayed holding a hoe or a gardening implement, useful tools for the gardens in the afterlife. These ones are quite worn and may or may not have originally had such accoutrements.

So why did Dale choose the ushabti?  “I just like working in a museum; it’s like you think there must be tons of history but there are not many of the older artifacts that we know anything about. But with these there is a bit of a story behind them.”

Our two blue ushabti originally came from a tomb in upper Egypt.  “The dead were often buried with hundreds of these things,” says Dale.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in June 2010.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.


Heads Up!

What we wear on our heads is fundamental to how we present ourselves. Headwear has many functions and can be a symbol of rank, profession or religion, a protective covering, for modesty, for ceremony, as a fashion item, to keep hair under control or disguise the lack of it under wraps!  These hats, helmets and headdresses are a part of the Museum’s encyclopedic collection donated by people in the Whanganui community and reflect ancestry, work experiences, travel exploits, interests and the influence of the outside world on our lives over the past 150 years.

1922.7.1Mourning Hat, Korea; late 19th century
In Korea mourning clothes are an important indicator of society’s respect. Traditional mourning clothes included a wide sleeve coat with a cord tie. Men wore a conical hat, such as this one, made of tightly plaited sennit, while women wore hemp rope around their heads like a crown. Personal ornamentation was forbidden and hair was worn loose. The eldest son was expected to mourn the most for the loss of a parent: two years for a mother and three for a father. During this period he had to refrain from meeting people, arguing, drinking alcohol or fathering children.

1960.126.1Fez, Egypt; 1914-1918
Sultan Mahmud II introduced this style of headwear to the Ottoman Empire’s dress code in 1826. The red felt cone-shaped cap originated in Fez, Morocco. The shape was designed so that Muslim men could press their heads to the ground when praying. A red fez with blue tassel was the standard headdress of the Turkish Army from the 1840s until 1910. From the late 19th century it was widely adopted as the headdress of locally recruited “native” soldiers in the various colonial forces of the world. This hat was brought to New Zealand as a World War I souvenir.

1967.154.14Busby, Great Britain; 19th century
The busby hat is synonymous with the British Hussars, Yeomanry and Horse Artillery regiments but originated in Hungary. It should not be confused with the much taller bearskin cap worn as part of the ceremonial uniform of several regiments of the British army. On the original hat, a cloth bag was attached from the hat to the right shoulder as a protection against sabre cuts. It later became merely decorative and was shortened for convenience.

TE.729Headdress, Tahiti/Society Islands; 1897
This headdress is part of a processional costume. It is made from strips of pandanus with decorative hibiscus fibre rosettes attached. A tapa poncho decorated with similar rosettes completed the costume. Together they may have been worn for the Feast of Flowers given in honour of the visit of the New Zealand steam ship Waikare to Tahiti in 1897. This costume was collected by a passenger on board the Union Steam Ship Company’s Waikare on this voyage.

TH.514Cap, West Africa; late 19th century
This cowrie shell and glass trade bead cap probably originates from West Africa, in the area of modern Nigeria. Ancient forms of this style of cap were made of coral beads, were rather opulent and were associated with royalty. The bronze effigies or busts of royal women from the Kingdom of Benin are depicted wearing variants of this style of headwear. Cowrie shells were a form of monetary exchange in Africa and the Pacific but they were also viewed as symbols of womanhood, fertility, birth and wealth.

2003.4.1Shushut, Northwest Pakistan; 1980s
A shushut is part of the traditional dress of Kalash women from the isolated valleys of Northwest Pakistan. It is every-day wear for all women and girls. The headdress of hand woven and embroidered wool is decorated with buttons, metal medallions, plastic beads and cowrie shells. While the wool is from the fleece of local sheep, woven dyed and embroidered by the women themselves, the decorative ornaments are traded with Peshawar traders for locally grown walnuts.