Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 1 – Sennefer

This block statue of Sennefer came from a temple on the west bank of the River Nile. It is one of the most handsome block statues ever made by the Ancient Egyptians. Look how finely carved and polished Sennefer’s face and hands are.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Sennefer was the mayor of Thebes during the reign of the pharaoh Thutmose III. His name was written using just two hieroglyphs, like this:

Sennefer was buried in a stunning tomb with beautifully painted walls. If you go to Thebes in southern Egypt, you can visit it for yourself.


Here is a close-up view of Sennefer’s wife presenting him with symbols of life and power. Can you spot Sennefer’s name among the hieroglyphic writing in this painting?


You can see the block statue of Sennefer for yourself. It is in Room 4 of the British Museum, the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery.

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 2 – Ankhnesneferibra

This black coffin is covered in hieroglyphs. Imagine trying to chisel all of those tiny, intricate pictures into hard granite.

Ankhnesneferibra was the daughter of a king and was the most important priestess in all of Egypt. She held the title ‘God wife of Amun’, which is written in hieroglyphs like this:

Amun was the name of an Egyptian God, written with pictures of a feather, a board game (viewed sideways) and a zigzaggy line. You will notice Amun regularly in Ancient Egyptian inscriptions, particularly in prayers, spells and pharaoh names, like the well-known boy-king Tutankh-AMUN, for example.

Tutankhamun in hieroglyphs

The picture of the coffin above belongs to the British Museum and is reproduced here for educational purposes only © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 3 – the Younger Memnon

This head of the pharaoh Ramesses II is one of the heaviest objects in the British Museum. It weighs 7 tons, which is the same weight as a fully grown elephant.

Ramesses II lived about a hundred years after Tutankhamun. When Ramesses II was king, he had a massive temple called the Ramesseum built in his honour. He called it ‘The Mansion of a Million Years’. On either side of the entrance stood a colossal statue of the king.

The remains of one of the two statues can still be seen outside the Ramesseum in Egypt (low down, greenish in colour, between the first and second statues in the picture above). The other one is in the British Museum, brought there three hundred years ago by a circus strongman called ‘Belzoni the Great’. The colossal head of Ramesses II was too heavy for Belzoni to lift, but he was a man of many talents and he had already invented a powerful hydraulic machine that could lift incredibly heavy objects.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

At the time, people in Britain were perfectly happy to take things from Egypt and put them in museums. Today, an increasing number of people think it’s strange and wrong that we still have these ancient Egyptian artefacts in our possession.

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 4 – The Rosetta Stone

Two hundred years ago, nobody knew how to read hieroglyphs. Even Egyptians had forgotten the meaning of those strange symbols written and chiselled by their ancestors.

A French man called Jean-Francois Champollion was the first to crack the code of hieroglyphs. The key was the Rosetta Stone, which contained the same message written in three different languages, including hieroglyphs. Jean-Francois used a language he did know (Greek) to decipher the one he didn’t (hieroglyphs).

In September 1822 he made his breakthrough. He was so excited, he ran through the streets of Paris to his brother-in-law’s workplace to tell him the news. “I’ve done it!” he shrieked, then collapsed in a faint right there on the carpet!

Here are some pictures of the famous Rosetta Stone. You can see the original in Room 4 of the British Museum (in a glass case, always surrounded by crowds) or a perfect replica in Room 1 (which you can put your nose to and examine in peace!).

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 5 – Nebuman’s banquet

Remember ‘Belzoni the Great’, the circus strongman who brought the head of Ramesses II back to England? He brought back hundreds of other artefacts, too, including these paintings from the tomb of Nebamun.

Ancient Egyptian craftspeople painted beautiful scenes all over the walls and ceilings of their most important tombs, then sealed them shut. The paintings were intended not for human eyes but for the Egyptian gods and for the spirit of the dead person. Belzoni did not care too much about that. He and his men used saws and chisels to rip whole paintings out of the walls of Nebamun’s tomb chapel.

click to enlarge © The Trustees of the British Museum

These colourful pictures of Nebamun’s life show him living a happy life, healthy, wealthy and wise. Today’s scene depicts a fabulous banquet with well-dressed guests, piles of food, skilful musicians and saucy dancers. The hieroglyphs show the lyrics of the song being sung by the musicians:

Geb (the earth god) has caused his beauty to grow in everybody, Ptah has done these things with his hands in order to create peace, The channels are flooded with his water anew and the land is flooded with his love!

click to enlarge © The Trustees of the British Museum

Nebamun and his wife were on the far left of this scene, but that part of the painting is now lost. That’s what happens when you tear chunks out of a three-thousand-year-old plaster wall.

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 6 – Counting the cows

All of Nebamun’s tomb paintings show the great man living his best life and trying to keep track of his enormous wealth. This painting shows local herders bringing their cows to him for counting, and presumably taxing. Needless to say, there are a lot of them.

click to enlarge © The Trustees of the British Museum

The cows jostle forward into the columns of light blue hieroglyphs. They crowd in on each other, each one unique in colour, pattern, horns and hairdo. The words above Nebamun praise his greatness. The words above the herders are like captions, recording the daft things they are saying. They are mostly telling each other to get a move on and not to talk to Nebamun!

Below you can get an idea of how the whole painting would have looked, before Belzoni got to it.

click to enlarge © The Trustees of the British Museum

Although we may question the process that led to these paintings being in the British Museum in the first place, we can not fault the way the museum have looked after them. They have recently undergone a painstaking five-year-long restoration process, to make them look as good as possible.

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 7 – hunting in the marshes

This is the most famous of the Nebamun murals. It shows Nebamun hunting in the marshes. He is standing up in a papyrus boat, spearing fish and throwing sticks at birds. Again, Nebamun’s life is shown to be utterly perfect. The weather is glorious. His wife and daughter are with him. He is catching fish and fowl left right and centre.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Look how skilful and detailed the artwork is. I love the expression on the face of this fish.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The eye of Nebamun’s ginger cat was decorated with a splodge of real gold. Most of it is gone, but there remains a tiny bit in the top left corner. Visit the British Museum to see the painting, and you’ll see the gold still glinting under the spotlights.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 8 – Tjayasetimu’s mummy

Mummies were real people with real lives. They are not monsters. They are not ghosts. They are the preserved bodies of Egyptian people who lived thousands of years ago. People who laughed, sang, hung out with their families and looked after their pet cats. People like us, in many ways.

Here is one of the mummies currently in the British Museum. The varnish on the case turned black over time, but the museum has cleaned the black coating off the case’s face and hands, and also cleaned a strip down the front to reveal the mummy’s name: Tjayasetimu.

Although the case is adult-sized, the occupant is a little girl no more than eight or nine years old.  She lived more than three thousand years ago and she was a singer in the royal choir.

Tjayasetimu used to sing in a beautiful temple beside the river Nile. When she died, her parents paid for her body to be mummified. They thought that if they preserved her body carefully, she would be able to use it in the afterlife. The embalming priests removed her organs and packed her body with a special kind of salt to dry it out. Then they filled the body with sand and sawdust and wrapped it in painted bandages.

In Victorian times, people opened mummy cases and unwrapped the mummies inside, often as an act of public theatre. These pre-YouTube unboxing extravaganzas may have been exciting, but they were also ghoulish and tasteless, as well as completely destroying the mummy.

The curators at the British Museum have never opened Tjayasetimu’s mummy case. Instead they took the case to a hospital and put it in a powerful scanning machine. This way, they could see Tjayasetimu without disturbing her.

Her face has delicate lips, a pointy chin and shoulder-length hair. Some of her adult teeth were coming through, but not many. To see some pictures of her, click the link at the bottom of this page.

Children hardly ever got into the royal choir, which means that Tjayasetimu must have had a truly angelic voice. She was a genuine child star.

In case you were wondering, this is how you write ‘Mummies’ in hieroglyphs. The three vertical lines show that the word is plural – like putting an ‘s’ on the end of a word in English.

See photos inside the mummy case

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 9: Tamut

This mummy is a woman aged 25-40. We know from the case that her name was Tjentmutengebtiu, otherwise known as Tamutin or Tamut, and that she was a priestess in the great temple at Karnak.

click to enlarge © The Trustees of the British Museum

Paintings on coffins are not exact portraits so we don’t know exactly what Tamut looked like. However, the shape of Tamut’s skull suggests she might have looked something like this:

© Queensland University of Technology (Brisbane)

The British Museum scan of Tamut’s body shows that some of her blood vessels were lined with fat. This was the result of an unhealthy diet (Ancient Egyptians loved their goose and beer) and leads us to believe that she might have died of a heart attack or a stroke.

See pictures inside coffin

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 10 – Padiamenet

The hieroglyphic writing on Padiamenet’s beautiful mummy case tell us that he was ‘Chief Doorkeeper of the Domain of Ra’ and also ‘Chief Barber of the Domain of Ra’.

Most Egyptian temples had doorkeepers, to let people in and out of the temple, and to keep the doorway clear of sand. Doorkeepers had a reputation for sloth. We know this from various Ancient Egyptian pictures showing doorkeepers lolling against doors and walls, half asleep!

It may at first seem strange that Padiamenet was both a doorkeeper and a barber at the temple of the sun god. Remember, however, that Egyptian priests had to have completely shaven heads before they could work in the temple. It must have been convenient if the doorkeeper could give them a quick shave before they started work.

Barbering in Ancient Egypt, from the tomb of Userhat
© Met Museum, New York, public domain image

This largest scene on the coffin case shows Padiamenet praising the god Osiris and his sister Isis.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Like many Ancient Egyptians, Padiamenet had very bad teeth. They must have caused him a lot of pain. The scans of his mummy remind us of the importance of looking after our own teeth.

see inside coffin