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: Institute Acquires Fine Example of Egyptian Tomb Sculpture


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Institute is happy to be able to announce the recent acquisition through the Lillian Zenobia Turnblad Fund of a fine Egyptian sculptured relief of the late Old Kingdom period. The work is a framed false-door stela or ka-door belonging to the lector-Priest, Akhty-ir-n, and comes from the cemetery area west of the Pyramid of Cheops, the “Great Pyramid” of Giza. It is of the kind found on the mastaba-tombs of priests and nobles who were buried in the royal necropolis of the Memphite kings during Dynasties V and VI, approximately between 2750 and 2475 B.C. Among similar monuments of this period it is outstanding in the precision of its carving and the clarity with which it expresses the architectural elements of the ka-door form. Save for the fractured right portion of the tablet under the framing architrave it is exceptionally well preserved. Its accession constitutes a major addition to the Institute's permanent collection of Egyptian antiquities.The false-door stela was a device in widespread use in Egyptian funerary architecture during the Old Kingdom. Its origin can be traced to the period between Dynasties II and III when the exterior walls of the archaic mastaba were radically changed. At this time the series of deep recesses which indented all four sides of the early rectangular tomb-structures were often eliminated except for two at opposite ends of the eastern face with the southernmost of these converted into an offering chamber. It was in either the western wall of this offering chamber or the facade itself that the false door was placed. Its purpose was twofold: to serve as a passageway for the ka or spirit of the deceased who was buried in subterranean vaults cut deep below the superstructure of the tomb; and as the setting for an altar where provisions, necessary for the well-being of the deceased in after-life, could be placed by survivors charged with attending him.The first offerings of this kind may have been brought by the family of the deceased. Afterwards, to insure regularity, priests were often commissioned to make the deliveries, for which payment was made in the form of land from the deceased's estates. Because the contract was binding upon the priests' heirs, to whom the land-payment succeeded, supplies of fresh provisions were guaranteed, in theory at least, for generations. But when experience proved that such a system was not fool-proof, magic inscriptions, with the power of bringing into existence the required provisions, were carved on funerary stele within the tombs to guard against emergencies. This gradual shifting of responsibility for ministering to the deceased, from family to priests to magic formulae, paralleled the development of the early false door and contributed an impetus to the elaboration of its form. The Akhty-ir-n door represents a stage slightly after the high point of the ka-door evolution in the Old Kingdom.In the first dynasties of the Old Kingdom, the false door resembled an actual door in every way except that the aperture was blocked. The decoration was sober and restricted. The owner's name was inscribed on the tympanum over the opening, and on the sides were figures in his image accompanied by his titles. According to Maspero, however, it soon became the custom to design the false opening in the form of an entire building, in imitation of the royal banner of the sovereign to whose court the deceased was attached and to whom he owed the privilege of burial in the royal cemetery. This banner, a kind of royal coat of arms, was designed in two parts, the lower representing the front of a house with a closed door, the upper a compartment with a figure symbolizing the royal name. In conformity with this device the false-door slab was divided into two registers, one above the other, the lower part corresponding to the original false door and the upper developed to show the deceased seated at a round table. This design became more or less standard in Egyptian practice in the later Old Kingdom period. Afterward the original character of the false door disappeared. Its projections and relief carvings became reduced to a single plan and the whole took on the aspect of a delicately etched stele. In this later development it nevertheless retained its function as a doorway for the coming and going of the deceased's spirit with the inner passageways of the tomb leading to it.By the Fifth Dynasty, the next to last of the Old Kingdom Dynasties, the two-register type of false door was already well established. For example, at Giza, the royal capital of the Old Kingdom, it followed a monolithic form, and, although sometimes shallow in relief, clearly preserved the narrow vertical slit or inner niche in the center which marks the false-door “opening.” By this time large enclosing frames also had come into existence. This was a result, according to Reisner, the great Egyptologist, of setting the traditional door monolith in the facade of the “stepped” mastaba. In placing the door on walls with flat surfaces, whether straight or inclined, the stone could be introduced without extra support of the surrounding wall areas. Where the walls were stepped, however, a stone frame was often necessary to strengthen the recess cut into the overlapping masonry. This structural problem could well have led to the incorporation of the lintel and additional side jambs into the design of the original false door and the extension of the ritualized decoration over the whole new area. The additional, enclosing parts are considered a “frame” and these elements regularly appear in false-door units of Dynasties V and VI. The combined type is splendidly illustrated in the Akhty-ir-n door.The general type of false door of this period can be described as follows: The basic unit, known as the traditional ka-door (unframed), consisted of six elements. The door itself was the long vertical recession in the center of the slab or construction. At the top of this was a small semi-cylindrical drum which was a survival of the roofing log of the doorway in the early crude-brick mastabas. On either side of the doorway niche were two flat uprights or panels representing the embrasure of the door, usually called the “backs of the outer niche.” Surmounting these and the inner niche was a flat member in the form of a lintel, called a “cross bar,” and above it a fourth, rectangular piece called the “tablet.” The width of the tablet was usually less than that of the lintel, leaving a space, the “flanges,” between its edges and the outer margins of the door unit. All of the outward facing surfaces were considered proper fields for decoration and in the case of ka-doors in which the component parts were set back deeply, figures and inscriptions were often found in the adjacent receding faces. In framed ka-doors this basic central unit was enclosed by additional flat vertical members, sometimes one and sometimes two on either side, and the framing composition completed with another, longer lintel or architrave at the top. Both types were placed in the tombs' offering niches.The faces of these members were reserved for ritualistic decorations of various kinds. The top lintel or architrave usually bore the name and titles of the deceased owner of the tomb or an offering formula with the figure of the owner on the left hand side. The centrally-placed tablet underneath almost invariably represented a table scene with the owner seated before a table well stocked with loaves of bread and other provisions. Hieroglyphic inscriptions filled the surrounding spaces on the tablet. These were of two or more kinds, each in a specific place. Above the table was the “short list” of offerings, and below it the so-called “ideographic list” of offerings, made up of non-phonetic signs. In the pre-Giza forms of the tablet there was also a large group of inscriptions known as the “cupboard list” representing linens, granaries, utensils and various offerings. Originally this list covered the upper, right-side portions of the tablet but it rarely appears after the reign of the great king, Cheops, in Dynasty IV.Between Dynasties IV and VI of the Old Kingdom two figures sometimes occur on the tablet, the second representing the deceased's wife, or mother, or, in rare cases, a second image of the owner. It is quite plain that the Akhty-ir-n tablet is of this two-figure type with the second figure facing the owner.The cross bar below the tablet carried the name and titles of the owner consistently through to the end of the Old Kingdom. The only alteration of this part was the occasional inclusion of abbreviated offering formulas. Customarily the faces of both embrasures, of the outer niche, and the enclosing panels of the frame were decorated at the base with larger figures of the deceased, his family, or servants; whereas the upper sections were given over to offering formulas or other inscriptions. The drum sometimes had inscriptions of the name of the owner, but in Dynasties V and VI these were usually left off and the drum itself became a rather rudimentary memory of this form.In the Institute's “Iri” false door (“Iri” was the short name of the deceased) we see all of these components clearly illustrated. The lintel at the top shows the seated figure of the priest facing to the right with a staff in his left hand and his right hand held over his lap. Before him, extending the full length of the lintel on two lines is the main text of the door. It is an offering formula which, in the translation of Dr. George Steindorff reads as follows: “A boon which the King gives and a boon which Anubis [the jackal-headed God of Death] gives, who is in front of the divine booth, that he might be buried in the West, in the Western Desert, the very good noble, honored by Osiris: Akhty-ir-n.” The second line reads: “A boon which gives Anubis, who is on his mountain, the Lord of the Sacred Land [i.e., the Necropolis], that he might walk on good ways on which the revereds [i.e., the dead] walk, [he] the revered Akhty-ir-n.”The tablet, the right central portion of which has been damaged, shows clearly, nevertheless, that it was the two-figure type, with the owner seated before a table with loaves of bread and other provisions, and a second figure, whose legs and a part of a chair appear in the lower right hand portion, seated opposite him. Above the table are two lines of inscriptions presenting the “short list” of offerings.The cross bar of the main door unit or “outer niche” appears directly below the tablet and contains the secondary text. The inscription again consists of two lines, this time giving the title and name of the deceased. In Steindorff's translation they read, (1) “The revered by the Great God, and by Anubis, who is on his mountain,” and (2) “the lector-Priest, who is over the secrets of the Heaven, the controller of all divine dignities the lector-Priest Akhty-ir-n.”Supporting the lintel and enclosing the inner niche of the “Iri” false door are the principal members of the “outer niche.” And to the right and left of these, supporting the top lintel or architrave, are the broad-surfaced embrasures which, together with the top lintel, constitute the frame. The lower portions of each of these four members are decorated with standing figures of the deceased, each representation showing him holding a staff and a wand in either hand. The upper portions of each are inscribed with variants of the typical formula of offering in the funerary cult, on the theme, “A boon which the King gives.” The four vertical lines on the left frame embrasure read: “A boon which the King gives and a boon which gives Anubis, who is in the front of the Divine Booth, who is on his mountain, that he might be buried in the West, the very good noble [courtier]. . . [another title which cannot be translated], and the revered by all gods,—a boon which the King gives, and a boon which gives Osiris, the lord of Djedu [Busiris, a town in the center of the Delta], and that he may give invocation offerings consisting of bread and beer, oxen and fowl, unguent and clothing to him in the West, the only friend, the lector-Priest [follow the honorary titles mentioned above] Akhty-ir-n.”The Akhty-ir-n relief is a work which reflects Egyptian art and religious life of the time immediately succeeding one of the most brilliant epochs in that country's history, the era or Cheops and his followers, Chephren and Mycerinus, the builders of the great pyramids of Giza. Its coming to the Institute brings within immediate reach an outstanding artistic manifestation of the religious observances and customs which were at the mainspring of Egyptian life during the Old Kingdom and succeeding ages. Referenced Works of Art
  1. Egyptian framed false door from the tomb of Akhty-ir-n, lector-Priest. From a cemetery west of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, Giza. Old Kingdom, Dynasties V to VI (c. 2750-2475 B.C.)
  2. Upper part of Akhty-ir-n framed false door with seated figures of the deceased facing inscriptions of his name, titles, and of offering formulas.
  3. Standing figures of Akhty-ir-n from lower part of framed false door. The actual false door, or inner niche, is the narrow recession separating the two smaller figures.
  4. Detail of central unit, or outer niche showing tablet, cross bar, drum, inner niche.
  5. Akhty-ir-n holding staff and wand. Sunken relief carving in white limestone.
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Source: "Institute Acquires Fine Example of Egyptian Tomb Sculpture," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 42, no. 10 (March, 1953): 46-51.
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Added to Site: March 10, 2009