Past Treasure of the Month – July 2008

Ancient Egyptian Artifacts at Rosenberg Library
Mummy headrestMummy’s headrest,
New Kingdom (ca. 1200 – 1500 B.C.).

During the month of July, the Rosenberg Library exhibited a collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts that were discovered in tombs and temples excavated by archaeologists during the late nineteenth century. These relics, most of which date from 1200 – 1500 B.C., were donated to the Library in the 1930s by two local residents.

Waters Davis, a prominent Galveston businessman, purchased a number of items from the Cairo Museum in Egypt during a trip around the world in 1890. At that time, the museum sold duplicate materials to interested individuals. The Davis artifacts on display included a mummy’s headrest, a hand-shaped clay bowl, and bits of mummy wrapping and other textile fragments.

Funerary bowlFunerary bowl,
New Kingdom (ca. 1200 – 1500 B.C.).

Legend has it that Davis also purchased a mummy from the museum and had it shipped back to Galveston. The island’s humid weather proved unfavorable for the ancient corpse, and it began to deteriorate quickly. Davis decided to give the mummy a proper burial in his backyard, where it supposedly still rests in peace today.

Ancient Egyptians performed elaborate rituals that they believed were necessary to ensure one’s immortality after death. This included mummification, the casting of spells, and the burial of specific goods and possessions needed in the afterlife.

Egyptian textile fragmentEgyptian textile fragment,
New Kingdom (ca. 1200 – 1500 B.C.).

Although the process evolved over the years, most mummifications included three phases. First, the vital organs of the deceased person were removed to preserve separately in canopic jars. Only the heart was left inside the body, as Egyptians believed it was the location of a person’s soul. Next, the body was cleansed with palm wine and packed with a dehydrating salt mixture. The final step was to wrap the body in linen strips which held magical amulets to protect the body from evil spirits during its journey through the afterlife.

Nearly all mummies were buried with everyday goods such as bowls, combs, and food for use in the afterlife. Wealthier families also buried jewelry, furniture, and other valuables with their deceased, but these tombs were often raided by grave robbers.

Winged scarab from the Temple of IsisWinged scarab from the Temple of
Isis in Thebes, Egypt (date unknown).

Another sacred Egyptian artifact on display at the Library was donated by W. R. A. Rogers in 1934. It is a small stone carved in the shape of a winged scarab beetle that was excavated from the Temple of Isis in Thebes, Egypt. The original owner of the scarab, Calvin D. Smith of Chicago, had it mounted to a gold scarf pin by the famous Chicago jewelry and silver manufacturer, Spaulding & Company. Smith’s widow gave the pin to Rogers, a close friend of her husband, after he died.

Scarabs, or dung beetles, were considered sacred in ancient Egyptian culture. Symbolizing fertility, resurrection, and immortality, amulets (or charms) in the form of scarabs were worn by nearly all Egyptians. These were thought to ward off evil and to bring good luck to their owners. Mummies were often buried with winged scarab amulets because this type in particular was believed to offer protection in the afterlife. These amulets were usually carved from rocks or minerals, but they could be made from glazed terra cotta. For those who could afford them, scarab amulets could also be fashioned from gold, silver, or even semi-precious stones.