Exhibiting a New Light on the Past

Popular Archaeology intern Arianna Zakrzewski takes us through some long-anticipated changes in one of the world's premier archaeology museums : The Penn Museum in Philadelphia.

The Penn Museum recently opened their renovated Middle East galleries to the public, taking visitors on a journey through civilization to the first cities of Ur. The gallery contains a number of breathtaking artifacts and displays, including the popular bull-headed lyre and the famous burial attire of Queen Puabi of Ur. However, in addition to the grand displays of royalty, the new galleries also include extensive information on the journey of common people through the development of these cities, and the archaeological process that goes into unearthing these discoveries.

When asked about the Middle East galleries, Dr. Holly Pittman, a curator at the gallery, says the new concept they’ve developed for presenting the artifacts is the exciting thing. “We have taken our collections, which derived from excavations that took place over 120 years and were never meant to cohere together, and we’ve constructed a very compelling story about the human experience that we can see through the artifacts. We really tell a story that goes from 7000 BC to 1600 AD and the whole thing coheres together.”

“It should be putting everything into context,” says Dr. William B. Hafford, a Dyson Research Associate of the museum. When creating the gallery, he explains, “you have to think about the evidence in new ways.”

When discussing the galleries with Dr. Pittman and Dr. Hafford, both stressed the importance of “common folk stuff,” as Dr. Hafford phrased it. While Queen Puabi’s display is certainly a catalyst for visitors, the displays of clay tablets, commonware pottery, and other artifacts are equally, if not more important. “[The galleries are] a very innovative way to present the 1,400 individual artifacts,” Dr. Pittman explains. “[Puabi] is only one piece.”

When discussing their own research in the Middle East, both scholars briefly discussed the obstacles archaeologists in the area face as they try to work around the political instability of the region. However, both stressed that work in the region is possible. Dr. Hafford states, “Images of this region [as portrayed by the media] are exaggerated and not really all that true.”

“One of the things that we were trying to do is destigmatize the Middle East as a place that is foreign and dangerous and alien,” Dr. Pittman explains. “Many things have been borrowed from other cultures by Mesopotamia. That’s something we are trying to tell in the galleries—the importance of global interaction that expands over millennia. Nothing is in a vacuum and nothing is remote.”

“People in the past weren’t so different from us today,” Dr. Hafford says. “We want them to see that a city today has similarities to ancient cities.”

The Great Penn Museum Sphinx

Entering what is popularly termed the “Sphinx exhibit” on the lower level of the Penn Museum, my first reaction was a breathless “Wow.” The room, spacious and dimly lit—exposure to harsh light can be detrimental to artifact preservation—held a number of remarkable artifacts, ranging from large, ornate pillars stretching from floor to ceiling, to stellae and door jams depicting scenes of gods, royalty and the journey through the afterlife. But the most impressive was, of course, the Sphinx itself.

According to the map provided to all visitors at the beginning of their journey through the galleries, this Sphinx, depicting Ramesses the Great, is the largest in the Americas. It stands proudly in the middle of the gallery at 85.8 inches high, 47.75 inches wide, and 153.5 inches in length, weighing in at approximately 15 tons. The monument appears to have been carved originally during the Middle Kingdom (1938-1759 BCE) and re-carved to depict the king during his reign (1279-1213 BCE), and was recovered in Memphis, near the north gate of the Ptah Temple.

The sphinx figure—a hybrid creature with the body of a lion and the head of a man—has been seen many times in ancient iconography, but unlike the malevolent depiction found in Greek mythology, the Egyptian sphinx was regarded as a protective entity. For this reason, it was not uncommon for sphinxes to stand guard in front of temple complexes. This sphinx in particular is well-preserved, save for its face, because it was buried up to the neck in sand outside the Ptah Temple. Only its face was exposed to harsh wind and sand conditions over the years, resulting in the erosion of its facial features. However, the false beard and nemes headdress provide clues to the viewer that this monument is meant to depict the king.

As of July 8, 2018 the Sphinx was temporarily closed while the gallery undergoes renovations, including “the installation of a new elevator and stairwell and restrooms and [preparations] for a dramatic reinstallation of the Egyptian Galleries,” according to the museum’s website. This project, aptly named “Gateway to Egypt”, is expected to be completed in September of 2019.

For now, lovers of ancient Egypt can still enjoy the Egyptian gallery on the third floor of the museum. While it is advertised as the “Egypt (Mummies) Gallery,” the large room preceding the mummy display is full of incredibly well-preserved artifacts, including sarcophagi; a black granite statue of the goddess Sekhmet (the lioness goddess of war and pestilence); a “Colossal Head of a King,” carved in black granit according to the placard; a large statue depicting Ramesses II as Osiris; and a large display of Ramesses II in the center of the room, which is believed to have originally been a statue of another king later modified and fitted with a head depicting Ramesses the Great. The smaller room attached to the main gallery is home to several mummies, including one child from the Roman period in Egypt.

Individuals interested in visiting the Penn Museum (officially called the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) can begin at its website for more information.

Cover Image, Top Left: The Ram in a Thicket, Benjamin82877, Wickimedia Commons

Arianna Zakrzewski is an intern and writer for Popular Archaeology. She is also a recent graduate from Rhode Island College with a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. She has had an interest in archaeology since elementary school, specifically Egyptology and the Classics. In recent years, she has also gained an interest in historical archaeology, and has spent time in the field working in St. Mary’s City, Maryland, participating in excavation and archival research. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in archaeology.

Become a Popular Archaeology premium subscriber.


Travel and learn with Far Horizons.