An Ancient Typo

August 10, 2017

While it’s easy to be captivated by pyramids and mummies, the depth of ancient Egyptian history can be difficult to process. Dr. Stephen Phillips, Curatorial Research Coordinator in the Penn Museum’s Egyptian Section, stresses this:

When you are in Egypt today, something that sinks in very quickly, especially while you are out on the Nile River, is an unbelievable depth of time. It is difficult for us to wrap our heads around it. When Ramses II was alive, the three Great Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza had already existed for over 1,300 years to him. When Cleopatra VII and Julius Caesar were alive, the three Great Pyramids and the Sphinx had already existed for more than 2,500 years to them. In fact, Cleopatra VII lived closer in time to the invention of the cell phone than she did to the construction of the Great Pyramid—by some 400 years. Yet, the ancient Egyptians were, in a sense, just like us—they made human errors.

The Seated Pharaoh in the Museum’s Egypt (Mummies) Gallery, object E635, is very clearly a depiction of Ramses II through both appearance and style, as well as his royal names and titles attested in hieroglyphs on all four sides of the throne. Discovered by Edouard Naville in the Temple of Herishef at Heracleopolis in 1891, the Museum acquired the statue in 1892 as a gift of Mrs. John Harrison. However, things are a little more complicated than that.

Seated Ramses II
Seated Pharaoh, Museum Object: E635, on display in the Museum’s Egypt (Mummies) Gallery.
Features such as the treatment of the legs, positioning of the hands, height of the back of the throne, as well as a sharp delineation of the musculature in the pectoral and shoulder areas, can be useful clues to experts. Egyptologists and other scholars argue that the statue actually may date to the Middle Kingdom—perhaps created for Sesostris II or Sesostris III or later—centuries before the birth of Ramses II. Dr. David P. Silverman, Curator-in-Charge of the Egyptian Section, has suggested the sharp definition of the pectoral and shoulder muscles as evidence of a re-carving of the statue by yet another king, perhaps of the 13th Dynasty, also prior to the reign of Ramses II. This evidence points towards the fact that Ramses II was not the first ruler to ‘use’ this statue. Assuming Ramses II usurped the original, the inscriptions of the previous ruler would have been carved off, thus reducing the overall dimensions of the throne as evident today. From a distance, viewers are also able to notice that the head is disproportionately small; it likely was carved down to better represent the image of Ramses II. The statue bridges the gap between the ancients and ourselves with one simple feature: a typo.
Back of Seated Ramses II
Back of the statue featuring sharp musculature in the shoulders, as well as the names and titles of Ramses II.

The inscriptions on this statue do not relate a story per se; they convey information about the pharaoh being depicted. Cartouches (oval) and serekhs (rectangular) comprise royal names and titles of Ramses II, linking him to the sun god, Re, naming him as king of Upper and Lower Egypt, and emphasizing the divine nature of the position he held. Unlike the English language, which is always read from left to right, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were written to be read left to right, right to left, or in columns (which could also be read left to right or right to left). Sometimes the text can start in the middle and go to both the left and to the right. Knowing which way to read is simple: the people, animals, and even insects, face the direction that the reader is supposed to start. Hieroglyphs were considered divine, the words of the gods, and less than 10% of the ancient Egyptian population actually could read them—in all likelihood, most did not have a need to read them. For example, it was common for a line draughtsman to first create a chalk outline for a given inscription before the carver began work.

When this statue was being re-carved for Ramses II, someone made a mistake in the direction that the “Son of Re” hieroglyphs on the left side of the throne should face (incorrectly carved facing left, not facing right). The carver corrected the mistake by patching it with plaster filling and then re-carving over it.

Re-carved Hieroglyphs
Re-carved heiroglyphs on the left side of the throne.

Once fully carved, the entire statue would have been painted; even today, traces of stripes of blue and yellow paint still can be seen when looking closely at the nemes (headdress), but otherwise the paint has faded. The corrective filler in “Son of Re” has since fallen out. The idea of it was almost like using our modern “white-out” corrective fluid. According to Dr. Phillips, the process of fixing the ‘typo’ was akin to “patching a nail hole in a dorm room wall. Patch the hole, sand it smooth, paint over it, and, voila, the damage disappears.”

Painted Nemes
Traces of paint remain in the blue and yellow striped nemes (headdress).

Next time you make a typo, don’t fret: even human errors carved in stone can be fixed.

All photos by Julianna Whalen.