Happy Museum Day, King Khufu! / by Wendy Doyon

By Wendy Doyon & Matthew Douglas Adams / Object Stories 2019.1 © Abydos Archaeology

Fig. 1. Ivory statuette of King Khufu from Abydos, c. 2325-2175 BCE. Photo courtesy of the  Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Fig. 1. Ivory statuette of King Khufu from Abydos, c. 2325-2175 BCE. Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo

You may not recognize this man’s face, but you definitely know his work. This is Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza — that’s right, the Great Pyramid — sculpted by a very fine artist in ivory and used in a royal chapel at Abydos during the late Old Kingdom, c. 2325-2175 BCE (Fig. 1). In honor of International Museum Day, we’re celebrating with this iconic Abydos find on view at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This tiny ivory statuette, about as tall as a credit card, was excavated by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie during the Egypt Exploration Fund’s 1902-1903 season at Kom el-Sultan, the town and temple area in north Abydos (Figs. 2,3). It was found with a large deposit of wooden statuary in an Old Kingdom chapel near the god’s temple (then Khenty-amentiu, later Osiris). It is the only surviving three-dimensional representation of Khufu that bears his name, written on the front of the throne (Figs. 4,5). When it was discovered, the head of the statue was accidentally knocked off during excavation and lost for three weeks, until it was recovered by carefully sifting through all of the backdirt (with a kirbal, of course!), and reunited with the body to be sent to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where it has since stood proudly on display for all the world to see. It is an unequalled example of the power invested in art by its creators, for as Petrie put it, in this tiny object “We see the energy, the commanding air, the indomitable will, and the firm ability of the man who stamped forever the character of the Egyptian monarchy and outdid all time in the scale of his works” (W.M.F. Petrie, Abydos Part II, 1903).

Fig. 2. Flinders Petrie’s original image of this extraordinary find, taken during the 1902-1903 field season at Abydos. Photo courtesy of the  Egypt Exploration Society

Fig. 2. Flinders Petrie’s original image of this extraordinary find, taken during the 1902-1903 field season at Abydos. Photo courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

Fig. 3. Side view showing Petrie’s reattachment of the head to the body of the statuette in 1903. Photo courtesy of the  Egypt Exploration Society

Fig. 3. Side view showing Petrie’s reattachment of the head to the body of the statuette in 1903. Photo courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society

Fig. 4. The Khufu statuette from Abydos is the only surviving representation that bears the king’s name, inscribed beside his right leg and visible at lower left. Photo courtesy of the  Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Fig. 4. The Khufu statuette from Abydos is the only surviving representation that bears the king’s name, inscribed beside his right leg and visible at lower left. Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is offering free admission to all visitors this International Museum Day, Saturday May 18, along with a special exhibit on ancient customs and traditions. If you’re in the neighborhood don’t miss the opportunity to pay Khufu a visit! #digabydos

Fig. 5. The Horus name of King Khufu was very clearly visible in Petrie’s original photographs of the statuette at Abydos. Photo courtesy of the  Egypt Exploration Society

Fig. 5. The Horus name of King Khufu was very clearly visible in Petrie’s original photographs of the statuette at Abydos. Photo courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society