Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Head of Narmer

This limestone head was thought by Petrie to be a representation of Narmer, a king of the 1st Dynasty, considered by many to be the person who first unified Egypt. It’s a gorgeous piece in its own right, with Narmer in his flat-topped headdress, and (from some angles) a somewhat ‘pouty’ look about him.

I like it for a whole host of reasons, but one thing that stands out for me is that the museum’s information card (and the Petrie’s online database) note that the piece was purchased in Cairo. It is likely that the piece was originally sourced by ‘treasure hunters’ without regard for its provenance, or any other information that a skilled archaeologist could add to its recovery. On one side is the acknowledgement that purchasing a piece such as this ensured that it was well curated and cared for, but with it must come the realisation that (although acceptable at the time), this created a market that only ensured that further sites were robbed and denuded without sufficient record.

I do like that the museum are upfront about the rather dodgy provenance of this (and other) pieces in their collection. This approach allows us to see Petrie himself in a more rounded and nuanced way, not just the great excavator and archaeological innovator, but as a man of his time with some practices that would be considered unethical and repugnant today.

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