For the past few weeks I have traveled back in time over 3000 years to ancient Egypt. I have not gained access to a time machine. I have begun training to become a volunteer assistant docent at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology
In June I helped organize an audio described sunset sail on the Delaware river. While there I met a woman named Patricia “Trish” Maunder. She has an English accent. When I pulled out my pipe and started smoking an English blend she became interested and we started talking. She organizes the touch tours at the museum. Synchronistically enough, the next day I would have my interview for the piece about echolocation. I really wanted to get into a museum, but we just didn’t have enough notice. Trish promised me that we could go soon enough.
A few weeks later we arranged a time. We actually picked a very auspicious day, July 22nd. Not only did this happen on a full moon, it also happened a day before the star Sirius would rise before the sun, infusing it with energy and starting the Egyptian new year. Clearly Goddess had approved this venture.
We arrived and went up to the floor with the gallery. I immediately smelled the stately scent of many old books. I began to feel very excited as we proceeded into the gallery itself. They didn’t have fans on that day, so it really did feel similar to ancient Egypt. Most museums will not let you touch anything, or will make you wear gloves, which mutes the sensations. To compromise, we must use hand wipes before touching each statue. The museum has really done a wonderful thing allowing access to these monuments. Trish has had to walk the line several times already, and I hope the success of this program will encourage other museums to rethink their views.
Intellectually I knew what I would find, but nothing could have prepared me for the full spiritual experience. I first touched a statue of Ramesses II seated on a throne from around 1500 BC, 3500 years ago. I could feel the age of the hard quartzite stone. The statue weighs four tons, and stands eight feet tall. This massive thing would not go anywhere any time soon. After I touched what I could I stood back and used echolocation to sense the whole structure. THis gave me a holistic appreciation. I could see the height and mass of the statue before me.
I started feeling in more detail. The statue shows the amazing insight the Egyptians had in the form and musculature of the body, portraying youth and power. His kilt has pleats and a bull’s tail which would hang down in the back, but hangs between his legs here. His hands rest palms down on his thighs. He has large hands and feet. The top part of the pedestal has an area for leaving offerings.
I explored the base, or throne, of the statue. Suddenly I felt hieroglyphs. I had to stop. This overloaded my brain. It reminded me of braille, but more like a symbolic form of braille. The carvings had a tactile component, and the stone provided an organic medium. The cool feel of the living stone made it feel less like reading braille and more like seeing pictures. I appreciated how the glyphs had an abstract nature but still conveyed meaning.
I quickly learned to identify a few. A basket thing with two lines under it means Lord of the Two Lands, a title for the king. A basket with a mushroom thing on top of it with three vertical bars to the right means the Lord of Appearances, another title. The three bars signify repetition. Horus the falcon has a head with two crowns. And of course the sun symbol feels like a circle with a concave middle. Amazing!
The statue has imperfections as well. For one thing, the arm breaks off above the forearm. Another king had actually had the statue built, but Ramesses had it converted, thus the head has a disproportionately small size. And perhaps most glaring of all, a duck begins facing the wrong way, then the builder corrects the image, resulting in a two-headed duck. I hypothesize that the builder probably drank too much beer or smoked too much hashish and made a mistake. Some things never change.
I could have spent hours just at this one statue, but we had to move on. Next I came to a statue of the goddess Sekhmet. I worship Discordia, so appreciate goddess-related art, though you should handle this goddess with care. She can cure the plague, but also has a deadly breath of fire which creates the desert wind. She has the main and whiskers of a lion. Her hands rest palms down on her legs, her left one clutching an ankh, the symbol of eternal life. An ankh looks like a cross but with a circle instead of the top vertical part. Over her head sits the solar disk, a one-foot circle.
This stone, diorite, had a smooth polished feel, completely impressive in a different way. It complimented the goddess-nature of the statue. After all, you wouldn’t want her to have breasts made out of rough stone! The statue had restorations using plaster. Interestingly, these areas had a warmer temperature, and you can feel this with a light discerning touch.
They have two of these statues, one taller than the other, similar but different. The Egyptians may have had three-hundred-sixty-five of them, one for each day of the year. They built them to protect against the plague. Before we moved on I sat on a bench and had my picture taken while posing as the goddess, complete with ankh.
Now we came to an amazing sarcophagus lid made of limestone, a rougher stone. This dated from around 350 BC, so around 2350 years old, and it stands at a height of six feet. This belonged to an important official named Pedibast. The front of the lid has the face of a man wearing a wig. The lid also had more amazing hieroglyphs. They quoted spells from the Book of the Dead, more properly translated as the Book of Coming Forth by Day. These spells would protect the soul in the afterlife. The etchings had a very shallow depth, so they didn’t stand out like the ones on the Ramesses statue, but they still impressed me. I recognized Re (or Ra) depicted as the sun.
Since the lid stands on a pedestal, you can walk around to the back. It has a relief of the goddess Nut (pronounced like newt), who ruled the sky. The relief shows her naked, with her arms raised above her head. She has a fully carved face, round breasts, stomach, and triangular pubic area. The Egyptians believed that she swallowed the sun at night and gave birth to it in the morning. Here she symbolizes the idea that the dead will also become reborn. We can debate whether or not this has happened, but in a certain undebatable way Pedibast has achieved a form of immortality. We still know his name and a little about his life and family.
Lastly I came to another sarcophagus lid, this one lying flat on a base. It belonged to Pedimahes, a general and commander of the troops. This stone, called basalt, has a smooth feel. It has some restorations, and again you can discern the temperature change with a light touch. It has the face of a man and hieroglyphs, though you can’t feel them very well. The lid has a break line across it under the face, perhaps made on purpose to transport it. You can also tell by its design that he had big feet.
By this time over two hours had passed. I could not contain my enthusiasm as we ate at a local sandwich place. Trish asked if I would like to begin training as an assistant docent. Before today I didn’t even know what the word docent meant. I agreed on the spot. When she told me that our group may represent the first group of blind assistant docents that just clinched it for me.
Since then I have done two sessions, and we have several more. I train with two older blind women. Eventually we will train with the other docents and staff. Finally the show will open.
Along with the pieces in the museum we will also do a classroom segment. This will allow people to feel replicas of the things used in the mummification process. First they used a brain hook to mush up the brain and let it drain out. Gross! I keep thinking of the movie Pi. Next they put the stomach, intestines, liver, and lungs into jars, each with the appropriate head. Next, they put oils on the body. Next they wrapped the body in linen, and we actually have authentic linen you can touch. It has an incredibly fine weaving, an amazing thing to consider. The wrapping would contain charms, such as the scarab, or dung beetle, symbolizing regeneration. They would put one on the heart to protect it in the afterlife. They would also incorporate papyrus with more spells from the Book of the Dead, and we have some real papyrus you can touch. Finally we have a small mummy in a sarcophagus with removable lid. And by the time we do the show, an artist will have created a life-sized reproduction.
The show will run from October to December. Anyone can come and go on the regular tour, but only the blind can go on the touch tour.I have an amazing experience every time I get to go, and treasure the opportunity.
By the way, I took the title of this article from Shpongle’s new album. I recommend it if you like good ambient music, especially the track The Epiphany of Mrs Kugla. Statues also remind me of the incredibly silly song The Statue Got Me High, by They Might be Giants.
And now it is your turn,
Your turn to hear the sound and then your turn to burn,
The stone it calls to you,
You can’t refuse to do the things it tells you to,
And as the screaming fire engine siren fills the air,
The evidence will vanish from your charred and smoking chair,
And what they found was just a statue standing where the statue got me high,
And what they’ll find is just a statue standing where the statue got you high.