Personalizing the Lives of Ancient Egyptians with Jennifer Thum

HMSC Connects! Episode 16

SPEAKERS: Jennifer Berglund, Jen Thum

Jennifer Berglund  00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. For our fourth and final episode celebrating the Women's Suffrage Centennial this month, we're departing a bit from the previous episodes to explore the work of a woman and an exciting field. I'm speaking with Jen Thum, the Assistant Director of Academic Engagement, and the Assistant Research Curator at the Harvard Art Museums. She's an archaeologist and a specialist in the art and archaeology. of ancient Egypt. I wanted to talk to her today about her work, and how she views the importance of objects and personhood in archaeology. Here she is. Jen Thum, welcome to the show. 


Jen Thum  01:20

Thank you so much, Jennifer. Thanks for having me. 


Jennifer Berglund  01:27

I think it's so interesting in archaeology, how archaeological collections, living in the museum, they have a life that's so far beyond a dig. And you, in your work, have really explored that because you have worked with pieces in the collection that you have subsequently learned pretty amazing things about.  Can you tell me about a few of those things?


Jen Thum  01:50

I have started to work with Egyptian objects that have been in our collection sometimes for, like, over 100 years, but have never really been looked at in detail. I'll give you an example.  One is an object that has been in our collection for exactly 100 years, since 1920, and we had a couple notes on it. Someone gave it a quick look, I think in the 70s, but that was basically it. And I actually started to look at it because I brought it out for a class. It's such a quintessential Egyptian object. These canopic jars are jars that held the individually mummified organs, only specific organs, not all of them, of the deceased person, and they were buried with them, and with the rest of the mummified body in their tomb.  We have one, but it has not been on view because we didn't have the chance to get to do enough research on it. And our jar, the jar lid is that of a baboon's head, so we assume from that lid that this jar is supposed to represent the god Hapi, and Hapi is the one who protects the lungs in the jar. So the jar should be for the lungs, but you don't actually know that until you read the inscription on the jar because in museums around the world, these jars can get shuffled around, sometimes you get the wrong lid on the wrong jar. So, part of translating the inscription was to determine whether or not that had happened, and actually it is the correct lid for our jar. So the inscription tells us that the jar is the one that Hapi is associated with, so it doesn't use the word for lungs, but it uses the name of a god Hapi, and it also, more importantly, tells us the name of the person that the jar belonged to. So, his name was Pafhernetjer, son of Hetepbastet, and I'm so glad you gave me the chance to say his name, and her name, because that is exactly what the Egyptians wanted. They wanted to be remembered. And the best thing that you could hope for in death is that your name would be remembered. And it is just one of the best ways that we can give them due respect, and give the object due respect to vocalize those names, and to give the names back to these people through the objects. I always tell people in the gallery, "if you know someone's name, whether it's you know, a name that you get off of an object, or a name attached to a mummy, and especially then it's someone's body use it. This is a real person." And I think that really helps us give personhood back to the people of the past. But how interesting that this jar was in our collection for 100 years, and only now have we had a chance to look at it in a bit more detail and find out who it belongs to.  And the other really cool thing about this is that I was searching online and found another jar in another collection in San Francisco belonging to the same person. And it's the jar for his intestines, and so now we know these two that probably were sold sometime close to each other in the early 20th century. They were likely sold directly from the Egyptian Museum, actually, because that's the documentation that exists in the jar from San Francisco. So we can assume that ours was probably a similar case. So that's a great way of establishing provenance. I gave a virtual lecture recently where, because of the virtual space, I was able to unite these two on screen, you know, put pictures of them next to each other. And 


Jennifer Berglund  05:20

Oh, that's so cool 


Jen Thum  05:21

Yeah, and it didn't take very long, you know, it's just a quick look at what this says. It means so much, I think, to take this object that was inert for so long and reassociate it with this person. For those who are wondering, the jar is empty. But again, you know, it's, it's so intimately connected to someone's human remains, and so for that reason, it's so much more important that we talk about who it belonged to. The other example I was thinking of, it's part of a mummy case. It's this wooden piece that it's sealed up the foot end of the mummy case, and it's made out of wood, we would call it the foot board because it goes where the feet are. And it turns out that this tiny fragment of something that used to be so intimately associated with someone's body, but also is so fragmentary in our museum context. It's like sitting there in a case vertically. You don't really know exactly what its original context was. Long story short, I won't give you too many spoilers, but it has three carbon dates, and it was repaired both in antiquity and in the modern period. And there's so much of the life story of this object that we can say now, or can we speculate about because of this collaborative research on just this small fragment, like the size of a small laptop, but we've been able to do so much with it.


Jennifer Berglund  06:40

You had said before, "I love broken stuff, because you can see how it's made."


Jen Thum  06:45

Yes!  And it's so true! In the case of this footboard, yeah, actually, it has some cracks and breaks, and we could see that it was pieced together with wooden dowels. So that was really interesting. But yeah, I mean, I actually was thinking about this in the context of some of the objects in our storage that you might consider to be kind of junky.  The ones that are not even photographed, right? So like pieces of bowls and other kind of ceramic objects where, yes, they're small fragments, yes, they're broken, but yeah, I can see how they were made. I can see that if this bowl is made out of faience, that silica-based ceramic, that the outside is blue, but the inside is white. I can see the wheel marks on a pot shirred. And that that also brings me that much closer to the people who made these things because it gives you this idea of what the technology was. We actually also have some ceramic works that have the fingerprints of the people who made them on them, and that 


Jennifer Berglund  07:44

Whoa!  That's crazy! 


Jen Thum  07:44

Yeah!  One of those figurines I was talking about in shabti, actually a few of them, we have some that are made out of clay. And there's a couple thumb prints, fingerprints on the back. And so you can sort of start to reconstruct that process.  It's like, why is that there? Oh, well, it was probably pressed into a mold. And I'm thinking of two examples we have in particular of two shabti figurines from the same person, but the inscription is written differently on each of them, and you kind of imagine this, like, workshop of people who are writing the same name and titles on this artifact over and over and over again, this person probably had hundreds of these.  And someone makes a spelling mistake, or someone writes it slightly differently. I love those traces, and you really only can get that from these breaks and these sort of accidents of the making process.


Jennifer Berglund  08:34

You did a gallery talk that you called "Two Ladies on Two Ladies". 


Jen Thum  08:38



Jennifer Berglund  08:40

Can you talk about that, and how you sort of used that as a way to talk about personhood in archaeology?


Jen Thum  08:49

Yeah. So, this was with Kate Smith, who's the head of the paintings lab, in the Strauss center. And yeah, because we're two ladies, we decided that it would be fun to do a gallery talk where we looked at our two on-view female, or as female presenting, mummy portraits. So they're wearing jewelry, like earrings, that we would expect to find being worn by women during this time. One of them is wearing what we would expect of a female portraits. She's wearing these kind of dark garments, but the other one is wearing the dress that we would normally see on men. And that's really interesting, because that brings up the issue of self presentation and identity.  The dead don't bury themselves. But in Egypt, people are preparing for death a long time ahead of their demise, sometimes.  We don't know what the case was for each of these people. There have been arguments made for some of them being made from life, some of them being made from models, so so we're not sure, but someone, either that person or their family, is making a decision to present them in this way. And we don't know if this is the reality.  Was she, or that person, actually wearing that garment day to day? Was she actually the owner of earrings like that? We can't be entirely sure.  Some people have suggested that maybe, when women are shown in these portraits wearing that type of garment, which is a sort of a white tunic with these reddish purple stripes over the shoulders, that maybe this is a sign that that person is highly educated. So that talk was a chance for us to compare these two portraits to each other, which we did both visually, you know, what are they wearing? How were they painted? And also technically, so what is the difference in their medium?  One of them is made with tempera paint and the other one is made with encaustic, which is a wax-based paint, you know, the pigment is mixed into wax.  And other things like the wooden board that one of them is painted on is much thicker than the other, and one of the interesting things about the one that's painted in tempera, which is the one where the woman is wearing the white tunic, is that it was reconstructed at some point in the modern era to be made to look more rectangular. And presumably, this was done for the art market to make it look like something that you would hang up like a painting. And we addressed that. Yeah, we addressed that as well. But in terms of personhood, we talked about how these people might have wanted to represent themselves based on what we see, you know, what is being conveyed here about them? Is it status? Is it classical influence?  When you consider the original context, which is on the body, a mummified body, is it Egyptianness? All of those elements, you know, help us think about how they thought about themselves or their family members thought about them. But that whole conversation gives us a chance to talk with museum visitors about these people as real, individual people.


Jennifer Berglund  12:00

There's also this other example, which I thought was really beautiful as a way to think about these people as individuals from so, so long ago, that story about the Egyptian guy with with a tomb with his family. Would you tell that story?


Jen Thum  12:16

Sure. And for anyone who's interested, I have an art talk about this on our website, a short video. This is a relief from an Old Kingdom tomb. So, this is one of the earliest phases of Egypt as like a state, and we think of it as Egypt, Pharaonic Egypt. It's one of the oldest objects that we have in the gallery, and it's a limestone relief carving, and it once sat somewhere in the tomb of a man named Ptahshepses, who had a nickname, by the way.  His nickname was Impy. And it shows this man twice, once attached to his full name, and once attached to his nickname, along with his relatives, his immediate family.  And in the center, we learned a little bit about him, we learned what his titles were. And we have this text called the offering formula that basically allows him to access all of the good stuff that he wants in the afterlife. But on one side, we have his wife whose name was Hatkau, and we have his son who is Impy Jr. And then on the other side, we have his three daughters who are Kerefet, Ity and Tuit, and above their names and images, it has the phrase, "his daughters whom he loves." And I just think that is such a good reminder that these are real people, but also that all of these objects that come from people's burials, they were made out of love. That's why these mummy portraits were made because someone wanted this person to have a beautiful afterlife.  Because someone wanted to remember them in this way, give them the respect in their burial that they felt that they deserved. And I think that it's great when we have the chance to know those things, and to read those inscriptions, and to talk about them with visitors, just to make it that much more personal.


Jennifer Berglund  12:36

It's easy to look at a collection of ancient things and sort of be detached from them, you know, think that, "oh, that was so long ago," you know, not really think of them as people. But as you had said, the past is a place that's not so different from our own. And it's so true. It's so true. These are human beings that, though they lived thousands of years ago, they still loved.  You know, they still had family members that they cared deeply about.  So much that they inscribed that they loved them on their tombs. I think that's just amazing. It's a beautiful reminder that we're all human beings. 


Jen Thum  14:49



Jennifer Berglund  14:49

No matter if we're separated by time.


Jen Thum  14:51

Yes, and just that.  In the case of that particular relief of Ptahshepses, it was even repaired in antiquity, so we know that someone was also coming to care for this monument at some point after, you know, who knows when?  We know that Egyptians visited the tombs of their relatives and others, so yeah, that extends even potentially beyond your immediate family, that appreciating the generations before you that this is something also that the Egyptians did.


Jennifer Berglund  15:22

Another thing you were saying, too, is that ancient Egyptians really wanted their names to live on, right? Where they built these tombs so that their names would live into the future. I think it's interesting that you're studying them and by studying them, you are granting them that wish.  Would you say that?


Jen Thum  15:41

Yeah, I do. I do think so. And and I want to cite the, sort of, my PhD advisor here, Jim Allen, who is a professor at Brown. He wrote the text for a similar monument to Ptahshepses’s at the RISD Museum, where I used to work.  And this is a monument to a man named Heni. And in this monument, we have a similar kind of formula, like I was saying with Ptahshepses that, you know, allows this person to access everything great that they want.  You know, people were hoping that they would have actual food and drink offerings brought to their tombs that they could then access in death, but one of the things that you could do is you could instead sort of say an offering.  Say, like, "I'm giving you, you know, 1000 beers and 1000 breads." And that that work, too. And Jim, in talking about this relief at RISD, he said, something like, we can do this too, so, you know, next time you by Heni at Heni's monument, you know, say this for him. And I think that that's, that's such a good model to follow. And I think that his understanding of our responsibility to make those names live through our work as Egyptologists, and as museum visitors has really influenced mine.


Jennifer Berglund  16:55

Why do you think it's important to study the Egyptian past?


Jen Thum  16:59

It's a big question. But I do have one really big reason that I think is especially important. Now, in this time where we're all on the internet, and anyone can say anything, and we're really grappling with colonialism and white supremacy and these contemporary issues, I think that it's important for people to really seriously study the ancient past, not just the Egyptian past, but certainly the Egyptian past, in order to counter misinformation and conspiracy theories, and ideas about, you know, aliens building the pyramids, which by the way, is really rooted in white supremacy and the denial of expertise. I have a sign at my desk. It's a meme that I printed out that a friend of mine who's also an Egyptologist has on her office door, it says, "just because white people couldn't do it doesn't mean it was aliens." And I think that 


Jennifer Berglund  17:50

That's amazing. 


Jen Thum  17:51

Yeah, but it's important to to grapple with that idea, and unfortunately, this is one of the main reasons right now that we need to really seriously study the Egyptian past and make that the real evidence and good sources available to students and the public alike because this is part of the past of humans everywhere. These are amazing accomplishments. These were real people.  They did these things themselves.  We should be proud of them as part of the accomplishments of our of our species.  We should recognize that Egypt is an African culture that did this. And then, in addition to that, it's important to study the Egyptian past because when we learn about the Egyptian people as people, we get a chance to reflect, maybe, on how what we leave behind will say about us in the future. And that's true of all archaeological material, I think.  So, you know, next time you put on a shoe, or sit at your desk and pick up a pencil, those are going to be artifacts one day.  What will they say about you?


Jennifer Berglund  18:56

Do you think about that every time you pick up a pencil? 


Jen Thum  18:59

You know, not every time. But I do think sometimes when there's an object that I attach some emotional value to about how ephemeral some of this meaning of objects and relationships we have with objects really is, and how much people excavating my house in the future won't know. And that helps me think about how much we don't know about what was attached to the objects that we have in our museums.


Jennifer Berglund  19:29

Jen Thum, thank you so much for doing this. This has been wonderful.


Jen Thum  19:32

Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity, Jennifer. I really appreciate it.


Jennifer Berglund  19:43

Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Jen Thum and the Harvard Art Museums for their wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening! If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next week!