Bryony Renshaw describes what we know about the life of Shebmut, the original occupant of the mummy case that, along with the replica statue of Sety II described in the Editorial of AE103, forms the centrepiece of West Park Museum’s collection.
When Marianne Brocklehurst and Mary Booth returned from their first visit to Egypt in 1874, they arrived at their home in Wincle, Cheshire with a mummy case in tow. The original occupant of the case had been left in Egypt with its identity remaining a mystery. Marianne and Mary turned to Dr. Birch of the British Museum in an attempt to learn more about their unusual souvenir, which they had purchased during their time in Thebes. Dr. Birch, one of the most eminent Egyptologists of the time, did not disappoint, translating the inscription and informing the women that the case had belonged to ‘Shebmut’. Surprisingly, short of this exchange and the account of the acquisition of the case in Marianne’s diary, very little additional information about the object has been established since it first went on display at West Park Museum over a century ago. However, recent research has shed some more light onto what Shebmut’s life must have been like and how she fits into one of the most fascinating time periods in Egyptian history.
In the Third Intermediate Period (c.1069-664 BC) mummy cases like Shebmut’s became popular. They were made from a material called cartonnage, which is formed from linen and plaster in much the same way as papier maché is made today. Cases composed of cartonnage were used as the inner coffins of nested sets which included at least one wooden outer coffin. Comparing the images on Shebmut’s cartonnage with other dated examples, as well as coffin typologies relating to the period in question suggest that the mummy case is most likely to date from around 800750 BC. This places Shebmut in the middle of the Third Intermediate Period, an era when the country became destabilised and lacked central control. The king was now only the principal of many smaller rulers in the north of the country, who controlled the land in chiefdoms. This change from one king figure to many has been attributed to the tribal background and the consequent importance placed on familial ties by the new ruling dynasty, who were descended from Egypt’s former adversaries; the so-called ‘Libyans’. It is therefore unsurprising that many members of the ruling family were placed in central roles in Egyptian society, for example important positions in the temples at Thebes to the south.
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