Museum Treasure: The limestone door

There is a room in the British Museum at London that, perhaps, receives more visitors than others. This room is a veritable treasure trove of Egyptian artifacts — there are busts of pharaohs, sculptures of Egyptian gods and goddesses, sarcophagi, giant scarabs, ships, and what not. A giant bust of Rameses II towers over the exhibits and it is quite difficult to notice the other exhibits under it’s rather overwhelming gaze.

Therefore, it was only on my third or fourth visit to the British Museum that I saw the “Limestone door of Ptahshepses” properly. I mean, I had noticed it before, but had not actually seen it, if you know what I mean.

The Limestone Door

That day, I spent quite some time searching for the mechanism that operated the beautiful and imposing door. I mean it was a door wasn’t it? Which meant that it would open and close. Right? Wrong. If only I knew how to read the hieroglyphics on the door or had read the information plaque carefully, I would have saved myself I would have saved myself those minutes of growing frustration.

This exhibit was a false door from the tomb of Ptahshepses, the vizier and son-in-law of the Egyptian king, Niuserre. False doors were important features in Egyptian tombs. Built as narrow, stepped niches in walls (usually Western walls), such “doors” marked the boundary between the closed and forbidden domain of the dead and a relatively accessible area where friends and relatives of the deceased could pray and make offerings. In other words, the false door acted as an interface between the dead and the living. This particular door is around 2380 BC and from the Saqqara region of Egypt.

I love limestone and much prefer it to marble and granite as a form of artistic expression. Though visitors were not allowed to touch the hieroglyph-covered limestone door of Ptahshepses, I could feel the silken texture of the limestone worn smooth over the millennia. And the soft and warm highlight on the door only made the hieroglyphs look three-dimensional and alive.

It also had me wishing that I could read the hieroglyphics myself instead of reading a translation. :-)

The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.

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27 thoughts on “Museum Treasure: The limestone door

  1. The mystery and intrigue of Egyptian Gods and Pharaohs in London? The British are surely an industrious race! Your narration is fascinating. Just remember, you share your enthusiasm for limestone with Sushri Mayawati! :D

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    • The British were very industrious and careful of bringing back the best of stuff from all the places they have colonised. You should see the Greek and Egyptian collection at the British Museum. As a visitor, I was thrilled to see all of it, but later on the unease of the plunder and loot took over.

      My sources tell me that Sushri Mayawati is an evolved soul—she is fond of marble which is formed from limestone. :-)

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  2. I have a certain fascination for Egypt. When I visited the Met in New York, I spent hours wandering around the Temple of Dendur and the Egyptian rooms. The hieroglyphs themselves are so fascinating, as their mortuary symbols. Someday, hopefully, I’ll get to vist a pyramid in Egypt. Until then, I can only read about the time of the pharaohs obsessively and scroll through my Egyptian Met pictures.

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    • I have a fascination for all things old, period. But have a special fascination for civilisations from the present day Middle East and Central Asia. I hope to visit all these places some day, beginning with a trip to Palestine in May 2013. Fingers crossed.

      Would love to see your pictures from the Met one day. :-)

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  3. Another exhibit that I missed :( Nothing unusual, when one is trying to ‘cover’ the huge museum in a matter of couple of hours! Next time I will take a print out of all your blog posts and enjoy the ones I have missed :)

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    • This limestone door is in the same room as Rameses and I’m not surprised that you missed it. Ol’ Rameses is quite a compelling exhibit and it is very difficult to see anything beyond him, especially if you have just a little time. As I mentioned, it was only on my 3rd or 4th visit that I actually saw this door.

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    • I have a better suggestion. When you go to London, I’ll lend a book called “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. It is a book on some special artifacts at the British Museum from all over the world and one can actually see the world come alive. And no, the limestone door is not on that list.

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  4. Beautiful narration! I especially love the highlights on the door, makes it all the more intriguing. Surely in my list of places to visit if I ever get to be there someday :)

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  5. What an intriguing post! I missed the door since I was also trying to cram in too many things with very little time. But your post has more than made up for it :) Visits to palaces, ruined forts, and archaelogical sites leave me guessing about their heydays.

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  6. The false door is such a excellent concept, metaphorically. Love your museum posts. They are both educating and thrilling, leaving me with an intense longing to visit and experience the places you describe.

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    • “Metaphorically” Ahh…Shankari. You said what I missed out on saying in my post. Thanks. I hope that one day this desire manifests into a compete travel experience.

      I love museums, particularly those that allow me to photograph their exhibits. It is only recently that museums in India have started allowing photography. I am hoping to write about some exhibits in Indian museums soon. :-)

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