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.
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.