Andrew Carnegie and Pittsburgh’s Ancient Egypt Collection

Known as the ‘Steel City’, Pittsburgh is a bustling metropolis in western Pennsylvania and is well-known for its long-time connections to Andrew Carnegie. An immigrant from Scotland who moved to the United States at the age of 13, Carnegie’s family settled in the area around Allegheny. Carnegie would go on to become a wealthy steel tycoon and devoted the later parts of his life to philanthropy, something for which he is well-known. Several institutions around Pittsburgh owe their existence to him: among them the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. In this week’s post, the Nile Scribes introduce you to the Carnegie’s Egyptian collection. 

Entering the Carnegie Museum of Art (on the left) and that of the Natural History (on the right)
Entering the Carnegie Museum of Art (left) and of Natural History (right)

History of the Collection

Founded in 1896, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History contains a vast collection of dinosaurs, natural history specimens, and artefacts from various American First Nations. Among its first accessioned objects was an Egyptian coffin and accompanying mummy belonging to a Chantress of Amun- establishing an ancient Egyptian collection from the museum’s inception. With the philanthropic support of Andrew Carnegie, the museum purchased a sizeable number of objects from excavations under the guise of the Egypt Exploration Fund. Today, the collection comprises about 2,500 objects and a large number of these are on display in the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt.

The very first object accessioned by the museum seen here within a reconstruction of the tomb of Sennedjem: a coffin of a Chantress of Amun (Acc. 1-1)
The first object (Acc. 1-1) accessioned by the museum seen here within a reconstruction of the tomb of Sennedjem (authors’ photo)

The Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt

Organised thematically, the gallery spans across the history of Pharaonic Egypt. Interspersed among the gallery are neatly reconstructed models, which bring to life parts of Egyptian culture. A highlight here is two life-sized models of craftsmen making jewellery. Pictorial scenes such as these are well-known from Egyptian tombs and allow us to reconstruct the steps involved in craft production. One of the craftsmen holds a bow-drill, fashioning holes into beads, while another uses a tube to blow air into a vessel holding coals. These life-like models almost look as if they could come alive and show us the ancient processes of creating Egyptian jewellery.  Surrounding the scene are various displays of smaller artefacts – necklaces and beads of various materials.

Two craftsmen working on fashioning jewellery
Two craftsmen fashioning jewellery (authors’ photo)

The museum devotes a large portion of the Egyptian gallery to the popular subject of the Egyptian afterlife.  As the visitor enters this area, the main Egyptian gods are outlined along the wall with their main characteristics (e.g. Isis with a depiction of a throne). Next, the tomb of Sennedjem (TT 1) is shown reconstructed with its bright, vibrant scenes. 

Objects shown as part of the tomb of Sennedjem
Objects shown as part of the tomb of Sennedjem (authors’ photo)

While the tomb would have been dated to the Nineteenth Dynasty (1,292-1,191 BC), the reconstruction does include objects from other time periods. The point here seems to be to give the visitor an idea of the wealth of what a tomb owner could have brought with them into the afterlife. The coffin of the Chantress of Amun, the first object to be part of the Egyptian collection, can be seen toward the back – it dates to the Twenty-first Dynasty (1,076-944 BC).

Found at Dahshur, Andrew Carnegie donated the boat to the museum in 1901
Found at Dahshur, Andrew Carnegie donated this boat to the museum in 1901 (authors’ photo)

The Carnegie Boat

Another highlight is the spectacularly preserved Twelfth Dynasty boat of Senwosret III (1,837-1,819 BC), which was unearthed in excavations by Jacques de Morgan in the late nineteenth century at Dahshur. Measuring over 9m in length, it is one of five boats that were found (the other boats are on display in Cairo and Chicago). It is nearly 4000 years old and remains mostly intact! Here at the museum it is moored next to the entrance of the Egyptian gallery and was donated to the museum in 1901 by Carnegie. Studies have been conducted on the individual elements of the boat and they have shed light on important aspects of Egyptian boat faring and construction. Several boat models are showcased next to the display.

Entering the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt
Entering the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt (authors’ photo)

Exploring the Gallery

The collection itself contains a great variety of artefacts from all periods of ancient Egyptian history. Near the entrance, the visitor encounters the various pottery forms of the Predynastic Period, as well as some sealings and labels, highlighting the increase in complexity around the fourth to the third millennium BC. What appealed to me the most were the inclusion of “mundane” artefacts, which gave an intimate insight into the day-to-day activities of Egyptians. One display case held fish hooks and arrowheads – after all, a large portion of their diet was derived from fish!

Wooden hook tied to a rope dating to the Ptolemaic Period (Acc. 4209-8)
Wooden hook tied to a rope (Acc. 4209-8) dating to the Ptolemaic Period (authors’ photo)

In another example, a wooden hook was tied to a rope that would have been used most likely to help in carrying vessels containing water. For other objects, you would have to look closer to really see the impressive detail. One fragment of a relief had several registers of carved hieroglyphic inscriptions and, if you look closely, you can even make out traces of a blue paste which would have originally filled the entire sign.

Fragment of a relief with remains of blue paste within the signs (Middle Kingdom - Acc. 29691-218)
Fragment of a relief with remains of blue paste (Middle Kingdom – Acc. 29691-218) (authors’ photo)

There are religious equipment used in temple rituals, offerings placed within the tomb to accompany the deceased into the afterlife, and elaborate ornaments, which Egyptians would have adorned themselves with. The visitor can gaze upon a pectoral from New Kingdom times, which shows the god Re-Horakhty standing atop a solar boat. The object would have been placed on the chest of the deceased to help with the transition into the afterlife.

Pectoral showing Re-Horakhty standing on a solar bark (New Kingdom - Acc. 11983-15)
Pectoral showing Re-Horakhty standing on a solar bark (New Kingdom – Acc. 11983-15) (authors’ photo)

Reconstructions can be effectively used to provide the bigger picture of surviving objects in museum collections. One fragment, which comes to us from Amarna (Akhenaten’s capital), is the remaining head of a cobra, which would have been part of a frieze. There are many more examples of this approach throughout the exhibit.

Head of a cobra set within the reconstructed image (New Kingdom - Acc. 7043-4)
Head of a cobra set within the reconstructed image (New Kingdom – Acc. 7043-4)

The collection may not rival those of larger museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Royal Ontario Museum. The breadth, however, of the collection is nevertheless astounding. The approach focuses on the object and what information it can tell us in our attempts to reconstruct the ancient Egyptian world. After all, the gallery is part of a Museum of Natural History and not an art museum. The curator remarked in the exhibit catalogue that they adopted an anthropological approach in the display of the artefacts, which is something quite at home in a natural history museum. The fact that objects from Egypt were among the very first to be part of the museum’s collection also emphasises the relevance of this gallery to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and its place in our pursuit of ancient Egypt.


Further Reading

Reflections of Greatness: Ancient Egypt at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History by Diana Craig-Patch is a lovely catalogue of the museum’s collection. It is available through Amazon or Abebooks.

Visitors to Pittsburgh can also visit the peaceful, tranquil Allegheny Cemetery, which contains several mausolea showing several elements in Egyptomanian fashion. We have visited the cemetery before and plan to bring our readers a look at the cemetery in a future blog. 

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