Our Top 10 Egyptian Objects in the Royal Ontario Museum

The Nile Scribes feel privileged to live in Toronto, Canada, home to the country’s largest collection of Egyptian antiquities. The Egyptian collection housed in the Royal Ontario Museum owes its breadth largely to Charles Trick Currelly, who acquired the majority of the objects and was among the founders of the museum. He also served as its director between 1914 and 1946. We regularly visit the Egyptian galleries on the third floor of the museum and have chosen ten of our favourite objects in the collection to share with our readers.

Do you know about Museum Station’s Egyptian connection to the Royal Ontario Museum?

What does the ROM’s Egyptian collection look like?

The Egyptian galleries are arranged in two layouts:

  1. Displays dedicated to a thematic overview of the major elements on ancient Egypt (for example, stone working, writing, artistry, and dress)
  2. Displays for objects from the major periods of Egyptian history in chronological order (for example, Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms)

A major element throughout the galleries is the display of models reconstructing major sites and their surroundings, including models of the Step Pyramid complex of Djoser at Saqqara and Mentuhotep II’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari. The collection is perhaps best known for its remarkable life-size cast of Hatshepsut’s Punt expedition from her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari. The cast illustrates for us the varied, incredible colours Egyptians used, and in the regular lighting and cool climate of the museum gallery, the expedition scenes are easier to examine than in the harsh desert sunlight when you visit the temple in Luxor.

Our Top 10 Egyptian Objects in the Royal Ontario Museum:

(1) Model of the birth of a calf

Object No. 910.18.16.2 – from Meîr (First Intermediate Period)

This beautifully worked wooden model most likely comes from a tomb at Meîr in Egypt. It shows the birth of a calf and is among several highlighting aspects of daily life in the exhibit. During the Middle Kingdom, tomb owners included wooden models of various food production activities in their tombs as a way of ensuring these would continue into their afterlife. With one man gaining the attention of the birthing mother cow and the other looking after the calf, this object gives us an intimate insight into Egyptian animal husbandry.


(2) Ceremonial stone knife

Object No. 914.3 – Provenance unknown (Late Predynastic)

This flint knife is perhaps one of the most famous Egyptian objects in the ROM’s collection. Purchased in Luxor in 1914 by G.D. Hornblower, the original find location is unfortunately unknown, but it is tempting to assign it to King Djer’s tomb at Abydos (Tomb O). The name of the king appears on the gilt handle in a serekh surmounted by a falcon, and even after all this time, is a striking image on the stone blade.


(3) Stele of Neferher and Senet

Object No. 957.124 – Provenance unknown (First Intermediate Period)

This remarkable example of a First Intermediate Period stela was given as a gift to the museum. While we do not know much about its origins, the stela shows the traditional scene of the deceased in front of offerings with an offering formula written above. Here, Neferhor holds symbols of authority and his wife, Senet, grasps his arm from behind him. The image of the lotus floating between them aids in their rebirth in the afterlife. In much smaller size, their son Mentuhotep was also represented on the stela, holding the hand of his mother. Scenes like these were common, and often the tomb owner would be shown seated in front of a table of offerings.


(4) Ceremonial macehead of King Khafre

Object no. 968.241.1 – Provenance unknown (Old Kingdom)

The Fourth Dynasty kings are best known for their pyramid complexes at the Giza Plateau, but their existence is represented in the ROM by this small stone macehead bearing the name of Khafre, son of the builder of the Great Pyramid. Maceheads are most commonly found dating from the Predynastic periods, when they were used not only as efficient weapons, but as symbols of authority, and even commemorative objects. Commemorative maceheads were much larger than functional ones and were decorated with scenes.


(5) Stele of Husband and Wife

Object No. 935.20.58 – from Armant (First Intermediate Period)

Our list has another example of a stela from the First Intermediate Period. Here, however, we notice that the strict, traditional aspects of Egyptian proportions are not entirely followed (the head and hand, for example, are out of proportion with the rest of the body). While we can marvel at the stela’s simplicity, we also notice some intimate details about the face: the artist(s) rendered this husband and wife in cartoonish fashion. The piece was given as a gift to the museum by Sir Robert Mond and comes from Armant in Middle Egypt.


(6) Limestone ostracon with practice texts

Object no. ? – from Western Thebes (Ramesside Period)

This giant limestone ostracon was called by Sir Alan Gardiner “one of the largest and best-preserved ostraca in existence.” The slab contains hieratic text on both sides and was used as a practice tablet by a copyist who was learning his trade during the Ramesside period. The text itself consists of four model letters.


(7) Commemorative scarab of King Shabaka

Object No. 910.28.1 – Provenance unknown (Kushite Period)

Commemorative scarabs were used for royal announcements most famously by Amenhotep III who celebrated events during his reign such as his marriage to Queen Tiye, with inscriptions on scarabs. It has been suggested that these scarabs functioned as news bulletins that were sent out to various parts of the Egyptian world to mark occasions. Shabaka’s steatite scarab was purchased in Jerusalem by Charles Trick Currelly, and commemorated a military victory over some of Egypt’s enemies.


(8) Sketch of a cow led by two individuals

Object No. 907.18.5 – from Deir el-Bahari (New Kingdom)

We gain another look into Egyptian agricultural activities with this small fragment showing two individuals leading a cow. Taking us away from the monumental architecture and sculpture we always associate with ancient Egypt, this fragment showcases a typical scene from the artistic repertoire of Egyptian daily life scenes. The radiant, vivid colours chosen by the artist(s) brings this charming scene to life.


(9) Senet game board with pieces

Object Nos. 910.165.853.A-F – from the Faiyum (?) (Late Period)

The game board shown above is a simple wooden board with the game squares drawn in with lines and most likely dates to the Late Period. Scenes of playing Senet are common in tomb scenes and, while it is a game, it eventually developed religious undertones of equating the player’s ‘luck’ with the will of the gods. The game pieces are made of wood and faience and appear in various shapes. The catalogue information available tells us that Charles Trick Currelly may have purchased this while in the Faiyum.

(10) Faience tiles

Object Nos. ? – from Qantir (Ramesside Period)

A large number of polychrome glazed tiles like these ones are on display in numerous museums around the world, including the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Louvre, and the British Museum. These bright and beautiful objects were designed as wall and floor decorations for the palace of Ramesses II at Qantir, and tiles with similar motifs later adorned the palace of Ramesses III at Tell el-Yahudiya.

The Nile Scribes wish to thank Cheryl Copson at the ROM for her help in retrieving information about some of these objects. All photos are property of Nile Scribes.

Have you visited the Royal Ontario Museum? What are your favourite objects in the collection?