Robert Cohon
Robert Cohon, Ph.D., UMKC professor and curator of ancient art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, stands before the tomb of Meretites. Cohon has spent several years researching the centerpiece of the Egyptian collection at the museum.

Unlocking a story

When Michele Valentine began her work on the Meretites mummy in June 2008, she expected to spend only a few weeks helping Cohon determine how portions of the collection were created and by whom. At the time, she was a graduate student in the UMKC Art History program and had taken two classes taught by the museum curator. Two years and hundreds of hours copiously examining and categorizing later, she completed the capstone on her art history study and a project she said she never could have fully appreciated when she first began.

As she went about her work, rather than proclaiming why the ancient artists designed the pieces the way they did, Valentine says she tried to arrange them in an order that let the art tell the story. “I didn’t go into the assignment with any preconceived notions, so I wasn’t trying to prove anything. Instead, I was letting the material tell its own story,” Valentine said.

The material may have been on a much smaller scale than the 10-foot tall Meretites sarcophagus, but the scope of its study was just as broad. Valentine’s assignment began with a task that sounded simple enough: to determine whether Meretites’ 305 ushebtis (oo-SHEB-tees) were mold-made or hand-crafted and how that process was completed. Ancient Egyptians believed that the ushebtis would regenerate with their owner, exist as his or her servants and take on the astonishing amount of work that awaited their owner in the afterlife. Without the ushebtis, the coffin itself carried little value.

The eyes have it

It was an opportunity not every art history student gets to experience. “I got to hold and handle the pieces,” Valentine said. “Students don’t get to typically do that. We’re usually looking at slides and studying pictures of art, not engaging with it.” While the task offered Valentine a rare opportunity, it was not without challenges. She began by dividing the ushebtis into four groupings based on the size of the mold the craftsmen used to create them. She expected to spend only a few weeks doing this, but once she dug into the project, she quickly discovered subtle differences in the ushebtis and expanded the scope of her work.

It wouldn’t be a simple matter of lining up the figurines by scale. Instead, as she worked on the project she started to notice subtle differences in the figurines: in color, in style, in craftsmanship—she even noticed differences in the smallest places like the noses and eyes. “Almost immediately I could see there were different patterns,” she said. The series of realizations helped Valentine determine that the pieces were developed by separate groups who used different methods and had varying skillsets.

Now, as a UMKC graduate, Valentine looks back fondly on the hundreds of hours she spent studying and arranging the ushebtis. She said she was never afraid of the assignment’s growing enormity and was motivated by Cohon’s exuberance. “He was always passionate about what he was teaching, and I liked that about him. He has a different way of looking at art. He teaches you to really look at it and appreciate what it’s telling you,” Valentine said.

Valentine discovered that molds were used, but that the finishing touches were done by hand. Each of the figurines contains an inscription that spelled out the expectation of rebirth and her relation to her mother.

These inscriptions are the most important part of the figurines, Valentine said, as they make them supremely different from any others in the world. The larger ushebtis stand a few inches taller and were related to characters from an ancient book of the dead. They were supposed to instruct the smaller ushebtis about service to Meretites upon regeneration.

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