To help guide Cohon and his team and to answer questions that came up as they conducted research, the museum brought in Joyce Haynes, the world’s expert on ushebtis. And through a fellowship from the UMKC Women’s Council, Valentine traveled to Boston and New York City to study other ushebtis. She says the research was helpful, but she was never able to find an ushebti collection quite as spectacular or complete as the display in Kansas City. “Museum visitors can get a good look at them and be amazed by how different each face is. It’s rare and it adds to the whole exhibit.”
Even after the years she spent cataloguing the ushebtis, Valentine has questions that she realizes might never be answered. She’s particularly curious about the ancient people who carefully sculpted each figurine to serve Meretites in the next life. “Why did they write the inscriptions the way they did? Why do some have larger features?” Valentine asked. “We’ll probably never know the answers to that.”
“Visitors to the museum can get a good look at them and be amazed by how different each face is.”
If you want to test your skills at examining the ushebtis, Valentine is happy to challenge you: Try to find the two that are different from all the others. Only two of the 305 ushebtis were created without beards. Cohon gives Valentine credit for her eagle eyes and the attention to detail she used during her work on the display. “She’s dedicated—you can see how complex the work would be trying to figure out who made each one of these,” Cohon said. “It’s easy to look at them once and say, ‘Oh, they all look the same,’ but then you begin to notice the countless little differences. It’s a difficult call.”
Like Valentine, Cohon said he has unearthed eternal mysteries during his work on this project. But unlike his former student, his work isn’t complete. He’s excited that there’s no end to his research. And he said he hopes there never will be. So for now, Cohon and his students continue analyzing the collection, asking questions of the unknown and accepting that there are mysteries they may never solve.
To learn more about the Nelson-Atkins ancient art exhibit, visit nelson-atkins.org. To learn more about the Women’s Council Fellowship Program that helped Valentine to complete her studies, visit umkcwc.org.