Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues: Focus on the Ka Nefer Nefer

Focus on the Ka Nefer Nefer “Collection History” (1) (“Here Zakki, you can have this”)


April 8, 2012

The collection history of the mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer currently in the St Louis Art Museum is crucial to the SLAM claim to the object. The mask was excavated by Muhammed Zakaria Goneim in 1952 in a grave at Saqqara. It was part of a small Ramesside cemetery in the layers overlying the lower courses of the unfinished step pyramid of Sekhemkhet. We do no know what position Ka Nefer Nefer (or Neferu) held, though circumstantial evidence suggests she lived in the times of Rameses II in the 19th Dynasty. Her body had not been mummified, the corpse was given a gilded cartonage mask and placed (apparently unwrapped) in a grave wrapped in a large reed mat. This is a type of rite more commonly associated with lower class burials, though the quality of the mask and accompanying gold items and range of amulets (and two alabaster shabtis) most of them inscribed with her name show that this was not the burial of a poor woman. It has been suggested that she was of Libyan ancestry.

I’d like to draw attention to the wiki by K.M. Johnston on this burial which is more accessible to most readers I would guess than Gonheim’s own published account, it was put up on 16 January 2011 and deserves much more attention, this is because it highlights what else was in that grave.  The smaller items are all still in Saqqara.

Let us imagine that the version fed to SLAM by the dealers, the Aboutaams, is true. The idea is that for his merits as an archaeologist the Egyptian Government in its munificence gave him one of the objects from the state-funded excavations he had directed as a reward. This is the way the mummy mask (the Aboutaams suggest) came onto the market legally, as the excavator’s own private property.

This is highly unlikely to have happened. First of all this is not what happened in Egyptian archaeology in the 1950s. Furthermore, Gonheim himself was not exactly flavour of the month after he had embarrassed the government in June 1954 when a much hyped pyramid-opening was a flop when the sarcophagus turned out to be empty. He was soon after this hounded, accused of antiquity thefts (it seems unjustly – there is a history of that in Egyptian archaeology) and committed suicide (or was killed) in January 1959. At what stage would the mask be “given to him” in the Aboutaam version of events? It was found early in 1952, seven years later Gonheim was dead. When he published the book in 1956 he thanked the Supreme Council for use of the photo of the object, unlikely if he had then been in possession of it.

After he died, under the shadow of accusations of pinching stuff, under what circumstances would his heirs be able to export it and a foreign gallery purchase it? Also, had Goneim’s enemies been accusing him of stealing objects, if he had indeed officially been granted the possession of one of his excavated finds, the fact that a whopping big mummy mask was not in the collections would have aroused suspicions, and one would have expected there to be a trace in some written records somewhere that he had secured himself against accusations on that account by providing some details of how he had come by this rather noticeable object by official channels. Instead, he was accused of nicking a vase (which later turned up in the muddle – even in 1959 – of the stores at the Egyptian Museum).

More to the point, the grave contained a whole lot of goodies. Had a magnanimous official wished to “reward” an archaeologist for doing his job, why would he choose the biggest – and most museum-displayable – thing in the grave?  There were two gold inlaid pectorals, and two alabaster shabtis, if ‘partage’ of some sort was being practiced, surely one of those would be a good ‘gift’? The amulets or beads likewise. The Saqqara storeroom is already full of such things. Anything would have made a more suitable “present” (official or not) than the mask.

The fact is that in 1952-9 no ‘partage’ had been practised for thirty years. The Aboutaam/SLAM story fails to provide any evidence why in this particular case that principle was ignored, and why it was the mummy mask that Goneim “received”. Of course neither party feels under any obligation to support their far-fetched interpretation of events.

Of course if the mask originated from Gonheim, as the Aboutaams assert, and it had not been an official grant, that too has consequences for the SLAM claim to ownership.

 Photo: Mohammed Zacharia Goneim (1905-1959): the first owner of the Ka Nefer Nefer mask?

Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues: Focus on the Ka Nefer Nefer .

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