© Penn Museum 2019
PHILADELPHIA, PA.- A 25,000-pound monument returned to the limelight, as the centerpiece of the new Sphinx Gallery at the Penn Museum.
The colossal red granite Sphinx of Ramses II—history’s most well-known pharaoh who reigned in ancient Egypt for nearly 67 years and fathered more than 100 children—dates back to between 1293 and 1185 BCE. Excavated by the famous archaeologist W. M. Flinders Petrie and his team, it is the largest sphinx in the Western hemisphere and has served as one of the City of Philadelphia’s top cultural attractions since its arrival at the Penn Museum in October 1913.
From high atop his platform in the 2,000-square-foot Sphinx Gallery, the towering monument now greets guests as they enter the new natural light-filled Main Entrance area, which features abundant seating, two new elevators, an accessibility ramp, and accessible restroom facilities.
“We thought that moving a 12.5-ton Sphinx would be impossible. But at the Museum, we know well the power of human ingenuity,” says Julian Siggers, Williams Director of the Museum. “Relocating the Sphinx to his new home adjacent to the Main Entrance was a monumental undertaking—but now, sharing him with our visitors in this new space is perhaps even more monumental. The Sphinx is the first thing that many visitors will see as they are welcomed to our new Penn Museum.”
Other components of the Sphinx Gallery include a special display emphasizing the breadth and depth of the Penn Museum’s collections through 10 artifacts from across the world, such as a boundary stone from ancient Mesopotamia, an African mask, and an engraved wine jug from the Mediterranean. An adjoining intimate gallery space shines the spotlight on one magnificent artifact, which will change regularly. The first display in this gallery are two pairs of moccasins: one, created by a Seminole maker, which bear silent witness to their wearer’s harsh encounters with warfare, starvation, disease, stolen lands, and desecration; the other, created by a highly skilled Huron-Wendat maker, share stories of adaptation and resilience, with meaningful symbols woven in to the intricate beading and quill work.
Other reimagined areas opening as a part of the Penn Museum’s Building Transformation include a suite of Africa Galleries; the Mexico and Central America Gallery; and the historic restoration of Harrison Auditorium, a 614-seat performance venue first opened in 1915.
Next Steps for the Building Transformation
The next major milestone in the Building Transformation project is the reimagined Ancient Egypt and Nubia Galleries, targeted to open in 2023 pending funding.
Paying special attention to the role of the Nile as an eternal river that makes life in Egypt possible, the Lower Level gallery will focus on “Life and the Afterlife” in Ancient Egypt, showcasing daily life and funerary practices, such as the science of mummification. It will feature a special section on hieroglyphic writing and an entire Old Kingdom tomb chapel that’s been completely reassembled— with visible carvings on its walls that offer detailed instructions for preparing for proper burials. Objects in this display will include a gilded mummy mask, canopic jars, and the Shabti of Lady Maya. Beyond the tomb chapel, the 5,000-year-span of ancient Egyptian history is told across the large central gallery and two side galleries through the Museum’s famed collection of Egyptian mummies and their related funerary artifacts.
In a more formal setting, the Upper Level gallery will focus on “Royalty and Religion,” kings, and pharaohs. With individual rooms that explore Early Nubia and Late Nubia, which offer an essential component to the overall story of the galleries, the Upper Level gallery will offer guests a chance to experience what it was like to walk through a pharaoh’s palace in Egypt. For nearly 100 years, Egyptian palace columns that were excavated by Penn archaeologists between 1914 and 1918 were displayed at only half of their original height. Thanks to advances in engineering, these massive 23-foot columns will be installed at their full height, along with a gateway from the 3,200-year-old Palace Complex of the Pharaoh Merenptah.
Red granite Sphinx of Ramses II, New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty, circa 1293-1185 BCE, 362 x 145 cm. Gift of the British School of Archaeology, 1913 (E12326). © Penn Museum 2019
Excavated by the famous archaeologist W. M. Flinders Petrie and his team, the red granite Sphinx of Ramses II (19th Dynasty, ca. 1293-1185 BCE) was a part of the division of finds between the Egyptian Antiquities Service, the Egypt Exploration Fund, and the British School of Archaeology. The School sent the monument to the Penn Museum as a result of the Museum’s financial support of their excavation work in Egypt.
The sphinx, a lion with a human head, represents the power of the Egyptian king, both to protect his people and to conquer the enemies of Egypt. Buried up to its shoulders, only its exposed head was subject to erosion from the elements. The inscriptions on the chest and around the base give the five names of Ramses II. His son and successor, Merenptah, added his own cartouches to the shoulders after his father’s death.
After traveling more than 6,000 miles from the Temple of the God Ptah at Memphis, Egypt, this Sphinx, the largest in the Western hemisphere, first docked in South Philadelphia on October 7, 1913, during the World Series. At almost 13 tons, the monument was so heavy that the German freighter on which it sailed had to move up the Delaware River to Port Richmond in order to unload the statue onto a rail car using a huge crane at the Philadelphia and Reading Railway Company cargo terminal.
Wrapped in burlap, it rode on a horse-drawn cart through the city. On October 19, 1913, the Sphinx finally reached the Penn Museum and caused quite a stir, distracting sports fans from the Penn-Brown football game underway across the street at Franklin Field.
For three years, the Sphinx was on view in the Museum’s courtyard. Due to concerns regarding the long-term effects of harsh weather conditions, the Sphinx was moved inside in 1916. In 1926, it made its move into the Egypt (Sphinx) Gallery, which is currently being renovated through the Museum’s Building Transformation project, part of the Power of Penn campaign.
In the summer of 2019, the Sphinx floated across an interior courtyard of the Penn Museum with the “air dollies” (similar to hoverboards) that helped conservators to guide him approximately 250 feet and into his new home: the Sphinx Gallery, where he welcomes visitors using the Main Entrance.
Highlights from the Sphinx Gallery:
Amphora (Jar with Two Handles), Faliscan, Etruscan. Brown gloss ware, large, two twisted handles. Decoration of incised lines and horses, 34.3 x 26.67 cm. Purchased from Fausto Benedetti, 1896 (MS935). © Penn Museum 2019
Excavated in a rich tomb of the Faliscans, who were neighbors of the Etruscans, this vessel signifies a nobleman’s status as a horse breeder. Expensive to keep, horses symbolized the ruling class and its control of land. Following legal excavation, the tomb contents were exported to Philadelphia in 1896. This amphora continues to yield information on society and technology in pre-Roman Italy.
Canopic Jar and Lid. Head of Duamutef. Property of Songstress of Herishef, Hathor, New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty, 1539-1292 BC. Blue Faience, 362 x 145 cm. Gift of the British School of Archaeology, 1921 (E14227B). © Penn Museum 2019
Ancient Egyptian burials often included a set of four mummified organs essential for the afterlife. Stored in an individual canopic jar, each organ had a protective deity. This container, from around 1275 BCE, once held the stomach of Hathor, a temple singer. Its hieroglyphic text and lid identified the protector deity as Duamutef, a son of Horus. The jar was excavated and exported following Egyptian law in 1921.
Gilt bronze statue of Guanyin, Khitan Culture, Liao Dynasty, 10th Century, 70 x 16 cm. Purchased from C. T. Loo; Subscription of Mrs. Emory R. Johnson, 1921 (C400). © Penn Museum 2019
Guanyin (Perceiver of the World’s Cries) is a Buddhist divinity, the subject of popular devotion and miracle tales in East Asia, as well as the Chinese translations of Indian scriptures. This gilt-bronze image, made in the 10th or 11th century and purchased in 1921, shows Guanyin wrapped in a robe drawn up over a high crown, in which is embedded an image of the Buddha Amitābha.
Kudurru (Boundary Stone), Nippur, Nebuchadnezzar I period, 1146-1123 BC. Stone, 49.5 x 23.5 x 21 cm. Bequest of H. V. Hilprecht and S. C. Hilprecht, 1925/1929 (29-20-1). © Penn Museum 2019.
This boundary stone (kudurruin Akkadian) commemorates a land grand from Nebuchadnezzar I, king of Babylonia, to the priest Nuska-ibni around 1109 BCE. Symbols of various Babylonian gods at the top provide divine authority, and much of the inscription curses anyone who violatesits terms. It was excavated by Penn’s pioneering archaeological project at Nippur, Iraq, in 1896.
Effigy Vessel, Chavïn Culture. Stone, 18.5 x 33 x 12.7 cm. Purchased from Joseph Brummer, 1925 (SA4627). © Penn Museum 2019.
This carved and polished black stone object is a ritual mortar. Its shape represents a fierce feline, probably a jaguar, baring its canines. Chavín shamans or priests in Peru likely used it to prepare hallucinogenic snuff for religious ceremonies, along with a stone pestle, around 2,000 years ago. Purchased in 1925, its precise place of origin is uncertain.
Benedicto Tuki, Moai Kavakava (Ribbed Figure), Easter Island. Wood, 71.6 x 12 x 10 cm. Gift of Robert and Marilyn Forney, 2015 (2015-13-4). © Penn Museum 2019.
Early Western visitors to Easter Island observed ribbed figures hanging around the necks of men on ritual occasions, possibly to invoke the spirits of ancestors. Their emaciated appearance may refer to periods of environmental crisis on the island. This contemporary version, by Rapa Nui master carver Benedicto Tuki Pate in 2003, is unusually large and of non-native wood, but otherwise entirely traditional.
Kifwebe (Mask), Basonge, Zaire, Kasai District. Wood, Pigment, 37.5 x 24.1 cm. Purchased from Vignier, 1919 (AF5115). © Penn Museum 2019.
A Songye community produced this mask for the Bwadi bwa kifwebe, a powerfulmen’s association which used it to reinforce societal laws and appeal to benevolent spirits. Made in Democratic Republic of the Congo in the late 19th or early 20th century and purchased in 1919 from a Paris dealer, this mask is one of the Museum’s best-known objects and has been frequently published and displayed around the world.