This unassuming piece of inscribed wood is a mummy tag from the Egyptian Ptolemaic period. It contains the name and personal details of a deceased individual, which would have informed the embalmers as to what was required of them. The body would have been stored between processes, and tags such as this were used to identify the person. The script is demotic – the informal and most cursive version of hieroglyphics that was used for non-ceremonial activities (hieroglyphs are extremely time-consuming to write) – and appears to be intact. The lettering is clear and could be translated if required.
Ptolemaic Egypt was one of the most intriguing periods in Egypt’s long history, specifically the clash between Persian-ruled Egypt and the Hellenistic Greeks. This led to an enormous proliferation of artistic and stylistic innovation as the two cultures merged, giving rise to a fused identity that only ceased with the death of Cleopatra at the hands of the Romans in 30 BC. The period started with the invasion of Egypt by Alexander in 332 BC, who was welcomed by the Egyptians as he respected their religion and ejected the hated Persian powers then in rule. He founded a new capital – modestly named Alexandria – which rapidly became the new centre of power and learning in the region. When Alexander died in 323 BC (in Babylon), squabbles broke out as to his successor. Alexander’s brother’s regent, Perdiccas, appointed a friend of Alexander to rule as satrap: the friends’ name was Ptolemy. As the empire broke down, he found himself as sole ruler of Egypt, defeating an attempted coup by Perdiccas in 321 BC, and taking the title of “King” in 305 BC. He subsequently renamed himself Ptolemy I Soter ("Saviour"),and was the founder of the dynasty.
Each ruling male heir took the name “Ptolemy”, while most female rulers (who rarely ruled on their own) were named Berenice or Cleopatra. In some respects the rule of the Ptolemies was rewarding – major benefits included the library at Alexandria and enormous public building programmes. They founded three city states within Egypt (Alexandria, Naucratis and Ptolemais), created gymnasia and universities and bonded – to a certain extent – with native Egyptians and the large minority of Greek-speaking Jews. The Ptolemies granted thousands of Greek veterans gifts of Egyptian lands, causing some resentment as they essentially created an elite middle/upper class society from which most Egyptians (including the old aristocracy) were excluded. Breakaway rebels founded tiny states within Egypt and ruled them, as a deliberate affront to the Ptolemies; while these rebellions were mercilessly crushed, it fomented further problems for the rulers later in the dynasty. Rule was weakened by consistent brother-sister marriage, especially towards the end of the dynasty, while power struggles between royal siblings distracted from sovereignty over an increasingly unstable country. The dynasty came to an end with the acquisitive hand of Rome, ending with Cleopatra’s disastrous relationships with Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony before her suicide in 30 BC.
Artistically, the heritage of the Ptolemaic period is perhaps one of the most fascinating of all Mediterranean art styles. It describes the meeting of two enormously influential artistic groups and the manner in which they adjusted to each other. The naturalistic yet formulaic modelling of the ancient Egyptian style influenced the naïve styles of the Greeks, while the animation and flexibility of Greek art did a great deal to invigorate the somewhat conservative paradigm of ancient Egyptian sculptures. Specific cultural traditions or items fascinated each group – in the case of the Greeks (and later the Romans) it was the tradition of mummification, and many sought to be mummified and preserved as corpses had been in the Old and New Kingdoms. The Romans went a step further, painting faces on the mummy wrappings in the likeness of the deceased (and thus forming the basis of the Coptic art tradition). This is a piece of evidence for the continuation of the mummification and embalming tradition – which the Egyptians were largely unconcerned with at this point – and a charming addition to any collection of the genre.