About 4,500 years ago in the western cemetery in Giza, Egypt, a great commotion stirred in the shadow of the newly built pyramids. Workmen were everywhere; dust, sand, and dirt filled the passageways, as did the din of construction while the digging, carving, and hauling of immense stones and equipment progressed. A magnificent Tura limestone false door was lowered into place in Khufuankh’s tomb. While still alive, Khufuankh, chief of singers and flutists, received the door as a gift from his king. After Khufuankh’s death, his spirit would pass through the false door to receive offerings left there by his family and priests. The door, beautifully carved and painted with images of his family, contains inscriptions that mention the king personally inspected it every day.
The false door remained in Khufuankh’s tomb until 1914, when an MFA team removed it during an excavation. (At the time, it was standard practice for museums to receive a portion of excavation finds in exchange for financing and labor.) Imagine the challenges of putting a 16,000-pound block of stone into place by hand in 2465 BCE, and of extracting it in a single piece for the long journey to Boston by boat. The monolith arrived at the MFA in 1921 but had broken in half during shipment. It was displayed for 100 years in the Old Kingdom Egyptian gallery.
At some point during that time, I came to the Museum as a young conservator, initially to work on Egyptian material. In 1989, I traveled to the western cemetery of Giza for a project with an MFA team. There, I walked down the ancient street, passing by the mastaba that once housed this monumental false door.
I have always been touched by the poignant depiction of the musician and his wife seated together at a table, their children nearby, the glittering paint traces of Egyptian blue—the earliest known man-made pigment—as well as greens, reds, and yellows, ground from locally sourced minerals. I note also the profound weathering that speaks to the false door’s long history. Today, I’m thinking about that void placed in the middle, the empty space, a doorway to the past—from its makers and users to our past, our present, our future, and our role as caretakers of this portal. This empty space allows room for us within the work. This space is an opportunity to search for connections and understanding—a place where our imaginations take hold of the imagery and skills activated in this remarkable monument.
Now the MFA is moving the false door again, as galleries in the George D. and Margo Behrakis Wing for Art of the Ancient World undergo renovations. As I climbed scaffolding to look closely at the surface of the nearly ten-foot-tall door, I saw masterful carving, delicate details, and traces of paint—but also crystals of salts from burial and loose flakes of stone crumbling and powdering near the top, where it was exposed for centuries in situ. We strengthened and secured paint and stone, then protected the surface with padding.
We are breaking through walls to facilitate the move. Again, a great commotion: dust, sand, dirt, and the din of construction. Note the circular recess at the bottom edge; was that used to lift the false door in antiquity? We might use it again, to move the door on rollers, much like the Egyptians did. To move this massive object in 2020 is no small feat. I remain in awe of the artistic skill, technical expertise, ingenuity, and engineering capabilities the Egyptians displayed to create and maneuver this architectural marvel 4,500 years ago.