Pharaohs loom large in trove of ancient Egyptian wonder

Liz Hobday |

Remnants of colossal pharaoh statues are among hundreds of ancient Egyptian artefacts going on show.
Remnants of colossal pharaoh statues are among hundreds of ancient Egyptian artefacts going on show.

Among the ancient Egyptian treasures going on show for the National Gallery of Victoria’s winter blockbuster is an enormous stone fist.

The red granite hand weighs almost one and a half tonnes and would once have rested on the knee of a colossal statue of Ramses II, one of Egypt’s most celebrated pharaohs.

Ramses II had numerous wives, fathered at least 80 children and commissioned a great many temples and monuments to himself.

His fist measures one and a half metres across, and was found by the Napoleonic expedition at the Temple of Ptah in the ancient city of Memphis, south of Cairo.

“It just makes you kind of gasp at how the ancient Egyptians, with the technology they had in their time, managed to create these incredible sculptures,” the gallery’s senior curator Miranda Wallace told AAP.

The pharaoh’s fist is among more than 500 treasures from the British Museum being exhibited in the institution’s largest ever international loan for the NGV exhibition to open in June.

Pharaoh 2024 will be one of the largest shows the gallery has ever staged, and is so big it will take up the entire ground floor of its St Kilda Road building.

“The breadth and scope of this exhibition is truly astonishing, and spans more than three millennia of Egyptian rule,” gallery director Tony Ellwood told reporters on Wednesday.

Most of the pieces will be in Australia for the first time, and very few have ever been on display in London, Dr Wallace said.

The museum has already spent more than 2600 hours preserving artefacts for the exhibition, including many hours spent working on statues of the goddess Sekhmet.

According to ancient myths Sekhmet was the protector of the pharaohs, and ten colossal sculptures of the lion-headed goddess will be presented in a phalanx that will leave visitors in awe, Dr Wallace said.

The exhibition covers the First Dynasty (circa 3000 BC) to the Roman period (fourth century AD) and will include treasures relating to the boy king Tutankhamun, Ramses II and Queen Nefertari, Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and foreign leaders such as Alexander the Great.

There will also be a display of 180 pieces of jewellery made from gold, silver and semi-precious stones, items that required extraordinary craftsmanship.

Ancient Egypt exerts a perennial fascination, according to Dr Wallace, and the show will offer a rare insight into its fascinating culture.

“It opens our eyes to an idea of history and the duration of time because it’s such a rich history, there’s so much that we can discover,” she said.

Recent milestones have heightened interest even further, with the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, and the 200th anniversary of the decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822.

“I just think it’s a really wonderful opportunity to immerse ourselves in a bit of Egyptomania,” said Dr Wallace.

That may turn out to be a useful term, with Pharaoh 2024 being the latest of three exhibitions of ancient Egyptian artefacts to visit Australia.

There’s also Discovering Ancient Egypt on show in Western Australia and touring to the ACT and Queensland, and Ramses & The Gold of the Pharaohs opening in Sydney in November.

Pharaoh has been in the works since 2016, but moving the giant, precious objects to the other side of the world has required intense logistics and preparation.

The provenance of every item has been researched in detail and is uncontested, Dr Wallace said, although she acknowledged provenance more broadly is a hot topic for many museums.

The British Museum has been asked to return cultural materials including the Parthenon Sculptures and Benin Bronzes, along with a red mangrove shield from Australia that may have been obtained by Captain Cook.

Pharaoh is on from June 14 to October 16, 2024 at NGV International.