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Magical Mystery Door

An investigation of an Egyptian sacred portal reveals a history of renovation and deception

November/December 2022

Egypt First Intermediate Period StelaWhile a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, Melanie Pitkin became interested in a particular Egyptian limestone stela held by the university’s Fitzwilliam Museum. She had been working with the Fitzwilliam Egyptian Coffins Project, during which time she and her colleagues found that the practice of recycling wood from older coffins to make new ones was much more common in ancient Egypt than previously known. Pitkin was curious as to how the practice of reusing objects translated to other materials. Her Fitzwilliam colleague, Egyptologist Helen Strudwick, encouraged her to investigate the limestone stela, also known as a false door, which had been used for the tomb of a woman named Hemi-Ra during the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2150–2030 B.C.). This was a time of political breakdown and disruption, during which control of Egypt was divided between rival power bases in Herakleopolis in Lower Egypt and Thebes in Upper Egypt.


False doors were intended to serve as portals that allowed the ka, or life force, of the deceased to move back and forth between the tomb and the afterlife. “Family members and priests would come to the tomb where the false door was standing and they would recite the name of the deceased and his or her achievements and leave offerings,” says Pitkin, who is now senior curator of antiquities at the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum as well as an affiliated researcher at the Fitzwilliam Museum. “The ka of the deceased would then magically travel between the burial chamber and the netherworld. It would come and collect the food, drink, and offerings from the tomb to help sustain it in the afterlife.”


Egypt MapBy closely examining the false door from Hemi-Ra’s tomb, which measures 32.5 inches tall by 26 inches wide, Pitkin and her colleagues could see that areas of the limestone appeared to have been smoothed and that some parts of the surface were much paler than the rest, suggesting that they had been recarved after the stela was first crafted and had not weathered to the same degree. When she looked at the door under a microscope, it became clear that it had once been painted with red ocher, most likely in an attempt to make it resemble much more expensive red granite. There was also evidence that some of the stela’s hieroglyphic text had been colored with a pigment known as Egyptian blue. However, certain parts of the door showed no sign of pigment at all. “There were no traces of red in some of the figures, but we could see red at their edges,” Pitkin says. “That was what made us really think, ‘OK, this has been tampered with.’” Her investigation ultimately revealed that Hemi-Ra’s false door was likely significantly altered not only in antiquity, but also much more recently, probably by a forger with an eye to modern sensibilities. In order to deepen their understanding of the stela, Pitkin and her colleagues attempted to re-create portions of it using periodappropriate tools, and received a crash course in the level of skill required to craft such an object—or to modify it in a way that might pass muster in the eyes of ancient Egyptians or modern connoisseurs.