Like all displays of objects from Ancient Egypt, the British Museum’s collection is biased towards funerary objects, as these are what have survived best. This is partly due to an early preference on the part of Egyptians to be buried in the desert, where the arid conditions have been conducive to preservation. Amongst the largest and most detailed of the objects on display is the False Door of Ptahshepses which dates to around 2440 BC – part of the Old Kingdom, which ran from around 2,686 BC to 2,125 BC. Ptahshepses’ most important office was that of the High Priest of Ptah.
The false door was a fairly common structure in Old Kingdom monuments and developed from a simpler offering niche in the Early Dynastic Period, which covers around 3,000 BC to 2686 BC. The doors are also known as Ka doors as they allowed the Ka, part of the soul of the departed to pass through them. The dead could also receive offerings from the living through the door. Ptahshepses’ tomb has extensive traces of the original red-brown paint, applied to make the stone look like either wood or granite.
Ptahshepses’ door has two jambs, with text either side. On the top of the door is a long architrave, which shows him on the far left, together with prayers for offerings. The texts on the columnar panels have been interpreted as describing biographical details under each pharaoh in whose reign Ptahshepses lived. These events included his marrying a princess in the reign of Userkaf. The columns say that he was allowed to kiss the king’s foot – a rare honour – as most officials approaching the royal presence would have to kiss the ground instead. The columns suggest that he may have lived from the end of the reign of King Menkaure to King Niuserre, around 2503 BC to around 2445 BC. King Menkaure constructed the smaller of the three pyramids at Giza.
The false door in the museum is the western side of Ptahshepses’ funerary monument. It comes from Saqqara, famous for the stepped pyramid of Djoser, which lies to the south of Cairo. In addition to housing some early kings of Egypt, the site served as a burial area for high officials for more than 3,000 years.
The British Museum’s Egyptian collection is the finest outside Cairo. However, visiting it is usually a daunting prospect due to the crowds, the sharp elbows and bellowing bambini. One of the advantages of Covid-19 is that the museum has relatively few visitors and it is easier to give the objects the time and focus they deserve. You can get a timed ticket from the museum’s website and follow a prescribed route on the ground floor. You are limited in where you can go, but the restrictions do not really matter as there is still far too much to look at and read about in one visit.
You can hear more about my visits to the British Museum during COVID on our London History Podcast Episode 25: The British Museum.