Masterworks of early Egyptian Art to be shown at the Oriental Institute

One of the most important artifacts from the early history of Egypt, a remarkable, 2-foot tall limestone statue of a king who reunified the country nearly 5,000 years ago, will be on exhibition at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago.

The oldest-known inscribed statue of an Egyptian king, the piece is one of two masterpieces of early Egyptian art that will be shipped from Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University to the United States for the first time as part of the exhibit, “Before the Pyramids: The Origins of Egyptian Civilization,” to be shown from March 29 to Dec. 31.

The statue is of King Khasekhem, the last ruler of Dynasty 2, who reigned about 2685 B.C. Khasekhem is shown seated on a throne, wrapped in a ritual costume associated with the renewal of his power. He wears the conical “White” crown associated with southern Egypt, where he was buried and probably where he came to power.


Khasekhem, whose name means “Who Shines Forth with the Power,” ruled Egypt in a tumultuous time when the northern part of the country revolted against the control of the southern-based kings. Khasekhem reunited the land, as indicated by an inscription on the statue’s base that claims he defeated 47,209 northern enemies. This statue established the style in which the pharaoh was shown for the next 3,000 years of Egyptian history.

The second object on loan is the Battlefield Palette, a fragment of a large stone whose shape is derived from slabs upon which cosmetics were ground. It is carved with scenes that show enemies being bound and defeated by animals who represent the Egyptian king. The opposite side has a mysterious composition that contrasts order, in the form of a cultivated palm tree, to chaos, represented by a long-necked animal. The Battlefield Palette foreshadows the Narmer Palette—certainly the most famous work of early Egyptian art, a cast of which is also in the exhibit. These ceremonial palettes were probably temple offerings and important evidence for the rise of the state in the era before writing.

Exhibit curator and Egyptologist Emily Teeter said, “I am thrilled that these iconic objects will be on view in America for the first time. These are some of the most important works from early Egypt, and it is a real honor to be able to show them in Chicago.”

The two objects from the Ashmolean join 130 beautifully made statues, vessels, figurines and artifacts that date to roughly 4000-2650 B.C.—the dawn of the Egyptian history. Those artifacts are part of the permanent collection of the Oriental Institute Museum.

The exhibit demonstrates how the most fundamental aspects of ancient Egyptian civilization—architecture, hieroglyphic writing, a belief in the afterlife and allegiance to a semi-divine king—can be traced to the Predynastic era, more than 1,000 years before the pyramids were built.

“It has been decades since there was an exhibit devoted to earliest Egypt,” said Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute. “By showing us the origins of the Egyptian state, this gem of an exhibit only enhances our sense of wonder at the later achievements of this civilization when it reached its zenith.”

Related objects and activities for museum visitors

Many objects in the exhibit were excavated from the tombs of the first kings who were buried at Abydos in southern Egypt. A mound over the burial chambers of these tombs is probably the inspiration for a pyramid over later royal tombs. The fragments of ivory inlays, furniture legs in the form of bull hooves, images of the king incised in ivory, game pieces and beautifully carved stone vessels give a tantalizing glimpse of the power and wealth of these kings.            

In addition to the statue, three tombstones in the exhibit came from the graves of courtiers, hundreds of whom were buried next to their king. Many scholars believe that they were sacrificed to follow their lord to the afterlife. Most of the material in the exhibit has not been on view for more than a decade.

An interactive kiosk in the show features activities such as “Test Your Egyptian IQ,” a multiple-choice identification game; a program to write your name in Egyptian hieroglyphs; videos that show how ancient pottery was made and an interview with Günter Dreyer, the excavator of the tombs of the earliest kings at Abydos.

A companion catalog contains essays by 15 preeminent scholars of the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods. The richly illustrated book gives the most up-to-date information about the era and the broadest look at the material culture of the time.

Programming in conjunction with the exhibit includes:

• Curator-led tours of the exhibit are scheduled for Wednesday, April 6 and Wednesday, May 11, both at 12:15 p.m.

• On Saturday, May 21 from 1:30 to 4 p.m., the Oriental Institute will present The Scorpion King, a premiere theater screening of a National Geographic film on the earliest kings of Egypt (not the 2002 action movie of the same name). Renowned archaeologists, Dr. Günter Dreyer of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo and director of excavations of the royal tombs at Abydos, and Renée Friedman of the British Museum and director of excavations at Hierakonpolis, will comment on the film and answer questions from the audience. For further information on programs, contact the Oriental Institute at 773-702-9507 or visit

This exhibit is supported by Tom and Linda Heagy, members of the Oriental Institute and grants from the Antiquities Endowment Fund of the American Research Center in Egypt and Exelon.

The Oriental Institute Museum, located at 1155 E. 58th St., holds the Chicago area’s largest collection of Egyptian art and artifacts as well as galleries devoted to the other cultures of the ancient Middle East. It is open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Suggested donation is $7 for adults, $3 for children.