Fragment of a sistrum

Ancient Egyptian, Late Period, 26th Dynasty, 664 - 332 BC

Our Object of the Month for April is this sistrum fragment decorated with the face of Bat, another version of Hathor, the Goddess of love and music. The base originally used by Denys Eyre Bower to display the fragment describes it as the ‘Head of Hathor’. Bat and Hathor appear to have been two versions of the cow-headed goddess worshipped in different areas of Ancient Egypt. As time passed, they merged and were worshipped as one goddess.  

A sistrum was a popular musical instrument in Ancient Egypt. It was made up of a handle with a set of metal discs attached to an arched frame at the top. When shaken, the sistrum would produce a rattling or clashing sound.

Sistrum, bronze and lead, Late Period, found at Thebes (Upper Egypt), British Museum, EA38172, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Ancient Egyptian name for a sistrum was seshseshet, which imitated the sound that it made when shaken. The name ‘sistrum’ comes from the Latin for ‘that which is being shaken’. The sound of the instrument was also reminiscent of the sound of a cow walking through the reed beds of the Nile. Many of the gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt were inspired by the natural world. The Nile was considered the source of creation and life. The cow wandering through the reeds of its bank was the inspiration for the cow-headed goddess of love, maternity, and music, Hathor. Most sistra were decorated with a mask of Hathor or Bat at the top of the handle. She was depicted as a human with cow ears.

Model of a sistrum in faience, Ptolemaic Period (305 – 282 BC), Metropolitan Museum, accession number 50.99

 The sistrum was usually played by a female chanter or musician at a temple. The role of chanter was one of the few religious roles available to women in Ancient Egypt. It was considered a very important role, as music was one of the main ways in which the gods and goddesses were entertained. Religious ceremonies included chanting and music from drums, flutes, lyres, and sistra. Temples were the homes of images of the gods and goddesses, which were served with offerings, music, and prayers to keep them happy. In return, it was hoped that the gods and goddesses would provide blessings, protection, and fortune for the people. The sistrum became a symbol of the female chanter’s important role. Even queens and goddesses were sometimes depicted holding a sistrum.

Bronze figure of cat-headed goddess Bastet holding a sistrum, Late Period, British Museum, EA25565, © The Trustees of the British Museum
Queen Sitre shaking two sistra, South Wall of the Chapel of Ramesses I at Abydos, New Kingdom, ca. 1295 – 1294 BC, Metropolitan Museum, accession number 11.155.3c

Our Object of the Month shows Bat wearing a braided wig with decorative bands and a large necklace or collar. Her collar is decorated with rows of beads and other shapes which may have represented flowers. It is rare for Ancient Egyptian jewellery to survive intact. Piles of beads are often discovered by archaeologists in coffins or tombs because the strings holding them together have worn away over the thousands of years since they were made. There are however a few intact examples which give us an idea of what Ancient Egyptian jewellery would have looked like. Amazingly, preserved floral collars like the one Bat is wearing were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Rows of blue beads, petals, leaves, and berries were sewn onto the collars which were made from papyrus.

Floral collar from Tutankhamun’s embalming cache, ca. 1336–1327 BC, Metropolitan Museum

It is likely that our Object of the Month was a model sistrum, rather than one that was actually used as a musical instrument. Instead of bronze, it was made from faience - a ceramic material made from silica (often from sand), plant ash, lime, and copper which gives the material its bright blue colour. The dry ingredients were mixed with water to form a paste, which was then formed into the desired shape, sometimes using a mould. It would then be fired, causing a bright turquoise glaze to form on the surface. If you were to break a faience object, you would see that the blue colour only forms on the surface, whilst the core remains white. Faience was popular because it could be used to imitate turquoise which had to be imported and was far more expensive. The glaze on our Object of the Month has mostly rubbed away, but hints of the turquoise blue colour can still be seen.

The Castle re-opens on Sunday 2nd of March, and the sistrum fragment will be on display in the Egyptian Room.

This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email or by calling 01892 870347.

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