It’s a normal office break room—fluorescent lighting, coat rack, microwave. But it’s in a museum, so of course there’s something a little quirky about it. In this case, it’s the 4,300-year-old Egyptian chapel sealed up behind the wall.
Chicago’s Field Museum is home to 30 million objects, most of which are behind the scenes. But while the vast majority of those collections are stored in collection drawers where they can be pulled out and used in scientific research, the chapel stands out. It’s a holdover from an old exhibit about ancient Egypt, purchased over a century ago during the “Indiana Jones” years of archaeology, and now it’s just chilling by the water cooler.
The chapel’s nondescript new home belies its scientific value—the small limestone chamber is decorated floor to ceiling in carvings and hieroglyphics from which scientists can glean tantalizing insights into a lost world. The carved scenes reveal details ranging from what people ate and wore to what they believed the afterlife had in store for them. And the chapel doesn’t just reveal ancient Egyptian history, but the history of a museum as well.
The Field Museum was originally founded to commemorate the 1893 World’s Fair, and its collections were built from objects that had been displayed in the Fair, ranging from musical instruments to mastodons. There weren’t any ancient Egyptian objects from the Fair that made their way to the museum, though, so the museum’s founder and namesake, Marshall Field, tasked its president, Edward Ayer, with procuring some.
Museum collecting was different back then—nowadays, scientists need permits to collect objects and are careful to ensure that they’ve recorded all of the information about where the objects were found and that they don’t rightfully belong to someone else. At the turn of the 20th century, though, things were more lax—often, collectors would just purchase cultural objects, some of which were illegally obtained in the first place.
For someone of his time, Ayer seems to have been pretty conscientious—he was careful only to buy objects that could be legally exported to the U.S. He purchased ancient Egyptian mummies, boats, funerary goods… and tomb and temple walls.
The ancient Egyptians are known for building monumental pyramids to commemorate their dead, but that’s far from the only type of burial found. In the Fifth Dynasty (around 2400 B.C.), wealthy Egyptians were buried in flat-topped rectangular tombs called mastabas. Largely aboveground, these mastabas were made of mud-brick or limestone walls and contained multiple chambers, including small temples or chapels that were used to host funerary ceremonies. When Ayer went to Egypt at the turn of the century, he brought back a mastaba and burial chapel walls.
The chapel and its walls traveled by boat from Egypt to Chicago, where they were put on display at the Field. When the museum moved to a new building in 1921, the ancient chapel walls came too. Believed to have belonged to two sons of the pharaoh Unis, these limestone walls are decorated from floor to ten-foot-ceiling in relief carvings of rows of servants bringing food offerings for a funerary feast.
The most striking thing about the chapel (other than the fact that it’s sitting in an office break room) is the traces of colorful paint that aren’t not quite faded from the walls, still gleaming deep ochre, goldenrod, jade, and cerulean after four millennia. “We think of classical art as being plain, since we’re used to seeing it with all the paint worn off, but the ancient Egyptians were crazy about color,” explains James Phillips, the Field Museum’s curator of Egyptology.
If you look up at the limestone blocks making up the lintel, you can see hieroglyph symbols—eyes, hawks, waves—indicating that this chapel belongs to Netjer-User, possibly a son of the Pharaoh Unis. Netjer-User was a powerful man in his own right, a temple official with titles including “royal chamberlain,” “controller of scribes,” and “supervisor of the masters of the king’s largess.”
But when the Egypt exhibit was renovated in the 1980s, the chapel wasn’t part of it. “When we redid the Egypt hall, we weren’t able to move Netjer-User’s chapel—the limestone bricks had been cemented into the walls, and it’s bolted into steel frames,” says Phillips.
To get into the chapel, you need to unlock the ten-foot-tall white door blocking it off, and then step up and over the raised threshold. The chamber itself is small, about the size of a roomy elevator, its floor covered by sand leftover from its old display setting. In one corner, there’s a carving of a man, a good five times the size of everyone else, seated on a throne. “That’s Netjer-User,” says Phillips. “His size indicates his wealth. He wasn’t in line for the throne, but being the son of the pharaoh still made him important enough for a grand burial.”
Surrounding Netjer-user are dozens of relief carvings of smaller figures, lined up in processions spanning the entire room. According to Philips, these other figures are valuable sources of information about ancient Egyptian life too. “Look at this guy,” says Phillips, indicating one of the figures. “He has a real beard, not a false one. He must be foreign, since in Egypt, only royalty portray themselves with false beards. It tells us who the ancient Egyptians were interacting with, what their lives were like.”
And ancient hairstyles aren’t the only thing we can glean from the carvings. The processions of servants bearing geese, gazelles, grains, and dates for the funeral feast tell us how Egyptians celebrated this life and prepared for the next one.
The back wall of the chapel is comprised of what looks to be a hieroglyph-covered door. “That’s a false door, to trick grave robbers,” explains Phillips. “It also would thwart bad spirits who could make the deceased’s afterlife unpleasant.”
But these days, even evil spirits can’t get into the chapel—only a few Field Museum staff members have a key. And while the museum has long-term plans to reincorporate the chapel into a public display, doing so will take time. “The space is too narrow for a person in a wheelchair to comfortably turn around. It needs a lot of work and funding before it’s ready to be back on display,” says Phillips.
In the meantime, the chapel sits tucked away in the guest relations office, and its visitors are mostly museum employees and students coming to study it. I asked the guest relations staffer on the desk how often people came tromping into her office to goggle at the break room. “Often enough,” she replied before answering a ringing phone.