Manchester Museum’s newly-refurbished Nature’s Library gallery, due to reopen on Saturday April 26th, will showcase four million natural specimens to illustrate how the natural world has been collected and catalogued and to explore the diversity of those collections.
The ancient Egyptians also catalogued the natural world around them in the form of onomastica, a type of ancient Egyptian text made up of word lists of many different things from sky and earth. The various categories focus mainly on nouns including birds, fish, food, towns and cities, plants, minerals, buildings, agriculture and different occupations. The selection of the words, and how they were ordered, shows us how the ancient Egyptians divided up and classified their world – a bit like an ancient compendium of the universe. Onomastica can be compared with modern encyclopaedia however these ancient lists only contained the words, and did not include any descriptions for those words.
Although we don’t know exactly why these lists were made, it is possible that they were intended to be used as training exercises for scribes when they learned to read and write. They may also have been made to act as a ‘bank’ for knowledge; a place where the ancient Egyptians could list and store all of the words which made up their world.
The earliest known onomasticon is the Ramesseum Onomasticon (Berlin Papyrus 10495) which was found in a tomb which possibly belonged to a lector, a specialist in ritual and magic, dating to the late Middle Kingdom (c. 1800-1700 BC). This tomb contained important papyri and objects, and it is possible to see some of those objects today in the Egyptian Worlds gallery at Manchester Museum. The Ramesseum Onomasticon originally contained over 300 words including birds, fish, food, towns and human anatomy. Because the onomasticon probably belonged to a lector, it is possible that the lists may have been read aloud and performed during ceremonies or rituals.
A dedicated display illustrating onomastica and the idea of the ancient Egyptian classification of the universe can be seen in the Exploring Objects gallery, which contains several natural specimens including mammals, birds, fish and minerals. These ideas will also be presented in new digital format – featuring the superb artwork of Gina Allnatt - accessible from the Manchester Ancient Worlds website, due to be launched very soon, which will combine photos, illustrations and text to tell the story of onomastica and why they are so important for the study of both ancient Egyptian and natural history.