Category Archives: Egypt gallery redevelopment

100 years of Egypt on display at Manchester: Ancient Worlds are open!

On 30th October 1912 a group of dignitaries assembled for the opening of a new building in the Manchester Museum, designed to house the important Egyptology collections. Exactly one hundred years later, we have now opened our new ‘Ancient Worlds’ galleries – and they are already proving very popular.

The new galleries consist of three main parts. The first gallery (previously the rather claustrophobic ‘Egyptian Daily Life’) introduces archaeological methods and explains how we know about the past, through a number of guides related to the field. This section, for example, explains Manchester’s unique contribution to facial reconstruction of ancient peoples, and Flinders Petrie’s ‘sequence dating’ based on pottery typology. Further digital content – including text, images, audio commentary, and 360 degree photography – can be downloaded using codes that appear on object labels. A visitor services assistant can unlock this information for those without a smart phone. This information can also be viewed online, at www.ancientworlds.co.uk.

The second space – formerly the Egyptian Afterlife gallery – is now Egyptian Worlds. Objects are arranged chronologically, with a timeline running around the top of the wall cases – making clear to visitors when, relative to main ‘periods’ of Egyptian history, material is situated. This timeline is illustrated with pots, to show changes in ceramic styles over time. Within this chronological framework individual themes are developed, such as the importance of writing in the Old Kingdom and Manchester’s unique evidence for magical practice in the Middle Kingdom. A smaller adjoining space now houses our rich collection of painted mummy portraits from Roman Egypt, including two of the rare examples of mummies with portraits still in place.

Finally, in our third gallery ‘Exploring Objects’ – what previously housed Mediterranean Archaeology – we present dense displays of several categories of artefacts found in abundance in museum collections, such as Roman glass, pottery lamps, or Egyptian stone vessels. One section that has already proved popular is our case packed with shabti figures, arranged roughly in chronological order to show changes in colour with time. The reason behind creating these densely-filled cases was simple: museum visitors expressed an interest in seeing more material on display. More objects than ever before are now on view in all three galleries, many for the first time in over 50 years. With around a thousand whole and fragmentary shabtis in storage, we wanted to show many more than the dozen or so examples that had been on display in the old galleries. The result is an aesthetically striking display – as evidenced by the popularity of this case with photographers!

In the year since I arrived at the Museum, ‘Ancient Worlds’ has dominated almost every aspect of life. It has been a wonderful opportunity to bring objects from one of Britain’s (and, indeed, Europe’s) great collections from Egypt and Sudan to a new audience. Yet, it has also been very satisfying to hear people express surprise as seeing an object from the old galleries in a new context – in this way many familiar pieces are getting a second look.

This photo from the 1912 opening shows the gallery’s major benefactor Jesse Haworth (standing in the picture), archaeologist William Flinders Petrie (seated third from right), the museum’s first curator William Boyd Dawkins (first on right), and anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith.

A project of this size obviously runs into its fair share of challenges. Yet even when things didn’t go quite according to plan, solutions were found – and the results, we hope, speak for themselves. It was a particular pleasure to work so closely with a team of such tireless, talented, and enthusiastic people at the Museum. We all hope that our new galleries bring Ancient Worlds to life in new and exciting ways for our visitors.

You can see all of Paul Cliff’s photos from the opening at the Museum’s Flickr page.

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Living in nature at Amarna

Acc. no. 7220 – a painted scene from a palace floor, now conserved and soon to be on display

In the last week before we open the Ancient Worlds galleries, we have been making final preparations to put objects – many unexhibited before – on display. A good proportion come from famous sites and it is interesting to consider how they might originally have been used in their original settings.

Manchester holds an important collection of material from the excavations of archaeologist Flinders Petrie and others at Amarna. This site is well-known as the royal residence – what would call a ‘capital’ city today – chosen anew by King Akhenaten (c. 1352 -1336 BC). Akhenaten has been described as “the first individual in history” and is viewed variously as a revolutionary, a heretic, the first true monotheist, and a megalomaniac. Certainly, the theology of the king and his new capital centred on one deity: the sun disk, called the Aten. This deity was praised in hymns recorded on rock-cut stelae and on the walls of elite tombs at Amarna. A particular connection is made in these texts between the life-giving rays of the sun and prosperity of plants, animals and human beings.

One of the themes we explore in the new galleries at Manchester is the experience of living in a royal city, using our rich collection of objects from Amarna. Surviving decoration from the complex of palaces and elite villas at the site shows a delight in representing the natural world, with plants and animals featuring prominently. Part of the royal palace, for example, had a painted floor showing pin-tale ducks flying out of the marshes beside the River Nile, as they would at dawn. Yet here, in a palace, before the king’s throne, the motifs of the painted floor can also be interpreted as heralding the presence of the divine living ruler and his sole god, the sun disc, who – together – dispel darkness each day. Akhenaten and his courtiers clearly wished to emphasise through decoration their desire to be “living in nature”.

Faience inlays and amulets from Amarna

There is extensive archaeological evidence at Amarna of kilns and workshops, which supplied palaces with a range of glazed inlays and appliqués for palace interiors and other decorative objects. Remains show that this was a thriving centre for the manufacture of luxury materials such as glass, and the typically-Egyptian glazed ceramic known as faience. In the new galleries we explore the technology behind faience-making, after conducting our own firing experiments with colleagues from Daresbury laboratory.

I have been particularly struck by the rich array of colours and shapes used. We hold a mixture of decorative elements including tiles and the inlays once attached to them, in addition to separately modelled flowers and fruit such as bunches of grapes and pomegranates. The explosion of colour may seem gaudy to us now, yet it is important to remember that these elaborate decorations were an outward sign of divine bounty, the natural world created by the Aten and ruled over by his only prophet – Akhenaten (whose name literally means ‘Effective for the Aten’). In their own way, these palace decorations created an effect no more ostentatious than the state rooms of Buckingham Palace or Versailles.

These decorations were made for the residence of the living ruler, a transient place compared to the stone-built tomb, or ‘House of Eternity’. This philosophy makes many details of palace decoration seem even more whimsical, illustrating a love of life in ancient Egypt that is often overshadowed by a perceived obsession with death. Manchester Museum is in a fortunate position to have a wealth of material from ‘living’ sites, such as Amarna. In contrast to the previous, 1970s-designed galleries, which were dark and sepulchral (the ‘Daily Life’ section even more than the ‘Afterlife’ one!) our new galleries celebrate the life of ancient Egypt. I hope it would be a celebration Akhenaten – and other Pharaonic Egyptians – would recognise.

This post is an adapted version of one which appeared on the blog of Andante Tours.

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New Ancient Worlds images released

With just over a month to go until we open our new Ancient Worlds galleries, here’s an image we’ll be using in publicity. I really like how this foregrounds the object (Acc. no. 6620, a First Intermediate Period faience broad collar from Sedment):

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Dwarfs in ancient Egypt

The Manchester Museum holds two examples of an unusual category of object, peculiar to the Middle Kingdom (Acc. nos: 279-280). These take the form of two figures of dwarfs, supporting a vessel for either a lamp wick or to burn incense.

Acc. no. 280

Acc. no. 280

Acc. no. 279

Acc. no. 279

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of our pieces is of limestone, the other is of pottery. Further limestone examples from Kahun are in the Petrie Museum in London. A very similar example was recent excavated by Dr. David Jeffreys of the Egypt Exploration Society in a Middle Kingdom settlement at Memphis.

UC 16520

Petrie Museum UC 16520

These find-spots suggest a common domestic context for the lamps, and it is perhaps best to view them as items of household ritual furniture, rather than the equipment of a formal chapel or temple.

The squat proportions of the figures are in contrast to the traditional ancient Egyptian canon of proportion for the human figure, and given the presence of non-Egyptians at Kahun – and presumably at other Middle Kingdom sites too – it cannot be ruled out that the form derives from elsewhere. However, the figure of the dwarf has considerable significance in Egyptian culture, and dwarves are represented throughout the Pharaonic period.

The statue of the dwarf Seneb and his family. Cairo Museum JE 51280.

The statue of the dwarf Seneb and his family. Cairo Museum JE 51280.

Dwarfism appears not to have been uncommon in ancient Egypt and dwarves were clearly accorded high status from the Old Kingdom onwards, and appear in skilled trades such as jewellery making. They could also occupy high positions at court, as was the case with a dwarf named Seneb – an ‘overseer of palace dwarfs’, ‘chief of the royal wardrobe’ and a priest in the funerary cult of King Khufu. An association with the divine may have existed in the Old Kingdom, although it is not articulated explicitly.

Another Middle Kingdom limestone lamp in Leiden – which, according to the dealer who acquired it, came from Asyut  – has a pronounced belly and grasps a snake in each hand. It may therefore represent a female version of lamps, which are assumed to be male in other cases. This piece has been suggested by Maarten Raven as a possible early form of the Pataikos figure, which has strong associations with the protection of family life. More generally, the benevolent aspect of the dwarf is evoked most strongly by Bes, the fearsome god particularly responsible for driving off danger during childbirth. These attestations come mainly from the New Kingdom and later, but fit with the domestic setting in which provenanced Middle Kingdom examples have been found.

Middle Kingdom lamps are thus among the first objects to make explicit the connection between dwarves and protection in a religious context. Our two ‘dwarf lamps’ are best seen in Egyptian positive view of dwarfism. They add to our understanding of Middle Kingdom social practice, evidence for which is so richly represented in the collection at Manchester.

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Why do museums collect… shabtis?

Acc. no. 11272, shabti of Nes-per-nebu, from the second Deir El-Bahri cache. Donated by Max Robinow.

Acc. no. 11272, shabti of Nes-per-nebu, from the second Deir El-Bahri cache. Donated by Max Robinow.

One of the most popular and ubiquitous items of ancient Egyptian funerary equipment is the small servant figurine – or shabti. Most museums with an Egyptian collection, however small, include at least one or two of these figurines. At the Manchester Museum, we have over 1000 complete and fragmentary examples. These are currently being studied by shabti expert Glenn Janes in preparation for a book in his series cataloguing the shabti collections of museums in the North West of England. So, why are shabtis so popular and why have so many of them ended up in museum collections?

A major reason is simply because so many shabtis were produced. The figurines first appeared in burials of the early Middle Kingdom (c. 2000 BC), when only one or two examples were buried with the deceased. They increased in number until the Late Period, when the optimum number of 401 examples was to be included in each burial. This included one ‘worker’ for each day of the year, plus an extra one ‘overseer’ shabti for every group of ten (365 + 36 = 401). Most of these later shabtis are small and crudely made, and the odd example can still be seen lying on the desert surface of large cemetery sites in Egypt. Shabtis continued to be produced well into the Ptolemaic period (310-30 BC). Given the importance of including worker figurines in burials over a span of two millennia, it is hardly surprising that so many examples have survived to find their way into countless museum and private collections.

Shabtis being prepared for display

Shabtis being prepared for display

Yet it is, perhaps, the shabti form itself that has proved so eminently collectable. Often brightly coloured, covered in hieroglyphs and in the quintessentially pharaonic shape of a mummy, shabtis are among the most easily recognisable and attractive Egyptian antiquities. Importantly, their small size makes them easily portable. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that shabtis were an early souvenir for tourists in Egypt, and among the first such objects to be forged: one of the earliest objects to enter the Ashmolean, for example, was a 17th Century AD ‘shabti’ – and we have several fake shabti figures of 19thCentury date in Manchester. Shabti figures still regularly appear in auctions of Egyptian antiquities, and on internet sites such as Ebay.

Shabti of Horudja. © Glenn Janes

Shabti of Horudja. © Glenn Janes

The Manchester Museum received a large number of its shabtis from private collectors, which mostly lack anything more than a vague provenance. However, we also hold many examples found in situ during excavations. An important group are those belonging to a Thirtieth Dynasty (380-343 BC) priest named Horudja, excavated by William Flinders Petrie from a tomb at Hawara at the end of the 19th Century. Petrie records finding 299 shabtis in two compartments at both ends of Horudja’s sarcophagus, which had unfortunately been damaged by flooding in the tomb. 59 of Horudja’s shabtis are now in Manchester and many will appear in our new Egyptian World gallery.

In order to highlight the collectable nature of this type of object, another display space in our Ancient Worlds galleries will be devoted to showing several hundred shabtis – many more than have ever been on display before. They will be arranged roughly chronologically, to illustrate changes in colour, texture and form in shabti production between 1800 and 300 BC. Glenn Janes’ full-colour catalogue of the Manchester shabtis will be published to accompany the redisplay of this material. This will be his largest volume to date, and will provide new insights into our large shabti collection – including parallels in other collections, provenance information and data on the owners of the shabtis identified by their inscriptions. Updates on this important publication will appear here soon.

Enquiries to the Museum about objects from Egypt often include shabtis – genuine or otherwise. We are always keen to see more examples, to hear the histories behind these objects and to find out how they have come to the UK. Do you own a shabti, or would you like an object that sounds like it might be one to be identified? Perhaps you actively collect shabtis yourself? We’d love to hear from you!

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How DID they build the pyramids…?

Remaining mudbrick core of Senwosret II's pyramid II at Lahun

Remaining mudbrick core of Senwosret II's pyramid II at Lahun

Manchester Museum has a unique collection of objects connected with pyramid building. Many everyday tools have survived from a settlement specially-planned to house workers who built the pyramid of King Senwosret II (c. 1880-1874 BC).

In ancient times the town was called Hetep-Senwosret (‘Senwosret-is-pleased’ or ‘Senwosret-is-satisfied’). Today the town is known as Kahun, the name given to it by the site’s excavator W.M.F. Petrie (1853-1942 AD) after hearing the name from a local man. The whole site, including the king’s pyramid, its associated temples and other tombs, is more commonly called Lahun. It is situated at the eastern edge of the Faiyum region – an area of major building works in the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1650 BC).

Plumb-bob (Acc. no. 104) fom Kahun. © Paul Cliff

Plumb-bob (Acc. no. 104) fom Kahun. © Paul Cliff

The pyramid was built upon a natural outcrop of limestone, of over 12 metres in height. An internal framework of limestone walls was built to form a structural skeleton. Measurements for this and other aspects of the building work would have been made using cords and a plumb line (Acc. No. 104). Around the pyramid were also discovered a wooden mallet (Acc. No. 55) and, most interestingly, rollers, also made of wood (Acc. No. 6197). These would have been used to move the heavier stone blocks up the side of the pyramid on a ramp.

Brick mould from Kahun (Acc. no. 51). © Paul Cliff

Brick mould from Kahun (Acc. no. 51). © Paul Cliff

Unlike earlier examples, the core of Senwosret II’s pyramid was constructed largely from sun-dried mud bricks. Brick moulds (Acc. no. 51) would therefore have been in common use by workers. The pyramid was faced with white limestone blocks to give the appearance of a solid stone structure. The lowest course of this casing was set into a rock-cut foundation trench as a precaution against movement of the masonry caused by the settling of the mud bricks. A copper chisel (Acc. no. 204) found at the workers’ village may have been used for dressing stone both at the pyramid and in surrounding buildings. Most of this material was removed by later kings, such as Ramesses II, for use in their own buildings.

A copper chisel (Acc. no. 204), found inside a basket at Kahun. © Paul Cliff

A copper chisel (Acc. no. 204), found inside a basket at Kahun. © Paul Cliff

Other items in Manchester would have been used in the construction and maintenance of buildings in the pyramid complex. A plasterer’s float (Acc. no. 52), with traces of plaster still adhering to its flat surface, might have been used to lay plaster floors – as found in some of the town’s houses – or to finish the surface of walls. Agricultural implements might also have been used near the pyramid: when finished, it would have been surrounded by rows of trees, indicated by the remains of roots in pits, which would require tending.

Plasterer's wooden float from Kahun (Acc. no. 52). © Paul Cliff

Plasterer's wooden float from Kahun (Acc. no. 52). © Paul Cliff

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Object Biography #2: A label of King Djer (Acc. no. 6763a)

Label of Djer

Label of Djer (6763a)

This small (1.8 x 1.9 cm) piece of incised bone doesn’t look like much, but it comes from one of Pharaonic Egypt’s most hallowed places. The Umm el-Qaab (Arabic for ‘Mother of Pots’) area of Abydos was the burial place of the first kings of Egypt. Abydos was sacred to later Egyptians as the cult centre of the Osiris, the god of the dead and of rebirth. Many hoped to make a pilgrimage to the site and those that did left offerings, evidenced by millions of pottery vessels – giving the area its modern Arabic name.

From as early as the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1650 BC), one of the early royal tombs was believed to be the actual burial place of Osiris. This tomb in fact belonged to Djer, probably the third king of the First Dynasty (c. 3000 BC). When the tomb was first excavated – albeit rather hastily – by Frenchman Emile Amélineau (1850-1915) in 1898 the central chamber was found to contain a basalt image of Osiris lying on a funerary bed. This monument was dedicated by a king during the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650-1550 BC) as a way of demonstrating his piety towards Osiris.

Amélineau’s excavations at Abydos were taken over by the British Egyptologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), whose finds form a large part of the Manchester collection. Petrie’s careful work brought to light much that his French counterpart had either overlooked or discarded – including this small bone tag naming king Djer, the owner of the tomb.

Djer’s was the first royal tomb purpose-built to house plentiful supplies for the king’s use in the afterlife – including his servants, who appear to have been killed and buried in subsidiary graves to serve their king in the afterlife. Storage chambers contained pots, as well as model tools and weapons. Inscribed animal bone tags were used to label bags or other containers of food and drink. Examples such as our tag simply give the king’s name, framed inside a serekh and topped by a falcon representing Horus - god of kingship. The royal name is written with a single sign - a hieroglyph with the phonetic value djer – identifying to whom the contents belonged.

Hieroglyph for Djer

Early and later hieroglyph 'djer'

Petrie’s excavations revealed that the tomb’s extensive wooden elements had been damaged by fire. This perhaps occurred during the First Intermediate Period, as implied by the mention of desecration of the Abydos royal tombs in the literary text ‘The Instruction for King Merikare’.

When Djer’s tomb was reinterpreted as the ‘tomb of Osiris’ some time during the Middle Kingdom, evidence – such as our little bone tag – remained to identify the grave’s original occupant.  Maybe these fragments of Egypt’s (already very ancient) history were never recognised… or perhaps they were deliberately ignored in favour of the association with Osiris, whose burial place attracted so many pilgrims.

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