Understanding ancient Egyptian attitudes to animals

Our award-winning touring exhibition ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’ opens at its fifth venue – the National Trust property at Lyme Park in Cheshire – next weekend. As part of the BBC Civilisations Festival, it seems timely to consider the popular understanding of that distinctive aspect of ancient Egyptian civilisation: the role of animals in Egyptian religion.

Ancient Egypt is synonymous in the public imagination with animals and animal imagery. Gods and hieroglyphs could take a vast range of two-and three-dimensional animal forms (the British Museum’s ‘Gayer Anderson Cat’ is one iconic example). Yet, the idea of animals as gods still fundamentally strikes us – in the West, at least – as faintly ridiculous.


The Roman writer Juvenal (1st-2nd Century AD) asked his (Roman) readers/listeners the rhetorical question: “who knows not what monsters demented Egypt worships?” In contradistinction to the Greeks and Romans, who venerated exclusively anthropomorphic deities, the Egyptians were being mocked as primitive, deranged. Juvenal’s impressions of Egypt, as a Roman, were informed by misunderstandings, built on stereotypes and reinforced xenophobic assumptions – knowing his audience would lap it up. Something like a UK Daily Mail journalist today.

This is ironic as there is plentiful evidence for the continued patronage of Egyptian temples and cults by Roman emperors and elite members of society well into the Second Century AD. The famous Roman Period painted mummy portraits further attest to the ongoing investment in Pharaonic funerary customs. Yet Juvenal hits a nerve when he sneers at the “demented” Egyptians, exploiting his audiences’ anxieties about otherness.

Those anxieties continue to be shared today. Most visitors to our Gifts for the Gods exhibition were unfamiliar – if intrigued – with the nature of Egyptian animal mummies. Most believed that they would learn more about the Egyptians’ pets. Trying to explain the finer points of votive animal mummification on an industrial scale is challenging, given the limits on word-length and attention-spans in most museums today.


The exhibition tries to persuade visitors to adopt a different perspective, based on an alternative set of values, and to suspend many modern preconceptions. Visitors were invited to leave messages to three different animal gods, using hieroglyphic stamps to add the relevant animal image of each deity. Analysis showed that most responses recognised the associations outlined in the exhibition interpretation (e.g. the ibis god Thoth with writing and knowledge).


The exhibition’s ‘votive interactive’

In the UK, the pet industry accounts for billions of pounds a year. At the latest count, British people spend an average of £1150 a year on their pets. Yet pet ownership is a modern affectation, little attested in the ancient past and – interestingly – not very popular in Egypt today.

The scale of the modern pet industry is no less than Egyptian production of votive gifts – images of the gods (statues, mummies) – were produced in tens of millions and presented to temples and shrines in the earnest hope of divine favour.

Now, animals are fetishized in the West in a way that would leave the ancient Egyptians incredulous. I can imagine the reaction of an ancient time-traveller: “You spend how much on animals – in what you claim to be a Christian/secular country – and you think WE’RE weird?!”

The question is one of shifting values and of understanding the concerns and priorities of cultures in many ways different from our own. We have inherited something of Juvenal’s tabloid-worthy sneer of others, but research shows the impact exhibitions can have in countering this. It is to be hoped that the BBC’s Civilizations series tackles some of these sorts of misconceptions and follows in one of the core missions of Manchester Museum, to promote understanding between cultures of the past and of the present.


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Interpreting the Two Brothers (I): Alternative readings, brothers and lovers

Manchester Museum’s well-known ‘Two Brothers’ were recently the subject of DNA analysis using a Next Generation Sequencing technique, which demonstrated a genetic link between the two men through the maternal line – confirming the texts on their coffins naming a common mother, Khnum-aa. Like most such scientific analysis, however, the DNA results (‘facts’) do not act as a ‘magic wand’ to reveal everything about the Brothers; in fact very little can be ‘revealed’, despite the widespread appetite for revelation and discovery. Theories concerning the (social, personal) identities of the Two Brothers tell us perhaps more about our own interests and anxieties than about ancient people.

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During the UK’s LGBT History Month, I would like to re-visit one theory that has gained (perhaps surprisingly) little traction among the museum-going public in metropolitan Manchester, and very little attention from Egyptologists. Gregory Reeder, an independent scholar based in the US, has written several articles about a pair of much earlier (twin?) “brothers” Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep – who are depicted in their joint Old Kingdom tomb chapel at Saqqara using iconographic conventions usually reserved for husband and wife (more on this below).


Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep from the 5th Dynasty tomb at Saqqara

Reeder’s 2005 article in the American popular journal KMT takes up the subject of the “mysterious brothers” of Manchester Museum. In a valuably critical reappraisal of the details of the tomb group, Reeder suggests a close bond between Khnum-nakht (who died around 30-40 years of age) and Nakht-ankh (who died, possibly the following year, around 60 years of age). Both men claim to have a mother who was called Khnum-aa, and a father who was a district governor, although the 1908 autopsy of the brothers’ bodies showed differences considered strikingly different at the time. For Reeder the degree of difference “almost certainly rules out that they were blood relatives”, and he favours Rosalie David’s interpretation that one or both of the men was adopted into the family – a claim made several times in biographies of do-gooding contemporary governors.

Reeder also discusses the repeated assessment of Nakht-ankh’s skeleton as that of a eunuch. The unfortunate image conjured of the Oriental harem, and a modern equation with effeminacy, is, however, deserving of critique. The resulting impression of the “elderly eunuch” adopting “the much younger [“virile”, according to an 1910 anatomist] priest into his household” is evidence for Reeder (quoting David) of their “deep affection”.


Statuettes of the Manchester ‘Two Brothers’ found in the coffins

To further illustrate this bond, Reeder cites the presence of a small statuette of each man in the coffin of the other. Reeder raises, but skirts around, the problematic (and persistent) theory that because the profiles of the statuettes of each man more resemble the skull of the other, they must be mislabelled. Aside from the sinister spectre of eugenics in this assessment, the implication that we must know better than the ancient Egyptians is laughable. For Reeder, the placement of the statuettes is meaningful and “subtly indicate(s) something about the relationship between the old eunuch and much younger priest.”

Here we must be cautious. Very few intact coffins from the Twelfth Dynasty survive to show how common such statuette placement was – but we do have cases where the statuettes of children are included deliberately in a parent’s coffin. To my mind, the (social, ritual) role of Khnum-nakht was most plausibly that of ‘son’ towards Nakht-ankh – the elder, and better-equipped (in materials terms, at least), half-brother.

Reeder, like many others, hoped that DNA might provide definitive proof. The recently-published evidence of a genetic link, confirming the stated familial relationship, does cast doubt on the implied idea of (quasi-)sexual intimacy between two unrelated men.

At a conference on Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt held at Swansea University in 2006, I particularly remember Richard Parkinson (formerly a curator at the British Museum and long-term advocate of LGBT visibility in museums, now Professor of Egyptology at Oxford) declaring that “as an out, gay Egyptologist,” while part of him wished to see the Old Kingdom “brothers” Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep as a same-sex couple, there simply wasn’t the evidence for it. As an out gay Egyptologist myself, I am inclined to agree with him.

The cultural construction of identities (especially of past cultures) is notoriously difficult to interpret, and previous interpretations seem bound to have favoured hetero-normative readings. In each case, we ought to acknowledge that any modern reading is contingent, and coloured by what we might hope to find.



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Book Review – ‘Nefertiti’s Face: The Creation of an Icon’ by Joyce Tyldesley

Joyce Tyldesley’s new book concerns Ancient Egypt’s most well-known poster-girl: Nefertiti, or – more accurately – a painted limestone and plaster bust of her now in the Neues Museum in Berlin. Tyldesley has already written an excellent biography of the lady herself, and uses this opportunity to discuss her most famous representation – and how it skews our entire impression of who she was. The book follows the successful format of the biography of a single object adopted by Laurence Berman, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in his accessible study of the Late Period ‘Boston Green Head’. As a fellow curator, the idea of spending a whole book on a sole museum object is particularly appealing to me.


Now, I must confess personal bias here – Joyce is a friend and University of Manchester colleague, and we have discussed the content of the book extensively. Yet the finished product is one of the most important popular and accessible books now available in Egyptology. It chimes in with a welcome mood of reassessment of the history of Egyptology explored very provocatively – though sometimes in rather acerbic terms – in more academic works; the real value here is that, thanks to the popularity of her previous books and online courses at the University of Manchester, the general public are actually likely to read Joyce Tyldesley’s work.


Joyce and the Manchester Museum replica of the bust.

The book is divided into two parts: the ancient context of the bust and the importance of image production in ancient Egypt (a personal research interest of my own); and the modern reception of the object. The ancient archaeological setting is an especially fascinating one: a sculptor’s workshop at the centre of the production of a vast and still-experimental series of royal images. Nefertiti’s bust is rarely considered in the context of contemporary sculptural practice, which is surprisingly well-attested at Amarna. Tyldesley packs a lot in: notably, the vexed question of how the bust actually left Egypt, a convincing rebuttal of theories that it’s a fake, and the intriguing history of official replicas of the bust. From Adolf Hitler’s fascination with her beauty to the unlikely appropriation of its imagery for Sci-Fi movies, the bust of Nefertiti has had a powerful effect on Twentieth and Twenty-First Century popular culture.

A description, attributed to Hitler, expresses a populist tone that has a sinister and familar ring to it today:

“Oh, these Egyptologists and these professors! I don’t attach any value to their appraisals. I know this famous bust. I have viewed it and admired it many times….”

Who needs an expert to know anything? This reminds us that an object can mean many things to different people, whether or not we like those people is a different matter.

Most importantly, Tyldesley eloquently argues against an exception status for the queen herself. The one-in-a-million chance that such a (seemingly) exceptional piece should be so exceptionally well-preserved has vastly inflated our expectations of her role. As Tyldesley points out, the best comparison is with Nefertiti’s mother-in-law, Queen Tiye (who was actually more ‘famous’ before the seductive bust was found).

Ancient culture in general, and the Nefertiti bust in particular, is so over-loaded with modern meanings and significations that it is a wonder the queen’s slender, elegant neck hasn’t snapped under the strain.


‘Nefertiti’s Face: The Creation of an Icon’ is launched at Manchester Museum on Thursday 25th January, and will be on sale in our shop thereafter.


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ITP 2018: Applications for Egypt now Open!

An opportunity for Egyptian curatorial colleagues…

BM International Training Programme

Deadline for applications, 12:00pm (midday) on 16 February 2018

Application form
Contact: itp@britishmuseum.org

The British Museum is delighted to offer two fully-funded training positions for museum and heritage professionals working for the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt.

The International Training Programme is aimed at those looking to increase their knowledge of museum practices and share skills across the sector, while having the opportunity work with specialists relevant to their personal interests and roles.

The programme will run from Saturday 30 June to Saturday 11 August 2018 (inclusive of travel dates) and comprises two parts:

A four and a half week programme at the British Museum with sessions covering a wide variety of topics including but not limited to:

  • Collections management, storage and documentation; exhibitions and galleries; conservation and scientific research; national and international loans; learning, volunteers and audiences; fundraising, income generation and commercial programmes; leadership, strategy, museum management and communication.


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The Use of Steatite in Ancient Egypt

A guest blog on the well-attested stone known as steatite from experimental technologist Matt Szafran…


Statuette of Neb-iu, the ‘spinning statue’. Photo: Paul Cliff.

Steatite, sometimes called ‘soapstone’, is a green/grey/brown coloured metamorphic rock made from talc-schist which will naturally darken as it oxidises. This colouration can cause steatite to sometimes be confused with serpentinite – a different and unrelated metamorphic rock with a hardness of Mohs 3-5, which is also used for statuary (such as the Manchester Museum’s world famous ‘Spinning Statue’ – accession number 9325 (left)). Steatite occurs in the Eastern Desert at sites such as Wadi Abu Qureya and immediately north and south of Wadi Barramiya. In its natural state steatite is a heavy rock and its high talc content makes it very soft – with a hardness of only Mohs 1. Bronze has a hardness of Mohs 3, horn and bone have a hardness of Mohs 2.5 and flint has a hardness of Mohs 7; meaning that steatite can very easily be worked with even the most basic of tools – often yielding very finely detailed results. Whilst it’s used in multiple cultures (up to and including modern times), in an Ancient Egyptian context steatite was used in both Predynastic and Dynastic periods but it does appear to be limited to smaller statues, shabtis, beads, amulets and seals. Whilst large sections of steatite could have been quarried, there are no extant examples of use for larger statuary or other larger carved objects.

In its raw state the softness of steatite make it extremely easily damaged, and simply wearing or using a carved object would damage the carved detail. Steatite has an interesting property, when it is fired it will convert from steatite into enstatite. Unlike steatite, enstatite has a hardness of Mohs 5.5 which is close to that of granite – making it extremely hard wearing and resistant to damage, whilst still retaining its carved detail. Steatite has also been glazed since the Predynastic era for objects such as beads and amulets. Glazing can be achieved in one of two ways; either the object can be buried in a glazing medium during firing (a process called cementation), or it can have a glaze applied to its surface prior to firing. These glazes would be very similar to Egyptian faience and be made from powdered quartz and copper (the latter providing the blue/green colour).

Firing at a temperature of ~950°C will cause steatite to dehydrate and crystallise into enstatite. Clay will begin its vitrification process ~800-900°C and firing will generally require temperatures in excess of 1100°C , therefore the steatite to enstatite conversion can be achieved using similar technology as is required for firing clay objects. A wood fuelled open fire can easily reach temperatures exceeding 1100°C, and can be used for firing ceramics and also for converting steatite to enstatite. However as this requires a large volume of fuel this is unlikely to have been the method used in Ancient Egypt, where wood has been a scarce resource in various periods. A kiln requires less wood to reach firing temperature than an open fire; however it still may not have been the fuel of choice. Ethnographic studies have shown that modern Egyptian and Sudanese cultures are using dung fuelled kilns for the firing of pottery. This is therefore likely to have been something which was undertaken in ancient times. Unlike wood an open dung fuelled fire will only reach a maximum of ~650°C and will not reach the temperature required for the steatite to enstatite conversion. Therefore if dung was used as a fuel it would require a kiln to reach the necessary temperature for conversion.

Perhaps the only factor which prevented the production of larger steatite objects in Ancient Egypt was simply a lack of available technology and materials to fire large objects and convert them into enstatite. An unfired statue would be vulnerable to damage and if left outside would be abraded very quickly by nothing more than the sand blown on the wind.

Certain descriptions of the use of fired steatite for statuary imply that it is a less expensive alternative for individuals who could not afford, or did not have access to, granite or the craftsmen to work it – as once these statues have been fired they would then have an appearance and feel similar to granite. Whilst this is likely the case for certain examples, it would be naive and cynical to assume that this was the only reason to choose steatite over an alternative material.


Shabti of Khaemwaset (UC 2311). Photo: Matt Szafran

The Petrie Museum holds an extremely finely carved shabti of Khaemwaset (UC2311). This shabti has intricately carved fabric folds of everyday wear (rather than the more typical wrapped ‘sah-iform’ shape commonly employed for shabtis), a beaded collar, the Sem-Priest side-lock hairstyle and hieroglyphic inscription. Prince Khaemwaset was the fourth son of Ramesses II, was the crown prince briefly between the 50th and 55th year of his father’s reign and High Priest of Ptah. He can therefore certainly be thought of as being an ‘elite’ who had access to the highest quality and ‘elite’ only materials (such as granite or basalt), and who had access to the best craftsmen and the wealth to commission them. Therefore the use of steatite for his shabti was a deliberate choice neither governed by affordability nor the lack of access to materials such as granite.

There is no simple answer as to why steatite is used as a sculpture medium, and any such statement should be treated with caution. It is highly likely that in some cases the use of steatite was indeed because the more ‘elite’ materials were unaffordable or unavailable, however in in other cases the choice to use steatite was very deliberately made because of the material’s ability to be intricately carved and fired to produce an object which could not be created in another medium.

Further Reading

Connor, S, Tavier, H and De Putter, T. ‘Put the Statues in the Oven: Preliminary Results of Research on Steatite Sculpture from the Late Middle Kingdom’. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 101 (2015).

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DNA confirms the Two Brothers’ relationship

Using ‘next generation’ DNA sequencing, scientists at the University of Manchester have confirmed a long-held supposition that the famous ‘Two Brothers’ of the Manchester Museum have a shared mother but different fathers – so are, in fact, half-brothers. This is the first in a series of blog posts presenting the DNA results, and discussing the interpretation and display of the Brothers in Manchester.


The ‘Two Brothers’ are among Manchester Museum’s most famous inhabitants. The complete contents of their joint burial forms one of the Museum’s key Egyptology exhibits, which have been on almost continuous display since they were first entered the Museum in 1908.

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The Two Brothers’ inner coffins: Khnum-nakht (left) and Nakht-ankh (right), 2011

Central to public (and academic) interest have been the mummified bodies of the men themselves – Khnum-nakht and Nakht-ankh – who lived around the middle of the 12th Dynasty, c. 1900-1800 BC. Their intact tomb was discovered at Deir Rifeh, a village 250 miles south of Cairo, in 1907 by an Egyptian workman called Erfai – a rare case where the non-European discoverer is named. He was working for Ernest MacKay and Flinders Petrie, the British archaeologists who wrote the reports and the names people usually remember. Unusually, the entire contents of the tomb – mummies, coffins, and a small number of other objects – were shipped to Manchester, rather than being divided among different international museum collections as was usually the case.

Once in Manchester, in 1908, the mummies of both men were unwrapped by the UK’s first female Egyptologist employed by a University, Dr Margaret Murray. This procedure, which mixed both science and spectacle, set the tone for more than a century’s worth of scientific investigation, exploiting the intact ‘time capsule’-like nature of the burial.

Margaret Murray 1908

Margaret Murray and team with the remains of Nakht-ankh, 1908

Murray’s team –namely Dr John Cameron, an anatomist – concluded that the skeletal morphologies were quite different, suggesting an absence of a biological relationship. Although notoriously difficult to age such skeletal remains, the team suggested that Khnum-nakht had been around 40 years of age when he died and that Nakht-ankh had died at around the age of 60, perhaps around a year later than Khnum-nakht (based on year dates inked onto the bandages of both mummies).


Margaret Murray’s original publication of the tomb group

Hieroglyphic inscriptions on the coffins indicated that both men were the children of an unnamed local governor (thus, they were of the elite in society) and had a mother of the same name, Khnum-aa. It was thus that the men became known as the Two Brothers. Based on contemporary inscriptional evidence, it was proposed that one (or both) of the Brothers was adopted. Up until recently previous attempts to extract and analyse DNA from the Brothers’ remains had been inconclusive.

Therefore, in 2015, the DNA was extracted from the teeth, removed by Dr Roger Forshaw, a retired dentist, and analysed by Dr Konstantina Drosou, of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester. Following hybridization capture of the mitochondrial and Y chromosome fractions, the DNA was sequenced by a next generation method. Analysis showed that both Nakht-ankh and Khnum-nakht belonged to mitochondrial haplotype M1a1, suggesting a maternal relationship. The Y chromosome sequences were less complete but showed variations between the two mummies, indicating that Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht had different fathers, and were thus very likely to have been half-brothers genetically.

The study, which is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, is the first to successfully use the typing of both mitochondrial and Y chromosomal DNA in Egyptian mummies.


The Brothers pose a number of questions of interpretation, which – despite much interest in them – have not been fully explored. Some of the issues concerning their display and interpretation will be examined over the coming weeks on this blog.


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Curator’s Diary December 2017: Returning to Egypt


Earlier this month I was delighted to be able to spend a week based in Luxor, after an absence from Egypt of over two years. The trip was made possible thanks to a generous bequest to a University of Manchester travel fund from one of the Museum’s best-known and much-missed volunteers – the late Audrey Carter, a relative of the archaeologist Howard Carter.


Audrey Carter in 2013

The visit had been organised by the Egypt Exploration Society for Manchester Professor Emerita Rosalie David to present her re-published book Temple Ritual at Abydos to colleagues in Egypt. Rosalie was able to present the book in person to the Minister of Antiquities, Dr Khaled el-Anani, at a press conference announcing he re-opening of two early 18th Dynasty tombs at Dra Abu el-Naga and the inner sanctuary of the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri, reworked in the Ptolemaic Period for the cult of the sages Imhotep and Amenhotep son of Hapu. These sites are further additions to the range it is now possible to visit in Luxor. Since my last visit in 2015, tourist numbers have appreciably increased and it is to be hoped that new sites, better interpreted, will help to continue this trend.


Rosalie David presents a copy of her book to the Minister

The trip was a wonderful opportunity to meet colleagues working in Egyptian museums and on current excavations. Particularly pleasing was evidence of recent excavations featured on display in the Luxor Museum, including a number of monumental stone statues of Amenhotep III from Kom el-Hettan. We had the opportunity to visit the site with field director Dr Hourig Sourouzian, showcasing the vast scale of the original Amenhotep III temple. Much of the core architecture of New Kingdom west bank temples before the reign of Ramesses II was in mudbrick, which as a result has now almost totally disappeared. This creates the impression of statues – notably the ‘Colossi of Memnon’ – being isolated and decontextualized. It was fascinating to see at Kom el-Hettan how intensive excavation by a large team has revealed many details that might have been assumed to have been lost – dozens of statues and thousands of fragments that show how densely populated with sculptures the temples must have once been. Selective restoration of some (often colossal) sculptures gives an impression of scale.

Every site we visited – such as the Spanish mission at the Mortuary Temple of Tuthmose III and work by Chicago House at Medinet Habu – was working towards making the results of excavations accessible through on-site interpretation and, where possible, site museums. This will significantly improve the offer for interested visitors to Luxor over the next five years.

Seti I

The Souls of Nekhen – fine bas reliefs in the Temple of Seti I 

A personal highlight was undoubtedly the temple of Seti I at Abydos, one of the best preserved temples in Egypt and – importantly – one which has not experienced the many subsequent modifications that have changed the complexion of most other temples. The quality of the limestone bas reliefs – often with original colour still preserved – is breath-taking. Conservation work on the Osirieon – the site of fieldwork by Manchester legend Margaret Murray in the early 20th Century – illustrated the ongoing efforts to preserve standing monuments.


Abydos – one of Pharaonic Egypt’s most sacred sites, looking west

A visit to the Early Dynastic cemetery at Abydos was also very special. Known as the Umm el-Qaab (‘Mother of Pots’) due to the quantity of votive pottery left by pilgrims to the Osiris cult, Manchester Museum houses over 1000 objects from this important site.  It is always a special privilege as a curator to see the sites from whence items in the collection came. Hopefully many more people in future will be able to make this connection in person.

For more photos check out @EgyptMcr on Twitter and Instagram.

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