Divinity and Display: Discussing Mummified Human Remains

Our international touring exhibition ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt’ returns to Manchester Museum this week, and presents a unique opportunity to display and discuss our collections.

Naturally, an exhibition which features mummified remains prompts discussion about the ethics of their display. Debate on the subject is not new but has attended the display of Egyptian mummified people at least since the first Western encounters with them in the 17th Century. Manchester Museum itself has been the centre of consideration of the subject since it chose to cover some remains to prompt discussion in connection with an exhibition on ‘Lindow Man’, Iron Age remains preserved in a peat bog, in 2008.

Unlike the previous venues for ‘Golden Mummies’ in the US and China, we have decided to edit out all images of human remains derived from CT-scans and X-rays from the final Manchester showing. Digital interpretation now focuses solely on the outer decoration and materials used in the mummification ritual, one that was more about transformation of the deceased into a divine being than simply about preservation of the body.

By doing this, the exhibition resists the urge to look inside – the default expectation of recent exhibitions featuring mummified human remains but one that was never anticipated by ancient people. Instead, ‘Golden Mummies’ addresses the intention rather than the effect of the ritual of mummification, and focuses on the transformative imagery on the decorated exterior of carefully wrapped bodies. From the earliest identifiable depictions of gods, the wrapped, shrouded form has indicated (and imparted) divine status. Usually, Egyptology describes gods like Osiris and Ptah as ‘mummiform’ – when in fact the shrouded forms of mummified bodies imitate images of gods. These amorphous forms subsume individual human characteristics, and create a divine, ancestral image – an effigy for eternity.

Funerary mask for a woman. 2120. From Lahun. C. 100 BCE- 100CE. Photo: Julia Thorne.

Research that enquires into preservation techniques and palaeopathology – the study of ancient disease – has long fascinated people. But by narrowing in on the medical history of mummified individuals, this interpretation characterises the dead individual in terms of their illnesses, the identification of which is much more contested and subjective than many non-specialists realise.

When understood as transformation of a human body into a divine image, mummification actively denies these human frailties. Texts and images repeatedly assert that the (elite) dead have become something more than human, impervious to change, divine and therefore without imperfections.

This generically god-like, and mostly androgenous, face is what appears in countless plaster-and-linen masks; these were mass-produced and subsume individual identity into a standardised – even hieroglyphic – vision of an eternal face or ‘head of mystery’, to quote from spell 151 of the Book of the Dead.

Mummified body of a young man. c. 2nd Century CE. From Hawara.

Roman Period painted wooden panels are often held up as if, by contrast, they are snapshots of reality – a definitive break from the supposedly stiff and caricatured form of Pharaonic-style mask. Yet if – as seems likely – most were painted posthumously, then these painted ‘portraits’ are no simple reflections of what people looked like in life. At best, they are highly stylised approximations – much as we might want these to be ‘the way people actually looked’. Reference to a certain Roman Emperor’s hairstyle is often used to date these images – although emperors were themselves deified, providing a further divine model to imitate. These lifelike images are, therefore, not less ‘godly’ than the Pharaonic-style masks.

Unlike in Pharaonic times, there is evidence that wrapped bodies with panel paintings and masks were placed on selective display for a period perhaps up to several years after funeral rituals. Although the archaeologist Flinders Petrie assumed this to be in a domestic context, dedicated sacred spaces seem more likely. This kind of direct interaction with the dead – present as ancestors – is common in many cultures, although we are often unfamiliar with such practices in the West.

The unwrapped mummified body of a woman named Asru remains on display in our Egypt and Sudan gallery, as she has for almost 200 years. She is covered in ancient linen from collar to feet, as are the royal mummies at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Cairo. Over the next few months we will be consulting with our audiences about how we might approach the display of Asru’s remains in future.

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Object Biography # 30: A faience shabti of King Senkamenisken

Manchester Museum’s Egyptology collection holds material not only from Egypt, but contains almost 700 objects from ancient Sudan. These come from a range of sites and entered the museum by a variety of means. In the case of a small number royal shabtis, these were donated to Manchester from the Sudan Museum in 1926.

Senkamenisken was the grandson of rather better known King Taharqa (690-664 BCE) of the 25th Dynasty, who ruled both Egypt and Nubia. After the Assyrian incursions into Egypt, the Napatan dynasty was based solely in Nubia and was contemporary with the Egyptian 26th Dynasty.

Statue of Senkamenisken found in the Dokki Gel cache and now in the Sudan National Museum, Khartoum (left) and a replica showing the statue as it once appeared, with gilding (right)

Senkamenisken was buried in a pyramid (no. 3) at the royal cemetery at Nuri, some 300km north of Khartoum. The pyramid and associated funerary temple were excavated by a Harvard University – Boston Museum of Fine Arts mission in 1917 under the direction of American Egyptologist George Andrew Reisner. In the publication of the site, fellow American Dows Dunham described ‘at least’ 867 faience shabtis found scattered throughout the pyramid’s 3 chambers – and ‘at least’ 410 serpentine stone ones, indicating that Senkamenisken had the most of any known royal burial (though Taharqa is often credited with having most, at around 1000).

Faience shabti of Senkamenisken (acc. no. 8576)

There were three recognised types of faience shabtis, many showing the king with a double uraeus at his brow – something of an iconographical hallmark of Napatan kings, and here perhaps an allusion to the time when the family ruled both Egypt and Nubia. This example shows the king with a tripartite headdress, without uraei, emphasising perhaps the divine nature of the deceased king. The kings holds the standard agricultural tools, indication an expectation of the role of worker for the king in the afterlife.

This example carries the standard ‘Shabti Spell’ – Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead – the text of which, unusually, extends down the back pillar. This feature parallels developments in royal and private shabtis in Egypt, which favoured faience and included back pillars. Indeed it may be that these shabtis were made in Egypt because they are so similar to contemporary non-royal examples found there. Yet, there are Napatan royal texts which speak of artisans being brought to Nubia from as far away as Memphis to work in Napatan temples, so perhaps the craftsmanship – rather than the objects themselves – were imported, or adapted.

This example has recently been scanned and replicated for use in an innovative outreach project, examining identity and concepts of authenticity, by Amanda Ford Spora, a doctoral student at UCL. Another shabti of Senkamenisken, made of serpentine, is loaned out of the Museum as part of our award-winning ‘Shabtis in Schools’ programme.

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Celebrating Jubilees in Ancient Egypt

As Queen Elizabeth II marks an historic 70 years on the British throne, it seems timely to reflect on what is known about Pharaonic attitudes to such regnal milestones. Although the term ‘heb-sed’ (or ‘sed-festival’) is often translated as ‘jubilee’ in English, it seems to have had a particular set of ritual and religious associations that do not imply simply the numerical commemoration of the accession of a ruler. The rituals were often – although not exclusively – tied to a king’s 30th regnal year. While after that point a heb-sed seems to have been celebrated intermittently every few years, several kings seem to have celebrated heb-seds before that point. As so often, the Egyptological quest for a neat pattern often has to reckon with the rather more complex realities of human behaviour.

Heb-sed scenes of Niuserre from Abu Ghurab

Elements of the episodes associated with the heb-sed – such as ritual running and the king seated under a baldachin – are attested from as early as the First Dynasty, with fuller scenes from the sun temple of the Dynasty 5 king Niuserre at Abu Ghurab. From the earliest Pharaonic times, the king is shown in both 2- and 3-dimensional representations as wearing a so-called sed-festival ‘cloak’ – although the appearance of this garment seems broader than contexts narrowly defined as relating to the heb-sed, and it ought to be remembered that – as Christina Riggs has demonstrated – cloth imparts an elevated status and sanctity, so the act of shrouding affirms the divine status of the wearer generally. Egyptology has adopted the misleading term ‘mummiform’ for such three-dimensional images in architectural contexts, although this formulation is likely the wrong way around: mummified bodies, swathed in linen, emulate the amorphous forms of gods – not the other way around.

King Osorkon II pours water from a ritual hes-vessel, on a block from his ‘festival hall’ at Bubastis. This block has been cleaned for Manchester Museum’s reopening in 2023.

Such ritual actions were about rejuvenating the king, proclaiming or promoting his divinity, and marking the occasion in monumental records. These had the aim of impressing the gods, and while they might have included large numbers of participants these tended to be elite people, temple or palace staff and would have been inaccessible to most of the population. The so-called ‘Festival Hall’ of Osorkon II at Bubastis is decorated with scenes showing human participants as well as gods. Such divine presence was ensured during the reign of Amenhotep III but creating statues of a series of deities – notably some 1000 sculptures depicting Sekhmet – several of whom carry the epithet ‘lord/lady of the heb-sed’. Inscribed pottery vessels from Amenhotep III’s palace at Malqata imply high officials donated lots of food and wine to the festivities – ‘bring your own bottle’ for a right royal knees-up.

A key organiser of the celebration of Ramesses II’s sed-festivals was his fourth son, Prince Khaemwaset. Khaemwaset was High Priest of the god Ptah at Memphis, and seems to have wished to place himself at the front and centre of marking his father’s heb-sed, which appears to coincide with a great emphasis on the king’s divinity.

Model blocks of Khaemwaset

Manchester Museum holds several ‘foundation deposits’, often-inscribed objects made of alabaster, granite and faience – essentially model blocks which carry the names of both Ramesses II and Khaemwaset. The faience example places the king’s titulary above a sign for ‘heb’ or ‘festival’ and the blocks are likely included in the foundations of an extension to the temple of Ptah at Memphis known as the ‘West Hall’, associated with Ramesses II’s first heb-sed. While these objects are tied to a particular (series of) event(s), they are not the ancient Egyptian equivalent of so many sets of commemorative china. They actively effect the perpetually divine status of the king, having been transformed (or at least enhanced) by heb-sed rituals.

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Reconnecting with Collections

An update on our latest project, ‘To Have and To Heal’!

hello future

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week this guest post from Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan, offers some personal reflections of getting the collections ready for the ‘To Have and To Heal’ project. To Have and To Heal is a unique arts and wellbeing programme, supporting Covid recovery and resilience using Manchester Museum’s world class Egyptology collection, and the popular fascination with ancient Egypt.

Among my highlights of 2021 were the spring days spent in the Museum photographing and filming content for our ‘To Have and To Heal’ project, when we were able to be onsite again after months of Lockdown.

Three people with masks on, standing in a store room
Campbell (Curator of Egypt & Sudan), Jake (Filmographer) and Julia (Photographer) excited to be back in the Museum after Lockdown 2, in the Egyptology store, ready to select artefacts for To Have and To Heal.

Over the space of several weeks, photographer Julia Thorne visited the…

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Object Biography 29: A gilded statuette of Osiris (acc. no 4849)

Despite the loss of the head of this figure, its identity is easily discernible as Osiris, the god of rebirth and regeneration. Unlike the other commonly shrouded gods like Ptah and Khonsu, the arm positions indicate the figure was intended – perhaps only conceptually – to hold the crook and flail: elements of rulership that are commonly associated with Osiris. His tall atef-crown (of which only the streamers running down the neck and back remain) would also have made the head susceptible to breakage, thus even without an identifying inscription, it is clear that this gilded figurine represents Osiris.

Acc. no. 4849, from Giza. H. 23.8 cm. Photo by Julia Thorne/Tetisheri

The use of gold leaf to cover the statuette indicates not that this was a cult image – used as a focal point of rituals – but that it was a particularly rich version of a common object type: a votive image, given as a gift for the gods in petition, prayer or thanks. Untarnishable gold was viewed as the flesh of the gods, an appropriate material for objects the effected divine presence. The appearance of finely etched kneeling figures with an offering table between them at the front of the base further assert this votive function, and the form of this small composition – which seems to consciously evoke much earlier styles – is an indication of the date of this piece, in the Saite era – or Twenty-sixth Dynasty.

Detail of side of plinth, with djed and tyet symbols. Photo: Julia Thorne/Tetisheri

An interesting feature of religious culture in Egypt during the First Millennium BCE was the growth and expansion in the popular cult of the god Osiris. This figurine was found by workmen excavating for Flinders Petrie in 1906 at Giza, a site that was constantly reinterpreted after the construction of the great pyramids. The cult of Osiris – and of his wife Isis – was very significant at Giza in the Late Period. The presence of both ‘djed’ and ‘tyet’ symbols, motifs of Osiris and Isis respectively, on the base of the statuette emphasise their connection.

Eastern side of queens’ pyramids at Giza, showing Late Period temple of Isis. Photo: MFA Boston/Digital Giza.

On the eastern side of the small pyramid of one of Khufu’s wives, Queen Henutsen, developed a chapel to the goddess Isis, which became an active site of elite devotion in the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty and later. A monumental stone tablet – called the Inventory Stela – was discovered in the vicinity of this chapel, listing sacred images both within the temple and elsewhere at the site, including the great Sphinx. One entry reads, ‘Osiris. Gilded wood. Eyes inlaid’ – a description of the sort of object now in Manchester Museum.

This item is part of Manchester Museum’s ‘To Have and To Heal’ project, an attempt to use ancient Egyptian material culture – visualised through the photography of Julia Thorne – to address big questions in the post-pandemic world while Manchester Museum is closed (August 2021-late 2022) to complete its capital building project. Find out more at the website: https://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk or on social media @McrMuseum @EgyptMcr.

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The Authenticity of a Lizard-Shaped Predynastic Palette (Acc. No. 5474)

A guest post from palettologist and independent researcher Matt Szafran on an intriguing item that may not be all it at first appears…

Figure 1 – Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) specular enhancement of lizard-shaped Predynastic palette, Manchester 5474.

Predynastic Egyptian palettes were rediscovered in late 19th and early 20th century excavations. Archaeologists in the 19th century initially attributed their use as being for the processing of green malachite pigment for use in eye makeup (hence why palettes are sometimes referred to as ‘cosmetic palettes’), however more recent research points to the use of palettes being more nuanced and forming a part of the ritual landscape of the Predynastic cultures.

Whist palettes are one of the most frequent objects found in Predynastic burials, palettes would have been exclusively owned by the rulers and elites of society. The Predynastic Palette Database (PPDB) project has catalogued over 1257 palettes in 44 different collections, spread across the almost 1500 years of which palettes were used between 4000 BCE and 3150. Manchester Museum number 5474 (Fig. 1) represents one of the more unusual palettes which has been catalogued in the PPDB.

Figure 2 – Collections catalogued in the Predynastic Palette Database.

The Manchester Museum’s Egyptology collection holds the 2nd biggest collection (Fig. 2) of palettes in the PPDB, housing 116 (9.2%) palettes. This collection is built from excavation finds, such as those obtained through the Egypt Exploration Fund’s partage scheme, and also from donations – particularly those from textile magnate Jesse Haworth. One such donated piece the ‘lizard’ shaped palette, accessioned as museum number 5474. This object was purchased by British Egyptologist James Quibell in 1900 (Fig. 3), on the behest of Haworth. In a letter to Haworth, Quibell commented that the ‘carved green slates’ (palettes) were extremely rare and described Manchester 5474 as being of importance and stated it would be a fine piece for any museum’s collection (Fig. 3). It should be noted that Quibell was extremely familiar with Predynastic palettes at the time he wrote this letter, as he studied under Flinders Petrie and excavated at multiple Predynastic sites, including rediscovering the Narmer Palette in 1898 at Hierakonpolis, and began working as chief inspector of antiquities in the Delta and Middle Egypt in 1899.

Figure 3 – Copy of original letter between James Quibell and Jesse Haworth confirming the purchase of lizard-shaped palette Manchester 5474.

However, whilst Quibell was convinced of the authenticity of this object, in more recent years it has been looked at with much more scepticism, and the current Manchester Museum object catalogue lists 5474 as a possible 19th century forgery. These suspicions are mostly based upon the shape of the palette. Whilst lizard/crocodile shapes do exist in other Predynastic visual culture, such as on decorated pottery vessels, there is only one other comparable palette. The Petrie Museum collection holds a lizard/crocodile shaped palette, accessioned as UC15773, however this palette is also suspicious as it has red glass eyes – so at best it’s been modified in more recent time and at worst it is a complete forgery.

In an effort to determine whether or not Manchester 54474 is an authentic Predynastic palette or a modern forgery, it has been studied using microscopy and also Reflective Transformation Imaging (RTI). The RTI capture process uses multiple lighting angles of the subject which are combined in software to create a texture map which can then be manipulated with a virtual light source, this helps to highlight surface textures and can show manufacturing tool marks.

These investigative techniques were used to study certain features of Manchester 5474, and compare those to provenanced palettes which are known to have not been altered.

Suspension Hole

Most of the animal-shaped (zoomorphic) palettes have a so called ‘suspension hole’ on their top edge. The use of this one continues to be explored in scholarly debate, with suggestions of it being threaded for storage in the home or on the person, or even for suspending the palette to strike it to produce sounds as a part of ritual use.

Figure 4 – Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) specular enhancement of ‘suspension hole’ in fish-shaped Predynastic palette, Manchester 1737.

Experimental archaeology has shown that these holes were likely drilled with flint drills, which create conical holes with spiral striations – and this can be seen in provenanced palettes such as Manchester 1373 (Fig. 4), which was rediscovered in grave B46 at the site of el-Amrah in Upper Egypt as a part of an Egypt Exploration Fund excavation.

Figure 5 – Suspension hole in Manchester 5474, viewed at 40x through a Dino-Lite AM4113T, with measurements taken in DinoXcope.

In contrast to this, 5474 has a very different profile (Fig. 5) much more like a modern twist drill. Twist drills were invented in the late 19th century, with Stephen Morse first patenting the design in 1863. The diameter of the hole in Manchester 5474 is 3.77 mm, which is close to 1/8th of an inch (3.18 mm) – a very standard and common size for a drill bit. 


Figure 6 – Manchester 5474 with hypothetical guidelines indicating a possible original rhomboid shape.

The silhouette of the palette appears to fit very closely into a rhomboid shape (Fig. 6). It is also interesting that the cuts which removed the material to produce the neck describe an almost perfect semi-circle (Fig. 6). This would be extremely difficult to produce with the stone tools available to the Predynastic craftspeople, but extremely easy to produce with modern tools – for example a half-round file or cylindrical grinding wheel.

The legs of Manchester 5474 have been formed in a way which is extremely consistent with provenanced turtle-shaped palettes. So, if this palette is a modern modification, then it was undoubtably created by someone with a familiarity for animal-shaped palettes and their intricacies – perhaps why it was judged as authentic by Quibell.

Figure 7 – Morphologies catalogued in the Predynastic Palette Database

Rhomboid shaped palettes are the 3rd most common shape of the palettes catalogued in the PPDB (Fig. 7). The significance of this is twofold; firstly it would provide an excess of palettes available for reworking, and secondly it would mean that they would be deemed less valuable on the art and antiquities market due to their relative simplicity and prevalence.

Object biography of Manchester Museum lizard palette accession number 5474
Figure 8 – Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) specular enhancement of lizard-shaped Predynastic palette, Manchester 5474

The eyes of the palette are unusual when compared with other animal-shaped palettes, where typically the eyes fall into four main categories:

  1. None
  2. Pierced (i.e. drilled through the palette)
  3. Round indentations drilled into the surface
  4. Round indentations with round eggshell or bone inlays

In contrast the eyes of 5474 are almond-shaped and have been gouged, not drilled, out of the surface of the palette (Fig. 8). There has also been an attempt to create an outline to the eye by removing material to leave a raised ring around the eye (Fig. 8). The curved nature of the eyes would have been extremely difficult and time consuming to produce for the Predynastic craftspeople using stone abraders and flint chisels – there is no evidence of any drilling used to form the eyes.


The ‘suspension hole’ does not have the profile of having been made with flint drills, instead it appears to have been made using a commonly sized 1/8th inch modern twist drill. It is possible that the suspension hole was drilled into the palette in modern times and no other changes were made, but this seems highly unlikely.

The shape and the style of 5474 are both suspicious, however this is a very difficult quality to objectively quantify, and this alone cannot disprove the palette’s authenticity. The shape of the eyes is unlike other zoomorphic palettes, but it is still possible that this was the style chosen by a Predynastic craftsperson for this specific palette. We cannot say for certain that the palette was re-carved, but we can say it is incredibly unusual and its outer shape does conform to having once been a rhomboid which has been re-carved. Comparing it to the other shapes of the palettes in the PPDB it is certainly an outlier, and this combined with the modern tool marks all point to this being modified in the late 19th century.

Why would someone do this? As this was purchased from the art and antiquities market, the most likely answer is that the palette was re-carved in order to make it more desirable and more expensive. This was apparently so well executed that it fooled the serving chief inspector of antiquities and future keeper at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

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Object biography 28: Hippo ivory tusks from the Ramesseum Tomb

One of Manchester Museum’s most intriguing sets of objects derives from an unusual context – or contexts – known as the ‘Ramesseum Tomb’. Commonly known by the name of the much later ‘Temple of Millions of Years’ of Ramesses II that was built on top of it, ‘tomb 5’ – as it is sometimes referred to – appears to date to the late Middle Kingdom.

Quibell’s publication of the ‘Ramesseum Tomb’ object finds

Excavations directed by James Quibell in 1897-8 encountered a mixed group of objects, including a significant collection of papyrus documents, which have been studied from many different perspectives since. Among the most striking objects found in the mixed deposit accompanying the papyri are several smoothed and incised hippo ivory tusks. Hippopotami exhibit maternal behaviour and are still amongst the most fearsome animals in Africa, hence their particular connection to mothers and infants in ancient times. Once, when presenting a talk about these objects to a group of gynaecologists and obstetricians, the observation was made to me that such objects could have been used as forceps to assist in childbirth: so ‘birth tusks’ rather than ‘magic wands’ (with unfortunate connotations of Harry Potter) seem a good designation.

1799 (bottom) and 1800 (top): Photo by Julia Thorne / Tetisheri photography

Use of hippo tusks for special objects is attested from the Predynastic Period, and remained important in ancient Egyptian material culture – particularly during the Middle Kingdom, when most ‘birth tusks’ are attested. These two worked tusks have been split, smoothed, and incised with powerful apotropaic imagery. A series of entities are engraved upon the surface, although in common with other examples of this type there are no texts added to caption the images. These span entities we might recognise as full deities and those that are not so easy to categorise as such. Thus, from right to left, a frog, a griffin, a vulture, a turtle and a hare. The other fragment of a tusk has a long-necked griffin of the type seen on the famous Narmer Palette; a lion supported by a large ‘ankh’ (‘life’) sign; and a front-facing, snake-grasping depiction of Aha, ‘the fighter’, an antecedent to the much better-known deity Bes. The same deity appears to be represented by a wooden figurine also from the Ramesseum tomb group, and perhaps the same entity is evoked by a mask from the town of Kahun.

This imagery imbues the tusk with ‘heka’ – the ‘magical’ power of the gods that might be used by human beings to fend off the untoward; this was a threatening defensive power, as indicated by the knives held by several of the entities depicted. There can be little down that a tusk such as this was a vital weapon in the ancient arsenal against misfortune. Whether the group of objects from the ‘Ramesseum Tomb’ in fact came from a single burial belonging to a ‘magician’ now seems doubtful, but the objects would undoubtedly have had a particular resonance for those people that used them.

These items are part of Manchester Museum’s ‘To Have and To Heal’ project, an attempt to use ancient Egyptian material culture – visualised through the photography of Julia Thorne – to address big questions in the post-pandemic world while Manchester Museum is closed (August 2021-late 2022) to complete its capital building project. Find out more at the website: https://www.mmfromhome.com/to-have-and-to-heal

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The early years of British Condominium in Sudan

As part of a continuing series of explorations of the colonial history of Egypt and Sudan, Phoebe Aldridge writes a guest post on a little-known aspect of the modern history of Sudan, the complexities of British rule, and the collecting of objects as loot.

The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium rule of Sudan in the 19th and 20th centuries is a story of government, misgovernment and the nature of rule. Throughout its existence, Sudan has been shaped by its perpetually differing controlling forces. After the ‘scramble for Africa’ in the 1880s, Sudan was less a nation to govern than an opportunity for exploitation and control. The British set out – and ultimately failed – to impose a new state, different to previous rule by the Mahdi – Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdullah (later Muhammad al-Mahdi), who launched a religious and political movement (Mahdiyya) in 1881 against the Khedivate of Egypt, which had ruled the Sudan since 1821.

1894 political map of Sudan

During research in the Durham Sudan Archives, delving through hand-written scripts, internal government communications and propaganda messages, it is clear that the anti-Mahdist attitudes harboured by the British undermined their rule. Manifested in part by exploitative British looting, the Condominium inadventently maintained the profile of the previous regime. Propaganda against the Mahdiyya was extensive: whilst Mahdism was far from angelical and was a regime that Britain was attempting to quash, Europe treated it as purely diabolical and ‘of a witches’ brew of African primitivism and Muslim fanaticism’. A letter from the Madhi to British officials helps to explain why. In the letter, the Mahdi discusses the status of captives, seemingly threatening the British; he appeals for them to ‘be warned of the disasters that have befallen Hicks Pasha, Gordon Pasha and others’. The correspondence was not made public, yet the adoption of anti-Mahdist propaganda increased. The significant role of fear and anger in the British establishment of a ‘new’ Sudan should not be neglected, not least how this translated into control and exploitation. Both rules were led by figures shrouded in cult of personality, with Gordon playing the Mahdi’s ever-present foil, and parallels of policy and brutality emerged.

Looting by British soldiers was rampant and nowhere was this more apparent than in so-called exotic and distant corners of the Empire. The plethora of sources surrounding the looting of military equipment and Mahdist items evidences how, fuelled by propaganda, exploitation was rampant. The British lowered themselves to the perceived level of the enemy that they had vilified and without realising it, demonstrated their inadequacies as rulers. After the Battle of Omdurman, ‘every variety of loot was hawked about the camp for sale… everyone had a Dervish sword or two’. Babikr Bedri, a Sudanese diarist who vividly chronicled the three days of looting after the battle, wrote that soldiers ‘entered our houses and took and ate everything within reach of their eyes and hands’.

Dervish sword from Sudan, now in the British Museum

Perhaps more shocking, it appears that systems were in place for British peoples at home to buy objects found in the field. Lists of war trophies were requested by British authorities such as Dunbar Parish Council in 1919. Likewise, an 1896 letter from G. Benson to Sir Wingate, not yet Governor-General, asked that ‘my dear Wingate…can you tell me what has become of the trophies? My name was put on things that I wished to buy…’. The evident acquaintance of Benson to Wingate suggests an initiative of purchasing trophies operating among high-ranking British officials, corroborated by the final sentence of the letter which reads ‘love to Slatin [appointed Inspector-General of the Sudan in 1900].’ Such an organised initiative implies an overarching irony: that the manifestation of Mahdist memory in British rule was in fact facilitated to a large degree by the very high-ranking figures of governmental authority who were trying to combat it and their low morals were exactly the values being vilified in their propaganda against the Mahdis.

Evidently, looting and exploitation in Condominium Sudan were exacerbated by defiant anti-Mahdist attitudes and a desperation for control. Whilst debate can be made over the failure of the British to distance themselves from the past, in light of the recent discussions surrounding the restitution of the Benin Bronzes and the Parthenon Marbles perhaps it is more important to explore these contexts with arguments for repatriation in mind.

Phoebe Aldridge graduated from Durham University in 2020 with a joint-honours degree in Ancient, Medieval and Modern History. With the Durham Sudan Archives on her doorstep and examining original government correspondence, Phoebe’s dissertation focused on the Condominium years in Sudan and the manifestation of Mahdism in the British rule. Since graduating she has reached out to others in this field and has been enjoying delving back into history and exploring her interests!

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Working with Wellcome: A virtual student placement

A guest post by University of Manchester museology student Molly Osbourne, describing a virtual placement working on a little-known aspect of the Egyptology collection.

The first thing I want to point out about this placement is that due to the pandemic, it was self-organised, virtual placement through the University of Manchester’s MA programme, Art Gallery and Museum Studies. With this being virtual, I was not to visit the museum, and all my research was done at home. After the placement ended, I was invited in to go on an object “hunt”, and finally was able to see some of the collection. This has been both incredibly rewarding and challenging. It was research-based, hosted by Campbell Price, with the aim to find the status of a number of stelae and cast replicas from the collection originally amassed by the pharmaceutical baron Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936). The Wellcome Collection is renowned for housing medical objects from all of history, though Wellcome himself was an avid collector of Egyptian antiquities. There are index cards of these auctioned pieces catalogued by this institution, contained detailed descriptions of the objects, a variety of types of the numbering systems used to track these objects, and their prices. After Wellcome’s death, a trust was made, who decided that many objects should be dispersed worldwide, including Manchester. There are more than the eighteen I have researched also in the anthropology and archaeology department, though with the time limit of fifteen days, eighteen seemed like a reasonable amount to work with.

Me in front of Manchester Museum when I visited in June 2021.

My main highlights have been collaborating with many people associated with Wellcome research, and of course working with Campbell. These include Kenneth Griffin (Egypt Centre, Swansea), Alexandra Eveleigh (Wellcome Collection, London), Lee McStein (Monument Men), and Rosalie David, the curator of Manchester Museum at the time of the transfer of Wellcome objects. I met with Ken and Alexandra over Zoom, where much of current research is being done was discussed. Ken’s typology of stickers found on objects will be beneficial for when I am able to visit the museum and find these objects myself. Alexandra collaborated over emails, providing answers for the many questions I had about those who represented Wellcome at auction houses and the location of slips that are missing from my research. Through this collaboration, it came to light that the casts at Manchester, were given the same number system as those transported to the Science Museum, which was most unusual. I met with Lee McStein towards the end of the experience, where I learnt about his work with the casts, unlike the other collaborators who aided with the research of the stelae. The casts, being owned by Manchester, have been passed on to the Lee to do amazing work on photogrammetry (making three-dimensional, digital images) and the casts, which casts a new light on the production of these casts and the decoration on them.

Through collaboration, I attended a lecture by Lee McStein and a Transcribathon event held by the Wellcome Collection in March. The lecture provided information about a photogrammetry project being done on a selection of Manchester replicas that have barely been seen by the public. This research is very beneficial as these casts portray the birth chapel of Nectanebis I, a chapel that has had restricted access over the years, with only a few people going inside to see it. The Transcribathon was a one-day event, where people from the museum sector with objects connected to Wellcome met to practice transcribing the Wellcome slips and transit records of the Science Museum. On some of the slips, there is a book reference, that refers to the auction catalogues, but also the information I believed was missing from the slips before, including the date of the sale, the auction house, and the lot number.

The Wellcome slip for the object labelled A78283

I learnt so much about the transfer of Wellcome objects from the meeting with Rosalie David, and most of what Rosalie said is supported by documents and letters. Correspondence between the Wellcome Collection and Manchester Museum state that the museums would apply for the objects they wanted for their collections, and “[the Welcome Collections] wanted good homes for their collection”. As the representative of Manchester Museum, Rosalie said the museum would be a good fit for the objects as they are a university museum, and would use the objects for their teaching programme, as well as their outreach programme and for their new display they were planning at the time. Altogether, “it took at least a year for everything to go through” and the transfer to be completed.

Screenshot of Campbell, Rosalie and I having our meeting over Zoom.

It wasn’t until towards the end of the placement, I was able to see a few of the objects and copies of the slips held at Manchester Museum, that Campbell sent over. These photos were extremely helpful, as it provided new slips for the objects, I was not able to find at the beginning of the research, and even some new information altogether on objects unrelated to the original eighteen pieces.

Image of the stela labelled A211251

I would like to thank my course convenor, Andy, and Campbell for this opportunity, and those who have and will keep collaborating while I do more research.

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The Reception of Manchester Museum’s ‘Hippo Bowl’ (Acc. no. 5069)

Another post from guest blogger and Predynastic specialist Matt Szafran – on one of Manchester Museum’s most iconic objects.

The so-called ‘hippo bowl’ (accessioned as no. 5069) is undoubtedly a beautiful and unique object, as can be seen from its inclusion in numerous books, postcards, documentaries, scholarly articles, and exhibitions – most recently the Garstang Museum’s ‘Before Egypt : Art, Culture and Power’ exhibition at the Victoria Gallery and Museum at the University of Liverpool, and to Bolton Museum and Art Gallery while Manchester’s Ancient Worlds galleries are closed.

Unfortunately, Predynastic material culture typically garners significantly less attention than later Dynastic periods – especially anything gold or jewel encrusted. The Manchester Museum’s current curator, Dr Campbell Price, has been vocal on his appreciation of this object, but what did his predecessors think? Thankfully archival research allows us to answer this question.

The bowl was rediscovered at the site of el-Mahasna as a part of an Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) sponsored excavation led by British archaeologists Edward Russell Ayrton and W.L.S. Loat during the in 1908-9 season. The bowl was found in a large square tomb, designated as H.29, alongside many other ‘elite’ status items (such as carved ivory, stone beads, malachite, and greywacke palettes) in what Ayrton and Loat would describe as the ‘richest grave found on the site’ in their 1911 publication. The bowl itself was described as ‘superb’:

The EEF held an exhibition at Kings College on the Strand in London between the 8th and the 31st of July 1909, showcasing objects excavated that season by EEF archaeologists at both Abydos and el-Mahasna before their distribution between various institutions. The EEF also published an exhibition catalogue, with a cover price of sixpence, which even though a small and limited book still featured a detailed description of the H.29 tomb group. Upon conclusion of the 1909 Abydos and el-Mahasna exhibition all objects were crated and distributed between the Egyptian Museum, Cairo and 27 different international institutions who had subscribed to support the EEF. The distribution of the 50 creates of objects was handled by E. W. Morgan & Co. LTD, with two of those crates finding their way to the Manchester Museum:

Both the acting director of the museum, Sydney J. Hickson, and his secretary acknowledged the receipt of the two crates by letter to the EEF on the 26th of August 1909. Hickson’s letter was essentially a ‘fill in the blanks’ template and made no special mention of any of the objects. However Hickson handwrote a letter to the EEF on the 11th of September 1909 to confirm that the crated objects had been unpacked and had ‘arrived safely’ and thanking the EEF’s president and committee for the donation, he went on to make a special mention of the ‘unique pre-Dynastic bowl’ and saying that it’s an ‘interesting and valuable’ addition to the Museum’s collection. Whilst the letter doesn’t explicitly say that this is the ‘hippo bowl’, there were no other significant bowls included in the distribution to the Manchester Museum and it is therefore extremely likely that this letter is proof of Hickson’s admiration for the ‘hippo bowl’:

Winifred M. Crompton was appointed as the Assistant Keeper of Egyptology in 1912, a role synonymous with a ‘curator’ today. During her tenure at the museum before this posting she was tasked with organising and cataloguing the Egyptian collections. This led to Crompton writing to the EEF on the 16th of September 1909 to request purchasing copy of the object catalogue of the el-Mahasna and Abydos exhibition. Sadly, Crompton does not refer to the ‘hippo bowl’ in this letter, although she does add a postscript note saying that the Manchester Museum received additional jars than were on the object distribution list – including one from the H.29 tomb group:

From the archival evidence it would therefore appear that the ‘hippo bowl’ has been able to capture the attention of both Egyptologists and non-Egyptologists alike. One would assume that its original owner was just as awed by the bowl, although with no written sources from the Predynastic period it is impossible to truly know what meaning and significance was truly ascribed to the bowl and the hippopotami it represents.

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