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.
Over the space of several weeks, photographer Julia Thorne visited the…
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.
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.
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.
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.
A guest post from palettologist and independent researcher Matt Szafran on an intriguing item that may not be all it at first appears…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The eyes of the palette are unusual when compared with other animal-shaped palettes, where typically the eyes fall into four main categories:
Pierced (i.e. drilled through the palette)
Round indentations drilled into the surface
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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’.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although among the rather less prepossessing artefacts in the Manchester collection, this crudely carved wooden figurine holds significant interest. Often called a ‘stick shabti’, the figurine may in fact not really be a shabti – in the conventional Egyptological sense of a ‘servant’ – at all.
Often described as ‘mummiform’ in shape, several examples of similar crude wooden figurines have been found in small wooden coffins and/or wrapped in linen. They apparently all date to the laste Second Intermediate Period and early New Kingdom. A recent find by an Egyptian-Spanish team at Dra Abu el-Naga consisted of several such figurines wrapped in linen, some within a small wooden coffin. These were uncovered underneath the outer courtyard of the tomb of Djehuty (TT 11, reign of Hatshepsut) and appear to have been left there by a donor some time after the funeral – perhaps on the occasion of the ‘Beautiful Festival of the Valley’, when friends and family of the deceased would visit the tomb chapel.
Indeed, unlike most shabtis, which were buried close to the deceased in the inaccessible parts of the tomb, stick shabtis are mainly recorded as being found buried in the outer, open areas of tomb chapels – often in significant numbers. Texts are usually inked onto the wood but rather than the standard ‘shabti spell’ (Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead) these consist of names, titles and perhaps an offering formula, suggesting a different function to most shabtis.
The fact that these figurines are ‘crude’ to our eyes need not imply they were created or dedicated by less well-off people – several seems to have been commissioned by wealthy and important members of society. The choice of wood may represent a deliberate means of employing reworked detritus from coffin manufacture, imbued with a special power and connection to the deceased. There is also an intriguing suggestion that the use of the figurines in contexts such as the ‘Beautiful Festival of the Valley’ influenced the later perception recorded in Herodotus and Plutarch that a figure of the mummy was sometimes exhibited at Egyptian feasts.
This example is dedicated to (rather than by) a man called Teti-sa-Intef (meaning ‘Teti son of Intef’, Intef being a name of some significance at Dra Abu el Naga from the Middle Kingdom onwards). Several other figurines are known donated in honour of this individual, known to come from the tomb of the mayor of Thebes Tetiky (TT 15) from the very beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty and excavated by a team working for Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1908. The Manchester example, although its precise find spot is not recorded, probably derived from the same area.
William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) took a particular interest in the human face. A significant number of important finds from three seasons of excavations he directed at the site of Hawara were exported to Britain and acquired by Manchester Museum. Many currently form part of our Golden Mummies of Egypt touring exhibition, which – along with an accompanying book – aims to highlight the long shadows cast by Petrie’s evaluations.
Of the discovery of the so-called ‘Faiyum portrait’ mummies at Hawara, Petrie remarked in his journal that it a was ‘a great point anthropologically to have skulls of persons whose living appearance as to colour and feature is preserved to us by the portraits’. He was keen to match the exposed skulls of mummies with their associated panel painting in the apparent hope of something like facial reconstruction, and he was ruthless in his quest. In February 1888, Petrie records removing a cracked wooden panel painting from the wrapped body of a woman: ‘her mummy was not in very good condition as to the wrappings, so I secured her skull … and abandoned the rest’.
Petrie assumed – like most commentators after him – that the panel paintings represented a mimetic likeness, depicting the deceased as they had been in the prime of life. These ‘portraits’ remain popular with museum visitors in part because of their humanity, but also because of their technique and the apparently timeless illusion created by which observers are reminded of people they know today.
The chance find of what Petrie referred to as an ‘Oxford frame’ – a design that now appears rather twee but which was popular in Victorian England – led him to assume that ‘portraits’ may have once hung in domestic settings. Here was a very clear case of an interpretation of ancient material rooted in modern experience of objects, and of observing images. A visitor to Petrie’s 1888 Summer exhibition of finds from Hawara was the Dutch painter Laurence Alma-Tadema, whose 1895 painting ‘Love’s Jewelled Fetter’ imagines a panel painting in just such an ‘living’ context.
The painted-during-life theory would not, however, explain the significant number of children and young people who could not yet have been considered at the height of their powers or influence when they died. One panel painting in the Manchester collection – one of only around 100 still attached to the mummy – represents a young man with gilding added to laurels in his hair and between his lips, motifs of divinity. Recent re-examination of the CT scan of the mummy suggests that the individual within the wrapping – who indeed only seems to have reached his later teenage years, was markedly obese. This would rather seem to contradict the slim young man whose face is painted on the panel; idealisation depends of the ideals of the people responsible for effecting it.
Petrie’s fascination with matching skulls with mummy masks is perhaps most eerily illustrated by the discovery of a skull and an associated painted plaster mummy mask during Egypt Exploration Fund excavations at Diospolis Parva (now both in the British Museum). A photo in EES archives show’s Petrie’s apparent experiments with photography to superimpose images of both skull and mask together, perhaps in attempt to ‘prove’ a match. Similar assumed affinities are the basis of much facial reconstruction today, a ‘science’ developed in part at Manchester Museum. Yet, for me, none are to be seriously believed, at least not from the perspective of Egyptian conceptions of the eternal image suitable for the afterlife.
Insofar as it is a matter of elite record at different periods, the ancient Egyptians conceptualised two types of time. Neheh-time – the cyclical movement of night and day, of seasons and years, and Djet-time – the linear stretch of time, the time of monuments, hieroglyphs, and mummies. Things that exist in the latter dimension are eternal and in emulation of the gods. Pharaonic statuary and mummy masks were conceived to exist in Djet-time. The do not show people as they were, subject to the cycles of life we all face – but eternal beings able to exist into everlastingness, rubbing shoulders with immortal gods, permanently memorialised – a timelessness that may in part explain their popularity today.
Based on his writings, Petrie (and many others before and since) were not aware of this distinction. In his 1912 eugenicist book Revolutions of Civilization, published at the close of his third and final Hawara season, Petrie asserted that sculpture could be used as the basis for a comparison between civilizations, because ‘it is available over so long a period, in so many countries, and so readily presented to the mind, that it may be well to begin with that as a standard subject for comparison, and afterwards look at other activities’; for him, sculpture was ‘the definite test’. Such confidence in the readable ‘truth’ of ancient images was well-established for Petrie. He had previously been funded by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and prominent eugenicist Francis Galton to record the ‘Racial Types’ represented on Theban monuments, a project rooted in colonial anxieties about the ‘other’ and predicated on the assumption that such representations were crafted to reflect some sort of objective, observed reality – rather than the stylised, subjective, ‘hieroglyphic’ image-world of Pharaonic Egypt.
This representationalist approach was marshalled by Petrie to further his (somewhat confused) arguments about the advancement of civilisation through migrations of people – but warns of the need to prevent such ‘racial mixing’ in future. Petrie concludes Revolutions with: ‘Yet if the view becomes readily grasped, that the source of every civilisation has lain in race mixture, it may be that eugenics will, in some future civilisation, carefully segregate fine races, and prohibit continual mixture, until they have a distinct type, which will start a new civilisation when transplanted. The future progress of man may depend as much on isolation to establish a type, as of fusion of types when established.’
While the explicitly racist agenda inherent in this discussion is clearly repugnant, Petrie’s insistence in the veracity of Egyptian sculpture remains persistent in some assessments of Egyptian statuary, and particularly in the panel paintings from Graeco-Roman mummies. The need to tie images to the depiction of real people say much more about the cultural anxieties of modern commentators than it does the skill of ancient artisans.
Some of these issues are discussed more extensively in a new book, Golden Mummies of Egypt. Interpreting Identities from the Graeco-Roman Period (Manchester Museum and Nomad Exhibition, Glasgow, 2020) now available from the Manchester Museum shop.
Ancient Egypt is synonymous with gold, sex, art, and death – a combination as intoxicating as it is enduringly popular with book readers, documentary watchers, and museum visitors. But to what extent are these concepts representative of ancient concerns or realities, and how might modern interpreters – collectors, archaeologists, curators, writers, artists – have shaped the ancient past to fit a narrative attractive to themselves and their audiences?
The Graeco-Roman Period (c. 300 BCE-200 CE) of Egyptian history, so-called because Egypt was ruled at this time by Greeks then Romans, is one of the most overlooked in the popular telling of Egyptian history. Excavations at the important Graeco-Roman site of Hawara produced mesmerising painted mummy portraits, delicate glass and jewellery, and mummified bodies sheathed in gold. Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester, holds one of the most significant collections of material from Hawara anywhere in the world, the result of the division of finds at the height of British colonial control of Egypt.
Manchester Museum is delighted to have partnered with Nomad Exhibitions to produce, for the first time, a major publication based entirely on the Museum’s internationally significant Egyptology collections.
Richly illustrated with new photography by Julia Thorne and drawing on little-known archive material, Golden Mummies of Egypt showcases for the first time this extraordinary range of artefacts, examining how and why they came to Manchester, the ancient identities these objects helped to construct, and the ways in which they have been interpreted in the Western world.
Colour photography throughout
Accompanies a major international touring exhibition, Golden Mummies of Egypt.
Author: Dr Campbell Price is Curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum. He is Vice-Chair of Trustees of the Egypt Exploration Society, Honorary Research Fellow in Egyptology at University of Liverpool, author of Pocket Museum: Ancient Egypt (Thames & Hudson, 2018) and editor of Mummies, Magic and Medicine in Ancient Egypt (Manchester University Press, 2016).