Curator’s Diary November 2017: My First Trip to Sudan

Last week I returned from six days in Sudan, my first ever trip to the country. Despite many visits to neighbouring Egypt, I have always wanted to visit Sudan but not quite managed. I have been especially aware of this since my appointment in 2011 as Curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, which holds some 2000 Sudanese antiquities. As a guest of staff at the British Embassy in Khartoum, I was very grateful for their hospitality and the logistical help afforded in seeing so much of this beautiful country over a short period. Tourism is not nearly as widespread in Sudan as it is in Egypt, which has definite advantages (and some drawbacks) for the interested visitor.

Omdurman

Sufi dancing at Omdurman

A personal highlight was witnessing Sufi dancing at the mosque of Hamed al Nil, at Omdurman just outside Khartoum, at dusk after Friday prayers. Although an earnest (if joyful) means of religious expression, I was stuck by the openness of participants to outsiders and was one of several Western onlookers being warmly welcomed. ‘Whirling dervishes’ (a term used for the principal participants) are often presented as something of a tourist sideshow, but what I experienced was unlike anything I’d seen in more tourist-oriented Egypt. The clouds of incense, bright green garments of some of those who took part (with tall crowns of almost ‘Osirian’ type), rhythmic drum beats and chanting evoked something very ancient. Most striking was the location of the performance next to a cemetery, a juxtaposition of the living and the dead which may seem strange to a Western audience but which is common to many ancient and living cultures. The lively dancing suggested the sorts of experienced but ‘ephemeral’ practices that simply do not survive in the archaeological record but which were nonetheless impressive and important.

barkal

Rocky outcrop at Gebel Barkal, interpreted in ancient times as a rearing cobra sacred to the god Amun

Over several days I was able to visit a number of archaeological sites. Sudan was home to a number of power centres between c. 750 BC and 300 AD – known variously as the Kushite, Napatan and Meroitic empires. Gebel Barkal, 400km north of Khartoum, is the site of a major temple to the god Amun begun by the Egyptian pharaoh Tuthmose III (c. 1481-1425 BC). It was later the spiritual home of a family of Kushite kings who ruled both Egypt and Kush as the 25th Dynasty of Pharaohs. Climbing the mountain at sunset provided an incredible view of surrounding landscape, and birds-eye view of the interconnections of monuments that ancient people will have known.

meroe-pyrs

Pyramids at Meroe

It is now a well-known pub-quiz fact that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt; these steep-sided examples are clustered mainly at the sites of Meroe, Nuri, El-Kurru and Gebel Barkal. Changing forms of scene content and stylistic expression are noticeable in the small adjoining decorated chapels of many pyramids, several of which have been restored after being blown up in the search for treasure by an Italian explorer in the 1830s. Unlike the Egyptian pyramids, these monuments sit essentially alone in the desert, far from encroaching conurbations, and as a result are highly photogenic. This may obscure their serious purpose as tombs. This funerary function is made clear in the painted burial chamber of Tanwetamani, the last king of the Kushite 25th Dynasty (c. 650 BC), at El-Kurru. Viewing of these vivid scenes by torchlight was another personal highlight.

kURRU

Painted underworld images inside the pyramid of Tanwetamani

The largest cluster of pyramids is at Meroe, around 200km north of Khartoum.  It was a special privilege to be given a tour of the current excavations at The Royal City of Meroe by Jane Humphris. Jane and her team are demonstrating that Meroe was a major centre of iron production, which fuelled a mighty military. It had been excavated at the beginning of the Twentieth Century by John Garstang, an archaeologist based at the University of Liverpool – my alma mater, but modern techniques are salvaging many details that Garstang overlooked.

meroe-city

Appreciating a barque stand in temple at Royal City of Meroe

Having attended a fundraising ball held by the Khartoum Caledonian Society and met the British Ambassador Michael Aron, it was of interest to observe some of the mechanics of modern diplomacy in a country often characterised by Egyptologists as an ‘imperial’ possession of New Kingdom Egypt (c. 1450-1100 BC), echoing experiences of British colonialism in the Nineteenth Century AD. My visit also afforded the opportunity to speak with officials involved in international efforts to understand migration within Africa today and to tackle human trafficking and exploitation. Modern concerns reflect ancient realities, raising important questions about how ancient cultures such as those of Egypt and Sudan – but also of universal experiences such as migration – can be represented in museums.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Curator's Diary, Uncategorized

Study Day 10/2/18: ‘Children in Ancient Egypt’

9310 (5)Annual Egyptology Study Day: ‘Children in Ancient Egypt’

Saturday 10th February, 2018

Kanaris Lecture Theatre, the Manchester Museum, Oxford Road

£30. Book here: http://estore.manchester.ac.uk/conferences-and-events/manchester-museum/egypt/children-in-ancient-egypt – All ticket sales will be donated to the Museum’s new capital project, to create a new improved Special Exhibition gallery and British Museum partnership gallery of South Asian Cultures.

PROGRAMME

9.15          Registration: tea/coffee

9.45          Welcome and Introduction

10.00          Sons of the King – Carving a Name for Yourself – Campbell Price

 10.30          Teething, Coughs and the Neshu Illness: Healing Remedies for Children in Ancient Egypt – Roger Forshaw 

 11.15          Tea/coffee break

11.45          A Rampart in my Heart: Royal Father-Son Relationships in the Early Ramesside Period – Nicky Nielsen

12.45          – Lunch – (please make own arrangements)

 1.45            Egyptology in Manchester – Campbell Price

 2.00            Lives short lived: What can we learn about the life and death of children in Ancient Egypt by studying their physical remains – Iwona Kozieradzka-Ogunmakin

3.00             – Tea/coffee break –

3.30            Pictures of a Life? Children’s Portraits, Playthings and Personhood in Graeco-Roman Egypt – April Pudsey

4.30            Conclusion

Leave a comment

Filed under Egypt events at the Manchester Museum, Uncategorized

Curator’s Diary, September 2017: CIPEG Meeting in Chicago

Last week I attended the annual meeting of CIPEG (International Committee for Egyptology, ICOM) at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago thanks to a travel grant provided by the Art Fund. The four-day meeting was focused on ‘The Role of Curators in Museum Research and Exhibits: Tradition, Change, and Looking to the Future’ and was a valuable opportunity to share insights into the presentation of ancient Egyptian and Sudanese material in museum contexts worldwide. The Oriental Institute was the perfect setting, with an impressive Egyptological collection derived from many of the same sites as material now in Manchester. The programme also included visits to the Egyptian Consulate and Chicago’s vast Field Museum.

Tut-Chicago

A restored colossus of Tutankhamun (reused by Aye & Horemheb) overlooks the galleries at the Oriental Institute

I gave a paper about our work here using new ways of engaging visitors during our award-winning ‘Animal Mummies Revealed’ exhibition tour, emphasising the importance of ‘in-person’ research and presentation (such as our ‘Mummy Re-Rolling’ events) and the (often underestimated) role of the curator as a performer and animator. I also spoke about the experience of working with Syrian artist Zahed Taj-Eddin on his installation ‘Shabtis: Suspended Truth’. Zahed’s work juxtaposes ancient material culture with modern political commentary to powerful effect. Using such contemporary art as a way to approach the contentious subject of modern migration in Europe seemed to strike a particular chord with colleagues in other institutions that did not normally address such issues.

Nefermaat

Partly restored paste-inlay relief of Prince Nefermaat in the OI; another section of this unusually decorated chapel is in Manchester

Other papers included reports on upcoming exhibitions and ongoing research projects; a particularly promising update concerned a proposed archival photography installation at the site magazine in Tanis in the north eastern Delta, with the aim of opening dialogue with local people. A very useful panel session, with speakers drawn from a variety of curatorial backgrounds, focussed on the main themes of the conference. Despite the obvious diversity of modern curatorial roles – which seemed to have more to do with the size of an institution than anything else – participants were united by a common enthusiasm to share Egyptology with others. The vexed question of the display of human remains – focusing on research in Leiden, where the Rijksmuseum no longer shows unwrapped mummies – received some lively debate. Perhaps of interest to students wishing to pursue a career in museum Egyptology, there was no consensus on the necessity of museological training for curators, with some advocating on-the-job training for Egyptologists while others favoured specific study of museological methods to enable (for example) effective drafting of interpretation text.

CIPEG group 1

Participants of CIPEG 2017

CIPEG is a unique forum for discussion, with shared challenges across national borders and sizes of institutions. In the context of the threat to sites in Egypt to supply the black market in antiquities, the General Assembly of CIPEG’s endorsement of the recent ‘Florence Declaration’ on cultural heritage seemed particularly important.  Increasingly, curators are challenging the colonial context of many collections (especially through the use of archival material) and even questioning the modern construction of a monolithic ‘Ancient Egypt’ itself. It remains to be seen to what extent new thinking and results in academic Egyptology can filter through to interpretation that museum visitors will actually engage with.

The next meeting of CIPEG will, for the first time in the UK, be held at Swansea’s Egypt Centre in September 2018.

1 Comment

Filed under Curator's Diary, Uncategorized

Representation and Reality in ‘The Mummy’ (1999)

Following on from my own thoughts on the most recent installment in the ‘Mummy’ genre, I’m pleased to welcome a guest blog from armchair Egyptologist and film fanatic Matt Szafran – hopefully the first in a series!

 

It’s easy to be annoyed when a subject you’re knowledgeable in is depicted inaccurately on screen. I know medical workers who get annoyed when a procedure is performed in a fatally incorrect manner, IT people who balk at the incessant use of the word ‘firewall’ and locksmiths who laugh at the way a highly trained secret agent uses lock picks the wrong way round. It sounds obvious but sometimes we forget the fact that films are simply entertainment for the masses and in our haste to condemn the inaccuracies we often overlook the more accurate details.

To that end let us consider the Stephen Sommers directed The Mummy (1999) film, and observe what the filmmakers actually got right instead of debunking its inaccuracies. The film certainly has some egregious historical inaccuracies, however the team at Industrial Light and Magic, with the help of Egyptologist Dr Stuart Tyson Smith, included some surprisingly accurate details even though they know that the proverbial man on the street wouldn’t know a cartouche from a cartonnage. For the sake of brevity I’m going to cherry-pick a few examples of these, rather than consider every point in the film.

The end of the first act sees Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep character being cursed with the ‘Hom Dai’ and being mummified alive alongside his priests. Due to ancient Egyptian decorum and secrecy we don’t know exactly how mummification was actually performed, however through mummy research and experimental archaeology we do have a good idea of the majority of the processes involved. In the film we see what appears to be excerebration and wrapping being performed on Imhotep’s priests, with some of the embalmers are wearing jackal headed masks. There are depictions in ancient Egyptian visual culture of masks being used whilst performing rituals like the ‘opening of the mouth’ ceremony, and there are also extant examples such as the Late Period clay mask in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim or the Late Period cartonnage mask in The Royal Pump Room Museum in Harrogate. The wrappings applied to Imhotep look to be very accurate, with a herringbone weave pattern on the torso and strips of outer wrapping encircling the body and legs in the traditional figure-eight style. It’s not shown in this scene but when Imhotep’s coffin is later discovered it’s said that ‘the sacred spells have been chiselled off’ and that the occupant was ‘condemned not only in this life but in the next’. The spells removed from Imhotep’s coffin are likely to reference the Book of the Dead, which acts as a guide for the challenges faced in the afterlife and was painted on the inside and out of coffins, without which the deceased may find themselves lost in the underworld of Duat.

ImhotepWrapped

We’re introduced to Rachel Weisz’s Evelyn ‘Evy’ Carnahan character in the library of the ‘Cairo Museum of Antiquities’, which has shelves stacked with case bound books and binders. Those binders are actually imitation field reports by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES), with each binder being for different topics such as ‘art’ or ‘tools’. Interestingly the EES logo used is actually the original logo of the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) with the word ‘fund’ changed to ‘society’. As the film is primarily set in 1926 having an EEF logo would anachronistic, as the EEF became the EES in 1919. This is an excellent example of a tiny accurate detail that you ultimately can’t even see on screen, but the art department spent time creating it anyway. There is an interesting parallel here with the way much the ancient Egyptian visual culture would never be seen by human eyes other than its creator, and was purely for the consumption of the gods rather than man.

LibraryBinder

When the protagonists leave Giza aboard a riverboat heading for Hamunaptra, we see Evy reading a book during the journey. This is actually The Dwellers on The Nile by E. A. Wallis Budge published in 1885. Even though his works are not well regarded today, it would be wholly appropriate for Egyptology scholars of the 1920s to be reading Budge. The art department could have used any book but chose to use something historically accurate which the character would likely have been reading, even though only a tiny handful of people would ever realise the significance.

DwellersOnTheNile

There is exceptional symbolism when we see the camera pan down a carved obelisk depicting Seth, the god of chaos and disorder, and on to Imhotep leading a mob of boil ridden ‘slaves’. As Campbell mentioned in his review of The Mummy (2017) (see post below); even though Seth is the preeminent choice for an ‘evil’ god he’s surprisingly rarely depicted on screen. Given how much research has gone into the other aspects of the film this feels a deliberate and appropriate backdrop to the antagonist as he’s about to commit another act of violence.

Seth

There are plenty more examples of accurate and otherwise interesting Egyptological details in both The Mummy (1999) and also in its sequel The Mummy Returns (2001). It can be enjoyable to watch the films and only look at the background, endeavouring to work out what references were used. Some of the origins of those props and sets, especially the ones used for hieroglyphic texts, can be equally surprising and obscure!

-Matt Szafran

Leave a comment

Filed under Egyptian mummies

A review of ‘The Mummy’: sex, death and inaccuracy

Mummy movies play an undeniably powerful role in feeding (pre)conceptions about ancient Egypt among the general public, particularly for museum-goers. In my experience of working with school groups in the last ten years, a good deal of time was spent correcting misinformation gleaned from the swashbuckling Brendan Frasier/Rachel Weiss 1999 ‘Mummy’ franchise. To ignore the most recent re-boot, starring Tom Cruise and on general realise from today, would be churlish. Some Egyptologists will simply laugh it off while others will grumble about inaccuracies, perhaps assuming that Egyptology is in some way an exact science or that museums don’t construct their own ‘facts’ about the Egyptians all the time.

The-Mummy-2017-1-1

Leaving aside the issue of the quality of the film (which I actually found quite enjoyable), ‘The Mummy’ tells us some interesting things about museums, archaeological research and the ancient Egyptians. The film’s opening exposition connects with very current issues – U.S. intervention in the Middle East and the iconoclastic tendencies of Daesh – and is jarringly candid about the Black Market in the antiquities trade. In this 2017 reboot, it’s the looters and traffickers (rather than the archaeologists) that get their comeuppance by unleashing an ancient evil. There is, of course, a vague but consistent sense of archaeological enquiry; as always, this is never research for the sake of it – this film perpetuates the myth of archaeologists (and researchers in general) as on the hunt for particular things, trying to fathom a specific ancient mystery. The pernicious subtext has always seemed clear to me: don’t trust anyone with a doctorate who isn’t a medic, because research that isn’t hard science is somehow frivolous and indulgent.

Ancient Egypt appears, as usual, much more boring than it actually was: a bland, overly-sandy wilderness as backdrop to some predictable palace-based intrigues. Although, unsurprisingly, no Egyptologists are credited (or would own up to being) among the ‘researchers’, there’s some passable vocalised Late Egyptian among the confused dialogue. One might charitably assume that the name of Princess ‘Ahmanet’ is a reference to Amunet, the female counterpart of the god Amun, representing ‘hiddenness’ – but this may simply be a coincidence. Researchers also seem to have picked up on the idea of (gilded) finger- and toe-stalls from genuine mummies (such as Tutankhamun and Third Intermediate Period royals from Tanis) to add an unusual detail to ‘other’ even further the ancient princess. The appearance of pseudo-hieratic tattoos indicate her possession by the evil forces of Seth, who is actually very rarely name-checked in mummy films as a bringer of chaos.

One intriguing twist in Ahmanet’s backstory is her stated role as the ambitious and capable heir of her father, resentful of being displaced in the succession by the arrival of a baby half-brother. It is easy to see this as a nod to the historical person of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (c. 1473-58 BCE); with ‘Ahmanet’ even suffering the same eventual fate, of being stricken from the historical record. More might have been made of this, but the opportunity was lost.

The Mummy-AE

Regarding the ‘horror’ of the film, perhaps most interesting is the fundamental premise of the eponymous Mummy as a sexual being. Ahmanet is a kohl-eyed seductress, who uses men to advance her position. In this, the story returns to early fictional treatments of the Egyptian mummy not as a shuffling (male) servant/lover of a princess, in 20th Century films, but as a beautiful princess herself ‘stripped’ of her bandages and – restored to life – able to tempt mortal men. This in some way misrepresents genuinely ancient sexualised images of the deceased woman as eternally young and fertile, to aid in her own rebirth. Perhaps the best cinematic example of these misinterpretations was Valerie Leon’s Queen Ta-ra in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) – inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel Jewel of Seven Stars.

BLOOD FROM THE MUMMYS TOMB VALERIE LEON HAMMER FILMS BLACKBOXCLUB 1000

A film critic for The Guardian was quite wrong that the ‘mummy’s curse’ has no basis in ancient Egyptian reality. Imprecations against those who would damage monuments are common in Pharaonic sources, and appeals to the spirits of the ‘bad’ dead to desist from bringing harm are relatively well-attested. The Demotic tale of ‘Setne Khaemwaset’ vividly describes the consequences of stealing secret knowledge from the tomb of a magician. The same trope of illicitly acquiring ancient, hidden knowledge from an ‘archive’ of papyrus scrolls still appears here, in 2017, attesting to its continuing fascination.

So, what will this film add to – or detract from – popular knowledge of ancient Egypt? Well, the impact of the movie will likely be lessened by the fact it is not a ‘family’ film; it is aimed at an older audience than the Abbott and Costello-style treatment of the 1999 franchise. It represents ancient Egypt (specifically the ‘New Kingdom’ – described variously as ‘5000’ or ‘3000’ years ago) as a place of sensual exoticism – but also of disquieting horror. There is little point in quibbling about individual points of inaccuracy – if anything, the overall effect was more ‘accurate’ to our present idea of ancient Egypt than many previous ‘Mummy’ movies.

Most people who enter Manchester Museum have some idea of Egyptian mummies from fiction. For many visitors, mummies are not real. Our other main attraction in Manchester – ‘Stan’ the T-Rex – is a cast; many people have no experience of seeing a real corpse; mummies exist in fiction, alongside werewolves and vampires – so can’t be real. Given that this new ‘Mummy’ launches Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’ series of such characters, this film will likely reinforce these assumptions.

Egyptian mummies exist in a strange dimension between desire and revulsion. This film exploits that quandary more than most of recent times. Although she is evil, there are moments when one feels sympathetic towards Ahmanet. In the end, the film proves that unlike many other subjects contained within – and created by – museum collections, ancient Egyptian material has a uniquely seductive mixture of glamour and horror – of sex and death – that people are drawn to time after time.

For museums, it is useful to have this ‘pop’ fantasy as a counterpoint to debunk.

1 Comment

Filed under Curator's Diary, Egypt events, Egyptian mummies

Journeys across the sea and beyond: talking about current issues at Manchester Museum

Learning at Manchester Museum

You might notice on your next visit to the Museum that we have some new additions to our displays.

Our curators are thinking a lot about contemporary collecting and how we as an organisation respond to current issues such as climate change and migration.

Some of our new installations might raise some complex feelings in some of your pupils, so we wanted you to be aware in advance of some of the things you may encounter on your visit and suggest how you might want to utilise these objects to start conversations with your pupils about the issues they highlight.

Refugee Lifejacket

Life jacket from Lesvos on display at Manchester Museum Refugee’s lifejacket from Lesvos in the entrance of Manchester Museum

For example, a refugee’s lifejacket, from the Greek island of Lesvos,  has recently gone on display in the main entrance. As Bryan Sitch, a curator here, has said:

“Our mission is to promote understanding between different cultures and to work towards…

View original post 494 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Zahed Taj-Eddin’s ‘Shabtis: Suspended Truth’, 1 April – 30th June 2017

Zahed Taj-Eddin’s ‘Shabtis: Suspended Truth’ to feature at Manchester Museum

Responding to the current political debate on the subject of migration, Manchester Museum has commissioned a gallery installation by Syrian-born artist Zahed Taj-Eddin, which reflects on the Museum’s world-class Egyptology collection. Zahed Taj-Eddin was inspired particularly by Manchester Museum’s extensive collection of shabti figurines, which were placed in large numbers in tombs to act as servants for the afterlife. He has previously created 99 faience ceramic ‘Nu’ Shabtis for popular shows at the V&A, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and elsewhere.

IMG_9787_M1[3][1].jpg
Zahed’s new work places a multitude of his ‘Nu’ Shabti figures in new and unexpected contexts, many suspended as if floating in the main Ancient Worlds gallery space. The focus of the installation is to reflect the experience of migrants on a boat travelling across the Mediterranean towards a new existence.
Zahed said: “For this new installation I decided to suspend my ‘Nu’ Shabtis in the Museum
galleries. They are taking a new journey into time and space; suspended between the past and the present, searching for a new truth, different from the one they were made for. The display invites visitors to think about ancient and modern human issues such as the beliefs and actions that lead us to venture into the unknown and explore a better life beyond.”
Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan, said: “Our aim in working with Zahed has been to address contentious social questions through the lens of archaeological collections; to use seemingly familiar objects and provoke discussion of big contemporary topics. Zahed’s sculptures are both serious political commentary and enthralling objects in their own right.”
Late Period shabti on white.jpgZahed’s installation is accompanied by a display of more than 250 ancient examples from one of the world’s most important private collections of shabtis, many never seen on public display before.

Narrow and broad bladed hoes on white

Shabtis from the Kemehu Collection

‘Shabtis: Suspended Truth’ will be on view at in Manchester Museum’s Ancient Worlds galleries from the 1 st of April until the 30th of June 2017.

#MMShabtis

Leave a comment

Filed under Egypt events, Egypt events at the Manchester Museum