Curator’s diary July 2016: Egyptomania at Biddulph Grange

Yesterday several curators from Manchester Museum had the pleasure of visiting  Biddulph Grange, a National Trust property in north Staffordshire. We are particularly interested in exploring the theme of migration – of people, objects and ideas – and in ways of capturing the connections. Biddulph Grange represents a wonderful example of multi-cultural influences in the later Nineteenth Century that stretches across traditionally separate areas of Botany, Geology and Egyptology.

In 1840, the horticulturist James Bateman (1811–1897) moved to the 15 acre estate and with help of friend Edward Cooke, developed splendid gardens. Edward Cooke is known to have visited Egypt himself and to have been acquainted with the famous Scottish painter David Roberts, whose many drawings and watercolour sketches made while he was in Egypt heavily influenced British ideas about the country. Together Bateman and Cooke created several discrete areas in the Biddulph gardens: China, the Himalayas, Egypt and a didactic geology gallery.

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Biddulph’s Egyptian court was created between 1859 and 1862. It combines topiary in the form of a pyramid and two squat obelisks with stone features: two pairs of sphinxes, a cavetto corniced doorway leading to a passageway ending in a dimly-lit chamber with (rather creepy) baboon statue. The statuary is the work of sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894). Hawkins created sculptures of dinosaurs in concrete for the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace and was likely to have been inspired by the impressive Egyptian court designed by Owen Jones there. Jones’ designs are, however, more faithful to the ancient originals.

At Biddulph, cultures have been mixed in an eclectic, Orientalising soup – a great example of the migration – and melding – of ideas. Part of the Chinese garden has a gilded bovine statue, provided with a sun disk between its horns – making it resemble the sacred Apis Bull of Egypt rather than a decorative feature found in the Far East.

apis

The Pharaonic gateway has the a winged sundisk – however the usual rearing cobras (uraei) either side of the disk have been re(mis?)interpreted as the heads of birds. Combined with the feathered wings and disk, these seem intended to represent peacocks!

biddulph-wings

Within, sits a statue of a baboon or ‘Ape of Thoth’ – a type of statue we have in the collection. Like our example, the baboon sits with hands on knees; the Biddulph example has stylised fur and pectoral ornament handing from its neck. The face, however, is much more intentionally grotesque than a Pharaonic example and may be the result from borrowing from a Chinese dragon. The overall effect – with red-tinted sky-light above – is reminiscent of the focal point of an animal mummy catacomb. It is intriguing to imagine that a tourist visit to such a catacomb (which were common in the 19th Century)  may have inspired this spooky space.

bidd-ape

To anyone familiar with ancient Egyptian art, the two pairs of sphinxes look rather severe – but they carry all the essential elements: the striped ‘nemes’-headcloth worn by the Pharaoh, a beard attached to the chin by a strap, an unidentified object in place of the expected rearing cobra (uraeus) on the brow, and even an identifiable inscription. Although somewhat weathered, this was clearly an attempt to represent the two main names of the Pharaoh in oval-shaped cartouches: one, the ‘Son of Ra’ name and the ‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt’ name. Perhaps the name of Ramesses III was the model.

biddulph-sphinx

Although Egyptianising (and genuinely ancient) pieces are not uncommon in stately homes of the Nineteenth Century, what is usual at Biddulph is that the use of Egyptian imagery is so consistent and self-contained in one area of the estate. Set amongst other elements, the ‘Egyptomania’ of the Egyptian court is a fine illustration of how exotic ideas and motifs moved and morphed over time and space.

 

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Conserving & Interpreting ‘Soul Houses’

Caroline Berry, a conservation intern at Manchester studying Conservation Studies at Durham University, describes work on an important part of the collection.

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‘Soul Houses’ on display in our Egyptian Worlds gallery

Manchester Museum’s Egyptian Worlds Gallery has a great collection of objects which offer an insight into the ordinary and extraordinary of everyday life in Ancient Egypt, and sometimes if you look at objects from a different angle even more information into their story can be found. This is the record of one such event.

As part of this collection the Museum has a number of pottery ‘Soul Houses’ given by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie in 1907, which form the largest collection to come from one site, being the cemetery site of Rifeh in Middle Egypt. As part of my internship I have been fortunate to conserve four of these objects.

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No. 4260

 

To speak quickly of the background of these objects, Petrie coined the term ‘Soul Houses’ to describe these objects.  He believed the pieces were used to provide provisions for the afterlife. He was uncertain whether these objects were to house the ba, the spirit of mobility of the deceased when it entered the land of the living or as an offering for ka, the spirit of sustenance, to use in the afterlife, hence the umbrella term ‘Soul’ to capture both eventualities.

Petrie used consecutive letters A to N to type these objects. ‘A’ was used for the objects he considered to be the earliest form and N the most modern. He used terms from contemporary architecture to aid this development. An example of each type was sent to Manchester by Petrie to form the type collection that we have here today.

The models are hand-built, probably assembled by pressing and pinching together rolled out flat slabs of clay to manipulate the form. The size of the objects and the uneven nature of the base may suggest the objects were made on a floor and fired institute. The quality of the fabric suggests firing would have been no higher than 900°C. Although there is no contextual evidence for production, it is likely that this happened within a domestic setting rather than the cemetery.

An important aspect of conservation is to build an in-depth record of each object treated. While undertaking the photography, a mat impression, which appears to be layers of grass or reeds tied into bundles, was found on the base of 4360 (below).

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Underside of no. 4360

After checking the bases of the other Soul Houses from Rifeh, it was found that 4360 was the only object with this impression. Deciding to check the bases of the other ceramic offering trays held in the collection, 6544 from Sanam, Sudan (below) was the only other ceramic model to be found with a mat impression, although this impression is similar to an imprint of basketwork, as the example of contemporary basketry in the picture below suggests. (below)

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No. 6544

 

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Underside of no. 6544

 

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Basket from Kahun, late 12th Dynasty

 

Here at Manchester we’re are very excited by these findings and were hoping others may be able to share any such findings they have come across in Ancient Egyptian ceramics. We urge anyone with a soul house or offering tray, as long as the object is stable to do so, to check under the object and report back if they too have mat impression on their bases!

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‘Mummies, Magic and Medicine’: New book honouring Rosalie David

cover-2Prof Rosalie David OBE is the UK’s first female Professor in Egyptology, and former Keeper of Egyptology at Manchester Museum, whose pioneering work at the University of Manchester on Egyptian mummies, magic and medicine has been of international importance.

The volume, published by Manchester University Press, celebrates Professor David’s 70th birthday. It presents research by a number of leading experts in their fields: recent archaeological fieldwork, new research on Egyptian human remains and unpublished museum objects along with reassessments of ancient Egyptian texts concerned with healing and the study of technology through experimental archaeology. Papers try to answer some of Egyptology’s enduring questions – How did Tutankhamun die? How were the Pyramids built? How were mummies made? – along with less well-known puzzles.

Rather than address these areas separately, the volume adopts the so-called ‘Manchester method’ instigated by Rosalie David and attempts to integrate perspectives from both traditional Egyptology and scientific analytical techniques. Much of this research has never appeared in print before, particularly that resulting from the Manchester Egyptian Mummy Project, set up at the Manchester Museum in the 1970s. The resulting overview gives a good history of the discipline, illustrating how Egyptology has developed over the last 40 years, and how many of the same big questions still remain.

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Rosalie David at Manchester Museum in 1974

Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum and senior editor of the book, said: “As the Museum’s Keeper of Egyptology for 30 years, Rosalie David has inspired many people, old and young, and has brought the collection and her subject to the widest possible audience. This book celebrates her work and a proud Manchester Museum tradition.”

The book, published in June 2016, is aimed at researchers and students of archaeology or related disciplines with an interest in multidisciplinary approaches to understanding life and death in ancient Egypt and Sudan.

‘Mummies, Magic and Medicine in Ancient Egypt: Multidisciplinary Essays for Rosalie David’ C. Price, R. Forshaw, P. Nicholson and A. Chamberlain (eds) Manchester University Press 2016.

Details, including Table of Contents, can be found at the Manchester University Press website: http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781784992439/

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Egypt in World War I: Manchester Histories Festival

WW1-Edfu.jpgTo commemorate the WW1 Centenary, researchers from Cardiff University will hold a ‘roadshow’ at the Museum on Saturday 11th and Sunday 12th June exploring local links between Manchester regiments serving in Egypt and the Middle East and collecting memories. Items from the Manchester Museum archive relating to the Great War will be on display, with short tours by the Curator of Egyptology. A special presentation will take place at 11am on Saturday 11th June.

The team hope that visitors will bring photographs, postcards, stereoviews, lantern-slides, or any other items relating to wartime spent in Egypt and Palestine along to find out more about how they fit into a wider picture. Once loaded to the website copies of images will be available for all to see and so give a more comprehensive view of the First World War in Egypt than is presently available.

Please bring along any photographs etc. for the team to re-photograph or scan for uploading to the website – they are not looking to keep any original material, everything will be rendered virtually.

Planes

Views of an Antique Land – Imaging Egypt and Palestine in the First World War

Much of the commemoration of the First World War has focussed on the Western Front and so gives the impression that the war was entirely one of mud and trenches with very little movement. However, the war in Egypt and Palestine was much more mobile and often fast moving. It is a surprise to many that a great number of personnel served in Egypt and Palestine at some point during the war with units regularly being withdrawn from the Western Front to serve in the area before returning to Europe.  A new project offers a different perspective on the First World War using images taken in Egypt and Palestine during the period of the conflict.

Leading the project from Cardiff University are Dr Steve Mills and Professor Paul Nicholson of the School of History, Archaeology and Religion supported by project officer Hilary Rees.  The project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, focusses on collecting and making accessible images of Egypt and Palestine as they would have been seen by people during the First World War.  To this end we are collecting not only military images but also those of the ancient monuments of Egypt and Palestine which have much to tell us about the presentation of archaeological sites at that time.

The aim is to collect photographs taken by service personnel, postcards, lantern slides and stereo-views. The project does not collect the actual views but rather scans of them which will be uploaded to a dedicated interactive website where anyone interested in seeing what their ancestors saw or who is interested in how the ancient monuments, cities, towns and villages looked during the First World War can get that information.

 

The website at http://sites.cardiff.ac.uk/ww1imagesegypt/ will be a perpetual online learning resource and archive offering new views of archaeological sites, military installations and cities as they appeared during the war.

 

The participation of members of the public at all stages of the project is very welcome. It is hoped that they will contribute by uploading relevant images and information to the site and in identifying images.  The project team can be contacted directly at ww1imagesegypt@cardiff.ac.uk

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Gifts for the Gods travels north of the border

Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank

We always knew that the six months during which Gifts for the Gods was open at Manchester Museum would be a very different time for us. Having a successful exhibition based on our current research open on campus, meant that we had many demands on our time – including public engagement events, learning programmes and community outreach initiatives. All of these events are vital in helping to publicise the research which underpins the exhibition, raise the profile of what we do and enthuse the public about the mummies themselves. Now the numbers have been counted, we know that 1011 school children have taken part in guided learning sessions and organised workshops around animal mummies (and many more school groups who used the exhibition space for self-guided learning activities). To date, an amazing 9655 visitors engaged with events linked to the themes of the exhibition.

It was lovely (and quite emotional!) to…

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by | May 10, 2016 · 9:20 pm

Curator’s Diary, March 2016: Examining coffins and the display of ‘beauty’

2TempleplaceI recently visited two current Egyptological exhibitions. The first was ‘Beyond Beauty: Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt’ at Two Temple Place in London. ‘Beyond Beauty’ presents a diverse range of objects from small Egyptology collections around the UK, with particular attention paid to archaeological context and the role of regional funding in supporting British archaeologists excavating in Egypt. It is, therefore, something of an irony that at least one of the lending institutions is threatened with closure and the exhibition is being staged in the heart of London.

The venue, Two Temple Place, is undeniably stunning. It provides a stark contrast to the Pharaonic items on display, without being immediately overwhelming. ‘Beauty’ is the organising theme, from cosmetic items and jewellery to the idealised form of beauty represented by the decorated coffin. Because the ideals of eternal beauty and perfection pervaded (elite) Egyptian society, there is a feeling that everything and anything Egyptian might, conveniently, fit the bill for inclusion. Yet the exhibition’s interpretation succeeds in saying something meaningful about ideals of beauty in different contexts – both in the ancient and modern world (witness the gift shop).

A real strength is that the material in the exhibition is either not usually on display or is somehow lost in its usual display setting. There is an admirable emphasis on the process of the chances of archaeological discovery, export and subsequent acquisition by UK institutions. The fact that even fairly badly damaged pieces (such as the key image used in marketing) appeal to our modern aesthetic sensibilities is a testament to the intrinsic ‘beauty’ of (and our voracious appetite for) Pharaonic things today.

This theme is echoed in the exhibition ‘Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt’ at the Fitzwilliam Museum, part of the University of Cambridge. This show focuses on Egyptian coffins, drawn largely from the Fitz’s own (impressive) collection.
There has been a notable increase in Egyptian coffin studies in the last few years, with new techniques more and more being applied to understand their construction, as once those techniques were solely focussed on mummies. This research work is clearly the chief inspiration for the exhibition, with a focus on materials and the crafting of coffins. Lengthy interpretation emphasises this. Borrowing the idea, perhaps, from a recent exhibition on the Bab el Gasus cache in Leiden, a conservation lab is recreated in the exhibition space to great effect. There were audible gasps when visitors I observed realised that no glass stood in the way of them and the ‘action’. This work has revealed many new facets to the coFitzffins – not least the prevalence of extensive reuse.

Here too, as in Two Temple Place, the broken – and rather sad-looking – components of coffins are shown as objects worth of display in their own right. Often, in bigger collections with more well-preserved examples, these broken parts have been relegated to storerooms (we have many in Manchester, for sure). It is therefore refreshing – and actually much more representative of the nature of Egyptology collections as a whole – to show these dismembered parts. Even as orphaned hands and faces (again, a coffin face is used as ‘cover image’) these items still have a distinct appeal, which perhaps explains why they were so commonly collected and, therefore, are largely without a secure archaeological provenance.

As very often in Egypt-themed exhibitions, it was not clear to me that visitors to either show fully understood the intended thematic selection of pieces. In that way, both exhibitions highlight the continued, inherent appeal of displays of (recognisably) Egyptian material, regardless of the clever connections we museum sorts think we’re making. Ultimately, the general public isn’t overly concerned with these.

The enduring fascination with (pretty and recognisable) Egyptian things shows no signs of decline.

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Because that’s how we (wrap and) roll!

Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank

On Thursday 25th February, a momentous event took place at Manchester Museum. Crowds gathered to witness a theatrical spectacle; this time it wasn’t a mummy ‘unwrapping’, but a mummy ‘re-wrapping’. Over 400 people attended the event and a further 1000 engaged via the internet with the help of the live-streaming app, Periscope. The event was a bold move; there was no guarantee that the re-wrapping would be a success. After all, our practice efforts had been less than encouraging! Nonetheless, we decided to take the bold move to forge onwards and take our research at the University of Manchester out of the laboratory and into the public spotlight.

Fig 100 copy

Time had not been on our side in the run up to the event, with many other commitments meaning that we had just one afternoon to practice what we hoped to achieve on the night. We have studied many mummies over the…

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by | March 23, 2016 · 11:21 pm