Monthly Archives: April 2012

Curator’s Diary 26/4/12: Ancient Egypt for the visually impaired

Henshaws visitOn Thursday I met with a group of around 30 visitors from Henshaws, a charity that provides support for blind and visually impaired people.

I confess to a little trepidation at the task of describing in sufficient detail objects that I am used to presenting in primarily visual terms – through photos or line drawings. We tend to speak of Egyptian ‘visual culture’ rather than ‘tangible culture’, and most museum displays assume that objects – because they are usually behind glass – are only viewed by sight. But what if you are blind or visually impaired?

The selection of objects for the session was dictated mainly by texture. Along with Conservator Irit Narkiss, Andrea Winn, the Museum’s Curator of Community Exhibitions, and I chose objects that provided a range of surfaces: part of a carved limestone block with a biographical inscription; a pre-Dynastic cosmetic palette, worn on one side; a small travertine kohl pot; a Late Period hard stone scarab amulet.

All our handling objects are accessioned pieces from the collection judged safe enough to touch. That sense of being able to touch the past was something that instantly struck a chord with our Henshaws visitors.

Henshaws visit 2Usually I would discuss an object based on appearance, and this would invite questions about age or function immediately. However, in this case questions were more likely to arise once each person had handled the object. In that sense, engaging with the pieces was a much more individual experience than is usually the case in a museum handling session. The question of how certain objects were made – asked more frequently than how old they were or what they were used for – gave me a greater appreciation of how tactile objects can be, picking up details that I have otherwise missed.

Meeting the Henshaws group afforded a genuinely new perspective on how people experience ancient Egyptian material culture. Our new Ancient Worlds galleries will include handling objects as well as new Hapic technology that will allow users to experience the feel of objects too fragile to be touched regularly, but which can be simulated through advanced computer software programmed to control a stylus. This will enable visitors to trace the contours of an object remotely – a very exciting innovation in how we interact with museum objects.

Read a blogpost about the visit from a member of the Henshaws group here.


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Event: Cairo Chaos – Toot ‘n’ Carboot and Watt the Heka

FezThe Manchester Museum, Sunday 13th of May, 11-12 am.

The Manchester Museum’s ‘Unearthed’ presents Cairo Chaos.

With the esteemed poet extraordinaire, Toot and Carboot  in collaboration with the terrifyingly talented magician, Watt the Heka.


More ‘laffs than a safari full of meerkats.

More rhythm than a Nile river cruise.

Hear words and see magic in a story.

That will amaze baffle and amuse.

Open to mummies, daddies and young pharaohs.

No need to book, just turn up.

Be sure not to miss the beginning. Magic starts at 11am

More on the event here.

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Texts in translation #4: an Akh-iqr-n-Ra stela of Ptah-hesy (Acc. no. 1554)

Acc. no. 1554  © Paul Cliff

Acc. no. 1554 © Paul Cliff

This is a fine example of a rare type of stela, made to honour the ‘effective spirits of Re’ (Akhw iqr n Ra). Only around 60 are known, and these date exclusively to the later New Kingdom (c. 1295-1069 BC). This limestone example is 29cms in height and was found by W.M.F. Petrie in the first court of the mortuary temple of Merenptah (c. 1213-1203 BC) on the Theban west bank.

The text above the main figure (and recipient of the offerings) reads:

‘The effective spirit of Re, Ptah-hesy, justified’

Ptah-hesy (‘favoured-of-Ptah’) is shown in the classic pose of the ‘effective spirits’: seated and holding a lotus blossom to his face in one hand. In the other, Ptah-hesy holds an ankh – the sign of ‘life.’ This is extremely unusual in scenes depicting ordinary mortals, usually only being the privilege of deities and kings. These attributes indicate the supra-human state of the ‘effective spirits of Re’. They were believed to be the blessed dead, close ancestors who had made a successful transition to the afterlife and were able to journey with the sun god Re in his barque across the sky.

.”]”]Line drawing of Acc. no. 1554, after R. Demaree 1983, p. vi [A20]

Line drawing of Acc. no. 1554, after R. Demaree 1983, p. vi (A20)

The solar barque depicted in the upper register of this stela illustrates this concept. Those privileged enough to be on board this divine cruise ship across the heavens were thought particularly well-placed to intercede in the lives of the living and act beneficially for them. Prayers in the form of letters are known, which address the Akhwdirectly. Stelae such as this would have been dedicated to win the favour of the ‘effective spirits’, and were often set up by relatives.

The text above the figure of the donor of the stela identifies him:

‘Made by the guardian of the temple of millions of years, Pen-renut, justified, of Thebes.

We are not certain of the relationship of the two men. The ‘mansion of millions of years’ in which Pen-renut worked is not specified, but must be a mortuary temple on the Theban west bank where the cult of deceased kings would – it was hoped – be celebrated for ‘millions of years’. Here the term is probably intended to imply the mortuary temple of Merenptah, where the stela was found.


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Manchester Ancient Egypt Society June Study Day: Epigraphy at Saqqara

The Manchester Ancient Egypt Society will be holding a study day at the Days Inn, Sackville Street on Saturday 23 June featuring lectures by Dr Yvonne Harpur and Paolo Scremin to raise funds for the pioneering photographic work of the Oxford Expedition to Egypt being carried out in Old Kingdom tombs at Saqqara.

–          Members and non-members are invited to come and find out about life in the field with the expedition staff, and enjoy a well-illustrated description of the expedition’s past, present and future projects in Egypt.

–          Learn about how the team are bringing the past to life and overcoming the technical and logistical difficulties of tomb photography, and the secrets to achieving the best results.

–          Hear the story of the earliest fully decorated tombs of Ancient Egypt at Maidum, the destruction of these beautiful works of art by treasure seekers and vandals, and the reconstruction work being carried out on the fragments that have been rescued.

The recent revolution in Egypt should be a timely reminder of the importance of tomb documentation in Egyptology. The vast majority of tombs have never been documented in detail for more advanced or specialised types of research. Hear more about the expedition’s most recent rescue project, initiated last year in response to rapidly changing circumstances in Egypt and see some rare and unique scenes and details from the best Old Kingdom tombs.

Dr Yvonne Harpur is the Field Director of the Oxford Expedition to Egypt, a Research Fellow at Linacre College Oxford University and Assistant photographer of the expedition.

Paolo Scremin, the Deputy Field Director of the Oxford Expedition to Egypt is an Academic Visitor at Linacre College Oxford University and the professional photographer of the expedition.

For more details or to book a place please email MAES Secretary Sarah Griffiths at

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How DID they build the pyramids…?

Remaining mudbrick core of Senwosret II's pyramid II at Lahun

Remaining mudbrick core of Senwosret II's pyramid II at Lahun

Manchester Museum has a unique collection of objects connected with pyramid building. Many everyday tools have survived from a settlement specially-planned to house workers who built the pyramid of King Senwosret II (c. 1880-1874 BC).

In ancient times the town was called Hetep-Senwosret (‘Senwosret-is-pleased’ or ‘Senwosret-is-satisfied’). Today the town is known as Kahun, the name given to it by the site’s excavator W.M.F. Petrie (1853-1942 AD) after hearing the name from a local man. The whole site, including the king’s pyramid, its associated temples and other tombs, is more commonly called Lahun. It is situated at the eastern edge of the Faiyum region – an area of major building works in the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1650 BC).

Plumb-bob (Acc. no. 104) fom Kahun. © Paul Cliff

Plumb-bob (Acc. no. 104) fom Kahun. © Paul Cliff

The pyramid was built upon a natural outcrop of limestone, of over 12 metres in height. An internal framework of limestone walls was built to form a structural skeleton. Measurements for this and other aspects of the building work would have been made using cords and a plumb line (Acc. No. 104). Around the pyramid were also discovered a wooden mallet (Acc. No. 55) and, most interestingly, rollers, also made of wood (Acc. No. 6197). These would have been used to move the heavier stone blocks up the side of the pyramid on a ramp.

Brick mould from Kahun (Acc. no. 51). © Paul Cliff

Brick mould from Kahun (Acc. no. 51). © Paul Cliff

Unlike earlier examples, the core of Senwosret II’s pyramid was constructed largely from sun-dried mud bricks. Brick moulds (Acc. no. 51) would therefore have been in common use by workers. The pyramid was faced with white limestone blocks to give the appearance of a solid stone structure. The lowest course of this casing was set into a rock-cut foundation trench as a precaution against movement of the masonry caused by the settling of the mud bricks. A copper chisel (Acc. no. 204) found at the workers’ village may have been used for dressing stone both at the pyramid and in surrounding buildings. Most of this material was removed by later kings, such as Ramesses II, for use in their own buildings.

A copper chisel (Acc. no. 204), found inside a basket at Kahun. © Paul Cliff

A copper chisel (Acc. no. 204), found inside a basket at Kahun. © Paul Cliff

Other items in Manchester would have been used in the construction and maintenance of buildings in the pyramid complex. A plasterer’s float (Acc. no. 52), with traces of plaster still adhering to its flat surface, might have been used to lay plaster floors – as found in some of the town’s houses – or to finish the surface of walls. Agricultural implements might also have been used near the pyramid: when finished, it would have been surrounded by rows of trees, indicated by the remains of roots in pits, which would require tending.

Plasterer's wooden float from Kahun (Acc. no. 52). © Paul Cliff

Plasterer's wooden float from Kahun (Acc. no. 52). © Paul Cliff

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Lecture in Carlisle: Behind the Gilded Mask of Sheri-ankh

Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery Trust presents:

Behind the Gilded Mask of Sheri-ankh: The life and death of an Egyptian woman in the First Millennium BC.


Wednesday 23rd May at 2pm


Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery Trust is proud to present an afternoon lecture with Dr. Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and the Sudan from The Manchester Museum. 

Dr. Price will share his knowledge of Egyptian culture during the First Millennium BC and in particular, Sheri-ankh, an Egyptian mummy and coffin currently on loan to Tullie House from The Manchester Museum.

Sheri-ankh, the mummy of a woman in her early 20s, and her coffin are one of the highlights within ‘Secret Egypt’, a major exhibition currently on show at Tullie House, examining popular modern ideas about the ancient Egyptians
Sheri-ankh lived between 600 and 300 BC. But what evidence is there for Sheri-ankh’s life and times? Using both the hieroglyphic inscriptions on her coffin and archaeological evidence for Egyptian burial customs, Dr. Price will investigate if it is possible to reconstruct some aspects of her life, religious beliefs and expectations after death. Sheri-ankh is not only a museum exhibit, but a human being with a story to tell.

More information can be found at the Tullie House website.


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Object biography #4: The Riqqeh Pectoral (Acc. no 5966)

Riqqeh pectoral. Acc. no 5966. Front. © Paul Cliff

Acc. no 5966. Front. © Paul Cliff

This small (4.2cm wide) object has perhaps the most dramatic biography of any in the Manchester Egypt collection, and one which would not seem out of place in a Hollywood movie script. Known today as the Riqqeh Pectoral after the site at which it was discovered, this ornate chest ornament, with two loops for suspension indicating that it was worn on a necklace, is an undoubted highlight of the Manchester Museum. The piece was created using a technique termed cloisonné, in which separate gold sections are filled with semi-precious stones. Lapis lazuli (dark blue), carnelian (red) and turquoise (blue/green) give the pectoral its colourful appearance and gem-like lustre. The reverse is chased in gold with details of the figures: two wedjat eyes (or ‘eyes of Horus’) flank a sun disk above two falcons (sometimes described as ‘crows’) on symbols for ‘gold’. The composition is arranged symmetrically around a stylised papyrus umbel suggesting a sekhem sceptre – a symbol of power. Two inward turned papyrus stalks frame the group.

Riqqeh pectoral. Acc. no 5966. Reverse. © Paul Cliff

Acc. no 5966. Reverse. © Paul Cliff

The pectoral was found in association with two other items, each in the form of a king’s name: Senuseret II (Khakheperre) and Senuseret III (Khakaure). It can therefore be reliably dated to the second half of the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1900-1840 BC). It is a fine example of delicate jewellery on a small scale, typical of the best Middle Kingdom royal pieces.

But it was the archaeological context of the pectoral that is most remarkable. Between 1911-12 English Egyptologist Reginald Engelbach was excavating in a cemetery at el-Riqqeh, near the entrance to the Faiyum lake region. At the bottom of a deep tomb shaft (no. 124), Engelbach discovered an apparently-intact chamber, the roof of which had collapsed in antiquity. At the centre of the chamber was a coffin containing a mummy – but with the arm-bones of another body lying on top of it. The remaining bones of this second individual lay nearby. According to the excavator, “it appeared as if it had been suddenly crushed while in a standing, or at least crouching position when the fall occurred.”

Group of jewellery with which the Riqqeh pectoral was found.

Group of jewellery with which the Riqqeh pectoral was found (R. Engelbach, Riqqeh & Memphis VI, 1915, pl.I)

Within the mummy wrappings several items of jewellery, including the pectoral, had apparently been partially dislodged. All the evidence suggests that a robber must have been crushed in the act of rifling for valuables when the roof collapsed. Tomb robbery was a well-known fact of life in ancient as well as post-Pharaonic Egypt. Many objects are likely to have been stolen not long after they were interred. Yet it is exceptional to have the circumstances of a robbery preserved in such a fashion: a gruesome snapshot of the “mummy’s curse” in action.

The pectoral is one of the most often-illustrated items in the Manchester collection, and the most popular – judging by considerable postcard sales for this image. Few people, however, know the story behind its discovery. To put the pectoral into its proper – albeit unusual – archaeological context, the group of jewellery from Riqqeh tomb 124 will feature in Gallery 1 of our Ancient Worlds redisplay, as part of a narrative told from the point of view of a tomb robber – one of several guides to the exploration of archaeological finds.


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Curator’s Diary 11/4/12: Visiting Egypt (3) – the Egyptian Museum

The Egyptian Museum CairoSeveral hours of my last two days in Cairo were spent at the Egyptian Museum. This is a building I have visited many times and, in 2008, briefly worked at as an intern on the an ARCE/SCA project to create a digital database for the museum’s 100,000 or more objects. Several changes had taken place since my last visit here in 2009. Outside, the side of the building closest to the Nile has been developed into a café and ‘museum store’ – the latter still empty after it took the brunt of looting during the Egyptian revolution last year.

Inside, I was pleased to see a large number of visitors had returned – but also happy to enjoy the galleries without full-capacity Easter holiday crowds. A major change is the ongoing – and much-needed – painting work within the galleries. Along with the addition of some new lighting, the interior of the museum space has been simply but effectively transformed and now feels much lighter and modern. The reorganisation of some areas has been of major benefit in foregrounding some previously-hidden aspects of the collection.

Persian period stela  © SGSP

Persian period stela © SGSP

I was delighted to see back on display the striking Persian Period stela discovered in 1990s by the Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project. It now keeps company with many – roughly contemporary – statues from the Karnak Cachette, objects that formed the subject of my Ph.D dissertation. I confess also to taking a new interest in objects from the same sites as those in Manchester, or those that provide parallels. I hope to explore these connections further in the new galleries’ interpretation and in information available on our digital catalogue.

History: ancient and modern

History: ancient and modern

The site of the Museum, in Tahrir Square, is now world-famous as the scene of the Egyptian revolution. Indeed several visitors were more interested in taking photographs of the burnt-out government building next to the Museum than in the (now expanded) number of monuments in the Museum gardens. I was in Luxor at the end of January 2011, during the height of the Tahrir demonstrations. I remember clearly the stunned silence among a gathering of Egyptologists when someone reported that the museum in Cairo was on fire. That report, fortunately, proved to be inaccurate but typified the sometimes hysterical reactions at the time from around the world. It was therefore incredibly heartening to see the Museum reinventing itself. This great collection of Egyptian antiquities has become as much about Egypt’s present and future as about its past.

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Curator’s Diary 8/4/12: Visiting Egypt (2) – Return to Saqqara

On Tuesday I returned, for the first time in over two years, to a site I know very well. Saqqara is most famous as the home of the Step Pyramid of King Djoser (c. 2667-2648 BC), Egypt’s (and arguably the world’s) first major monumental construction entirely built in stone. Over the last few years conservation work has been undertaken to shore up the pyramid’s crumbling walls. Though necessary, the scaffolding remains something of an eyesore and detracts slightly from this impressive monument.

Since 2006, I have been a member of a pioneering research project that uses a range of geophysical techniques to map the necropolis surrounding the Step Pyramid – revealing many structures that previously lay undetected beneath the sand. The Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project (SGSP) is Scotland’s only archaeological mission in Egypt, and was the brainchild of Ian Mathieson. Ian was a real pioneer of the appliance of science to Egyptian archaeology, a charismatic Scotsman who became a close friend and mentor. Since he passed away at the age of 83 in 2010, his energy and interdisciplinary approach to fieldwork have been much missed. Those of us who worked with him are keen to continue his exciting work.

SGSP Geophysical plan

Geophysical plan of the 'north temples' - previously undetected by archaeologists. © SGSP

Some of the last objects to enter the Manchester Museum collection from Egypt (in the 1970s, when the Egyptian authorities still permitted a proportion of finds to be exported abroad by their excavators) come from Saqqara. During the First Millennium BC, Saqqara was at the heart of a peculiarly Egyptian religious practice: the cult of sacred animals. Although the ‘Sacred Animal Necropolis’ focussed on the worship of one sacred bull, a large number of species were bred, killed, mummified and buried here as votive gifts to the gods. The remains of several million mummified birds, cats, dogs, and baboons have been discovered in underground catacombs at Saqqara. The new Egyptian World gallery will feature more information about the work of the SGSP in establishing where this vast industry of sacred animals operated, what the religious rationale behind the cult was, and new scientific research on the animal mummies themselves.

Figure of Anubis from the tomb of Maya

Figure of Anubis from the tomb of Maya

The last season I spent with Ian and the SGSP in 2009, we surveyed an area around the tomb of Horemheb – a high-ranking army general under Tutankhamun (c. 1336-1327 BC), who himself became king and was subsequently buried in the Valley of the Kings. Our work revealed the outline of several unknown tombs in this area. Some others nearby have been excavated and restored by an Anglo-Dutch mission, and have recently been opened to the public. A highlight of my visit was to see the superbly-decorated burial chamber of a man called Maya, treasurer under Tutankhamun and contemporary of Horemheb.

Murray Saqqara Mastabas

One of Murray's Saqqara publications

Saqqara has another connection with Manchester. Before she came to Manchester to pioneer the scientific investigation of mummies with the unwrapping of the Two Brothers, Margaret Murray spent several seasons working at Saqqara as a student of W.M.F. Petrie. The result was a number of handsome volumes publishing mastaba tombs there. In Murray’s day, such results were only possible through digging – and the ultimately destructive effects of archaeology. Now, with geophysical techniques, it is possible to plan many of the tombs Murray identified without lifting a trowel. Archaeological fieldwork is of prime importance to understanding and properly contextualising museum objects. I hope to develop further both the legacy of Ian Mathieson and Margaret Murray, to better understand Saqqara – a site from which we have a very rich collection of objects.


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Curator’s Diary 6/4/12: Visiting Egypt (1) – the Faiyum

Yesterday I returned from a 4-day trip to Cairo. One objective of this visit was to capture digital content for the new Ancient Worlds galleries, in the form of photographs and short film clips.


Manchester holds a world-class collection of objects excavated from the ancient towns of Kahun (modern Lahun) and Gurob. Both sites are situated close to the Faiyum lake, some 130 kilometres south-west of modern Cairo. Driving with my friend and colleague Mohammed Komaty on the second day of my trip, it took just over 2 hours on the Western Desert Highway to reach the area. I had never visited the Faiyum region before, so took the opportunity to stop at another important site nearby.

Pyramid at Meidum

Meidum is the site of a large, steep-sided pyramid – a tower-like structure visible from the road. It was perhaps begun by Huni, last king of the Third Dynasty (c. 2637-2613), and was completed – if not entirely constructed – by his son Sneferu (c. 2613-2589 BC). Nearby are several large mastaba tombs (so-called because they resemble the flat, rectangular structures – hence their Arabic name, meaning ‘bench’) belonging to high-ranking officials. One of the mastabas belonged to a son of Sneferu, named Nefermaat, and his wife Itet. In addition to almost 200 other small objects from Meidum, Manchester Museum holds two decorated blocks from Nefermaat and Itet’s mastaba – both of which will feature in the new galleries.

The next stop was Gurob, the site of a royal harem palace during the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1143 BC). I was very pleased my visit coincided with fieldwork by the Gurob Harem Palace Project, an international collaboration led by Liverpool University’s Dr. Ian Shaw, who showed me around the site. The Project has improved substantially our understanding of the extent and use of this intriguing settlement, the story of which will feature in the ‘Royal Cities’ section of the Egyptian World gallery.

GHPP Director Ian Shaw and Tine Bagh

GHPP Director Ian Shaw and Tine Bagh

Of particular interest is the work of Anna Hodgkinson, a friend and colleague from Liverpool, who has been excavating kilns at the site. These contain the remains of glass and faience production, but may have had other uses. It may have been here that some of the most beautiful Gurob objects now in Manchester were created. Anna kindly agreed to speak about her research on camera, which will be included in a video exploring the making of faience and glass objects.

Finally, I made a trip to the site from which arguably the greatest number of Manchester’s Egyptian objects come: the workers’ town of Lahun. Here were housed the builders of the nearby pyramid of Senwosret II (c. 1880-1874 BC) and their descendants. The site was dug extensively by William Matthew Flinders Petrie at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Despite the fact that Petrie discovered many objects that cast unprecedented light on life – and not just death – at the town, there is very little to see today. It was, however, a special privilege to be at the place that has such a close connection with objects I am getting to know so well. Although weathered, the site is still dominated by the mud-brick pyramid of Senwosret II – a feeling enhanced by the total lack of other visitors. The pyramid’s haunting majesty was intended to ensure that the king’s cult continued at the town after his death. This is attested at Lahun by the large number of papyri found there, dealing with a range of matters – including the royal cult – from long after the pyramid had received its intended occupant.

The pyramid of Senwosret II at Lahun

The pyramid of Senwosret II at Lahun


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