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 sarahgwen1@hotmail.com

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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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