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.
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.
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.