Monthly Archives: May 2012

Texts in translation #5: An ostracon showing Amun-Re as a ram (Acc. no. 9658)

Acc. no. 9658. © Paul Cliff

Acc. no. 9658. © Paul Cliff

I recently received an enquiry about the short inscription on this pottery sherd – or ostracon. The piece comes from the collection of Mr George Spiegelberg, a merchant in Manchester and brother of the famous German Egyptologist Wilhelm Spiegelberg (1870-1930). The ostracon shows the head of a ram deity with a rearing cobra before it, sketched first in red and then gone over in black.

The vertical caption reads: Beloved of Amun-Re, Lord of the Sky, Great God.
The text above the ram’s head reads: Amun-Re, the Light of Day.

The provenance of the sherd is most likely to be the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069 BC) village of Deir el-Medina, built to house the workers involved in the construction of tombs in and around the Valley of the Kings. Hundreds of similar sketches on limestone flakes or pottery sherds – in some sense the equivalent of modern ‘post-it’ notes – have been discovered there. Deir el-Medina was home to a variety of deities, local forms – differentiated by the addition of various epithets – of the gods worshipped in major state temples. Amun-Re was worshipped on the opposite side of the river to the village, at the great temple of Karnak, and is well attested in other contexts in the form of a ram. Here his epithet is ‘Shu en heru’. Shu was the god of air and sunlight, so a literal rendering of the text is ‘the light of day’.

The ostracon was most probably a draughtsman’s trial piece. Apprentices learnt to sketch in red, before a more experienced draughtsman went over this outline in black, correcting any mistakes. While the flake may have had a functional use as a practice piece, it could have served a votive function – as a record of piety – in and of itself.

Although no one is named as being ‘beloved’ of the god (it seems unlikely to me that the name has broken off), the rest of the text all appears to have been written entirely in black. The hieroglyphs fit around the image, within the edges of the sherd – suggesting the text is by a different, more confident hand than the first red outline. By the addition of this short caption, a draughtsman’s sketch is transformed into an explicit depiction of a god.


Filed under Texts in Translation

Curator’s Diary 26/5/12: Making ancient Egyptian faience

Faience vessel

Faience kohl pot from Kahun. Middle Kingdom. Acc no. 164. © Paul Cliff

Yesterday, I joined a team from the Caer Alyn Archaeological Heritage Project (CAAHP) as they attempted to recreate the ancient Egyptian art of faience production. Faience is a glazed non-clay ceramic material, composed mainly of crushed quartz or sand, with small amounts of lime and either natron or plant ash. The characteristic blue colour of Egyptian faience comes from a copper compound added to this mixture. Once fired, a thick glaze forms on the surface.

At the Manchester Museum we have around 2500 objects made of Egyptian faience, including one of my favourites – a bright blue libation cup of Nesi-khonsu, from the Deir el-Bahri royal cache. The material was widely used for vessels, shabtis, jewellery and amulets throughout the pharaonic period. In creating our new Ancient Worlds galleries we want to explain how this very attractive material – called tjehenet or ‘dazzling’ by the ancient Egyptians – was made.


Alan with the kiln, ensuring airflow is at an optimum level

In January I met Alan Brown of Daresbury Laboratory, who told me about his work recreating ancient kilns and his interest in ancient Egypt. He planned to build a clay kiln in an attempt to replicate the firing conditions that produced faience in ancient Egypt. Alan kindly agreed to talk about his experiments on film, to appear in the ‘exploring objects’ space of the new galleries. All the proceedings were filmed by the Museum’s media technician Luke Lovelock, and clips of the experiment will appear in the new galleries, with longer videos online.

Filming the kiln in action

This exciting case of experimental archaeology took place in a field just outside Wrexham in North Wales. It was perhaps the best day of the year to undertake such work – beautiful weather, and sunshine that seemed almost Egyptian! We were very lucky to have the services of a skilled set of volunteers from the CAAHP who have worked with Alan on a number of recreations before – not least the impressive roundhouse, next to where we were filming.

Alan’s team had built a small clay kiln in the weeks leading up to the experiment. They began by fuelling the kiln with wood and straw – as, presumably, would have been done in ancient Egypt. Alan had promised that dried cow pats would also be used as fuel, but – fortunately, I thought – this touch, however authentic, wasn’t available. Alan had prepared a number of small faience samples, made with different mixtures, including clay, gum arabic, and natron – a compound commonly used in mummification and simulated with table salt and bicarbonate of soda.

Each of the samples were placed on top of pebbles inside a lidded, fired clay container – or saggar – to sit at the centre of the kiln. An electronic probe was placed beneath the saggar to measure what temperature was reached in this hottest part of the kiln. Once the fuel began burning, and with careful stoking and sustained bellowing of air inside, a temperature of around 900 degrees Celsius was reached remarkably quickly. Although this core temperate fluctuated, it remained at between 800 and 900 degrees for about one and a half hours – providing the conditions thought ideal for the compounds in the faience to produce a glaze.

Inside the kiln, once the lid had been removed from the saggar

Once the kiln had been allowed to cool off somewhat, around three hours after the firing process had begun, we gathered round for the lid of the saggar to be removed. There was a real sense of expectation to see if the experiment had been a success – had the faience mixture been dry enough? Had the temperature been right? Was there enough bellowing? The results were astonishing: most of Alan’s greyish samples had turned bright Egyptian blue. Although the material remained rather porous, and did not show the shiney glaze typical of pharaonic examples, the experiment was declared a success. Conditions not dissimilar to those used in ancient Egypt had produced a passable imitation of this popular material.

Success: the distinctive blue of Egyptian faience.

Alan and his colleagues hope to make the results of their experiments more widely available soon. You can find out more on their other projects here. Footage from the kiln can be seen when the new galleries open at the end of October.


Filed under Curator's Diary, Research projects

Curator’s Diary 23/5/12: ‘Secret Egypt’ and Ta-sheri-ankh

Today I gave a lecture at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle, in conjunction with the travelling exhibition ‘Secret Egypt’. The Manchester Museum has loaned a number of items to the exhibition, including two star pieces which would otherwise not have been seen during the redevelopment: a limestone flake (or ostracon) with a rare depiction of a funeral and the Riqqeh Pectoral. Also on loan from our Museum was ‘Salford EA 7’, the mummy and coffin of a woman, one of several human remains transferred to Manchester from the Salford Museum and Art Gallery in 1979.

Giving the lecture provided an opportunity to do some research on the coffin and its occupant, which we had previously loaned to a venue in Venezuela. X-rays carried out in the early 1980s revealed the mummy belonged to a woman in her 20s, but the label in the old ‘Afterlife’ gallery referred to her simply as ‘The Salford Mummy’. The label also claimed that she was ‘unnamed’. In fact, both the mummy’s brightly painted coffin and cartonnage decorations named the woman as ‘Ta-sheri-ankh’ (literally: ‘The living child’). The style of the coffin closely resembles other examples from the site of Akhmim.

Salford EA 7 – the coffin of Ta-sheri-ankh

In 1884, the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero (1846-1916) discovered hundreds of coffins, mummies and other assorted funerary equipment at this site. Sadly, the fate of many of these mummies was to be sold to paper-making factories or used as fuel for the Egyptian National Railway(!). Fortunately, many items survived by being bought by travellers and have ended up in museums around the world. Interestingly, Ta-sheri-ankh and her coffin do not seem to have been part of this particular haul: her mummy and coffin was donated to Newport Museum in 1888 by Sir George Elliot, who acquired her in the 1870s.

The names of Ta-sheri-ankh’s parents are preserved: her father was called ‘Iret-hor-ru’ and her mother ‘Mut-hotep’, both of whom held titles in the priesthood of the god Min at Akhmim – corroborating the provenance suggested from the iconography of the coffin. It is likely – though not spelt out on her coffin – that Ta-sheri-ankh worked, like her mother, as a temple singer of Min.

The name of ‘Ta-sheri-ankh’ in hieroglyphs. The final two signs have been mixed up.

Ta-sheri-ankh had been labelled with a nebulous ‘Late Period’ date. It is difficult to be precise about dating Late Period coffins from Akhmim, because of a lack of reliable date indicators and variation between Akhmim styles and contemporary coffins made elsewhere in Egypt at the same time. However, the large size of the eyes on the coffin’s gilded mask and the fact that Ta-sheri-ankh is referred to as a ‘Hathor’ seem to indicate a date of around the beginning of the Ptolemaic Period (c. 300 BC).

Further investigation of Ta-sheri-ankh’s mummy is planned, but for the moment it is satisfying to be able to refer to her by name. It was, after all, the prime Egyptian funerary wish that the name should survive after death – so Ta-sheri-ankh is lucky in comparison with so many of her contemporaries, who met a rather different fate at the end of the 19th Century.


Filed under Curator's Diary

Why do museums collect… shabtis?

Acc. no. 11272, shabti of Nes-per-nebu, from the second Deir El-Bahri cache. Donated by Max Robinow.

Acc. no. 11272, shabti of Nes-per-nebu, from the second Deir El-Bahri cache. Donated by Max Robinow.

One of the most popular and ubiquitous items of ancient Egyptian funerary equipment is the small servant figurine – or shabti. Most museums with an Egyptian collection, however small, include at least one or two of these figurines. At the Manchester Museum, we have over 1000 complete and fragmentary examples. These are currently being studied by shabti expert Glenn Janes in preparation for a book in his series cataloguing the shabti collections of museums in the North West of England. So, why are shabtis so popular and why have so many of them ended up in museum collections?

A major reason is simply because so many shabtis were produced. The figurines first appeared in burials of the early Middle Kingdom (c. 2000 BC), when only one or two examples were buried with the deceased. They increased in number until the Late Period, when the optimum number of 401 examples was to be included in each burial. This included one ‘worker’ for each day of the year, plus an extra one ‘overseer’ shabti for every group of ten (365 + 36 = 401). Most of these later shabtis are small and crudely made, and the odd example can still be seen lying on the desert surface of large cemetery sites in Egypt. Shabtis continued to be produced well into the Ptolemaic period (310-30 BC). Given the importance of including worker figurines in burials over a span of two millennia, it is hardly surprising that so many examples have survived to find their way into countless museum and private collections.

Shabtis being prepared for display

Shabtis being prepared for display

Yet it is, perhaps, the shabti form itself that has proved so eminently collectable. Often brightly coloured, covered in hieroglyphs and in the quintessentially pharaonic shape of a mummy, shabtis are among the most easily recognisable and attractive Egyptian antiquities. Importantly, their small size makes them easily portable. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that shabtis were an early souvenir for tourists in Egypt, and among the first such objects to be forged: one of the earliest objects to enter the Ashmolean, for example, was a 17th Century AD ‘shabti’ – and we have several fake shabti figures of 19thCentury date in Manchester. Shabti figures still regularly appear in auctions of Egyptian antiquities, and on internet sites such as Ebay.

Shabti of Horudja. © Glenn Janes

Shabti of Horudja. © Glenn Janes

The Manchester Museum received a large number of its shabtis from private collectors, which mostly lack anything more than a vague provenance. However, we also hold many examples found in situ during excavations. An important group are those belonging to a Thirtieth Dynasty (380-343 BC) priest named Horudja, excavated by William Flinders Petrie from a tomb at Hawara at the end of the 19th Century. Petrie records finding 299 shabtis in two compartments at both ends of Horudja’s sarcophagus, which had unfortunately been damaged by flooding in the tomb. 59 of Horudja’s shabtis are now in Manchester and many will appear in our new Egyptian World gallery.

In order to highlight the collectable nature of this type of object, another display space in our Ancient Worlds galleries will be devoted to showing several hundred shabtis – many more than have ever been on display before. They will be arranged roughly chronologically, to illustrate changes in colour, texture and form in shabti production between 1800 and 300 BC. Glenn Janes’ full-colour catalogue of the Manchester shabtis will be published to accompany the redisplay of this material. This will be his largest volume to date, and will provide new insights into our large shabti collection – including parallels in other collections, provenance information and data on the owners of the shabtis identified by their inscriptions. Updates on this important publication will appear here soon.

Enquiries to the Museum about objects from Egypt often include shabtis – genuine or otherwise. We are always keen to see more examples, to hear the histories behind these objects and to find out how they have come to the UK. Do you own a shabti, or would you like an object that sounds like it might be one to be identified? Perhaps you actively collect shabtis yourself? We’d love to hear from you!


Filed under Egypt gallery redevelopment, Why collect...?

Object biography #5: A double-sided painted mummy portrait (Acc. No. 5381)

Acc. no. 5381 © Paul Cliff

Acc. no. 5381 © Paul Cliff

This delicate wooden panel (41 x 32.5 cm) is one of 13 painted mummy portraits in the Manchester Museum. Such panel portraits were produced during the Roman Period (c. 55-220 AD) and are amongst the most evocative images to have come from Egypt. Most were painted using an encaustic method, in which pigment is mixed with hot wax and applied directly onto the surface of thin wooden panels. The panels were attached over the head of the mummy, held in place with bandages around each edge. Whether they were painted during life, and if they were displayed prior to being attached to the mummy, has caused much debate.

The practice of creating portraits developed out of the Pharaonic tradition of covering the head of the mummy with an idealised image of the deceased. Portrait painting had its roots in Roman traditions, and the portrait panels are the result of cross-fertilisation in the burial customs of Egypt’s multicultural society at this time. Painted portraits are attested at sites across Roman Egypt. Most are, however, associated with Hawara, a site in the Faiyum, from where the present example derives. The panels are often referred to as ‘Faiyum portraits’ because W.M. Flinders Petrie discovered over 700 examples in the region.

Acc. no. 5381 - reverse © Paul Cliff

Acc. no. 5381 – reverse © Paul Cliff

Unusually, this example bears an image on both sides. On one is painted the head and shoulders of a youthful man with a coiffure fashionable during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), and a rougher (partially erased?) sketch on the reverse perhaps represents a more mature version of the same man. A further panel (Acc. No. 5380) was found broken and bound within the mummy’s wrappings. This may depict the same man, but his hairstyle makes it more likely this painting adtes to the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD). Here the anonymous subject is shown with a bare chest – indicating athletic vigour, and perhaps also associated with emergence from cultic initiation. It may be suggested that each depiction was intended to represent a different aspect of the deceased’s identity, which could potentially survive by being enclosed within the individual’s burial.

Acc. no. 5380. Found broken and wrapped within the bandages of the same mummy as 5381  © Paul Cliff

Acc. no. 5380. Found broken and wrapped within the bandages of the same mummy as 5381 © Paul Cliff

Interestingly, once Petrie’s Faiyum portraits arrived in London – in most cases detached from the mummies they once covered – they were exhibited not in the British Museum along with other antiquities, but in the National Portrait Gallery. So evocative were these painted panels that they were valued in the same way as more modern, Western art. There is even circumstantial evidence that this exhibition of the portraits was seen by Oscar Wilde, and that the striking depictions of several handsome young men inspired the novel ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’.  

This illustrates rather well how Egyptian art – albeit from the Roman Period – can be divorced from its original context and reinterpreted in a new light. Between July and September, 10 of our painted portraits – including 5380 and 5381 – will be shown together for the first time at the John Rylands Library in Deansgate, along with contemporary papyri from the Rylands collection. The ‘Faces and Voices’ exhibition, curated by Dr. Roberta Mazza from the University’s Ancient History Department, will attempt to recontextualise these images in a unique way. We hope that both this exhibition and the permanent display of 12 of the portraits – including two still attached to mummies, as they were intended to be – will give us an opportunity to explore in greater depth the fascinating biographies of these objects.


Filed under Object biography

Curator’s Diary 7/5/12: CT-scanning the mummies (I)

Mummy 1767 is prepared for CT-scanning

Mummy 1767 is prepared for CT-scanning

Last week I followed in a proud Manchester Museum tradition when I accompanied four of our mummies to the Manchester University Children’s Hospital to be CT-scanned. The use of Computed Tomography (CT) has become an established method of non-invasive investigation of Egyptian human remains. The current work is part of a wider programme of investigation, using state-of-the-art methods, undertaken on the Museum’s Egyptian mummies by Prof. Rosalie David, former Egyptology curator at the Museum and authority on mummy studies, and Prof. Judith Adams, Professor of Diagnostic Radiology at the University of Manchester’s School of Medicine. It was thanks to Judith’s previous work with Rosalie – and continuing interest in mummies – that we were able to book our ‘patients’ in when the scanner was not otherwise in use.

Beneath the bandages: our first glimpse inside 1767

Beneath the bandages: our first glimpse inside 1767

On Wednesday evening we took the first two subjects in the study on the short journey from the Museum over to the hospital. These were the mummies of two Graeco-Roman gentlemen (Acc. nos. 1767 and 1768) which, because of their elaborate wrapping and in-situ portraits, made are ideal candidates for the procedure. Both mummies will feature in the new Ancient Worlds galleries and we were keen to discover something more about these unnamed men – their conditions in life and age at death. It is planned that the CT data will be given to a facial reconstruction specialist – another Manchester-pioneered technique – to compare the faces of the two men with their handsome (and idealised?) painted portraits.

Will the face behind the portrait mask of 1768 match its youthful good looks?

Will the face behind the portrait mask of 1768 match its youthful good looks?

The process of scanning the mummies, and the subsequent generation of a detailed cross-section image of them, was remarkably quick. A group of conservators and technicians from the Museum stood alongside nursing staff in absolute silence as the mummies’ bandages were digitally peeled away. The first mummy (1767) didn’t reveal any immediate surprises, though the scan of the second (1768) showed clearly that the body had been wrapped together with a wooden plank, or mummy board. Graeco-Roman mummy boards are often inscribed with religious texts naming the deceased. If the board is indeed inscribed, then the fine detail of the scan – around 0.6 of a millimetre – ought to make it possible to read the texts on it. This would enable the name to be restored to this otherwise anonymous individual, without the removal of a single bandage. Another interesting observation made at this initial stage was that the brains of both men do not appear to have been removed during mummification. This is characteristic of a focus on the outside appearance of the mummy in the Graeco-Roman period, rather than on internal preservation.

Further analysis will reveal more about the men and their mummification techniques, details of which I will post when they become available. The story of the investigation will feature in the Ancient Worlds galleries and on-line.

Next time: CT-scanning the mummy of Asru and a mummified crocodile – Stay tuned!


Filed under Curator's Diary, Egyptian mummies, Research projects

MAES Lecture 14th May 2012: Egypt’s Developing Delta – Tombs, Treasure and Railways!

Manchester Ancient Egypt Society will host its annual AGM and a lecture by Dr. Penny Wilson of Durham University on Monday the 14th of May 2012, at Days Inn, Weston Building, Sackville Street, Manchester, 7.15pm

The lecture will look at the political and social development of major cities and archaeological sites in the Delta from the Late Period through to the modern day. The capital cities of Tanis and Sais introduced the notion of city-states and temple burials to Egypt, while the move to the western side of Egypt, especially at Alexandria opened Egypt to the trade networks of the Aegean and western Mediterranean. All of these things had important effects on culture and society in ancient Egypt, none more so than our approach to the archaeology of the area and how it was subsequently affected by modern developments in irrigation and railways. By the end of the talk I hope you will have an idea of the challenges of studying the north of Egypt and as taste of its grandeur and beauty – ancient and modern!

Leave a comment

Filed under Egypt events