Monthly Archives: April 2013

Ancient Egypt & Nature’s Library: What is an ‘onomasticon’?

Onomasticon_picManchester Museum’s newly-refurbished Nature’s Library gallery, due to reopen on Saturday April 26th, will showcase four million natural specimens to illustrate how the natural world has been collected and catalogued and to explore the diversity of those collections.

The ancient Egyptians also catalogued the natural world around them in the form of onomastica, a type of ancient Egyptian text made up of word lists of many different things from sky and earth. The various categories focus mainly on nouns including birds, fish, food, towns and cities, plants, minerals, buildings, agriculture and different occupations. The selection of the words, and how they were ordered, shows us how the ancient Egyptians divided up and classified their world – a bit like an ancient compendium of the universe. Onomastica can be compared with modern encyclopaedia however these ancient lists only contained the words, and did not include any descriptions for those words.

Acc. no. 7220 - a painted scene from a palace floor

Acc. no. 7220 – a painted scene from a palace floor

Although we don’t know exactly why these lists were made, it is possible that they were intended to be used as training exercises for scribes when they learned to read and write. They may also have been made to act as a ‘bank’ for knowledge; a place where the ancient Egyptians could list and store all of the words which made up their world.

The earliest known onomasticon is the Ramesseum Onomasticon (Berlin Papyrus 10495) which was found in a tomb which possibly belonged to a lector, a specialist in ritual and magic, dating to the late Middle Kingdom (c. 1800-1700 BC). This tomb contained important papyri and objects, and it is possible to see some of those objects today in the Egyptian Worlds gallery at Manchester Museum. The Ramesseum Onomasticon originally contained over 300 words including birds, fish, food, towns and human anatomy. Because the onomasticon probably belonged to a lector, it is possible that the lists may have been read aloud and performed during ceremonies or rituals.

A dedicated display illustrating onomastica and the idea of the ancient Egyptian classification of the universe can be seen in the Exploring Objects gallery, which contains several natural specimens including mammals, birds, fish and minerals. These ideas will also be presented in new digital format – featuring the superb artwork of Gina Allnatt – accessible from the Manchester Ancient Worlds website, due to be launched very soon, which will combine photos, illustrations and text to tell the story of onomastica and why they are so important for the study of both ancient Egyptian and natural history.

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Rebecca Horne – MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies – the Manchester Museum

AGMS placement student Rebecca Horne on mummies at the Museum

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Curator’s Diary 19/04/13: Fragments of a Shattered Image

One of the most exciting aspects of working in a Museum is the occasional discovery of long-forgotten gems that lie in storage and which are often only brought to light by the chance enquiry of an inquisitive researcher. Such was the case this week when Anna Garnett, our British Museum ‘Future Curator’ trainee and I went in search of objects bearing ancient Egyptian plaster, to take samples for a researcher. Lists of object numbers, provenances and dates gave some indication of the sort of objects we were looking for but – because many of the items in the collection have still not been photographed – the physical identification of items often yields a surprise.


I was pretty sure that I knew all the “key” pieces in the collection. These tend to be the ones that are mentioned in publications, because of their own significance or their relationship to other objects of note. These connections are not often obvious, and usually require book-based research. Yet, sometimes you open a drawer, register the form or decoration of something and immediately recognise it as part of a larger whole. Thus it was with genuine amazment that I opened a drawer to discover a piece of one of the most famous paintings to survive from ancient Egypt. I don’t mind admitting that I let out an audible gasp of surprise. How could I not have read that THIS was here?!


Princesses in the Ashmolean. Note the size of the adult heel!

The colours were a clue but the patterning was unmistakable. A small-ish piece (20 x 15cm) of mud brick, with thin painted plaster coating from Petrie’s excavations at Amarna. Number 8740. It is part of the much larger scene featuring two small princesses – daughters of Akhenaten – from a palace wall now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Petrie (Tell el-Amarna, 1894, p. 15) describes “the patronising air of the elder sister chucking the little one under the chin” and speculated that the paintings of the two figures is “perhaps the only use of light and shade by the Egyptians.” The princesses sit beside the much larger-scale foot of an adult – Akhenaten or Nefertiti – showing how large the original wall scene must have been. Petrie records many smaller fragments of painted plaster belonging to the wall – and that is what we must have in Manchester.  Our fragment seems to represent part of a patterned fabric – a cushion? – in the reds and yellows distinctive of this scene.

Other bits are doubtless scattered in collections around the world. But the thrill of recognising just one small part compares with Petrie’s joy at first sight of the whole.


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Curating Ancient Egypt at the Manchester Museum

A short piece I wrote for the Vancouver SSEA


We are grateful to welcome Campbell Price, Curator at Manchester Museum in England, to tell us about what it is like being a curator of an Egyptian collection. Please make sure to visit the Museum’s website to learn more about its Egyptian collection.

The Manchester Museum holds one of the UK’s largest collections of objects from ancient Egypt and Sudan, and one that is in many respects among the most important in the world. The core of the collection, which contains a total of over 16,000 objects, comes from the pioneering excavations of William Matthew Flinders Petrie – the ‘father of Egyptian archaeology’. One of Petrie’s main individual sponsors was Jesse Haworth, a Manchester textile manufacturer whose generosity ensured that the city’s University museum received a significant number of Petrie’s finds. The main strength of this material is that it comes from scientifically controlled excavations, rather than the open art…

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Collections Bites talk 01/05/13: ‘The Statue of the Admiral Hor’

Acc. no 3570 © Paul Cliff

Acc. no 3570 © Paul Cliff

Wednesday 1 May, 1.15-2pm.

Collections Study Centre, Manchester Museum

Join our series of guest speakers for lunchtime conversations discussing key objects from the collection. This month’s conversation will be:

The Kneeling Statue of the Admiral Hor: Ships and Sculpture in Sixth Century BC Egypt.

Often overlooked because of its damaged state, the kneeling statue of Hor [Acc. no. 3750] represents an important military man of the Egyptian Twenty-Sixth Dynasty (c. 595-589 BC). Hor was Admiral of Egypt’s royal Mediterranean fleet at a time of increasingly strained international relations. Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and the Sudan at the Museum, will discuss Hor’s role and the meanings of his temple statue.

FREE. Book on 0161 275 2648 or

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Being a Future Curator at the Manchester Museum

Egyptian_xmasOur new British Museum Future Curator, Anna Garnett, describes her experiences so far at the Museum.

Since this is my first blog post since arriving at Manchester Museum at the beginning of March I thought I’d tell you a little bit about what I’m actually doing here…

For the last six months I have been working as a trainee curator in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, as part of the HLF-funded Future Curators programme. During this time I worked with Derek Welsby, Assistant Keeper and Curator of Sudanese Archaeology, focussing on the documentation and presentation of the Sudanese collection and taking part in many varied activities including school sessions, gallery talks, exhibitions and community events. There was also the occasional, more unusual task, such as helping with the design of the Egyptian-themed Christmas decorations for the Great Court, something which you certainly don’t get to do everyday!

anna gallery

Anna with hieroglyph-learners

This prepared me well for the second part of the programme: spending 12 months training at a UK Partner museum. Manchester Museum was chosen as the host museum for an Egyptology trainee and I am very lucky to have the opportunity to work with such an important and fascinating Egyptology collection. So far I’ve assisted with the documentation and exhibition of the Egyptian objects as well as a wide variety of other tasks including helping with Egyptology-themed events for both adults and children – one of the most memorable being the ‘Museum Meets’ Hieroglyphs Study Day in March, when I helped the group translate hieroglyphic inscriptions on objects in the Ancient Worlds gallery for themselves. I even have the opportunity to help out on the Museum allotment – today we are hopefully planting potatoes!

It is a great privilege to be a ‘Future Curator’ since there are very few other opportunities to be able to work so closely with and learn from such fantastic people and collections, and I look forward to the challenges which I’m sure the next year will bring during my traineeship.


More from Anna soon!


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MAES lecture, 8/4/13: Chris Naunton, “Regime Change in 25th Dynasty Thebes”

BM EA 1770

Sphinx of Taharqa. BM EA 1770.

The next Manchester Ancient Egypt Society lecture will be given by Dr. Chris Naunton, Director of the EES

Regime Change and the Administration of Thebes During the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty.

Monday 8th April, 7:30pm
Days Inn, Sackville Street, Manchester, M1 3AL
All welcome

The Piye Stela suggests that the Nubian king of that name invaded Egypt and defeated a series of local, independent to re-establish central authority after a brief period when the country had become divided. In fact however there are good reasons to think that the country had been divided for some time and that the Kushites already had control of quite a bit of it, but never really had total control of the whole of the Two Lands. The study of the administration immediately beneath the level of King, and the titles held by important individuals in particular, can tell us a great deal about the processes involved and the reality behind the propaganda.

Dr Chris Naunton is Director of the Egypt Exploration Society. He studied Egyptology at the universities of Birmingham and Swansea and wrote his PhD thesis on regime change in the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. He has excavated in the field at Abydos and in el-Asasif, Western Thebes but his research focuses now on the EES archives and the history of Egyptology. He is the presenter of the 2012 BBC film Flinders Petrie: ‘The Man Who Discovered Egypt’.

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