Another post from guest blogger and Predynastic specialist Matt Szafran – on one of Manchester Museum’s most iconic objects.
The so-called ‘hippo bowl’ (accessioned as no. 5069) is undoubtedly a beautiful and unique object, as can be seen from its inclusion in numerous books, postcards, documentaries, scholarly articles, and exhibitions – most recently the Garstang Museum’s ‘Before Egypt : Art, Culture and Power’ exhibition at the Victoria Gallery and Museum at the University of Liverpool, and to Bolton Museum and Art Gallery while Manchester’s Ancient Worlds galleries are closed.
Unfortunately, Predynastic material culture typically garners significantly less attention than later Dynastic periods – especially anything gold or jewel encrusted. The Manchester Museum’s current curator, Dr Campbell Price, has been vocal on his appreciation of this object, but what did his predecessors think? Thankfully archival research allows us to answer this question.
The bowl was rediscovered at the site of el-Mahasna as a part of an Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) sponsored excavation led by British archaeologists Edward Russell Ayrton and W.L.S. Loat during the in 1908-9 season. The bowl was found in a large square tomb, designated as H.29, alongside many other ‘elite’ status items (such as carved ivory, stone beads, malachite, and greywacke palettes) in what Ayrton and Loat would describe as the ‘richest grave found on the site’ in their 1911 publication. The bowl itself was described as ‘superb’:
The EEF held an exhibition at Kings College on the Strand in London between the 8th and the 31st of July 1909, showcasing objects excavated that season by EEF archaeologists at both Abydos and el-Mahasna before their distribution between various institutions. The EEF also published an exhibition catalogue, with a cover price of sixpence, which even though a small and limited book still featured a detailed description of the H.29 tomb group. Upon conclusion of the 1909 Abydos and el-Mahasna exhibition all objects were crated and distributed between the Egyptian Museum, Cairo and 27 different international institutions who had subscribed to support the EEF. The distribution of the 50 creates of objects was handled by E. W. Morgan & Co. LTD, with two of those crates finding their way to the Manchester Museum:
Both the acting director of the museum, Sydney J. Hickson, and his secretary acknowledged the receipt of the two crates by letter to the EEF on the 26th of August 1909. Hickson’s letter was essentially a ‘fill in the blanks’ template and made no special mention of any of the objects. However Hickson handwrote a letter to the EEF on the 11th of September 1909 to confirm that the crated objects had been unpacked and had ‘arrived safely’ and thanking the EEF’s president and committee for the donation, he went on to make a special mention of the ‘unique pre-Dynastic bowl’ and saying that it’s an ‘interesting and valuable’ addition to the Museum’s collection. Whilst the letter doesn’t explicitly say that this is the ‘hippo bowl’, there were no other significant bowls included in the distribution to the Manchester Museum and it is therefore extremely likely that this letter is proof of Hickson’s admiration for the ‘hippo bowl’:
Winifred M. Crompton was appointed as the Assistant Keeper of Egyptology in 1912, a role synonymous with a ‘curator’ today. During her tenure at the museum before this posting she was tasked with organising and cataloguing the Egyptian collections. This led to Crompton writing to the EEF on the 16th of September 1909 to request purchasing copy of the object catalogue of the el-Mahasna and Abydos exhibition. Sadly, Crompton does not refer to the ‘hippo bowl’ in this letter, although she does add a postscript note saying that the Manchester Museum received additional jars than were on the object distribution list – including one from the H.29 tomb group:
From the archival evidence it would therefore appear that the ‘hippo bowl’ has been able to capture the attention of both Egyptologists and non-Egyptologists alike. One would assume that its original owner was just as awed by the bowl, although with no written sources from the Predynastic period it is impossible to truly know what meaning and significance was truly ascribed to the bowl and the hippopotami it represents.