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The early years of British Condominium in Sudan

As part of a continuing series of explorations of the colonial history of Egypt and Sudan, Phoebe Aldridge writes a guest post on a little-known aspect of the modern history of Sudan, the complexities of British rule, and the collecting of objects as loot.

The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium rule of Sudan in the 19th and 20th centuries is a story of government, misgovernment and the nature of rule. Throughout its existence, Sudan has been shaped by its perpetually differing controlling forces. After the ‘scramble for Africa’ in the 1880s, Sudan was less a nation to govern than an opportunity for exploitation and control. The British set out – and ultimately failed – to impose a new state, different to previous rule by the Mahdi – Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdullah (later Muhammad al-Mahdi), who launched a religious and political movement (Mahdiyya) in 1881 against the Khedivate of Egypt, which had ruled the Sudan since 1821.

1894 political map of Sudan

During research in the Durham Sudan Archives, delving through hand-written scripts, internal government communications and propaganda messages, it is clear that the anti-Mahdist attitudes harboured by the British undermined their rule. Manifested in part by exploitative British looting, the Condominium inadventently maintained the profile of the previous regime. Propaganda against the Mahdiyya was extensive: whilst Mahdism was far from angelical and was a regime that Britain was attempting to quash, Europe treated it as purely diabolical and ‘of a witches’ brew of African primitivism and Muslim fanaticism’. A letter from the Madhi to British officials helps to explain why. In the letter, the Mahdi discusses the status of captives, seemingly threatening the British; he appeals for them to ‘be warned of the disasters that have befallen Hicks Pasha, Gordon Pasha and others’. The correspondence was not made public, yet the adoption of anti-Mahdist propaganda increased. The significant role of fear and anger in the British establishment of a ‘new’ Sudan should not be neglected, not least how this translated into control and exploitation. Both rules were led by figures shrouded in cult of personality, with Gordon playing the Mahdi’s ever-present foil, and parallels of policy and brutality emerged.

Looting by British soldiers was rampant and nowhere was this more apparent than in so-called exotic and distant corners of the Empire. The plethora of sources surrounding the looting of military equipment and Mahdist items evidences how, fuelled by propaganda, exploitation was rampant. The British lowered themselves to the perceived level of the enemy that they had vilified and without realising it, demonstrated their inadequacies as rulers. After the Battle of Omdurman, ‘every variety of loot was hawked about the camp for sale… everyone had a Dervish sword or two’. Babikr Bedri, a Sudanese diarist who vividly chronicled the three days of looting after the battle, wrote that soldiers ‘entered our houses and took and ate everything within reach of their eyes and hands’.

Dervish sword from Sudan, now in the British Museum

Perhaps more shocking, it appears that systems were in place for British peoples at home to buy objects found in the field. Lists of war trophies were requested by British authorities such as Dunbar Parish Council in 1919. Likewise, an 1896 letter from G. Benson to Sir Wingate, not yet Governor-General, asked that ‘my dear Wingate…can you tell me what has become of the trophies? My name was put on things that I wished to buy…’. The evident acquaintance of Benson to Wingate suggests an initiative of purchasing trophies operating among high-ranking British officials, corroborated by the final sentence of the letter which reads ‘love to Slatin [appointed Inspector-General of the Sudan in 1900].’ Such an organised initiative implies an overarching irony: that the manifestation of Mahdist memory in British rule was in fact facilitated to a large degree by the very high-ranking figures of governmental authority who were trying to combat it and their low morals were exactly the values being vilified in their propaganda against the Mahdis.

Evidently, looting and exploitation in Condominium Sudan were exacerbated by defiant anti-Mahdist attitudes and a desperation for control. Whilst debate can be made over the failure of the British to distance themselves from the past, in light of the recent discussions surrounding the restitution of the Benin Bronzes and the Parthenon Marbles perhaps it is more important to explore these contexts with arguments for repatriation in mind.

Phoebe Aldridge graduated from Durham University in 2020 with a joint-honours degree in Ancient, Medieval and Modern History. With the Durham Sudan Archives on her doorstep and examining original government correspondence, Phoebe’s dissertation focused on the Condominium years in Sudan and the manifestation of Mahdism in the British rule. Since graduating she has reached out to others in this field and has been enjoying delving back into history and exploring her interests!

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Working with Wellcome: A virtual student placement

A guest post by University of Manchester museology student Molly Osbourne, describing a virtual placement working on a little-known aspect of the Egyptology collection.

The first thing I want to point out about this placement is that due to the pandemic, it was self-organised, virtual placement through the University of Manchester’s MA programme, Art Gallery and Museum Studies. With this being virtual, I was not to visit the museum, and all my research was done at home. After the placement ended, I was invited in to go on an object “hunt”, and finally was able to see some of the collection. This has been both incredibly rewarding and challenging. It was research-based, hosted by Campbell Price, with the aim to find the status of a number of stelae and cast replicas from the collection originally amassed by the pharmaceutical baron Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936). The Wellcome Collection is renowned for housing medical objects from all of history, though Wellcome himself was an avid collector of Egyptian antiquities. There are index cards of these auctioned pieces catalogued by this institution, contained detailed descriptions of the objects, a variety of types of the numbering systems used to track these objects, and their prices. After Wellcome’s death, a trust was made, who decided that many objects should be dispersed worldwide, including Manchester. There are more than the eighteen I have researched also in the anthropology and archaeology department, though with the time limit of fifteen days, eighteen seemed like a reasonable amount to work with.

Me in front of Manchester Museum when I visited in June 2021.

My main highlights have been collaborating with many people associated with Wellcome research, and of course working with Campbell. These include Kenneth Griffin (Egypt Centre, Swansea), Alexandra Eveleigh (Wellcome Collection, London), Lee McStein (Monument Men), and Rosalie David, the curator of Manchester Museum at the time of the transfer of Wellcome objects. I met with Ken and Alexandra over Zoom, where much of current research is being done was discussed. Ken’s typology of stickers found on objects will be beneficial for when I am able to visit the museum and find these objects myself. Alexandra collaborated over emails, providing answers for the many questions I had about those who represented Wellcome at auction houses and the location of slips that are missing from my research. Through this collaboration, it came to light that the casts at Manchester, were given the same number system as those transported to the Science Museum, which was most unusual. I met with Lee McStein towards the end of the experience, where I learnt about his work with the casts, unlike the other collaborators who aided with the research of the stelae. The casts, being owned by Manchester, have been passed on to the Lee to do amazing work on photogrammetry (making three-dimensional, digital images) and the casts, which casts a new light on the production of these casts and the decoration on them.

Through collaboration, I attended a lecture by Lee McStein and a Transcribathon event held by the Wellcome Collection in March. The lecture provided information about a photogrammetry project being done on a selection of Manchester replicas that have barely been seen by the public. This research is very beneficial as these casts portray the birth chapel of Nectanebis I, a chapel that has had restricted access over the years, with only a few people going inside to see it. The Transcribathon was a one-day event, where people from the museum sector with objects connected to Wellcome met to practice transcribing the Wellcome slips and transit records of the Science Museum. On some of the slips, there is a book reference, that refers to the auction catalogues, but also the information I believed was missing from the slips before, including the date of the sale, the auction house, and the lot number.

The Wellcome slip for the object labelled A78283

I learnt so much about the transfer of Wellcome objects from the meeting with Rosalie David, and most of what Rosalie said is supported by documents and letters. Correspondence between the Wellcome Collection and Manchester Museum state that the museums would apply for the objects they wanted for their collections, and “[the Welcome Collections] wanted good homes for their collection”. As the representative of Manchester Museum, Rosalie said the museum would be a good fit for the objects as they are a university museum, and would use the objects for their teaching programme, as well as their outreach programme and for their new display they were planning at the time. Altogether, “it took at least a year for everything to go through” and the transfer to be completed.

Screenshot of Campbell, Rosalie and I having our meeting over Zoom.

It wasn’t until towards the end of the placement, I was able to see a few of the objects and copies of the slips held at Manchester Museum, that Campbell sent over. These photos were extremely helpful, as it provided new slips for the objects, I was not able to find at the beginning of the research, and even some new information altogether on objects unrelated to the original eighteen pieces.

Image of the stela labelled A211251

I would like to thank my course convenor, Andy, and Campbell for this opportunity, and those who have and will keep collaborating while I do more research.

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The Reception of Manchester Museum’s ‘Hippo Bowl’ (Acc. no. 5069)

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.

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Object Biography # 27: A ‘stick shabti’ of Teti-sa-intef (Acc. no. 6038)

Although among the rather less prepossessing artefacts in the Manchester collection, this crudely carved wooden figurine holds significant interest. Often called a ‘stick shabti’, the figurine may in fact not really be a shabti – in the conventional Egyptological sense of a ‘servant’ – at all.

Acc. no. 6038. Photo: Glenn Janes

Often described as ‘mummiform’ in shape, several examples of similar crude wooden figurines have been found in small wooden coffins and/or wrapped in linen. They apparently all date to the laste Second Intermediate Period and early New Kingdom. A recent find by an Egyptian-Spanish team at Dra Abu el-Naga consisted of several such figurines wrapped in linen, some within a small wooden coffin. These were uncovered underneath the outer courtyard of the tomb of Djehuty (TT 11, reign of Hatshepsut) and appear to have been left there by a donor some time after the funeral – perhaps on the occasion of the ‘Beautiful Festival of the Valley’, when friends and family of the deceased would visit the tomb chapel.

Indeed, unlike most shabtis, which were buried close to the deceased in the inaccessible parts of the tomb, stick shabtis are mainly recorded as being found buried in the outer, open areas of tomb chapels – often in significant numbers. Texts are usually inked onto the wood but rather than the standard ‘shabti spell’ (Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead) these consist of names, titles and perhaps an offering formula, suggesting a different function to most shabtis.

The fact that these figurines are ‘crude’ to our eyes need not imply they were created or dedicated by less well-off people – several seems to have been commissioned by wealthy and important members of society. The choice of wood may represent a deliberate means of employing reworked detritus from coffin manufacture, imbued with a special power and connection to the deceased. There is also an intriguing suggestion that the use of the figurines in contexts such as the ‘Beautiful Festival of the Valley’ influenced the later perception recorded in Herodotus and Plutarch that a figure of the mummy was sometimes exhibited at Egyptian feasts.

Dra' Abu el-Naga' - Wikipedia
Dra Abu el Naga: Wikipedia

This example is dedicated to (rather than by) a man called Teti-sa-Intef (meaning ‘Teti son of Intef’, Intef being a name of some significance at Dra Abu el Naga from the Middle Kingdom onwards). Several other figurines are known donated in honour of this individual, known to come from the tomb of the mayor of Thebes Tetiky (TT 15) from the very beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty and excavated by a team working for Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1908. The Manchester example, although its precise find spot is not recorded, probably derived from the same area.

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Just published! ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt: Interpreting Identities from the Graeco-Roman Period’

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Published jointly by Manchester Museum and Nomad Exhibitions, the book accompanies a major international touring exhibition of over 100 objects.

Ancient Egypt is synonymous with gold, sex, art, and death – a combination as intoxicating as it is enduringly popular with book readers, documentary watchers, and museum visitors. But to what extent are these concepts representative of ancient concerns or realities, and how might modern interpreters – collectors, archaeologists, curators, writers, artists – have shaped the ancient past to fit a narrative attractive to themselves and their audiences?

The Graeco-Roman Period (c. 300 BCE-200 CE) of Egyptian history, so-called because Egypt was ruled at this time by Greeks then Romans, is one of the most overlooked in the popular telling of Egyptian history. Excavations at the important Graeco-Roman site of Hawara produced mesmerising painted mummy portraits, delicate glass and jewellery, and mummified bodies sheathed in gold. Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester, holds one of the most significant collections of material from Hawara anywhere in the world, the result of the division of finds at the height of British colonial control of Egypt.

Manchester Museum is delighted to have partnered with Nomad Exhibitions to produce, for the first time, a major publication based entirely on the Museum’s internationally significant Egyptology collections.

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Richly illustrated with new photography by Julia Thorne and drawing on little-known archive material, Golden Mummies of Egypt showcases for the first time this extraordinary range of artefacts, examining how and why they came to Manchester, the ancient identities these objects helped to construct, and the ways in which they have been interpreted in the Western world.

250 pages

Colour photography throughout

Accompanies a major international touring exhibition, Golden Mummies of Egypt.

Author: Dr Campbell Price is Curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum. He is Vice-Chair of Trustees of the Egypt Exploration Society, Honorary Research Fellow in Egyptology at University of Liverpool, author of Pocket Museum: Ancient Egypt (Thames & Hudson, 2018) and editor of Mummies, Magic and Medicine in Ancient Egypt (Manchester University Press, 2016).

*Front matter and Table of Contents available HERE*

You can now purchase copies of the book (for 25 GBP) by contacting the Manchester Museum shop on 0161 275 6256 Mon-Fri 10am-2pm.

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The gilded mummy of Lady Isaious

During W.M. Flinders Petrie’s third season at Hawara, in 1911, his workers continued to unearth huge numbers of Graeco-Roman Period mummies. Most were undecorated and, according to Petrie, they were ‘heaved over by the dozen ever day’. The few mummies with gilded masks or strikingly life-like painted panel portraits were rarely identified by name. One particularly striking lady was labelled in Greek letters at the top of her gilded cartonnage mask. Initially interpreted as ‘Demetria, wife of Icaious’ this is more likely to be a patronymic: Isaious (or Isarous) daughter of Demetrios (Ἰσαι̣οῦς/Ἰσαρ̣οῦς Δημη[τρίου]).

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Lady Isaious dates to the First Century CE, and exemplifies multicultural expectations for eternity among the elite of the Faiyum area of the Graeco-Roman Period. The upper part of the mummy is covered by an elaborately modelled mask; the resulting impression is of the idealised appearance of a Roman lady of high status. The deceased holds a wreath, wears an elaborate coiffure of lightly waved hair and tight corkscrew curls, and has a full face reminiscent of some Ptolemaic ideals. The rich jewellery comprises necklaces set with semi-precious stones and snake bracelets of the sort that harnessed the serpent’s protective power from more ancient contexts. While an obvious signifier of wealth, the use of gold left alludes to the concept of divine flesh being made of gold – and the act of gilding as being a means of protection. Thus, by being provided with scintillating flesh for eternity, the deceased becomes divine in order to successfully reach the afterlife and become one with the immortal gods who dwell there.

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Elsewhere, the mummy is also provided with a rich armour of traditional Pharaonic iconography. On the back and underside of the cartonnage mask are traditional Egyptian motifs. On the outer, mainly red-pigmented shroud, hangs a broad (‘wesekh’) collar. Under this, the sky goddess Nut kneels on the hieroglyphic symbol for gold and extends her wings flanked by scenes of the gods Anubis and Thoth. Beneath, the jackal-headed Anubis appears again tending the mummy of the deceased on a bier – equipped with canopic jars that no one would have used in the Roman Period. Finally, a rather faded libation scene appears; in this and in the scenes that flank the sides of the body, the deceased lady is shown in entirely traditional Pharaonic mode and, far from being ‘blundered’ (in Petrie’s expression), the hieroglyphs in the captions to the scenes are almost all readable. This shows the range of possible representations and styles that might be used in a single funerary composition.

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On the underside of the cartonnage footcase – and thus eternally trampled – are depictions of bound enemies on the soles of the feet. That these are in fact the enemies of the deceased and not generic ‘prisoners’ is stated explicitly by captions in some examples – ‘your enemies under your sandals’ – an adaptation of a standard phrase that accompanies depicted interactions between gods and the Pharaoh in temples: ‘I (the deity) give to you all foreign lands under your sandals.’ In Graeco-Roman times, the trampled enemies may represent a more general metaphor of triumph over death and the resulting attainment of eternal peace. The fact that elements such as footcases appear on both the sculpted and painted-faced mummies points towards a common underlying expectation for the deceased. The traditional opposition in scholarly and popular terminology between ‘portrait’ (a revealing likeness) and a mask (a means of concealing or altering the identity) obscures this close connection. Neither need represent a mimetic portrait as we would understand it today.

Mary Shaw and H Spencer - Isaious

Mary Shaw and Harry Spencer reconstruct the mask of Isaious

When the mummy was discovered, the face of the gilded cartonnage mask was damaged. At Manchester Museum in the 1930s, Egyptologist Mary Shaw and Technician Harry Spencer undertook the ‘reconstruction’ of the mask of Isaious – perhaps with reference to other masks discovered at Hawara. Such ‘cosmetic’ procedures were very common in museums, although rarely acknowledged – improving on the damaged remnants of ancient objects. The desire to (re)create the face of an individual is best known from facial reconstructions based on skulls, but despite claims to scientific objectivity these faces may say more about the expectations of the modern maker than the ancient person.

Fig. 143 Isaious Hawara

Negative showing the mummy of Isaious shortly after excavation, Hawara, 1911

Lady Isaious is one of eight mummies and more than 100 other objects currently in the United States as part of Manchester Museum’s first international touring exhibition, ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt’. The show is at Buffalo Museum of Science for an extended period, and will later open at North Carolina Museum of Art. A book to accompany the exhibition – Golden Mummies of Egypt: Interpreting Identities from the Graeco-Roman Period (Manchester Museum/Nomad Exhibitions) – will be published later this Summer.

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Unwrapping Wonderful Things…

#MMChristmas2019

DSF2552-1000Re-wrapped divine image from Manchester Museum’s 2015 exhibition, ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’. (Photo: Julia Thorne / Source)

Unwrapping wonderful things…

The thing is, unlike the gifts in shiny paper underneath the tree, the Egyptians never intended their bodies – or statues – to be unwrapped. Yet just like at Christmas, concealing and revealing has become part of ancient Egypt’s popular appeal.

Christmas morning and Egyptology are similarly characterised by a curiosity to find out ‘what’s inside?’ – the promise of treasures unknown – be it Howard Carter’s infamous first glimpse of gold in the tomb of Tutankhamun, or the allure of the secrets within the wrappings of the ancient dead. And especially over the last century, value has been placed ‘knowing’ in the same way as ‘owning’. Medical technologies like CT scanning are now much used in the study of mummies as they are not…

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by | December 22, 2019 · 7:29 pm

Closure of Ancient Worlds galleries

It’s a Wrap as Manchester Museum closes its Ancient Worlds Galleries, Reopening in 2021

Egyptian rowers

Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester, will be taking its much loved objects on tour over the next three years as the museum undergoes an exciting £13 million transformation, hello future. The museum will be building a new two-storey extension, which includes a partnership South Asia gallery with The British Museum, Chinese Culture gallery, Special Exhibitions Hall a new entrance and shop, making it more inclusive, imaginative and relevant to the diverse communities it serves.

During this time the museum will remain open, however its Ancient Worlds galleries will close on the 1st of October until early 2021 in order to keep displayed collections safe while extensive building work takes place. Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan, said: “While this may seem disappointing for the many visitors that come to Manchester Museum to see its significant Egyptian collection, this is an exciting opportunity for the museum to take its objects out on the road to all sorts of new spaces and places, building new partnerships across the city and the world.”

Manchester Museum will also be lending Egyptian artefacts to a larger number of external exhibitions on a temporary basis such as Bolton, Liverpool, and Wakefield and at several venues around Europe. While the Ancient Worlds galleries are closed, access to stored collections will continue for researchers. Upon re-opening in 2021, a larger number of the museum’s Egyptology collections will be on display, including never-before-seen stonework.

On Thursday 20 September, 6-10pm, Manchester Museum is hosting a celebration to say goodbye to its Ancient Worlds galleries. The event, It’s a Wrap is an evening of music, poetry and performance. Come along to hear the hieroglyphs, handle never-before-seen objects and join Manchester Museum in raising a farewell toast to its much loved Ancient Egypt gallery, reopening in 2021. 

 

 

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Curator’s Diary June 2018: Up Close with the Sphinx, Ancient and Modern

Last month I had the chance to spend a couple of days in close proximity with the Great Sphinx at Giza whilst filming a documentary for Discovery Channel (a crash course in pithy communication, ideal for museum curators). Unrestricted admittance to the Sphinx enclosure (usually off-limits to visitors) prompted me to consider the degree of access ancient people might have had to this iconic monument, and how those ancient monuments have in turn shaped our expectation of the tourist experience today.

sphinx-kiss

In modern times, hundreds of tourists and local Cairenes pose for thousands of photos at the Great Sphinx each day. The recent cult of the selfie has assured the iconic status of this human-headed lion, whose colossal profile is particularly suited to ‘kissing’ photos. This sort of interaction has been enabled and encouraged by the convenient modern viewing platforms flanking the Great Sphinx to north and south.

This has not always been the case. Until the mid-20th Century, the Sphinx was largely covered in sand. Visitors to Giza saw the colossal head sticking out of the sand, and recorded their impressions of its forlorn, sad nature – playing perfectly into the Romantic 19th Century image of picturesque vestiges of a lost civilization. Colossal royal statues in particular fit the narrative of the despotic, Oriental ruler undone, dethroned by the progress of History. As with Shelley’s Ozymandias, ‘nothing beside remains… lone and level sands stretch far away’ from the Sphinx. As Mark Twain observed in 1869, the Sphinx is ‘grand in its loneliness.’ But the advent of photography meant that the Sphinx didn’t remain alone for long.

SPHINX-1882

Of many similar images, perhaps the most resonant is this (above) from 1882 – the year Britain tightened its colonial grip on Egypt and the same year the Egypt Exploration Fund was founded. The British officers in full dress kilts and pith helmets, some with hands imperiously on hips, make clear the sense of entitled ownership of Egypt as an imperial possession.

Any photograph is, of course, not a neutral record of ‘what happened’ – especially in archaeology, as Christina Riggs has recently demonstrated for the Harry Burton Tutankhamun archive. These colonial set-pieces with the Sphinx have at their core the same highly constructed projections as any modern selfie. Photos of the Sphinx are also a useful index of the restoration work done to beautify – and ostensibly ‘restore’ – the sculpture for popular consumption. The Sphinx is prepared today for the mass tourist market, but only VIPs can actually get up close to it.

In contrast, surprisingly little is known about ancient perceptions of the Sphinx. Leaving aside the debate of who was actually responsible for its construction (Khafre is favoured by current Egyptological consensus, and who Discovery plump for in the doc), it may seem surprising that there is no Old Kingdom reference to it at all. Only in the New Kingdom (c. 1400 BC) do textual sources talk about the statue in terms of an identity – a divine identity – as ‘Horus in the Horizon’ (Horemakhet).

Although the term ‘shesep ankh’ (lit: ‘living image’) is often cited in Egyptological publications as the term for ‘sphinx’, in fact it rather appears (by the mid-18th Dynasty at least) that this was simply an epithet of the Pharaoh as a ‘living image’ of a god, usually the deity Atum. Ancient Egyptian terms for ‘statue’ are more nuanced than the space here allows (that’ll have to wait until my book on Egyptian statues…) but it was really only the chance to spend time with Sphinx at Giza that brought these issues into focus for me.

Shesep ankh

Tuthmose III described as ‘Living Image of Atum’ at his Karnak ‘Festival Hall’

In New Kingdom texts the Sphinx enclosure is referred to as ‘setepet’ (meaning ‘most select/chosen place’) and massive mudbrick walls would have restricted access to it, even views of it, perhaps only to the highest elite. This is in contrast to the assumption we may form based on the hordes of visitors the Sphinx receives nowadays and on apparent evidence of a Roman Period ‘viewing platform’.

The quizzical (envious? outraged?) looks I received whilst poncing about on camera between the great paws of the Sphinx, brought home to me that access is rarely equal – even to as impressive a divine image as the great Sphinx. Did I have any more right to get up close to the Sphinx than the Egyptian school children on a day out?

The Discovery documentary (due to air Stateside late Summer) gives a rather televisual interpretation of the Sphinx as a ‘Mythical Beast’, but was an opportunity to feed in my own interpretations which – I hope – make the final edit. Perhaps instead of thinking of colossal royal statues in terms of bland ‘propaganda’, we should think in terms of the divisive nature of access (physical, ritual, intellectual) to them and how this shaped ancient and modern interactions with the past.

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ITP 2018: Applications for Egypt now Open!

An opportunity for Egyptian curatorial colleagues…

BM International Training Programme

Deadline for applications, 12:00pm (midday) on 16 February 2018

Application form
Contact: itp@britishmuseum.org

The British Museum is delighted to offer two fully-funded training positions for museum and heritage professionals working for the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt.

The International Training Programme is aimed at those looking to increase their knowledge of museum practices and share skills across the sector, while having the opportunity work with specialists relevant to their personal interests and roles.

The programme will run from Saturday 30 June to Saturday 11 August 2018 (inclusive of travel dates) and comprises two parts:

A four and a half week programme at the British Museum with sessions covering a wide variety of topics including but not limited to:

  • Collections management, storage and documentation; exhibitions and galleries; conservation and scientific research; national and international loans; learning, volunteers and audiences; fundraising, income generation and commercial programmes; leadership, strategy, museum management and communication.

A…

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