A modern view of Tell el-Maskhuta, the EEF’s first excavated site
Migration is a central theme in the Biblical story of Exodus. Quite apart from the debated historicity of the account of the departure of Hebrews from Egypt, the story of the Exodus has played an important role in the popular perception of ‘Ancient Egypt’.
For many people who were aware of Pharaonic history in the 18th and 19th Centuries, much of their information derived from the Bible. This is a major reason why the Manchester Museum has such an important collection of archaeologically-sourced objects from Egypt. In 1882, an organisation called the Egypt Exploration Fund was set up to preserve the remains of Egypt’s ancient past through archaeological recording. The first site chosen for the Fund’s work was Tell el Maskhuta, in the eastern Nile Delta – believed to be a store-city mentioned in Exodus. An account of findings from the site was published in 1885, under the title ‘The Store-City of Pithom and the Route to Exodus.’ The newly-formed Fund tapped into widespread popular interest in the supposed route of the Hebrews, and received donations specifically to investigate Biblical sites. The Fund’s founder, the redoubtable Miss Amelia B. Edwards, even wanted to give early subscribers the chance to own a genuine mudbrick, ‘made without straw, by an Isrealite in bondage’.
Thus, several monumental pieces of granite from the Delta sites came to Manchester as a result of the Egypt Exploration Fund’s focus on the area of putative Biblical events; perhaps unsurprisingly the Museum’s major Egyptological benefactor, Jesse Haworth, was a keen churchman.
Ridley Scott’s new film
The appeal of the Exodus narrative continues today; the latest cinematic adaptation by Ridley Scott – Exodus: Gods and Kings – cost an estimated $140 million to produce. The presentation of ‘Ancient Egypt’, the backdrop to most of the film, is a fantastical conflation of surviving archaeological evidence and different degrees of misinterpretation of that evidence. Other commentators have elsewhere addressed the question of why ancient Egypt is so misrepresented, and which aspects of a film like ‘Exodus’ might have been improved.
For me, one particularly problematic cliché that the film perpetuates is of the ancient Egyptians as one-sided, whip-cracking slave drivers. Although most would scoff at the idea aliens built the pyramids – and, incongruously, there seem to be several pyramids under construction at once in the new Exodus film – it is still difficult for the modern Western mind to conceive of a large group of people accomplishing monumental feats such as building pyramids without cruel coercion.
The Manchester Museum preserves a world-class collection of objects that challenge the notion that ‘slaves built the pyramids’. These come from a town of specialist craftsmen who were paid, and well looked after, for their task of preparing the king’s tomb. This is one of many reasons why museums are so important. Hollywood presents a skewed version of reality, but one that has – as it is so fond of telling us – a basis in real places, amongst real people.
Museums preserve and present the artefactual evidence of living people who inhabited ancient Egypt, without the cinematic gloss (although not always without bias). One of a number of research projects currently at work on our Museum’s collection of 18,000 objects from ancient Egypt and Sudan attempts to chart the migration of people and cultural motifs from around the ancient Mediterranean into Egypt. This work is as meticulous as it is fascinating, using the latest advances in analytical scientific techniques to understand the lives of people in the past.
Dr Valentina Gasperini of the Liverpool University, examining imported pottery from New Kingdom Egypt
Perhaps one day, someone will make a film about the remarkable commonplace discoveries in museums that, among other things, help us understand the movement of people around the ancient Mediterranean – rather than repeating a lazy, monolithic vision of ‘Ancient Egypt’ that has been around for at least 200 years.
I suspect our stories would be a lot more interesting.