Tag Archives: Ancient Worlds

Frogs in Ancient Egypt

An Old Kingdom carnelian frog amulet from Qau el-Kabir. Acc. no. 7122.

We recently had a visit from Joy Kremler, a Curatorial Assistant at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. Joy was visiting Manchester to discuss the process of redisplaying archaeological and Egyptological collections in advance of plans for a refurbishment at her own institution. Joy also has a particular interest in frogs, especially in the early apperance of frogs in Egyptian iconography and their use as amulets. It was a great opportunity, therefore, for Joy to meet my colleague Andrew Gray, our Curator of Herpetology, and see some of the many living frogs we have in our Vivarium at the Museum.

Middle Kingdom ivory wand or birthing tusk from the ‘Ramesseum Tomb’. Acc. no. 1801.

Joy was keen to point out although the frog in ancient Egypt is often associated with the goddess Hekat, the appearance of frogs in iconography is much earlier than the firm association with this deity. In fact, the frog is one of the earliest animals to be attested as amulets in the Predynastic Period. The Egyptians most commonly referred to frogs by the onomatopoeic term ‘kerer‘. Frog spawn had a resonance with Egyptian ideas about regeneration, and the hieroglyph of a tadpole stood for the number 100,000. Images of

Late Period copper alloy votive model offering table with a frog ‘spout’, showing a man pouring a libation. Acc. no. 11039.

frogs appear alongside much more fearsome animals on Middle Kingdom ivory wands or birthing tusks, several examples of which we hold at the Manchester Museum. Frogs also decorate objects as spouts, implying a close connection with the Nile flood and the flowing of water. Frogs continued to feature throughtout Pharaonic iconography and even appears as a symbol of Christian resurrection in the Coptic period, when terracotta lamps often bear its image.

Joy’s visit was an excellent chance to view items in the collection which have often been overlooked, and to discuss frogs and their associations in ancient Egypt in comparison with modern knowledge of their behaviour.

You can find out more about frogs at the Manchester Museum here, on Andrew Gray’s popular Frog Blog.


Filed under Curator's Diary

100 years of Egypt on display at Manchester: Ancient Worlds are open!

On 30th October 1912 a group of dignitaries assembled for the opening of a new building in the Manchester Museum, designed to house the important Egyptology collections. Exactly one hundred years later, we have now opened our new ‘Ancient Worlds’ galleries – and they are already proving very popular.

The new galleries consist of three main parts. The first gallery (previously the rather claustrophobic ‘Egyptian Daily Life’) introduces archaeological methods and explains how we know about the past, through a number of guides related to the field. This section, for example, explains Manchester’s unique contribution to facial reconstruction of ancient peoples, and Flinders Petrie’s ‘sequence dating’ based on pottery typology. Further digital content – including text, images, audio commentary, and 360 degree photography – can be downloaded using codes that appear on object labels. A visitor services assistant can unlock this information for those without a smart phone. This information can also be viewed online, at www.ancientworlds.co.uk.

The second space – formerly the Egyptian Afterlife gallery – is now Egyptian Worlds. Objects are arranged chronologically, with a timeline running around the top of the wall cases – making clear to visitors when, relative to main ‘periods’ of Egyptian history, material is situated. This timeline is illustrated with pots, to show changes in ceramic styles over time. Within this chronological framework individual themes are developed, such as the importance of writing in the Old Kingdom and Manchester’s unique evidence for magical practice in the Middle Kingdom. A smaller adjoining space now houses our rich collection of painted mummy portraits from Roman Egypt, including two of the rare examples of mummies with portraits still in place.

Finally, in our third gallery ‘Exploring Objects’ – what previously housed Mediterranean Archaeology – we present dense displays of several categories of artefacts found in abundance in museum collections, such as Roman glass, pottery lamps, or Egyptian stone vessels. One section that has already proved popular is our case packed with shabti figures, arranged roughly in chronological order to show changes in colour with time. The reason behind creating these densely-filled cases was simple: museum visitors expressed an interest in seeing more material on display. More objects than ever before are now on view in all three galleries, many for the first time in over 50 years. With around a thousand whole and fragmentary shabtis in storage, we wanted to show many more than the dozen or so examples that had been on display in the old galleries. The result is an aesthetically striking display – as evidenced by the popularity of this case with photographers!

In the year since I arrived at the Museum, ‘Ancient Worlds’ has dominated almost every aspect of life. It has been a wonderful opportunity to bring objects from one of Britain’s (and, indeed, Europe’s) great collections from Egypt and Sudan to a new audience. Yet, it has also been very satisfying to hear people express surprise as seeing an object from the old galleries in a new context – in this way many familiar pieces are getting a second look.

This photo from the 1912 opening shows the gallery’s major benefactor Jesse Haworth (standing in the picture), archaeologist William Flinders Petrie (seated third from right), the museum’s first curator William Boyd Dawkins (first on right), and anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith.

A project of this size obviously runs into its fair share of challenges. Yet even when things didn’t go quite according to plan, solutions were found – and the results, we hope, speak for themselves. It was a particular pleasure to work so closely with a team of such tireless, talented, and enthusiastic people at the Museum. We all hope that our new galleries bring Ancient Worlds to life in new and exciting ways for our visitors.

You can see all of Paul Cliff’s photos from the opening at the Museum’s Flickr page.

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Filed under Egypt events, Egypt events at the Manchester Museum, Egypt gallery redevelopment, Flickr

Ancient Worlds After Hours event – Thursday 15th November

Photo by Paul Cliff

The Manchester Museum, Thursday 15th November, 6:30-9:30pm

With a contemporary twist on the ancient world, explore the new Ancient Worlds galleries at night and meet the people who created them. Mummify an orange, go on mini tours with Bryan Sitch, Curator of Archaeology and Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan and take part in a conservation masterclass.

You can also take part in Clay OK’s Ancient Fragments workshop – where you can sketch a fragment of your favourite textures and shapes from the displays and be guided in translating the pattern into a plastic relief stamp, which you can impress into a large clay tablet – contributing to a contemporary artefact of the event!

We’ll also be joined by, Cairo Chaos, with the esteemed poet extraordinaire, Toot and Carboot in collaboration with the terrifyingly talented magician, Watt the Heka. More ‘laffs than a safari full of mere cats. More rhythm than a Nile river cruise. Hear words and see magic in a story. That will amaze baffle and amuse.

With music by Glenn Sharp (Oud -representing Egypt) and Kostas Papvasileiou (Bouzouki – representing Greece). 
After Hours are evening social events where you encounter the unexpected. Artists, scientists, filmmakers, writers and musicians animate our collections in special one-off performances.

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Catalogue of the Manchester shabti collection published

Announcing the publication of The Shabti Collections 5. A selection from the Manchester Museum by Glenn Janes, with a Foreword by Campbell Price.

Published by Olicar House. 520 pp. £95 RRP – with discounts in the Museum until 1 st December. More info here.

The new dense display of shabtis in our ‘Exploring Objects’ gallery

The publication of this volume coincides withe the opening of our new Ancient Worlds galleries, in which more shabtis than ever before are on display. This sumptuous, full-colour volume is surely the largest, most comprehensive catalogue of one of the largest collections of shabti figurines in Europe.

Despite the author’s modest claims to the contrary, this is a work of real and valuable sholarship. Glenn’s knowledge of his subject and painstaking research will no doubt ensure that this is a future reference work.



Filed under Research projects

New Ancient Worlds images released

With just over a month to go until we open our new Ancient Worlds galleries, here’s an image we’ll be using in publicity. I really like how this foregrounds the object (Acc. no. 6620, a First Intermediate Period faience broad collar from Sedment):


Filed under Egypt gallery redevelopment

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...?