Tag Archives: exhibition

Object biography #14: A coral bracelet from Qau el-Kebir (Acc. no. 7169)

Beads_coralUse of coral in ancient Egypt was very limited. This is reflected by the fact that in the Manchester Museum’s collection of over 16,000 artefacts from ancient Egypt and Sudan only two items have elements that are made from coral.

This string of beads (Acc. no. 7169) comes from a grave excavated by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt at the site of Qau el-Kebir. The string may have formed a bracelet, an anklet or part of a larger necklace. It consists of 41 green glass beads, two of carnelian, one of gilt glass, and three long coral beads. Glass beads imitating gold and pearl provide a useful dating criterion as they seem to be an innovation of the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BC) and continue to be used into Christian times (Fourth Century AD). Our string is most likely to date to between 30 BC and 394 AD, when Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire.


Red sea coral

For the Egyptians, the nearest source of coral lay in the reefs of the Red Sea to the east of the Nile Valley. Red Sea coral (Tubipora musica) is attested in small numbers of grave goods from the Predynastic period (c. 5000-3100 BC) onwards, chiefly in the form of beads. Trade between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea coast is well-attested, and several areas of Egyptian occupation are known throughout the Pharaonic Period and later. Items arriving in Egypt through this route included a range of shells, sea urchins, coral and other materials. Due to its comparative rarity, coral is likely to have been prized by the ancient Egyptians as exotica, a material particularly suitable for use in small amounts in jewellery. The ownership of such items also implied wealth and status for the wearer.

It is unclear what, if any, special properties or associations coral had for the ancient Egyptians but colour symbolism was important in Pharaonic art. While blues and greens represented fresh growth, new life and rebirth after death, red stones such as carnelian and jasper were often used to represent solar elements in jewellery. Red also represented blood, and in Chapter 156 from the Book of the Dead, known as the ‘Chapter for a Knot-amulet of Red Jasper’, protection is sought through the blood of the goddess Isis:

You have your blood, O Isis; you have your power, O Isis; you have your magic, O Isis. The amulet is a protection for this Great One which will drive away whoever would commit a crime against him.

It may be assumed that these associations also applied to coral. As so often in Egyptian jewellery, colour was primarily symbolic rather than simply decorative.

This object can be seen in our new exhibition, Coral: Something Rich and Strange, from 29th November 2013. This blogpost is taken from an entry in the exhibition catalogue, edited by M. Endt-Jones and published by Liverpool University Press.

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Curator’s Diary 13/3/13: Early Photographs of a Prince’s Journey in Egypt

Nakhtmontu stela

Stela of Nakhtmontu © HM Queen Elizabeth II

Last week I attended the opening of a new exhibition, ‘From Cairo to Constantinople’, at the Queen’s Gallery of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. The exhibition presents photographs taken by Francis Bedford – the first official photographer to accompany a royal tour – on the trip around the Middle East made in 1862 by the then-Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).

The Royal Collection houses a number of objects that the Prince brought back from his travels, several of which are displayed in the exhibition. The most striking is the black granite statue of a 12th Dynasty queen (to an unnamed king), called Senet. Sadly the piece, which is less than half-life-size, lacks an exact provenance and the face of the statue has been damaged and restored in modern times. The Royal Collection is currently lending several objects to our temporary exhibition, ‘Breed: The British and their dogs’, and it was a pleasure to see some of their Egyptological material on display.

In addition to ancient scarabs mounted in gold as jewellery presented to Edward’s wife Princess Alexandra, the exhibition contains two further ancient Egyptian antiquities. The first is a painted wooden stela of early Ptolemaic date belonging to a priest named Nakhtmontu – mounted in a rather fanciful, Egyptianising gilt frame. The Prince records the stela’s discovery in his diary: “I was looking at some excavations… behind the Memnonium [the Ramesseum]; the Viceroy had been kind enough to give permission for them, and that everything that was found I might have; only a small mummy and a tablet were however found, wh[ich] I took with me.”


Late Period wooden stela, Acc. no. 10939.

Although the ‘concessions’ awarded to the Prince were not scientifically recorded, it is satisfying to have some idea of provenance of this object. The Ramesseum location matches both the Theban titles mentioned in the text and known Late – Ptolemaic Period burials in the area. A similar, if somewhat earlier, stela in Manchester may derive from a similar context – all that is recorded is that it comes from the collection of a Lady Marten, and was given in 1953 (right).

Finally, perhaps most important in terms of its connections to other known objects, is a set of sheets cut down from the papyrus of a man called Nesmin, showing the Amduat, found ‘upon a mummy in a tomb…’ Only one sheet (out of seven) is on display, but highlights the crisp penmanship of scribes producing the best papyri at this period. Nesmin is most likely to be the same man that owned the early Ptolemaic Bremner-Rhind Papyrus in the British Museum.

The superbly displayed objects in the exhibition combine with the photographic and diary record to really bring to life this royal tour. The photographs themselves are a valuable record of many monuments before they were ‘cleaned up’ for more popular tourism, and they compare well with those of the Zangaki brothers and others (prints of which we found at the Museum in 2011), taken around the same time.

As a record of the exhibition and of the tour, the catalogue is a sound investment and highlights the key role of temporary exhibitions of this nature in putting on view material that is rarely, if ever, seen.

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New exhibition: ‘Secret Egypt’ in Carlisle

Secret Egypt CarlisleSecret Egypt: Unravelling Truth from Myth


10th March 2012 – 10th June 2012

10:00 am – 5:00 pm

Location : Tullie House Art Gallery, Carlisle

Is there a mummy’s curse?
Were the Egyptians obsessed with death?
Did aliens build the pyramids?

Such questions are addressed in Secret Egypt, a major exhibition which examines popular modern ideas about the ancient Egyptians and uses objects to suggest that the truth might be otherwise.

The exhibition features around 200 artefacts on loan from major Egyptology collections throughout the UK including Manchester Museum, the Ashmolean and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Moving through six themes, it begins by asking what is real and what is fake via an examination of funerary objects that helped Ancient Egyptians into the sacred world of death before debunking some of the more spurious myths that have grown up around them.

Secret Egypt is a touring exhibition developed by the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.

Find out more here.

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