Tag Archives: Flinders Petrie

Conserving & Interpreting ‘Soul Houses’

Caroline Berry, a conservation intern at Manchester studying Conservation Studies at Durham University, describes work on an important part of the collection.


‘Soul Houses’ on display in our Egyptian Worlds gallery

Manchester Museum’s Egyptian Worlds Gallery has a great collection of objects which offer an insight into the ordinary and extraordinary of everyday life in Ancient Egypt, and sometimes if you look at objects from a different angle even more information into their story can be found. This is the record of one such event.

As part of this collection the Museum has a number of pottery ‘Soul Houses’ given by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie in 1907, which form the largest collection to come from one site, being the cemetery site of Rifeh in Middle Egypt. As part of my internship I have been fortunate to conserve four of these objects.


No. 4260


To speak quickly of the background of these objects, Petrie coined the term ‘Soul Houses’ to describe these objects.  He believed the pieces were used to provide provisions for the afterlife. He was uncertain whether these objects were to house the ba, the spirit of mobility of the deceased when it entered the land of the living or as an offering for ka, the spirit of sustenance, to use in the afterlife, hence the umbrella term ‘Soul’ to capture both eventualities.

Petrie used consecutive letters A to N to type these objects. ‘A’ was used for the objects he considered to be the earliest form and N the most modern. He used terms from contemporary architecture to aid this development. An example of each type was sent to Manchester by Petrie to form the type collection that we have here today.

The models are hand-built, probably assembled by pressing and pinching together rolled out flat slabs of clay to manipulate the form. The size of the objects and the uneven nature of the base may suggest the objects were made on a floor and fired institute. The quality of the fabric suggests firing would have been no higher than 900°C. Although there is no contextual evidence for production, it is likely that this happened within a domestic setting rather than the cemetery.

An important aspect of conservation is to build an in-depth record of each object treated. While undertaking the photography, a mat impression, which appears to be layers of grass or reeds tied into bundles, was found on the base of 4360 (below).


Underside of no. 4360

After checking the bases of the other Soul Houses from Rifeh, it was found that 4360 was the only object with this impression. Deciding to check the bases of the other ceramic offering trays held in the collection, 6544 from Sanam, Sudan (below) was the only other ceramic model to be found with a mat impression, although this impression is similar to an imprint of basketwork, as the example of contemporary basketry in the picture below suggests. (below)


No. 6544



Underside of no. 6544



Basket from Kahun, late 12th Dynasty


Here at Manchester we’re are very excited by these findings and were hoping others may be able to share any such findings they have come across in Ancient Egyptian ceramics. We urge anyone with a soul house or offering tray, as long as the object is stable to do so, to check under the object and report back if they too have mat impression on their bases!

Leave a comment

Filed under Object biography

Investigating Animal Mummies (I): Crocodiles at Hawara

Preparations are now well underway for our upcoming exhibition, ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’, opening October 8th. Working with the Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank at the University of Manchester, the exhibition will present their research, investigating how animal mummies were made, deposited, collected, excavated and studied. In the first of a series of blogs in the run up to the exhibition, we look at the origin of some of the mummies.


The site of Hawara, with the pyramid of Amenemhat III in background, was home to thousands of croc mummies

The Classical historian Herodotus, living in the 5th Century BC, records the importance (some) Egyptians gave to crocodiles in Book II of his Histories: “The crocodile is esteemed sacred by some of the Egyptians, by others he is treated as an enemy. Those who live near Thebes, and those who dwell around Lake Moeris (the Faiyum region, including Hawara), regard them with especial veneration.… The people of Elephantine on the other hand, are so far from considering these animals as sacred that they even eat their flesh.”

Herodotus also mentions a spectacular monument at Hawara, associated with the crocodile god Sobek, “Lord of the Lake” which he calls ‘The Labyrinth’, “near the place called the City of Crocodiles”:

It has twelve covered courts — six in a row facing north, six south — the gates of the one range exactly fronting the gates of the other. Inside, the building is of two storeys and contains three thousand rooms … they contain the tombs of the kings who built the labyrinth, and also the tombs of the sacred crocodiles.

The site was first investigated archaeologically by W. M. Flinders Petrie between 1888 and 1889, when his main sponsor was Manchester cotton industrialist Jesse Haworth. Unsurprisingly, the Manchester collection contains several crocodile mummies from these excavations. Petrie remarked on the great quantities of crocodile mummies all over the site. While some were apparently buried in reused non-royal tombs, others were found in less discrete groups amidst the limestone chips of earlier buildings. Petrie observed that the large number of mummies related to their ancient function:

On the north-east of the cemetery, out in the desert, was a region of broken ground with a large amount of limestone chips. I looked over it several times, and in the last week at Hawara I excavated here to ascertain the nature of the remains. In every direction the work brought up crocodiles, of all sizes, from monsters 15 feet long, to infants, and even eggs. The apparent number was swelled moreover by quantities of dummies, evidently made for a ceremonial purpose. The imitation crocodile mummies consist of bundles of reeds or grass, with an egg or only a single bone inside; and they seem to have been intended to testify a worshipper’s devotion to Sebek by such pious care bestowed on the sacred animal: doubtless their preparation and sale was a priestly trade.

Mummified baby crocodile from Hawara, EA 19/2

Mummified baby crocodile from Hawara, EA 19/2

Botanical examination by Percy Newberry identified Egyptian sugar cane, sea club-rush, and Phoenician juniper from inside crocodile mummies, implying that at least a selection of these mummy bundles had been unwrapped – the only possible means of identification in the field at the end of the 19th Century.

Recent research at the University of Manchester has indicated the presence of Cyperus papyrus (papyrus sedge) in mummies lacking full skeletons of individual crocodiles. As sugar cane does not appear in Egypt until the mid-eighth century, this identification is unlikely. It is possible that there was some confusion about the two plant species which both exhibit rigid characteristics, although the lack of nodes at regular intervals displayed on radiographs present in Saccharum aegyptiacum indicated that Cyperus papyrus was more likely.

Investigating the radiograph of a crocodile mummy

Investigating the radiograph of a crocodile mummy

The question of why some mummy bundles were composed in this way will be the subject of future posts.

Read more:

Petrie, W.M.F. (1889) Hawara, Biahmu, and Arsinoe. London: Field and Tuer.

Atherton-Woolham, S. D. (2015). ‘Imaging ancient Egyptian crocodile mummies from Hawara.’ Current Research in Egyptology 2014. Oxford and Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 181-193.

McKnight, L and S. Atherton-Woolham (eds) (In press) Gifts for the Gods: Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies and the British. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Articles in forthcoming issues of Ancient Egypt Magazine and Egyptian Archaeology

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Object biography # 16: A pyramid temple column reused by Ramesses II (Acc. no. 1780)

Granite column, with decoration of Ramesses II and Merenptah (Acc. no. 1780)

Column, with decoration of Ramesses II and Merenptah (Acc. no. 1780)

Manchester’s imposing (3.8m tall) red granite column (Acc. no. 1780) is one of eight which once fronted the pronaos of a temple dedicated to the ram-headed god Herishef at Herakleopolis Magna (modern Ihnasya el-Medina), 15 miles west of Beni Suef in Middle Egypt. The temple was excavated by Swiss Egyptologist Edouard Naville in 1891, and the columns were distributed to museums around the world shortly thereafter. Other columns from the temple are in the British Museum; Bolton Museum and Art Gallery; South Australian Museum, Adelaide; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and University Museum, University of Pennsylvania. English archaeologist W. M. Flinders Petrie re-excavated and planned the site in 1904. The columns were recently studied by Japanese Egyptologist Yoshifumi Yasuoka, who identified traces of the original panels of decoration on them and re-examined their architectural arrangement.

The temple of Herishef was expanded during the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BC), at which time the eight palm-form granite columns were brought to the site from elsewhere. The columns were in fact already ancient when Ramesses reused them. Their proportions and form of their palm-capitals are typical of the Old Kingdom, and it is likely that they originally derived from an Old Kingdom pyramid complex of the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2494-2345 BC). Such recycling of older building material is characteristic of Ramesses II, and of Pharaonic Egyptian architecture in general.


Ruined columns at Herakleopolis Magna, as excavated by Edouard Naville. 1891.

The most likely candidate for the new construction work at Herakleopolis Magna is Ramesses’ fourth son, Khaemwaset, High Priest of Memphis. Prince Khaemwaset is well-known to have taken a particular interest in Egypt’s past, leading to his designation as the “first Egyptologist.” Khaemwaset was particularly active in the Memphite necropolis, where he was responsible for ‘labelling’ the monuments of ancient kings. In the course of such ‘survey’ Khaemwaset would have become aware of sites too ruined to save – but whose elements might be re-purposed for his father’s ambitious building programme elsewhere. In honour of Ramesses II new decoration was added, showing the king worshipping the ram-headed Herishef. The long-lived Ramesses was eventually succeeded by the thirteenth son, Merenptah, who added further columns of hieroglyphs with his own names in poorer quality inscriptions. Given Merenptah’s advanced age at his accession, he would have been keen to make his monumental mark as quickly as possible. By adding texts to standing monuments, his artisans were able to assert his presence and associate the elderly king with his famous father.

Petrie's reconstruction of the original appearance of the Ramesside pronaos

Petrie’s reconstruction of the original appearance of the Ramesside pronaos

The Manchester column was originally set up in the University’s Whitworth Hall in the late Nineteenth Century but was moved to the entrance hall of the Museum between 30th November and 2nd December 1979.

The column leaving Whitworth Hall... and arriving at the Museum. 1979.

The column leaving Whitworth Hall… and arriving at the Museum. 1979.

It is perhaps appropriate that a monument ‘salvaged’ by History’s first Egyptologist is the first object to greet visitors when they arrive at our Museum (and when they exit, via the gift shop). After all, in one of his inscriptions, Khaemwaset is said to have been one “who so loved antiquity and the noble people who came before, along with the excellence of what they made.”


Filed under Object biography

Texts in translation #12: The stela of the God’s Wife, Princess Isis (Acc. no. 1781)

G2.07_Guide_IsisThis finely wrought limestone slab likely once formed the upper part (the curved ‘lunette’) of a larger stela commemorating the daughter of King Ramesses VI (c. 1143-1136 BC), a princess named Iset – or Isis. The stela was excavated by Flinders Petrie at the site of Coptos.

Central text

The Osiris, King, Lord of the Two Lands, Neb-Maat-Re Mery-Amun, Son of Re, Ramesses, Heka-Iunu, Father of the God’s Wife of Amun, The Divine Adoratrice Isis.

Above the figure of Re-Horakhty (on the left):

Re-Horakhty, by whose shining all is illuminated, Great God, Ruler of Eternity.

Above the scene of the princess shaking a sistrum and censing:

I play the sistrum before your fair face, gold is in front of you. May you allow [me] to see the sunrise, the Osiris, the Hereditary Princess, great of favours, the God’s Wife of Amun, the King’s Daughter, the God’s Adoratrice Isis, true of voice.

Behind the princess:

Her mother, the Great Royal Wife, whom he loves, the Lady of the Two Lands, Nub-khesbed, true of voice.

Above the figure of Osiris (on the right):

Osiris, who awakens complete, Lord of the Sacred Land, Great God, Chief of Silence

Above the scene of the princess pouring liquid over a table of offerings:

Making a libation to Osiris, Lord of Eternity. May you allow me to receive offerings that go out upon your offering tables, consisting of everything good and pure for the Osiris, the God’s Wife of Amun, the King’s Daughter, Lady of the Two Lands, the Divine Adoratrice, Isis, true of voice.

Behind the princess:

Her father, the king, Lord of the Two Lands, Neb-Maat-Re Mery-Amun, Son of Re, Ramesses, Heka-Iunu […].

Isis stela line

The scene makes an important religious statement, showing two deities as different aspects of the sun god – representing both night (Osiris) and day (Re-Horakhty). As is typical of many such scenes, the text captions and reinforces what is depicted in figural scenes. Isis performs rituals with a rattle, or sistrum, burns incense and pours libations. These were important aspects of the role of the ‘God’s Wife’, as chief ritualist who entertained the god. In some sense, the ‘God’s Wife’ (or ‘God’s Adoratice’ or ‘God’s Hand’) was a sexual companion for the god Amun.

This position was an important religious and political one, because the princess was a representative of her father the king at Karnak – when the Pharaoh was largely based in the Delta at this period. From recent excavations of chapels at Dra Abu el-Naga on the West Bank at Thebes, it seems the office of God’s Wife and of High Priest were closely linked at this time.

The stela’s inscription is important in making explicit the parentage of Isis, which has been used by Egyptologists to help build a picture of royal family relationships in the Twentieth Dynasty.

Leave a comment

Filed under Texts in Translation

London Event 26/10/13: “In the footsteps of Petrie”

Petrie_1903A fundraising study day run by the Friends of the Petrie Museum, exploring Flinders Petrie’s world of excavation and collecting. Part of the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Friends and in honour of Petrie’s 160th birthday.


Venue : Institute of Archaeology UCL
Cost is £25 for Friends of the Petrie / £30 for guests / £10 students
Booking form here





9.30: welcome
9.45 – 10.45 Professor Stephen Quirke: Framing Petrie: the worlds of archaeology and Egypt 1853-1942
10.45 – 11.15 coffee
11.15 – 12.15 Dr Campbell Price: While skulls bobbed around on the waves: Petrie at Hawara
12.15 – 12.30 short break
12.30 – 1.30 Dr Tine Bagh: It’s all about the money: financing Petrie’s excavations
1.30 – 2.30 lunch (please make your own arrangements)
2.30 – 3.30: Dr Paolo Del’Vesco: In the company of Petrie: letters, notebooks and pocket diaries in the archive of the Petrie Museum
3.30 – 4.00: tea
4.00 – 5.00: Dr Alice Stevenson: The General and the young surveyor: Petrie, Pitt-Rivers and Victorian archaeology
5.00 – 5.30: Panel Q&A

Leave a comment

Filed under Egypt events

Masks and masking in ancient Egypt


Acc. no. 123

The Manchester Museum holds two very important objects that provide evidence for the use of masks in ancient Egypt. The first is one of the very few surviving masks that appears to have been worn by the living, rather than placed on a mummy. The Manchester example (Acc. no. 123) is made of layers of linen and plaster, and has been painted black – with signs of paint being applied over broken patches of plaster, implying ancient repair. There are holes for the eyes and nostrils, indicating practical considerations for the wearer. A green triangle has been painted between the brows, and the eyes, cheeks and lips have been picked out with red paint. Despite the common assertion that the Manchester mask represents the dwarf-god Bes, this does not seem obvious from inspection of the mask itself.

The mask was found by archaeologist W.M. Flinders Petrie during his 1888-9 excavations at the pyramid-builders’ town of Kahun. It was discovered in a room of one of the houses there. In the next room, in a hole in the floor, was found a group of objects including a pair of ivory clappers and a wooden figurine of a woman with a lionine face(mask). Although the latter was stolen from the excavation, it is comparable with another example from the Ramesseum tomb group – also in Manchester. These objects have been interpreted as the tools of a ritual performer, whose use was connected with music and magic. The exact context of such use is uncertain.

Ostracon 5886 second version

Acc. no. 5886

The other object is a flake of limestone (known as an ostracon), from western Thebes, probably of New Kingdom date and donated by Sir Alan Gardiner. It bears a unique ink sketch: a scene of a funeral. The sketch shows a tomb shaft – of the type known from Deir el-Medina – with a group of female mourners gathered around it. Within the shaft a man is seen descending, and within the chambers of the tomb itself the burial party carry a coffin into place. A striking detail is that one of the party has a jackal head. Given the informal medium, the sketch is likely to show the burial as it happened, albeit in schematic fashion. The implication is that one of the party is wearing a jackal-headed mask. A famous example in Hildesheim may represent such a mask, used for the impersonation of Anubis, the god of mummification.

Ancient Egyptian ritual centred on the knowledge and action of a ritual practitioner, not on abstract “beliefs”. Masking enabled ritualists to act as gods, bringing divine knowledge and power to confront a given problem or participate in ceremonial acts. Religious texts contain many assertions that the speaker is a specific deity. Such a declaration of authority enabled mortals – both men and women – to impersonate gods, and make their ritual actions more effective. The resulting positive psychological effects are well-attested.

Masks enabled ancient Egyptians to become divine, both during life and after death. Manchester is fortunate to have these two outstanding objects, which shed light on an otherwise sparsely-documented practice.


Filed under Object biography

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.

Leave a comment

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