Tag Archives: Kahun

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!

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‘Teacup Travels’ – CBeebies series features our objects!

TEACUP TRAVELS ADSHEL (Manchester Museum)Manchester Museum has recently participated in a project to recreate ancient objects for children’s television. The TV series Teacup Travels tells a series of adventure stories, which aim at opening the door to ancient worlds and civilisations to young viewers. Each 14 minute episode revolves around Great Aunt Lizzie telling her fictional adventures in Ancient Egypt, Imperial China, Roman Italy and the Celtic Lands of Iron Age Britain. Each story features a replica of a historic artefact from museums across the UK.

Great Aunt Lizzie’s wondrous stories are told to her niece Charlotte and her nephew Elliot, who, whilst cradling one of Great Aunt Lizzie’s special teacups, can’t help but imagine themselves long ago and far away, in Great Aunt Lizzie’s old battered boots.

Brick mould from Kahun (Acc. no. 51). © Paul Cliff

Brick mould from Kahun (Acc. no. 51). © Paul Cliff

Manchester Museum worked with the makers of Teacup Travels to recreate historical artefacts on display at the museum: an Ancient Egyptian brick mould and wooden horse toy. Painstakingly re-made by highly experienced and skilled prop-makers, two unique stories were inspired by these objects from the collection at Manchester Museum.

  • Can Charlotte replace a broken brick mould before the Pharoah’s architect arrives?
  • Will Charlotte be able to convince a carpenter that people will love the wooden horse toys she makes?

Replica of our Roman Period wooden horse (Acc. no. 6974)

The production team has been truthful to the original artefacts, ensuring that they look the part through a detailed process of recording how the items were found, the state they were in, how they were originally used so that the replica in the series could be portrayed accurately by the cast.

In support of the show, CBeebies has built a website to help children go on a journey of discovery. From watching the show on television, to clicking online, they can easily find out about the ancient artefacts by downloading a printable PDF of the Teacup Travels “museum map” which features an introduction to each of the artefacts – where they can be seen, how they were used and so on.

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Object biography #13: The upper part of a female statuette from Kahun (Acc. No. 269)

Audrey_CThis fragmentary piece of sculpture has for several months featured on the Museum’s handling table, to enable visitors to touch pieces. The fragment comes from the town of Kahun, built to house the workers that constructed the pyramid of King Senwosret II (c. 1877-1870 BC). The town continued to be inhabited by priests whose job it was to maintain the cult of the king after his death. The style facial features of this piece imitate royal portrait types of the middle and end of the 12th Dynasty: hooded eyes, folds beside the nose and prominent ears. There is no question of this being a ‘portrait’ designed to replicate the features of one particular non-royal lady – these are the features of a standardised royal portrait type.


Penn 59-23-1

On the woman’s left hand side is a break, show that she was attached to someone or something else. During the Middle Kingdom, there appears to have been a decline in the display of intimacy between figures depicted in group sculpture. Pair statues are much rarer than in either the Old or New Kingdoms and when they do occur, the individuals depicted appear to be unhappily enduring each other’s company. Much more likely than a pair statue at this period is a group composition, showing several members of one family together. This imitates the arrangement of large numbers of individuals on the same stelae. A good indication of what sort of group statuette our lady may have come from is in the Pennsylvania Museum (No. 59-23-1). She may have been seated, but a standing pose such as shown in the Penn. example seems more likely.

The precise find spot of our statuette at Kahun is not recorded but two settings can be envisaged. A tomb chapel may be possible – but a temple context seems more likely: papyri from the site indicate that statues of officials (and their families) were set up there, apparently an practice permitted first during the Middle Kingdom.

Who knows, maybe the rest of her family will turn up somewhere… and we may find out her name!


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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.


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Lecture by Dr. Joyce Tyldesley: ‘Senwosret is Satisfied’ – Life at Kahun

Wednesday 7th November, 6-8pm, the Manchester Museum

A lecture by Dr. Joyce Tyldesley, Programme Director for the UoM’s Online Diploma in Egyptology, and Museum Research Associate

Free. Book on 0161 275 2648

“Senwosret is Satisfied”: Life at Kahun

The Middle Kingdom town of Kahun (ancient name Hetep-Senwosret , or “Senwosret is Satisfied’) is a remarkable purpose-built settlement created to house the community of priests and workers who serviced the nearby pyramid of King Senwosret II. The excavations of Flinders Petrie in 1889-90 produced an unprecedented range of objects relating to the daily activities of ordinary Egyptians living ordinary lives at this extraordinary site. Manchester Museum is fortunate in having the finest collection of objects from Kahun.

This talk will look at the reasons for the creation of the town of Kahun, before using archaeological evidence to explore the lives of the women who lived, worked and died there.

Joyce is a popular author of works on Egyptology. Her latest book, ‘Tutankhamun’s Curse: The Developing History of an Egyptian King‘, is available now.

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Dwarfs in ancient Egypt

The Manchester Museum holds two examples of an unusual category of object, peculiar to the Middle Kingdom (Acc. nos: 279-280). These take the form of two figures of dwarfs, supporting a vessel for either a lamp wick or to burn incense.

Acc. no. 280

Acc. no. 280

Acc. no. 279

Acc. no. 279














One of our pieces is of limestone, the other is of pottery. Further limestone examples from Kahun are in the Petrie Museum in London. A very similar example was recent excavated by Dr. David Jeffreys of the Egypt Exploration Society in a Middle Kingdom settlement at Memphis.

UC 16520

Petrie Museum UC 16520

These find-spots suggest a common domestic context for the lamps, and it is perhaps best to view them as items of household ritual furniture, rather than the equipment of a formal chapel or temple.

The squat proportions of the figures are in contrast to the traditional ancient Egyptian canon of proportion for the human figure, and given the presence of non-Egyptians at Kahun – and presumably at other Middle Kingdom sites too – it cannot be ruled out that the form derives from elsewhere. However, the figure of the dwarf has considerable significance in Egyptian culture, and dwarves are represented throughout the Pharaonic period.

The statue of the dwarf Seneb and his family. Cairo Museum JE 51280.

The statue of the dwarf Seneb and his family. Cairo Museum JE 51280.

Dwarfism appears not to have been uncommon in ancient Egypt and dwarves were clearly accorded high status from the Old Kingdom onwards, and appear in skilled trades such as jewellery making. They could also occupy high positions at court, as was the case with a dwarf named Seneb – an ‘overseer of palace dwarfs’, ‘chief of the royal wardrobe’ and a priest in the funerary cult of King Khufu. An association with the divine may have existed in the Old Kingdom, although it is not articulated explicitly.

Another Middle Kingdom limestone lamp in Leiden – which, according to the dealer who acquired it, came from Asyut  – has a pronounced belly and grasps a snake in each hand. It may therefore represent a female version of lamps, which are assumed to be male in other cases. This piece has been suggested by Maarten Raven as a possible early form of the Pataikos figure, which has strong associations with the protection of family life. More generally, the benevolent aspect of the dwarf is evoked most strongly by Bes, the fearsome god particularly responsible for driving off danger during childbirth. These attestations come mainly from the New Kingdom and later, but fit with the domestic setting in which provenanced Middle Kingdom examples have been found.

Middle Kingdom lamps are thus among the first objects to make explicit the connection between dwarves and protection in a religious context. Our two ‘dwarf lamps’ are best seen in Egyptian positive view of dwarfism. They add to our understanding of Middle Kingdom social practice, evidence for which is so richly represented in the collection at Manchester.


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Beekeeping in ancient Egypt and today

Acc. no. 296. © Paul Cliff

The Manchester Museum contains an intriguing object numbered 296. At 38cm long and 7.8cm in diameter, at first sight it looks like a thin pottery vessel, open at one end and with a small hole at the other. Were it not for the chance discovery of a dead bee inside (and traces of pollen), the function of this object may have gone unrecognised as an ancient Egyptian beehive.

The ancient Egyptians were extremely fond of honey, which they used to sweeten cakes and beer. Beekeeping is most famously depicted in the Theban tomb of Pabasa (TT279), an official during the 26th Dynasty (c. 650 BC). The practice of using large numbers of pottery cylinders of roughly the same design continues today. Acc. no. 296 is a fine example of an object that attests a practice that we know must have taken place, but which is only hinted at in textual sources or fleetingly represented in tomb scenes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it originates from Petrie’s excavations at the Middle Kingdom town of Kahun, which has furnished us with so much detail about life in ancient Egypt.

Beekeeping shown in the tomb of Pabasa

Colleagues at the ManchesterMuseum, Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester Art Gallery have recently participated in a training course to learn the ancient art of beekeeping. A nasty mite called Varroa has wiped out large numbers of bee colonies in the UK, leading to calls for action to ‘save the bees’. Learning beekeeping is one very important contribution to sustain bee populations, which are vital for the pollination of plants – and therefore the production of crops. It is hoped that the Museum will soon have its own beehive, with honey to sell in our shop. Who knows, we may soon also be producing ancient Egyptian sweets!


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