Tag Archives: magic in ancient egypt

‘Mummies, Magic and Medicine’: New book honouring Rosalie David

cover-2Prof Rosalie David OBE is the UK’s first female Professor in Egyptology, and former Keeper of Egyptology at Manchester Museum, whose pioneering work at the University of Manchester on Egyptian mummies, magic and medicine has been of international importance.

The volume, published by Manchester University Press, celebrates Professor David’s 70th birthday. It presents research by a number of leading experts in their fields: recent archaeological fieldwork, new research on Egyptian human remains and unpublished museum objects along with reassessments of ancient Egyptian texts concerned with healing and the study of technology through experimental archaeology. Papers try to answer some of Egyptology’s enduring questions – How did Tutankhamun die? How were the Pyramids built? How were mummies made? – along with less well-known puzzles.

Rather than address these areas separately, the volume adopts the so-called ‘Manchester method’ instigated by Rosalie David and attempts to integrate perspectives from both traditional Egyptology and scientific analytical techniques. Much of this research has never appeared in print before, particularly that resulting from the Manchester Egyptian Mummy Project, set up at the Manchester Museum in the 1970s. The resulting overview gives a good history of the discipline, illustrating how Egyptology has developed over the last 40 years, and how many of the same big questions still remain.


Rosalie David at Manchester Museum in 1974

Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum and senior editor of the book, said: “As the Museum’s Keeper of Egyptology for 30 years, Rosalie David has inspired many people, old and young, and has brought the collection and her subject to the widest possible audience. This book celebrates her work and a proud Manchester Museum tradition.”

The book, published in June 2016, is aimed at researchers and students of archaeology or related disciplines with an interest in multidisciplinary approaches to understanding life and death in ancient Egypt and Sudan.

‘Mummies, Magic and Medicine in Ancient Egypt: Multidisciplinary Essays for Rosalie David’ C. Price, R. Forshaw, P. Nicholson and A. Chamberlain (eds) Manchester University Press 2016.

Details, including Table of Contents, can be found at the Manchester University Press website: http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781784992439/

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Filed under Egypt events at the Manchester Museum, Egyptian mummies

Object biography #3: A female figurine from the ‘Magician’s tomb’ (Acc. No. 1790)

Ramesseum figurine 1790

Acc. no. 1790 © Paul Cliff

This wooden figurine (20.2 cm high) is among Manchester Museum’s most discussed Egyptian objects. It represents a naked female, with the face of a lion and two movable arms, attached with pegs. In each hand she holds serpents made of metal. The figurine is just one piece from an intriguing group found amidst debris at the bottom of a late Middle Kingdom (c. 1773-1650 BC) shaft burial known as the ‘Ramesseum tomb.’ This name derived from the location of the shaft at the rear of what later became the mortuary temple of Ramesses II. Many of the other objects from the tomb are also in the Manchester collection.

Between 1885 and 1886, W. M. Flinders Petrie and James Quibell discovered and cleared the shaft. The tomb’s contents included ivory protective ‘wands’, ivory clappers, model food offerings, and female fertility figurines. In association – but not connected for sure – with these was found a box containing 118 reed pens (Acc. No. 1882) and a large number of texts written on papyrus. These are known as the ‘Ramesseum papyri’ and are held in the British Museum and other institutions. Information on this fascinating set of documents has now been made accessible by the BM’s Richard Parkinson in an online research catalogue on the museum’s website. The papyri contain largely magico-medical texts, but also literary compositions together with an onomasticon, hymns, and rituals. This unusual collection of evidence suggests the tomb belonging to a skilled, literate individual who used objects such as our wooden figurine in performance. A lector priest – or ‘magician’ – is commonly assumed, hence the burial became known as the ‘magician’s tomb’.

Pens from the Ramesseum tomb box (Acc. no. 1882)

Pens from the Ramesseum tomb box (Acc. no. 1882)

The Ramesseum group is of special importance because, collectively, it suggests a social context for the use of objects and texts together in performance. Could these have belonged to a literate, ritual expert – a practitioner of magic – in the late Middle Kingdom? These issues will be explored using Manchester’s Ramesseum objects in the new Egyptian World gallery.

Acc. No. 1790 is certainly one of the most well-published pieces in the collection (her entry in our digital catalogue has 19 images – while many have none!). She is often used to illustrate the practice of ritual and magic – though no one is quite sure how she ‘worked’. That the figurine was used is indicated by signs of alteration to fit the feet into a base. Does she actually represent a deity, or wear a mask? Which divine face is it: female version of the lion-headed dwarf gods Bes or Aha? And are the serpents she grasps – thus rendering them harmless and under her control – the same as the snake ‘wand’, now in the Fitzwilliam, found entangled with hair in the Ramesseum tomb? She raises many more questions than she answers.1790 nude female figurine

I recently discussed the meaning of the figurine with some Manchester University anthropology students examining the archaeological evidence of ritual. One of the group inferred a sexual connotation to the figure’s nudity, but was rebuffed by a colleague who thought this an imposition of a modern, Western perspective. While there is plentiful evidence from Pharaonic Egypt for nude female fertility figurines, including several from the ‘Magician’s’ tomb’, 1790 does not fit easily into this category.

It is, I think, important for Egyptologists and museum professionals to admit to the limits of our knowledge when examining objects. While we can offer educated guesses based on comparable material and cultural context, admitting uncertainty about an object’s function ought not to be taboo. 1790 and its findspot in the Ramesseum tomb group offer a more tantalising glimpse than most.


Filed under Object biography, Research projects