Tag Archives: Middle Kingdom

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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The mystery of the spinning statuette (II)

Several months ago, we noticed that one of our Middle Kingdom statuettes was spinning around imperceptibly slowly in its new case in our Egyptian Worlds gallery. We set up a time lapse camera to take one image every minute for a week. This is the result.

The cause may be subtle vibrations from footfall or traffic outside, but the statuette has been on a glass shelf in about the same place in the gallery for decades and has never moved before – and none of the other objects in the case move in any way. A mystery? See for yourself.

Video by Luke Lovelock, Media Technician, Manchester Museum.


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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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The mystery of the spinning statuette

9325 statue

Acc. no. 9325. Photo by Paul Cliff

Most Egyptologists are not superstitious people. When I first noticed that one of our Middle Kingdom statuettes (Acc. no. 9325) had been turned around 180 degrees to face the back of its case in our new Ancient Worlds galleries, I wondered who had changed the object’s position this without telling me. The Egyptians themselves would have appreciated the concern to make visible for passers-by the text on its back pillar – a prayer for offerings for the deceased. Yet the next time I looked into the case, the statue was facing in another direction – and a day later had yet another orientation. None of the other objects in the display had moved. The case was locked. And I have the only key.

 The statuette had always intrigued me. It entered the Manchester collection in 1933, as part of a donation of five objects from Miss Annie Barlow of Bolton – three of which at one time were considered to be modern forgeries.

Feb 2013 005The inscription on the back pillar reads: “An offering which the king gives to Osiris, Lord of Life, that he may give a voice offering, consisting of bread, beer, oxen and fowl for the Ka-spirit of’. As is known for other statues of this date and type, the man’s name – Nebsenu(?) – is inscribed on the front of the statue’s base. He bears what Alan Gardiner called as “obscure” title: Hry (n) tm. The distribution of the inscriptions suggests that the statuette was prefabricated with the standard offering formula on the back pillar and that the man’s name was added later to the base.

Feb 2013 007Logical attempts to explain the statues movement centre on the subtle vibrations caused by outside traffic, causing imperceptible movement. Lill, a colleague on the visitor services staff, suggested that perhaps the man wanted us to say the prayer for him – yet when this text is visible his name is impossible to read. What is very strange is that the statue has spun in a perfect circle – it hasn’t wobbled off in any particular direction. The intriguing suggestion that the statuette was carved of steatite and then fired may imply that it it now vulnerable to magnetic forces. But is so, why did it not move on its glass shelf in pretty much the same position in the old Egyptian Afterlife gallery?Feb 2013 008

I lied – others do have a key to the case, and it is just possible that someone is playing a trick. But I doubt it.

The simplest solution seems to be to apply a tiny amount of museum wax to the base to stop the movement. But what if the statue continued to keep moving? What would our explanation be then..?


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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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