Tag Archives: pyramids

Biblical migrations: Re-telling the Story of Exodus

A modern view of Tell el-Maskhuta, the EEF's first excavated site

A modern view of Tell el-Maskhuta, the EEF’s first excavated site

Migration is a central theme in the Biblical story of Exodus. Quite apart from the debated historicity of the account of the departure of Hebrews from Egypt, the story of the Exodus has played an important role in the popular perception of ‘Ancient Egypt’.

For many people who were aware of Pharaonic history in the 18th and 19th Centuries, much of their information derived from the Bible. This is a major reason why the Manchester Museum has such an important collection of archaeologically-sourced objects from Egypt. In 1882, an organisation called the Egypt Exploration Fund was set up to preserve the remains of Egypt’s ancient past through archaeological recording. The first site chosen for the Fund’s work was Tell el Maskhuta, in the eastern Nile Delta – believed to be a store-city mentioned in Exodus. An account of findings from the site was published in 1885, under the title ‘The Store-City of Pithom and the Route to Exodus.’ The newly-formed Fund tapped into widespread popular interest in the supposed route of the Hebrews, and received donations specifically to investigate Biblical sites. The Fund’s founder, the redoubtable Miss Amelia B. Edwards, even wanted to give early subscribers the chance to own a genuine mudbrick, ‘made without straw, by an Isrealite in bondage’.

Thus, several monumental pieces of granite from the Delta sites came to Manchester as a result of the Egypt Exploration Fund’s focus on the area of putative Biblical events; perhaps unsurprisingly the Museum’s major Egyptological benefactor, Jesse Haworth, was a keen churchman.

Ridley Scott's new film

Ridley Scott’s new film

The appeal of the Exodus narrative continues today; the latest cinematic adaptation by Ridley Scott – Exodus: Gods and Kings – cost an estimated $140 million to produce. The presentation of ‘Ancient Egypt’, the backdrop to most of the film, is a fantastical conflation of surviving archaeological evidence and different degrees of misinterpretation of that evidence. Other commentators have elsewhere addressed the question of why ancient Egypt is so misrepresented, and which aspects of a film like ‘Exodus’ might have been improved.

For me, one particularly problematic cliché that the film perpetuates is of the ancient Egyptians as one-sided, whip-cracking slave drivers. Although most would scoff at the idea aliens built the pyramids – and, incongruously, there seem to be several pyramids under construction at once in the new Exodus film – it is still difficult for the modern Western mind to conceive of a large group of people accomplishing monumental feats such as building pyramids without cruel coercion.

The Manchester Museum preserves a world-class collection of objects that challenge the notion that ‘slaves built the pyramids’. These come from a town of specialist craftsmen who were paid, and well looked after, for their task of preparing the king’s tomb. This is one of many reasons why museums are so important. Hollywood presents a skewed version of reality, but one that has – as it is so fond of telling us – a basis in real places, amongst real people.

Museums preserve and present the artefactual evidence of living people who inhabited ancient Egypt, without the cinematic gloss (although not always without bias). One of a number of research projects currently at work on our Museum’s collection of 18,000 objects from ancient Egypt and Sudan attempts to chart the migration of people and cultural motifs from around the ancient Mediterranean into Egypt. This work is as meticulous as it is fascinating, using the latest advances in analytical scientific techniques to understand the lives of people in the past.

Dr Valentina Gasperini of the Liverpool University, examining imported pottery from New Kingdom Egypt

Dr Valentina Gasperini of the Liverpool University, examining imported pottery from New Kingdom Egypt

Perhaps one day, someone will make a film about the remarkable commonplace discoveries in museums that, among other things, help us understand the movement of people around the ancient Mediterranean – rather than repeating a lazy, monolithic vision of ‘Ancient Egypt’ that has been around for at least 200 years.

I suspect our stories would be a lot more interesting.

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Object biography #10: A relief from the tomb chapel of Nefermaat and Itet (Acc. No. 5168)

This month’s object biography was the first Egyptian piece to be installed into the new Ancient Worlds galleries last week. The relief (Acc. No. 5168) comes from the mastaba tomb chapel of Nefermaat and his wife Itet at Meidum. Nefermaat was probably a son of King Sneferu (c. 2613-2589 BC). At this period the highest offices of state were held by members of the king’s close family, and Nefermaat had the titles of ‘Vizier’ and ‘Overseer of All the King’s Works’. Although Sneferu is perhaps best known as the father of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid, Sneferu himself build more in terms of volume – his two (perhaps three) pyramids are located at Dahshur (the ‘Bent’ Pyramid, and ‘Red’ Pyramid), and Meidum (though this was perhaps begun by his predecessor Huni). Nefermaat is likely to have overseen these monumental projects.

The conserved relief in its new home, in the Egyptian Worlds gallery.

Nefermaat and Itet’s mastaba tomb was originally excavated by Auguste Mariette in 1872 and later re-examined by Flinders Petrie in 1890–1891. It is from the latter excavations that our relief comes. The upper scene shows an ox and ibex. Hieroglyphs describe the two boatmen pictured below as ‘coming out of the marshes’, where they have been catching birds.

Our relief was created using a very unusual form of decoration, which is attested chiefly from Nefermaat and Itet’s tomb chapel. Reliefs have been sunk into the limestone walls and then filled with coloured paste. An inscription from another part of the tomb chapel, on a relief now in Chicago, explains the purpose of this unusual decorative technique. In words attributed to Nefermaat: “He is one who fashions his representations (lit. ‘gods’) in writing that cannot be erased”. Other parts of the tomb chapel were decorated in the more conventional fashion of paint applied onto mud plaster. The other Nefermaat scene we hold in Manchester uses this technique, and comes from the same wall as the famous ‘Meidum Geese.’

Nefermaat restoration

The relief being conserved and (somewhat imaginatively) restored in the Museum at the beginning of the 20th Century.

The paste-inlay technique appears to have been an innovation at the time, and seems unique in terms of tomb decoration. It is for this reason that it is often supposed to have been abandoned at an early date, having been found to be unsuccessful. However, the paste-inlays were largely intact at the time of the tomb’s discovery by Auguste Mariette in 1872, and their subsequent deterioration – as shown in an archive photo I recently discovered of the relief’s consolidation when it arrived in Manchester – may be due to rough handling after excavation rather than because of the intrinsic weakness of the technique.

Egyptian tomb owners greatly feared damage to, or usurpation of, their ‘houses of eternity’. Several Old Kingdom tombs, only a little later than Nefermaat’s time, bear curses against trespassers intent on such damage. It is interesting to observe another use of this type of filled decoration occurs in the inscription of the famous seated statue of Khufu’s ‘Overseer of Works’ Hemiunu in Hildesheim (#19622). Perhaps both men, intimately involved with construction and themselves all-too-aware of how easily decorated walls could be reappropriated or destroyed, took special pains to carve their ‘gods’ for eternity. Perhaps the fashion was abandoned due simply to being too labour-intensive.

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How DID they build the pyramids…?

Remaining mudbrick core of Senwosret II's pyramid II at Lahun

Remaining mudbrick core of Senwosret II's pyramid II at Lahun

Manchester Museum has a unique collection of objects connected with pyramid building. Many everyday tools have survived from a settlement specially-planned to house workers who built the pyramid of King Senwosret II (c. 1880-1874 BC).

In ancient times the town was called Hetep-Senwosret (‘Senwosret-is-pleased’ or ‘Senwosret-is-satisfied’). Today the town is known as Kahun, the name given to it by the site’s excavator W.M.F. Petrie (1853-1942 AD) after hearing the name from a local man. The whole site, including the king’s pyramid, its associated temples and other tombs, is more commonly called Lahun. It is situated at the eastern edge of the Faiyum region – an area of major building works in the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1650 BC).

Plumb-bob (Acc. no. 104) fom Kahun. © Paul Cliff

Plumb-bob (Acc. no. 104) fom Kahun. © Paul Cliff

The pyramid was built upon a natural outcrop of limestone, of over 12 metres in height. An internal framework of limestone walls was built to form a structural skeleton. Measurements for this and other aspects of the building work would have been made using cords and a plumb line (Acc. No. 104). Around the pyramid were also discovered a wooden mallet (Acc. No. 55) and, most interestingly, rollers, also made of wood (Acc. No. 6197). These would have been used to move the heavier stone blocks up the side of the pyramid on a ramp.

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

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

Unlike earlier examples, the core of Senwosret II’s pyramid was constructed largely from sun-dried mud bricks. Brick moulds (Acc. no. 51) would therefore have been in common use by workers. The pyramid was faced with white limestone blocks to give the appearance of a solid stone structure. The lowest course of this casing was set into a rock-cut foundation trench as a precaution against movement of the masonry caused by the settling of the mud bricks. A copper chisel (Acc. no. 204) found at the workers’ village may have been used for dressing stone both at the pyramid and in surrounding buildings. Most of this material was removed by later kings, such as Ramesses II, for use in their own buildings.

A copper chisel (Acc. no. 204), found inside a basket at Kahun. © Paul Cliff

A copper chisel (Acc. no. 204), found inside a basket at Kahun. © Paul Cliff

Other items in Manchester would have been used in the construction and maintenance of buildings in the pyramid complex. A plasterer’s float (Acc. no. 52), with traces of plaster still adhering to its flat surface, might have been used to lay plaster floors – as found in some of the town’s houses – or to finish the surface of walls. Agricultural implements might also have been used near the pyramid: when finished, it would have been surrounded by rows of trees, indicated by the remains of roots in pits, which would require tending.

Plasterer's wooden float from Kahun (Acc. no. 52). © Paul Cliff

Plasterer's wooden float from Kahun (Acc. no. 52). © Paul Cliff

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