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Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Tattoos, Sex and Dancing Girls - With a Nubian Connection

The title reflects a few myths about tattoos in ancient Egypt, and a few debatable points.

There are lots of myths about tattoos in ancient Egypt e.g. prostitutes wore tattoos of Bes, low status women only were tattooed, Amunet was a 'dancing girl'.

There are also some interesting, possible Nubian connections. Here I look at the myths and possible Nubian link.

To the left is a 'paddle doll' from the Egypt Centre perhaps showing tattoos or scarification. Such items are found in Nubia and Egypt

In 1891, two ancient Egyptian female mummies were uncovered from Middle Kingdom Deir el-Bahri; they bore tattoos of geometrically arranged dots and dashes. Their burial places were adjacent to those of a number of ladies who held the title ‘King’s Wife’ and thus, the tattooed ladies were considered to be members of the king’s harem (I have blogged about this site previously). A few years later, another two female mummies were discovered in the same region. The decorations on the bodies bore striking resemblance to faience and wooden figurines of barely clothed women of the same period (a wooden version from the Egypt Centre is shown above). From the New Kingdom on, Egyptologists noticed that semi-clothed women were frequently depicted sporting depictions of the deity Bes, and suggested that these were tattoos, the marks of dancing girls - or even prostitutes. One might suggest that tattooing in Egypt was therefore associated with prostitutes and was erotically charged. Reality is a little more complex and as is often the case, ideas of the past are strongly coloured by modern preconceptions. In our own society the wearing of tattoos has been negatively associated with immorality and low social status and this preconception seems to have influenced an understanding of ancient Egyptian tattoos. In the late 1920s, for example, the conviction of a rapist was overturned because a small butterfly tattoo was found on the female victim. The tattoo was considered to have sexual implications and thus the woman was thought to have misled the man who raped her. 

Much confusion also arises from the conflation of New Kingdom depictions of Bes on scantily clad women's legs, with Middle Kingdom marks on the bodies of elite women and ‘fertility dolls’. All the evidence suggests that the only Egyptians in Dynastic Egypt to have tattoos were women, and that these women would be elite court ladies and priestesses of Hathor, perhaps decorated to ensure fertility, but not for the simple amusement of men. The origins and precise meaning of the tattoos however remain unclear.  

Much of the textual evidence for tattooing in Egypt comes from the Graeco-Roman Period, when it is clear that tattooing and branding were considered negative. Slaves were branded and tattooing was used as a punishment. Cultic tattooing, however, is also mentioned. Sextus Empiricius says that the majority of Egyptians were tattooed, and evidence suggests that both men and women were indeed tattooed in this period. However, the extent to which this took place was probably exaggerated by Classical writers to support their ideas of the ‘weird’ nature of the Egyptians. Evidence from bodies themselves suggests a less ubiquitous practice. Maspero’s excavations at Akhmim in Middle Egypt ‘yielded several female mummies of the Graeco-Roman period with tattoo marks on the chin and sides of the nose.’ While the discolouration and partial decomposition of mummified bodies means that we would not expect evidence of tattooing on every mummy, one might expect a little more available evidence than merely the Akhmim bodies. 

Prior to the Graeco-Roman Period, evidence for tattooing is largely archaeological. One of the few possible textual references comes from the Bremner-Rhind Papyrus (British Museum EA 10188). This papyrus is dated to the Fourth Century BC, but the archaizing language suggests an earlier prototype. The relevant phrase can be translated as ‘their name is inscribed into their arms as Isis and Nephthys . . . ’ The problem is that this may represent scarification rather than tattooing, and like all textual evidence, may suggest an idea rather than a reality. 

Firm evidence for tattooing must ideally come from the bodies themselves. As with the Graeco-Roman Period, the evidence does not suggest ubiquitous practice. In fact, only four mummified bodies are known, and these all from the Middle Kingdom, all from Deir el-Bahri, and all female. 

Perhaps the most well known tattooed lady is that of the Eleventh Dynasty (c. 2055–2004 BC) Priestess of Hathor, Amunet, discovered in 1891 in a tomb at Deir el-Bahri. Unfortunately, there appear to be no pictures of Amunet’s tattoos. The body often shown as Amunet in publications is actually that of her companion, an unknown lady from the same tomb who was also tattooed. Amunet had tattoos on top of the abdomen, above thighs and breasts and on lower legs and arms in a geometrical pattern of dots and lines. Her titles ‘Sole Lady in Waiting, Priestess of Hathor’ showed that she was a high status lady of the court. Although, the title Xkr.t nsw wat.t had been translated in the past as ‘Sole Royal Ornament’, and connected with concubines, a better translation may be ‘Sole Lady in Waiting’. Ladies holding the title ‘Sole Lady in Waiting, Priestess of Hathor’ were often wives of important officials. The much published tattoos of Amunet’s companion were very similar to her own. 

Amunet and her companion were buried close to the temple of King Mentuhotep Nebhepetre, in an area which seems to have been given over to other royal ladies, several of whom were priestesses of Hathor, and which are sometimes considered a harem. Even if these women were royal wives, we should not equate this with prostitution or low status. Indeed, there is even doubt that these ladies were married to the king.  

Two other female mummies, again from the Eleventh Dynasty and from Deir el-Bahri, were found by Herbert E.Winlock in 1923 near the Mentuhotep temple. These bodies appear to exhibit scarification, as well as tattooing, and the pattern of designs is like that of Amunet with geometrically arranged dots and dashes. Winlock identified them as ‘dancing girls’, apparently as their tattoos were the same as the patterns on the faience figurines which he believed to be dancing girls. However, the titles of these women, if they had any, remain unknown and they were buried with few objects, though it is possible that they had been moved from a former grave. Winlock states that their graves had been robbed during the building of Hatshepsut’s Temple. Thus, their status is unclear.  

It has been argued that elite women were not tattooed but the case of Amunet and her companion, and perhaps also of the two other Deir el-Bahri women, would suggest otherwise. Amunet’s title shows she was a court lady and she was buried near the king wearing bead collars and necklaces. Her companion in the same tomb, given its situation, appears also to be of high rank. As for the other two, the fact that they were buried on such an important site suggests that they may have been court ladies, and like many women buried here could have been priestesses of Hathor. Such women may have danced, though they are not shown doing so, and have no titles suggesting that they did so. They may or may not have been sexually intimate with the king, but they were certainly of high status. 

It has been suggested on the basis of the actual skulls, and from iconographic depictions, that some of these women were black Nubians. While representation of skin colouring as black is now known to have religious overtones, associated with Osiris, and with fertility and rebirth, rather than depicting skin colour in life, the evidence from the shape of the skull is harder to dismiss. However, the skull identification was carried out some time ago and so was possibly not as accurate as might be expected today. One scholar identifies Amunet and the two tattooed ladies found later, as light-skinned, but another, suggests that the mummification process may have reduced the melanin in the skin. Interestingly, an archaeological study has shown that some of these women had extremely narrow pelvises, a trait associated with at least some ancient Egyptian women. A new examination by a modern physical anthropologist may help resolve the matter. 

As well as these four tattooed bodies, a number of Middle Kingdom figurines have been found which not only have similar decorations, and possible Nubian origins, but are also sometimes considered concubines. These figurines fall into two main groups: faience fertility figurines classified by the British Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch as type 1, and wooden ‘paddle dolls’. Both are Middle Kingdom. There are, of course, other types of fertility figurines, but it is these two types which most approximate the Middle Kingdom mummified bodies.  

Pinch’s type 1 fertility figurines, faience ‘dolls’ decorated with geometric patterns strikingly similar to those on the mummified tattooed ladies, are discussed first. These figures date to the late Middle Kingdom–Second Intermediate Period and many are made of faience, stone, wood or ivory. Most are found in tombs, though one was found in a domestic context at Kahun. They are found in both male and female burials, as well as in votive deposits to Hathor, with the bands around their bodies being similar to the ‘Libyan bands’ worn by priestesses. While Pinch, the authority on these artefacts, is doubtful of accepting the idea of their Nubian origins, the connection does seem difficult to refute. While not identical, examples of Nubian pottery of the same date do exhibit similar patterns, and like the Egyptian figures, are without feet. The similarity of design does suggest a cross-fertilization of ideas surrounding them, particularly as Nubia was at least partly under the control of Egypt at this time.  

The decoration on the mummies, and also on the type 1 fertility figurines, bears some similarity to the decoration on paddle dolls, common in the Middle Kingdom. Such dolls, with emphasized pubic area and long hair, appear to symbolize the feminine erotic, and are usually considered fertility figures rather than children’s playthings. Interestingly, at least one of these paddle dolls sports a depiction of Taweret who, like Bes, is associated with women and childbirth. The two seem closely linked and Keimer illustrates an example of Taweret with a Bes face. We have seen that, in the New Kingdom, Bes was depicted on the thighs of some women. These paddle dolls are common in Upper Egypt and Nubia. 

The geographical distribution of paddle dolls, the possible Nubian origins of the faience and pottery figurines, and the possible Nubian origins of the Mentuhotep Nebhepetre have all been linked to evidence of a Nubian connection for tattooing. In each individual case, the evidence is not clear, with the paddle dolls being the most convincingly Nubian. It is probably going too far to claim that these dolls are somehow depictions of the tattooed ladies; the paddle dolls wear long hair, while our ladies are shown on their chapels with short hairstyles. However, perhaps together, the paddle dolls, faience dolls and Deir el-Bahri women, provide some support for a relationship between female body decoration and Nubian influence, at least in the Middle Kingdom. 

In support of Nubian origins for our ladies, Nubian women were decorated with similar tattoos between the Sixth and Eighteenth Dynasties, that is, they were contemporary with the Deir el-Bahri ladies. C-group women (2000–1500 BC), in cemeteries near Kubban discovered in 1910, also had tattoos, like those of Amunet and the other three women. Moreover, the Nubian women were buried with pottery dolls exhibiting the same tattoos. Other C-Group tattooed women have also been found exhibiting similar dot and dash patterning. One expert states that all the tattoos found in Nubia are on females, but there is at least one instance of a tattooed male from the later period in Nubia. A Nubian connection may be accepted with caution. 

An alternative suggestion is that the origins of Dynastic Egyptian tattooing may be sought in Egyptian prehistory. There are several depictions of female Predynastic figurines patterned as though tattooed. However, we do not know if this practice continued unbroken into Dynastic Egypt, or again if these patterns represent tattoos, body paint or scarification. 

We may ask how the tattoos were executed. An early Dynastic flint flake set in a wooden handle, found at Abydos, was said by Petrie to be a tattooing instrument. Petrie writes “The flint set in wood did not seem capable of bearing any strain, but it was explained by my friend Prof Giglioli as a tatuing [sic] instrument of usual form . . .”. This suggests that Professor Giglioli had seen similar contemporary items. Another instrument, consisting of wide, flat needles found together, was uncovered from Eighteenth Dynasty Gurob. The latter is now deposited in the Petrie Museum. 

Interestingly, tattooing seems to have either continued, or been revived, in more recent times in Egypt. At least one drawing of an Egyptian woman is known, as well as bone figurines, a luster ware dish and other artefacts of the Fatamid Period (AD 969–1171), apparently showing tattoos. Of course these could also indicate body paint.  

Ethnographic evidence shows that, at times, tattooing may be associated with the elite, and at other times, subordinate groups. It is frequently practised as a means of healing and protection, and thus is not always intended as mere sexual ornament. For ancient Egypt, it is certainly evident that tattooing in the Middle Kingdom was associated with some high-status women. As to the meaning of the tattoos, all that can be said is that there is some suggestion that the body decorations are associated with fertility. The faience dolls and paddle dolls are very clearly fertility figures and these have designs which appear similar to the tattooed mummies. As for the later Bes body decorations, Bes, if not an erotic symbol, was associated with women in childbirth, and hence fertility and/or protection. This, of course, need not rule out a connection with eroticism, as the fertility and eroticism are difficult to untangle. What can be ruled out is the association of tattoos and low-status women. Additionally, the paucity of tattoos suggests it was not common practice. 

The positioning of the tattoos on the abdomen and upper breasts and thighs of these mummified bodies, and also on the dolls, has suggested to some an erotic connection. However, some of the tattooing also occurred on the lower legs and arms; and besides, position near female genital areas may be associated with either fertility or protection. It is also possible that the tattoos may be marks of devotees to Hathor, given that these dolls are often given as votive offerings to Hathor, and that Amunet, and possibly the other mummified ladies, were Priestesses of Hathor.  

By the New Kingdom, women are sometimes shown with depictions of Bes upon their thighs, often assumed to be tattoos. These appear in a different tradition to the geometrical designs of the Middle Kingdom, though the difference may be superficial. The Bes ‘tattoos’ are sometimes cited as supporting the link between tattoos and eroticism in ancient Egypt and both associated with low status. However, this link is open to question for four main reasons. Firstly, we do not know if these were tattoos, scarification, or make-up. The suggestion that these may have been tattoos is supported by the interpretation of a dotted design on a Nubian Meroitic female mummy from Aksha as a Bes figure. However, the Meroitic Period is equivalent to the Ptolemaic Period of Egypt, that is, it is much later than the Egyptian New Kingdom. Secondly, Bes was associated with women and childbirth, and had an apotropaic role, thus to assume a mere erotic role limits, or even twists, the nature of Bes. Thirdly, it is possible that all Egyptian women had depictions of Bes painted upon their thighs, though they are not shown on higher status women because such women were usually depicted clothed. Fourthly, in the New Kingdom, nakedness was not simply equated with social status. Indeed, in the Amarna Period, even the royal family were shown semi-naked. The women with the depictions of Bes were very possibly high status women. It has even been suggested that one was a priestess of Hathor. There is no reason to think of these women as prostitutes. Indeed, the earliest evidence we have for prostitution in ancient egypt is for men prostituting themselves!

Finally, we need to consider the link between Bes and the erotic. Certainly Bes is sometimes shown on the thighs of women holding musical instruments, wearing hip girdles and sporting long flowing locks. The presence of a small monkey appears to enhance the erotic feel. The problem is to disentangle the erotic from the fertility aspects, which is probably largely impossible for an ancient society. It is very likely that such a distinction simply was not made in ancient Egypt.
(Much of this is taken from 'Dancing for Hathor': Women in Ancient Egypt but the book has the references in it)

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

More Nubian Stuff - Faience Head, a Talisman for Children

EC537 is a faience head of a Nubian. The head can be recognised as Nubian by the treatment of the eyes and by the cruciform hairstyle. The piece is 3.5cm high. It appears to belong to a larger piece. Parallels suggest a date of the Third Intermdiate Period to Late Period. 

The hairstyle appears to be associated with Nubian women (Bulté 1991, 94), who are often shown on items associated with toilet and with childbirth and motherhood (e.g Ashmolean AN1896-1908 E.1807 and the British Museum ostraca below). 

Similar examples include ECM822 in the Eton College collection (Graves 2013). Several important goddesses such as Tefnut and Sekhmet were associated with Nubia in the Late Period. Friedman (1998, 208) believes that such figures are associated with motherhood and perhaps used to protect young children. A complete example is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1951.13, in Friedman 1998 ed. 69: 109, 208 and http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?keyword=1984.168) shows a nursing figure. Graves (2013) further associates them with Beset.

A female figure with a similar hairstyle can be seen on this 19th Dynasty ostracon from Deir el-Medina (British Museum EA 8506, copyright British Museum Trustees).

Bulté, J. 1991. Talismans Égytiens d’Heureuse Maternité. Faïence bleu vert à pois foncés. Paris.
Friedman, F.D. ed. 1989. Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience. Thames and Hudson: London.
Graves, C. 2013. Eton College Myers Collection of Egyptian Antiquities Object Highlight: ECM822, A Faience Nubian Head. Birmingham Egyptology Journal, 1. http://birminghamegyptology.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Eton-College-Myers-Collection-of-Egyptian-Antiquities-Object-Highlight-ECM822-A-Faience-Nubian-Head1.pdf (accessed 1.10.2013).

Other Nubian and Nubian related items in the Egypt Centre

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Black History Month and Nubian archers

October is black history month where all things associated with the African diaspora are celebrated. So, in honour of the month, the plan is a couple of related blogs, this being the first.

Of course, Egypt is in Africa, so one might argue that all the Egypt Centre's blogs are related to Black History month, but I thought it would be good to concentrate on the Nubian connection. A previous blog pointed out that here is Swansea we have material from possibly the most northernmost site in Egypt, from Armant. We also have material from Meroe in Nubia and a particular piece, a missing lion has been discussed.

Nubia is the area which now includes both the north Sudan and also part of southern Egypt. It was an important trading area and at times Egypt ruled Nubia, and at other times Nubians ruled Egypt. The Egyptians called Nubia 'Ta-Seti' which means Land of the Bow.

Nubian bowman were employed in the Egyptian army and to the left you can see one of the 'soldier stela' which we have in the Centre. We cannot of course say for certain that this man was a Nubian.

On the right is an archer's thumb ring, which came from Meroe in Nubia. It is probably from Garstang's 1910 excavations and was used to pull the strings of a bow.

And for more information on arrow heads, click here.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Mentuhotep II embracing his wife

A diversion from my work- but related. Mentuhotep II embracing his wife Sadeh in his temple at Deir el-Bahri (from Naville 1910).

An unusual depiction of a king embracing a woman. Usually, the woman embraces the man. Mentuhotep is also shown embracing Ashayt. Such scenes are rare but not unique. A fifth Dynasty fragment from the mortuary temple of King Sahure shows the king embracing his wife. Embracing can show power relations as well as intimacy - in such cases however, the embracing is usually carried out by the lesser partner.

The temple tomb of Mentuhotep on the west bank at Thebes incorporates the tombs of at least 8 women. They are sometimes said to be his wives, but reality seems more complex.

Depictions of the king embracing do not occur in the 'wives' funerary structures. It has thus been suggested that the so-called 'harem' of Mentuhotep were only his wives for the purpose of cult. They are all priestesses of Hathor and their chapels designed to show the king's special relationship with this goddess.

For more information on this site click here.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Your right eye is the Evening Boat

This rather beautiful but very damaged Ptolemaic mummy mask was put on display in the upstairs gallery in the Egypt Centre in 2009. We put it in our metalwork case to show that metal was not just about tools and weapons but also about religion. However, in the last couple of weeks a visiting researcher noticed that there might be something else interesting about it.

The mask is made of cartonnage, that is linen and gesso (plaster). It is covered in gilt. Mummy masks such as this were often coloured with gold gilt because of gold's symbolic importance. The shiny nature of the metal was paralleled in the shiny nature of the justified dead and imbued the deceased with the same quality of shininess. Gold is also an eternal metal which does not tarnish.

We had noticed that the piece also has a wedjet eye on the forehead. What we hadn't paid much attention to was something else, pointed out to us by the visiting researcher. He asked if the mask had an inscription circling the crown. We couldn't really tell from the case, and the piece is damaged. So yesterday, I got off display to have a closer look.

Aha! Our visitor was correct. This is what we saw:

Hieroglyphs could be seen- very faintly. The researcher had suggested either Book 19 or 151 of the Book of the Dead. You might just be able to see, this is part of Book of the Dead 151a. The bit above the brow can be translated as: 'Your right eye is the Evening Boat and your left eye is the Morning Boat; your eyebrows are as the Nine Gods....'.

The text replaces the 'crown of justification', a wreath, often shown on mummy masks. The rest of the spell describes the features of the deceased in godlike terms; your brow as Anubis, hair as Ptah-Sokar, etc. Making the deceased into a mummy was likened to making it into a god, and gods, of course, had qualities of eternal gold.

For information of the Crown of Justification see Christian Riggs 2005, The Beautiful Burial in Roman Egypt. Art, Identity and Funerary Religion pages 81-83.

For parallels to the wreath text see Tamás Mekis 2012, The Cartonnage of Nestanetjeretten (Louvre AF 12859; MG E 1082) and it enigma. Bulletin de L'Institut Français D'Archéologie Orientale, 112, pages 243-273.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Amarna daemons- Beset?

In the last post I introduced our beaded collars and asked fake or not fake? Well, the individual beads on them are certainly genuine.

But what about this one? We are looking at close up of one of the collars. The black circles are pins holding the beads in place for display in the museum. Have a look at the centre amulet here which is made of blue faience. It shows a figure turned to the right, holding the root of its tail in one hand and with its other hand to its breast. The figure has loose disevelled hair and a human face. It's genuine, but what is it? My predeccessor Kate Bosse-Griffiths believed it to be a New Kingdom, female Bes- A Beset.

But, do such things exist? To be honest I'm still looking and thinking. So this is just what I think so far. For a bit more on Egypt Centre Bes things
click here.

The term 'Bes', of course covers a whole load of different daemons to whom the ancient Egyptians gave lots of names. One of the best known is 'Aha' the fighter. Female Bes's (Besets) seem to have been around in the Middle Kingdom, at least an article by Wegner (2009) has convinced me of that. You also get Besets in the Graeco-Roman Period. However, most Egyptologists don't believe they existed in the New Kingdom, again I'm not so sure. There are loads of male Bes depictions at Amarna.

As a bit of an aside, there is a similar, evil, male daemon in a New Kingdom Book of the Dead (
Ratié 1968, 10-11, pl.13). Sorry I can't show a picture but its copyright. The one in the Book of the Dead is however, clearly a male (it has a beard), but it has the same pose as ours. It seems to be threatening to take the heart (normally Bes protects the heart). But one would hardly wear an amulet of such a threatening being? There are also one or two amulets of male Bes's in this pose, e.g. Fitzwilliam 5995-1943. Maybe these male Bes's in a similar pose are irrelevent.

In support of ours being an actual female, the females, tend to have human faces, and the hair of ours looks more female than male. But are their other examples? So far I haven't found an exact parallel but Brunner-Traut (1979: 31, plate V) shows EGA 4299 an undated ostracon but probably 19th Dynasty, of Bes with breasts. These are not 'manboobs' but proper, female type breasts. Again sorry for lack of pics. Copyright again - the object is in the Fitzwilliam.

So I am undecided. Kate Bosse-Griffiths mentioned two parallels in other collections (one in the Fitzwilliam and one in the Kofler-Truinger collection) but as yet I have been able to obtain decent pictures.

There will be more on this topic!

PS if you are interested in the figures with staffs, either side of 'Beset', there is a little bit on them here.

Since I wrote this a kind person drew my attention to a New Kingdom depiction of Bes with 'Hathor-like' curls on a headrest in Berlin (11625). 

Here is the link:


Bosse-Griffiths, Kate. 1977. “A Beset Amulet from the Amarna Period.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 63: 98-106.

Brunner-Traut, E. 1979. Egyptian Artists' Ketches. Figured Ostraka from the Gayor-Anderson Collection in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Leiden: Nederlands Institut voor het Nabije Oosten.

é, S. 1968. Papyrus of Neferubenef BD (Louvre III, 93). Cairo:Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale.

Wegner, J. 2009. A Decorated Birth Brick from South Abydos. New Evidence on Childbirth and Birth Magic in the Middle Kingdom. In Archaism and Innovation: Studies in the Culture of Middle Kingdom Egypt edited by Silverman, D.P., Simpson, W.K. and Wegner, J., New Haven and Philadelphia, 447-496. You can download this online from: http://academia.edu/894376/A_Decorated_Birth_Brick_from_South_Abydos_New_Evidence_on_Childbirth_and_Birth_Magic_in_the_Middle_Kingdom

Monday, 15 July 2013

Amarna Collars and things

Did you know we have over 200 items from Amarna in the Egypt Centre. If you want the full list just have a look on our searchable catalogue at: http://www.egyptcentre.org.uk/

Generally the most popular with our visitors are the beaded collars (one shown below). Are they, or are they not fakes? They are made up of beads of faience and semi-precious stones.

The 4 collars came on the art market in the 1880s the same time as the royal tombs at Amarna were being robbed. They were purchased by Lady Berens and then later came into the hands of Henry Wellcome, and finally the Egypt Centre.

The beads are very clearly Amarna-ish and certainly genuine, but could the beads have been gathered together and strung by a clever forger? One might say they are too good to be true.

The thread used to string them is hand-spun linen, which, one might think would not have been the obvious choice for a forger working at a time when machined cotton was available. However, the forger may have been wise to the fact that linen would have been used by the ancients.

If the collars were from the royal tombs one might have expected the hawks-head terminals to be present. Egyptian funerary collars generally had hawks-head terminals. They are missing. Though, it is quite possible that the terminals were sold separately.

We could have the thread radio-carbon dated. This might prove the collars to be fake but it could never prove that they were genuine. It is possible that a clever forger used ancient thread.

What do you think?

Whether the collars are genuine or not the beads are certainly interesting. One of them is very possibly a female Bes- a Beset, but did such daemons exist in the New Kingdom? Some Egyptologists do not think so-I’m not sure. Watch out for the next post!

Friday, 12 July 2013

Incense burner, votive model, offering stand?

New object just put on display. It is made from faience and is around 4 cm in height. But what is it?

It is in the shape of a capital from a column. Model stone capitals are usually said to be either sculptors' models or votive offerings. Howver, at Middle Kingdom Kahun, Petrie found model columns in stone and wood in situe with either offerings of bread on them, or in one case a put to burn incense.

Of course this is not Middle Kingdom in date. The style of the plant on the column suggests it is Greek or Roman. The fact that it has an indentation in the top suggests to me that it may well be an incense burner. For more, including parallels, click here.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Mysterious Amarna Woman!!!!

I have been putting this rather tatty looking object on display today. I know other museums have better examples, but it is the only ring bezel belonging to the Amarna female king Nefernefruaten, which I could find in our collection.

A ring bezel is the decorative part of a ring. This object is made from faience (which is a bit like glass). This is one of several ring bezels we have with the name of Amarna kings upon them.

It has one of the several names of the king, more precisely, it shows the name which Egyptologists call the 'prenomen'. Only the nomen and the prenomen were written in cartouches. The prenomen was given to the king when he came to the throne.

So whose name is on this? The name reads as ‘Ankhkheperure-mery-Waenre’, which is the prenomen of Nefernefruaten. It means ‘Living are the forms of Re, who is beloved of the Sole one of Re’ (Ankhkheperure=Living are the Forms of Re; mery= beloved of; Waenre=Sole One of Re).
The identity of this person has long been disputed. That Neferneferuaten was a female king is suggested by the fact that sometimes the name is written to show it is a female form (it isn't here) and sometimes the name has the epithet ‘effective for her husband’. She has been variously identified as Smenkhare, Meritaten and Nefertiti, or even another wife of Akhenaten. The epithet ‘beloved of Waenre’ associated the person with Akhenaten as Akhenaten also had the title 'Waenre'. More recent scholarship suggests that Nefertiti is the most likely contender. Whoever she was, she was perhaps a coregent of Akhenaten and later Tutankhamun. 
The names of kings were written on items such as rings to give kingly protection to the wearer. 
The bezel was donated to the Egypt Centre in the 1970s from the British Museum. So thank you to the British Museum for perhaps a tatty looking but nonetheless interesting, object. Often the least pretty objects are the most intriguing.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Heart Scarabs

All of a sudden it makes sense!!! On the left is a rather grotty Rameside heart scarab. More about it here. But why is it shaped part like an ancient Egyptian depiction of heart, but is associated with scarabs? Why does spell 30B of the Book of the Dead (sometimes written on heart scarabs) make mention of the mother?

Whilst looking for something else entirely I just came across a very interesting article by John Gee all about Heart scarabs (JSSEA 2009).

He believes that spell 30B should start 'Oh my Heart for my balance weight', not as is usually stated 'Oh my Heart from my mother'. He gives a convincing argument, not only based on other instances where mwt means 'balance weight', but also in his explanation of how the term khepri (scarab) is associated with transformations or life stages of the deceased; that actual heart scarabs in the British Museum weigh the same as ancient Egyptian weights and how the weighing of the heart scene is at first connected with spell 30B of the Book of the Dead. He summarises that in the weighing of the heart scene the deeds of the individual in their stages of life whould be equal to Maat. The standards of Maat are laid out in Book of the Dead 125, which is why the weighing of the heart scene is later connected with that spell.

Would be interested what other people think of John Gee's ideas.

More about judgement scenes here.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Guest Post: Unveiling mummies

The Egypt Centre Bandage (EC951)

(Image courtesy of the Egypt Centre, Swansea) 

This is  guest post by Beverley Rogers who has studied the item. Enjoy. Thank you Beverley.

In the downstairs gallery of Swansea’s Egypt Centre, amongst the coffin fragments, mummy masks, intricate bead work and an elaborate decorated mummy of an infant, there is displayed an innocuous piece of bandage mounted onto cardboard. Measuring 18.5 cm in length at its longest part and 9.5 cm in width, it is not the most beautiful or impressive of items that the Egypt Centre has to offer its visitors to look at. But behind this brown, stained piece of linen, there is a story that stands testament to an unusual piece of social history. It is evidence of a fashion undertaken during the Victorian period - one of which today may appear unusual and even abhorrent to our modern ears -where Egyptian mummies were unwrapped before public audiences in a form of macabre entertainment under the guise of scientific endeavour.

The bandage was once part of the Wellcome Collection, a diverse and eclectic mixture of objects brought together by the American businessman, Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), who made his fortune by developing a multinational pharmaceutical company. Wellcome’s collecting originally focused on pieces that illustrated the development of medicine and medical science. Such was his passion for collecting however, that he then branched out to collect all manner of object themes. Egyptian antiquity was just one part of a huge collection, which at its peak is estimated to have contained five times more items than the Louvre. Some of the objects obtained by Wellcome came from his own excavations in Egypt; the majority, however, were acquired from other private collections via auction houses and sales. His appetite for purchasing huge numbers of objects, often in an indiscriminate manner, was legendary amongst the auctions houses. Such was the quantity and ferocity of his collecting, that on his death, many objects lay still boxed in their original auction packing cases, not having been opened from the date of his purchase. When the Wellcome Trustees distributed Wellcome’s vast collection in the 1970s to various museums and institutions, the Egypt Centre took charge of ninety-two boxes of Egyptian antiquities as part of a long-term loan from the Trustees. The bandage formed a tiny part of the loan.

The piece of linen (acquisition number EC951) is displayed in the Egypt Centre’s House of Death and is mounted on a piece of card with an accompanying label stating:

The Palmer Collection
Mummy Cloth
Unwound at Lordship Lane Hall, about the year 1896
Egypt No. 888

The owner of the ‘Palmer Collection’ is at the present time uncertain as no suitable candidate has been identified from the Wellcome archives. In 2005 the Egypt Centre attributed a previous owner of the bandage as being the Reverend William MacGregor (1848-1922) and Wellcome is known to have bought many items from the sale of the MacGregor Collection in 1922 (the Egypt Centre now believes the attribution to be a cataloguing mistake). An extensive search of the MacGregor Catalogue of Egyptian Antiquities produced for the MacGregor Collection’s auction at Sotheby’s, makes no mention however of the bandage in the featured lots. MacGregor’s propensity for recording details of his objects’ provenance, coupled with Sotheby’s diligent recording of these facts obtained through MacGregor’s own records, leads me to believe that the bandage is not from his collection but instead acquired from another unknown sale. Whilst the lack of information regarding its previous ownership remains frustrating, the bandage’s more modern history is still a valuable source of evidence of the strange world of mummy unwrappings which gripped the middle of the nineteenth century in Britain.

The practice of unwrapping a mummy was a phenomenon mostly confined to the 19th century, however the earliest recorded unwrapping can be dated to as early as 1698 where Benoît de Maillet (1656-1738), Louis XIV’s Consul in Cairo, unwrapped a mummy in front of a select group of tourists. Scattered references to mummy unwrappings are mentioned throughout the 18th century, but it was really from the 1830s onwards that the desire to unwrap ancient Egyptian cadavers became popular in conjunction with a ready supply of mummy imports finding their way into Britain. These exotic souvenirs of the extended Grand Tour, which by this time included Egypt in its itinerary, found their way into Victorian parlours, studies and sitting rooms.

Early nineteenth century unwrappings, though somewhat lacking in analytical method, were first conducted in a spirit of scientific enquiry with a minimum of general public involvement. In the 1830s however, the process became more of a public spectacle, fuelled by an event organised by Giovanni Belzoni. Belzoni, a showman turned purveyor of Egyptian antiquities, encouraged members of the public to view the unwrapping of a mummy as part of a London exhibition of Egyptian antiquities, tomb replicas and facsimiles acquired during his time in Egypt. The show, held at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, proved to be enormously popular, attracting many visitors. One member of the audience, a London surgeon by the name of Thomas Pettigrew, became inspired to perform his own public unrollings, which he often accompanied with a lecture. Tickets sold out quickly and distinguished guests, dignitaries and medical professionals would attend the viewings, alongside members of the public who were lucky enough to gain entry. Both Belzoni and Pettigrew had a talent for showmanship and the mummy unwrappings became in essence a ‘performance’ where the mummy was the central passive actor. Whilst there were some attempts at serious study - Pettigrew for example published his findings and wrote some seminal works on the methods of mummification - the unrolling of the mummy from its wrappings was no doubt attended by many people more for the spectacle of the event than from any attempt at serious learning on their part.

As travel to Egypt intensified within the middle of the century, ancient Egypt became even more in vogue. A ready supply of mummies and mummy body parts taken out of Egypt as souvenirs, combined with the increased press coverage of Belzonni and then Pettigrew’s unwrapping events, encouraged members of the public to emulate dissection of the mummies they had acquired within their own homes. Unwrapping a mummy became a popular dinner party activity where guests were invited to a sumptuous meal followed by the unrolling of the ancient ‘guest’. Often the mummy came from the host’s own collection and invitations were such as those issued by Lord Londesborough in 1850, who promised ‘A Mummy from Thebes to be unrolled at half-past Two'.

Toward the latter half of the century, examination of mummies became conducted on a more methodical basis. Egyptology was developing as a discipline and recognition that mummies were a source of important historical information encouraged better recording and care. The thrill of a body being unveiled however was still a heady draw for audiences and these events continued to evoke large crowds albeit the premise of the occasion was now on a more scientific footing. A common element of mummy unwrappings was the giving of pieces of linen and bandage from the mummy as souvenirs to the audience. The mounted bandage at the Egypt Centre is an example of such a memento, which at the time of unwrapping would still retain the faint scent of the unguents and spices used to mummify the body.

The Egypt Centre’s bandage is labelled as coming from an unwrapping held ‘about the year 1896’. The approximation of the date suggests that it was mounted much later after the event, implying that the exact date had been forgotten or was unknown. The label also mentions the unwrapping took place at Lordship Lane Hall but no such hall exists today. It has however been possible to trace the exact date and venue for the unwrapping due to a detailed eyewitness account of the event in The Horniman Free Museum Seventh Annual Report of 1897.

The mummy unwrapping took place on Wednesday 24th February 1897 – a year later than the label suggests -and the venue was St Thomas Moore Hall, which was – and still remains – at 116 Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, London SE22. The Annual Report states that it was conducted by Mr Henry William Mengedoht (1870 – 1939), before an audience consisting of members of the Dulwich Scientific and Literary Association. Mengedoht was an English Orientalist who had studied within the department of Egyptology and Assyriology at the British Museum. On this particular evening Mengedoht gave a lecture culminating in the unwrapping of a female mummy from Memphis, generously donated by Mr Frederick John Horniman, M.P., from his collection of artifacts held at the nearby Horniman Museum. The mummy had been bought that year, together with its coffin, in Cairo where Horniman had paid £21 for them. As part of the evening’s event, Mr Horniman, a trader in tea, collector, public benefactor and a member of the Egypt Exploration Fund’s Committee, had also arranged for a selection of other ancient Egyptian objects from the museum to be on show. The Annual Report provides details of the evening’s activities:

On 24 February 1897, Horniman presided at a lecture, ‘Mummies and their History’, at the Dulwich Scientific and Literary Association. The guest speaker, Professor H.W. Mengedoht, from the British Museum, began by giving a graphic account of the different methods of embalming and explained how such practices had varied at different periods. He illustrated his paper by unrolling, with the help of Quick, a mummy from the Horniman Museum collection. In a scene redolent of the public dissection of corpses in the sixteenth century anatomy theatres.

The body, removed by Mengedoht from a coffin of painted sycamore, was placed on a table before the audience. The lid of the coffin, inscribed with the name Peta-Amen-Neb-Nest-Taiu, was identified as a priestess of Amen-Ra and daughter of an officer of high rank at Thebes. The body was covered in a shroud like garment and secured to the body with diagonal patterned strips of linen. Small in stature, the woman measured approximately five foot in length. After examining the wrapped mummy for signs of inscriptions or amulets and finding none, Mengedoht set about freeing the mummy from her numerous bandages with the assistance of a gentleman called Mr Quick. As he proceeded, he talked to the assembled guests about what he was discovering. Fortunately the bandages came away easily and Mengedoht did not have to resort to a method used on one of his previous unwrappings where he had removed both legs with a chopper.

The bandages were numerous and of different texture, applied with great neatness and precision. The limbs were separately bandaged. On the ends of two of the bandages some hieroglyphical characters were found, bearing reference to the date of the operation, etc…The bandages being removed the body was exposed. The brain had been extracted through the nostrils, and the viscera from the abdomen by an incision in the left side, and returned into the cavity, which was filled with the dust of some bitter wood. The nails on both the hands and feet were perfect, and had been stained with hennah. No scarabaei or other ornaments were found.

Mengedoht’s conclusions from his examination was that the female mummy was between 60 and 70 years of age, that it was from Memphis and it dated from about 1500 B.C. He also told the audience that she was a ‘daughter of an officer of high rank at Thebes (whose mummy is now in the British Museum).’

The exposure of the body caused much excitement and the audience was invited to inspect it. Thanks were offered to Mengedoht ‘for the treat he had offered them that night” and finally “Mr Horniman gave to each of the visitors present a small sample of the mummy cloth, as a souvenir of the occasion. The Egypt Centre bandage was one of these souvenirs. The Horniman Museum also has a small box of mummy linen fragments which also came from this unwrapping.

The mummy’s immediate fate after the unwrapping was to reside, devoid of her bandages, on display at the Horniman Museum within the Egyptian room together with six other mummies. A guide dated 1904 from the Museum indicates that the coffin and mummy were still displayed for several years later. Today the coffin lid is currently on display in the Horniman Museum’s African World’s gallery whilst the coffin and mummy are at its Study Collections Centre (accession numbers 4510a-c). A little part of Peta-Amen-Neb-Nest’s story however found itself travelling to Wales. The small piece of linen stands testament to the fate of a large amount of Egyptian mummies found in the Victorian period. The body of Peta-Amen-Neb-Nest was in fact one of the lucky ones, for many mummies were destroyed upon their unwrapping or found themselves being thrown away as rubbish. The names and personal histories of these unlucky ones will never be remembered. Peta-Amen-Neb-Nes however finds herself immortalized as part of British Victorian history and as an interesting and unusual element in the history of Egyptology.

(Image of the Egyptian mummy coffin belonging to Peta-Amen-Neb-Nest-Taiu from Levell (2000), 256).

About the author
Beverley Rogers is in the final year of her PhD at Swansea University, Wales. She has been researching the Reverend William MacGregor (1848 – 1937) - an Egyptologist and collector of Egyptian antiquity – since 2005. Other areas of her research include the rise of Egyptology in the Victorian period, the collectors and collecting habits of the Victorian period, the history of museum collections and the modern reception of ancient Egypt.


Dawson, W. R. & Uphill, E. (1972). Who was who in Egyptology. London: Egypt Exploration Society.

Forest Hill and Sydenham Examiner (26 February 1897).

Horniman Museum (2010). Ancient Egyptian learning pack. Accessed via http://www.horniman.ac.uk/schools/pdf/lp_ancient_egypt.pdf

Horniman Museum (1904). A Guide to the Collections of the Horniman Museum and Library. London: London County Council.

Ikram, S. & Dodson, A. (1998). The Mummy in Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Montserrat, D. (1998). ‘Unidentified Human Remains: Mummies and the Erotics of Biography” in D. Montserrat, ed., Changing Bodies, Changing Meanings: Studies on the Human Body in Antiquity, pp. 162-212. London: Routledge.

Quick (1898). The Horniman Free Museum Seventh Annual Report 1897 Events of the Year. London: Horniman Museum.

Levell, N. (2000). Oriental Visions: Exhibitions, Travel, and Collecting in the Victorian Age. London: Horniman Musuem and Gardens and the Museu Antropológico da Universidade de Coimbra.

Rogers, B. (2012). Unwrapping the Past: Egyptian Mummies on Show in Popular Exhibitions, Science and Showmanship, 1840-1910 Ed. J. Kember, J. Olunkette and J.A. Sullivan, 199-218.

My thanks to Robert Storrie of the Horniman Museum for providing me with archive information regarding the mummy and coffin. Thank you also to the Egypt Centre for access to the object file and allowing me to take photographs of the object.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Egyptology Scotland

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of talking to Egyptology Scotland at the Burrel about our 21st Dynasty coffin. This meant that not only did I have the opportunity to meet fans of Egyptology from the north but also to see some of the collections in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and in the Burrel. Thank you very much Egyptology Scotland for giving me these opportunities.

The Kelvingrove, has several exciting things on display, and I expect that different people will have different things that they liked. One of my favourites was this harper's scene.

It is on loan from the British Museum (EA55337). The Egypt Centre also has some British Museum items on loan. The Kelvingrove piece and is from the Rameside tomb of Amenemhat (TT163), Mayor of Thebes. It shows a blind harper singing to the deceased, his wife and his parents.

If any one is interested Jan Assmann wrote about this and another section of the tomb (EA 55336). It was published in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 1979, 65, 54-77. If you don't have access to JEA, you can click here for a link (but alas no photos). The song sung by the harper expresses the wish that Amenemhat be transfigured through the auspices of both Re and Osiris, that his ba, ka and limbs are made whole. This is not one of those sensuous harpist songs dealing with the pleasures of this world. Jan Assmann elsewhere describes how harpists songs can be divided into those expressing the pleasures of the living world, often with a regret such pleasures will not continue, and ones like this which deal with the transfiguration of the tomb owner.

Perhaps both the sensual harpist songs and this 'transfiguration type', however, are both trying to achieve the same ends, to make sure the deceased gets to the afterlife.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Collections, Collecting and Gentlemanly Pursuits

Collections and Collecting

Last Tuesday Beverley Rogers came to talk to our research group about William MacGregor. I was struck by the comparison between him and another collector of objects from the Egypt Centre, William Frankland Hood. Both were clergyman, both originally went to Egypt for health reasons (unfortunately poor old Frankland Hood eventually died of tuberculosis), both of course collected and their artefacts were put on public display. Both collections were sold off for money reasons in the 1920s. Interestingly too both sale catalogues of their collections have a forward by Percy Newberry. Of course, one might expect a lot of similarities.  Clergyman were very often antiquarians in Victorian Britain, presumably they had the time and some income, plus it would have been a gentlemanly pursuit showing scholarly interest involving 'scientific' sorting and cataloging. Clergyman, one would assume, would have been interested in the Biblical connections of Egypt too.

But, the Rev. Fitzherbert Fuller who collected our coffin of the lady musician gave away his Egyptian coffin when he became a clergyman.

I know loads has been written on collecting (mainly by Susan Pearce but also others) so I wont go into that here, but I did think it worth drawing attention to the men (and the occasional woman) who so influenced the development of Egyptology through what they collected and how they presented their collections. Their enthusiasms and biases influenced the development of Egyptology. Their work, of course, was soon to be overshadowed by the development of professional archaeology and specialists based in universities.