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Thursday, 2 October 2014

Dressing-up: not just for children

Have you ever wondered how the ancient Egyptian women walked in those tight dresses you see on tomb walls or worn by statues- I have. Well, not only does it appear that tomb paintings are very unlike the actual costumes found, but a well known expert on Egyptian costume has shown that it is likely that the 'tight looking' dresses are actually draped, wrap around garments, a bit like saris. The Egypt Centre has expanded it's dressing-up activities to explain Egyptian costume to adults, and this new activity will be launched for the Welsh Museums Festival next week.

The statuette of this couple in the Egypt Centre (left) shows a man and a woman (more information here). It would appear that she is wearing a straight dress, closely fitted to the body.

To the right you can see some actual ancient Egyptian clothing on display in the National Museum of Denmark. Note how baggy it is.

A mystery? However, Egyptologist Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood has looked at folded cloth found in Egyptian tombs, and particularly at the wear and sweat patterns on them! From this she suggests that the folded cloths were actually garments worn by men as well as women.

If you visit the Egypt Centre you can have a go trying on linen cloths and draping to make the garments we see the ancient Egyptians wearing. There are pictures to help you and of course our wonderful volunteers are there to assist.

This new activity for adults was made possible through a grant from the Federation of Museums and Art Galleries in Wales.

We should also say that we have lots of other hands-on activities for both children and adults, and further information on Egyptian costumes.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Pottery Stool from Amarna W345

We had this object out for our last volunteer handling session and I thought it needed more press, hence a quick note on this blog. First some photographs:

A view from a short side

A view from the most complete long side
A view from the top

It's made of pottery and measures 23x18x13cm. It's decorated with blue red and brown paint which pick out details. The feet of the stool, as can just about be made out in the middle photo look as though they may have been painted in imitation of lotus flowers (I haven't found any parallels on wooden furniture).

It has the excavation number written on it: 'TA 30/31 TA 36.61. This correlates in the Frankfort and Pendlebury 1933 volume ( The City of Akhenaten Part II. The North Suburb and The Desert Altars. ) p 48 with a house in the North Suburb which had a 'master's bedroom'.

I would be glad to here of any parallels. Oh yes, and it seems to be an imitation of a wooden stool of this sort of type. Apologies for this last pic- I'm no artist, but you get the idea!

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Eye of an Artist

This portrait has been on display in the Egypt Centre since it opened in 1997, apart from a little trip which it did to Madrid in 2011. Such items are commonly known as Fayum portraits, from the area in Egypt in which they are found. We knew ours was damaged. If you look you can see a crack down the middle where the parts don't actually meet properly. It looks damaged as though a piece has been added in.  However, yesterday an artist (Donna Wilshere) visited the Centre and pointed out something we hadn't considered before. The portrait is actually two halves of different portraits put together to make one. That is, these are portraits of two separate individuals, presumably made up to look like one in Victorian times.

The portrait/s date/s from the Roman Period in Egypt and probably from the 1st to 3rd centuries AD. Such portraits are usually found in the area of Lower Egypt settled by Greeks and then Romans, largely the Fayum. This example comes from Hawara. The sitters were usually descendants of immigrants from Greece who had settled in Egypt. Such people had come to Egypt in search of employment after the invasion of Alexander the Great (332-323 BC). It may be that during the lifetime of the sitter, such paintings were displayed in the house. After death they were put in mummy wrappings.

Donna Wilshere noticed that actually we have here two separate people:

The left looks like the face of a woman with slightly pointed jaw. The right looks more like a more rounded face. The hairline, earring, jaw and even the paint shading do not match. Obvious isn't it! But we didn't realise this.

Further Reading

Borg, B.E. 2010. Painted Funerary Portraits. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology.

Walker, S. and M Bierbrier 1997. Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt. British Museum Press.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Animal mummies, Jasmine Day, Alex the Cat, and our poor croc.

I've been photographing our croc in the Egypt Centre, in readiness for the visit of renowned Egyptologist and anthropologist Jasmine Day will be visiting the Egypt Centre. Our lucky volunteers will receive a free talk from her. Jasmine is the author of the book The Mummy's Curse: Mummymania in the English speaking Word (Routlege 2006). She has lectured and published internationally..

Jasmine has also long been a supporter of the Centre, so we will be delighted to see her again. She made several of the replica animal mummies which we sell in the shop, and, has made Alex the Cat. 

Who is Alex the Cat?. Here he is on the left. We use Alex who is a replica of a mummified cat we have in the collection. Click here to see the original. He is used to explain to children preventative conservation and safe handling
of objects in museums.

Anyway, on Friday, Jasmine is giving us a talk and here is the title and abstract: The Time Machine: The Coffin in Ancient Egypt - The changing face of Egyptian society and funerary fashions can be traced through centuries of development in the design of coffins, sarcophagi and cartonnage mummy casings. Ever conscious of their own history, the Egyptians periodically revived coffin styles dating back to eras well beyond living memory. Like time machines, coffins were intended to magically and physically protect and carry their occupants through eternity – and have indeed transported them into our own time. This is free for our volunteers but we have one or two spaces for non-volunteers for which we will charge £2.

We are feeling excited.

You may be wondering why I've been photographing the croc.  Well, Alex has been so successful that we are also going to do a croc version. Jasmine is going to copy him.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The power of the ugly?

Throughout history and in various cultures ugly beings have often been thought protective. Think of the gargoyles on churches, or even Bes of ancient Egypt. We have two objects we have in the Egypt Centre traditionally called 'grotesques', indeed an old label on one of the items actually says 'grotesque'.  While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I don't think that they could really be considered ugly. They may not represent standard youthful beauty but a furrowed head and flat nose cannot be considered 'grotesque'. But why the Graeco-Roman fascination with these images?

The one above is GR104 which was donated to us by the British Museum in the 1970s. The forehead is furrowed and the nose flat. The eyes appear to be closed. The arms are possibly drawn up under the chin suggesting a squatting figure.

This one is EC1290. You can see it has a furrowed brow.

There are parts of moulded terracotta figurines. Very often museums only have the heads. We are not sure if ours are from Greece or Egypt as they are known throughout the Hellenistic world. Egyptian manufacturing sites include Alexandria and Memphis. Egyptian examples tend to be solid and hand-made and ones made in Greece are hollow and mould-made, though this is not a hard and fast rule. It seems that GR1-04 is thus more likely to have been made in Greece and EC1290 in Egypt. 

Objects such as these begin in the Ptolemaic Period though continued with Roman control. The visual arts of the Period show a fascination with people exhibiting physical deformities (Muratov 2012, 56 with references) and non-'standard' forms, and these are rightly or wrongly categorized as one group.  They are found in temples and tombs, though some are also found on domestic sites. They are usually depictions of males and have exaggerated features, sometimes of deformities. 

Petrie suggested that these may be foreigners though this idea has been discounted (Ashton 2003). It has been suggested that they are influenced by theatrical masks of the period. There use is unclear though it seems that at lease some were votives.

 It has long been suggested that such images were considered apotropaic in the ancient world (e.g. Harrison 1903; Wace 1903/4 but also see Muratov 2012, 59 footnote 19 for other references). This has also been suggested for brazier fragments with heads of satyrs, which seem to be related through connection with theatre masks (the Egypt Centre has two examples of these EC1301 and EC1302). This would explain why many are phallic (considered apotropaic) and produced in large quantities, and also why they are placed in temples and tombs. It may be that such heads in Egypt are in the tradition of apotropaic figures such as Bes and satyrs. Or of course, it may be that they represent famous actors of the time who would be depicted with exaggerated, caricatured masks.

Further reading

Ashton, S-A. 2003. Foreigners at Memphis? Petrie's Racial Types. In Tait, J. (ed.) 'Never Had the Like Occurred': Egypt's View of Its Past, London: UCL Press.187-196..

Dunand, F. 1990. Catalogue des terres cuites Gréco-Romanines d'Egypte. Paris: Ministere de la culture, de la communication et des grands travaux, Reunion des musees nationaux.

Harrison, J.E. 1903. The Ker as Gorgon, Prolegoma to the Study of Greek Religion.

Muratov, M. 2012. “The world’s a stage….”: Some observations on Four Hellenistic Terracotta Figurines of Popular Entertainers. The International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 2.9, 55-65.

Török, L. 1995. Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas from Egypt, especially pp 143-168 for ‘Genre, theatre and grotesquerie’

Wace, A.J.B. (1903/1904). Grotesques and the Evil Eye. The Annual of the British School at Athens, 10, pp. 103-114.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Guest Post by Beverley Rogers: Peering Beneath the Layers

Peering beneath the Layers
The day we took ‘Rover’ for a walk

by Beverley Rogers

As Carolyn, Wendy and myself walked into the Faraday Building on the morning of 30 April, the students and staff, noticing that Carolyn carrying a big box in her arms, kindly opened the doors to allow us to pass.  They had absolutely no idea what we were carefully guarding as we carried on through to the Engineering Department in time for our appointment with Dr. Richard Johnston.   They may have been more than a little surprised had they known- for inside the rectangular box, delicately protected in tissue, was ‘Rover’ the Egypt Centre’s mummified dog (EC438).

The three of us had come to meet with Richard to discuss the results of an exciting collaboration which has risen between The Egypt Centre and two of the colleges from Swansea University.  The Institute of Life Science and the Engineering Department, together with the Egypt Centre, are helping to bring Egyptian antiquities ‘back to life’ by allowing mummified remains to be unwrapped without evasive procedures.  As part of this project, we had brought ‘Rover’ along to see if he was a suitable candidate. 

Richard, Senior Lecturer in Material Science in the College of Engineering, greeted us in his laboratory, which houses an impressive x-ray machine and a 3D scanner.  Digital imaging is key to this collaboration, for several of the mummified objects held in the Egypt Centre’s collection have undergone 2D, 3D scans and CAT scans over the last few months to determine what is inside their mummified wrappings.  The results have been truly astonishing. 

It should be said that it is not the first time that Richard has worked on projects with a historical theme. Richard has worked with the Mary Rose Trust, where human remains from the Mary Rose have been x-rayed.  He has also previously assisted Egyptology at Swansea by working with Dr. Kasia Szpakowska in her research on clay cobra figurines and their ritual breakages, by analyzing the experimental fractures of modern made objects.  The idea to apply digital technology to objects from the Egypt Centre came to him last year.  “It is very rare to have such an important resource on campus” Richard told us.  ‘We wanted to take advantage of that”.  After pitching his idea to curators Carolyn and Wendy, a selection of mummified animals were chosen for the first scans.  Both Carolyn and Wendy had warned Richard that often a ‘cat mummy’ or ‘bird mummy’ may in fact turn out to be something completely different – a bag of dislocated bones perhaps, or twigs and debris wrapped up to resemble the supposed animal.  The results when they came through however were more than could have been hoped for.

2D Imaging

Four objects have undergone 2D imaging so far –  two cat’s heads,  a bird mummy and a further body of a cat.  Results show that the scan of one of the cat heads seems to be no more than a bag of bones, however the bandages with its layers and fibers have come up so well that the individual strands of the weave can be seen.  This in itself is exciting!  The second cat head is an actual skull and clear cracks can be seen indicating damage. The bird mummy was revealed to have a perfectly intact skeleton and the imaging is so detailed that it could easily be identified as to what type of bird it is by the right kind of specialist.

Richard showing us the cat’s head before digital ‘unwrapping’

Scans of the cat’s head from different perspectives

Scans of the other cat -  originally from the Aberystwyth collection – literally blew the three of us away.  It is perfect in its detail and, the ability to rotate the image on the screen, allowed viewing to be seen from all angles and the high resolution of the scanning showed remarkable clarity.  The cat’s ears are situated above its head and are shown separated from it.  You can also see that there has been a lot of damage to the skull in the region of the right eye socket.  The cat also seems to have a full set of teeth which suggests that it was not old when it died.  These scans are so clear that further research could be undertaken to look at age of cat and type of cat by a feline specialist.  The manner of death could also be a source of further investigation.

Aberystwyth cat mummy showing dislocation of ears

Close up of the Aberystwyth cat showing Damage to skull by the right eye socket

Amazing detail of the teeth of the cat mummy
All images are to be given to the Egypt Centre for their future display within the galleries and outside foyer.  A huge thanks must be given to Jack Christie – 3rd year graduate student in the College of Engineering- for the use of his research images.

3D Imaging

3D imaging, is I must admit, completely new to me.  Richard’s lab is kitted out with both a 3D scanner and printer, and I was keen to learn how it works.  I will attempt to explain in layperson’s terms.  Once an object is scanned, a 3D model of the object is printed using plastic.  The raw material, which is fed into the printer from above, looks exactly like strimmer cord, which you see used in garden mowers.  It is relatively inexpensive and lightweight to use and produces very realistic and intricate detail.  An example shown to us that day was a model of the Eiffel tower (see below), created recently by Richard’s team.  It was made up of the most exquisitely complex struts and layers.

Wendy and Carolyn with 3D scanner in background.

Richard demonstrating the 3D scanner

Richard shows us the plastic cord used to create 3D models

3D model of the Eiffel Tower

The ways in which this type of printing can be used is becoming more and more numerous and this type of printing will certainly become more popular as time goes on.  One use that has recently hit the headlines at the time of writing this article is in the production of casts for limb breakages.  The design allows ultrasonic treatment to be transmitted through the cast and  can be hooked up to an ultrasound machine that promises to reduce the time it takes for a broken bone to mend. The cast is lighter, better for the environment and more comfortable than bulky plaster ones.

3D Plastercast

In terms of how this technique can be used in Egyptology research, well Richard was able to show us a first hand example.  Some months ago, the Egypt Centre had agreed to lend artifact number EC308 – labeled in the archive records as a mummified snake – to the College of Engineering to see if there was an animal within the bundle of linen.  When scanned, and a 3D model of the contents produced, it did indeed reveal that there was a complete snake within the bandages.  The 3D model took 10 hours to print due to the complexity of its shape; the mass of ribs on the snake meant that the scanner had to print a scaffolding structure to support the printed object so it can build up the shape (the scanner cannot print in mid-air but instead has to be supported by a structure.  An example of the supports can be seen below).   It can be a real nightmare to remove the supports, hence the 10 hours taken to complete the model.  On the plus side however, what was then left was an accurate representation of the ancient snake without there being any harm done to the linen in any way.  Richard also showed us high resolution images of the snake on screen.  This allowed us to travel virtually through the snake, from its head to its tail.  It was a strange experience but one that was mesmerising.  There appears from the scans to be some anomalies in the snake, specifically a number of strange protusions coming off the body – to the untrained eye they were almost like thin pipe-cleaners! Part of the jaw and head are also missing. 

The snake has featured recently on the BBC One programme ‘Rhys to the Rescue,’ presented by Dr Rhys Jones, a wildlife adventurer and Cardiff University lecturer.  Both he and Richard Johnston examined the scans and Rhys identified the snake as a young cobra.  Two objects were noted as being lodged in the mouth but identification is difficult.  The objects appear dense in matter and Carolyn has suggested that it may have been food placed in mouth.  
The copy of the video is to be given to the Egypt Centre for showing on the display screen in the foyer and research is continuing: Carolyn is going to send the images to animal mummy specialist Salima Ikran to analyse further.  For those of you that are interested in seeing the snake model, it is now displayed in the Egypt Centre next to actual mummified snake on display in the House of Life.

Bundle containing a mummified snake

3D printer with model of Egypt centre snake in front of it.  Inside the 3D printer, can be seen 3 curved arches, which were the scaffolding left over from a previous print.

3D scan of the snake

The collaboration with the Institute of Life Science (ILS) has also been the inspiration of Richard who put the Egypt Centre in touch with their CT scanning department.  They have the capacity to carry out scans of some of the larger objects in two dimensional data.  ILS have recently CT scanned the mummy of a baby which is enclosed within its cartonnage cover.   This object has been the subject of much speculation over the years, most notably because the hieroglyphs on the front of the cartonnage are confusing and unreadable.  It has often been speculated that that the mummy may in fact have been a fake so when the Egypt Centre were given the opportunity to put this mystery to bed, they seized upon it.  It wasn’t just the Egypt Centre staff who were excited at learning the truth however - the mummy scan created a lot of interest in the medical department as well; all the department staff were eager to take a look at their new ‘patient’. 

The results came back within 3 hours and confirmed that the cartonnage contains a foetus estimated to be at around 12-14 weeks old.  Remarkably, the shape of a head can be seen.  There could also be identified a possible fringe or string of beads contained within the wrapping (a similar example has been found in the British Museum where a baby mummy has been shown to have a string of beads wrapped with it).  The scan may also show an amulet within the wrappings but the angle is difficult to positively confirm.   The images of the CT scan are also going to be given to the Egypt Centre for display with the object.  News surrounding this discovery has been phenomenal.  Publications announcing the results of the research have included The Telegraph, Live Science, Discovery and the South Wales Evening Post.  It even appeared on the news in Canada!

The cartonnage coffin of the baby foetus

The scanning of the Egypt Centre mummified remains is a wonderful example of inter-disciplinary collaboration and it seems that the marriage of Egyptology and scanning techniques is growing even more in popularity.  Some museums are going down the laser scanning route, such as the Smithsonian, who are undertaking a huge project to scan the millions of artifacts in their collection.  This technique allows for the objects to be spun around on a digital database where all angles of the piece can be viewed at the click of a button.  The Smithsonian are going to make this data available on-line so that anyone around the world can use it to obtain scan data and be able to print images for their research.  Laser scanning, which was also used for the Mary Rose project mentioned above, shows a great deal of detail and allows for colour to be incorporated into the scan.  It does have its limitations however as a lot less information is captured from using surface scanning.  The British Museum have also used both x-rays and laser scanning for mummified objects, again with the potential for people to observe these digitally.  Museums are also creating displays with which to showcase the work undertaken via imagery.  Sweden has produced digital autopsy tables, which allow specimens to be ‘unwrapped’ by computer rather than be hand, so allowing for a great density of mummy and unwrappings to be exposed, layer by layer.  It is great interactive technology but at the moment it is very expensive. 

Will this create problems for future museums in that people will not have to go to or want to see the original if they can get scans online?  The general belief from our animated discussion that morning was that this wouldn’t be the case.  It was felt that people would still want to see the original rather than a replica, as there was something magical about observing originality (a bit about that from the curator's view here). The museum also creates an environment that adds to the visitor experience, which cannot be replicated in database access.  

What to the future?  Well, further objects will be identified as suitable for scanning either in 2D or 3D.  ‘Rover’, the mummified dog, was a little too big to scan in Richard’s lab that day so he will shortly be off to ILS to undergo scanning and we wait to see what lies beneath the wrappings.  There are also endless possibilities to which digital imaging technology could help Egyptology research.  For example, when objects are drawn, there can be many different interpretations of them – the 3D printing technique would produce an accurate copy without the problem of human interpretation.  Or imagine a situation where 3D scanning can allow students and visitors to ‘peer’ beneath outer wrappings of objects without causing damage and these models being used as a handling resource.  Think of the researchers who are undertaking work on specific objects – what if they could have their very own copy of the artifact with which they could then transport around with them?  The 3D technology could be used to make mounts for objects; it would avoid damaging the real object when trying to sculpt a base to achieve a close fit.  Or how about being used to make copies of original amulet moulds and the replicas then being used to make amulets in the same format as they would have done thousands of years ago?   Exciting isn’t it?  We certainly came away thinking so!

‘Rover’ the mummified dog

Carolyn, Wendy and Richard discussing scans

Images courtesy of Wendy Goodridge and Beverley Rogers.  Scanning images are reproduced with kind permission of the College of Engineering and remain the intellectual property of the same.


Thursday, 1 May 2014

A Mummified Baby?

Addendum: since this article was written a slightly older foetus has been found at the Fitzwilliam, Cambridge, What both show is that we should not rely on X-rays but rather CT scans for such tiny mummies. I wonder how many more are extant in museums.

W1013 (left) is part of the Wellcome collection at Swansea University’s Egypt Centre. It came to Swansea in 1971. Unfortunately we do no not know from where Henry Wellcome obtained it. It measures 52 cm long and is carefully, though not over elaborately, painted. The style fits with what might be expected of a 26th Dynasty (c.600BC) mummy. However, the inscriptions on the front and back are meaningless. Could this suggest that this means that the artefact is a fake?

In fact, it is not unusual for sham hieroglyphs to be placed on coffins. For example, several of the Twenty-first Dynasty intrusive coffins (c. 900BC) found in the Nineteenth Dynasty tomb of Iurudef at Saqqara, the Memphite necropolis, are also inscribed with mock hieroglyphs (Martin 1992: 144-145). Petrie (1893: 124-5) discusses sham inscriptions of 22 to 25th Dynasty on coffins at Lahun and suggests they were due to maker not being literate. Evidently it was important to put hieroglyphic signs upon coffins, perhaps as a magical aid to the afterlife.

W1013 is the size of a very small child and is a case made of cartonnage (layers of linen stiffened with plaster or glue). The cartonnage case would have been made by forming the wet cartonnage around a disposable core (possibly clay and straw).  A hole could be cut in the back and under the feet in order to removed the core and place the mummy therein. Once the cartonnage was dry and stiff the piece could be covered with another thin layer of plaster and painted. On some cartonnage cases of this date you can see where the case was laced up. EC1064b, for example shows lacing holes.

The mummy is shown wearing a heavy, yellow and blue striped wig and a wide collar. Striped wigs are most common on male coffins, but are not uncommon on those of women (Taylor 1984: 51). The face is painted reddish-brown, a colour usually associated with men in ancient Egypt.  The body is decorated with a criss-cross pattern of rhombus shapes perhaps imitating the bead net placed over some other mummies. It has also been suggested that this pattern is reminiscent of feathers, or even the stars of the night sky. The pattern can be seen on several mummy related artefacts in the Egypt Centre, for example: EC232 (a Sokar hawk); W2001 (a Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure); Osiris himself is can be seen wearing a rhomboid patterned garment on W1042 (a pink Roman Period coffin) and some of our Soter-type shroud fragments of the Roman Period.

But the question remains, is there a child in this mummy case? In 1998 Singleton hospital kindly agreed to X-ray the cartonnage case but the results were inconclusive. Then on 28th April Swansea Univerity’s Paola Griffiths of Clinical Imaging College of Medicine kindly CT scanned the artefacts. This showed most of the interior was taken by folded of a material, presumably linen bandages and within that an area is a darker area about 10cm long which appears to be a foetus (in foetal position and with placental sac) and what could be a femur. The length of the femur together with the size of the dark patch is consistent with that of a 12-16 week old foetus. Another dark patch suggests and amulet and there are several areas with dark circles resembling strings of beads or tassels. It is not unusual for strings of beads to be placed loose in mummy wrappings of this date. For example, the British Museum mummy EA6676.

Here are the scans:

In contrast to the usual practice in the west today, it seems that the foetus could often be treated with care in ancient Egypt. Two coffins holding the foetuses were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. In New Kingdom (c.1550-1070BC) Deir el-Medina, a part of the Eastern cemetery seems to have been set aside for child burials but also foetuses and even placentas in bloody cloths (Bruyère 1937; Anthes 1943). The placenta was believed to represent the twin of the self (Pinch 1994:130) and so was disposed of with care too.

It is sometimes claimed that because there were so many deaths of young children, as well as miscarriages, in the ancient world, that the ancients became ‘hardened’ to such tragedies. However, it is clear from the fact that foetuses and infants were buried with care, that such losses were not treated casually. We can imagine that the probable foetus within W1013 represents someone’s terrible loss; an occasion of great grief and public mourning.

A little bit more on the mummy here.

Adams, C.V.A. `The manufacture of ancient Egyptian cartonnage cases', Smithsonian Journal of History, vol. 1, no. 3 (Autumn 1966), 55-66.

Anthes, R. 1943. Die Deutschen Grabungen auf der Westseite von Theben in den Jahren 1911-1913. Mitteilungen des Deutschen Instituts für Ägyptiwschen Altertumskunde in Kairo 12 (1): 1-72.

Bruyère, B. 1937. Rapport sur les Fouilles de Deir el Médineh (1934-1935), Deuxième Partie FIFAO 15. Cairo: Imprimerie de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale.

Martin, G.T. The Hidden Tombs of Memphis: New Discoveries from the Time of Tutankhamun and Ramesses the Great. London: Thames and Hudson. 

Petrie, W.M.F. 1893, Ten Years Digging in Egypt 1881-1893. London: The Religious Tract Society.

Pinch, G. 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Trust.

Taylor, J. 1984 ‘A Priestly Family of the 25th Dynasty’, Chronique de Égypte, 59: 27-57

Friday, 11 April 2014

Something I don’t know much about: Predynastic Pottery

Egypt Centre’s volunteer documentation assistants have just started audit checking a group of material from Armant. I have briefly blogged about it here, but I didn't explain how beautiful some of the pieces really are. Before I tell you about the Armant stuff, and particularly the pottery, a quick thank you to the volunteer documentation assistants, Richard, Olivia, Charlotte, Jessica and Lisa. They have been checking that the items in our store match the computer records, making sure they are photographed and not falling apart and adding information to the database!  While carrying out this they are learning a bit about museum documentation and are becoming adept at using the Modes Complete database. While most are Egyptology students, one is not.

Back to the Armant stuff. The pieces are all from the excavations cemeteries and settlement sites 1600-1900 which haven’t been published. We have possibly the most northern ‘Nubian’ A-group pottery in Egypt here in Swansea. The Armant material is largely Badarian (c.5500-4000 BC), A-group (c.3500-3000 BC) and includes the mysterious Saharan sherds. Some of the Badarian pieces are particularly amazing to look at. Granted, as this is real excavated and very old material, most of the pieces are fragmentary, but they are just soooooo fine.

The piece above (AR50/3257) is on display. It is Badarian black-topped polished brown ware, a precursor to the later Naqada black-topped red ware. The walls are finer than those of the later stuff. The thickness of the walls is all the more amazing as the piece, like of its date, is coil made. That is a long snake-shape is made (a coil) which is then twisted into a pot shape and smoothed down. The piece shines slightly as it has been polished by rubbing with a smooth stone. Egyptologists argue about how the black top was achieved but it was generally thought that it was placed upside down in the kiln, into the smouldering ashes. The piece in this photograph has been mended in antiquity showing that it must have been considered important to the Egyptians.

And here is a piece (503243) from Armant which has been decorated by impressing with a pointed instrument and then the holes filled with a white pigment. It was categorised by the excavators as A-group, though I am aware that some later Nubian pottery (C-group, 2300-1500 BC) as well as Petrie’s N-ware, also has this white pigment decoration. This, and other pieces have a dark brown, reddish fabric, which is like Petrie’s N-ware. N-ware, is generally believed to derive from Nubia. Unfortunately, I am not an expert on this so, if anyone has any thoughts I would be glad to hear. Whether, A, or C-group, this type of decoration is strongly reminiscent of Nubian wares. The other items found with the same grave context are largely fragments of finely made stone vessels, which would suggest, if Egyptian, an Early Dynastic date. There’s a good discussion on Petrie’s N-ware, with references, in Jane Roy’s, 2011. The Politics of Trade: Egypt and Lower Nubia in the 4th Millennium BC, 259-262.

If you want to know more about adult volunteering at the Egypt Centre click here.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Ammut- not such a bad girl?

Poor old Ammut, the Devourer, gets such a terrible press normally. She eats the hearts of the deceased who are bad people so that they don't get to go to 'heaven'. But was she really all bad?

You can see her on the steps of the throne of Osiris here (the b/w image is easier to make out). She has the head of a crocodile, the hind part of a hippopotamus and the middle part of a lion. Her teats show she is female. She also wears a modius, like Egyptian royal women. These picture are taken from out 21st Dynasty coffin (you can find out more about it here). She is waiting for the judgement from Osiris, does she get a nice tasty heart, or not?

However, there seems to have been more to her than simply a blood-crazed glutton of hearts. Strangely, perhaps, one of the beds in the tomb of Tutankhamun is in the shape of Ammut and he is called 'Beloved of Ammut'. Such beds in tombs would have been associated with resurrection.

Additionally, she often appears on 21st Dynasty coffins in scenes of Osiris' triumph over death, a scene that could also be said to be associated with resurrection.

Here she is on our coffin in the mound scene, where Osiris sits atop, reborn. Can you see her, front paws on steps? She is in the Amduat, the otherworld.

It seems however, that for the Egyptians, the destruction of enemies was necessary for rebirth, so Ammut is not so bad after all.

In some ways (her hippo links) she seems similar to Taweret, normally thought of as a good girl, but sometimes not so good (there is another tale there).

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Science, Technology and Innovation

This week is science and engineering week (we have plans to celebrate at the Centre) and I have just been reading Ian Shaw’s Ancient Egyptian Technology and Innovation (Bloomsbury 2012) and thinking about how it fits with what I know about Egyptian lithic (i.e. flint) technology.

So, after a long time of know blogging, a few thoughts on Egyptian technology and of course their lithics! The Egyptians used flint tools much later than others in the region. Tillmann (1999) drew up a comparative table of flint use for Egypt and adjoining regions. The detail could be debated. For example, Tillmann stated that flint working ceased in Greece c. 1500 B.C. However, a study by Runnels (1982) showed that obsidian and chert was used until the 10th and 9th centuries BC. Obsidian was used until 400-300 BC. Part of the difficulty lies in differentiating between a lithic and metal using society when there is a continuum, not dichotomy. For example, threshing flints were known in the Levant until the 20th century. Yet, this society would not be considered ‘stone-age’. However, Tillmann’s general conclusion that flint was used in Egypt until a surprisingly late date is correct, in fact it was commonly used into the New Kingdom. 

Does this mean that in some ways they were backward? I would say ‘no’. Flint is sharper than metal, it is lighter (so arrows tipped with it will go further) and is ubiquitous in Egypt as far south as Thebes. Even the fact that it breaks easy may be seen as an advantage. A flint-tipped projectile point breaking in a body is more likely to kill than something which can be pulled cleanly out. The serrated quality of bifacial tools further enhances cutting and their irregular surface might additionally encourage hemorrhaging. Modern hunters sometimes draw a file across metal arrowheads to produce the same effect. One might almost say it is such a great material why did anyone ever use metal? I would guess because metal was pretty, great for making sparkly things.

It’s sometimes said that the Egyptians used flint for a long time because it was bound up with their ideology. To summarize, flint was associated with meteoric iron, it was described in ophidian terms (like the uraeus), it is associated with Seth and Thoth, the fiery daughters of Re, with doorkeepers of the underworld and the northern sky, it is a perfect celestial weapon against the enemies of Re. All this ideological stuff continued into the Ptolemaic Period. Maybe because flint was ideologically important, it was used for a long time. May be, or may be it was used because it was so good (I have even wondered if flint went out of use in graves because arsenical copper was shinier than it, and shininess was an important ideological facet - See Graves-Brown 2013).

If the former, does this make the Egyptians strangely illogical; in thrall to religion? Again no! It has been shown time and time again that people will rarely take up new ideas unless it fits with their own ideologies. Even in the history of weaponry, which one might think was purely logical, development has been guided by ideology, including such unlikely or seemingly illogical areas as aesthetics (van Creveld 1989, 75-76). 

Runnels, Curtis. “Flaked stone artefacts in Greece during the Historical Period.” Journal
of Field Archaeology 9 (1982): 263-273.

Tillmann, Andreas. “Dynastic stone tools.” In Encyclopedia of the archaeology of ancient Egypt, edited by K.A. Bard, 262-265, London: Routledge, 1999.

 Van Creveld, Martin. Technology and war from 2000BC to the present. New York: The Free Press, 1989.