Monday, 20 May 2019

What is so “Egg-citing” about Ostrich Egg Fragments?

The blog post for this week is an entry by Sam Powell, an MA student and Egypt Centre volunteer.

One of my assignments as part of my MA at Swansea University was to research an object from the Egypt Centre. Throughout my degree, the hands-on experience at the museum has been very valuable, and so I’m always excited when we get to do object-based learning. For the Beyond Mummies: Mortuary Data in Ancient Egypt module, I have been researching various aspects of the Predynastic burials at Armant. Fortunately for me, the Egypt Centre has a lot of objects excavated at this site. After searching the catalogue, I was intrigued to find some fragments of ostrich eggshell (AR50/3444) which are not on display. They were excavated by Robert Mond (1867–1938) and Oliver Humphrys Myers (1903–1966) in the 1930s, under the auspices of the Egypt Exploration Society, and are known to come from grave 1606. Of note, the original photograph of the fragments in the excavation report shows fifteen fragments (fig. 1), whereas only thirteen fragments remain (see fig. 2). On examination of the object register in the same report, only thirteen pieces are listed indicating that the two additional fragments must have been lost between being photographed and being recorded.

Fig. 1: Ostrich shell fragments, as shown in Plate I.13 of unpublished excavation notes
(the two missing fragments are circled).

The fragments are of varying sizes, ranging from 40mm by 32mm to 10mm by 5mm. They seem to be of a fairly uniform thickness and colouration, suggesting they came from the same egg. The surface area amounts to approximately 360mm2, which would only account for a very small proportion of an entire egg. At Armant, the published material notes only one eggshell fragment from grave 1417. The only mention of the fragment frustratingly states that the “fragment of an ostrich eggshell require(s) no comment” (Mond & Myers 1937, 135). The unpublished material from the cemetery yields ostrich eggshell in graves 1631—along with an ostrich eggshell bead also in the Egypt Centre’s collection (AR50/3451)—and 1666, along with our fragments from 1606.

Fig. 2: AR50/3444

Ostrich eggs, even in fragmentary form, are rare in Upper Egyptian graves. Muir and Friedman (2011) located only four known examples; Naqada Tomb 1480 (in which the fragmentary egg had been used as a replacement for the missing head of the deceased!), Naqada T4, Naqada 108, and from Abadiya B262. Ostriches are known to have lived in ancient Egypt since Predynastic times, as evident from rock art. Physical remains of the ostrich itself are rare in the archaeological record (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Ostriches are no longer native to Egypt

The purpose of eggshell in a funerary context, however, is unclear. Shell fragments were made into jewellery, such bracelets and beads, and so the fragments may have been included in the burial as unworked material. It is also possible that the eggs may represent food provisions for the deceased, although in later offering lists eggs do not appear as a foodstuff. The shells may have functioned as cups or bowls, yet examples rarely occur from settlements, Additionally, given the fragile nature of shell as opposed to more durable pottery alternatives, it wouldn’t have been very practical in a daily domestic context.

What I find particularly interesting is the idea that ostrich shell may have had some symbolic and/or ritual function, connecting to rebirth and regeneration (Muir & Friedman 2011). Graves 1417 and 1631 at Armant are both identified as containing the remains of a child. Unfortunately, the occupants of the other two graves (including 1606) are unknown. Although this is only a small sample of burials, it is not impossible to imagine the egg as a symbol of rebirth, and as part of a ritual custom with close connotations to childhood (Nordström 1972). These unworked fragments, whilst not amounting to enough to constitute an entire egg (fig. 4), may have been considered enough to represent a complete egg ideologically (Muir & Friedman 2011).

Fig. 4: Size comparison between ostrich and hen’s eggs

AR50/344 at first glance is seemingly unimportant; overlooked by the excavators, and not on display, and yet it can yield a surprising amount of information with a little research. The inclusion of these fragments of ostrich eggshell in Armant grave 1606 may reflect the hope for rebirth in the afterlife, and feels particularly poignant if the association with child burials is correct.

Volunteers and regular visitors may have noticed the new display panels being installed in some of the cases recently, including the Predynastic case in the House of Life (fig. 5). I would love to see these fragments added to the case; if you agree, please let the Egypt Centre staff know in the comments!

Fig. 5: The new interpretation panel in the Predynastic case

Adams, B. (1988) Predynastic Egypt. Shire Egyptology 7. Princess Risborough: Shire.
Bard, K. (1988) ‘A Quantitative Analysis of the Predynastic Burials in Armant Cemetery 1400–1500’. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 74: 39–55.
Ezz El-Din, D. 2010. ‘Ostrich Eggs of Predynastic Egypt’. Journal of General Union of Arab Archaeologists 11: 40–56.
Houlihan, P. F. and S. M. Goodman (1986). The Birds of Ancient Egypt. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.
Mond, R. and O. H. Myers (1937). Cemeteries of Armant I (Text). Memoir of the Egypt Exploration Society [42]. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
———. (1937). Cemeteries of Armant I (Plates). Memoir of the Egypt Exploration Society [42]. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
Muir, A. and R. Friedman (2011) ‘Analysis of Predynastic Ostrich Eggshells from Hierakonpolis and Beyond’. In Egypt at its Origins 3: Proceedings of the Third International Conference “Origin of the State: Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt”, London, 27th July–1st August 2008, ed. R. F. Friedman and P. N. Fiske. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 205. Leuven: Peeters. 571–593. 
Nordström, H.-Å. (1972) Neolithic and A-Group Sites, 2 vols. The Scandinavian Joint Expedition to Sudanese Nubia. Stockholm; Copenhagen: Läromedelsbörlagen; Munksgaard. 

Monday, 13 May 2019

Sir John Gardner Wilkinson and Swansea

Pretty much all Egyptologists will be familiar with Sir John Gardner Wilkinson (fig. 1), who has been described as the “father of British Egyptology”. But how many will know of his connection to Swansea? Wilkinson was born on the 5 October 1797 in Little Missenden, Buckinghamshire. His father was a Westmoreland clergyman, the Reverend John Wilkinson, an amateur enthusiast for antiquities. Wilkinson inherited a modest income from his early-deceased parents. Sent by his guardian to Harrow School in 1813, he later went up to Exeter College, Oxford in 1816. Wilkinson ultimately took no degree and, suffering from ill-health, decided to travel to Italy. It was there in 1819 he met the antiquarian Sir William Gell (1777–1836) and resolved to study Egyptology.

Fig. 1: Sir John Gardner Wilkinson

Wilkinson first arrived in Egypt in October 1821 as a young man of 24 years, remaining in the country for a further 12 years continuously. He also revisited the country four times: in 1841–2, 1843–4, 1848, and 1855–6. During his stays, Wilkinson visited virtually every known ancient Egyptian site, skillfully recording inscriptions and paintings as a talented copyist and compiling copious notes. Wilkinson’s most significant work was his Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (fig. 2). First published in three volumes in 1837 and subsequently illustrated by Joseph Bonomi (1796–1878), this title stood as the best general treatment of ancient Egyptian culture and history for the next half-century. Acclaim for this publication brought Wilkinson a knighthood and ensured him the title of the first distinguished British Egyptologist.

Fig. 2: Page 1153 of Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians

In 1856, at the age of 59, he married Caroline Catherine Lucas (1822–1881), the daughter of Henry Lucas of Glamorganshire. Lady Wilkinson worked on editing her husband’s manuscripts as well as writing several books of her own, the most successful of which was Weeds and Wildflowers (1858). The couple lived first at Tenby in Pembrokeshire, on the South Wales coast. In 1866 they moved to Brynfield House at Reynoldston on the Gower peninsula. Brynfield and the surrounding area provided Wilkinson with ample opportunity to indulge his interest in ancient British remains; he had already published several articles on British archaeology and antiquities. The house was close to Cefn Bryn, the site of Arthur’s Stone (fig. 3), a Neolithic burial dating back to 2500 BC. Wilkinson was the first to excavate the tomb in 1870 and claimed that the pathway followed by the ghostly apparition seen by many of King Arthur on a white steed, is the remains of a stone avenue.

Fig. 3: Arthur’s Stone

Wilkinson died at Llandovery (Carmarthenshire) on the 29 October 1875 and was buried at St Dingat’s church. The ashlar pedestal monument, which was designed by Wilkinson before his death, has an Italianate arcaded top and pyramid cap. There are two steps and a plinth under the pedestal, with angle pilasters and cornice (fig. 4). He had bequeathed his collections with an elaborate catalogue in 1864 to his cousin, Lady Georgiana Stanhope Lovell, who had married Sir John Harper Crewe at Calke Abbey (now owned by the National Trust). He left his widow in poor financial straits from which she was rescued by a pension that Benjamin Disraeli persuaded Queen Victoria to grant her. Wilkinson’s papers are now held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and form an invaluable resource to some of the earliest recorded states (dating to 1821 to 1856, before the advent of widespread tourism and collection) of many Egyptian monuments. 

Fig. 4: Wilkinson’s grave

One of the objects recorded in his 1856 notebook (MS. Wilkinson dep. e. 68) is a lintel, which was then in the possession of Dr. Henry William Charles Abbott (1807–1859). Abbott was an English medical practitioner and a collector of antiquities. It is thus fitting that in 1971, 115 years after it was first recorded by Wilkinson, the lintel (W491) arrived in Swansea as part of the loan from the Wellcome Institute (fig. 5). In the intervening years, the lintel changed hands several times, including at one stage being part of the celebrated collection of William Tyssen-Amherst (1835–1909), First Baron Amherst of Hackney. The lintel belongs to a man named Tjenti, an Overseer of Craftsmen, who lived around the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2513–2374 BC). The interesting life cycle of this object will be the focus of my talk at the Egypt Centre’s Wonderful Things conference in two weeks time. If you would like to attend, please contact me ASAP!

Fig. 5: Tjenti’s lintel (W491)

Bierbrier, M. L. (2012) Who Was Who in Egyptology. London: The Egypt Exploration Society. 4th edition.
Thompson, J. (1992) Sir Gardner Wilkinson and His Circle. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
———. (2015) Wonderful Things: A History of Egyptology, 1: From Antiquity to 1881. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.
Thompson, J. and R. Lucas (1995) ‘Sir Gardner Wilkinson in Gower’. Gower 46: 6–14.
———. (1870) ‘Avenues and Carns about Arthur’s Stone in Gower’. Archaeologia Cambrensis 25, 1: 22–45, 117–121.

Monday, 6 May 2019

A Protective Demon of the Night on an Egypt Centre Headrest?

While many of the objects in the Egypt Centre collection have been closely examined in the past decades, fresh eyes and new technology often results in new discoveries. This was the case for the frog tattoo on the paddle doll, which had gone unnoticed until just a few weeks ago. Shortly after spotting this frog, I photographed a headrest (AB80) in preparation for my handling class (fig. 1). At first glance, there was nothing particularly exciting about the object, but this changed when I put some of the images through DStretch. DStretch is an image enhancement technique that can bring out faint images that are invisible to the naked eye. The results of this will be outlined below.

Fig. 1: AB80

Headrests, a type of pillow to support the head, have been found in tombs from the beginning of the Old Kingdom and continued through the Ptolemaic Period. AB80 is made out of three pieces of an unknown wood: a curved section at the top, central spine, and the base. Combined, the headrest measures 18cm in its height (fig. 2). The curved section, upon which one would lay their head, is not quite symmetrical. The shape of the curve, besides being practical, represented the hieroglyph akhet, “horizon”, with the sun (or head) emerging from it. Based on its typology, it can be dated to the New Kingdom (Perraud 1997). The headrest entered the Egypt Centre collection, along with around 100 other objects, in 1997 as part of a gift by the University of Wales Aberystwyth. Documentation that arrived with the objects states that the headrest was sent to Mr. J. B. Willams in 1903 by Margaret Murray (1863–1963), the first woman to be appointed as a lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom. It is not known why Murray sent the objects to Mr. Willams, although it is likely that he was a sponsor of the Egypt Research Account (ERA), headed by the famed archaeologist Sir W. M. Flinders Petrie (1853–1942). In fact, a note added to the list of objects sent by Murray says that they were acquired by her at Abydos in 1902–1903, during which time she worked at the Osireion at the site.

Fig. 2: Four sides of AB80

Headrests of the New Kingdom were often elaborate: for example, in the shape of a folding stool and decorated with the head of the god Bes. Figures of Bes also appeared on more conventionally-shaped headrests, adding further protection for the head (fig. 3). The apotropaic function of these images—of Bes and other minor deities or demons sharing iconographic characteristics with him—as well as related texts on headrests are well documented to ward off demons, dangers, or other disturbances threatening people in their vulnerable state of sleep (Szpakowska 2010).

Fig. 3: Bes on Brooklyn Museum, 37.440E -

As noted above, there was no evidence that AB80 was decorated with protective beings when I first examined it under natural light. However, given the fact that this type of decoration was common to New Kingdom headrests, I decided to put some of the photos through DStretch. While several areas revealed potential traces of decoration, one side of the central section was particularly interesting. What looked like just a stain to the naked eye, now appeared as figure of Bes—or perhaps even Taweret—facing to the right (fig. 4)! The bowed legs are especially visible, along with what looks like a mane and face. Is the appearance of this “stain” simply a coincidence and am I perhaps seeing something that’s not really there? I’ll leave that up to you to decide. Comments welcome!

Fig. 4: Close-up of the central section before and after using DStretch

AB80 and the other headrests in the Egypt Centre collection will be the focus of a talk by Dr. Katharina Zinn (University of Wales Trinity Saint David)—and will also be available for handling—at our conference in three weeks time. In the meantime, why not come and see the headrest on display in the Egypt Centre’s House of Life!

Fischer, H. G. (1980) ‘Kopfstütze’. In Lexikon der Ägyptologie III, ed. W. Helck and W. Westendorf. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 686–693.
Hellinckx, B. R. (2001) ‘The Symbolic Assimilation ofHead and Sun as Expressed by Headrests’. Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 29: 61–95.
Killen, G. (2017) Ancient Egyptian Furniture. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxbow Books. 2nd ed.
Perraud, M. (1997) Appuis-tête de l’Égypte pharaonique: typologie et significations. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Strasbourg.
———. (1998) ‘Die Kopfstütze vor der dritten Dynastie’. Göttinger Miszellen 165: 83–90.
Szpakowska, K. (2010) ‘Nightmares in Ancient Egypt’. In Le cauchemar dans les sociétés antiques: actes des journées d’étude de l’UMR 7044 (15–16 novembre 2007, Strasbourg), ed. J.-M. Husser and A. Mouton. Paris: De Boccard. 21–39.
Zinn, K. (2018) ‘Did You Sleep Well on Your Headrest?—Anthropological Perspectives on an Ancient Egyptian Implement’. Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 17: 202–219.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Selecting the Highlights of the Egypt Centre. Please Vote!

Last month we decided that the Egypt Centre would create a small booklet containing fifteen highlights from the House of Death and fifteen from the House of Life. After some discussion of what should be included, we thought that we should let our award-winning volunteers decide. However, we also decided that it would be beneficial to open voting to the public, particularly as the museum is keen on widening participation. With the photography of the objects completed, the voting is now open and will remain so throughout the month of May. The announcement of the objects selected will be made during Volunteers’ Week, which takes place in the first week of June. To take part in the vote, please click on the following link and select up to fifteen objects per gallery.

Objects from the House of Death (fig. 1) are:
EC number
Coffin of the Chantress of Amun, Iwesemhesetmut
Book of Dead papyrus of Ankh-hapi
Cartonnage coffin with foetus
Reserve head
Overseer shabti of Ptahhotep
Greek mummy label
Bes pot
Cat mummy mask
Standing Osiris statue
Statue of Isis suckling Horus
Sopdu-Hor amulet
Khabekhenet wall relief
Stela of Isis-Thermouthis and Serapis-Agathadaimon
Heart scarab of Padiamun
Limestone head of private statue
Gilded cartonnage mask
Third Intermediate Period coffin fragment
Edfu stela of Pasherienimhotep
Pottery offering tray
Head of Ptolemaic queen
Eighteenth Dynasty Theban tomb painting
Glazed Sekhmet statue
Bird coffin with mummy
W1367a & b
Sarcophagus fragments of Amenhotep son of Hapu

Fig. 1: Montage of objects in the House of Death

Objects from the House of Life (fig. 2) consist of:
EC number
Middle Kingdom battle axe
Carnelian anklet with snake heads
Temple relief of Neferure
Marble votive footprint
Statue of Aba
Paneb’s offering stand
W946 bis
Commodus stela
Granite head of a goddess
Amarna collar with Beset
Flint hand axe
Miniature Quran
Black-topped redware pot
Tjenti’s lintel
Amarna plaster with elbow of Akhenaten
Faience wall tiles
Metal plaque of Constantine and Helena
Stone offering table
Lute player ring bezel
Amethyst scarab bracelet
Paddle doll
Temple relief of Thutmose III
Feldspar bead
D-Ware pot
Bes bell
Book of Esther
Cuneiform brick of Nebuchadnezzar II

Fig. 2: Montage of objects in the House of Life

Regular readers of this blog will recognise some of the objects available for selection. From the House of Dead are the reserve head (W164) and the limestone head from a private statue (W1024), while in the House of Life the temple relief depicting Neferure (W1376), a plaster fragment from Amarna with the elbow of Akhenaten (W802), a paddle doll (W769), and a D-Ware vessel (W5308) all featured in recent weeks. Given the number of objects available to select from, it is not really possible to highlight them all here. So, please vote and share the link with your family and friends in order to give us as much input as possible. The objects are all on display within the Egypt Centre, so why not pop in and have a look. Feel free to also tell us your favourite object, and why, in the comment section of the blog!