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Monday, 27 May 2019

"Wonderful Things" Conference Review

The Wonderful Things conference was held over two days and was opened by Pro-Vice-Chancellor Martin Stringer. The focus of the conference was to showcase the objects from the Egypt Centre collection, and it did not disappoint. The conference featured sixteen speakers, with the topics ranging in date from the Predynastic Period through the nineteenth century. First up was Wendy Goodridge (Assistant Curator at the Egypt Centre) who provided an excellent overview of the history of the Egypt Centre, highlighting the diverse range of activities and outreach that the collection has been involved in, including some lovely anecdotes about the early days of the museum (fig. 1). Ken Griffin (Collections Access Manager at the Egypt Centre) presented the history of the Tjenti lintel (W491), which served as a good example of the complex life cycle and journey of the object through numerous collections across the world, as is often the case with many of the Egypt Centre objects.

Fig. 1: Wendy Goodridge presenting on the history of the Egypt Centre collection

Kasia Szpakowska (Associate Professor of Egyptology at Swansea University) gave a fascinating talk on the wooden bed legs (W2052a & W2052b) and the nature of the daemons featured upon them, comparing them stylistically to other examples to establish what kind of bed they belonged to, and who may have owned it. Phil Parkes (Senior Conservator at Cardiff University) provided a run-through of the progress on the conservation of an Egypt Centre coffin (AB118), with examples of some of the painstaking work carried out by their students. Troy Sagrillo (Senior Lecturer in Egyptology at Swansea University) explained the rarity of the depiction of Third Intermediate Period pharaoh Djehutiemhat on a faience scribal palette (EC2018), along with an overview of the chronology of the period—an often overlooked period of Egyptian history (fig. 2). Carolyn Graves-Brown (Curator of the Egypt Centre) explored some of the more obscure depictions on the coffin of Iwesemhesetmut (W1982), using comparative evidence to identify the unusual deities (as well as a bag of onions!) assisting Iwesemhesetmut on her journey to the afterlife.

Fig. 2: Model scribal palette of Djehutiemhat (EC2018)

Amr Gaber gave an in-depth analysis of the stela (W946 bis) of the mother of the Buchis Bull, dating to the time of Commodus, including highlighting an unusual image of a mummiform Isis (fig. 3). This stela was discovered by the Egypt Exploration Society at Armant. Paul Nicholson (Professor in Archaeology at Cardiff University) continued on the theme of bull burials and Armant by using the coffin clamps to highlight the issues with the mummification processes and burial practices of bovines.

Stela of Commodus (W946 bis)

On the second day, Dulcie Engel (Egypt Centre volunteer) opened proceedings with some of the objects collected by the Reverend John Foulkes Jones, emphasizing the kinds of things that were considered important to the Victorian collector for inclusion in their ‘cabinets of curiosity’. This included a metal object labelled as the “summit of Cheops” (EC1920)! John Rogers presented a Bes bell (WK44), and a unique object currently described as a whistle (W247), which originates from the William MacGregor collection (fig. 4). The latter object generated a lot of discussion as to its origins. If any readers know of parallels, John would be very keen to hear about them!

Fig. 4: Whistle (W247)

Christian Knoblauch (Lecturer in Material Culture at Swansea University) provided an in-depth study of a Predynastic vessel with an animal frieze (W415); another unique item, considering the authenticity of both the pottery vessel itself and its painted decoration (fig. 5). Katharina Zinn (University of Wales Trinity Saint David) gave an excellent overview of wooden headrests, including AB80 from the Egypt Centre. She discussed the individual nature of these objects and the importance of experiential archaeology—which included lots of delegates testing out some model headrests. After lunch, Nigel Pollard (Associate Professor in Ancient History at Swansea University) used a selection of Imperial Roman coins to demonstrate the significance of depictions of Roman Imperial women on these objects, explaining the significance of the legends and choice of images well for those of us who are more comfortable in dynastic Egypt!

Fig. 5: Nagada III D-Ware vessel (W415)

Ersin Hussein (Lecturer of Ancient History at Swansea University) presented an overview of the current progress on a SURGE funded metals project using Egypt Centre material to evaluate the cultural value and significance of metals, using X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) to help determine provenance and chronologies of metal objects. Mark Humphries (Professor of Ancient History at Swansea University) explained the iconography of object EC1473, which depicts the Roman Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena holding the true relic of the cross identifying the obelisk of Thutmose III and the serpent-headed column flanking them (fig. 6). Finally, Syd Howells (Volunteer Manager at the Egypt Centre) gave a highly entertaining overview of Dr William Price based around the medal (EC1149) commemorating the cremation of his son Iesu Grist (Jesus Christ), and poster (EC1943) announcing the birth of his second son of the same name, and discussing the influence of Egypt on this very unique individual.

Fig. 6: Plaque depicting Constantine and Helena in the Hippodrome at Constantinople (EC1473)

Unlike other conferences, during the breaks there was an opportunity to handle some of the object being discussed, which really helped to bring the topics to life (fig. 7). The object-centred approach added cohesion to the day, and served as a reminder that the museum really does hold “wonderful things”. As Wendy Goodridge pointed out, there are many stories held within the collection that deserve the opportunity to be told. Equally, there is enormous scope for further research on the objects, which will hopefully provide many more stories for years to come. The informal atmosphere (and excellent buffet!) sparked some interesting discussions around the objects, with the consensus being that an annual event highlighting research on Egypt Centre objects would be of enormous value!

Fig. 7: Delegates with the “summit of Cheops” (EC1920)

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. Willans 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. Willans, 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 of Head 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.