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Monday, 30 September 2019

"An Unforgettable Experience": My Two Month Placement at the Egypt Centre

The blog post for this week is a guest entry by Jiayun Zhu, a Museum Studies placement student from Leicester University.

For the past two months (13th July–6th September), I was fortunate to be an intern at the Egypt Centre and to help Ken sort out and inspect the reserve collection in preparation for moving to the new store. There are more than 5,000 items in the collection, and although I didn’t have enough time to appreciate each one, I frequently found something interesting in the boxes. While it’s easy to get tired of constantly repeating the examination process, the collection and entering data, I tried to find some lovely details. For example, do you know what this thing shaped like a cat’s leg is (fig. 1)? I thought at first it was a leg of a table or bed based on an animal leg. However, it’s actually the beard from a wooden coffin!

Fig. 1: Comparison between a cat leg and wooden beard

The most surprising thing for me was that we found the bones of some snakes in an unremarkable bag of sand and bandages. The skulls of the snake bones were so well preserved that they were put on display in the animal case in the House of Life (fig. 2). It makes me excited because I found a new exhibit with my own hands, thus making it an unforgettable experience.

Fig. 2: A collection of snake heads

The Egypt Centre contains a mass of exquisite and historic artifacts, yet it turned out my favorite objects were inlay eyes from coffins (fig. 3). These eyes are not preserved in pairs; each one is unique. Some only have only eye sockets, some only have the white of the eye and pupils. Although they are incomplete, they are still vivid like human eyes. This is because the craftsmen chose the right material to express the details of the eyes. Some eyes are made of a single material, while others are made of composite materials. For example, some eyes are carved entirely out of stone. Other eyes are more complex with different materials for their eye sockets, white of eyes, and pupils. Egyptians tended to use bronze for the shape of eyes, pale pottery or faience for the whites, and black glass for the pupils. It reflects the depth of the orb and the lustre of the pupil, which is why they were so appealing to me.

Fig. 3: A collection of eyes

The development of the new store from nothing to now was witnessed by me, and I was fortunate to have been involved in some steps. When I first started my placement, the new store was just an empty room. Soon after the roller racking shelving was added, then the air conditioning unit was activated, and the CCTV and alarm installed. In my last week, we started to move objects from the old Wellcome Store to the new one. This included the large Amarna pot (fig 4), which was the focus of an earlier blog post by Molly Osborne.

Fig. 4: Myself with Sam Powell, Ken Griffin, and Molly Osborne moving the Amarna pot

It can be said that my two-month placement was a real treasure hunt. It not only transformed my perception of museums from theory to practice, but also broadened my understanding of Egyptian culture. I would like to thank all the staff and volunteers in the Egypt Centre, especially Carolyn and Ken who were both knowledgeable and always willing to answer my questions. These two months were so pleasant that the time passed very quickly. I like Swansea, the Egypt Centre, and all the people there!

Monday, 23 September 2019

Time for a makeover: Sending objects for conservation

On Tuesday 10th September, the Curator (Carolyn Graves-Brown) and I travelled to Cardiff University with a group of 40+ objects for conservation (fig. 1). For several decades the Egypt Centre have been sending objects to the School of History, Archaeology, and Religion to undergo conservation treatment. As part of the agreement, the conservation work is undertaken for free by carefully supervised students as part of their degree scheme. Students enrolled in the BSc in the Conservation of Objects in Museums and Archaeology, or an MSc in Conservation Practice carry out hands-on conservation work of genuine museum objects taught by accredited conservators. This agreement benefits both parties since the Egypt Centre is able to support students with object information, context, and feedback to shape their conservation decisions and Cardiff students deliver a constant, if slow, supply of conserved objects ready for display.

Fig. 1: Objects loaded for delivery

Over the past few months, in consultation with Phil Parkes (Senior Conservator at Cardiff) we selected suitable objects that needed conservation and study. This included objects that were both on display and in storage. We even sent the papyrus of Ankh-hapi (W867), which is one of our most popular objects in the House of Life gallery and recently featured in the final list of our thirty highlights. This papyrus consists of 44 lines containing chapters 15a–g of the Book of the Dead, along with the vignette for Chapter 1 above (fig. 2). W867 represents only a small fragment of the original papyrus, with sections also housed in the British Museum (P. London BM EA 9946) and the Hurst Galley Cambridge, MA (P. Cambridge, Mass). At some point, because of the friability of the papyrus, clear tape was used to hold it together. This tape will have to be removed and new modern conservation methods used in order adequately preserve the papyrus.

Fig. 2: Papyrus of Ankh-Hapi

Another popular object sent for conservation is a small whistle (W247), which was the topic of a paper by John Rogers at our Wonderful Things conference in May. This object was purchased by Henry Wellcome in 1922 from the collection of the Reverend William MacGregor (lot 1798). The object was already in several fragments in 1922, and at an unknown date had been glued back together. This glue has since lost its adhesiveness and the whistle is now in three pieces. At Cardiff the old glue will be removed and a new adhesive used to join the fragments together. It will also be possible to analyse the components of the whistle, which seems to consist of a copper alloy internal tube with alternating bone/ivory and lapis lazuli rings (fig. 3). This whistle will feature in a future guest post by John Rogers.

Fig. 3: Whistle with bone/ivory and lapis lazuli rings

Four stelae have also been sent to Cardiff for restoration and conservation. This includes fragments of a Middle Kingdom stela (EC1848), which featured in a blog post in June. One lucky student will have the opportunity to reconstruct around forty limestone fragments, thus requiring a lot of patience! The remaining three stelae date to the Coptic era, with EC521 being particularly beautiful. While the stela is largely complete, it is unfortunately now in five fragments. The decoration features two birds facing one another and rosettes around the edge (fig 4) The name of the deceased would have been carved on the bottom register, although for some reason it was left empty. Once in Cardiff the fragments will be cleaned and restored.

Fig. 4: Coptic stela (EC521)

Other objects sent to Cardiff for conservation include our model funerary boat (W361), twenty-three coffin clamps from the burial of the mother of the Buchis Bull at Armant, an alabaster dish (W408), several textiles, model tools from Meroe (EC686), and four pottery vessels. Our visit to Cardiff also provided the opportunity to see the latest work on AB118, a Late Period coffin belonging to a man named Ankhpakhered, which was later usurped by Djedhor. Now that the lid of the coffin is “finished”, work will continue with the base (fig. 5). It is expected that the conservation of AB118 will continue for a few years yet.

Fig. 5: Interior of the coffin base (AB118)

Later in the academic year I hope to have a few guest posts from some of the students working on our objects!

Monday, 16 September 2019

And the winner is ...

The subject of this blog post changed as a result of events that took place on Friday 13th September. Contrary to common lore, it turned out to be quite a lucky day for the Egypt Centre as our Front of House Manager (Angharad Gavin) and I attended the Swansea Life Awards 2019. The awards are Swansea’s red carpet event of the year, which rewards individuals and businesses that have helped to push Swansea onwards and upwards, with regards to outstanding quality, customer service, and innovation. More than 450 guests packed Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall to celebrate this year’s awards (fig. 1). Thousands of votes were cast and those three businesses with the highest number of votes were shortlisted in each of the seventeen categories. The category winners with the most votes were revealed on the night, which was hosted by the Commercial Managing Director at Media Wales, Lisa Cameron, and Kev Johns.

Fig. 1: Angharad and I dressed for the occasion

The Egypt Centre had been shortlisted for the leisure and culture category, which was sponsored by BusinessLife. Perhaps rather fittingly the theme for this year was Africa, with excellent entertainment provided throughout the night in the form of singers, dancers, and drummers. The soundtrack to the Lion King also featured heavily. The dinner for the evening, provided by JR Events & Catering, was a Kenyan vegetable samosa for starter, oven roasted chicken breast with a South African pepper cream sauce for the main, and a delightful “Simba’s Pride ‘Lion Bar’ cheesecake and butterscotch sauce” (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: “Simba‘s Pride” cheesecake

The shortlist for the leisure & tourism category consisted of the LC Swansea, Plantasia, and the Egypt Centre. Having won the award last year, we were not expecting to repeat our success. However, we were delighted when our name was announced (fig. 3)! This achievement is down to the hard work and determination of our staff and wonderful volunteers, without whom it wouldn’t have been possible. We would also like to thank all those who have supported us over the years, and particularly to everyone who voted for us. Congratulations to all those shortlisted, and especially to the winners.

Fig. 3: Our framed award

Why not pop down to the Egypt Centre to see for yourselves why we have won this award two years in a row. You can even see our own “lion queen” in the form of this statue of the goddess Sekhmet (fig. 4)!

Fig. 4: Statue of Sekhmet (W496)

Monday, 9 September 2019

"So intense but so cool" - a journey across campus with an Amarna vessel

The blog post for this week is written by Molly Osborne, an Egypt Centre volunteer and third year student of Egyptology and Classical Civilisation. 

From the 27th August until the 21st September, six students, including myself, are doing a third year practicum module at the Egypt Centre. On Wednesday 4th September, Ken Griffin asked for one of us to help with something, without giving any indication as to what this would entail. I offered to help and it turned out that this involved moving a decorated Amarna storage jar from the old storage room to the new one (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: The moving team (L to R) of Jiayun Zhu, Sam Powell, Ken Griffin, Molly Osborne

When we arrived at the old storage facility, I saw W193 for the first time. It is a large storage jar with beautiful decoration on it of lotus plants and fruit. The neck of the jar is decorated with big, blue lotus petals, and separates the neck and the body with a red band. The body of the jar is separated into three sections; the first and second sections have the same pattern of overlying blue lotus petals, which are separated by red bands. The third is decorated with white lotus flowers (fig. 2). This type of decoration is typical of vessels dating to the late Eighteenth Dynasty, which are often referred to as “blue painted ware” or “palace ware” (Rose 2007).

Fig. 2: Decoration of W193

On the side of the vessel is what appears to be a manufacturer’s mark, in the shape of an upside down bow (fig. 3). I plan look at this further in the hope of finding parallels—perhaps some readers who have worked on Amarna pottery are familiar with it?

Fig. 3: Manufacturer’s mark on the side of W193

It is evident looking at the jar that the cracks were fixed with a putty-like substance, with the object file for W193 stating that the jar arrived in Swansea in twenty fragments. It was subsequently pieced back together again by the Chemistry Department at Swansea University. The vessel was accompanied by a Wellcome label giving the number as 153449. This has allowed us to trace the flimsy slip in the Wellcome archives (fig. 4), which shows that it was part of the distribution of finds from the Egypt Exploration Society, most likely from their 1930–1931 excavation season at Amarna (Frankfort & Pendlebury 1933). In fact, the Egypt Centre has large quantities of Amarna pottery, some on display and even more in storage!

Fig. 4: Flimsy slip from the Wellcome archives for W193

The jar was originally on display in the old Wellcome Museum between the 1970s–1990s. At some point it seems to have been exposed to direct sunlight, which resulted in the paint flaking off one side of the vessel (fig. 5). A chemical agent that had been applied to the surface of the jar during the conservation process in the 1970s may have accelerated this process. W193 will eventually be treated by the conservation department at Cardiff University, whom the Egypt Centre works very closely with.

Fig. 5: W193 showing the flaking to the surface on the right side

The process of transporting W193 to the new storage facility was done very carefully. The object was placed on a trolley, which was very intense to watch. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to move it myself because the jar is so fragile! The trolley was slowly moved by Ken, Jiayun Zhu (a Museum Studies placement student from Leicester University), Sam Powell (Egyptology Masters student at Swansea University), and myself. We had to remove all lanyards and jewellery before moving the object and we had to wear gloves so that we could hold the top of the jar firmly (fig. 6). We also wrapped the trolley and the top of the neck of the jar with bubble wrap to protect it from the wind. Thankfully, the journey from the old store to the new one was only a distance of about 100 metres!

Fig. 6: Transporting W193

On the following day the other practicum students assisted in transporting more objects and I think they would agree that doing this was so intense but also so cool. After writing this, I realised describing this experience sounds mundane and normal, but to me it meant a lot. This was the first object I had transferred and I hope in the future to have more opportunities like this. The practicum module at the Egypt Centre has provided me with real experiences that I wouldn’t usually get through other modules. I would like to thank Ken and the Egypt Centre for this opportunity as it is certainly something I’ll never forget (fig. 7)!

Fig. 7: Me with the pot following transportation

Frankfort, H. and J. D. S. Pendlebury (1933) The city of Akhenaten. Part II: The north suburb and the desert altars. The excavations at Tell el Amarna during the seasons 1926–1932. MEES 40. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
Rose, P. J. (2007) The Eighteenth Dynasty pottery corpus from Amarna. Egypt Exploration Society, Excavation Memoir 83. London: Egypt Exploration Society.

Monday, 2 September 2019

From the Banks of the Nile to the Garden of Sennedjem

For just over a week (22–30 August) I was fortunate to have been based at the Czech Institute of Egyptology Charles University, Prague. My main reason for being there was to participate in two academic events. First was the initial workshop as part of the project Continuity, Discontinuity and Change. Adaptation Strategies of Individuals and Communities in Egypt at Times of Internal and External Transformations. This international project, which was initiated by Dr. Filip Coppens, is funded by the Czech Science Foundation (Grant GA ČR 19-07268S). Over two days the eight team members (fig. 1) had a productive discussion on topics focusing on two distinct periods of ancient Egyptian history: the Amarna age, and the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Secondly, there was the Seventh Ptolemaic Summer School, which took place in Prague for the first time. The event was an excellent opportunity to meet colleagues specialising in Graeco-Roman temple texts, as well as providing the forum for me to discuss my work on the Ritual of the Hours of the Night.

Fig. 1: Workshop participants, from left to right. Silke Caßor-Pfeiffer (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, IANES – Ägyptologie), Ken Griffin (The Egypt Centre), Filip Coppens (Czech Institute of Egyptology), Gabriele Pieke (Reiss-Engelhorn Museen, Mannheim), Dorotea Wollnerová (Czech Institute of Egyptology), Dana Bělohoubková (Czech Institute of Egyptology), Jiří Honzl (Czech Institute of Egyptology), and Nico Staring (Leiden Institute for Area Studies – Egyptology, Leiden University).

The visit to Prague also coincided with four temporary exhibitions, which I had the opportunity to visit. The first, which is housed in the recently refurbished National Museum (Národní muzeum) in Prague is entitled Tutankhamun RealExperience. Much of the focus of the exhibition is on the tomb and treasures of Tutankhamun, seen through the wonderful photography of Sandro Vannini, supplemented by a selection of original objects describing how the ancient Egyptians conceived the afterlife. The centrepiece of the exhibit is a statue of the young pharaoh from the Museum August Kestner in Hanover, on loan from the Fritz Behrens Foundation (fig. 2). The exhibit runs through 31 January 2020.

Fig. 2: Statue of Tutankhamun

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the renowned Czech Egyptologist Jaroslav Černý (1898–1970), the National Museum is also hosting a small exhibit entitled In the Garden of Sennedjem. The exhibition traces the life and career of Černý, which was heavily impacted by the political events of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, objects from Deir el-Medina feature heavily, including numerous ostraca. There are also more personal items, such as his diplomatic passport from 1942 (fig. 3), letters and drawings, and his Doctoral diploma dated to 1922. While the significance of the exhibition’s name may not be evident to most—besides the obvious connection to the village of Deir el-Medina—it alludes to the words on the gravestone of Černý and his wife, “together now in the garden of Sennedjem”.

Fig. 3: Černý's diplomatic passport. 

The third exhibit I visited was On the Banks of the Nile, which is located in the Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures. This exhibition is dedicated to the nature of the ancient Nile valley, with showcases dealing with flora and fauna of the land, air, and water. Although many of the objects were small, they were particularly appealing. They include a faience hedgehog or porcupine (fig. 4) and an amulet in the form of a grasshopper. The exhibit concluded with some nicely preserved animal remains, including a bundle of snakes similar to that which we have in the Egypt Centre.

Fig. 4: Faience hedgehog or porcupine.

The final exhibition was Between Prague and Cairo: 100 Years of Czech Egyptology, which is housed in the Karolinum building of Charles University. As the title implies, the exhibition tells the story of the first 100 years of Czech Egyptology through a series of photos and a short film. It was in the summer of 1919 that František Lexa (1876–1960) delivered the first Egyptology lectures at Charles University. A large part of the exhibit is dedicated to excavations in Egypt, which commenced in 1959 with the work in the mastaba of Ptahshepses at Abusir. Many of the images shown related to the excavations at Abusir, including some of the wonderful treasures discovered (fig. 5). The exhibition concluded with a 15 minute film on the excavations of the Late Period shaft tombs of Iwfaa and Menekhibnekau.

Fig. 5: Swansea student John Rogers looking at some of the spectacular Czech finds from Abusir.

While the four exhibits are all quite different from each other, they are all wonderfully curated. The first three are accompanied by catalogues while the latter with a small booklet (fig. 6). I would highly recommend anyone visiting Prague before the end of the year to take in these exhibitions. I am most grateful to Filip for inviting me to join his project and I look forward to visiting Prague again next year!

Fig. 6: Exhibition catalogues