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Monday, 28 October 2019

The Art of the First Intermediate Period

The blog post this week is written by Peter Black, retired Further Education and University Lecturer, now an education leader volunteer in the Egypt Centre, and one of the last students completing the Higher Education Certificate in Egyptology at Swansea University.

As an education leader, I have loved doing handling sessions with the school children who come to the Egypt Centre. Their excitement is infectious. This handling class is a wonderful extension of that shared experience, as I am able to look closely at gems from the museum collection. This week focused on five pieces from the First Intermediate Period (fig. 1). Ken took us all carefully through the political and artistic background to this still slightly neglected time of turmoil, with dynasties containing competing dynastic power groups and cultural fragmentation ensuing (Seidlmayer 2000).

Fig. 1: Reading the text of EC148 (photo by Molly Osborne)

What seized my attention was the connection he established between this turbulent context and the artistic forms that were emerging within the period—with looser political structures came a kind of freedom. When we examined the five objects the interesting claim that “there was a loss of formal clarity and precision in the art of the period” became evident right before our eyes. For me this was exciting. One way to explain this is via grid lines. We were focusing on stelae and it is well known that throughout ancient Egyptian history representations of figures conformed to a tight grid system, only changing very slightly over time (Robins 1995). These stelae were exceptions to this convention. They were quite markedly different to the clear, formal, somewhat austere and dignified air of examples from the Old Kingdom. There were three stelae: EC62, EC148, and W1366. 

Fig. 2: “Soldier stela” (EC62)

Initially they looked worn and almost damaged with relief carving lines having to be teased out as our group of three co-operated to identify features. However, as we began to use the torches on our phones to expose them to a much closer examination, they did, literally, come to life (my mind jumped to imagining the fierce, piercing ancient Egyptian sun doing exactly this). These were the self-promoting images of quite powerful people. The bow in EC62 (fig. 2) and the proud weaponry in W1366 were stunning affirmations commonly found in “soldier stelae” of the period (Vandier 1954, 468469). Additionally, the “breakdown” of rules didn’t just result in slightly elongated figures, a foot too long, stretchy arms: here also, was a wife in EC148 (fig. 3) actually leading her husband in the ritual offering. Perhaps the women of Coptos (where this W148 is possibly from) were quite assertive and demanded a prominent role on stelae (Fischer 2000)!

Fig. 3: Stela of a woman (EC148)

The detail revealed in W1366 (fig. 4), which was purchased form the 1906 Robert de Rustafjaell sale, was wonderfully intriguing and again my imagination took flight. Yes, there were loosely carved figures—a tall warrior, his wife beside him—but there was a lot more to be seen. The carving of the hand on the bow and on the sheath of arrows was fabulously clear. Here was a man ensuring that representation of his martial prowess struck the viewer. His wife looked like a super-thin model with long stretchy arms, but…. if you looked closely enough the disproportional left arm had stretched round her husband’s back to provide caressing support! Immediately adjacent to this tiny hand was a “floating” servant bringing a cup. Look, we have servants!

Fig. 4: “Soldier stela” (W1366)

It was this desperate, but entirely endearing attempt to strain to look important that intrigued me. However, the most moving item from the collection came as a surprise. It was an offering tray (W476a), part of a funerary religious ritual (fig. 5). It had the raised roughish parts of a bull on its concave interior and a strange hole which did not reach the outside. Ever keen to speculate I found myself thinking of the modern best dinner service, possibly inherited from grandparents, brought out on special family occasions. I felt I was holding a piece of magic from ancient Egypt. Along with the stelae, it set me loose on the culture of the First Intermediate Period where it seems art was free to be domestically aspirational in a most captivating manner.

Fig. 5: Offering tray (W476a)

Fischer, H. G. (2000) Egyptian women of the Old Kingdom and of the Herakleopolitan Period. New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. second edition.
Robins, G. (1995) Proportion and style in ancient Egypt. Austin; London: University of Texas Press; Thames and Hudson.
———. (2000) The art of ancient Egypt. London: The British Museum Press.
Seidlmayer, S. J. (2000) ‘The First Intermediate Period (c. 2160–2055 BC)’. In The Oxford history of ancient Egypt, ed. I. Shaw. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 118–147.
Sotheby, Wilkinson, & Hodge. (1906) Catalogue of the collection of Egyptian antiquities formed in Egypt, by R. de Rustafjaell, Esq. Queen’s Gate, S. W. London: Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge.
Vandier, J. (1954) Manuel d’archéologie égyptienne II. Paris: Éditions A. et J. Picard.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Treasures from the Age of the Pyramid Builders

The blog post for this week is written by Sam Powell, an Egypt Centre volunteer and Masters student of Egyptology at Swansea University, who has previously written guest posts this year. 

This week’s class focused on the Old Kingdom (namely the Third–Sixth Dynasties, approximately 2700–2200 BC). The Egypt Centre holds comparatively less material that can be definitely dated to this timeframe than other periods (the Tjenti lintel was too big to remove from the wall!), but in spite of this Ken was able to select some really beautiful pieces for the class to demonstrate the type of material being produced during this important period of Egyptian history.

Fig. 1: Siltstone dish

Our first object was the reserve head (W164), which has been discussed in a previous blog post, but was very well-received by the class, many of whom have admired this object on display and were very pleased to finally view it up close. A siltstone dish (W412), likely dating to the First–Second Dynasty (Aston 1994, type 51), was helpful to compare the shift from the Early Dynastic Period to the Old Kingdom (fig. 1).

Fig. 2: Breccia bowl

A red and white breccia bowl (W400) is unprovenanced but typical of vessels produced during the Early Dynasty Period (fig. 2). However, the typology established by Aston (1994, type 108) also suggests these vessels can be found in tombs of the early Old Kingdom. It’s a sizable and very heavy piece (which isn’t appreciated when viewing in a case), and the amount of time and skill that must have gone into its production cannot go unnoticed when viewed up close.

Fig. 3: Offering table

We had two travertine (Egyptian alabaster) objects this week—a dish (W398), and an offering table (W2045)—and as with the breccia bowl, being able to handle these vessels really allows you to appreciate the scale of the work involved. The travertine bowl is fortunate to have a known provenance, allowing us to securely date it to the Third Dynasty. It was excavated by John Garstang (1876–1956) from the site of Raqaqnah (Tomb 1) between 1901–2 (Garstang 1904; Thomas 2002). The offering table (W2045) stylistically dates to the Fifth Dynasty, and would have been placed on a stand in front of a false door in a tomb to receive food offerings for the deceased (fig, 3). This object was a gift from the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.

Fig. 4: Admiring the aragonite dish
My favourite object of the week was the aragonite dish (W307), which fits with Aston’s type 51 (figs. 4–5). I’d been lucky enough to help with the condition checks for the objects prior to the class, and Ken and I noted this item was listed as travertine (likely due to its translucent nature, and ivory colour). However, we realised that the red bands were very unusual and the stone much smoother and crystalline than other travertine objects of a similar date. After a little research, we concluded aragonite a much more likely candidate for its material.

Fig. 5: Aragonite dish

The thing that really impressed me with the dish was the skill and forethought of the artist who created the piece over four thousand years ago, who realised the bands of different colour within the natural rock could be utilised to create the beautiful effect around the circumference of the dish—it is stunning!

Fig. 6: An excellent photo op

There were audible “oohs” and “ahhhs” in the class (as well as the hasty grabbing of camera phones!) when we put the translucent objects on the light box that Ken had brought up from the stores (fig. 6). This handy bit of kit allowed us to illuminate the objects from below. As well as just being very pretty, this allowed the class to really see the tool marks and veins of the natural stone within each piece.

Thank you to Ken, and the Egypt Centre, for allowing us the opportunity to appreciate these beautiful and fascinating objects—I can’t wait to see what objects we get next week!

Aston, B. G. (1994) Ancient Egyptian stone vessels: materials and forms. Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens 5. Heidelberg: Heidelberger Orientverlag.
Thomas, A. P. (2002) ‘The rediscovery of some Dynasty III stone vessels from Reqaqnah’. In Mélanges offerts à Edith Varga: “le lotus qui sort de terre”, ed. H. Győry. Bulletin du Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts: Supplément 2001. Budapest: Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts. 459–468.

Monday, 14 October 2019

The Predynastic Period in the Egypt Centre

This past Thursday, I started my new course entitled A History of Egypt though the Egypt Centre. This ten-week course consists of PowerPoint lectures (first hour) briefly summarising the periods under discussion, followed by a handling session (second hour) of five–six objects in the Egypt Centre collection (fig. 1). Over the next ten weeks, this blog will present objects from the classes. While this week’s post is written by me, subsequent entries will be written by different members of the class, some of whom are Swansea University students, Egypt Centre volunteers, and members of the public. As their knowledge and learning abilities vary, the posts will likely present quite different perspectives on the classes. Since these differences and views are valued, the entries will undergo as little editing as possible!

Fig. 1: Examining a cast of the Battlefield Palette (EC641)

In the first class, participants had the opportunity to handle five objects dating to the Predynastic Period: EC641, a plaster cast of the Battlefield Palette (Ashmolean Museum 1892.1171), W150 (a Predynastic figure), W151 (basalt vessel), W152 (diorite macehead), and a D-Ware pot (W5308). The D-Ware pot has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, while the Battlefield Palette (fig. 2) is well-known in Egyptological literature. Therefore, this post will focus briefly on the remaining three objects, particularly the Predynastic figure.

Fig. 2: Cast of the Battlefield Palette

W151 is a black basalt ovoid vase with two pierced lugs on a small circular foot, which was excavated by Guy Brunton (1878–1948) at Mostagedda in 1929. The label accompanying the object when it arrived in Swansea had the number “29/11729”, which gives the year of excavation (1929) and the number of the tomb (11729). 11729 is described by Brunton (1937, 74, pl. 42) as being a “grave covered with matting laid on sticks. Finer matting on and under the body”. It is also noted that the body belonged to a male and that the tomb was previously looted. This would explain why the vase was heavily broken and repaired before entering the Wellcome Collection in 1930 (fig. 3). W151 is perhaps a type 2d vase, which is said by Mallory-Greenough (2002, 70) to date to Naqada I–II Period. These tend to occur in wealthy burials.

Fig. 3: Basalt vase

W152, a diorite disc macehead, also originates from Brunton’s 1929 excavations at Mostagedda (fig. 4). It was found in tomb 1854 “with a flint knife, in front of the arms of an undisturbed male, and was also broken in two” (Brunton 1937, 89). Maceheads were used as weapons and in ceremonies, with many images showing kings killing their enemies with such objects. They may either have been attached to a leather thong, or put on a wooden/ivory/horn shaft. The disk-shaped macehead seems to have been generally earlier than the pear-shaped macehead. Both date from the Predynastic to early Dynastic times (4000–3000 BC) and are commonly found in graves. They often seem to have been deliberately broken before being put into the graves.

Fig.4: Diorite macehead

The most intriguing object from the first week's handling session was W150, a Predynastic stone figure. W150 measures 29cm high and is hollow up to a third of its height, wide enough to permit the statue to be mounted on a pole or other support (Bosse-Griffiths 1975; Hendrickx 2014–2015, 230–233, fig. 4). The drilling is not perfect, thus suggesting that the item was made in antiquity. However, a small hole in the top of the head appears more modern (figs. 5–6). The first reference to this object occurs in the 1913 sale catalogue of items belonging to Robert De Rustafjael. Lot 219 is described as: “A very remarkable and exceedingly early penate figure in hard white stone, 12in high; the body cylindrical and with a wide raised band at the base; the head is of rudimentary type, the eyes shown by incised lines, the ears projecting and badly formed. A small hole is drilled at the top of the head; and the base is widely hollowed out to a depth of about 3 ½ inches. Similar objects in ivory and wood are known and have been described as ”Staffs of Office”, ”Magic Wands”, etc; very rare; possibly unique of this size; for a similar object see lot 761”. The figure was later resold and purchased by Henry Wellcome at auction in May 1919 (Glendining’s auction 05 May 1919, Lot 812).

Fig. 5: Predynastic stone figure

W150 appears to be one of a type of object more commonly made from hippopotamus ivory. These items are usually hollow, have a loop at the end, and may have a human head. Hendrickx and Eyckerman (2011) have produced a recent study on them. However, those with human heads (Hendrickx and Eykerman’s type A.5) usually have a pierced head. They are sometimes categorised in the same object group as “tags” made from bone or ivory. The tusk-like shape of our example may be related to the pairs of decorated ivory tusks found in Naqada I and II graves (4000–3200 BC). Usually, one is solid and one is hollow and it has been suggested that these tusks represent a male and female respectively. A pair of tusks was found in a woman’s grave at el-Mahasna near Abydos (Baumgartel 1960, 60).

Fig. 6: Head of W150

It has been suggested that because this object is unusual it is a fake. While we are not certain, the fact that our item is made from stone need not mean it is a fake. There is also a similar breccia figure from Gebelein (Musée des Confluences, Lyon 900000171; Hendrickx and Eyckerman 2011: 510; Hendrickx et al., 2014–2015, 229–230, figs. 2–3). As always, we welcome any feedback readers may have on the objects!

Baumgartel, E. J. (1947–1960) The cultures of prehistoric Egypt. 2 vols. Oxford: Griffith Institute; Oxford University Press.
Bosse-Griffiths, K. (1975) ‘A Prehistoric stone figure from Egypt’. In Symposium international sur Les religions de la prehistoire: Valcamonica, 18–23 septembre 1972, ed. E. Anati. Capo di Ponte: Centro camuno di studi preistorici. 313–316.
Hendrickx, S. and M. Eyckerman (2011) ‘Tusks and tags: between the hippopotamus and the Naqada plant’. In 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.
Hendrickx, S., K. E. Piquette, M. Eyckerman, K. Madrigal, and C. Graves-Brown (2014–2015) ‘The origin and early significance of the White Crown’. Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 70–71: 227–238.
Mallory-Greenough, L. M. (2002) ‘The geographical, spatial, and temporal distribution of Predynastic and First Dynasty basalt vessels’. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 88: 67–93.
Messrs. Glendining and Co., Ltd. (1919) Catalogue of the fine collection of Oriental ivories, lacquer, bronzes, tsuba, etc. The property of the estate of the Honble, J. I. Fellows, deceased; G. H. Naunton, Esq., Tunstall Behrens, Esq., and others. London: Messrs. Glendining and Co., Ltd.
Sotheby, Wilkinson, & Hodge (1913) Catalogue of the remaining part of the valuable collection of Egyptian antiquities formed by Robert de Rustafjaell, Esq. London: Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge. 

Monday, 7 October 2019

A Sandstone Block from the Henqet-ankh Temple of Thutmosis III in Swansea

Over the past two weeks I have had the pleasure of being a team member of the Thutmosis III Temple Project, directed by Dr. Myriam Seco Álvarez. Thutmosis III is known to have built several monuments on the West Bank of Luxor, including his so-called “Temple of Millions of Years”, which is located on the edge of the cultivation about 100m north of the Ramesseum. In ancient times the temple was also referred to as the “Mansion of Menkheperre (Thutmosis III) Henqet-ankh”. The site had been previously excavated by Georges Daressy (1888–1889), Arthur Weigall (1905), and Herbert Ricke (1934–1937), although no systematic excavation of the site had been undertaken before the project commenced work in 2008 (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Sorting fragments (photo by Myriam Seco Álvarez)

My work at the site focused on the Ritual of the Hours, particularly those of the Night, in addition to the thousands of limestone blocks. The Ritual of the Hours were inscribed in raised relief on sandstone blocks forming a vaulted ceiling of a rear room within the temple. All traces of this room have virtually disappeared besides several hundred blocks of varying sizes. However, the room also originally contained a granite false door located on the western side, which functioned to allow the ka of the pharaoh to teleport between his tomb and the temple in order to receive offerings. At an unknown date this false door was removed from the temple and transported to the neighbouring site of Medinet Habu. Discovered face down in the late twentieth century, it was erected at the entrance to the Roman temple, where it still stands (fig. 2). At the very top are the remains of the feet belonging to the personifications of the Twelfth Hour of the Day and the First Hour of the Night.

Fig. 2: False door at Medinet Habu

Interestingly, the Egypt Centre has a close connection with this temple since we have a sandstone block (W1371) which clearly originated from the site. The raised relief depicts a standing figure on the right with a small figure of an offering bearer directly in front (fig. 3). Most importantly, the rectangular box above her head gives the name of the temple: “Mansion of Menkheperre Henqet-ankh”! This block was purchased by “Llewellyn” on behalf of Sir Henry Wellcome from the 1906 Robert de Rustafjaell sale. The lot (58) is described as “Other fragments in sand and limestone–kneeling figure of woman, etc., Men with offerings, etc.; Thebes and Deir-el-Bahri”. The fragment is even depicted in the plates (X. 4) of the catalogue. Visitors to the Egypt Centre can find it in one of the display drawers within the House of Life.

Fig. 3: Sandstone fragment (W1371)

Other reliefs from the temple may also have been sold in the 1906 de Rustafjaell sale, although this is difficult to determine due to the lack of images in the catalogue for the majority of pieces. One fragment, however, could be BM EA 43457 (fig. 4), which was purchased by William Talbot Ready (1857–1914) as part of lot 57. It is also depicted in plate X (1) of the catalogue. The fragment was subsequently sold to the British Museum in 1907. This lot is described as “Others–cartouche of Thothmes III, head of Ammon-Ra, vultures, etc.; Deir-el-Bahri”. While the mention of Deir el-Bahari might imply that it originated from the temples there, it was commonly used by Victorian travelled to refer to the greater surrounding area. De Rustafjaell may have acquired these reliefs around the same time that the temple was being excavated by Weigall in 1905 (Weigall (1906).

Fig. 4: Relief of Thutmosis III:

Readers to this blog can follow the progress of the Thutmosis III Temple Project via the website or through their Facebook page. I am most grateful to Dr. Myriam Seco Álvarez for inviting me to be part of this project!

Bierbrier, M. L. (2012) Who Was Who in Egyptology. London: The Egypt Exploration Society. 4th edition.
Daressy, G. (1926) ‘Le voyage d’inspection de M. Grébaut en 1889’. Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte 26: 1–22.
Griffin, K. (2017) ‘Toward a better understanding of the ritual of the Hours of the Night (Stundenritual)’. In Tombs of the South Asasif necropolis: New discoveries and research 2012–14, ed. E. Pischikova. The American University in Cairo Press: Cairo. 97–134.
Ricke, H. (1939) Der Totentempel Thutmoses’ III.: Baugeschichtliche Untersuchung. Beiträge zur ägyptischen Bauforschung und Altertumskunde 3 (1). Cairo: Selbstverlag.
Seco Álvarez, M. (2014) ‘The Temple of Millions of Years of Tuthmosis III’. Egyptian Archaeology: The Bulletin of the Egyptian Exploration Society 44: 21–25.
——— (2017) ‘Excavations in the “Temple of Millions of Years” of Thutmosis III’. In Proceedings of the XI International Congress of Egyptologists, Florence Egyptian Museum, Florence, 23–30 August 2015, ed. G. Rosati and G. M. Cristina. Archeopress Egyptology 19. Oxford: Archeopress. 581–586.
Seco Álvarez, M. and J. M. Babón (2015) ‘Middle Kingdom tombs beneath the Temple of Millions of Years’. Egyptian Archaeology: The Bulletin of the Egyptian Exploration Society 47: 27–30.
Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge (1906) Catalogue of the Collection of Egyptian Antiquities Formed in Egypt, by R. de Rustafjaell, Esq. Queen’s Gate, S. W. London: Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge. 
Weigall, A. E. P. (1906) ‘A report on the excavation of the funeral temple of Thoutmosis III at Gurneh’. Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte 7: 121–141.