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Monday, 25 May 2020

“Wonderful Things Conference 2020” – the conference that never was… or was it?

The post for this week is written by Sam Powell, a regular contributor to this blog.

At the time of writing, we have reached the halfway point in the series of lectures replacing the Wonderful Things 2020 conference. Unfortunately, due to the ongoing lockdown, the Egypt Centre were unable to host their second annual conference in Swansea, which was scheduled to take place this past weekend, 23–24 May (fig. 1). Ever resilient, the Egypt Centre, amongst other resources (see Ken’s previous blog post), have utilised the Zoom platform to host a series of bi-weekly lectures in lieu of the conference. The decision was made to make the Wonderful Things conference lectures free of charge, which has been an amazing opportunity to share the collection on a global scale. To date, 1,084 people have attended these lectures, and 1,470 have viewed the lectures afterwards on the Egypt Centre’s YouTube channel.

Fig. 1: Wonderful Things conference poster

Many of the talks so far have related to objects discussed in past blog posts; Ken Griffin discussed the history of the Egypt Centre in his first talk, and then for his second he presented the object life cycle of the Tjenti lintel, which seems to have passed through a wide range of collections and been examined by a range of famous faces. John Rogers and Katherine List gave an update on the conservation work on the faience whistle, as well as a run through of many of the musical objects within the collection. Megan Clark provided an overview of paddle dolls (fig. 2), including our example with its unique motif of a frog, showing examples from a range of collections. A walk-through of the Egyptian objects in Swansea Museum and their relevance to the local community was presented by Carolyn Graves-Brown, during which many Swansea locals shared their memories of some of the objects. Aidan Dodson’s talk shared some fascinating new developments regarding the stone coffin fragments belonging to Amenhotep son of Hapu, which he and Ken have been virtually reconstructing along with fragments held in other institutions. In addition to these talks, I was also allowed to give an overview of the funerary figures I have been working on.

Fig. 2: Egypt Centre paddle doll (W769)

The talks have led to a real sense of community with a global audience with a varying range of previous knowledge of the collection. Delegates have been very encouraging of the presenters, and plenty of questions posed by the audience. It’s been impossible to choose a favourite lecture from the conference as all the topics have been so different covering different aspects of researching objects ranging from material analysis of the faience whistle during its conservation, the relevance of the Swansea Museum collection to the local area, and the more recent life cycle of the Tjenti lintel. This range of approaches to the objects has really demonstrated the scope of the material held by the Egypt Centre. There are still ten lectures to follow on a variety of objects, the details of which can be found on the booking page here. The Zoom platform is very easy to use, so if you haven’t booked already for the remaining lectures, please do join us!

Fig. 3: Sam preparing to start her talk

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my previous posts on my ongoing research into the funerary figures (fig. 4). I have been helping with the series of lectures by co-hosting with Ken to moderate the sessions and helping with any technical difficulties. Therefore, I felt I had gotten the hang of using the virtual lecture room, but it was very different when presenting my own research—especially with the added pressure of realising two of the leading experts on your subject are “in the room”! It was such a useful experience to share my research with a much wider audience than I ever have before, and I’ve received some really lovely messages of support and encouragement from all over the world.

Fig. 4: The Egypt Centre’s collection of wooden funerary figures

I am so grateful to the Egypt Centre for encouraging students such as myself not only to research the collection, but also to present our findings to a wider audience. The Wonderful Things conference may not have been exactly as the Egypt Centre had in mind when planning started all those months ago, but it has actually allowed the museum and its objects to reach a much broader audience, many of whom had never heard of the Egypt Centre before but are now planning a visit as soon as it reopens. The staff at the Egypt Centre have truly risen to the challenge of keeping those of us with an interest in Egyptology occupied over these very strange few weeks, and although we can’t, for now, access these objects in person, this is the next best thing. The Egypt Centre is proving to be one of the leading providers of online material, with an online course starting this week on funerary artefacts using Egypt Centre objects, a weekly series of “Bitesize” videos giving short introductions to different objects in the collection, use of the AURA app to allow you to listen to audio clips about each object, and the Come and Create (video below) events becoming online tutorials.

I’m really proud of the Egypt Centre for leading the way in these unusual times and really rising to the challenge of ensuring access to the collection continues in whatever guise it can. Well done to everyone involved!

Monday, 18 May 2020

Local Things for Local People?

The blog post for this week is written by Dr Carolyn Graves-Brown, the Curator at the Egypt Centre, a position she has held since 1997. She has been curator of two other museums (Neath Museum and Littlehampton Museum), assistant curator at one, and volunteer at another. She is a member of the Museums Association, Conseil international des musées (ICOM), and the Lithics Study Society.

Until 1997, I worked in local authority run museums, which laid great emphasis on the local. This is something I then thought, and still believe, is very important. Local museums can play a real role in enhancing civic pride and all the benefits that brings. However, where does that leave collections like the Egypt Centre? On Friday, I gave a talk on how the study of a small Welsh collection of Egyptological items at Swansea Museum threw a light on the local (fig. 1). This was achieved through exploring object biographies concentrating on how the objects came to Swansea and the characters involved in their collection and display. Such a study is more difficult, though not impossible, where the objects only have a short local history such as with the Egypt Centre, whose collection only came to Swansea in 1971.

Fig. 1: Facade of Swansea Museum

But, I wonder, ethically are museums too concerned with the local? Museum strategies have a tendency to stress the local in their aims and objectives, no wonder as their governing bodies are local and no-one wants to bite the hand that feeds them. National bodies also tend to stress their individuality and they give grants. So, we need to show what we are doing for Wales to receive money from the Welsh government. The same is true of the Egypt Centre, as you can see in our Forward Plan. Of course, additionally, many museums were set up with a local purpose, to enhance civic pride.

Fig. 2: Mummy of Hor in Swansea Museum

However, should museums be more outward looking? I have often wondered this. Cynically, one might say, it is trying to find a clear purpose for the Egypt Centre, that declaring a museum’s role as international makes life easier. Yet surely we should all embrace the international? Museums could play a greater part in improving international co-operation, and not simply those with ‘exotic’ collections. Sharing museological best practise, as for example is done by ICOM, is one way of looking outward. Museum twinning may also play a part. Finally, a great many long-established museums do have exotic collections and many of course do make much of them rather than hiding them away.

Fig. 3: Glass fragment from the Valley of the Kings collected by Welsh Egyptologist Ernest Harold Jones

I’m not arguing for either local or national, just wondering if a little more emphasis should be placed on the international? Thoughts please!

Monday, 11 May 2020

Short Course on the Funerary Artefacts of the Ancient Egyptians

It is now over seven weeks since the Covid-19 lockdown was implemented in the UK, with many other countries facing similar lockdowns. During this time, the Egyptological community has excelled in being proactive with their dissemination of research and keeping people busy and sane through a variety of online lectures and conferences. The American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) virtual Annual Meeting, which was held over two weekends in April, exceeded 1,900 registrants from across the globe. The Egypt Exploration Society (EES) have been having regular lectures and excellent monthly quizzes, which regularly reach capacity. Societies such as the Friends of the Petrie Museum and the Thames Valley Ancient Egypt Society (TVAES) are also offering a programme of Zoom lectures for their members. Since our annual conference planned for May had to be cancelled, it was decided to offer some of the talks for free via Zoom. Three of the seventeen talks have taken place so far, drawing in a combined audience of over 500 people. Additionally, with the permission of the speakers, talks will be added to our YouTube channel and will be available to those who may have missed them.

Fig. 1: Stela of Pasherienimhotep (W1041)

With the growing demand for Egyptological lectures and courses to help keep people occupied, I have recently decided to run a short 5-week course on the funerary artefacts of the ancient Egyptians. Unlike similar titled courses, this one will focus on the Egypt Centre collection, a museum containing almost 6,000 antiquities. Participants will be introduced to the material culture of the dead, as well as the ancient Egyptian view of death and the afterlife. The course will examine the tomb and its contents, such as funerary figures, stelae, ritual and magical objects, and coffins. This is a unique opportunity for participants to study artefacts from the Egypt Centre—including many that are currently housed in storage—delivered by the Collections Access Manager of the Museum.

Fig. 2: Handling a Ptolemaic mask

In an ideal world, this this course would take place at the Egypt Centre and would include the opportunity for participants to handle some of the objects under discussion. As this is not possible, sessions will be held remotely via the Zoom platform. In order to be as accessible as possible, this course will be run twice (numbers permitting):
  • Sunday evenings 6–8pm (UK time)
  • Wednesday mornings 10–12am (UK time)

Additionally, one of the sessions will be recorded and made available for a limited time to registered participants.

Course Outline:
Week 1 (Sunday 24 May or Wednesday 27 May): Provisions for the dead
In week 1, we will examine the ancient Egyptian’s belief in the afterlife, including their hope for resurrection. The Egyptians equipped their tombs for eternity with a variety of objects in order to aid transition. At the same time, the Egyptians believed that they needed to receive continuous nourishment in order to survive in the world of the dead. Objects discussed this week include tomb reliefs, funerary stelae, offering trays, and soul houses.

Fig. 3: Offering tray (W80)

Week 2 (Sunday 31 May or Wednesday 03 June): Funerary figures
Funerary figures are some of the most common objects from ancient Egypt, ranging from stone figures of the Old Kingdom, wooden models of the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom, and shabtis from the Middle Kingdom onwards. In week 2, we will briefly examine the function of these figures and their development over time. We will draw on a collection of over 400 of these figures in the Egypt Centre collection.

Fig. 4: Wooden funerary figure (W434)

Week 3 (Sunday 07 June or Wednesday 10 June): Coffins and mummification
The Egyptians believed that their body needed to survive in order for them to continue to exist beyond death. In order to preserve the body, the Egyptians used mummification techniques, which included removing the internal organs and the brain. In this week, we will trace the development of mummification and the use of canopic jars. We will also examine the use and development of Egyptian coffins, including their decoration.

Fig. 5: Canopic jar of Psamtek (W498)

Week 4 (Sunday 14 June or Wednesday 17 June): Magic and ritual
The day of the burial was a highly ritualised event, which included the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. The afterlife presented many challenges and dangers for the deceased who were commonly equipped with magical objects for protection. Chief amongst them were amulets, which commonly adorned the bodies. In week 4, we will examine the use and function of these amulets, as well as other ritual objects.

Fig. 6: Uraeus amulet (AB6)

Week 5 (Sunday 21 June or Wednesday 24 June): Treasures for the dead
Since the Egyptians believed that the afterlife was in many ways a continuation of their life on earth, they were often buried with more personal and functional objects. Items of furniture, jewellery, clothing, games, and toiletries were particularly common. Some of these items will be discussed in the final week of this course.

Fig. 7: Bracelet from the body of a female buried at Qau (W793)

Cost: £40
  • Payment can be made via our crowdfunding page:
  • In addition to making the payment, please email Ken at who will reply within 24 hours confirming your place on the course. Please note your preference for the Sunday or Wednesday sessions (although there is flexibility from week to week if necessary). Make sure to check your spam/junk folder
  • Note that as this is a payment for a service, you should NOT tick the gift-aid box
  • For alternative methods of payment, please email Ken at
Full instructions on how to join each of the sessions will be issued to all participants in the days leading up to the first class. If you have any questions, please contact Ken at

Monday, 4 May 2020

Collector Biographies 1: Robert de Rustafjaell (1859–1943)

The blog post for this week is the first of semi-regular entries dealing with various collectors whom Sir Henry Wellcome purchased objects from between 1900–1936. The first biography is on the elusive Robert de Rustafjell, whose collections are well represented in the Egypt Centre with perhaps as many as 1000 objects. To quote an abstract advertising a talk by Tom Hardwick, “Robert de Rustafjaell is one of the strangest and most mysterious figures … A bigamist, a serial absconder and man of many aliases, an amasser of valuable and worthless objects including the oldest paintings in the world on canvas and a relic of the true cross, a Zelig-like figure who turns up in the oddest places.” The following account is largely taken from the entry by Bierbrier in the Who Was Who in Egyptology (2019, 405–6), which is an essential reference work for any Egyptologist.

Fig. 1: Theban tomb painting, purchased by Wellcome from the 1906 de Rustafjaell sale.

Robert de Rustafjaell was a British-American collector, dealer, and author. He was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on the 10 December 1859, the son of Nicholas Classen Smed (to whom the surnames Smith and de Rustafjaell were later attributed), an engineer of Norwegian extraction, and Maria Tamara Orbeliani. Despite this, he later claimed in a passenger manifesto to have been born in Birmingham 1876, while his death notice records his birth as 10 December 1875. Few of his often extravagant claims about his ancestry and life can be externally verified. He claims to have been brought to England in 1861 by his parents and to have been educated at Harrow and Oxford, and in Sweden and Germany. He travelled overseas after 1877, spending time in America before returning to England in 1887. He was first known by the surname Smith or Fawcus-Smith, although he was using that of de Rustafjaell by 1892 and formally changed to the latter on 9 Oct 1894. He appears to have married a Swedish lady Carolina Amalia Arfwidson in 1892, with whom he had a son (Robert Clarence Hjalmar de Rustafjaell, 1892–16 Jun 1914) soon afterwards. He was married again in 1895 to Harriet Sarah Wilkinson, but was in the company of his first wife and son in the 1901 census. By 1905 he was married to an American, Mary Davis (b. 1869), perhaps the mother of his daughter Tamara (09 Oct 1907–Nov 1982), born in southern Russia (or Kars, Turkey) in 1907. Tamara, who later resided in Pennsylvania, later changed her surname from Orbeliani Rustafjaell to Rustafell.

Fig. 2: Inscribed textile, purchased by Wellcome from the de Rustafjaell collection in 1906

Robert de Rustafjaell excavated at Cyzicus in Turkey in 1901. He lived for some time in Egypt as a geologist, mining engineer, and owner of the Luxor Trading Co., which also sold antiquities. In 1909 he opened an antiquities shop on the main street at Luxor, which he called the Museum of Practical Archaeology. According to Ludwig Borchardt, it included a considerable number of fakes (Hagen & Ryholt 2016, 259; Voss 2014, 57). It was during this time that he formed a collection of Egyptian antiquities, mainly Predynastic, but also acquiring a number of New Kingdom votive cloths from the Hathor shrine at Deir el-Bahari (d’Auria 1996), fragments from the walls of Theban tombs (including that of Nebamun), and two groups of papyri and codices (Vorderstrasse 2019).

Fig. 3: Paneb's offering stand (W957), purchased by Wellcome from the 1907 de Rustafjaell sale

De Rustafjaell was declared bankrupt in London in 1914 and emigrated to America. Immigration records show him travelling at least three times to New York between 1919–1927 under the name Robert Orbeliani-Rustafjaell. At one period he changed his name to Col. Prince Roman Orbeliani (as well as other variants), thus linking himself with the powerful Georgian Orbeliani family (Vorderstrasse 2019, 17). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in 1899, of the Zoological Society in 1901, and the Royal Numismatic Society in 1904. In addition to short notices on his collection in newspapers and journals, he published Palaeolithic vessels of Egypt or the earliest handiwork of man (1907), The light of Egypt from recently discovered Predynastic and early Christian records, etc (1909), and The stone age in Egypt: a record of recently discovered implements and products of the archaic Niliotic races inhabiting the Thebaid (1914). The light of Egypt publication is noteworthy for having a photo (fig. 4) of the discoverer of the Deir el-Bahari cache (BD 320), Abd er-Rasul Ahmed Abd er-Rasul, with his aging mother Fendia (said to be 120 years of age), his daughter, and grandchild (de Rustafjaell 1909, 55, pl. 29; Simpson 2010, 200–2, fig. 3).

Fig. 4: Abd er-Rasul family, pre-1909. de Rustafjaell (1909, pl. 29)

His collections were dispersed in five sales: Sotheby’s, 19–21 Dec 1906 (550 lots), 9–10 Dec 1907 (245 lots), 20–24 Jan 1913 (1051 lots), Paris 29 May 1914, and New York 29 Nov–1 Dec 1915 (745 lots). The first sale produced £1,843, the second £308-12, the third £2,748, and the fifth $12,760. A posthumous sale took place in New York 13–14 Dec 1949. According to Hagen and Ryholt (2014, 160, 162, 259), Rustafjaell would issue press releases about important discoveries, all of which were related to objects in his own collection, which had, rather conveniently, just appeared at auction. The ultimate aim was to drive up the price by creating a bidding war! Objects from these sales have since ended up in the British Museum, British Library, Berlin Museum, the Louvre, and many other museums.

Fig. 5: Copper alloy sword marked "Medinet Habu". Purchased by Wellcome from the 1906 de Rustafjaell sale

Sir Henry Wellcome was a major purchaser at his sales in 1906, 1907, and 1913, with many of the objects subsequently arriving in Swansea in 1971. While many of the objects are particularly important pieces, a high number of them are fakes and forgeries. Some of the highlights have already featured in this blog, including the offering stand of Paneb (W957), a sandstone fragment from the Gurna temple of Thutmose III (W1371), a painted relief from a Theban tomb (W1377), a soldier stela (W1366), a bronze statue of Osiris (W85), a rare Predynastic stone figure (W150), and fragments of the sarcophagus of Amenhotep son of Hapu (W1367a & b). Other objects include lithics, Predynastic pottery and stone vessels, coffin fragments, wooden furniture, metal weapons and tools, stone statues (mostly fragmentary), stelae, jewellery, and a large quantity of textiles, mainly Coptic. Despite their random nature, Rustafjaell seems to have labelled the provenance of many of these objects with blue or red pencil, although whether these associations are accurate is debatable (fig. 5).  

Fig. 6: Relief depicting Khabekhnet, purchased by Wellcome in 1906 from the de Rustafjaell collection

One object without provenance, W927, is worthy of highlighting here (fig. 6). The object is a painted limestone relief depicting Khabekhnet and his wife Sahte (to the right) presenting offerings to the deities Ptah, Ptah-Sokar, and Isis. Several enthroned deities are also depicted in the scene above, although only the feet are preserved. Khabekhnet is identified in the hieroglyphs as the “Servant in the Place of Truth”, which was the Egyptian name for the workman’s village at Deir el-Medina. The exact provenance of this relief is unknown, although it is likely from at tomb-chapel or shrine at Deir el-Medina where Khabekhnet was buried (TT 2). Khabekhnet was the eldest son of Sennedjem, whose well-known tomb (TT 1) at Deir el-Medina was discovered undisturbed in 1886. While Ptah was the main deity at Memphis, he became the patron god of the villagers of Deir el-Medina. The relief was purchased in 1906 from the collection of Robert de Rustafjaell (fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Plate 10 from the 1906 sale with objects from the Egypt Centre, British Museum, and Liverpool World Museum superimposed 

Despite his colourful career, not a single photo of Robert de Rustafjaell is known to exist, which is perhaps exactly how he would have wanted it given his elusive nature. Roman Orbeliani, as he was then known, died in New York 10 Feb 1943 and was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery three days later.

Bierbrier, Morris L. 2019. Who was who in Egyptology, 5th revised ed. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
D’Auria, Sue 1996. Three painted textiles in the collection of the Boston Athenaeum. In Manuelian, Peter Der (ed.), Studies in honor of William Kelly Simpson 1, 169–176. Boston: Dept. of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art, Museum of Fine Arts.
De Rustafjaell, Robert 1907. Palaeolithic vessels of Egypt: or the earliest handiwork of man. London: Macmillan.
———. 1909. The light of Egypt: from recently discovered predynastic and early Christian records. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner.
Hagen, Fredrik and Kim Ryholt 2016. The antiquities trade in Egypt 1880–1930: the H.O. Lange papers. Scientia Danica. Series H, Humanistica, 4 8. Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab.
Simpson, Caroline 2010. Qurna: more pieces of an unfinished history. In Hawass, Zahi and Salima Ikram (eds), Thebes and beyond: studies in honour of Kent R. Weeks, 197–218. Le Caire: Conseil Suprême des Antiquités.
Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge 1906. Catalogue of the collection of Egyptian antiquities, formed in Egypt by R. De Rustafjaell, which will be sold by auction by Messrs. Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge...19th December, 1906 and two following days... London: Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge.
———. 1907. Catalogue of a collection of antiquities from Egypt, ... being the second portion of the collection of Robert de Rustafjaell, esq. F.R.G.S, which will be sold by auction, ... on Monday, the 9th of December, 1907, and the following day. London: 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.
Vorderstrasse, Tasha 2019. What is Medieval Nubian art? The Oriental Institute News & Notes 240, 16–19.
Voss, Susanne 2014. Ludwig Borchardts Berichte über Fälschungen im ägyptischen Antikenhandel von 1899 bis 1914: Aufkommen, Methoden, Techniken, Spezialisierungen und Vertrieb. In Fitzenreiter, Martin (ed.), Authentizität: Artefakt und Versprechen in der Archäologie. Workshop vom 10. bis 12. Mai 2013, Ägyptisches Museum der Universität Bonn, 51-59. London: Golden House.