The blog post for this week is written by Wendy Goodridge, the Assistant Curator of the Egypt Centre and first ever volunteer at the museum. She started volunteering in 1997 before the museum was officially opened, whilst she was a postgraduate student studying under Professor Alan Lloyd. Wendy worked with the Curator Carolyn Graves-Brown and a few other eager volunteers to transform the empty museum spaces into displays highlighting the collection ready for the grand opening in 1998. She was employed at first as a Museum Assistant in 1998 and in 2003 was appointed Assistant Curator. Wendy took the lead on developing the schools programme, introducing the ‘dummy mummy’, which was made by her sister, and spends a lot of her time on museum administration. Wendy is interested in the extraordinary collector Sir Henry Wellcome and her favourite objects in the museum are the amulets!
Sadly, we have come to the end of our five-week course, which seems to have flown by really quickly! I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring the various topics especially as Ken has illustrated them so well using the Egypt Centre collection and bringing the objects to life! Doing this course has been a refreshing change from my normal daily work where I really don’t get time to study the collection! Session five was aptly named ‘Treasures of the Dead’ and Ken commented ‘Everything we have seen in the previous four sessions could also be deemed “treasures”’. Today’s session was focusing less on funerary objects and more on personal objects that were used in daily life by the ancient Egyptians, who would have wanted to be buried with them for use in the afterlife. I am not going to be able to report on all the types of ‘treasures’ Ken mentioned, but will choose a selection. We can see ‘treasured’ objects depicted in funerary processions and paintings of the deceased in the afterlife using their ‘treasures’. Possessions such as furniture, clothing, beds and headrests, a fan, games and toys, boxes, and of course lots of wine (fig. 1)!
|Fig. 1: Funeral procession in the tomb of Ramose (TT 55)|
Ken discussed wooden furniture and explained it was a very common commodity for the afterlife, especially for the elite (Killen 1993, 2018). We examined the beautifully decorated chair of Sitamun in the Cairo Museum, which is decorated with protective beings such as Bes beating a tambour and wielding knives. Was this object made for the tomb or was it used in life also? The Egypt Centre has a wide variety of furniture pieces, including legs of beds, chairs, and stools. Ken highlighted a pair of Egypt Centre wooden bed legs from Akhmim (fig. 2). One is decorated with the image of Bes standing on a protective Sa-sign, with a snake on the other face. The second leg is decorated with the protective being Tawaret with a knife projecting from her feet. Is it possible this bed/couch was used by pregnant women after childbirth for purification, particularly as these beings are known to protect women in childbirth? The Egypt Centre recently presented a lecture by Manon Schutz who discussed the possible use of purification beds for women after childbirth.
|Fig. 2: Bed legs from Akhmim (W2052a & W2052b)|
Headrests were seen throughout Dynastic Egypt from the Early Dynastic to the Roman Period. They were used by the living as a ‘pillow’ while sleeping, but were also used to prop the head of the mummy during their eternal sleep! Some tomb models show the person laying on their side or on their back. They have a practical use but were also believed to have a symbolic function as a symbol of rebirth. The persons head represents the sun lowering each evening and, hopefully, rising each morning in the horizon, the Akhet! Ken showed a complete wooden headrest (AB80), possibly from Abydos, which was donated to the Egypt Centre by Aberystwyth University in 1997 (fig. 3). It is made of three pieces; a headrest, stem, and base so it is easier to repair and can easily be transported. Headrests are commonly made of wood, but some are made of stone or faience. They are also commonly shown on the inside of coffins from the Middle Kingdom. Some headrests are decorated with the protective being Bes, possibly including our headrest, who would avert your nightmares! Of course, headrests are still used in modern societies today. If you fancy trying one out (after Covid-19 is a distant memory of course!) we have a replica headrest that is used for visitors and school parties. Some find it surprisingly comfy and much cooler than a pillow! For anyone who wants more information on headrests, Ken mentioned the work of Dr Katharina Zinn, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Katharina has researched headrests and presented at the Wonderful Things 2019 conference as well as for the Friends of the Egypt Centre (Zinn 2018). You can also see our Curator Carolyn Graves-Brown talk about headrests in her Bitesize series.
|Fig. 3: Wooden headrest (AB80)|
Clothes were not high on the list of items taken into the tomb for use in the afterlife despite being important in life for the elite. Ken discussed the possibility that tomb depictions showing the deceased in fine linen clothes perhaps sufficed as substitutes for the real thing (fig. 4). One fascinating fact we discussed was that most clothes found were deliberately inside out! We had quite a lively discussion about this fact. Had the deceased taken them off this way and they were left inside out so the unwashed clothes had the ‘essence’ of the deceased in the sweat deposited on the garment? Or were they laundered inside out to preserve the linen? The last tale in the Westcar Papyrus tells the story of the magical birth of the first three kings of the Fifth Dynasty: Userkaf, Sahure, and Kakai. Reddedet, wife of Rewosre, a priest of Ra, goes into a difficult labour, and the god Ra, hearing it, sends Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, Heket, and Khnum to help her. These deities transform themselves into dancing girls and musicians and go to the home to help with the birth. They find Rewosre, upset over his wife’s condition wearing his kilt ‘upside down’, which can also mean ‘inside out’. Interestingly, it was pointed out in the chat that the modern Arabic word for inside out also means upside down! The kilt was the most popular item of clothing and comes top in laundry lists and a shopping list from Deir-el-Medina! We were lucky enough to have Rosalind Janssen participate in our Experiment and Experience conference. Rosalind has expertise concerning ancient Egyptian textiles and clothes, with a special interest in the Egyptian laundry and pleating techniques (Hall 1985, 1986).
|Fig. 4: Elaborate clothing in the tomb of Nebamun (BM EA 37981)|
Sandals were another interesting item taken to the afterlife by the elite. These may well have been worn by the deceased in life and they were usually made of plant fibre (fig, 5). What I thought was interesting was they have been found on top of coffins and sometimes inside coffins as though the deceased wants them nearby for quick access when they arise. Just like me putting my slippers by the side of my bed!
|Fig. 5: Sandals from the British Museum on loan to the Egypt Centre (BM EA 36201)|
The last ‘treasure’ I will mention is jewellery. Many items of jewellery have been found in graves and tombs right through Egyptian history. Was the jewellery intended to enhance beauty and to feel good, worn for protection (amuletic properties), or both? Ken reminded us we shouldn’t put our modern notion of ‘beauty’ and our function of jewellery from ancient Egypt. Ken showed us various pieces from the Egypt Centre collection; one was W793, a beautiful bracelet made of carnelian, quartz (possibly amethyst), and copper, which was excavated by Flinders Petrie at Qau el-Kebir (fig. 6).
The highlight of the jewellery Ken discussed were four New Kingdom, Eighteenth Dynasty, Amarna collars. They were part of the Berens collection purchased by Wellcome in 1923 and were believed to come from the royal tombs and bodies of the Amarna princesses! The collars are mainly made of faience and include beads of glass and semi-precious stones, such as lapis lazuli and carnelian. W8 has a large central shell shaped, floral pendant flanked by amulets of fish and squatting baboons, Bes and Taweret figures, female deities with staffs, poppy seed cases, a heart, and a row of rosettes. W9 has a rare central female Bes amulet flanked by female deities with staff, a squatting baboon, and two rows of rosettes. W10 has a central heart amulet flanked by a crouching child figure, female deities with staff, fish, and a situla amulet. W11 is a beautiful intricate round collar made of tiny beads with no central pendant. The images of the collars were excellent quality and we were told some took Ken over five days to cut out the background! Ken did a poll and asked which collar was our favourite – W9 the Beset collar won but my favourite is still W11 (fig. 7)! It is not known whether the linen thread is original. I like to hope it is—why use linen for modern threading? Ken discussed the ethics of radiocarbon dating the object; some of the thread will have to be destroyed so losing some of the beautiful beadwork and it would devalue the object if the string is not original. Although some would prefer to find out, others, like myself, would say no!
So many other ‘Treasures’ were discussed that couldn’t be mentioned, such as cosmetics, games, toys, vessels, wigs, mirrors, boxes, and tools of the trade! It was certainly a treasure packed session! On behalf of all those who took the five-week course, I want to say a big thank you to Ken for such interesting sessions, as well as encouraging and patiently answering so many questions. Additionally, to Sam Powell who co-hosted and worked very hard to ensure the sessions ran smoothly! We look forward to the next one on Egyptian religion, which has now been advertised!
Hall, Rosalind 1985. “The cast-off garment of yesterday”: dresses reversed in life and death. Bulletin de l’Institut français d'archéologie orientale 85, 235–243.
——— 1986. Egyptian textiles. Shire Egyptology 4. Princes Risborough: Shire Publications.
Killen, Geoffrey 1994. Egyptian woodworking and furniture. Shire Egyptology 21. Princes Risborough: Shire Publications.
——— 2017. Ancient Egyptian furniture, 3 vols, 2nd ed. Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books.
Zinn, Katharina 2018. Did you sleep well on your headrest?—Anthropological perspectives on an ancient Egyptian implement. Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 17, 202–219.