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Monday, 28 September 2020

Religion at Deir el-Medina

The blog post for this week is written by Dr Abeer Eladany. Abeer is has been the Curatorial Assistant of Museums and Special Collections, University of Aberdeen, since 2018. She studied at the Faculty of Archaeology, Cairo University, and previously worked in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo for many years before travelling to Manchester to study at the University of Manchester where she obtained her MSc and PhD in Biomedical Egyptology.  Her main research interests are animal and human mummies. Abeer also obtained a Museum Studies degree from the University of Aberdeen in 2015.

This week on the Deir el-Medina course, we discussed religion at the village. The lecture was focused on deities, domestic piety, shrines, temples, and festivals in the village. Here are some of the important deities as there are so many and it would not be possible to include all of them in one lecture or indeed in a blog!

Starting with my favourite goddess in the Egyptian pantheon, Meretseger. She was exclusively worshipped in the village and was considered the local deity. Her name translates as “She who loves silence”, which relates to the fact that she lives in the mountain region where it is quite silent and desolate. She is the personification of the Western Peak or “Dhenet-Imenetet”. However, the peak itself rarely enters the goddess iconography. She is represented in various forms such as a coiled serpent, a rearing cobra, a serpent with a woman’s head, a snake-headed woman, or as a full human. She may wear a disk with horns or a modius with uraei. She is commonly represented on stelae, ostraca, and in tombs. Meretseger is known to have been evoked in graffiti throughout the western mountains (fig. 1). She is known as the protector of the deceased as well as the tombs due to their location in her area. Officials in Deir el-Medina were commonly seen represented on stelae kneeling down in adoration in front of Meretseger represented as a snake. As she was believed to have the power to cure blindness and snake bites, prayers to Meretseger asking for a cure for blindness or snakes’ bites are known from the village. Because she is represented as a snake, she is known to strike wrongdoers with snake bites and blindness. Ramesses III was represented being suckled by the goddess where she is represented as a female on a decorated stela in a sanctuary between Deir el-Medina and Valley of the Queen. The goddess was seldomly worshiped after the New Kingdom as the village was abandoned. 


Fig. 1: BM EA 8510

Hathor is a prominent goddess in the Egyptian pantheon and was a state deity who was worshipped generally in ancient Egypt. Her sanctuary was the principal sanctuary before the Ptolemaic temple was built, which might be the reason of the lack of evidence of her cult in the village. The villagers maintained a small sanctuary or temple in which Hathor was worshipped. They performed the daily and seasonal rituals that were usually performed by the professional priesthood in large state temples. Many village women bore the title songstress of Hathor, which is a musical occupation. An ostracon in the Egypt Centre depicts Hathor, represented as a cow with the sun disk between her horns (W1327). Below Hathor, a procession of officials is depicted with their hands raised in adoration (fig. 2). Sketches such as this were made by the villagers of Deir el-Medina in Western Thebes as exercises for their official work as draughtsmen in the nearby tombs of the New Kingdom royalty or to record passive incidents in their daily life. Digital manipulation of the image using D-stretch software proved very useful and enhanced the faded scene showing great detail (fig. 3). The ostracon (W1327) came to the Egypt Centre through the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome (1853–1936) who purchased it in 1906 from Robert de Rustafjaell (1876–1943). The provenance of Deir el-Medina is recorded at the back by Rustafjaell.

Fig. 2: Ostracon from Deir el-Medina (W1327)

Fig. 3: Ostracon after DStretch filter

Ptah is another patron deity of the village. He was commonly worshipped at the village mainly because of his association with craftsmen. Ptah is a state god and one of the main deities of Memphis. Ptah, Amun, and Re became the three main deities in the Egyptian pantheon during the New Kingdom. Ptah has a specific role in Deir el-Medina and is well represented on stelae and in tomb scenes, such as the tomb of Pashedu where Ptah is represented with Khepri and Osiris in the form of the djed-pillar. A number of shrines located between Deir el-Medina and valley of the Queens were dedicated to him and Meretseger. The Egypt Centre houses a limestone wall relief fragment (W927), which is probably from a chapel in Deir el-Medina. The relief, which dates back to the reign of Ramesses II, shows Khabekhnet (son of Sennedjem, one of the celebrities of Deir el-Medina) and his wife Sahte in adoration before Ptah, Ptah-Sokar, and Isis (fig. 4). This fragment was purchased in 1907 by Henry Wellcome from the collection of Robert de Rustafjaell and was acquired by the Egypt centre in 1971 via the dispersal of the Wellcome Collection.


Fig. 4: Relief depicting Khabekhnet and Sahte before the gods

Tawaret, or the “Great female one”, was often identified as the consort of Bes. She was also called the concubine of Seth who was sometimes represented as a hippo. She was the protector of both women and children, and in particular seems to have been associated with pregnant women. Taweret is usually depicted as a hippopotamus with pendulous breasts, swollen belly, and an open mouth showing her teeth probably to emphasis her protective role. She usually wears a female tripartite wig surmounted with feathered headdress, a modius, or the horns and solar disk (fig. 5). At the village, she was clearly associated with a happy home and family life. She was invoked within the home rather than in shrines. However, there is some evidence for a cult of Tawaret in the village. A pair of inscribed doors were found at the site by Bernard Bruyère. The inscription refers to a servant of Tawaret, which might indicate that there was a shrine dedicated to Tawaret. The inscription gives praise to the goddess and describes here as “Lady of heavens, mistress of all the gods, lady of nourishment, mistress of provision, lady of marriage”.

Fig. 5: Stela of Benboui adoring Taweret (Louvre)

The god Bes was another popular deity, whose name comes from the word Besa, which means “to protect”. Bes emerges in the Old Kingdom and he is represented in some images on scores of artefacts from the Middle Kingdom. He comes to prominence in the New Kingdom (fig. 6). He is a powerful apotropaic and protective deity who is associated with children and women especially pregnant women. He is a household deity and is often seen alongside Tawaret.


Fig. 6: Fragment of a Bes vessel from Deir el-Medina (W1702)

Amenhotep I and his mother Ahmose Nefertari became the patron deities at Deir el-Medina (fig. 7). Some scholars argue that Amenhotep was the founder of the village at Deir el-Medina and that is why he, along with his mother, were deified at the village. However, there is no clear evidence to support this. In his chapel, the daily ritual took place three times a day. The oracle of Amenhotep I is also well attested in the village. Ahmose Nefertari was the daughter of Seqenenre Tao and his wife Ahhotep. She was the wife of Ahmose II, who was responsible for defeating the Hyksos, and the mother of King Amenhotep I. On monuments, she is mentioned as king’s daughter, king’s sister, king’s great wife, God’s Wife of Amun, and mistress of the Upper and lower Egypt. In later inscriptions, she also appears with the title king’s mother. Her mummy shows an age of death of about seventy years. Representations of Ahmose Nefertari appear on stelae and in tombs and she was deified throughout the Luxor region. 


Fig. 7: Adoration to Amenhotep I and Ahmose Nefertari (Turin C 1452)

The Aswan triad of Khnum, Satet, and Anqet were commonly represented at the village. It is not clear why, but several scholars suggest that some craftsmen were originally from the Aswan region where the triad were mainly worshipped. There is evidence that the villagers appealed to the triad for good inundation as they would have suffered the most during low inundation due to their remote location. The triad were represented in tombs, such as in a scene from the tomb of Nakhtamun (TT 335). A limestone stand for an offering table (W957), which belonged to the infamous Paneb, contains an inscription mentioning the Aswan triad (fig. 8).


Fig. 8: Offering stand belonging to Paneb addressing the Aswan triad (W957)

Stelophorus statues are well known from the village. The owners of these statues were usually depicted kneeling and holding a stela, which is usually inscribed with a hymn to the rising sun, part of chapter 15 of the Book of the Dead. Ancestor worship as an important part of religion in the village. Almost all ancestor busts discovered date to the Ramesside Period and most of them were found in Deir el-Medina. They were located near walls in the main living room and were probably situated in niches. The busts portray household deities as representative of spirit of the ancestors. Some busts were inscribed with individual names and figures of this type can also be found in the Book of the Dead (spell 151), “spell of the head of mysteries”, specifically invoking the Akh spirit or the blessed dead. Over seventy ancestor stelae have been discovered at Deir el-Medina. They testify to the existence of household cults devoted to deceased relatives. They are often referred to as ꜣḫ i͗ḳr n Rꜥ stelae, which is translated as “excellent spirit of Re” (fig. 9). The ancient Egyptians believed that spirits could be dangerous if offended and offerings were propitiatory as well as reverential. Letters to the dead were usually prompted by some misfortune thought to be caused by the dead person and were often written on limestone flakes or pottery and were later discarded. The living could ask the dead to intervene in matters on earth and in the afterlife.


Fig. 9: Fragment of an ancestor stela (AB129)

There are many chapels and shrines in the village that were dedicated to various deities, which attests to the devotion of the villagers (fig. 10). These small temples were dedicated to Amenhotep I, Seti I, Ramesses II, and Ptah. Several of the chapels, which are largely mudbrick structures, had benches for seating up to twelve persons. Cult statues, votive stelae, and libation basins were discovered at these temples, which suggests that the chapels were special gathering places for the villagers to pray, venerate their ancestors, and the local deities. A small chapel dedicated to Amenhotep I stood on the terrace just above the enclosure of the Ptolemaic temple at the north-east corner of the village and was dedicated to the cult of the deceased king. The chapel was extended, with modifications taking place over time. The chapel of Seti I is located on the north side of the Ptolemaic temple and was dedicated to Hathor. The chapel consists of a series of architectural elements before a tripartite sanctuary at the rear. The Amun temple is located directly opposite the Ptolemaic temple and was constructed during the reign of Ramesses II. It consists of several courtyards leading to a tripartite sanctuary at the back. Fragments of wall plaster as well as a statue of the vizier Panehesy were found here. The chapel of the Feast of the Opet was built outside the village along the north side of its precinct wall and was probably built sometime after the reign of Ramesses VII. It is not clear the god to which it was devoted but traces of the lower part of a mummiform figure found on the walls indicate that it could be Ptah, Amun Kamutef, or Min.

Fig. 10: Chapels at Deir el-Medina

The Ptolemaic temple was constructed during the reigns of Ptolemy IV Philopator, Ptolemy VI Philometor, and Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos (c. 220–145 BC), almost 1000 years after the abandonment of the village (fig. 11). The main temple, which is in an excellent condition, was dedicated to several deities including Hathor, Maat, Imhotep, and Amenhotep son of Hapu. It is remarkable that the mudbrick wall surrounding the temple still stands to its original height. The temple includes chapels for Amun-Sokar-Osiris, Amun-Re-Osiris, and a sanctuary for Hathor and Maat. A very unique scene adorns one of the walls of the Amun-Sokar-Osiris chapel, which was recently cleaned by an Egyptian conservation team. A text describes the scene as the Hall of two Maats and it is a judgment scene, chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead, usually only found in tombs and on papyrus.

Fig. 11: Facade of the Ptolemaic Temple

Villagers were given time off work to participate in major festivals, such as the Beautiful Festival of the Valley. A number of feast days is known from various documents. There were several feasts dedicated to Amenhotep I, such as the Great Feast of Amenhotep I, and his cult statue is commonly referred to in many texts. It is possibly that it was housed in one of the chapels at the north-west of the Ptolemaic temple. There is evidence that oracles were consulted in the New Kingdom in order to resolve disputes. Many ostraca bear short questions to the oracle such as “My good Lord, shall we be given rations? These questions would have been placed in front of the procession and the priests who are carrying the bark would be responsible for the answers (fig. 12). The questions were usually asked so they would have a yes or no answer. A forward move would mean yes, and a backward move would mean no. If you were to ask the oracle a question, what would it be? My question to the oracle would be “are we going to have another lockdown?”!


Fig. 11: Procession of Amenhotep I

I look forward to the next session about justice at the village and the workers’ strikes.


Demarée, R. J. 1983. The ꜣḫ i͗ḳr n Rꜥ-stelae: on ancestor worship in ancient Egypt. Egyptologische Uitgaven 3. Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten.

du Bourguet, Pierre 2002. Le temple de Deir al-Médîna. Mémoires publiés par les membres de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 121. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.

Griffin, K. 2007. An ꜣḫ i͗ḳr n Rꜥ stela from the collection of the Egypt Centre, Swansea. In Schneider, Thomas and Kasia Szpakowska (eds), Egyptian stories: a British Egyptological tribute to Alan B. Lloyd on the occasion of his retirement, 137–147. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

Harrington, Nicola 2005. From the cradle to the grave: anthropoid busts and ancestor cults at Deir el-Medina. In Piquette, Kathryn and Serena Love (eds), Current research in Egyptology 2003: proceedings of the fourth annual symposium which took place at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 18–19 January 2003, 71–88. Oxford; Oakville, CT: Oxbow Books.

Keith, Jean Lewis, Sylvie Donnat, Anna K. Stevens, and Nicola Harrington 2011. Anthropoid busts of Deir el Medineh and other sites and collections: analyses, catalogue, appendices. Documents de fouilles de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 49. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.

McDowell, A. G. 1999. Village life in ancient Egypt: laundry lists and love songs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Valbelle, Dominique 1975. Témoignages du Nouvel Empire sur les cultes de Satis et d’Anoukis à Eléphantine et à Deir el-Médineh. Bulletin de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 75, 123–145.

Weiss, Lara 2015. Religious practice at Deir el-Medina. Egyptologische Uitgaven 29. Leuven: Peeters.

Wilkinson, Richard H. 2003. The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson.

Monday, 21 September 2020

Musing on Deir el-Medina

The blog post for this week has been written by Laura Williams, who describes herself as a wearer of hats, having lovely cursive handwriting, and a solitary creature happiest surrounded by books, knowledge, ideas, and synonyms. Still tends to “wander off from the group” or on obscure tangents!

I admit that I am having the best time during this pandemic. To have been offered an up-close, ongoing, series of lectures by knowledgeable people, the professionals, the top in their fields, and all the other people world-wide who share my love in the study of Egyptology. To spend my Sunday nights, and some Wednesday mornings, with others who are as interested in such diverse aspects of Egyptology. I am very content and want these talks to never end. 

I will start by saying that I was ‘today days old’ when I realized that Ken Griffin was NOT sitting in the main room of The Egypt Centre. In my mind, every session, Ken turns a key in the door, opening it, casting a small stream of light into the darkness, walking across the floor, footsteps echoing, and floor boards creaking in familiar ways—carrying a candle (just go with me here) to set up in the corner of a room, perched at a desk, with the presence of all these wonderful, silent, witnesses to history, and time, lurking up behind him (fig. 1). 

Fig. 1: Ken's backdrop to the Zoom lectures in the House of Life gallery

I am not a scholar nor have any formal training or knowledge of the study of Egyptology. I am just a fan. A grownup whose imagination was first fired up, at the age of 2 in 1971, when my Grandmother returned from a church group trip to The Holy Land. My fingers discovering the bullet hole in her suitcase, covered by a sticker to avoid my parents knowing about it, and the way her voice and eyes lit up as she told me what she had seen. A photo of her sitting on a camel remains and, now, a second photo taken 30 years later of my parents all those years later on their own trip (fig. 2). I realize the camels are not the same. Granted, while attitudes of camels are likely the same. My Grandmother’s telling of going into a tomb, underground, the air, the dust disturbed by her feet walking down the hallway. The colours, the coolness, the silence that seemed filled with whispered echoes, and her wonder—her awe and delight to see history and visit the past.   

Fig. 2: Grandmother wanted the camel handler in photo and made sure to get his name. They wandered off from the group together, the three of them. Circa 1970s.

As a school child I was part of a noisy, inattentive, sugared-up, gaggle of children wandering around, shouting and laughing, echoing through the vast rooms of the Egyptian Gallery, in the late 1970s, of The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). The child who ‘tends to dawdle and wander off from the group’* who peppered our museum guide with endless questions and bursts of excitement [Ken and Sam witness to this trait still present in me!]. Standing in front of the vast carved wall of Hatshepsut’s “Expedition to Punt” mural from her funerary temple, it overwhelmed me (fig. 3). To learn that Canadians had gone and helped to discover such history and bring this knowledge to my very doorstep. We were told of the Canadian pride in the care, respect, co-operation with Egyptians and people from across the world who worked to learn, restore, catalogue, and preserve such a vast body of knowledge. In fact, I may have wandered off and ended up in the back workrooms, empty corridors, where items were studied, cared for, recorded and stored, away from the general population. And, I may be the reason that these doors are now locked, with alarms, and signs forbidding such exploration. I was ultimately discovered at the elbow of someone carefully working on the conservation of a gold gilded panel. Almost sharing her magnifying glass and blocking her focused clear light. Peppering her with questions. Sternly returned through the hands of a student assistant, then administrative person to the sole museum security guard who lead me back to my waiting class, bundled in coats, waiting so that ‘everyone’ was gathered up to return home.

Fig. 3: Inspiration from the Punt Expedition casts in the ROM

Summarizing this knowledge are three books presented at the beginning of lecture 2 of this series, Who’s Who at Deir el-Medina, Village Life in Ancient Egypt: Laundry Lists and Love Songs, and The Workmen at Thebes in the Ramesside Period focused my attention to realize that my love of Egypt is resoundingly based on the Everyday Person (fig. 4). Imagining myself living their lives, using their tools, seeing the ruins in various stages of ruination. To have been part of their creation, to have accepted their presence as ‘part of life’. To take the awesome and consider it the mundane. 

Fig. 4: Three highly recommended books

For me, Egypt has always been the hand-sized tool of unknown use that have been held by human hands over millennium. I think of the people who worked and lived everyday lives. I resonate with them. I imagine holding rocks, wood, metal, brushes, linens, as these far-off, long dead, people once did. My hand just like their hand. Long fingers, or short stubby ones, hands soft or roughened by worked, calloused and mis-shaped. Hands just like mine. Touch. The one sense that all humans experience. 

While the golden pieces are phenomenal, fashioned, memorializing, artifacts from hands of people who lived so long ago. Those preciously created, preserved and secreted away are wonderful, the stores of items tucked away, hidden from sight, to mark the wealth, status, celebration of life, that were shown to the very few. But speak of a desired life, a dream.

The people of Deir el- Medina lived lives and gave of themselves to create such objects, images, records of thoughts and ideas—for and about people who were primarily untouchable, unseen, and frequently unknown to them. To know that they have names, the people who crafted in this town or oversaw the work. I first wonder if the names we brazenly sound out Sennedjem, Paneb, and Ken, were they used everyday or for formal occasions—what names were called across the tomb’s interior as surrounded by coworkers who then walked home together (fig. 5). Day following day, season by season, year by year, and generation to generation.

Fig. 5: Painting from the tomb of Pashedu (TT 3)

Over the years of work, a father who would bring their child into the progressing tomb to point out their first season as a craftsman, places that they remember creating jokes and the stories accumulated on the walls, records of the lives being lived at those times, all the people who lived, contributed, and now remain as memories affixed to the walls and items created. Not only the stories and meanings attached to the murals and statues or objects, but the stories behind those familiar and prescribed words and ideas. The place along the wall that marks when a father met a woman who would become the child’s mother, stories of relatives who all worked in that same room. Decades and years after their voices rang out resonating off the walls. The words and experiences of the people that were painted, carved, crafted into place as the underlying real story of Egypt (fig. 6). A whole collective community, living and working together to create a monument to last forever. Each brushstroke, paint, cloth, or hand belonging to someone who lived. Then and there. 

Fig. 6: Sennedjem and Iyneferti in the Fields of Reeds

Then thousands of years later a story being told, the experience of those rooms, paintings, statues, and walkways being seen and experienced again by my Grandmother who came home to tell me not only the stories of the tombs, the artistry, the history, the experiences she had but, too, that she was coming back and telling me—the same way a father told his child—of their experience of creation and being surrounded by objects that had existed for so long. Those images as alive today to me as they were to everyone who worked, visited, explored, and then view them up to this day. A rare experience of time travel!

*Actual Report Card quote

Monday, 14 September 2020

Deir el-Medina: The Village and Rediscovery

Last week I started my new Egypt Centre short course on Deir el-Medina. As with previous courses, the next five blog posts will be written by different members of the class. As their knowledge and levels of Egyptological background 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. First up is Mark Ponman, a retired former civil servant from London who is studying for the Diploma in Egyptology at Manchester University, having already completed the Certificate. He volunteers with the Sudan Archaeological Research Society (SARS) at the British Museum and helps moderate several Egyptology Facebook groups.

This week a new five-week course on Deir el-Medina began and Ken Griffin explained about the site and how it was rediscovered in modern times. The village of Deir el-Medina is located on the West Bank of the Nile in a desert valley opposite Luxor, ancient Thebes. It is located next to some of the best-known locations of ancient Egypt that are favourite sites for tourists to visit. It is near Deir el-Bahari, Medinet Habu, the Ramesseum, and a short walk over the mountain to the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Its Arabic name means “the monastery of the town” after a Coptic monastery that was built near to a Ptolemaic temple that was later converted into a Coptic church.

The site is famous as the New Kingdom village of the workmen of the rulers of Egypt who built their tombs in the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, and for the splendid tombs of the inhabitants of the village buried next to the settlement (fig. 1). It is also well known for being the best preserved Egyptian settlement site and the richness of the textual evidence preserved in the abandoned rubbish of the village. The settlement continues to fascinate and to deliver much knowledge about life in the New Kingdom.

Fig. 1: Necropolis of Deir el-Medina

At the start of the New Kingdom the Pharaohs of Egypt started to build their tombs in the Valley of the Kings, a task that required a skilled workforce and a place for them to live that was close to the Valley for ease of access. The village is about thirty minutes walk from the Valley of the Kings and about fifteen minutes from the Valley of the Queens. The village was probably under construction during the reign of Amenhotep I, though for this there is no solid archaeological evidence. However, there is evidence for his successor Thutmose I at the site. The village became associated with Amenhotep I who was viewed as the patron god of the village (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Turin Museum 1372

The village grew to contain about 70 houses within its walls and about 45 outside. It had a main street and the houses had stone foundations and mudbrick walls. Unusually, the cemetery is located very close to the village; unlike Amarna and Lahun where they were much further away. The houses were of varying sizes according to rank, but would typically include a reception room with household shrines, a main room for the males of the house, a bedroom, and kitchen (fig. 3). Some had cellars. There were probably no upper floors as the walls were too thin to support them, but it may have been possible to sleep on the roof accessed by stairways. We are fortunate to know the names of the house owners as some of their names were written on the door lintels and can be linked to the tombs of the owner nearby.

Fig. 3: Houses at Deir el-Medina

The site was active for about five hundred years as a village for the tomb builders before being abandoned during the reign of Ramesses XI at the end of the New Kingdom. The village was probably abandoned as it was prone to raids by Libyans and the fact that the rulers were no longer buried in the Valley having reverted to northern burial sites. Deir el-Medina, when abandoned, was used as a place of storage and later as a tourist site for Greek and Roman visitors. A small Ptolemaic temple dedicated to Hathor and Maat was built by Ptolemy IV (fig. 4) and in Coptic times it was converted into a church and a monastic community took up residence nearby. It gradually became covered and fortunately was not built upon. The site is unique for retaining the original ground level as layers of settlement were not made that normally created a Tell (mound).

Fig. 4: Deir el-Medina temple

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the site was “rediscovered” for Europeans by the French traveller Claude Sicard (1677–1726) at a time when, due to political instability, few Europeans travelled that far south in Egypt. In January 1738, Richard Pococke drew a plan of the temple at the site but no mention of the village was made. The temple was later visited by engineers as part of the survey of Egypt ordered by Napoleon. In 1777, the first object that could be assigned to the village came to light. It was a statue of Neferabu, one of the workmen under Ramesses II, which was acquired by an Italian monk and eventually ended up housed in the museum in Valletta Malta (fig. 5). A few further travellers explored the site but it was the visit by the Italian Bernardino Drovetti (1776–1852) that resulted in a more detailed examination and the start of looting by Europeans that went on for many decades. Drovetti found a statue of Amenhotep I, which is now in the Turin Museum and possibly originated in the sanctuary of his temple in Deir el-Medina.

Fig. 5: Statue of Neferabu

Later visitors included John Gardner Wilkinson between 1827–1829 and Champollion between 1828–1829. Robert Hay visited the tomb of Pashedu (TT 3) and made a sketch that included a sarcophagus, which was destroyed shortly afterwards leaving his drawing as crucial evidence. Parts of the sarcophagus are now being put back together like a jigsaw puzzle in Luxor. The British Museum was able to acquire, via the Duke of Hamilton (1767–1852), the sarcophagus of Ankhnesneferibre (BM EA 32), a daughter of Psamtik II, which had been transferred from the original burial site at Medinet Habu to a shaft at Deir el-Medina (fig. 6).

Fig. 6: Sarcophagus lid of Ankhnesneferibre (BM EA 32)

On 1 February 1886 the tomb of Sennedjem (TT 1), an elite tomb worker, was discovered. It was richly decorated and contained the family mummies and grave goods and is considered one of the greatest discoveries in Egypt (fig. 7). Full-scale excavation was undertaken in the twentieth century and is ongoing. The Italian Ernesto Schiaparelli (1856–1928) dug in at the site in the early 1900s and found the tomb of Kha (TT 8), which was intact and is a jewel of the Egyptian collection in Turin. Such tombs of senior workmen revealed the astonishing riches that such people could afford to take to their grave.

Fig. 7: Wall in the tomb of Sennedjem

The French Institute of Oriental Archaeology (IFAO) excavated the site under the direction of Bernard Bruyère (1871–1971) from 1922 until 1951. He made meticulous notebooks, many of which remain to be published. The IFAO have provided a large volume of publications on the site and also have a large online collection to view. The Czech Egyptologist Jaroslav Cĕrny (1898–1970) also made a significant contribution, especially with publication of the non-literary ostraca. Most recently, a Finnish team excavated the huts of the workmen on the ridge above the village, finding pottery and a stela of the snake goddess Meretseger (fig. 8).

Fig. 8: Workmen's huts

The village, however, is most noted not just for the houses and tombs, but for the textual remains that bring the characters and everyday lives of the inhabitants to life showing us who they were, family relationships, and how they worked and meted out justice in the village. Texts reveal that water and food had to be brought daily to the desert location and rations were provided by the Egyptian state. Much of this textual material was found in what is called the “great pit” (fig. 9). The texts identified individuals who could be linked to their tombs and houses.

Fig. 9: The Great Pit

This was a fascinating introductory lecture to the village and I look forward to finding out some more about the site and those who lived there.

Bierbrier, Morris 1982. The tomb-builders of the pharaohs. A Colonnade Book. London: British Museum Publications.
Černý, Jaroslav 2001. A community of workmen at Thebes in the Ramesside period, 2nd ed. Bibliothèque d’étude 50. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.
Gobeil, Cédric 2015. The IFAO excavations at Deir el-Medina. Oxford Handbooks Online 2015 (August).
Meza, Alicia I. 2003. An Egyptian statuette in Malta rediscovered. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 40, 103–112.

Monday, 7 September 2020

Kate’s Museum: Transcribing the Daybooks of Käthe Bosse Griffiths

The blog post for this week is written by Dr Dulcie Engel, a previous contributor. Dulcie is a former lecturer in French and linguistics and has been volunteering at the Egypt Centre for the last six years. She is a gallery supervisor and associate editor of the Volunteer Newsletter. She has a particular interest in collectors and the history of museums.
Käthe Bosse (fig. 1) was born in Wittenberg, Germany in 1910. She gained a PhD in Classics and Egyptology at the University of Munich in 1935, and then took up a post at the Berlin State Museum. However, she was dismissed soon after when it emerged that her mother was of Jewish origin (her mother would later perish at the notorious Ravensbrück camp). Käthe fled to Britain, and undertook research work at the Petrie Museum (University College London) and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. There she met fellow Egyptologist Gwyn Griffiths and they married in 1939. They settled in Wales and became involved in the Welsh literature movement. Käthe Bosse Griffiths learnt Welsh during this period, later publishing literary works in Welsh. When Gwyn Griffiths took up a lectureship position at University College Swansea (UCS: now Swansea University), Kate (as she was now known) became honorary Keeper of Archaeology at what is now Swansea Museum, the oldest museum in Wales, founded in 1841 as the Royal Institution of South Wales (RISW). She remained involved with the RISW for many years.

Fig. 1: Kate Bosse-Griffiths (Y LOLFA/FAMILY COLLECTION)

Through their friendship with fellow Welsh Egyptologist David Dixon at University College London, Gwyn and Kate Griffiths were instrumental in bringing part of Henry Wellcome’s Egyptological collection out of storage in the Petrie Museum to UCS. This was part of the main distribution of Wellcome’s Egyptological legacy. The other main beneficiaries were Birmingham Museum, Durham Oriental Museum, and Liverpool World Museum. At the time, Swansea had Egyptology teaching staff, and a small collection of classical Greek and Roman objects. In 1971, 92 cases arrived in Swansea from London, containing around 4500 items, which make up just over 80% of the items in the collection (fig. 2). With that loan, a small teaching collection in the classics department was transformed into the Swansea Wellcome Museum (also known as the Swansea Wellcome Collection of Egyptian Antiquities), which first opened to the public in 1976. It was finally moved to a purpose-built museum in 1998, and was re-named The Egypt Centre. Kate was honorary curator of the collection from 1971 until the early 1990s; the post was passed onto David Gill (in 1993). Kate Bosse-Griffiths died in Swansea in 1998, aged 87.

Fig. 2: Kate unpacking the collection

During her time at the museum, she unpacked, restored, and cleaned objects; lobbied for better facilities, equipment, and repairs; she identified, researched, catalogued, and published objects from the collection, welcomed students and scholars to the collection, corresponded with Egyptologists from around the world, and set up the display cases, labels, and boards ready for the official opening in June 1976.

We know quite a lot about her activities from the daybooks she kept. So far, fifteen books have been found, covering the period from 1972 to 1987. Each book contains around 150–200 pages of Kate’s rather challenging handwriting! Mostly in English (with some Germanisms), Kate also writes in German, Welsh, and French (fig. 3). She includes sketches of objects and copies of hieroglyphic inscriptions. Through Ken Griffin’s initiative, these daybooks have been scanned, and a group of volunteers have been involved in transcribing them since 2018. It is hoped they will prove a useful resource for researchers.

Fig. 3: An example of a page from Kate's daybooks

Most recently, I have been transcribing the 75–76 daybook (13/11/75–7/5/76) and the 1976 daybook. These books are of particular interest as they relate in part to the period of preparation for the opening of the museum to the public, originally planned for March, but delayed until June 1976. We also see her thoughts on a possible future for the collection at RISW (Swansea Museum) and for her in Oxford, her notes on receiving a donation of ring bezels, and her wicked sense of humour when she receives a letter not intended for her… These gems appear between notes from textbooks (often in German or French), ‘to do’ lists, lists of objects to be photographed, lists of objects to go into certain cases, rough drafts of correspondence, talks and articles, decisions on colours of hessian, possible Egyptian symbols to represent the museum, etc. The entries also reflect the period: no computers or mobile phones, communication by landline telephone or by letter; drafts of documents handwritten before being typed up, copies of photos by Xerox or prepared slides; the wonder of basic audio and video tape recorders and closed circuit television. I have also started on the 1978 daybook (16/1/78–4/9/78). Here are some entries, which give a flavour of the books:

Setting up a museum for public opening
The first extracts here deal with the planned March opening of the museum. Although 17 March is mentioned here first, later the date is given as 15 March. The list of jobs ‘to do’ gives a great insight into a typical workload for Kate and her helpers at this time, foremost amongst whom was Roger Davies, the Arts Faculty photographer. Roger was far more than a photographer of artefacts: he was actively involved in various aspects of the work to be done, and truly appreciated by Kate. The translation of labels is important: David Dixon insisted on bilingual labels for the collection, which would have been welcomed by Kate. Indeed, it is now the law in Wales that public documents and displays be in both English and Welsh. We also have an insight into her feelings about the work to be done: the game of chess is an interesting analogy, suggesting the need to plan ahead and protect one’s own ideas. Indeed, she may have felt some threat to the collection (as the section below dated February 1976 illustrates):

21.X1.75 (fig. 4)
In meeting of principal, Collard, Georgia Bonns (registry) Glanmor it was decided to have official opening on 17-III-76 at 6 o’clock with slides, address of Dr Dixon & handing over, visit of museum. Sherry party in Staff Common Room.

Fig. 4

Looking at the Collection the things which have to be done next are:
filling in of hole of ventilator
getting responsible person from works department to decide how to store monuments
O.K. lintel and stela of Guardian can be put up
copying out of case descriptions
photo of Akhenaten and Nefertiti
also arranging of Amarna case
new perspex case for crocodile
choosing of pictures for window wall
putting up Amarna corner
Horus the saviour corner
Translation of labels

Telefon (German: telephone) from Works Department that there is no money to do the work ordered to finish Museum (pediment for statue – fixing stone slab – painting, filling hole? – shelving)
…(Strangely enough I should be glad if Opening were postponed as I have finished all major work & don't like to be pressed with finishing of minor details – students could come to see all the same.)
The moment of reckoning has come as predicted – like playing chess.

Roger Davies has asked Dean for three weeks exclusive work for Collection before opening, that will answer “my prayers”.
Opening to be on Wednesday March 15 1976 at 6pm.

In the 1976 daybook, we learn that the opening is now scheduled for the start of June, but actually takes place on the 16 June. We do not know the reason for these various delays, although Kate was away in Egypt from mid-March to early May, and she says above that she would be happy if the opening were delayed:

Opening to be on June 1st one day after ‘Spring Holiday’,
Guests: possible list.
P & R (Welsh speakers & religious interest)
RISW President, GD, MI
National Museum NS
Glyn Vivian (?)    B
Art Gallery?
School of Art (helping with Tape) Cover?
Coleg of Education?

Wednesday 23-VI-76
And on 16-VI-76 the official Opening took place in Museum of an invited audience including
the mayor & mayoress of Swansea & representatives of RISW & Glyn Vivian Art Gallery.
Where a close circuit film was shown of Collection in which members of the Classics Department took active part.…This film made in Welsh & English is played to school classes before they actually see the Museum Room.

Fig. 5: Photo of the official opening of the museum

Receiving a donation
Throughout the museum’s history, the main donation from the Wellcome Trust has been supplemented by many other donations and loans from institutions and individuals. The section below refers to a loan by Anthony Donahue (1944–2016), an Oxford-based Egyptologist who was a great friend of the Swansea Wellcome Museum/Egypt Centre. Apart from recording the circumstances of the loan and the provenance of the items as shown below, Kate also described each ring bezel in great detail (for cataloguing), and researched various references on Amarna excavations to find either the actual pieces (a few have excavation labels) or parallels (fig. 6):

on loan 31 Amarna faience ring bezels which he bought from Eg.Expl. Society some years ago in toto.
after examining them at Alan B. Lloyd’s Home…
Three of these carry excavation numbers…

Fig. 6: Ring bezel with the name of Akhenaten

Financial strains: A suggestion to move the collection and that Kate might move!
Just over a month before the museum was due to open to the public, and while Kate and Roger were busy organising for that, Kate felt the need to write down why she would not want the collection to be moved to RISW. As we know, Kate was involved with both institutions and knew their set-up well. However, she was ‘in charge’ at the university, and clearly appreciated the academic setting of the collection: as well as Roger! The mention of the lack of an expert curator is a little strange as Kate herself was the expert in both museums, although of course not in overall control of the whole collection at RISW. It is unclear where the suggestion came from, and the timing is strange. However, UCS was in 'partnership' with RISW from the early 1970s until 1991 when Swansea Council took it over and it was renamed Swansea Museum. The taking on of RISW by UCS did cause quite a lot of resentment as it was seen as diverting scarce financial resources away from the college. Thankfully, for the integrity of the collection, this move never happened.

To be thought about. Why do I not want to take the Egyptian Collection to R.I.S.W. Museum.
Certainly according to my ideas a museum give(-s) zest to University but few professors seem to agree.
For my own purpose:
There is no workshop in R.I.S.W.
No photographer
and if these were, there is no money to spend
no machine to cut Perspex
no experts to help with objects
no expert curator

Financial issues threatening the future of the Wellcome collection at UCS also incensed Kate later on in the year. We get a real sense of her fighting spirit in this entry:

11-V-76 (fig. 7)
Chris comes to tell me that Wellcome money has come from Classic funds and that Classics are in the Red & possibly money will have to be repaid over years from W Funds!
At last the confrontation and that at psychologically right moment as I have laid the fundaments and can withdraw ad libidum (i.e. Latin ad libitum: at one’s pleasure) in fact will withdraw to Oxford any hour.
Tell Chris that I have waited for this moment. That I consciously did not count the cost and that on the moral ground then I put more into it than I demand for collection.
It could be a beautiful confrontation & I have to consider whether one should do that during or before Opening –
N.B. Principal asked department to help to increase student population through special effort
How much are they willing to do to support this effort?
[Chemists show interest not only because they have helped the Collection in the beginning but because they are tired of working on material without meaning
Egyptology has material & meaning]
Or could it be a sign of stirring in the minds that dirt rises to surface?
Promiss (sic) freedom of spending for growing Collection (apart from Classics)
No Committee
growing like baby, in spite of everybody giving from own money for things like labelling tape, plastic bags, bostic (i.e. Bostik glue), books

Fig. 7

A Hands-on approach to conservation
Museum conservation principles and practices have evolved since Kate was trained in Berlin in the late 1930s; and since she practised those skills in Swansea in the 1970s and 80s. It would horrify any modern curator to think of someone taking artefacts home to clean, or for experimentation, in particular by someone who was not the curator!

Take home for cleaning 32508 Egypt XVIIIth dyn. – 323
(sketch of vase) returned washed & silicon-polished.

*Thanks to the numbers listed here, it was possible to identify on Saturday the object in question as W5386 [KG] (figs. 8 & 9).

(sketch of jug) Take home for cleaning N.K. jug with handle

small eye mould 1891
sitting goddess mould 1813
loan for experiment. LT - Montpelier Terrace

Fig. 8: Daybook entry
Fig. 9: W5386

Writing to fellow Egyptologists
The daybooks are filled with drafts of letters from Kate, including to other Egyptologists and museum curators. There is a particularly friendly exchange in 1978 with a fellow German Egyptologist, Emma Brunner-Traut (1911–2008) who published various books, including one on Egyptian tales in 1963. This volume clearly included a tale about mice (I am defeated by the ‘crimpers’!):

(Translation from German original) (fig. 10)
Dear Emma,
Heartfelt thanks for your letter, which arrived today (23-1-78). I almost think that our letters have crossed. I had enclosed for you a modern version of the old mouse crimpers, which amused me, and shows how correct your findings ‘Tales’ are. My bead story is now in press, and I am very pleased that my reading is so similar to yours…

Fig. 10: Letter to Emma Brunner-Traut

A wicked sense of humour
This must be my favourite page: Kate received a letter in an envelope wrongly addressed to her and not only read it, but transcribed it in English: despite an attempt to hide the issue by using a German phrase at the top of the page! And as for the content: the person who wrote this has misunderstood exactly how the Wellcome items came to Swansea, and seems to regret a time when anyone could literally pick up antiquities in Egypt and bring them home for their own collections… (fig. 11)

Friday : 12-III-76
Der Lauschen an der Wand (German: listening at the wall/eavesdropping)
Receive wrong letter in envelope written by Gibbs & read:
“I was invited to a newly formed Egyptological Museum at Swansea University by Dr. Kate-Bosse-Griffiths. She and her husband are Egyptologists at the University – known her for years – she’s helped me with my collection – they are off to Egypt on 20th March – guests of the Egyptian Govt. The collection was part (90 cases) of the Wellcome Archaeological ExpeditionEgypt. Tell el-Amarna. There were fabulous exhibits found at Amarna – huge complete vases - complete necklaces – jewellery – sculptures collected 1900–1908 when pickings were agogo
nowadays we can hardly find a small sherd of Amarna pottery...

Fig. 11: Entry in daybook
These extracts give a flavour of the treasures hiding in the pages of Kate’s daybooks, and are a wonderful record of her legacy to the Egypt Centre. She was a truly indomitable woman; a refugee who became a leading figure in Egyptology and Welsh literature. She will not be forgotten in Swansea.

With thanks to Ken Griffin for getting me involved in the daybooks, and giving me extra information on KBG and her daybooks; and to Syd Howells for filling me in on the relationship between RISW and UCS.

Engel, Dulcie M. 2017. ‘Henry Wellcome’s Egyptian Legacy’          
Griffin, Kenneth 2020 ‘A brief history of the Egypt Centre’
Griffiths, J. Gwyn 2000. Museum Efforts before Wellcome’ Inscriptions 5, December 2000: 6
Gruffudd, Heini 2014. A Haven from Hitler: A young woman’s escape from Nazi Germany to Wales: The Story of Kate Bosse-Griffiths and her Family. Y Lolfa.
Lloyd, Alan B. 1998. ‘Kate Bosse-Griffiths’, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 84: 191–193.
Stephens, Meic 1998. ‘Obituary: Kate Bosse-Griffiths’ The Independent 10.04.1998