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Monday, 26 October 2020

Launch of the New Egypt Centre Online Catalogue

Several weeks ago (08 October), the Egypt Centre soft launched its new online collection catalogue. The catalogue was not initially planned for release until mid-2021. However, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the museum being closed to the public for the foreseeable future, we decided to push ahead with an early launch. When the Egypt Centre launched its previous online catalogue back in 2005, it was one of the first museums to have its entire collection accessible online. However, the catalogue was quite limited, with most images not suitable for research purposes, and the site being difficult to maintain and update. The new online catalogue (fig. 1), brought to you by Abaset Collections Ltd, was designed specifically with the Egypt Centre in mind. Sam Powell, a student at Swansea University and volunteer at the Egypt Centre, used her experience of working with the collection to design a new bespoke platform that would allow it to be appreciated virtually. Through working closely with the Egypt Centre staff, the catalogue has been honed to ensure that the user experience is as intuitive as possible and meets the needs of a diverse collection. 

Fig. 1: Home page of the new online catalogue

As this is the soft launch of the catalogue, a lot more work is needed. For example, descriptions were imported directly from our internal MODES catalogue, which was not intended for public use. Many of the descriptions and other fields need to be cleaned and expanded upon over the coming months. Therefore, please bear with us as these improvements are implemented. Additionally, new photos are being produced and are being added daily. The sizes of the images have been reduced to save server space and costs, and although high-res images are available on request, the image quality is still suitable for research and use in presentations. There are currently 5661 items listed, accompanied by 9618 photos. The majority of the items were collected by the pharmacist Sir Henry Wellcome and arrived in Swansea in 1971 as part of the distribution of his Egyptian collection (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Word cloud of collectors and institutions represented in the collection


The new catalogue has many advanced features, some unique. For example, since many of the objects originate from early twentieth century auctions, users can narrow down their searches to specific auctions and even lot numbers. The catalogue also has a number of thematic trails, which allow visitors to take a “virtual tour” of the collection (fig. 3). New features will be added in due course, including the ability of users to create their own trails. This feature offers the possibility of students to create their own trails/curate their own virtual collection. Lecturers could also do the same based on a specific module. This might be particularly appealing to some given the push for more online/blended learning due to the current pandemic.  

Fig. 3: Online trails

One benefit of the data updating in real time has been the ability to make changes whilst working remotely. Using a combination of Zoom and the Online Collection, it has been possible to complete audit checks on objects in real time, with Ken measuring objects in Swansea and Sam updating the information in the Forest of Dean (fig. 4)!

Fig. 4: Updating records via Zoom

We welcome any feedback, positive or negative, in order to help us improve things further. To do so, please email Ken Griffin at or Sam Powell (Abaset creator) at


Please feel free to share this will students and colleagues. We hope you enjoy exploring our collection virtually!


We are immensely grateful to the Greatest Need Fund and the Swansea University alumni who helped fund this project.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Object Biography of Rectangular Predynastic Palette AB79

The blog post for this week is written by Matt Szafran, an independent researcher specialising in the study of ancient tools and technologies. His current research focuses on the manufacture and use of stone palettes in Predynastic Egypt, using experimental archaeology and advanced imaging technologies, such as microscopy and Reflectance Transmission Imaging (RTI) to complement textual studies.

Predynastic Egyptian palettes are typically flat, or slightly pillow-shaped, sections of stone. Interestingly, all of the known palettes are made from the same greywacke stone from the Wadi Hammamat. This implies that there is significance to this material, or the Wadi Hammamat location itself, in the use of a palette that could not be achieved with other stone types. Since their nineteenth century rediscovery they have been associated with pigment processing, having been described by Petrie in 1895 as being used for ‘grinding malachite’. We will look into how correct this was later in this post.

Fig. 1: Palette AB79

Whilst palettes have been one of the most commonly found objects in Predynastic burials, with over 1200 known examples in museum collections alone, it should still be remembered that these are most likely elite items—and not something that was owned by all members of the Predynastic societies. It takes a significant investment in time and an equal amount of skill to create a palette, this alone would restrict their availability and elevate their status and the status of any owner.

The shape of palettes evolved over their use; starting as lozenge-shaped in the Badarian Period (circa 5000–4000 BCE), becoming rhomboidal in the Naqada I Period (circa 4000–3500 BCE), before becoming shaped like the silhouette of animals such as fish and birds in the Naqada II Period (circa 3500–3200 BCE). They then became more simplistic shapes of rectangles and ovals (and sometimes just barely shaped stones) in the Naqada III Period (circa 3200–3000 BCE), and finally these gave way to the intricately carved ‘ceremonial palettes’ (such as the Narmer Palette) in the late Naqada III and Early Dynastic Period (circa 3100–2690 BCE). AB79 is one of the later rectangular palettes, probably from the Naqada III era (fig. 1). It has been suggested that the stylistic change from the complex animal-shaped palettes to the oval and rectangular shapes was because of the ruling elite beginning to restrict access to both raw material and also to the craftspeople to work this. Palettes would still be an elite item at this time, perhaps more so than ever, and it would be a status symbol to have even a simple greywacke stone from the Wadi Hammamat.

So, whilst AB79 may be less exciting to modern artistic and aesthetic proclivities than a complex animalistic representation, the meaning behind this change and apparent simplicity helps to demonstrate the beginnings of Egypt’s social stratification and the control rulers could impose over their subjects.

The edges of the palette feature a simple incised decoration. This is commonly seen on the rectangular and oval palettes of the Naqada III Period, and is the only form of embellishment typically seen on palettes of the time. Somewhat unusually, although not unprecedented, this palette also features a hole drilled through one edge. Holes were commonly seen on the earlier animal-shaped palettes, and have been typically called ‘suspension holes’, with scholars differing in opinion as to whether this was for storage, for wearing on one’s person, or even for suspending the palette during ritual use where the palette was struck to produce a sound. This latter theory is supported by the presence of surface pitting on both sides of the AB79 palette; it has been suggested (by the author) that this surface pitting on palettes was caused by idiophonic striking the surface of the palette, perhaps to produce a sonorous component to ritual usage of palettes. Later Dynastic magic, or heka, requires the speaking of words to ‘activate’ a spell and perhaps this practice started in the Predynastic. Experimentation with replica palettes has shown that striking a palette with a smooth pebble produces a melodic note, somewhat similar to hitting an instrument like a triangle.

Fig. 2: AB79 with traces of red pigment

One side of the AB79 palette features a patch of red staining in its centre (fig, 2). This is most likely ochre, which has been mixed with a base (such as oils, fats, plant resins, or even water) and used as a form of paint or cosmetic. Contrary to the nineteenth century rooted descriptions that all palettes were used for pigment processing, a study by the author of almost 1200 Predynastic palettes has shown that only 4.7% actually demonstrate any form of pigment trace. Scholars again differ in opinion and suggest that this pigment use was a sun defence, to ward off files, for medicinal use, a tegumentary use (as a form of mask), or even for more complex ritual use—the archaeologist’s favourite cliché! This is of course speculative as we have no definitive proof of the use of palettes, especially as there are no written records from the Predynastic era and none of the (limited) iconography shows the usage of a palette.

Fig. 3: Grave 1348 at Tarkhan with the palette located behind the occupants head

This ochre staining appears to be on top of the surface pitting, which indicates that the palette was already pitted when it was used with the ochre. Perhaps this was all in the same ritual, or perhaps it is evidence of multiple different uses of palettes over a longer time. Studies have also shown that palettes with ochre staining are typically found in settlement contexts, rather than palettes with malachite staining which are typically found in burials. However, AB79 was re-discovered in grave 1348 at the site of Tarkhan, by the British School of Archaeology (BSAE) during their 1912–13 season (fig. 3). Perhaps this means that the palette was used in everyday life, where it was stained with the ochre, before finally being deposited in the grave. The object was gifted to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth by John Bancroft Willans, a subscriber of the BSAE, who received the object in 1913 (fig. 4). It was subsequently gifted to the Egypt Centre in 1997.

Fig. 4: List of objects from Tarkhan sent to Aberystwyth in 1913

Hopefully this study of AB79 has shown that what appears to be a basic rectangle of stone actually has a rich story behind it, demonstrating the beginning of Egyptian state control, possible uses in funerary rituals and also possible use in everyday life, but also with many questions on its full use still to be answered and much more.

For the catalogue entry for AB79, see:


Baduel, Nathalie 2008. Tegumentary paint and cosmetic palettes in Predynastic Egypt: impact of those artefacts on the birth of the monarchy. In Midant-Reynes, B. and Y. Tristant (eds), Egypt at its origins 2: proceedings of the international conference “Origin of the State. Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt”, Toulouse (France), 5th–8th September 2005, 1057–1090. Leuven: Peeters; Departement Oosterse Studies.

Ciałowicz, Krzysztof M. 1991. Les palettes égyptiennes aux motifs zoomorphes et sans décoration: études de l’art prédynastique. Studies in Ancient Art and Civilization 3. Kraków: Uniwersytet Jagielloński.

Ellis, Chris 1992. A statistical analysis of the protodynastic burials in the “valley” cemetery of Kafr Tarkhan. In Brink, Edwin C. M. van den (ed.), The Nile Delta in transition: 4th–3rd millennium BC. Proceedings of the seminar held in Cairo, 21–24 October 1990, at the Netherlands Institute of Archaeology and Arabic Studies, 241–258. Tel Aviv: E. C. M. van den Brink.

Grajetzki, Wolfram 2004. Tarkhan: a cemetery at the time of Egyptian state formation. London: Golden House.

Hassan, Fekri A. and Shelley J. Smith 2002. Soul birds and heavenly cows: transforming gender in Predynastic Egypt. In Nelson, Sarah Milledge and Myriam Rosen-Ayalon (eds), In pursuit of gender: worldwide archaeological approaches, 43–65. Lanham, MD; Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.

Needler, Winifred 1984. Predynastic and archaic Egypt in the Brooklyn Museum: with a reexamination of Henri de Morgan’s excavations based on the material in the Brooklyn Museum initially studied by Walter Federn and a special zoological contribution on the ivory-handled knife from Abu Zaidan by C. S. Churcher. Wilbour Monographs 9. Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum.

Petrie, W. M. Flinders 1895. Archaeological news, The American Journal of Archaeology and of the History of the Fine Arts, 10 (3), 369–375.

———. 1914. Tarkhan II. British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Egyptian Research Account [26] (19th year). London: School of Archaeology in Egypt; Bernard Quaritch.

———. 1921. Corpus of prehistoric pottery and palettes. British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Egyptian Research Account [32] (23rd year). London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt; Constable & Co.; Bernard Quaritch.

Regner, Christina 1996. Schminkpaletten. Bonner Sammlung von Aegyptiaca 2. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Stevenson, Alice 2007. The material significance of predynastic and early dynastic palettes. In Mairs, Rachel and Alice Stevenson (eds), Current research in Egyptology 2005: proceedings of the sixth annual symposium, University of Cambridge, 6–8 January 2005, 148–162. Oxford: Oxbow.

———.2009. Palettes. Edited by Willeke Wendrich. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009 (August). Available at:

Szafran, Matt 2020. Object biography: Manchester Museum 7556. Birmingham Egyptology Journal 7, 70–86.

Monday, 12 October 2020

The Necropolis of Deir el-Medina

The blog post for this week is written by Jeanne Whitehurst, who has completed her Certificate of Egyptology from the University of Manchester. She moved to Egypt nearly ten years ago, just before the revolution. Initially, she lived in Luxor, overlooking Karnak Temple, but now she lives in Aswan overlooking the First Cataract. She was extremely fortunate to have worked with Ted Brock on the sarcophagus of Merenptah (KV 8) as a volunteer.

This was the last session of our five-week course on Deir el-Medina, which was superbly presented by Dr Ken Griffin and I thoroughly enjoyed the course. I can’t wait until the next one! Thanks also go to Sam Powell who administrates the course patiently and efficiently.

The village of Deir el-Medina, which nestles between the high Western mountains and the hill of Qurnet Murai on the West Bank of Luxor, was for almost five centuries a New Kingdom workmen’s village, home to the community of craftsmen working on the royal tombs in The Valley of the Kings. The village is unusual as the tombs were built around the village itself, whereas settlements were usually built on the East side of the Nile and the tombs (the land of dead) in the West. From the village, the workmen followed a trail north to the top of the Western Mountain and down into the Valley of the Kings to construct and decorate the tomb of the reigning pharaoh (fig. 1). Nowadays, it is thought that the craftsmen also built tombs for the queens and nobles, besides making funerary equipment. The workmen lived in houses whose stone foundations still remain. It is possible that this planned community was founded by Amenhotep I (c. 1541–1520 BC).

Fig. 1: Necropolis of Deir el-Medina

The tombs in the Western part of the village date principally to the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties (1292–1189 BC) while the Eastern Cemetery, whose tombs are lesser known, belong to the Eighteenth Dynasty. The first were thought to have been built during the beginning of the dynasty. At the lower level are the poorer tombs devoted to children. Adolescents were placed in cavities, which were accessed by a well shaft. Children’s tombs were just small pits covered in stones. Not all were buried in coffins, but in common domestic pottery jars or amphorae, in baskets, in chests, or boxes. The poorest graves belong to still-born babies who were buried under house floors in small pots with small vessels filled with food for the afterlife.

Fig. 2: The Western Necropolis

The settlement’s tombs had a basic plan: at ground level there was a small open courtyard and a vaulted chapel of one or more rooms surmounted by a brick pyramid topped with a stone pyramidion. This would be open to the villagers who would have banquets and honour their ancestors there. A shaft or occasionally stairs in the courtyard led into an underground passage and a decorated burial chamber or chambers, depending on the individual’s means and status. The main subterranean chamber usually had a vaulted roof and was very brightly decorated. Stelae were set into the mud-brick walls and a large stela, commemorating the deceased and depicting his funeral, was placed in the courtyard. Some workers had multiple tombs, constructed at different times, which means a depiction of the tomb owner did not necessarily mean he was buried there. The scenes, unlike the tombs of the nobles, do not often show everyday life but instead are devoted to texts and scenes from the Book of the Dead, thus somewhat copying religious scenes that appear on the walls of royal tombs (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Osiris in the tomb of Pashedu (TT 3)

The tomb of Sennedjem (TT 1), which lies within the Western Cemetery, was discovered intact in 1886. The opening and clearing of this intact burial was overseen by Gaston Maspero, the head of the Antiquities Service at the time. It is one of the best-preserved and most famous tombs in the village, which is used frequently to illustrate talks. Twenty mummies, nine of which were in coffins and eleven only wrapped in linen, were found inside the vaulted burial chamber measuring 5.12 m by 2.61 m, and 2.40 m high.

Sennedjem was a “servant in the place of truth” who lived in the village at the time of Ramesses II. He shared this “house of eternity” with his wife Iyinofreti, their son Khonsu, daughter in-law Tamakhet, the lady Isis, who was the wife of their second son Khabekhnet (who had his own tomb built next to Sennedjem’s), together with their grandchildren. Both Sennedjem and his wife lived into old age. Iyinofreti’s mummy, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, is that of a woman of approximately 75 years of age, while her husband resides in Cairo. It is sad to think that this family who had lain together for millennium are now housed in different museums. Scenes include the mummy of Sennedjem on a funerary bier with a lion’s head and paws, two birds (kites) at each end, representing Isis (at the foot) and Nephthys (at the head). Underneath is a party with guests being served by servants. One is placing a perfumed cone on the head of a guest. Another scene shows Sennedjem being mummified by a priest wearing a mask of Anubis on the same lion headed bed. We have a scene where the pair are harvesting crops in the fields of Hetep, while at the bottom register the channels of the Nile are flowing all around the scene. In the top register, Sennedjem and his wife are worshipping the gods including Ra- Horakhty, Osiris and Ptah. At the very top is Ra-Horakhty in his solar boat with two baboons worshipping him at either side. Baboons were used to welcome the new sun in the morning. We have a scene where Sennedjem and his wife are before the ten guardians of the gates. It was important to know the name of each guardian before they could pass into the afterlife. Additionally, the couple are shown worshipping all the gods of the sky with a night sky full of stars. Lastly, Sennedjem is shown at the side of double doors, which lead him into the afterlife (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Sennedjem at the doors to the afterlife

Possibly one of the oldest tombs at Deir el-Medina (TT 340) is that belonging to Amenemhat, a Servant in the Place of Truth, dating from the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty, which was discovered by Bernard Bruyère in 1925. It consists of a tiny vaulted chamber located below a courtyard, which is reached by some steps. The painting within the tomb are unfinished, enabling us to see the stages of its development. The colours are still fresh, showing outlines being drawn with hematite (red). The style of decoration is simple and repetitive with scenes that are exclusively religious or funerary. Tomb 340, like all the local tombs, was initially dug into the limestone rock before the interior was lined with bricks. This technique made it possible to obtain an almost smooth surface, with the surface subsequently lined with a sealer of mud (a coating of earth and straw) and then plaster (gypsum).

Fig. 5: Brightly painted scenes in the tomb of Sennedjem

Since these are workmen’s tombs and as I have a great interest in technology, I would like to share my experience of making the paints. However, instead of applying them to walls, painting on papyrus. The paints are created according to the formula of Alfred Lucas, a chemist who was part of the team working with Howard Carter on the tomb of Tutankhamun.

There are six main colours used in ancient Egyptian tombs (figs. 5–6). White obtained from gypsum (CaSO 4-2(H 2O)), commonly known as plaster of paris; lampblack, a carbon black obtained from soot; two colours obtained from iron ore, hematite, also spelled as haematite ( Fe₂O₃), widespread in rocks and soils, which gives us the red or brown, while yellow is obtained from limonite (FeO·nH₂O). The last two are extracted from copper ore. Malachite is a green copper carbonate hydroxide mineral with a chemical composition of Cu2(CO3)(OH)2 and lastly, azurite (Cu3(CO3)2(OH)2, the beautiful blue. There is also azurite-malachite, which is a blend of the two copper minerals. The minerals are easy to grind, using a pestle and mortar, covering the mineral with water to allow the debris to rise to the top. The minerals are then drained through a linen cloth. It is then mixed with gum arabic, a term that does not indicate a particular source but is a natural gum consisting of the hardened sap of two species of the acacia tree (Acacia senegal and Vachellia seyal). Previously, egg albumen was used to bind the paint. Paint colours vary. Gypsum can be very pale and numerous coats may be needed to be applied to obtain a deep white. Rather than mixing shades on the papyrus, it was easier to mix them in containers. One problem with the paints is that they dry quickly, although they are easy to apply.

Fig. 6: Sennedjem in adoration

If we look at the beautiful tomb scene of Sennedjem and his wife in front of the sycamore tree goddess, notice the clothes, how the shape is filled in gypsum (white) but it is the use of hematite (brown) in the lines which bring the kilt and dress to life (fig. 7). All figures and the tree are outlined in either brown or black, which makes them stand out from the background that is covered in limonite (yellow) painted over a white base, which is visible on Sennedjem’s arm and the tree goddess’s torso. The figs are painted brown, but it is the position of the small black ellipses that seems to show them hanging naturally.

Fig. 7: Sycamore tree goddess in the tomb of Sennedjem

The end of the reign of Ramesses III and the beginning of Ramesses IV was a time of social unrest. Only the privileged, such as Inherkhau (TT 229 & TT 359), who held the titles “Foreman in the Place of Truth in the West of Thebes” and “Director of the Works of the Lord of the Two Lands” were lucky or indeed have the authority or necessary connections to commission or construct two tombs. In his tomb, Inherkhau is accompanied by its wife Wabet (“the Pure”) and many children. Wabet carries the common title of “Mistress of the House”, but also of “Chantress of Amun” and “Chantress of Hathor”. It is rare to know the names of the painters who decorated the tomb, Hormin and Nebnefer, but we know them because they signed their names.

Fig. 8: Painted ceiling in the tomb of Inherkhau

Unusually there are two chambers; one like an antechamber, with many offering scenes, and the other the burial chamber, which is full of religious depictions. In the antechamber, the ceiling is covered with beautifully coloured geometric designs depicting cows, possibly the goddess Hathor (fig. 8). Additionally, in a damaged scene, Inherkhau and his wife are offering incense before “The lords of the West”, i.e., the royal ancestors, including female members. The first figure on the upper register is Amenhotep I, possibly the founder of Deir el-Medina, while his mother Ahmose-Nefertari is first on the lower one. They were both worshipped within the village. Another depiction is the journey north to Abydos by boat, the cult centre of Osiris, which is similar to the practice of Muslims travelling to Mecca. There is a lovely scene of Inherkhau and his wife seated while their children bring offerings to them. Another in the burial chamber has a powerful scene of Ra changing into the great cat of Heliopolis who every night had to fight his enemy, the snake Apophis with a knife, which he achieved to ensure that Ra (the sun) will rise every morning. Another scene here is a blind harpist playing to the couple (we know he is blind as his eyes are closed). It was thought this depiction would help to communicate more easily with the dead. Then there is his ba-bird, a form of the spirit of the dead, with Inherkhau opposite with his arms in adoration (fig. 9).

Fig. 9: The ba of Inherkhau

Ipuy (TT 217) was a sculptor during the reign of Ramesses II. He was married to Nebtiunu and has a beautifully decorated painted tomb with unique scenes. It has a naive painting of laundrymen washing by the Nile, another showing the preparation of produce and a donkey carrying goods. Donkeys had to carry all the water used by the community as there was no water supply. A busy scene is of many workmen making coffins, carving chairs and stools with the feet of geese. It even shows a workman cutting down a tree. Another is of an over-sized shrine with workers climbing all over it. One workman appears to have dropped a mallet onto another below, who is shown rubbing his head! In one corner a workman is fast asleep! The Metropolitan Museum in New York has two scenes from the tomb. The first shows a workman with a dog behind him as he draws water with a shaduf in a garden. There is a luxurious house in the background with a column by the door with steps leading up to it. The other is making wine, with some workmen picking the grapes and placing them in woven baskets. Other men then tread the grapes, holding onto a rope to stop them falling into the juice as it forms underneath. My favourite scene is of Ipuy and his wife, the latter having a cat under her chair while Ipuy has a kitten trying to pluck his sleeve (fig. 10). Cats are always shown as tabby (striped) as all Egyptian cats were indeed striped and much larger than the domestic ones of today. 

Fig. 10: Ipuy and his wife receiving offerings (

In conclusion, Deir el-Medina is among the most important archaeological sites in Egypt because of the wealth of information it provides on the daily lives of the people who lived there. It is a glimpse of a society who were not royal or noble but mostly respected, a parallel of the middle class today. The villagers lived closely together in that long-ago time when it was known as the Place of Truth, where the people built and protected the eternal homes of their kings.


For a great site containing images of many of the tombs at Deir el-Medina, see

Bierbrier, Morris 1982. The tomb-builders of the pharaohs. A Colonnade Book. London: British Museum Publications.

Cherpion, Nadine and Jean-Pierre Corteggiani 2010. La tombe d’Inherkhâouy (TT 359) à Deir el-Medina, 2 vols. Mémoires publiés par les membres de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 128. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.

Keller, Cathleen A. 2001. A family affair: the decoration of Theban Tomb 359. In Davies, W. V. (ed.), Colour and painting in ancient Egypt, 73–93. London: British Museum Press.

Lucas, A. 1962. Ancient Egyptian materials and industries, 4th ed. Edited by J. R. Harris. London: Edward Arnold.

Mahmoud Abd el-Qader, Adel 2011. Catalogue of funerary objects from the tomb of the Servant in the Place of Truth Sennedjem (TT1): ushabtis, ushabtis in coffins, ushabti boxes, canopic coffins, canopic chests, cosmetic chests, furniture, dummy vases, pottery jars, and walking sticks, mainly from Egyptian Museum in Cairo and Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York. Edited by Sylvie Donnat. Série Corpus; Bibliothèque générale 37. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.