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Monday, 18 January 2021

An Introduction to the Valley of the Kings

The blog post for this week is written by Vanessa Foott. Vanessa’s lifelong passion is ancient Egypt and for the last five years she has been studying Egyptology at the University of Manchester. She is very excited to be starting their Masters Degree in Egyptology in October so she is practically a professional student! Vanessa has filled her time since retiring from her main career by travelling all over the country attending and also giving talks on Egyptology, representing the Egypt Exploration Society as one of their Local Ambassadors, and writing articles for Nile Magazine.

This week saw the start of Dr. Ken Griffin’s new five-part course looking at different aspects of the Valley of the Kings, or the “Wadi Biban el-Muluk” as it is known in Arabic (fig. 1). The necropolis actually occupies two valleys; the majority being in the main Eastern branch, with a few, such as that of Ay, located in the Western Valley (sometimes called the “Valley of the Monkeys”). The first week introduced participants to useful background reading and websites, some of which can be found at the end of this post.

Fig. 1: Entrance to the Valley of the Kings

It is very easy when visiting the valley, especially for the first time, to focus on the magnificent wall scenes and really to gloss over the other considerations and logistics that went in to the building of these tombs. New Kingdom rulers chose to be buried in Thebes, known then as ni͗wt-rst, the Southern City, or i͗wnw-šmꜥ, Southern Heliopolis. The main god worshipped here was Amun, who became combined with Re to form Amun-Re. Re’s cult centre was Heliopolis, now a suburb of modern Cairo, and therefore Thebes was its southern equivalent. Both the East and West Bank of Thebes were part of the sacred landscape. Re set in the west and travelled through the Amduat to merge with Osiris and be reborn in the morning as Khepri or Re-Horakhty in the east (fig. 2). The deceased metaphorically hitched a lift on the barque of Re to travel with the god and share in the rebirth.

Fig. 2: The union of Osiris and Re (tomb of Nefertari)

The rulers of the Seventeenth Dynasty chose to be buried in the area of Dra Abu el-Naga. However, the pharaohs of the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Dynasties favoured a valley to the south, at the head of which was a convenient pyramid shaped mountain, tꜣ-dhnt, these days known as Al-Qurn (“the Horn”). This was the home of the snake goddess Meretseger, “she who loves silence”, together with Hathor, lady of the western mountain (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Ostracon depicting Meretseger:

The area of Thebes had been occupied long before it became the religious capital of Egypt. Indeed, it is thought that as long ago as 1,000,000 BCE people were living in the area. These days there is a distinct edge to the cultivation and it is possible to stand with one foot in verdant green fields with the other in dry barren sand (fig. 4). In ancient days, this demarcation would not have been so distinct as the Nile would flood annually to different levels. This does not happen anymore due to the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s and the fields are now watered by irrigation.

Fig. 4: Where the desert meets the cultivation

Astonishingly, the sedimentary rock here, some 35–55 million years ago, was the floor of the Mediterranean Sea when its levels fluctuated so much that sometimes it reached as far as Aswan. The valley was then formed by a combination of uplifting during the Tertiary Period between 
66 million to 2.6 million years ago and heavy rainfall that occurred in the Pleistocene Era between 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago years ago. The resulting riverbeds are called wadis and can have water flowing through them even in modern times during the sudden and violent storms that occasionally happen in Egypt. This has caused immense damage to some tombs over the years, with new precautions installed to prevent further damage (fig. 5). There are three types of rock present in the valley: Dakhla chalk, Esna shale, and Theban limestone. The area is crisscrossed by faults caused by the fluctuation of ground water. The main fault is known as the King’s Fault and this is closely monitored by instruments placed in the tombs above it.

Fig. 5: Flood protection in the Valley (Theban Mapping Project)

Various factors must have been taken into account when selecting a site to place a tomb. A balance needed to be achieved between security and accessibility, but surely one of the prime factors would have been the type and quality of the rock. It is thought that the Vizier, in conjunction with architects who were familiar with the stone, would have recommended a suitable site to the king. This was not too problematic with the first tombs, but by the Nineteenth Dynasty the valley was becoming very crowded and there is no evidence of any kind of master plan. This meant that collisions between tombs could, and indeed, did happen on at least three occasions. Perhaps most notably the clash when KV 10 was broken into whilst KV 11 was being dug only about fifteen years later (fig. 6)! It must also be remembered that despite the name of the valley, high-ranking officials, including the parents of Queen Tiye and parents in law of Amenhotep III, could be buried here.

Fig. 6: Breakthrough of KV 11 into KV 10 (Theban Mapping Project)

Once a site had been chosen, foundation deposits of miniature tools, vessels, and amulets, together with food offerings were placed in pits outside the tomb entrance. These were to magically ensure that the construction had a successful outcome. The quarrymen then began to cut into the rock using cutting tools of flint or chert, hammerstones, and wooden mallets. It may have been criminals that were sent to do this initial hard work as there is evidence mentioning that they were punished by “going to cut the rock”. The passages were firstly roughly cut and then smoothed and the columns finished using copper chisels. The limestone is stronger than the shale, which is friable, but the quality of all varied and a final layer of gypsum plaster was applied to provide a suitable surface for carving and painting. To ensure that the walls were parallel and doorways were properly aligned, an axial line was painted on the ceiling creating a base line from which the other measurements were taken. Because many of the tombs were unfinished, it is easy to see the various stages of building and decoration (fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Decoration states in KV 57 (Theban Mapping Project)

The men who created these tombs lived in the nearby purpose-built village of Deir el-Medina, known in ancient days as st-mꜣꜥt, “The Place of Truth” (fig. 8). It was possibly founded by Amenhotep I as he was later worshipped as a local deity in the village. His original tomb has not been identified (although his mummy was found in the royal cache) and it is thought that the first burial in the valley was that of Thutmose I. We have much information about the village and workers thanks to a feature called the Great Pit. This was an attempt to dig a well for the village but had to be abandoned as the ground water was too deep to reach. The villagers subsequently used it as a rubbish dump and when excavated, thousands of ostraca giving information about the day to day lives of the inhabitants were found. The village was destroyed by fire during the Amarna Period, but was enlarged during Ramesside times. Workers were divided into two teams and the total numbers of workers varied between 32 and 120 men depending on the urgency of the work with the highest number being used at the beginning of reigns and tapering off as the tomb was completed.

Fig. 8: Deir el-Medina

This is just a small snapshot of the information gained from this first session. Our appetites have certainly been whetted for next week’s instalment when Ken will begin to look at some of the major tombs.


Bierbrier, M. (1982) The Tomb Builders of the Pharaohs. American University in Cairo Press: Cairo.

Hornung, E. (1999) The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. Cornell University Press: Ithaca & London.

Reeves, N. (1994) The Complete Tutankhamun. Thames & Hudson: London.

Reeves, N. & R. Wilinson (1996) The Complete Valley of the Kings. Thames & Hudson: London.

Weeks, K. (2001) Valley of the Kings: the tombs and the funerary temples of Thebes West. Whitestar: Italy.

Wilkinson, R. Weeks, K. (eds) (2016) The Oxford Handbook of the Valley of the Kings. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Monday, 11 January 2021

In the Footsteps of Howard Carter: Faience Objects from Amarna

Yesterday I started my first lecture on the new Egypt Centre Valley of the Kings course, which will feature in a series of blog posts over the coming weeks. When one thinks of the Valley of the Kings, the names of Tutankhamun and Howard Carter immediately spring to mind. Therefore, I decided to write this post on six faience objects in the Egypt Centre, which have a strong connection to Howard Carter (1874–1939). Most people would probably not find these items particularly exciting. W230a, W230b, W230e are faience tiles, W230c is an object of white and blue faience with the partial name of Amenhotep III (Nebmaatre), W230d is a fragment of a faience fish bowl, and W962 is a fragment of a model faience throwstick (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Fragment of a model throwstick (W962)

When the Wellcome collection arrived to Swansea in 1971, Kate Bosse-Griffiths catalogued five faience objects under the number W230 (with a–e suffixes). Yet the objects clearly do not belong together, at least not as a single artefact. However, a search through the Wellcome archives reveals that they were grouped together under one number, A31973, when catalogued in the 1920s (fig. 2). The Wellcome slip says that all five items were purchased from Sotheby’s auction house on the 15 December 1924 (lot 372). In actual fact, the items were purchased the following day, with the auction taking place over three days (15–17 Dec). Knowing the auction date and lot number, I checked the auction catalogue for additional details. While only five items are listed on the Wellcome slip, the lot itself consisted of twenty-five items, which were described as: “fragments of bowls, kohl tubes, tiles, etc., in polychrome faience, some inlaid with scale pattern, names of Amenhotep III and Queen Thyi, etc.: chiefly from Tell-el-Amarna.”

Fig. 2: Wellcome slip A31973

 The auction catalogue further reveals that the objects were sold as part of the collection of the Honourable Richard Bethell (1883–1929). Bethell was an English collector and a member of the Committee of the Egypt Exploration Society between 1920–1926. He also served as Howard Carter’s personal secretary, assisting him in the tomb of Tutankhamun (Bierbrier 2019, 49). Bethell died on the 15 November 1929, having been found in his bed at Mayfair’s exclusive Bath Club. This led to media reports suggesting that curse of the pharaoh had struck, which only grew stronger after his father, Lord Westbury, leapt from a window of his seventh floor flat in St James’ Court just a few months later. Along with a suicide note, the room he jumped from was apparently filled with countless Egyptian antiquities, thus further pushing the curse narrative (Harrison 2017). Other rumours suggest that he was murdered by the arch-satanic Aleister Crowley!

Fig. 3: Faience tile (W230e)

The auction catalogue thus provides some useful clues about the five items, including the association with the site of Tell el-Amarna. Polychrome glazed tiles such at the three listed above are very common from the Amarna Period. Tiles with plant motifs in particular are well attested and can be found in museums throughout the world, including the Petrie Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the British Museum. W230e can clearly be identified as one depicting green plants against a white background (fig. 3). Some of the six objects have numbers written on them, such as 1455 on W230b (fig. 6). For a long time, the exact meaning of these numbers remained a mystery. However, during a conversation with Tom Hardwick several months ago, he mentioned that he had a copy of Bethell’s unpublished catalogue. Upon checking this, we were delighted to see that the description matched exactly. Not only to W230b, but the other five items under discussion in this post! 

The manuscript contains the following relevant entries (fig. 4):

Fig. 4: Page from the Bethell manuscript (courtesy of Tom Hardwick)

1454. Fragment of tile, faience with dark blue border + green inner part. L. 2¾". Amarna, Amherst. = W230a (fig. 5)

1455. Similar fragment, brown + green. L. 2". Amarna, Amherst. = W230b (fig. 6)

1456. Similar fragment, inlay of green leaves on white. L. 1½". Amarna. Amherst. = W230e (fig. 3)

1459. Similar fragment [of tile or inlay, faience]. Fish’s eye. Amarna, Amherst. = W230d (fig. 7)

1460. Fragment of model boomerang. Blue faience with cartouches of Akhenaten in black on each side. Amarna, Amherst. = W962 (fig. 1)

1465. Fragment of thick bowl(?), white faience, inlaid dark blue with cartouche of Amenhotep III. Palace of A(?). Amherst. = W230c (fig. 8)

Fig. 5: Faience tile (W230a)

Not only does this unpublished catalogue mention that at least five of the items originate from Amarna, but that they were originally part of the famed Amherst collection. William Amhurst Tyssen Amherst (1835–1909), First Baron Amherst of Hackney, was a British collector and patron of excavation in Egypt. He amassed a large collection of Egyptian antiquities, which were displayed at his home at Didlington Hall, Norfolk. This collection is known to have inspired the young Howard Carter. Amherst was the main financial sponsor for Flinders Petrie’s 1891–1892 excavation season at Amarna, receiving a substantial portion of the finds as a result (Bierbrier 2019, 15).

Fig 6: Faience tile (W230b)

Now knowing that the objects were from the Amherst collection, I checked this auction catalogue to see if I could identify the specific lot. The only one that stood out for faience tiles is lot 866, which is described as: “a fragment of an arm in white glaze for inlay; and a series of examples of tiles, etc., in polychrome faience, bearing floral and other designs, including wild fowl scene, from town buildings (33 [items]).” The problem is, this lot was apparently purchased by Howard Carter on behalf of Lord Carnarvon. Digging further, I was able to find the faience arm mentioned in the auction catalogue in the unpublished Bethell manuscript (number 1453) and the Wellcome archives (A31975)! It can only be assumed that Carter and Bethell traded some objects/lots. A31975 also mentions the faience throwstick (W962), which was part of lot 373 in the Bethell sale (fig. 1).

Fig. 7: Fragment of a fish-shaped bowl (W230d) 

The Amherst sale catalogue for lot 866 notes that the items were excavated within the town area at Amarna in 1891–92. If this is true, then there is a further connection to Howard Carter. In 1891, Amherst persuaded Petrie to mentor a teenage Carter that season. According to the publication of the excavation, Carter was tasked with excavating “certain parts of the town” (Petrie 1894, 1). Thus, the six objects in the Egypt Centre presented here—or at least some of them—may have been excavated by the seventeen year old Howard Carter some thirty years before his famous discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun!

Fig. 8: Vessel fragment with the name of Nebmaatre = Amenhotep III (W230c)

I am grateful to Tom Hardwick for checking the Bethell manuscript and for his discussions on the collection. 


Harrison, Paul (2019) The curse of the pharaohs’ tombs. Takes of the unexpected since the days of Tutankhamun. Pen & Sword Books: London.

Kemp, Barry (2013) The city of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its people. London: Thames & Hudson.

Petrie, W. M. Flinders (1894) Tell el Amarna. London: Methuen & Co.

Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge (1921) Catalogue of the Amherst collection of Egyptian & Oriental antiquities: which will be sold by auction by Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge [...] on Monday, the 13th of June, 1921, and four following days. London: Davy.

Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge (1924) Catalogue of Egyptian, Greek, Roman & Babylonian antiquities, etc., comprising first and second day’s sale the collection of Egyptian antiquities, formed by the Hon. R. Bethell, third day’s sale the property of Captain Anthony Hamilton ..., part of the collection formed by the late Gustave Natorp, an Egyptian bronze solar boat for processional use, the collection formed by the late Joseph Offord, the property of H. Edwin, a bronze head of Athena wearing helmet, the property of Edward F. Elton and other properties; which will be sold by auction by Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge ... on Monday, 15th of December, 1924, and two following days. London: Davy.

Monday, 4 January 2021

A Review of 2020 at the Egypt Centre

2020 has been life changing for almost everyone, including all of us at the Egypt Centre. With the museum closing in mid-March due the COVID-19 Pandemic, our main sources of income (shop sales, school visits, and events) have been massively affected. We could certainly never have imagined at the time that nine months later we would still be closed! Yet to some extent, the Pandemic has been a blessing in disguise as it has forced us to be more creative and adapt to the new norm, something we have been able to do very successfully. Therefore, this blog post will present some of the many highlights that the Egypt Centre has had over the past year.

Back in January, thirteen boxes of objects were transferred from the Egypt Centre to the Conservation Department at Cardiff University. This followed a successful Association of Independent Museums (AIM) and Pilgrim Trust conservation grant to work on a group of objects under the title of Offerings for the Dead in Ancient Egypt. The objects were entrusted into the care of Phil Parkes (Reader in Conservation at Cardiff University) and Dr Ashley Lingle (lead conservator on the project), with the project planned for completion in May. Unfortunately, due to the lockdown, Ashley was unable to return to the labs until late Summer, with the project finally being completed in November. We are delighted with the results of the work (fig. 1) and are grateful to all those involved, including the AIM and the Pilgrim Trust for awarding us this grant. The objects will go on display (some already have) where visitors will be able to see them once we eventually open again!

Fig. 1: W1477 before and after conservation

When the lockdown hit in March, I was part way through an Egypt Centre handling course on the Amarna Period. Therefore, the final few weeks of the course had to be cancelled (initially postponed). This was the third course I had taught at the Egypt Centre, with the sessions in part focusing on the collection at the museum. The museum is fortunate to have approximately 300 objects from Amarna, most of which originate from the work of the Egypt Exploration Society in the 1920–30s. Throughout the seven weeks (the course was scheduled for ten), participants had the opportunity to handle objects (or at least see them up close) from the Egypt Centre collection. This included, for example, four beautiful broad collars of faience and semi-precious stones (fig. 2). 


Fig. 2: Objects for the handling session of the Amarna course

The Egypt Centre had planned to host our second annual Wonderful Things conference at the end of May. However, like many things, these plans were changed because of the lockdown. Rather than cancelling the event, it was decided to move it to a virtual format. While I was quite apprehensive at first, it proved to be tremendously successful and has certainly raised the profile of the museum. In total, we hosted seventeen lectures, all of which revolved around the Egypt Centre collection. The lectures highlighted the diversity of the collection, with many unique objects showcased (fig. 3). The Egypt Centre is very proud of providing a platform for both established professionals and students, from Egyptologists to conservators. In total, 2,691 people attended the live sessions making this a truly international event (attendees from six continents). Sixteen of the lectures were recorded and have been added to our YouTube channel, drawing an additional audience of 5,812 people. We are grateful to all the speakers who offered their time and expertise on the collection!

Fig. 3: Sam Powell preparing to give her Zoom talk

Seeing that the Pandemic was going to continue for some time, I decided in May to move my Egypt Centre courses to a Zoom format (fig. 4). These short courses (five weeks each) have been very successful, helping to generate much needed income for the museum. Three courses have taken place so far: Funerary Artefacts of the Ancient Egyptians, Deir el-Medina, and Karnak. During these courses, blog posts were written by participants, thus offering quite different perspectives on the topics. Thanks to everyone who has volunteered (or been coerced!) into writing these posts! The Zoom format has allowed us to reach a greater audience, with almost 500 people attending the courses thus far. The fourth short course starts this coming Sunday and will focus on the Valley of the Kings. Tickets for this are still available, so if you would like to join us, see the details here.

Fig. 4: Teaching via Zoom

In April, we launched an online support fund in the effort to raise £5,000. Thanks to everyone’s amazing support, we were able to smash this target with a figure of £9,200 (fig. 5), which reached almost £10,000 once gift aid was factored in. We are most grateful to everyone who contributed to this appeal! In August, we organised our first fundraising lecture, which was delivered by Dr Ramadan Hussein (Eberhard Karls Universität, Tübingen). Subsequent lectures followed by Prof. Donald P. Ryan (Pacific Lutheran University, Washington), Prof. Aidan Dodson (University of Bristol), and John J. Johnston. Thanks to all these speakers for offering their time in order to support the Egypt Centre.

Fig. 5: Egypt Centre support fund

In August, we were informed that a collaborative project with our colleague Dr Ersin Hussein was successful in obtaining funding from the Institute on Classical Studies for a project at the Egypt Centre. Egypt and Its Neighbours will be a new display in the House of Life gallery, which will focus on the non-Egyptian items in the collection (fig. 6). The project will serve as a catalyst for both student and public engagement with a number of topics that lie at the heart of many current debates regarding the world in which we live today, such as racism, cultural diversity, self-presentation, and identity formation. The ancient world is rich with material to encourage meaningful discussion around these relevant topics. Swansea University is one of the few places in the UK offering specialist modules on Egypt, Greece, Rome, Cyprus, Nubia, and the ancient Near East and we really want the display to bring together the research that we do in the museum setting not just for our students, but for visitors from school children to the general public. Stay tuned for more on this project in 2021!

Fig. 6: “Classical” objects in the Egypt Centre

One of the most exciting developments during the past year has been the launch of our new online collection catalogue (Abaset), which was designed and developed by Egypt Centre volunteer and Swansea University student Sam Powell (fig. 7). This was made possible thanks to funding from the Greatest Need Fund set up by Swansea University alumni, to who we are most grateful. 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. 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. 7: Homepage of the new Egypt Centre online catalogue

On the 18 December, I delivered a virtual Christmas tour of the Egypt Centre, including the storeroom. The event attracted over 300 registered guests who were treated to a three-hour tour of the collection. Before we started, Dr Carolyn Graves-Brown (Egypt Centre Curator) and Andrew Rhodes (Registrar and Chief Operating Officer of Swansea University) thanked attendees for their support over the past nine months. A poll at the beginning of the tour revealed that 44% of attendees were unaware of the Egypt Centre pre-COVID (fig. 8), a clear indication that we have been able to reach a new, diverse, and global audience over the past nine months!

Fig. 8: Results of poll

There have been many other Egypt Centre successes of 2020 that haven’t been discussed above. The launch of our Virtual Classroom programme, Come and Create activities, Egyptian Tales of Mythology and Folklore, and the Egypt Centre Bitesize videos. There have also been discoveries within the collection, such as a figure roasting a goose, joining separated fragments from Meroe (fig. 9), and identifying inlay eyes from Sanam. Several other projects continue, including the transcribing of the day books of Kate Bosse-Griffiths, which Dr Dulcie Engel blogged about back in September.


Fig. 9: Digitally reuniting fragments from Meroe

We have received a lot of positive feedback over the past nine months, which has been really encouraging. One supporter wrote on Twitter that “one of the best things to come out of lockdown was learning more about the Egypt Centre”. Another wrote that our online events have been “a silver lining of the dreadful pandemic year”! 2021 marks fifty years since approximately 4,000 objects arrived from the Wellcome Institute to Swansea, which now form the core of the Egypt Centre collection. We will be marking this anniversary with a series of events and posts throughout the year, so stay tuned!

Finally, I would like to finish by thanking everyone for their support and to wish you all a happy and healthy New Year!