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Monday, 28 March 2022

Magic and Amulets in Ancient Egypt

The blog post for this week is written by Linda Kimmel, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the United States. When she retired from full-time work as a data research manager in late 2020, she began studying about the ancient world, and serving as a docent at the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Linda had never heard of the Egypt Centre before the pandemic but has taken every course offered since she first noticed a tweet about the Centre in the fall of 2020 and hopes to visit Swansea in late 2022 or 2023.

The latest Egypt Centre course, The Funerary Artefacts of the Ancient Egyptians has been a fascinating look at all things related to burials in ancient Egypt. In our fourth session, Ken Griffin focused on Magic and Ritual. We learned that magic—the rough translation for the Egyptian word heka—played an important role in ancient Egypt, both in life and in the afterlife.  Heka was a creative power possessed by the gods and the pharaohs. But when ordinary people died, they could also have access to heka. The Egyptians even had a deity called Heka, who is commonly represented as a child at Esna (fig. 1). The two hours flew by as Ken discussed such topics as magic wands, magic bricks, the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures, the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts, and the Book of the Dead. But my favorite part was the discussion of amulets, and that is what I will focus on here.

Fig. 1: Heka the Child at Esna

Like many museum visitors, I used to be attracted to large artifacts; coffins, large statues, reliefs, and the like. But over the last two years, after attending hundreds of online lectures, classes, and training sessions, I have learned about the wonders of the tiny artifacts that are too often overlooked by museum visitors. In particular, I have become fascinated by amulets. Amulets are items worn to protect their wearer through their religious associations, or as Ken noted, a type of “religious equivalent to armor”. Amulets for daily life and the afterlife were common in all periods of Egyptian history. For the afterlife, amulets could be inserted within the mummy wrappings, or simply placed above the mummy. An inscription from the Temple of Dendera lists 104 amulets that could be set within the wrappings (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: A list of amulets at Dendera

The Egyptians had at least four different words for amulets, all related to meanings such as “to guard,” “to protect,” and “well-being.” Based on the work of Carol Andrews, we covered five different types of amulets: (1) deities and sacred animals; (2) protection; (3) assimilation; (4) power; and (5) possession/property.

Amulets of deities and sacred animals. With over 1,000 deities in ancient Egypt, not all were represented in amuletic form. Amulets of deities were worn primarily to evoke the protection of the deity, or to gain access to a power of the deity. While most of the deities represented in amulets are easy for us to identify, some are much more difficult. The problem is, there were only so many animals to go around for all the many gods and goddesses. Thus, any given animal could be represented in animal form by numerous deities. For example, we can tell that the amulet at the Egypt Centre shown in Figure 3 has the head of a lioness. The deities Sekhmet, Tefnut, Mehyt, Pakhet, Bastet, Wadjet, and others all had the head of a lioness, making this amulet impossible to identify. Without an inscription, we cannot be certain which goddess is represented. Many of the animal amulets we saw—such as the baboon, sow, crocodile, and cat—are also associated with gods or goddesses.

Fig. 3: Lioness-headed amulet

Amulets of protection. These amulets were worn to offer the wearer protection and good luck both in life and death. This is a large group, and includes the most popular of all amulets, the scarab. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of scarab amulets were produced throughout Egyptian history. The scarab beetle was a symbol of resurrection for the ancient Egyptians (fig. 4). This group of amulets also includes one I had never heard of before, the Girdle of Isis (Tyet). It was believed that this amulet, through the power of Isis, would protect the deceased (fig. 5). I have since discovered the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum has one of these amulets, and plan to use it in one of my next virtual tours.

Fig. 4: Heart scarab of Padiamun

Fig. 5: The "girdle of Isis"

Amulets of assimilation. This group includes the earliest forms of amulets, which represent parts of human or animal bodies. These amulets were thought to give the wearer the powers represented by the body part, or at times, the entire animal. They could also serve as substitutes in case the body part was destroyed. We saw examples of a spare hand, a foot, a face, and other body parts. Most important, was the heart amulet. The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart stored a person’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and memories. Heart amulets like the one in Figure 6 from the Egypt Centre were placed on the neck, breast, or upper torso of the deceased to ensure that they had a heart, should theirs be destroyed.

Fig. 6: Heart amulet

Amulets of power. There are many symbols of royal authority and power in ancient Egypt, including the djed-pillar, the uraeus serpent, and the red crown. This group of amulets includes those symbols. It has been suggested that the appearance of these amulets represents the democratization of funerary religion in Egypt; what was once exclusively for royalty, was now available for everyone (fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Djed-pillar amulet

Amulets of possession and property. These amulets represent all the possessions used during life that would be needed in the tomb for the Afterlife. It did not matter how small they were, they would still serve as representations of the real thing. We saw amulets representing such possessions as a writing tablet, tiny vessels, and a fish. The situla amulet in Figure 8 was a new form to me. It was used in ritual practices in temples, with the liquid in it having healing properties. The amuletic version of the situla was placed at the deceased’s throat and was assumed to have the same powers.

Fig. 8: Model situla amulet

This class left me wanting to learn more about magic in ancient Egypt. I could easily imagine a full course devoted to the topic. Fortunately, as always, Ken sent us a series of articles that we can read for more information. I intend to start digging into that literature as soon as the course is over!



Andrews, Carol 1994. Amulets of ancient Egypt. London: The British Museum Press.

Colazilli, Alessandra 2012. Reproducing human limbs: prosthesis, amulets and votive objects in ancient Egypt. Res Antiquitatis: Journal of Ancient History 3, 147174.

Germond, Philippe 2005. The symbolic world of Egyptian amulets: from the Jacques-Édouard Berger collection. Photographs by Truus Salomon de Jong and Philippe Salomon de Jong. Milano: 5 Continents.

Győry, Hedvig 2001. The history of early amulets. Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 28, 99110.

Hays, Harold M. 2011. The death of the democratisation of the afterlife. In Strudwick, Nigel and Helen Strudwick (eds), Old Kingdom, new perspectives: Egyptian art and archaeology 2750–2150 BC, 115130. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Pinch, Geraldine 2006. Magic in ancient Egypt, 2nd ed. London: British Museum Press.

Priskin, Gyula 2021. The 104 amulets of Osiris at Dendera. In Franci, Massimiliano, Salima Ikram, and Irene Morfini (eds), Rethinking Osiris: proceedings of the international conference, Florence, Italy 26–27 March 2019, 147152. Roma: Arbor Sapientiae.

Smith, Mark 2009. Democratization of the afterlife. Edited by Jacco Dieleman and Willeke Wendrich. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009 (June).

Sousa, Rogério 2011. The heart of wisdom: studies on the heart amulet in ancient Egypt. BAR International Series 2211. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Thursday, 24 March 2022

Marking 25 Years of the Aberystwyth Collection in Swansea

Today marks 25 years since a group of 139 objects arrived at Swansea University from the School of Art at Aberystwyth University. Among the objects are shabtis, amulets, jewellery, copper alloy Osiris figures, pottery, stone vessels, mummified remains, and three coffins. The majority of the objects were donated to Aberystwyth by John Bancrot Willans (1881–1957), country landowner, antiquarian, and philanthropist (fig. 1). Willans was a subscriber of the Egyptian Research Account (later the British School of Archaeology in Egypt), which was headed by the famed archaeologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853–1942). As a subscriber, Willans received objects from Abydos in 1903, and from Tarkhan and Riqqeh during the 1912–13 seasons. This blog post will highlight some of the objects the Egypt Centre received from Aberystwyth. Several have already been highlighted in previous blog posts, including a wooden headrest (AB80), a Predynastic palette (AB79), and a group of objects from grave 993 at Tarkhan. A recent blog also highlighted our Late Period coffin (AB118), which is currently at Cardiff University undergoing conservation.

Fig. 1: John Bancrot Willans (

Among the objects from material sent to Willans in 1903, said to be from Abydos, is a limestone fragment of an ꜣḫ i͗ḳr n Rꜥ stela (AB129). On the left, the dedicatee is seated on a high-backed chair wearing a wig with fillet and a wesekh-collar (fig. 2). He has a short beard and wears a short wig with a fillet band tied around it. The curved end of the top of the chair can be seen just above the collar. In his left hand he holds a lotus-flower, which sinuously curls away from his body with its blossom looping back towards his face, giving the impression that he is sniffing its pleasing fragrance. In his right hand the dedicatee appears to be holding a bouquet of flowers, the remains of which can be seen just in front of him. Traces of brown and white paint on the surface. In the lunette above the scene is a text, written in a number of vertical lines. The text, which is incomplete, can be tentatively reconstructed based on other examples of this type. Ancestor stelae were common during the Ramesside Period. This stela was published as part of the Festschrift presented to Prof. Alan Lloyd in 2007 (Griffin 2007). Thanks to the help of Lee Robert McStein, of Monument Men, a 3D model of the stela was created this week and is now available on the museum’s Sketchfab page.

Fig: Ancestor stela

Among the objects are numerous amulets, including wadjet eyes, scarabs, djed-pillars, and deities. Most of these are on display in our amulet case and are regularly used in our mummification activity with school parties. AB5 is a small inscribed faience scarab, the underside of which features a winged serpent to the left of the cartouche of Thutmose III (Mn-ḫpr-Rꜥ). AB6 is a faience uraeus serpent, which rests is upon a rectangular base, with a loop on the back for suspension. The uraeus was the emblem of royalty. AB7 is a red jasper heart amulet, which appears to be a cornice heart amulet (Sousa 2011, 17–20). This type dates to the Twenty-first Dynasty, at the earliest, though most are Late Period (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Heart amulet

AB106 is copper alloy votive statue of Amun with a plaited beard. The figure is much corroded with one leg missing above the knee (fig. 4). The double-plumed headdress is also missing. Votive statues of Amun (or Amun-Re) were common from the Third Intermediate Period through the Ptolemaic Period. There are also four copper alloy Osiris figures, including one with a suspension loop on the back.

Fig. 4: Copper alloy statue of Amun

Several of the objects date to the Coptic era, including a metal earring with a mother of pearl Coptic cross (AB31). The early cross was similar in shape to the Egyptian ankh. Additionally, the radial lines at the base suggest the hieroglyph for a woman giving birth. This is very similar to two earrings featured in Petrie (1927, pl. 10). Woolley (1907) saw some similarities between Coptic crosses and Coptic fertility figurines. AB71 is a copper alloy square pendant with blue enamel depicting three unlabelled figures. Iconographically, they likely represent one of the saints flanked by Jesus (left) and Mary (right). The saint is shown holding a copy of the Bible, which suggests he represents one of the Four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John). Since he is also shown quite bald, this can perhaps be narrowed down to John, the most common of the four to be depicted in this way (fig. 5).

Fig. 5: Coptic pendant

As noted previously, Willans received material from Petrie’s excavations at Tarkhan in 1912–1913. These are always interesting since they commonly have grave numbers written on them. So far, we have been able to identify objects from graves 7, 9, 27, 217, 261, 993, 1348, 1621, and 1622. This consists mainly of pottery, stone vessels, and palettes. AB22 is a turtle-shaped stone palette, manufactured from fine-grained greywacke sandstone found in the Wadi Hammamat in Egypt’s Eastern Desert (fig. 6). The animal-shaped (zoomorphic) palettes are from the Naqada II Period, with turtles being one of the rarer shapes and much less common than fish-shaped or bird-shaped palettes. Whilst not unprecedented in its lack of detail, this example is more stylised than other turtles and doesn’t feature eyes, limbs, or a suspension hole.

Fig. 6: Turtle-shaped palette

Most of the pottery from Tarkhan in the Egypt Centre has been studied by Swansea University students as part of our weekly pottery project taking place this semester. Most are cylindrical jars, with a full sequence of these wavy handled vessels seemingly being sent to Willans in 1913. Particularly noteworthy is AB90, which still contains the original contents, which has resulted in the vessel splitting (fig. 7). It is hoped that the contents of this vessel will be analysed at some point, as is currently being undertaken on another vessel from Tarkhan (AB98) by Alice Law at Cardiff University Conservation Department. Previous analysis on AB98 indicated that it was potentially pig fat (Hardy & Finch (2017).

Fig. 7: Cylindrical vessel with contents

We are immensely grateful to Aberystwyth University and the School of Art for gifting these objects to the Egypt Centre. They represent a major component of the collection, which has been used to educate school children, students, and researchers over the past 25 years!

All the objects from the Aberystwyth collection can be viewed on our online catalogue via the following link. Additionally, throughout the day, I’ll be posting highlights of the collection on Twitter!


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.

Hardy, Andrew & Paul Finch 2017. A chemical study of the contents of an Early Dynastic Egyptian storage jar. Pharmaceutical Historian 47 (1), 2–7.

Petrie, W. M. Flinders, G. A. Wainwright, and A. H. Gardiner 1913. Tarkhan I and Memphis V. British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Egyptian Research Account [23] (19th year). London, Aylesbury: Hazell, Watson and Viney, Ld. [pl. XLIX]

Petrie, W. M. Flinders 1927. Objects of daily use: with over 1800 figures from University College, London. British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Egyptian Research Account [42]. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt; Bernard Quaritch.

Sousa, Rogério 2011. The heart of wisdom: studies on the heart amulet in ancient Egypt. BAR International Series 2211. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Woolley, C. Leonard 1907. Coptic bone figures. Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology Proceedings 29, 218–220.

Monday, 14 March 2022

A Wellcome Reunion?

The blog post for this week has been written by Egypt Centre volunteer and University of Birmingham PhD student, Sam Powell, who is a regular contributor to this blog.

As regular attendees to Ken’s courses will know, I am currently visiting various institutions across the UK to gather data on the wooden funerary figures from tomb models as part of my PhD research. My aim is to build a stylistic typology of these figures as a means of establishing a likely provenance for unprovenanced examples. As this research builds upon my MA dissertation focusing on the figures held in the Egypt Centre, this week’s topic of “Funerary Figures” seemed a great time to provide an update on some of my findings relating to a group of these figures held in the Egypt Centre.

For those taking Ken’s course, you may remember one of the figures included in week two (W445), a lovely squatting figure from a kitchen scene roasting a goose over a fire. This figure was assembled by the amazing team at Cardiff University’s conservation department in 2020 thanks to a grant from the AIM Pilgrim Trust. This figure is one of five similar figures held by the Egypt Centre, coming from the dispersal of the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: The five squatting figures of the Egypt Centre

As many of you know, the Egypt Centre was not the only institution to receive Wellcome material, and as I have found travelling to the World Museum in Liverpool, the material was not dispersed in the most logical groupings! My research visit to the stores at the World Museum took place over several days, and Ashley Cooke, Curator of Ancient Egypt, very generously gave me a tour of some of the amazing objects they have. In amongst the seventy-plus figures I examined, two in particular looked very familiar to me; 1973.1.571 and 1973.1.572 (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Figures 1973.1.571 and 1973.1.572, World Museum, Liverpool


The type of wood struck me immediately as being similar to the squatting kitchen crew residing in the Egypt Centre. Stylistically, they were certainly comparable, but in different positions; 1973.1.571 is shown with slightly bent knees, whilst 1973.1.572 is kneeling rather than squatting. Both of these figures also come from the Wellcome collection, but unfortunately no further provenance is known.

Ashley was also kind enough to let me look at the loose arms and additional “bits” of wood that seem to inhabit every museum store to see if anything looked a potential match for the figures I was researching. I managed to reunite around a dozen arms to their rightful figures (one of my favourite parts of this research). Two of these reunited arms were matches for the Wellcome figures, most crucially for 1973.1.572, the hand of the reunited arm is holding a ball of dough, allowing an identification of this figure as a baker (fig. 3). This was particularly exciting as I had assumed that all the figures in the Egypt Centre were roasting fowl in the same manner as W445, but it now seems more likely that they are part of a larger collection depicting various scenes of food production. Several other arms that match this group of figures are held in the stores in both Liverpool and Swansea, but it is difficult to match them without physically reuniting the material.

Fig. 3: Figures 1973.1.571 and 1973.1.572, World Museum, Liverpool with their reunited arms

Whilst looking for another figure, I also spotted another piece of wood that instantly caught my eye… (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: The fragment of wood, 1973.2.9, World Museum, Liverpool

After working with the Egypt Centre figures for so long, this unassuming piece of wood was clearly (well clearly for someone obsessed with these figures!) the knees of squatting figure W453 in the Egypt Centre. I brought up the figure in my database to check sizes, and sure enough, these knees seem to be a match (fig. 5)!

Fig. 5: Figure W453, The Egypt Centre, virtually reunited with its knees, 1973.2.9, World Museum, Liverpool

The final elements for these figures were some planks of wood, which appear to be the bases for tomb models, also coming from the Wellcome dispersal. Sure enough, the sizes match these figures and the wear patterns seem consistent, although again, without physically reuniting these objects it is difficult to establish which base would belong with each figure (figs. 6 & 7).

Fig. 6: Figure 1973.1.572, and base 1973.1.602, World Museum, Liverpool

The figures were purchased by Wellcome as part of the Sotheby & Co auction of the collection of Frankland Hood on 12–13 November 1928, lot 218, which describes “ten well-modelled Figures of artisans including two soldiers, 12th Dynasty, in good condition”. The five Egypt Centre figures, plus the two ‘soldiers’ (actually offering bearers W447 and W448) bring the total to seven. The two additional figures of the World Museum bring the total to nine leaving one unaccounted for figure. They are noted as coming from the MacGregor sale in 1922, but it is unclear as to the number of figures at that time, or whether they all came from the same provenance. As my research visits continue around the country, with many more recipients of Wellcome material to visit, my hope is that the final figure and further elements of these models may emerge and shed further light on this fascinating assemblage of funerary figures.

Fig. 7: Likely bases for the Egypt Centre squatting figures, 1973.1.574, and 1973.1.575, World Museum, Liverpool

It would be fantastic to be able to physically reunite these figures, but even to virtually bring these objects back together is very satisfying. Perhaps with the advances in 3D printing, it may be possible to replicate the individual components to create the complete scene.

I would like to finish this post by expressing my thanks to Ken Griffin at the Egypt Centre, Ashley Cooke at the World Museum, and all the other institutions that have been kind enough to facilitate my research visits; here’s hoping for plenty more discoveries!

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

A Visit to the Cardiff Conservation Department

On Monday 06 March, I led a group of Swansea University students to Cardiff University to visit the work performed by the Conservation Department. The Egypt Centre currently has over fifty objects in Cardiff, ranging from a complete wooden coffin, pottery, stelae, painted plaster from Amarna, and coffin clamps. Archives show that objects in the Egypt Centre collection have been sent to Cardiff for conservation treatment since at least 1978. Over the past forty years, some 200+ objects have been treated, many of which are now on display in the Egypt Centre. This blog post will briefly review the trip to Cardiff, highlighting a few of the Egypt Centre objects the students had the opportunity to see.

The tour of the Conservation Department was led by Phil Parkes (Reader in Conservation), who I’ve been working with closely since being appointed Collections Access Manager at the Egypt Centre. Phil (fig. 1) started off by informing the group that the conservation work is undertaken for free by carefully supervised students as part of their degree scheme. Students enrolled in the BSc in the Conservation of Objects in Museums and Archaeology, or an MSc in Conservation Practice carry out hands-on conservation work of genuine museum objects taught by accredited conservators. This agreement benefits both parties since the Egypt Centre is able to support students with object information, context, and feedback to shape their conservation decisions. In return, Cardiff students deliver a constant supply of conserved objects ready for display in the museum.

Fig. 1: Phil giving his talk about the department

One of the highlights of the visit was AB118, a wooden coffin gifted to the Egypt Centre in 1997 by Aberystwyth University. At the time, the coffin was in a terrible state, with the dowels of the wood broken in several places, which resulted in the object splitting apart. Additionally, the wood was covered in a layer of gesso-painted linen, which has become detached from the coffin over the years. The coffin arrived in Cardiff over twenty years ago and has been worked on by numerous students over the years. The coffin lid (fig. 2) is now largely finished, so work has now moved to the trough. This is currently being held together by plastic bands until it can be properly stabilised and repaired (fig. 3).

Fig. 2: Coffin lid following conservation (Ⓒ Cardiff Conservation Department)

The coffin is particularly interesting since it is an excellent example of reuse. On the interior of the coffin, and at least twice on the exterior, the deceased is listed as Ankhpakhered. While he doesn’t possess titles, both his parents are both listed. The decorative scheme indicates that the coffin was manufactured during the Twenty-fifth–Twenty-sixth Dynasty. However, on the exterior of the lid, the owner is listed as Djedhor, who was a Stolist at Akhmim. The areas where Djedhor’s name and titles appear are obvious since they have a clear white background, which is offset from the rest of the coffin. It is unclear when the coffin was usurped by Djedhor. However, when the coffin arrived in Swansea, there were three pieces of cartonnage contained within (AB124, AB125, AB126), which date to the Ptolemaic Period. Where these part of the burial of Djedhor? Perhaps not. Records indicate that the body of a deceased individual was housed within the coffin until the 1950s, but when it was examined it turned out to be that of a woman!

Fig. 3: Coffin though awaiting conservation

During the tour, students were able to see the plaster cast of the statue base of Djedhor the Saviour (W302), which was sent to Cardiff just a few months ago (fig. 4). Avid readers of this blog will know that the statue accompanying this base is currently housed in the Petrie Museum. However, in August 2021, the UCL Culture Heritage and Museums committee agreed to transfer the plaster cast of the statue of Djedhor the Saviour to Swansea to be reunited with the base. The transfer of the statue is expected to take place in the summer of 2022. While the structure of the base is excellent, there are numerous chips to the surface, which will require treatment before both the statue and the base can be displayed in the museum.

Fig. 4: Statue base of Djedhor the Saviour

We are immensely grateful to Phil, Ashley Lingle, and the rest of the conservation team for all their cooperation in working on the Egypt Centre collection. We are proud to have contributed to the development of numerous conservation students over the years, helping to offer hands-on experience with our collection. Thank you!