A Review of the Garstang Museum’s ‘Before Egypt: Art, Culture and Power’ exhibition at the Victoria Gallery and Museum at the University of Liverpool

On 11 May a new exhibition of Egyptian material opened at the of the University of Liverpool. Curated by Gina Criscenzo-Laycock of the University’s Garstang Museum, it features pre- and early Dynastic Egyptian and Nubian material from that museum and some significant loans from other collections.

The exhibition is free to enter and is relatively easy to find in the Grade II listed gothic Victoria tower of the University of Liverpool. Entering off Brownlow Hill, you pass through the Waterhouse restaurant and walk up the stairs to the first floor. The exhibition is located in three rooms of the Victoria Gallery. Details and a map are provided on the Victoria Gallery and Museum website. The main part of the exhibition is located in two large rooms to the right of the stairs, with the Lapis Lazuli Lady housed in a room of her own (Virginia Wolf would surely approve) on the opposite side of the stairwell.

Garstangcase
John Garstang, some of his personal items and notebooks and a plate glass negative from his excavations. (Author Photograph)

The exhibition is broadly chronological, beginning with the Neolithic (roughly 5000 BC) and ending with the Early Dynastic (c. 3000BC) Naqada Royal Tomb of Neith-hotep. Relevant additional information is presented as appropriate, including a section on John Garstang, excavator of many of the objects in the exhibition.

On the balcony, before the doorway into the first room, is a display covering Flinders Petrie‘s development of sequence dating, which provides the basis for much of our predynastic chronology. A brief description of sequence dating is accompanied by a chart showing the chronological development of a typical sequence of pottery types, illustrated by examples of those pots in cases below.

On the opposite side of the same doorway is a large timeline, introducing the Predynastic to Early Dynastic Period. It also suggests that the Late Neolithic period began with people accessing the ladies and gents via the adjacent stairwell!

NeolithicToilets
Timeline introducing the chronology of the Predynastic and Early Dynastic period. Toilets can be found downstairs, apparently in the Early Neolithic period. (Author photograph)

The first few cases of the first room are devoted to predynastic material culture. Cases featuring typical predynastic pottery (see the Featured Image) and cosmetic palettes occupy the left and right walls of the first room, respectively. Quintessentially Naqada II vessels with typical boat imagery appear in one case (one example is available as a 3D model). Animal decoration and theriomorphic vessels reflect the fauna of the Nile valley. Star pieces include an open pottery bowl with four modeled-clay hippopotami around the rim (Manchester Museum 5069) and a breccia stone vessel in the shape of a frog (British Museum EA65240). The carved stone vessels demonstrate the skill and patience of predynastic craftspeople. Their imitations in painted pottery remind us that the fake designer handbag is the modern descendant of a long tradition!

Gneiss bowl of King Khaba
Gneiss bowl with serekh of the Dynasty III pharaoh Khaba. Manchester Museum 10959. (Author photograph)

One particular stone vessel deserves a special mention. Manchester Museum 10959 is a hard stone bowl inscribed with the name of Early Dynastic (Dynasty III) King Khaba. The label lists it as ‘diorite’, but it is unmistakably Gebel el-Asr gneiss, specifically anorthosite gneiss. This is hardly surprising. Gebel el-Asr gneiss is located on the surface, could be extracted as conveniently sized pebbles and boulders, and was worked since the Neolithic period (Schild and Wendorf 2001, 16-17). Large numbers of gneiss vessels came from Dynasty I royal tombs (Petrie 1901b, 13 and pl.ix.11) and it continued to be a favoured stone for vessel manufacture into the Old Kingdom (Firth and Quibell 1935, 105, 193-5, pl.19 pl.88-91).

The predynastic antecedents of Egyptian material culture are clear from other artefacts too. As you enter the first room you are greeted by an oversize Naqada II cosmetic palette with its top carved in the form of bird’s heads, decorated with a representation of a human figure and two ostriches (Manchester Museum 5476). It is an obvious precursor to outsized, heavily carved, proto- and Early Dynastic palettes with more typically Egyptian iconography, such as the Narmer Palette or the Two Dog Palette. Manchester Museum 5476 demonstrates that these later products were clearly the culmination of a long tradition. The exhibition does not discuss the racist theories prevalent when the artefacts were excavated, but the obvious continuity between predynastic artefacts and Dynastic material culture clearly refutes the early 20th-century assumption that the unification of Egypt and flowering of Dynastic culture were due to the influx of a new cultural and racial group.

Hierakonpolis_fortcemetery
Display case dedicated to the Hierakonpolis Fort Cemetery excavations, with an excavation photograph of a typical burial behind, and typical vessels below. The information panel at the bottom of the case is not shown but included a reproduction of a page from Garstang’s notebook containing a sketch of a burial, as well as a verbal description of the site. (Author Photograph)

Much of the Garstang collection came from controlled excavations and Garstang’s excavation records are held by the Garstang Museum. Although there is little archaeological context in the early cases that set up the fundamentals of predynastic culture, the rest of the exhibition has context in spades. In the first room, two cases reflect the interplay between artefact and excavation archive. Each case features typical artefacts from one of Garstang’s excavations, accompanied by a large reproduction of his excavation photographs (see image above). In one case (the excavation of the Hierakonpolis Fort Cemetery) a copy of Garstang’s sketch of an intact burial also accompanies the artefacts and photograph. The source of the artefacts in the exhibition is further contextualised in a small case featuring a photograph of Garstang, his excavation notebooks, a pencil and plate glass negative from his excavations. It’s pleasant to see this case, because explaining how the artefacts in an exhibition were excavated (or obtained) and by whom ought to be part of every exhibition. I’d have liked this case to go further and recognise the wider excavation team (including unskilled workmen and skilled Egyptian excavators, as well as foreign specialists), but its very good to see the archaeological origins of these artefacts presented to the public.  It’s important for exhibitions to demonstrate that artefacts are most ‘valuable’ when archaeologically excavated and accompanied by their excavation archive because it is this that contextualises the artefacts and enables new discoveries to be made from old data.

Qaa_nebty
Fragment of a quartz vase with the nebty name of Dynasty I Pharaoh Qaa. (Manchester Museum 1237. Author Photograph).

The second room focuses on the process of state formation that led to Dynastic Egyptian culture. There is a super display case about writing and power featuring a number of significant artefacts, including a potsherd with a serekh of Narmer (E.5248), a sealing with the earliest example of a cartouche used to enclosure a King’s name (E. 5251), a fragment of a quartz vase with the nebty name of King Qaa and an ivory tablet of Menes with the name of King Menes from the Naqada Royal tomb (E.5116). These are joined by some interesting sealings from the Naqada Royal tomb that foreshadow displays in the rest of the room.

In the centre of the room is a display case on Women and Power. It features a number of fantastic artefacts: a sherd naming Queen Mereneith (British Museum EA32645); a fragment of an ivory box with the name of Queen Bener-ib alongside that of her husband Hor-Aha (British Museum EA35513); and, because no display on Women and Power in ancient Egypt is complete without Hatshepsut, a model rocker from a foundation deposit at Deir el-Bahri with Hatshepsut’s throne name (Maatkare).

Hatshepsut_Rocker
Wooden model of a rocker, from a foundation deposit of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri and carrying her ‘throne’ name (2014/226). (Author Photograph)

The inclusion of this eclectic group in the exhibition becomes clear when you reach a clay seal impression with the name of Neith-hotep in a serekh. According to the information panel, this is the only example of a serekh surmounted by a goddess (Neith) rather than a god and the occurance of a female name in this most royal format raises questions about Neith-hotep’s role. These questions are amplified by the nature and contents of tomb of Neith-hotep at Naqada (The Naqada Royal tomb), which forms the subject of the remaining cases on room 2.

Neithotep_Serekh
Clay seal impression with the serekh of Neith-hotep (E.1335) displayed between two predynastic (Naqada II) female figurines (British Museum EA50676 and EA50947). (Author photograph)

The Naqada Royal tomb is a relatively little known but fascinating structure. Garstang re-excavated it in 1904 and recovered hundreds of objects missed by the original excavator, Jacques de Morgan, who only spent 15 days on the project in 1897. Although heavily robbed and burned, the artefacts still testify to the power and status of their owner, Neith-hotep, wife of Narmer and mother of Hor-Aha. The status accorded her in death and the presence of her name in serekh suggests she may have been more than a Queen consort. In a final panel, the visitor is asked to vote whether they consider her a Queen (consort) or female Pharaoh. The panel suggests we take into account the grandeur and size of her tomb, but also examine our own cultural biases. Do we want her to be a female Pharaoh because we are so aware of gender equality? Or are we only questioning whether she could be a female Pharaoh because our image of Pharaonic power is male? It is a fascinating discussion of a little known tomb from the very beginning of Egyptian history, and one which exposes the public to the kinds of questions Egyptology forces us to ask about ourselves. I began studying ancient Egypt because I wanted to research a radically different culture that would force me to re-evaluate my cultural biases. Even after nearly 20 years, studying ancient Egypt still does this to me every day and seeing this aspect of it presented to the public was hugely exciting.

Your vote on the status of Neith-hotep constitutes the last act in room 2. To see the Lapis Lazuli Lady you must leave room 2 and turn left, walking past the staircase and into the exhibition rooms beyond it. The Lady is introduced by a panel detailing Garstang’s excavations at Hierakonpolis and the remarkable circumstances of her discovery. Her headless body, found in 1898 in the Fort Cemetery by Quibell, had to wait eight years until Harold Jones (standing in for Garstang, while the latter was away) found her head. A brief description of her discovery and origins can be found in the Winter 2016 volume of Nekhen News. As that article makes clear, debate continues about whether she was carved in Egypt, or elsewhere. The role of female figures generally continues to be discussed (see for example The Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines). Whatever conclusions are drawn about her origins and purpose, the Lapis Lazuli Lady is undoubtedly a beautiful piece of work, in a material that emphasises the inter-regional connections of pre- and early Dynastic Egypt.

LapisLazuliLady
The Lapis Lazuli Lady from Hierakonpolis. (Ashmolean Museum E.1507, E.1507a). (Author Photograph).

Overall Before Egypt is a super exhibition. Rarely do you see so many fantastic predynastic artefacts on display in one place. The focus of the exhibition is also to be applauded. In addition to the importance accorded archaeological provenance, the presence of so many less well-known aspects of the predynastic is very welcome. With Egyptian prehistory there is often a tendency to focus on the classic sites; Naqda I, II and III; historic and current discoveries at Hierakonpolis; and, as we move into the early Dynastic period, the royal tombs at Abydos. Instead of these usual suspects, we are given A-group Kostamna, the Hierakonpolis Fort Cemetery and the Lapis Lazuli Lady (because you cannot entirely escape Hierakonpolis), and the Naqada Royal Tomb of a possible female Pharaoh.

The information associated with the exhibits is consistently good and highly informative. Apart from where links and references indicate otherwise, all the information about the artefacts in this review was taken from the information panels.  When I visited the accompanying book had not yet been published, but the Garstang Museum’s blog and sketchfab page include a number of artefacts in the exhibition. The 3d models on the sketchfab page are a particularly brilliant complement to the exhibition, allowing you to get much closer to those artefacts (at least in digital form) and compensating for occasional difficulties with the lighting. There is also a dedicated blog post about many of the artefacts in the exhibition. My only complaint is that visitors should be more clearly directed to the blog and sketchfab page when viewing artefacts which feature in them. Nevertheless, the information provided with the objects is highly interesting and manages to make a varied group of sites and artefacts cohere into a consistent story of Egyptian prehistory.

Edit

Thanks to @Tetisheri13 for information that there is a forthcoming book to accompany the exhibition. I cannot wait to read it and shall review this separately once it becomes available.

Thanks also to Ashley Cook of Liverpool World Museum (@EgyptCurator) for pointing out that the head of the Lapis Lazuli Lady was actually found by Harold Jones while Garstang was away visiting other sites. There’s a whole blog to be written about the assistants and subordinates who, often almost singlehandedly, excavated sites whilst the excavation directors were elsewhere.

Bibliography

Firth, C. M. and Quibell, J. E. 1935. Excavations at Saqqara: The Step Pyramid Cairo: Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte.

Petrie, W. M. F. 1901. The Royal Tombs of the Earliest Dynasties Part II. London: Egypt Exploration Fund.

Schild, R. and Wendorf, F. 2001. The Combined Prehistoric Expedition Results of the 2001 Season. ARCE Bulletin 180:16–17.

Featured

Artefacts from the Anglo-Saxon burial at Prittlewell exhibited in Southend Museum.

It’s not every day that an intact royal burial is discovered less than a mile from your childhood home, but in 2003 that’s exactly what happened to me. Even more amazing, this royal burial was found in Prittlewell in Southend-on-sea in Essex, which is often assumed (rather unfairly) to be a cultural backwater. I was living at home at the time and looking for archaeological work when I noticed a large white tent had gone up over excavations taking place along Priory Crescent. Knowing that commercial British archaeologists only get the privilege of working in a nice dry tent when they have found something truly significant, I eagerly awaited the publication of whatever had been discovered.

The results of the excavation did not disappoint! A well-preserved, intact and richly furnished Anglo-Saxon burial had been discovered in a c. 4x4x1.5m wood-lined burial chamber (Hirst and Scull 2019, 30-31). The quality of the grave goods suggested the highest stratum of Anglo-Saxon society, inviting comparisons with Sutton-Hoo and even Tutankhamun!

The exhibition

After excavation, the artefacts were conserved by Museum of London and are now on permanent display in the Southend Museum. I went along in early June 2019 with my daughter. Being only one at the time she wasn’t very impressed, but if you have older children they will probably enjoy looking at the artefacts and exploring the digital displays. Eight-year-old me would certainly have loved it.

Overview of the exhibition of the Prittlewell Princely Burial at Southend Museum
The exhibition of the Prittlewell Princely Burial at Southend Museum. The artefacts are displayed in a central case, while the interative wall displays detail the excavation and post-excavation process. (Hannah Pethen June 2019)

The permanent display occupies a relatively small room at the rear of the museum, which made it slightly challenging to visit with a large pram. Crowding might be a problem if you visited during a very busy time or coincided with a school party, but it wasn’t crowded when I attended. The displayed artefacts are all located together in a single large case, which the visitor can walk around. Artefact numbers and further information are provided in labels in the case, but the hard work of contextualising the objects, and explaining the process of excavation and interpretation is done with digital displays on the walls. This makes for an efficient and effective exhibition space. The visitor can read descriptions of the excavation and watch videos about the conservation and research into the artefacts, before turning around to examine them in the case. This approach places the excavation and conservation of the artefacts front and centre. The story of the exhibition is literally the story of the excavation and post-excavation process, and the artefacts are contextualised as pieces of evidence that provide information about the burial, the owner and his culture.

Star finds

Hanging bowl
The northern or western British hanging bowl. The first object to be found, it was still hanging on its hook on what had been the wall of the burial chamber. Now in the Southend Museum (Author Photograph).

The gold belt buckle has become the star of the exhibition and a potent symbol of the site, but (like many objects in Egyptian tombs) it was probably made especially for the burial and was not used by the deceased during life (Hirst and Scull 2019, 46). The beautiful, highly-decorative hanging bowl originating in northern or western Britain shows clear links with the late Roman traditions (Blackmore et al. 2019, 175), while the Eastern Meditteranean flagon and basin reflect trading links beyond Europe (Hirst and Scull 2019, 49-50; 52-54).

Fans of glass will find the glass beakers interesting (see the featured image above the title). Two highly decorative blue glass examples with trailed decoration are typical of elite Anglo-Saxon burials, while the simpler green pair are more common (Hirst and Scull 2019, 58). To my eyes, they also owe a lot to Roman glass traditions, but others may disagree.

Copticflagon
The Eastern Mediterranean flagon from the Prittlewell Princely Burial reflects trading links across Europe (Author photograph).

I found it slightly disappointing that the exhibition does not include all of the surviving artefacts from the burial chamber, but this is probably either because the missing artefacts are too fragile for permanent display or because further conservation and interpretative work is necessary before they can be exhibited. Space in the exhibition case may also be a factor.

Some artefacts are represented by scant traces identifiable only by scientific analysis; fragments of gold braid, which told of a luxurious piece of cloth laid over the face; a painted wooden box; and remains of over 19 different types of textile preserved through association with metal (Hirst and Scull 2019, 44-45; 72-73; 76-77). The metal fittings of the decomposed wooden lyre are exhibited on a stand cut to the shape of the wooden lyre body, which was only visible as a shadow in the sandy soil of the grave. It is in the identification and reconstruction of these badly-decayed artefacts, that scientific excavation demonstrates its great value.

The tomb owner

The body interred in the Prittlewell tomb completely disintegrated in the acidic soil, leaving only a stain to show where the coffin was located. The excavators suggest the owner was male based on the absence of female dress items and the presence of weaponry, although clothing and weaponry are not always conclusive in sexing burials. A possible owner has been proposed in the person of Seaxa, brother of King Saebert of the East Saxons, but Hirst and Scull (2019, 97) are careful to point out that although Seaxa died at roughly the correct time, there may be other candidates of whom we are not aware.

Additional material

In addition to the information available in the exhibition, Southend Museum publicised the exhibition on their News page and also run a blog, which recently featured a post about brooches found in other graves in the same cemetery as the Princely burial. The burial has also been featured on the Museum Crush website and parts of the excavation can also be seen on the MOLA Youtube channel. There is also information on the MOLA website, including an interactive model of the burial chamber where you can explore the stories behind the artefacts.

Burial_chamber_reconstruction
Reconstruction of the burial chamber from the digital displays in the exhibition. Hirst and Scull (2019, 88-89) contains the same reconstruction. (Author Photograph, June 2019 at Southend Museum).

In terms of guidebooks or catalogues, there are two choices: The full excavation monograph, published by MOLA and costing £35 (Blackmore et al. 2019) and a smaller volume at £15 (Hirst and Scull 2019). Unless you plan to do academic or archaeological research into the Southend area, the Hirst and Scull (2019) volume will be quite sufficient. Reconstructions of both the entire burial chamber (image above) and of individual artefacts are provided as appropriate throughout and the book is really well illustrated. It contains a detailed description of the discovery and excavation of the burial, a thorough review and discussion of the artefacts, and analysis of who was buried and their cultural and political context.  I really liked this approach as it mirrors what archaeologists do when we excavate. We work from the known to the unknown. The exhibition and its accompanying books begin with the story of the discovery and excavation of the site, move to the conservation and investigation of the artefacts and finally put it all together to propose the identity of the deceased and his position, historically and geographically.

Conclusion

Overall the exhibition of the artefacts from the Prittlewell Princely burial was thoroughly enjoyable. It was a great pleasure to see the objects after conservation and read the full story of the excavation and post-excavation process as part of the exhibition. I hope that in future we may see more of those artefacts that have not yet been displayed, and perhaps even some reconstructions of those that are missing due to decay and disintegration. The accompanying books were also very well done, with the smaller Hirst and Scull (2019) volume containing just the right amount of information to inform without overwhelming the reader.

References

Hirst, Sue and Scull, Christopher. 2019 The Anglo-Saxon Princely Burial at Prittlewell, Southend-on-sea. Museum of London Archaeology: London.

Blackmore, Lyn. Blair, Ian. Hirst, Sue and Scull, Christopher. 2019. The Prittlewell princely burial: excavations at Priory Crescent, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, 2003. MOLA Monograph Series 73. Museum of London Archaeology: London.