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.

About hannahpethen

Having completed my PhD in archaeology at the University of Liverpool, I am now a freelance archaeologists working with landscape and topographic survey and satellite imagery. I specialise in GIS, GPS, desk-based assessment and landscape projects and have a particular interest in Egyptian archaeology.
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