In my previous post, I reviewed the Wunderkammer exhibition at Southend Museum. This exhibition includes a number of interesting Egyptian artefacts in the Southend Museum collection, which I felt merited their own post. For those visiting the exhibition, the Egyptian artefacts are displayed on glass shelves in a case in the rear right corner of the exhibition room.
According to the information in the exhibition and a post on the Southend Museum blog, the Egyptian artefacts were acquired by the Museum in the early 20th-century from Porter’s Civic House, a 15th-century manor house and official mayoral residence of the City of Southend. They probably originated in the collection of Sir Charles Nicholson, who undertook a Grand Tour of Italy, Greece, and Egypt in 1857-8. Nicholson donated over 1000 objects to the University of Sydney, where they were curated in the Nicholson Museum before being transferred to the Chau Chak Wing Museum in 2020. In 1862 Nicholson left Australia, marrying Sarah Elizabeth Keightley in 1865. His eldest son was born in 1867 in Hadleigh, just west of Southend, and was also christened Charles. Charles Nicholson II became a celebrated architect and in 1916 he purchased Porter’s Manor House in Southend, to save it from demolition, later selling it to the town. The Egyptian artefacts came to the Museum from Porter’s Manor following the sale. It is most likely that the Egyptian artefacts are remnants of the collection of Charles Nicholson I, although it is also possible that they were collected by Charles Nicholson II, who travelled widely at a time when Egypt had become a popular tourist destination for people of his class. Either way, these objects were collected during the 19th or early 20th century.
The Egyptian artefacts on display in the Wunderkammer exhibition are an eclectic group. Some of them are typical of the small antiquities that were widely collected; an alabaster cosmetic jar, small items of jewellery, a human-headed Canopic jar stopper and blue-faience shabtis. A faience semi-circle with a hieroglyphic inscription may be half the lid of a faience jar or a faience plaque.
The signage is largely accurate, although I was sorry there were no museum numbers. The shabtis are correctly identified in the signage, but they are incorrectly described as surrogate bodies for the soul to use if the mummy was destroyed. Although shabtis might have functioned as such, this would have been a secondary purpose. The most important role of the shabti was as a ‘servant’ for the tomb owner, who would undertake any unpleasant duties required of him in the afterlife.
The overarching theme of the signage and artefact descriptions is the impact of 19th to 20th-century looting, uncontrolled and unethical excavation, and antiquities purchase, particularly in terms of tomb-robbing and the desecration of mummies. Personally, I would have liked to see a wider focus, given the widespread damage that the antiquities trade did (and still does) to Egyptian cultural heritage. Although the casual desecration of human remains and the thoughtless destruction of their tombs is repellent – any ‘excavations’ that are not performed systematically destroy both objects and their archaeological context. The archaeological context is the physical location, surrounding objects, the matrix, and other traces that allow us to understand what the objects are and how they were used. This archaeological context is essential if we are to understand the culture that produced it. Artefacts alone are simply interesting curiosities. Archaeological context allows us to understand their function and their meaning to those who made them. If that context is lost due to careless looters or unethical ‘archaeologists’, information about the ancient culture is lost, understanding is impaired and it is much more likely that surviving artefacts will be perceived as ‘exotic’ and form loci for ‘othering’ of their culture, including orientalism and systemic racism. Whether or not mummies or tombs are involved, the removal of artefacts from the ground or reliefs from structures as part of looting or unrecorded excavation, is as much a desecration as tomb-robbing and unwrapping of mummies.
The exhibition includes several fragments of high-quality relief. An unpainted fragment with a section of vertical text was perhaps part of a door jamb. Another fragment shows a man’s head and torso with his arm reaching forward and several straps hanging from his elbow (right). It probably originally included dogs, horses or other animals walking, hunting, or otherwise involved in agricultural activities in a larger tomb scene. There is also a fine square fragment in raised relief with the paint partially surviving (below). It shows a falcon-headed god crowned with a sun-disk nose to nose with a red-crowned Pharaoh, who brings to mind the reliefs of Montuhotep II in his mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri.
The piecemeal removal of relief scenes was as significant an impact upon Egyptian cultural heritage as looting and mummy unwrapping. The removal of reliefs from tomb and temple walls likely caused serious damage to the surrounding scenes. The dispersal of such fragments around the globe makes it difficult to connect them to each other and to their original location. It’s a shame that the signage does not discuss the problems with unprovenanced reliefs hacked out of tomb and temple scenes for sale on the antiquities market.
Souvenirs of looting?
The exhibition also features two curious objects comprising small blue-faience shabtis attached to a long necklace of tubular faience beads with fragments of linen at the other end. The description in the exhibition suggests these may have been created out of objects removed from a tomb by tourists undertaking a little looting. Alternatively, they also have the feel of something an early antiquities dealer might create as a souvenir. With an ‘idol’ (really a shabti), faience beads and ‘mummy cloth’ these objects include three of the ‘must sees’ or ‘must haves’ of Victorian Egyptomania. They seem calculated to appeal to the more superficial type of Victorian tourist, who wanted to collect ‘idols’ and ‘mummies’ but perhaps didn’t have the resources or the interest to seek out the larger antiquities. Tourists with a superficial orientalist impression of ancient Egypt wouldn’t have realised these objects would never have been put together in this format by the ancient Egyptians. We probably won’t ever know if these were created directly following touristic looting, or represent an antiquities dealer ‘adding value’ to otherwise commonplace antiquities to improve their appeal. Either way, these objects reveal how ancient artefacts were reused as part of the antiquities trade in the colonial era.
The orientalist fetishisation of ancient Egyptian materials by Europeans is also represented in the exhibition by a vial of mummia, the ‘medicine’ produced from ground-up Egyptian mummies. Through convoluted medieval mistranslation embalmed ancient Egyptians were confused for the black bitumen ‘mummia’ from Persia, used as a medicine in the ancient and medieval world. This confusion was compounded by the mystical, orientalist aura that surrounded ancient Egypt as Renaissance learning discovered the Greco-Roman texts on Egypt and explorers brought back tales of treasure, mummies and ‘exotica’. Given the strong association between Egypt, mysticism, and ancient wisdom, it probably seemed reasonable to assume that ground-up mummy would make an excellent cure for a multitude of ailments. As a result, ‘Mummia’ mummy powder was sold as a standard remedy in many apothecaries across Europe and several different types of container survive in museums around the continent. The example in the Southend museum is a small glass vial, wrapped in linen, perhaps from the same mummy.
If they weren’t ground up into mummia, mummies faced other unpleasant fates. The Wunderkammer exhibition includes a necklace of faience beads accompanied by an envelope marked ‘Hair of a mummy 3000 years old’. A handwritten note details that the necklace and mummy hair were given to the writer’s grandfather (presumably Charles Nicholson I) by a naturalist Dr Frank Buckland, who had been present at the unwrapping of the mummy in about 1878. Mummy unwrappings were extremely popular at this time, satisfying a ghoulish and orientalist urge under the guise of scientific curiosity. Given his previous history of collecting, it is perfectly likely that Charles Nicholson knew individuals who took part in these events, and that they gave him relevant objects.
I found the Egyptian artefacts to be one of the highlights of the Wunderkammer exhibition. Although they have formed part of the collection for almost 100 years, they have not been on display for a long time. They complement the rest of the exhibition and, despite a slight error regarding the shabtis, their signage draws an important connection between their history and the rest of the exhibition. I thought the inclusion of documents relating to the necklace and mummy hair was a particularly useful form of contextualisation, which documented the attitudes prevalent at the time they were collected and demonstrates the importance of the archival material which sometimes accompanies artefacts. I would have liked to see consideration of the impacts of collecting extend beyond the desecration of mummies and tomb-robbing to the wider effect on Egyptian cultural heritage. Although tombs and mummies are typically thought synonymous with Egypt and discussions of decolonisation and repatriation are often directed at human remains, in focussing narrowly upon these aspects of ancient Egyptian culture we risk reinforcing orientalist attitudes. We also lose valuable opportunities to educate on the importance of archaeological context to understanding the purpose and meanings of ancient objects and the impact of looting upon cultural heritage more generally.
There are 53 objects in the collection according to the Mehen Foundation website and only a fraction are on display in Wunderkammer. It would be interesting to see what other objects might be present and attempt to determine exactly who collected them. There is also work to be done with the individual artefacts. I have not attempted to translate any of the inscriptions or undertake any further work on the reliefs, in the hopes that the research by the Mehen Foundation will provide new information and publications on these objects. I am sure there is much more to learn about them and from them.
More information about mummification and mummy unwrapping can be found in Christina Riggs, 2014, Unwrapping Ancient Egypt, Bloomsbury Publishing.
For more information on the history of the discipline see:
- Thompson, J. 2015. Wonderful Things: A History of Egyptology. Cairo: AUC Press.
- And the various chapters in William Carruthers (ed.) 2015. Histories of Egyptology. Routledge.