Wunderkammers, colonial hangovers and multivocality.

The recent Wunderkammer exhibition at Southend Central museum looked at the origin of the museum in the Cabinets of Curiosities (‘Wunderkammer’ in German) of the early modern period and shows how these private collections evolved into the modern museum. In previous posts, I reviewed the exhibition, discussed the Egyptian artefacts, and considered the Alan Sorrell paintings of Nubia. Here I reflect on what lessons I have taken from this excellent exhibition.

In addition to the intersections between collecting, colonialism, and orientalism, the exhibition also reflected upon curatorial imperatives. These ‘broke down the Wunderkammer’ into new categories and developed a coherent narrative for visitors with fewer objects, dedicated display and information boards, museum trails and digital and interactive components. The exhibition notes that some museums maintained the eclectic approach to object display, first exemplified in the earliest Wunderkammer, such as the Pitt Rivers Museum which continued the ‘eccentric ordering and dense displays of its founder’. This ‘Wunderkammer style’ as I term it, persisted because ‘the appeal of miscellaneaous collections of artefacts remained’. The Wunderkammer exhibition does not interrogate this further, due to time and space constraints, but it certainly merits consideration not least because the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology also retains the Wunderkammer style of limited information boards and large numbers of objects on display.

A large hall filled with full display cases
Photo of the interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, showing the Wunderkammer-like display. Taken in 2015 by Geni (Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43537596)

The Petrie Museum – a Wunderkammer of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology

It won’t be a surprise to anyone who has spent time in the Petrie Museum, that ‘the appeal of miscellaneous collections of artefacts remains’ as one of the information boards puts it. Like the Pitt Rivers, the Petrie Museum makes use of full cabinets and object-heavy spaces although there is an archaeological logic to their ordering. Unlike the Pitt Rivers, this is not from any ideological stance, but rather a lack of space in the present museum premises. Nevertheless, a lot of visitors seem to enjoy the museum’s style and the large number of objects that are on display. For some, this may be a nostalgic memory of childhood museum visits before many museums had shifted to sparser object displays. For others, it ensures that there will always be something on display that appeals to their specialism, no matter how niche. Object-intensive displays and more limited signage also allow visitors to enjoy the collection from their own perspective, seek out objects that interest them, and create their own narrative. Although moving the Petrie Museum to a more appropriate and larger space is a significant aim of its current management, there are those who would mourn the busy, object-intensive layout of the current premises.

A small room containing full display cases of Egyptian artefacts with a table and additional display cases in the centre
Inside the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology (Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69515822)

Colonial hangover

The Wunderkammer exhibition clarifies the relationship between collecting, the Wunderkammer, Museum, colonial power, and the racist objectification of other cultures. The eclectic and arbitrary display of Native, Indigenous and foreign objects amongst ‘curiosities’ of the natural world, contributed to the othering of their original cultures and reinforced orientalist and racist tropes. ‘Wunderkammer’ style displays, therefore, have their origins in the ‘othering’ of ‘exotic’ objects from other cultures and may be construed as a colonist hangover. The Pitt Rivers Museum has warned visitors that its much-loved displays will be changing as it addresses its colonial origins and redeploys its objects in more ethical displays. Like every museum of the 19th and 20th centuries and earlier, the Petrie Museum also has colonial origins and is named after a prominent Eugenicist who collected ancient skulls for racial profiling. Its situation is somewhat different from the typical Wunderkammer, both in terms of the sources of its collection and its organization. The typical Wunderkammer comprised a collection of objects of often unknown or uncertain provenance. The objects were considered sufficient in and of themselves. The Petrie collection is very much the opposite. Many of the objects in the Petrie collection came from permitted and controlled excavations and can be contextualised using archive data and published excavation reports. Projects such as Artefacts of Excavation contextualise the Petrie museum objects as both components of an archaeological site and products of a specific period of archaeological investigation in a colonial context (Stevenson 2019).

A pottery rectangular 'cage' with air slits, partially broken, about the size of a large brick.
A pottery rat trap, excavated from the Middle Kingdom town of Kahun (UC16773). Photograph from the Petrie Museum collection

The Petrie collection also organises itself according to modern curatorial methods, rather than the somewhat haphazard appraoch of an early modern Wunderkammer. As a teaching museum, the Petrie Museum objects are organised according to archaeological categories; pottery, carved stonework, beads and jewellery etc. Rather than ‘othering’ or treating objects as ‘exotics’ or curios, these categories normalise the objects as part of ancient Egyptian and Sudanese cultures. Many familiar and everyday objects are on display, including a rodent trap (left), emphasising the shared humanity of their creators and the visitors. Where possible artefacts from the same assemblage are displayed together, sometimes with archival documents relating to their excavation (image below), reflecting their archaeological context and the importance of artefacts and archaeology as a cohesive whole. Of course, it is always possible to criticise organisational schema. The archaeological categories are those of the early 20th century and later European archaeologists, not ancient Egyptians. A more contextual display, which reconstituted assemblages and explored the original location and findspots of the objects would be preferable in allowing the objects to ‘speak’ for themselves as cultural heritage, and reveal how artefacts are only one aspect of archaeology. Nevertheless, such contextualisation is possible for the Petrie Museum. Although the Petrie Museum is in the Wunderkammer style and susceptible to criticisms of that format, it differs from that format in certain ways, revealing how the origins, content and use of a collection can mitigate problems of style or display.

Two shelves of a museum case, with pottery vessels on the top shelf and at the back of the lower shelf. In front of them are various items of jewellery in different stones and Egyptian faience. On the wall of the display case to the left is a sign showing three skeletons with various objects located around them.
Case in the pottery section of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology, with an assemblage of objects from tomb 7578 at Qau el-Kebir, presented alongside a reproduction of the tomb card (on the wall of the cabinet to the left) showing how the objects were laid out around the burials. (Author Photograph)

Wunderkammer problem or museum problem?

The colonial hangover of the Wunderkammer is perhaps best exemplified in the series ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects‘ (hereafter ‘100 Objects’). This series was a kind of modern, non-corporeal ‘Wunderkammer’ – a way of collecting ‘one of everything’, of encapsulating our understanding of the world through a series of objects from the British Museum picked by a white male curator. Its view of objects, as representative of a single historical ‘other’ interpreted by an authoritative curator figure; and museums, as repositories of these objects and sites of interpretation and control of them, have much in common with the historical Wunderkammer. Like the Wunderkammer, 100 Objects had a distinctly colonialist feel and was widely criticised for that. These criticisms reveal much more about the flaws in the Wunderkammer style. It is neither the eclecticism, nor the large number of objects ‘displayed’ (whether digitally or physically) that is the problem. Rather it is the centring of an elite, white, predominantly male, Europeanist view of the world, which extracted the objects as part of an imperialist project and now claims to have the authoritative interpretation, excluding and ‘othering’ the cultures which produced those objects.

Significantly this problem is not intrinsic or exclusive to the Wunderkammer style but can just as easily appear in a modern setting, with a carefully laid out trail of easily visible objects, informed by signage and sensitive to the visitor experience. The curator sets the narrative of the modern exhibition or gallery space, thus the story of the exhibition depends on the curator’s perspective. A curator with the same perspective as 100 Objects, will produce a similar exhibition narrative. Furthermore, since a modern exhibition or gallery space contains fewer objects, and those are specifically chosen to further the curator’s narrative, there is less opportunity for the visitor to have a different experience from that which was intended. Counter-narratives, which may reject the curator’s position, or individual perspectives, of specific relevance to a visitor’s personal experience, can be lost.

Wooden boomerang, large throwing club and throwstick in a glass case.
Boomerangs, throwing clubs and throw-sticks of Australian Aboriginal origin in the Wunderkammer exhibition. Different groups with different interests will inevitably have different experiences of an exhibition or gallery. (Author photograph)

Wunderkammer and multi-vocality

A great example of the possibilities of individual perspectives from multiple people is the ‘100 Histories of 100 Worlds in One Object‘ project (hereafter ‘100 Histories’). Conceived as an explicit rejection of the curatorial narrative of 100 Objects, 100 Histories provides a nexus for previously unknown and unseen object histories by communities excluded from traditional museology. With the entire British Museum catalogue at the disposal of contributors from any group or perspective, 100 Histories emphasises multivocality and interpretation by multiple individuals and communities beyond curatorial dictate. It offers the possibility of new perspectives, the inclusion of previously excluded groups, and restores the value of the personal meaning to the individual visitor. Seeing the Wunderkammer exhibition makes me wonder if the inclusion of more objects either physically or digitally displayed, could in future be a format for generating a multiplicity of stories and visitor experiences while also maintaining the integrity of the curatorial narrative.


Stevenson, A.  (2019). Scattered Finds: Archaeology, Egyptology and Museums. London: UCL Press. Available open access at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/scattered-finds


Alan Sorrell: Archaeological illustrator of Nubia and illustrator of archaeologists.

The ongoing Wunderkammer exhibition at Southend Central Museum also includes some fascinating pictures of the UNESCO Campaign to save the Monuments of Nubia by local painter Alan Sorrell. I mentioned these briefly in my review of the exhibition, but they are sufficiently interesting to merit another post.

Painting of the frontage of the Great Temple of Abu Simbel with a view to the south in the background.
Looking upriver across the frontage of the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, as painted by Alan Sorrell in 1962 (Author photograph from the Wunderkammer exhibition).

Alan Sorrell (1907-1974)

I had briefly heard of Alan Sorrell thanks to my work in British Archaeology. Sorrell was a prolific artist specialising in archaeological illustration. If you’ve seen a reconstruction of an archaeological site, medieval abbey, or castle in an older book or exhibition in the UK it was probably done by Alan Sorrell. Sorrell was born in 1904 in South London and brought up in Westcliff in Southend. Several volumes have been written about the life and work of Alan Sorrell. Here I have used information from Llewellyn and Sorrell (eds.) 2013, and Sorrell and Sorrell (2018). From the age of 10, Sorrell attended Chalkwell Hall School, just a short distance from where I am writing this post. His artistic skill developed from a relatively early age, attending Southend Municipal Art School from age 14 and subsequently working for a commercial art studio. Following a scholarship in 1925, he put himself through the Royal College of Art by undertaking commercial commissions on the side. After a stint at the British School at Rome and various professional commissions and accolades, Sorrell created his first set of historical reconstructions for a set of panels in Southend library 1933-38. Having encountered archaeology and archaeologists in Rome, Sorrell’s first archaeological commission was an image of the excavations at Leicester published in The Illustrated London News in 1937. After World War II his career in archaeological reconstruction and illustration expanded with the corresponding increase in archaeological excavations and Sorrell published many history books as an artist and coauthor, providing reconstruction drawings in collaboration with archaeologists and historians including Anthony Birley, Aileen Fox, and Margaret Drower.

Sara Perry and Matthew Johnson deconstructed Sorrell’s collaborative process for generating reconstruction drawings in their contribution, Alan Sorrell as Reconstruction Artist: ‘Making dry bones live’ to Llewellyn and Sorrell’s (2013) edited volume. Perry and Johnson (2013, 145-9) reveal that Sorrell undertook considerable research for his reconstructions, before sending drafts to the relevant archaeological collaborator for further comments, questions, and ammendations. The information flowed both ways. In the process of creating his reconstructions, Sorrell would identify problems or questions archaeologists had not considered and sometimes provided useful insights and suggestions from his experience (Sorrell and Sorrell 2018). Later in his career, Sorrell published a variety of books of his reconstructions of British Castles, Roman London, Roman Towns in Britain, Early Wales, and Living History.

Drawings of Nubia and the UNESCO campaign

Until the Wunderkammer exhibition, I didn’t know that Alan Sorrell painted the Nubian monuments and the archaeologists recording and moving them. According to Sorrell and Sorrell (2018, 177) Alan Sorrell’s interest in Nubia developed after working with Emery on a reconstruction of the Middle Kingdom fortress of Buhen for The Illustrated London News in 1962. The ILN was subsequently prevailed upon to sponsor Sorrell’s trip to Nubia and he was provided with suitable letters of recommendation to the international missions working in the area. During his two months in Egypt, Sorrell made 62 paintings. These were later purchased as a set by F. D. Todman, of Rayleigh and bequeathed to the Beecroft Art Gallery in Southend upon his death.

View of the temples of Abu Simbel from the south showing their original position.
The temples of Abu Simbel as painted by Alan Sorrell in 1962 (Author photograph from the Wunderkammer exhibition).

A small group of Alan Sorrell’s paintings of Nubia and the UNESCO campaign are featured in the Wunderkammer exhibition. These focus on images of Abu Simbel, the most famous poster-child for the UNESCO campaign, and are dominated by an absolutely spectacular landscape (above) showing the two Abu Simbel temples alongside the Nile in their original setting surrounding by tourists, Nubians and archaeologists. Another view shows the landscape downriver with the frontage of the great temple in the right foreground (top). As a landscape archaeologist I was hugely excited to see these images. Although 19th century views of Abu Simbel are relatively common in books and exhibitions, 20th century photographs and paintings are much less frequently reproduced. Where they are shown they often focus upon the temples to the exclusion of the landscape. Seeing the temples within the landscape, so close to the Nile and in the context of the sweep of the river really draws out their ancient setting. As a recent photograph shows (below), the setting is rather different now that the temples have been raised to the top of what was a steep cliff. The landscape setting and topographical context of a site provide interesting and important information about how that site was created, perceived, and used. Sources, like the Sorrell paintings, which provide information on the original location and setting of structures that have moved, are of huge interest to me and other landscape archaeologists.

View of the temples of Abu Simbel today showing their new position above Lake Nasser
Abu Simbel now, from a similar position to Sorrell’s 1962 painting of the two temples. (Zakaria Rabia, reproduced under CC BY-SA 4.0, license from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51558767)
Sketch of a colossus inside the Great Temple of Abu Simbel
Engage statue of Ramesses II inside the Great Temple at Abu Simbel as depicted by Alan Sorrell 1962. (Author photograph at the Wunderkammer exhibition).

There are also several views of the inside of the temples of Abu Simbel, including one showing a modern Nubian looking at a statue of Ramesses II and several studies of statues in the interior (left). There is also the image of archaeologists preparing to drill inside the Great Temple, which was featured in my previous Wunderkammer review. In that review, I noted that these images remind us of the complex history of a discipline like Egyptology, where colonial features may survive alongside modern methods and changing attitudes. Having learned more about the paintings Sorrell made, I wondered what prompted the inclusion of these particular images? According to Sorrell and Sorrell (2018, 179) he drew many images of the Nubian villages (image below) and became increasingly angry that amid the focus on the archaeology, the local Nubians were largely forgotten. The inclusion of one of these images could have focussed upon attitudes to archaeology and local communities and the privileging of archaeological needs above those of a resident community as a colonialist hangover.

‘A drowning land’

Many of Sorrell’s paintings and sketches from his visit to Egypt in 1962 are reproduced in a joint publication with Maragaret Drower, Nubia; A drowning land, published in 1970. This volume tells the history of Nubia as revealed by the excavations undertaken during the UNESCO campaign. The Foreword describes the circumstances of Alan Sorrell’s trip to Egypt. The Introduction and Postscript offer a description and some consideration of the wider causes and implications of the construction of the High Dam and the flooding of c. 300 miles of the Nile valley.

Sketch of a Nubian village showing a canal bridged by palm trunks with stalls on either side and a minaret in the distance.
Sketch of the town of Ballana, made in 1962 by Alan Sorrell. (After Drower 1970, 3)

Nubia; a drowning land still offers a useful introduction to the archaeology of Nubia and the circumstances of the UNESCO campaign for the beginner or casual tourist despite being dated. Archaeological theory and methods have naturally advanced a great deal beyond those mentioned, and the culture-historical approach of Drower’s text is no longer used in current histories. There are other dated features. A modern author would also likely use ‘humanity’ or ‘humankind’ in place of her ‘man’. Such features are to be expected in a book over 50 years old. Nevertheless, Drower’s book provides a useful introduction to the UNESCO campaign, with hints of the types of criticism that would later attend such forced movement of people as the resettlement of the Nubians from their submerged villages (see Tully and Hanna 2013 or Bednarski and Tully 2020 for example).

Sketch of a large mushroom shaped rock surrounded by low cairns. Two individuals are carving into the rock while a donkey caravan moves past in the foreground.
Reconstruction of ancient activities at the ‘rock of offerings’, probably Gebel Tingar, near Aswan, by Alan Sorrell. (After Drower 1970, 15)

The great joy of Drower’s book is the publication of so much of Sorrell’s imagery. Unless you are able to visit the Beecroft Art Gallery in Southend, a copy of Nubia; A drowned land, is your best chance of seeing a large number of Sorrells images of Nubia during the UNESCO campaign. Many of these are extremely illuminating. I had previously read about the ‘Rock of Offerings at Aswan’ as Drower (1907, 15) calls the ‘shrine’ at Gebel Tingar (Weigall 1907, 182; Harrell and Storemyr 2009), but seeing Sorrell’s reconstructive sketch reminded me how much more work needs to be done on these types of small, ‘informal’ structures that formed the focus of many day-to-day rituals and activities. Many will be familiar with Sorrell’s reconstruction of the Fortress of Buhen (Drower 1970, 29) but his sketch of the surviving remains is perhaps even more illuminating (Drower 1970, 28).

An artist worth remembering

Sorrell’s contribution is little known amongst archaeologists of Egypt, but his sketches and paintings remain an important resource for the impact of the High Dam, the UNESCO campaign, and the physical landscape context of so many archaeological structures that have since been moved or lost beneath Lake Nasser. Like any art or photography, his images are not neutral or objective. They present the specific perspective of a given individual, whether they show the archaeologists at work, the archaeology as uncovered, or an archaeology-inspired reconstruction. As such, they also represent the perspectives of the specific period in which he worked. Nevertheless, they are an important historical source for a major event in the archaeology of Egypt and Nubia, and deserve to be better known by those researching Egyptian and Nubian archaeology and the history of Egyptology.


For more details of Sorrell’s life and work see; Sacha Llewellyn and Richard Sorrell, 2013. Alan Sorrell: The Life and Works of an English Neo-Romantic Artist. Sanson and Co: Bristol

For Sorrell’s legacy as an archaeological illustrator see;

Mark Sorrell, 1981. Alan Sorrell: Reconstructing the Past. Batsford.

Julia Sorrell and Mark Sorrell, 2018. Alan Sorrell: The Man Who Created Roman Britain, Oxbow.

Margaret Drower, with illustrations by Alan Sorrell, 1970, Nubia: A drowning land. Longmans.

Weigall, A. 1907. A Report on the Antiquities of Lower Nubia (The first cataract to the Sudan frontier) and their Condition in 1906-7. Oxford University Press.

Harrell, J. A. and Storemyr, P. 2009. Ancient Egyptian quarries – an illustrated overview. In: N. Abu-Jaber, E. G. Bloxam, P. Degryse, and T. Heldal, (eds.) QuarryScapes: Ancient Stone Quarry Landscapes in the Eastern Mediterranean Oslo: NGU, Norges geologiske undersøkelse. 7–50.

For a more recent example of the tension between the needs of archaeology and local communities, focussed upon Luxor, see;

G. Tully, M. Hanna, 2013, “One landscape, many tenants: uncovering multiple claims, visions and meanings on the Theban necropolis”, Archaeologies 9/3: 362–97;

A. Bednarski, and G. Tully, 2020 “Aspects of the relationships between the community of Sheikh Abd al-Qurna and ancient Egyptian monuments”, in V. Davies, D. Laboury, (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Egyptian Epigraphy and Palaeography, New York, 508–22


Egyptian Artefacts in the Southend Museum

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.

Image of Egyptian artefacts in a glass case, including shabtis, cosmetic vases, a faience semi-circle with hieroglyphs, mummy cloth, and faience beads.
Overview of some of the Egyptian artefacts in the Wunderkammer exhibition. (Author photograph)
Image of a portrait of Charles Nicholson I, painted c.1850.
Charles Nicholson I c. 1850, who probably collected the Egyptian artefacts in the Southend Museum. (Painter unknown, photographer Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons.)


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.

Two faience shabtis, with black ink inscriptions on their mummiform bodies, standing up in the case.
Two shabtis from the Southend Museum collection. (Author photograph from the Wunderkammer Exhibition)

Eclectic objects

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.

A semi-circular faience plaque or half jar lid inscribed with hieroglyphs.
Half jar lid or faience plaque in the Southend Collection (Author photograph at the Wunderkammer exhibition)


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.

Fragment of sunk relief showing a man's torso and head in Egyptian style.
Fragment of relief, cut from a larger tomb scene, showing an Egyptian man with cords wrapped around his elbow (Author photograph at the Wunderkammer exhibition).

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.

Image of a Pharaoh wearing the red crown and a coloured collar of black, green and red, nose to nose with a falcon god wearing a sun disc with a double uraeus.
Fragment of raised relief showing a Pharaoh interacting with a falcon-god crowned with a sun-disk. (Author photograph from the Wunderkammer exhibition).
Image of two objects each comprising a blue faience shabti, a string of tubular faience beads in various colours and a bundle of browned linen knotted on the end.
Two curious shabti souvenirs from the Wunderkammer exhibition. Each one consists of a small blue-faience shabti attached to a string of tubular faience beads with a knot of linen at the other end. (Author photograph at the Wunderkammer exhibition)

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.


Image of a small glass vial containing brown material held in a box by browned linen.
Small glass vial of mummia, a medicine made from ground-up Egyptian mummies, wrapped in linen. (Author photograph from the Wunderkammer exhibition).

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.

Mummy hair

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.

Image of a faience necklace with a handwritten label, a description written in black ink reads 'Egyptian necklace over 3000 years old. This necklace, with the accompanying lock of hair and a small idol was given to my grandfather by Dr Frank Buckland, the naturalist, who was present when the mummy was unwrapped about 1878.' Below is a blue envelope with 'On her majesty's service' at the top and 'The Hair of a Mummy 3000 years old' written below it.
Faience necklace, handwritten note and envelope containing mummy hair from the Wunderkammer exhibition. (Author photograph)

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.

Further reading

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.

Wunderkammer: Southend’s Cabinet of Curiosities

On 2 October 2021, the ‘Wunderkammer‘ exhibition opened at Southend Museum. It examines early modern Cabinets of Curiosities (‘Wunderkammer’ in German) and shows how these private collections evolved into the modern museum. In addition to the thought-provoking and sometimes uncomfortable history of collecting, museums and museology, it offers an opportunity to see rarely seen Egyptian artefacts in the Southend collection, paintings of Nubia, and several fascinating objects such as a Neo-Assyrian chariot and an Ophicleide.

A small stone toy chariot with two stone wheels and a central 'seat' for the charioteer.
Neo-Assyrian stone toy chariot in the Southend Museum collection. The charioteer is in the British Museum according to Southend Museum’s documentation. (Author photograph at the Wunderkammer exhibition)

The Wunderkammer exhibition is housed in a large room at the rear of the Central Museum, on Victoria Avenue. It is conveniently located right next to Southend Victoria Railway Station, and about a 10-minute walk up Southend High Street from Southend Central Railway Station. The museum is open 11-5 Wednesday to Sunday and the exhibition runs until 3 October 2022. Both are free to enter.

After entering the Museum lobby and following the signs to the exhibition, you follow a clockwise path around the exhibition room on a broadly chronological journey. Recordings by relevant individuals or actors portraying them are cleverly located beneath parasols so as to only be audible from a specific point in the exhibition, marked by a pair of white footprints on the floor. An audiovisual display allows you to sit and review the objects projected on a blank wall and there are also activities for children, including a ‘create your own Wunderkammer’ task to tell your own story about the exhibition.

A brass musical instrument that looks partway between a tuba and a saxophone on a red background.
Ophicleide, a predecessor of the tuba, once owned by Sam Hughes, one of the greatest players of the instrument. (Author photograph at the Wunderkammer Exhibition)

Origins of the museum

The first part of the exhibition covers Wunderkammer, their Medieval origins, early-modern development and renaissance in the Victorian era. We are led from the treasuries of Medieval castles to the studios of 15-16th century Italy and the Wunderkammer of Germany, meeting significant early collectors like Isabelle D’Este. From the first museum catalogue of Ole Worm in mid-15th century Denmark to the beginnings of object classification and early treatises on museology, the early modern Cabinets of Curiosities were foundational to the development of museums.

Engraving of Ole Worm's museum showing a variety of objects entirely filling the walls and shelves of a tiled room.
The Museum of Ole Worm, from the frontispiece of the Musei Wormianum catalogue made by G. Wigendorp 1655. (Author photograph at the Wunderkammer exhibition).

‘One of Everything’

A partially broken black argillite carved image of a bird in a typically North American Indigenous style.
Haida Argillite flute carving, by unknown Haida maker, Haid Gwaii, 19th century Canada. The signage indicates that objects like this were often made to please colonisers’ tastes in styles and types otherwise unused by the Indigenous makers (Author photograph from the Wunderkammer Exhibition)

In one episode of “Dinopaws” (one of my daughter’s favourite shows) talkative young dinosaur Gwen develops a passion for collecting, before discovering that some things don’t want to be collected. The same desire to ‘collect one of everything’ as Gwen puts it, lay behind the earliest ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ or ‘Rooms of Wonder’ that give the exhibition its name. The exhibition does not shy away from the uncomfortable history of European collecting, that began with Wunderkammer. Collecting was a determinedly elite exercise in knowledge acquisition, creation, and reproduction. Only the very richest and most powerful were able to amass and display such collections. Although catalogues widened participation in the scholarly aspects of collecting, they were expensive to purchase and were only accessible to the literate.

The exhibition also draws clear links between collecting, colonialism, and the racist objectification of other cultures. Many Wunderkammer included large numbers of objects, obtained by exploitative means from Indigenous cultures. Whether forcibly removed or obtained through unequal gifting or exchange mechanisms, such items were the product of the unequal power dynamics between European coloniser and colonised society.

The inclusion of Indigenous objects in Wunderkammer as rarities, curios and ‘exotics’, reified the othering of those cultures as part of systematic racism. The very first sign in the exhibition notes that museums no longer use the word ‘exotic’ except where transcribed from historical sources or to deliberately emphasise its role in othering and trivialsing other cultures. A subsequent sign, associated with a glass case featuring objects of Indigenous North American and Australian Aboriginal origin, explores how the collection, classification and dispersal of such objects formed part of the erasure and objectification of Native and Indigenous cultures. This type of othering, erasure and objectification, reinforced racist stereotypes that were used to justify further colonialism in a toxic hermeneutic spiral of racism. The Wunderkammer exhibition reminds us that, like Gwen the dinosaur, we need to learn that some things aren’t ours to collect.

Image of a canopic jar stopper in the shape of a human head, with red painted skin, white painted eyes and black drawn eyebrows and mouth. The hair is striped blue and black.
Canopic jar stopper in the form of a human head, identified as Imsety by the exhibition signage. (Author photograph at the Wunderkammer exhibition).


In the opposite corner from the Indigenous artefacts, is a case of Egyptian artefacts from the Southend collection. There is too much to say about these to cover them in detail here, and you will have to wait for next month for a detailed discussion. It is enough to say that they complement the other objects and fit well into the exhibition story. All the Egyptian artefacts presented in the exhibition are products of the 19th and early 20th-century fashion for collecting. I would have included the wider impact of uncontrolled excavation upon the Egyptian cultural landscape, since mummies often form the focus of interest in Egypt the signage focuses on the effects of looting, tomb-robbing, and the desecration of Egyptian mummies. Despite this more limited focus, the Egyptian artefacts contribute well to the exhibition as a whole.

Following the Egyptian artefacts, we are introduced to several beautiful paintings of Abu Simbel and the UNESCO Campaign to move the monuments that would otherwise have been flooded by the rising waters of Lake Nasser behind the Aswan High Dam. These sketches and paintings were made by local artist Alan Sorrell, who is also famous for his archaeological reconstructions. I was delighted to see these wonderful images of the UNESCO campaign, but I did wonder how the curators intended them to fit into the overall narrative of the Wunderkammer exhibition. They might be taken as evidence of changing attitudes to Egyptian heritage in European countries, from 19th-century looting to collaborative preservation working with the Egyptian government. Alternatively, although aimed at the preservation of the temples, the imagery has a distinctly early 20th-century colonialist feel to it. The archaeologists are all white, and one wears a pith helmet. These images remind me that history, particularly the history of a discipline like archaeology, is complex and nuanced. Colonialist features survive alongside changing attitudes and approaches.

Painting showing three white men in pith helmets sitting at desks and/or standing with equipment of various types inside a rectangular room with Egyptian imagery on its walls.
Sweedish Egyptologists preparing for drilling inside the Great Temple at Abu Simbel during the UNESCO Campaign to save the monuments of Nubia, Alan Sorrell c.1962 (Author photograph during the Wunderkammer Exhibition).

From Wunderkammer to modern Museum

Opposite the Alan Sorrell paintings, the exhibition returns to the origins of the museum. This part of the exhibition was a little difficult to follow, mainly because of the constraints of the space, with the Egyptian artefacts forming a break in the narrative. A sign on the back wall of the exhibition space to the left of the Egyptian artefacts discusses how modern museums ‘break down the Wunderkammer’ into new categories and organise their exhibits into a coherent visitor-conscious narrative. Beyond the Egyptian artefacts, and opposite the Alan Sorrell paintings, another panel describes how the Pitt Rivers Museum maintains the eclectic approach to object display, first exemplified in the earliest Wunderkammer. It would have been interesting to consider the relationship between the Pitt Rivers Museum’s eccentric displays and its colonial origins, rather than the brief discussion of the imperial context for the creation of the Ashmolean and British Museums, which are thoroughly covered elsewhere.

Overview of a large vaulted museum hall filled with display cases full of various objects.
Photo of the interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, showing the Wunderkammer-like display. Taken in 2015 by Geni (Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43537596)

The late Victorian age saw a revival of collecting and Cabinets of Curiosities amongst various upper and middle-class intellectuals. The Wunderkammer exhibition ascribes this to the Great Exhibition of 1851, which brought elite exoticism and orientalism to middle and working-class people and stimulated new interest in natural and historical heritage. Many small private collections and Wunderkammer ended up in local museums, including Southend Museum.

Southend Museum began in 1884 as the ‘Southend Institute’, but the earliest collections were initially housed in Southend Town Hall, which was built in the 1890s on Clarence Road. These collections included Parsons Natural History collection and Benton’s antiquities, while a further ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ could be found at the Cornucopia Pub, owned by Mr A. H. Trigg. The Museum has come a long way since those early days.

The final display boards bring museum practice right up to 2022, reflecting on the changes brought about by COVID-19, responses to contemporary issues, and the increasing importance of digitisation. It also suggests that digitisation of museum collections and online catalogues have created a renewal of interest in the archaeology, art and science akin to the age of the Wunderkammer or the heyday of private Victorian collecting. The exhibition now looks forward to meeting the challenges of the present day and the museum of the future.

An exhibition room with display cases containing various objects of archaeological and historical interest.
View of the Wunderkammer exhibition in Southend Central museum (Author photograph)

Overall Wunderkammer is a fascinating trip through the history of museums, with the added bonus of some wonderful and rarely seen Egyptian objects and beautiful paintings by Alan Sorrell. There are also a number of natural history, botanical, and fossil objects on display. This makes the exhibition itself feel like a Wunderkammer, even while it retains a determinedly modern approach by telling a specific story through suitable objects, with text and relevant interactive displays. In several places, the constraints of the space have conspired to interrupt the flow of panels, but the narrative remains coherent. The story of the modern museum begins with elite curiosities, continues with imperial collecting, and ends with the creation of the museum out of various private collections at the end of the 19th century. Southend Museum stands as a local example of a process that took place on a national and global scale.


The afterlife of the Prittlewell Prince

In my two previous posts, I discussed the effect of visiting archaeological tourist attractions on me and upon the public perception of archaeology. Despite the hard work of curators, managers and excavators, archaeological tourist attractions and publicly accessible sites can feel somewhat sterile to the archaeologist and generate misconceptions about archaeology amongst other visitors. These misconceptions lie at the root of most of the myths about archaeology in the public consciousness. I believe that better communication by archaeologists about archaeological practice and increasing the numbers of people who are able to take part in archaeological activities can help in correcting these misconceptions and laying to rest various myths about archaeology and archaeologists. Correcting these misconceptions and laying these myths to rest certainly has important implications for the reception of archaeology, but it can also influence public policy in positive ways. The Prittlewell Princely burial offers a curious example of how misconceptions about archaeology and the myths they generate can have a negative effect upon public discourse and policy more widely.

Public policy and the Prittlewell Princely burial

Map showing the location of the Prittlewell Princely burial
Location of the Pirttlewell Princely burial. (Map by Openstreetmap contributors from Wikimedia Commons on a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license).

The Prittlewell Prince was discovered in 2003 during excavations in advance of a road-widening scheme on the A127/A1159. The burial site was crammed on an oval of undeveloped land between the cutting of the Southend to Liverpool Street railway line to the east, the A127/A1159 main road to the west and south, and further development to the north. The planned road-widening scheme would have extended the A127/A1159 into a dual carriageway, necessitating building over the oval of land where the burial was found. The discovery of the Princely burial proved a focal point for anti-road protestors, who moved into a temporary camp (Camp Bling) on the site. Local residents resoundingly rejected the road-widening proposal during a subsequent consultation. After much debate, the council reduced the scope, and later shelved the scheme. The A127/A1159 remains unaltered to this day.

Protecting the Prince

Much of the local opposition to the road-widening proposal was rooted in a desire to protect the Princely burial. The threat to the Princely burial was emphasised by media coverage. In July 2005, The Guardian asked ‘is it worth destroying the burial ground of an East Saxon king?’ After the Council reduced the scope of the scheme in 2009, BBC News noted that the new plans would ‘leave the eighth-century burial site . . . unaffected’. Archaeologically speaking, the BBC’s statement is so ridiculous as to be laughable. At the time these headlines were written, the ‘eight-century burial’ had already been affected by the road-widening scheme. Thanks to the road-widening proposal the Princely burial had been discovered, excavated and removed in 2003. By the time the BBC trumpeted that the burial would be unaffected, it had already been destroyed; meticulously, with the greatest care and most careful recoding methods offered by modern archaeological techniques. Any concerned citizens of Southend who voted against the road-widening to protect a Princely burial did so based on a false premise – that there was anything left on the site to protect. At the same time, the focus on protecting the burial detracted from good environmental, social, and town-planning reasons to oppose the road-widening scheme or propose an alternative.

Reconstruction of the Prittlewell Prince's burial chamber showing a wood-lined chamber with a body in a wood coffin in the centre and various artefacts laid out around the walls.
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).

A time to destroy and a time to protect

Opposition to the road-widening scheme based in the protection of the Princely burial, reflects another archaeological myth, that excavated sites always require protecion. Like most myths, there is some truth behind it. Unexcavated, partially excavated and sites with archaeological remains in situ do require preservation. But fully excavated sites do not because all the archaeological remains have been removed, archaeologically. This is the practical effect of the reality that archaeology is destruction! Once archaeologists have fully excavated a site, there should not be any archaeology left!

The idea that archaeology is destruction isn’t particularly common in public discourse. Understanding that archaeology is destruction can be difficult when visiting an archaeological tourist attraction. Here is a site that has been excavated, but the archaeological structures are very clearly visible. The information, guidebooks and apps may describe the excavation process and emphasise that the site has been conserved to ensure its longevity. You may hear and understand that excavation removes the archaeological deposits, but how far do you believe it when you are faced with a meticulously conserved mosaic? Does that intellectual knowledge overwhelm your sensory experience or will you mainly remember the beautiful floor? Given that most people only interact with conserved and protected archaeology, in person or via press resports, it is hardly surprising that the idea that archaeology removes what it excavates is not widely recognised.

A grassed around with a mound beside a road, with planting in the background.
The reconstructed tumulus on the site of the burial of the Prittlewell Prince. (Author photograph)


Although the ancient tumulus which originally covered the Prittlewell Princely burial was removed centuries ago, a new one has been rebuilt slightly south of the location of the Princely burial chamber to commemorate the burial’s location. It looks a little incongruous beside a busy road, but provides something of a focal point for the adjacent flower beds. Archaeologically it is harmless, but meaningless since it reveals almost nothing about the original burial except for its approximate location. Nevetheless, it does make me wonder how many of those who conceived, implemented and approved the tumulus’ recreation understand that the Prince is no longer in residence. It also raises questions of archaeological honesty. Should we encourage such re-creations? There’s nothing wrong with a memorial, but does a rebuilt tumulus, without additional context, contribute to the idea that this excavated burial is somehow still present? Are we disneyfying our environment and creating fantasies out of our past? And how might the tumulus be viewed in the future? Might it ever be assumed to be genuine? These are all difficult questions, variations on which can be asked for almost any conservation or preservation work. Whatever answers we arrive at can only be improved by a better public understanding of what archaeology entails, including its destructive aspects.


Missing the matrix: The invisibility of archaeological deposits and public misconceptions of archaeology

In my previous post, I described how visiting publicly accessible archaeological sites as a professional archaeologist can be a somewhat sterile and occasionally soulless experience because the vibrant ‘living’ deposits archaeologists work with every day have, by necessity, either been removed or covered up to protect them. That this affected me viscerally despite my professional archaeologist’s training, reveals how experience can trump intellectual knowledge. It forced me to reevaluate how the nature of archaeology constrains the visitor experience. Although site presentation boards, museums and guidebooks make much effort to explain the archaeological process and the missing phases, the deposits which comprise the bulk of the archaeological record are not visible as part of the physical site experience. If this was true for me, a trained and experienced archaeologist, how might it affect the experience of another visitor? What misconceptions might be fostered despite the best efforts of curators and site managers? I strongly suspect that these misconceptions, fostered by the experience of visiting archaeological sites, are at the heart of several common myths about archaeology and archaeological excavation.

A black and white mosaic partially preserved on a conservation substrate with the missing section sketched in outline.
A lifted and relaid monochrome mosaic in the Barcelona History Museum. (Author Photograph)

The missing matrix

For the most part, members of the public do not see the various layers, fills and deposits that make up most of the archaeological record. The many sites without structures are almost never conserved for long-term display, are rarely publicly accessible during excavation, and if they are publicised in the press, are represented by plans, reconstructions and digital models. At archaeological tourist attractions, the public see in situ archaeological structures after conservation. The archaeological deposits surrounding those structures have already been removed (and recorded), the archaeological deposits beneath those structures have either been removed or are preserved in situ and invisible beneath the floors and walls of the conserved structures. Either way, many of the archaeological deposits that comprised the original ‘site’ are invisible to the public.

A reconstructed wall painting of a Roman horseman in a white tunic.
Conserved Roman fresco, remounted with modern additions showing how the surviving pieces formed part of the whole image. Barcelona History Museum. (Author photograph)

Any visit to an archaeological tourist attraction follows roughly the same pattern. After obtaining entry you follow a designated (modern) path through carefully laid out archaeological structures. These structures will be original but have likely undergone conservation. Walls may be consolidated, floors lifted and relaid on conservation substrate. Wall paintings, frescoes and plasterwork will also have been consolidated. There may be kilns, hearths, fireplaces and in situ artefacts, such as amphorae. If you are very lucky and the site is covered, there may be exposed archaeological soil deposits around the structures, but your eyes are unlikely to be drawn to what amounts to dried earth.

The display and presentation boards, guidebooks and, museum contain information intended to dispel this misconception. They usually include information about the archaeological process, details of removed or invisible phases, and the archaeological and stratigraphic history of the site. But even if these sources of information are read and understood, they are unintentionally contradicted by the visual experience of visiting the site. Perceptions based on experience often live on in our minds, untaxed by intellectual interrogation, overwhelming mere information and dominating our understanding. This is why I experienced such a sense of sterility and soullessness when visiting Vindolanda. Despite my archaeological knowledge, my perception was still dominated by past experience. Excellent visitor information may not, therefore, overcome perceptions derived from the physical experience of visiting archaeological tourist attractions.

Aerial view of archaeological excavations of a courtyard with a white floor and partially sunken large pottery vessels set into it.
Structural archaeology: Roman court with embedded jars for produce. Some archaeological deposits are visible where the jars have been removed, but are not particularly noticeable compared to the white court floor or surviving jars. Barcelona History Museum. (Author photograph)

Archaeological misconceptions

The physical experience of visiting an archaeological tourist attraction or publicly accessible site produces a powerful impression that archaeology is all about exposing structures (often structures of a particular period) by removing the surrounding earth while extracting suitable artefacts for display in the museum. This naturally leads to certain misconceptions in the public understanding of archaeology:

  • Archaeology is about finding and uncovering structures and/or artefacts. This is a perfectly sensible and understanable misconception. Early archaeology was all about finding structures and artefacts! And when you visit an archaeological site you normally see structures conserved in situ and artefacts in museums. The resulting impression is that archaeology is all about finding those structures and artefacts for conservation and public consumption.
  • Surrounding deposits are just earth to be removed. The invisibility of the archaeological deposit in publicly accessible sites and the domination of the structures and artefacts can make it seem that the matrix surrounding them is just spoil. This misconception is reinforced by visits to archaeological trourist attractions, where visitors see structures conserved and laid out on display, and artefacts presented in a museum, but archaeological deposits are largely missing or appear unimportant.
  • Archaeology is not a destructive process. If people believe that archaeology is all about uncovering structures and artefacts and that the deposits surrounding them are irrelevant and archaeologically insignificant, they are unlikely to consider archaeology a destructive process. After all, when you visit an archaeological tourist attraction the sturctures are quite clearly visible and the artefacts are on display in the museum. Press coverage of significant archaeological discoveries preserved in situ beneath modern buildings only serves to reinforce this impression. People have the impression that archaeology is preserved in situ, leading to the assumption that anything which is not preserved is, by definition, not archaeology.

Generating myths

These misconceptions matter because they lie at the root of most of the myths about archaeology, which drive public reception of archaeology and attitudes to archaeology and archaeologists. Myths like the idea that archaeology is ‘just legalised treasure hunting’ or ‘tomb robbery’ contain grains of truth, but also fundamentally misrepresent archaeological practice. Archaeology began with antiquarians looking for interesting objects and exposing the walls and mosaic floors of Roman villas for public entertainment. The ethical archaeologist is well aware that we are only a couple of stages removed from looters, antiquarians or grave robbers. Pop-culture representations of treasure hunters like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft as ‘archaeologists’ and televisual nostalgia for historic, and often colonial, excavations bolster this myth further. But it wouldn’t be so persistent without the unintended effect of archaeological sites and museums upon visitors.

The experience of visiting an archaeological site supports the false impression that archaeology is all about finding structures and artefacts of aesthetic appeal or monetary value. It also obscures the features of archaeology that distinguish it from looting, treasure hunting or grave robbing: Archaeology involves the careful excavation and meticulous recording of fragile, plimpsest archaeological layers, with due care for all artefacts, irrespective of value or aesthetic appeal. Its goal is the discovery of information about the past, rather than valuable objects or structures that might appeal to the public. Unfortunately, too often the experience of visiting a site cements the idea that archaeology exists to provide an exciting, historical day out amongst picturesque ruins, or pretty objects for a museum to display. The public does not see the fragile, carefully excavated layers, but conserved consolidated structural remains and artefacts. Such a powerful experience, irrespective of what people might read on information panels, easily gives rise to a false perception of archaeology, as a process of extracting artefacts and structures from detritus that is surprisingly similar to treasure hunting.

A museum case with conserved gold and wood artefacts.
Many of the artefacts from the Prittlewell Princely burial were lifted as a block and excavated in the lab to ensure they were as well preserved as possible. Such care and attention for all archaeological remains, irrespective of whether they are valuable or not, is what distinguishes archaeologists from treasure hunters. (Author photograph).

Another myth fostered by the experience of visiting archaeological tourist attractions and publicly accessible sites is that sites without structures are not ‘archaeology’! Archaeological tourist attractions are largely composed of structural features and can give the impression that only structural features are ‘archaeological’. Yet many (perhaps most) of the sites excavated by commercial archaeologists in advance of development have no structures at all. The archaeological remains comprise different types of archaeological deposit (i.e. fills and layers) within various features cut into the natural geology. Given the focus upon structures and the invisibility of archaeological deposits at tourist sites and in the press, it is hardly surprising that sites without structures are written off as unimportant. A lack of awareness of non-structural archaeology probably explains why developers and even local people can view planning archaeology and pre-construction excavation as unncessary and wasteful (although money undoubtedly plays a role).

View of an excavation showing reused, upside down columns around a red soiil surface with sections through archaeological deposits.
Excavation through various deposits and floors, exposing walls and reused columns in the Barcelona History Museum. Although the image is dominated by the columns and walls, the earth deposits visible in the sections are just as important. (Author photograph)

Presenting reality

Cultural heritage professionals, curators, site managers and excavators work hard to present archaeology in a coherent and meaningful format for the public, doing justice to both historic data and archaeological practice. Yet the physical experience of seeing, walking amongst and interacting with the archaeology can provoke a powerful response that can negate their best efforts and provoke significant misconceptions. These misconceptions, often reified and mirrored by media coverage, exert a much greater power on public perception than knowledge imparted by guides, information boards and apps. Such misconceptions are not the fault of cultural heritage managers, conservators, excavators or site managers. They are inherent in the nature of archaeology as a palimpsest of human activity surviving as a series of often fragile deposits that are difficult, if not impossible, to present for long-term public visitation. Nevetheless, we need to find ways to address, explain and correct such misconceptions. Blogs like this one are one possible method. Honest discussions and explanations on social and traditional media about what archaeology is and what it does are another. TV programmes like Time Team, The Great British Dig and Digging for Britain, which show the reality of archaeology can also play an important role. There are also multiple newer methods, from platforms like YouTube for showing a more personal view of archaeology, to apps for digitally reconstructing ancient sites and the excavations that exposed them. Fundamentally, however, archaeology is a practice, an activity! Allowing more of us to personally experience that activity will rapidly dispel many of the myths that surround it.


Public presentation and archaeological experience

Like many other archaeologists, I visit publicly accessible sites whenever the opportunity arises, but some five or six years after I attended my first excavation I had an unnerving experience. I was visiting Vindolanda, a fort on Hadrian’s wall in Northumberland, made famous by the discovery of a series of Roman letters, written on wooden tablets, and preserved in a waterlogged ditch. I had visited the site as a child and now returned as an adult archaeologist to see the new discoveries. Although the exhibition of the waterlogged finds in the museum was fascinating, I was shocked when I walked around the fort. Although the site remained as well-presented as ever, I found it dead and soulless. As I child I had loved exploring the excavated fort structures, as an adult, I felt only emptiness!

View of the Roman fort at Vindolanda showing conserved walls, surrounded by gravel.
 Headquarters building (Principia) at Vindolanda Roman Fort as laid out for public display (Photograph Phil Champion  CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Over time I have become used to experiencing varying degrees of this feeling when visiting publicly accessible sites. I have also begun to understand why these sites feel so desolate to me. It’s not due to any lack or failure on the part of the site management teams, who shouldn’t be criticised for their often exemplary conservation and display of cultural heritage assets. Rather it reflects the transient nature of archaeology and the destructive realities of excavation. By necessity, the public presentation of sites often excludes the very deposits which comprise the bulk of the archaeological record, rendering them sterile to archaeological eyes.

Into the matrix

In order to explain why publicly accessible sites can feel so ‘dead’ to an archaeologist, we need to recognise the importance of the archaeological matrix. The matrix is archaeological jargon for the earth that was excavated from around the structures you see on display at sites like Vindolanda. Before excavation, the spaces within and between the structures (walls, staircases, wells, drains, floors, silos and kilns) were filled with soil deposits of different colours and textures (see below, the image of Plaosnik Monastery under excavation). These deposits are removed during excavation, but as they represent events during the history of the site, each deposit must be carefully recorded, with appropriate samples taken as necessary. There are various different methods of excavation, but whichever is used, the aim is to identify, obtain and record as much information about that deposit (or context in the archaeological jargon) as possible. Each context is recorded visually (with measured plans and sections, sketch drawings and photographs) and verbally (on a context record form). These records include any artefacts or samples taken from the deposit and there is additional documentation for special features, such as walls and burials. The records are all cross-referenced by unique identification numbers for the site, context, drawings, photographs, samples and finds, so that they can be associated with each other during post-excavation analysis and by any future researcher working with the site archive. To the archaeologist then, a site includes a large number of soil deposits of varying types, colours and textures. The walls, hearths, drains, kilns and other structures that are conserved and presented to the public are only a small proportion of all the archaeological contexts.

View of an archaeological site showing coloured soil deposits between stone walls.
 Plaosnik Monastery under excavation in 2008. Note the varied colours of the soil deposits between the walls. (Photograph by Colin W. 18 October 2008 CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

On many sites (such as the excavation of a medieval village in the image below), structures are entirely absent and the archaeology consists entirely of deposits (fills or layers in the archaeological jargon), filling various types of features (ditches, pits, post-holes etc) cut into the ground by past people. Sites without structures are almost never conserved for long-term display because an archaeological site comprising a series of excavated pits, ditches and post-holes is neither interesting nor durable. The public rarely visit such sites and if they are publicised in the press, various plans, reconstructions and digital models are used to inform the public about their original appearance or layout.

View of an archaeological site showing yellow natural with brown archaeological features cut into it. Some of the features are part excavated or under excavation.
Archaeology without structures: A medieval village under excavation (Photography Evelyn Simak  The site of a medieval village – partially unearthed  CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Living archaeology

When viewed with archaeological eyes, archaeological deposits are not only important, but they are also strangely vibrant. This is partly because they have meaning for the trained archaeologist, partly because of the various colours and textures within them, and partly because they are so transient. Archaeologists spend most of their fieldwork excavating and recording archaeological deposits. We become skilled in identifying different deposits and understanding which types of past activity produced them. Such features have intrinsic meaning for us, and we feel their importance. Archaeological soil deposits also have a visual beauty and vibrancy. Some sites are particularly colourful, with deep red burnt clay features, black charcoal features, yellow sand and greenish cess deposits (as in the image of Plaosnik Monastery above). Chalk landscapes produce a fascinating monochrome, with dark soils filling pits, ditches and post-holes cut into a white chalk background. Even the dullest soil colours take on a new significance when viewed by the archaeologist seeking subtle changes in colour or texture.

View of an archaeological site on chalk. The brown archaeological features show up very clearly on the white chalk soil.
Archaeological features in white chalk natural (Photo courtesy of Clare King)

Despite their significance for the archaeologist, the vibrant colours of archaeological deposits do not last long! Once the archaeology has been exposed it rapidly dries out, dulling the colours. This is why on many sites, pre-excavation plans of all the visible deposits are created as soon as possible after the archaeological layers are exposed. Some excavators water the ground with killer sprays or watering cans to bring out the colour before recording or photography. Careful records are also made of the soil colour using the Munsell colour system, which allows a deposit to be categorized by a precise colour, hue and chroma and ensures subtle differences in deposits can be accurately recorded. All these methods allow archaeologists to record the archaeological deposit as accurately as possible, but they do not assist in conveying its true appearance, vibrancy or importance if the site is opened to the public. Even with photographs of sites under excavation, it is all too easy for visitors to miss the significance of the soil between the structures.

View of excavations of a Roman wall in London.
Roman wall under excavation in London in 2007, the right angle of the wall has been removed where the boards are shown, leaving the remains of the wall in section beside the yellow hoe. The archaeologist is recording the deposits. Even in this low-light the vivid colours of the deposits are visible (Author Photograph)

Archaeology as destruction

It is an archaeological cliche that ‘archaeology is destruction’ and, while built structures are often more durable and easier to preserve, excavation is particularly destructive to archaeological deposits. By definition, a deposit that is excavated has been removed! The soil matrix has been recorded, extracted, sifted, sampled and dumped and the artefacts have been identified and removed for processing and recording. This is why archaeological recording is so crucial. If a deposit is excavated but not recorded, all the information about the context has been lost; its appearance, texture, physical extent, and relationship with other deposits are irretrievable. Artefacts cannot be related to their original deposit or other artefacts from the same context. This is why nighthawking (illegal metal detecting on protected archaeological sites), looting of antiquities for sale on the black market, and excavation without record are unethical. They destroy archaeological deposits without recording, depriving artefacts of their contexts and society of the scientific information that could be obtained from proper archaeological excavation and recording.

It is of course impossible to present the excavated (and thereby removed) deposits to the public alongside the structures they contained. Some publicly accessible sites have been fully excavated, down to the geological deposits (the natural in archaeological jargon). The structures which will be displayed were removed during excavation and are then reconstructed in their original positions using the archaeological records as a guide. Various efforts may be made to show the original deposits under excavation or display the information they produced, but these contexts are inevitably absent from view and therefore from the physical embodied experience of visiting the site.

View of a villa at Herculaneum showing a courtyard with partially preserved white marble tiles on red modern base.
Large villa at Herculaneum in 2012, showing features in use at the time of the eruption in 79 AD. The surviving ancient paving of the courtyard has been lifted and relaid. It is surrounded by a modern, protective (red) surface. (Author Photograph)

Other publicly accessible sites are not fully excavated down to the natural. Instead, excavation ends when a suitable level is reached and the exposed structures and underlying deposits are conserved in their original position (or in situ as the archaeological jargon has it). Pompeii and Herculaneum (image above) are classic examples of this approach. Because their destruction and burial comprise a single event, large-scale excavation stopped at the floor and street levels associated with the final phase of occupation (i.e. the floors and streets that were in use when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD), even though there are many earlier phases buried beneath these floors (Fulford and Wallace-Hadrill 1995, 77). These earlier phases are only accessible by relatively limited sondages, small trenches, carefully located to minise any impact on the structures of the final phase (more information about these sondages can be found in various blogs and recent excavation reports). At Pompeii, Herculaneum and any other site where structures are preserved without fully excavating the deposits beneath them, the conservation and presentation of the structures in position arrests the controlled destruction of excavation. Most of the archaeological remains beneath the conserved structures remain unexcavated. This is a perfectly valid and necessary archaeological approach, but one that excludes certain archaeological deposits from visitor view, whether those deposits were entirely removed by excavation or survive protected beneath the conserved structures.

Efforts to present archaeological deposits within and around the various structures produce further difficulties. Since archaeological sites comprise many phases and layers, choices must be made about which phases should be presented to the public. At Pompeii the choice is fairly easy since the final phase produces a coherent visitor experience and historic excavations rarely extended below. But at other sites, use and abandonment deposits above, and earlier features below a phase, maybe just as archaeologically interesting. Managing the presentation of such deposits can be difficult, as is the protection of exposed floor and courtyard spaces. If located outside, exposed archaeological deposits (and even some floors) are rapidly degraded by the elements and attract disturbance from vegetation growing within them. They also cannot be walked upon, meaning sites like Vindolanda grass or gravel the spaces between exposed walls and structures to allow tourists to wander freely. Indoor presentation (such as the Roman amphitheatre preserved under the Guildhall Library) offers more options, but is much more expensive and mostly used where a site is located beneath existing or proposed new buildings. Presenting exposed archaeological deposits inside can reveal more of the reality of ‘living archaeology’, but fragile deposits dry out and cannot be walked over, excluding the visitor from the closest contact. No current method can permanently preserve the vibrant living archaeological deposits in a visible format for presentation to the public, although developing technology may offer additional opportunities in the future.

The absence of archaeological deposits from the visitor experience is not the fault of cultural heritage managers, conservators, excavators or site managers. It is inherent in the nature of archaeology as a palimpsest of human activity surviving as a series of often fragile deposits that are difficult, if not impossible, to present for long-term public visitation. Out of the perhaps hundreds or thousands of years of occupation preserved in the archaeological record, decisions must be made about which phases to present and which structures to preserve in order to provide a coherent but archaeologically honest visitor experience. Later phases are excavated entirely and removed to expose the chosen phases, their presentation limited to phase plans and reconstructions in the site museum. Earlier phases may not be excavated at all, or only partially, in order to preserve the structures of the chosen phase(s) in situ above them. Archaeological deposits, those most fragile of archaeological contexts, are doubly difficult to present meaningfully in situ, while preserving the site and presenting a coherent visitor experience.

Presenting experience

When visiting Vindolanda as an adult I was unprepared for the differences between my experiences as an excavator of archaeological sites and as a visitor to them. With extensive training in archaeological methods, I should not have been surprised at the absence of the vibrant archaeological deposits that were so familiar to me and other archaeologists. I was well aware that archaeology is destruction, that sites are complex palimpsests of phases and that choices must be made about what should be displayed in situ and what should be preserved as archive. I was also well able to understand the descriptions in the museum and detailed excavation reports. Nevertheless, when experiencing the site I was still struck by the visual absence of the archaeological deposits I expected, and its visceral effect upon me. This is an important reminder that knowledge and experience are very different. A physical experience can have a much more powerful effect than intellectual knowledge. We rely on information boards, apps, museums and guidebooks to inform visitors about the archaeology they cannot see. Yet all my knowledge could not negate my visceral reaction to the experience of a, to me, sterilised archaeology. I wonder how far site visitors are influenced by archaeological information and how far by their own visceral experience? What misconceptions might be fostered by the primacy of the latter?


FULFORD, MICHAEL, ANDREW WALLACE-HADRILL, K. Clark, R. Daniels, J. DeLaine, I. Dormor, R. MacPhail, A. Powell, M. Robinson, and P. Wiltshire. “The House of ‘Amarantus’ at Pompeii (I, 9,11-12): An Interim Report on Survey and Excavations in 1995-96.” Rivista Di Studi Pompeiani 7 (1995): 77–113. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44291577.


I wish to thank the many folk of the Mentoring Womxn in Archaeology and Heritage Facebook group for their suggestions for images of chalk archaeology.


Lessons from Little Miss Sobek in Ptolemaic breasts, ancient clothing and nursing

Photograph of a toddler wearing a crocodile mask on her head.
Little Miss Sobek in her crocodile mask

At the time of writing its a little over four years since my last fieldwork in Egypt (at Hatnub), during which I discovered I was pregnant. After three years of nursing, motherhood and Egyptology, I now have a three-year-old pre-schooler (codename Little Miss Sobek) and a lot of new experiences which have made me think anew about various aspects Egyptology and reconsider some previous assumptions.

Given that nursing was the only safe method of feeding an infant until the 20th century and most people in ancient societies nursed their children for much longer than we do, it must have been incredibly commonplace in ancient Egyptian society and a regular part of most women’s lives. Yet the implications of this for Egyptology are rarely explored, probably because Egyptologists with direct experience of nursing have been relatively limited. Archaeology and Egyptology were historically dominated by men. Most of the early Trowel Blazers were white, upper-class women, whose children were largely fed and brought-up by others. More recently, advances in contraception, social change, and the problems of pursuing an academic and fieldwork-driven career while engaging in caring responsibilities have meant many Egyptologists have chosen not to have children. Those with direct experience of nursing are fewer still, owing to the cultural norms of the mid-20th century and the existence of safe and effective bottle feeding methods. Considerations of the effect of nursing on ancient Egyptian society are therefore very limited. Despite a long interest in clothing and textiles, it was only when I became a nursing mother myself, that I realised what an impact such an activity would necessarily have on society when it was a task performed by most women for a substantial part of their lives.

Ptolemaic Breasts

Some years ago I was visiting an Egyptian site and my husband asked me what date it was. I looked at the reliefs and said confidently, ‘Ptolemaic’. ‘How can you tell?’ he asked. ‘Well there are number of features, but what really gives it away are the Ptolemaic breasts’, was my response. If you look carefully at Ptolemaic period reliefs the breasts have a distinctive shape, with a rounded top that always looked to me like the shape produced by breast-implants. You can clearly see the typical Ptolemaic shape in the female deity behind Sobek in the wall relief from Kom Ombo, below, and also in the female deities in the featured image at the top of this blog.

An ancient Egyptian relief showing three gods, Sobek to the right followed by a goddess and juvenile in a divine triad.
Ptolemaic image of Sobek, crocodile-headed god on the right, from Kom Ombo (Image Rémih/CC BY-SA 3.0 from https://commons.wikimedia.org )
A limestone statue of a late 18th Dynasty lady in a wrapped and pleated dress and a bouffant wig.
The wife of Nahktmin wearing a wrapped-dress of the type that would become popular in the Ramesside period. 18th Dynasty, reign of Ay (Cairo Museum CG779b)

I had always assumed that Ptolemaic breasts were a feature of the ‘male gaze‘, a sexualising of female deities consciously or unconsciously undertaken by heterosexual male designers and masons. That is until I woke up five days after the birth of my daughter with my very own Ptolemaic breasts! For those who are unfamiliar with the nursing process, when a child is born the first milk produced (called colostrum) is very limited, although rich in nutrients and various important immunological elements. About five days after birth the ‘milk comes in’ which means the colostrum is replaced by milk that is less rich but much greater in volume. The physical effect of this is that the breasts swell up like little water-balloons, and they will do so again and again any time milk consumption drops. The balloon-like Ptolemaic breasts of statuary and relief may or may not have been sexually titillating, but their similarity to the full breasts of nursing mothers makes me wonder if they are intended to represent fertility and abundance. The human breast in its role as provider par excellence.

Easy access

Another lesson I learned early in my experience was how inefficient modern clothes are for feeding a child. Clothes with flaps that are either held in place by gravity or can be undone one handed (while cuddling a screaming infant in the other hand) are by far the most efficient type of clothing for nursing. Something like an ancient Greek Peplos or one of the draped, wrap-around dresses of the Ramesside period (right) would offer a lot of options. Draped and wrapped dresses also offer a flexibility over time. The same garment could be converted into an efficient nursing outfit simply by draping or wrapping it differently.

11th Dynasty wooden statue of a female offering bearer wearing a tight 'sheath-dress' with a diamond pattern. The dress is cut below her breasts, which are covered by broad shoulder straps.
Female offering bearer wearing a ‘sheath dress’ with wide breast-covering straps. The band beneath the breasts and straps would provide helpful support while permitting access for breastfeeding if required. 11th Dynasty tomb of Meketre, Luxor (Author Photograph, Cairo Museum JE 46725).

Of course if your climate and culture permit them, bare nipples are even better for nursing. This may be why so many Egyptian dresses leave the breasts bare, such as the the various styles worn by offering bearers and servants and the typically Egyptian ‘sheath-dress’ (left). Vogelsang-Eastwood (1993, 96-97) identified the ‘sheath-dress’ as a type of wrap-around, but either as a sheath or as a wrap-around it would have been an efficient nursing outfit.

Tyets for the tits?

Nursing necessitates a lot of time when the only breast support is the band around the chest, the shoulder strap of the bra being unclasped to allow the child access. I was surprised to find the band alone offered a great deal of support. Ancient Egyptian dresses with straps or fabric wrapped immediately underneath the breasts would have provided their wearers with similar support, while leaving the breasts uncovered for access. Shoulder straps, whether they covered or left the breasts bare, could have contributed further support while maintaining access for the feeding child. These discoveries made me wonder about the origins of the tyet amulet. It clearly represents a knot of cloth and its association with red had led some to suggest it represents a menstrual cloth, but there isn’t any conclusive evidence of this. Alternatively the tyet may have its origins in the straps and bands worn on the upper body. A role in supporting the breasts, nourishers of children, would also be consistent with its attribution to with Isis and its associations with ‘health’ and ‘welfare’.


They say that having children changes you, but I had no idea it would also change many of my ideas about ancient Egyptian culture, particularly those associated with nursing. What this has taught me is how important it is to have varied lifestyles and a myriad of experiences amongst archaeologists and Egyptologists. I might have personal experience of nursing a child, but there are myriad ways in which I am far removed from the lives and experiences of the ancient Egyptians. In incorporating a range of voices amongst Egyptologists and archaeologists we will tap into multiple sources of practical and experiential knowledge that may change our understanding of ancient cultures in the same way my nursing experiences have altered my understanding of ancient Egyptian clothing.


Vogelsang-Eastwood, G. 1993. Pharaonic Egyptian Clothing. Brill: Leiden.


5 pieces of advice I wish I’d heard in the first year of my PhD

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I’m currently thinking about those starting a PhD and the things I wish I had known when I began mine 11 years ago. This post focuses on advice I wish I’d heard, either to reassure me or to set me up for career success. In Should I do a PhD I reminded readers that a PhD is not a guarantee of a job, that the academic job market is saturated and that PhD candidates need to start making choices that will aid them in creating their career, right from the point they start considering a PhD. The advice and skills in 10 practical things I wish I knew in the first year of my PhD will not only help new PhD candidates create structure, develop useful skills and get control of their research, but also provide foundational skills for their future research career. This post offers further advice to help you make positive choices early in your PhD and create a solid foundation for your future career. I assume here that the reader aims for an academic career. The advice in this post is equally applicable to ‘alt-ac’ careers, but if you don’t intend to undertake further research in any forum there is less need to create a solid research foundation.

1. Your thesis is only the first piece of original research you will do

It’s easy to think that this PhD you are starting is going to be your best piece of work ever! People who begin PhDs have generally been high academic achievers during earlier phases of their careers and its sensible to assume that will continue. What’s more, as I mention in a previous blog post, there is a general idea that PhDs are something intelligent people do, almost effortlessly, to achieve recognition. These ideas can combine to make you feel like you should be easily writing the most incredible piece of original research – that’s what PhDs do, right?

There may be some people who experience a PhD like that, but for most of us it’s much harder. Original research is, by definition, difficult. It involves dead ends. It involves learning new skills. It involves getting criticised over and over again (hopefully constructively). If you begin with the idea that this should be effortless and incredible, you will rapidly experience anxiety when the inevitable difficulties arise. Begin your research career by reminding yourself that your PhD is an apprenticeship in original research – to achieve it you simply need to demonstrate that you can do research. Let go of perfectionist tendencies. It’s your first piece of original research, it doesn’t need to be the best thing you will ever write or the most awesome research you will ever do. Your masterpiece can come later.

A two-leafed wooden tablet with Greek writing visible inside.
A wooden tablet for writing practice, Greek. (Cairo Museum JE 51323)

2. Academic brand and mission statement

Your ‘academic brand‘ as Cathy Mazak terms it, sounds terribly corporate, but it’s really just shorthand for knowing what fields, specialisms, and techniques you want people to associate with you. Consider those you cited regularly in your previous research, I bet if you think about your most cited academics you can quickly associate them with a field, site, subject, opinion, or research method. That’s their academic brand!

Partially erased figures of Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the sun-disk of the Aten in an Egyptian tomb.
Akhenaten’s brand was so strong it got him erased from history. Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the Aten, Tomb of Meryre, Amarna.

Now you may think it’s a bit early to start branding yourself, when you’ve barely begun your PhD, but it’s never too early to start thinking about what kind of academic you want to be. You have already started creating an academic brand in terms of your past research (particularly any previous dissertations for your Masters) and your PhD subject. Your brand is important because everything in academia is easier when people can identify your research profile, see cohesion in your career history (this is especially important for jobs and grants), and recognise you as the academic who does X. Building your academic brand from the beginning of your PhD will ensure you are easily identifiable and can present a cohesive narrative in grants and job applications.

Mission statement

If your academic brand describes the type of academic you are, your academic mission statement describes how you will implement that brand in your field. My academic mission statement is in bold at the top of the About Hannah page of this blog and it’s followed up by further statements about where I want to go with my research.

Cathy Mazak has a lot of advice on identifying and solidifying your academic brand into something meaningful and effective for you and creating an academic mission statement. Although your PhD research and academic interests are likely to evolve over the course of your studies and into your early-career research, it’s never too early to start thinking about what kind of academic you want to be. What do you want to research? What methods do you want to use? What theoretical paradigms and principles inform your perspective? And what effect do you want your research to have on academia and beyond? I found thinking about these questions incredibly valuable for deciding how to direct my research, in writing grants and research proposals, and even for preparing author biographies for papers and presentations.

3. Plan your career

An ancient Egyptian stela with a large hieroglyphic inscription in the top two thirds and an image of the deceased in front of an offering table at the bottom.
Plan your career with the confidence of an ancient Egyptian writing a biographical inscription. Stela with biographical inscription of Samontuoser, Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, Florence Museum #6365.

Thinking about your academic brand and mission statement is important because it can help you position yourself for your future research career. Your academic brand should ideally include those skills and research areas that, I suggest in my previous post, will help you in your future career: a practical skill and, for Egyptologists, ancient language. You should also consider another horrible corporate phrase ‘unique selling point’ or USP. This is what makes you distinct from all the other researchers and will, therefore, hopefully, make you a desirable prospect on the job market. There is a caveat of course. If you are too novel or unique you may prove threatening or confusing. Academia tends towards the conservative and likes what is familiar. The aim of your USP is to be unique enough to be desirable but familiar enough to be comforting. Obviously, this is a difficult trick to pull off, and one that we really shouldn’t need. Academia ought to be dynamic and truly interested in inter-disciplinarity, but until the culture of academia catches up we work with what we have. This is also where having ancient language can be an asset for an Egyptologist because it instantly satisfies some of the inherent conservatism that we occasionally find in our discipline.

Now of course during the first year of your PhD you are unlikely to be able to make any firm plans for the rest of your career, but you can start putting your academic brand in place, thinking about the niche you could occupy in academia and developing and teaching the practical and linguistic skills you will need. Your brand, mission statement, and career focus may all change during the course of your research, but if you start with the intention of effective career development it will help you to maintain focus and create that cohesive career narrative.

4. Begin publishing

Publications will be essential to your future career, particularly if you are hoping for an academic post. Cathy Mazak is right to describe publications as a kind of currency in academia. Preparing and submitting publications during your PhD provides another outlet for your academic writing practice, lets you develop the skills of preparing and submitting publications, and will hopefully mean you have some published works on your CV by the time you graduate. Ideally, you want to develop a ‘publication pipeline‘ as Cathy Mazak has it or ‘research pipeline‘ as Raul Pacheco Vega describes it, with a series of publications moving through from grants to published outputs. In the first year of your PhD you want to start to create that pipeline.

The obvious place to start your publishing career is with your Masters dissertation. Getting your dissertation polished up for publication might seem daunting, but having something under editing will provide another outlet for your writing practice while you do you literature review and develop ideas about your PhD research. If your PhD evolved from your Masters then writing the latter up for publication may improve your PhD research as well.

A Trello Kanban board showing five lists entitled 'Submitted', 'Revisions', 'Accepted', 'Proofs' and 'Published' with cards for individual publications occupying the lists.
The ‘published’ end of my research pipeline in Trello. Each card represents a publication and they move along the pipeline from left to right as they progress.

Practically there are a lot of resources available for those writing their first academic article. As ever Raul Pacheco Vega and Pat Thompson have various posts about writing a journal article. There is also Wendy Belcher‘s book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks which is a step-by-step method for writing a journal article. Your supervisor or a trusted mentor can also offer help and advice and may offer to co-author the article with you if your dissertation is associated directly with their research.

5. Start a blog or vlog

In my previous post, I suggested harnessing the resources of social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, to find a wider academic community and learn new research and writing tips and tricks. While starting a blog or vlog (video blog) might not seem to be the most important thing while you’re developing your PhD research, it will have a number of positive effects that I recommend you harness. Firstly a blog or vlog gives you a ‘home’ in the online research community, a place to curate your academic brand and develop who you are as an academic. When I first developed my academic mission statement I included it on the ‘About’ page of this blog, together with a slightly more detailed discussion of my interests and research. A business card is all well and good, but a blog or vlog gives you a permanent online presence that anyone can find and learn more about who you are and what your research is all about.

Old Kingdom statue of a seated scribe.
‘Be a scribe’ . . . start a blog!
Henka, overseer of the two pyramids of Snefru, as a scribe from Meidum, 5th Dynasty. (Berlin ÄM 7334)

Secondly, a blog or vlog gives you experience in writing for a more general audience. A demonstrable ability to condense academic discussion for a popular audience is going to be helpful in the job market whether you’re aiming for an academic career or not. Relatedly, blogging offers another outlet for your writing practice, another place to explore ideas, essay out arguments and go on flights of fancy that you couldn’t indulge in your PhD or publications. My recent post about the Turin Papyrus and the shrines of Tutankhamun is exactly the kind of post that takes a different view of otherwise well-covered artefacts and couldn’t really be included in a formal publication. It occurred to me while writing about the Turin Papyrus for a serious academic article and my blog gave me an outlet to explore it further.

Fourthly, writing a blog can help you recover your individual style. By the time you start your PhD you’ve probably been writing for so long that academic or business style has rather crushed the personality out of your written products. As you progress through your research, the power of academic style over your writing is only going to get stronger. Having a blog or vlog where you can write more freely can allow you to maintain your stylistic independence. Since regularly writing this blog I have found elements of my personal style creeping in to my academic writing. It’s enough to make my academic writing feel like my own, without attracting criticism from eagle-eyed reviewers and I believe it makes my publications better.

Blogging and/or vlogging can be hugely beneficial to your writing and your career, but it’s worth exercising some caution. Blogging and vlogging are forms of publication so it’s important to make sure you cite anyone you quote, get permission to use other people’s images, avoid defamation and include any relevant acknowledgements. You’ll see in my recent posts (for example here) and youtube videos (such as this one) about georeferencing and satellite imagery I always take care to include a citation for the software and satellite imagery as required by the providers. This is just good manners, and it pays to avoid irritating potentially powerful corporations.

Caution is also merited regarding comments and hot-button topics. For the most part it’s unlikely you’re going to be blogging about anything politically incendiary but if you do it’s important to be prepared. A politically difficult subject will rapidly attract attention, you’ll get trolling and personal comments and can, in some cases, be the victim of threats and digital stalking. Please be cautious and take advice if you intend to say anything that could provoke such a response. More generally, if you’re blogging about archaeology, and particularly about Egypt, you should probably set comments to be screened before they are published. This means you can delete pseudo-science, advertising, trolling, and edgelord comments before they appear on your blog and will avoid you getting into fruitless debates with weirdos.


Petra M. Boynton 2017. The Research Companion: A practical guide for those in the social sciences, health and development. Routledge

Mark Carrington 2019 Social Media for Academics. 2nd Edition. Sage

Cal Newport 2016, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Piatkus

Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber 2016 Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. University of Toronto Press.

Jon Acuff 2019. Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done. Portfolio.


Fuel shortages, Google Maps and adapting your tools

Archaeologists have always used tools invented for other purposes. Our ‘signature’ tool, the trowel, was designed for brick-laying; our hoes, mattocks, shovels and wheelbarrows are gardening tools; and I doubt the inventors of the JCB dreamt that with the right bucket and a skilled operator their heavy earth-moving equipment could delicately strip off a few tens-of-centimetres of topsoil to cleanly expose archaeology in the subsoil beneath. What is true of physical tools is also true of technological ones; total stations and computer-aided design were created for construction; satellite imagery had its genesis in espionage; GIS were first used by geographers. Even our theoretical and methodological foundations are often borrowed from others. As archaeologists we specialise in taking something made for something else, and tweaking it to answer our questions. Adapting an existing tool to answer our research questions is as archaeological as brushing dirt from a precious artefact and, as I recently discovered, is widely applicable to a variety of situations beyond the excavation, lab or library.

Seeking petrol

At the time of writing, the UK is currently experiencing a temporary fuel shortage, resulting from a combination of panic-buying and a shortage in HGV drivers. I live in a suburban area, but public transport is limited and I have a pre-schooler, so I have always done a modest amount of driving. The fuel shortage caught us unawares with limited petrol in the car and after a few days of taking my little one to school we were running seriously short. At this time fuel deliveries were still being made, but the number of people seeking fuel and the intermittent nature of the deliveries meant that it was impossible to know which petrol station would have fuel. I needed to find a way to determine exactly which petrol station might have what I needed before I left. Where could I find real-time information on which petrol stations had fuel? How could I locate the closest one?

Real-time feedback in Google maps

Thanks to years of archaeological research, I have a long history of looking at maps and satellite imagery and I’m used to combining data, maps and visual imagery to address research questions. So when I was faced with a very real problem my brain automatically thought along the same lines. Since I was looking for the closest petrol station with fuel, the problem was obviously a question of mapping. Google maps is one of the most powerful mapping tools available for simple tasks and offers real-time information, it was a sensible place to start looking for a solution.

Google maps image showing the Southend-on-sea area, with petrol stations marked.
Google Maps showing petrol stations near my home in Leigh-on-sea. Screenshot taken at 12.30pm on Monday 4 October (Google Map data ©2021).

When teaching basic GIS I often use Google maps as an example of a deceptively simple but immensely powerful GIS. Behind the Google maps interface is an incredibly complex programme collating vast quantities of data, from satellite imagery and road maps, to data about speed limits and real-time information about traffic movements. Despite this complexity and vast processing power, it appears simple to us because the interface places substantial limits on what we can do with it; see a map of the area around us, search for a location, navigate from one place to another, or find a simple amenity, like a petrol station. Google Maps is immensely powerful but setup to be used in certain specific ways. It contains the locations of nearby petrol stations (as in the image above) and real-time traffic information (image below), but its not setup to find petrol stations with fuel. If I wanted do that I would need use it in a way its designers had never intended. I would need to adapt this tool to access the data I needed, just like generations of archaeologists before.

Google maps image showing the Southend-on-sea area, with traffic information turned on.
The borough of Southend-on-sea in Google Maps, with traffic information turned on. Screenshot taken at 12.45pm on Monday 4 October (Google Map data ©2021)

Adapting the tools

Adapting the data from Google Maps to answer my question necessitated current background knowledge of the situation and its impact on my society. The one thing everyone in any urban or suburban area knows about the petrol shortage is that any petrol station with fuel rapidly creates a jam along the adjacent road as people queue up to get fuel and block the road. So I combined the petrol station locations with the traffic information to identify petrol stations with queues outside. Since people don’t queue outside a petrol station without fuel, those with queues must have fuel. In the image to the right Tesco Petrol Station and the West Street BP to the right of the map just above the ‘Southend’ label, both have queues outside. The Shell to the right of Tesco does not. We promptly went to the West Street BP and fuelled-up without difficulty.

Google maps image showing a detail of the Southend-on-sea area, with petrol stations marked and traffic information turned on. Some petrol stations show a red queue of traffic approaching their entrances, while others do not.
Google Maps extract from 28 September 2021, 8pm. (Google Map data ©2021)

‘Improper use may cause damage!’

As when using any tool in a way its creators did not intend, a certain amount of local knowledge, experience and common sense is required. In the image to the right the BP with a Wild Bean Cafe in the bottom left also has queues shown to the west of it, but I can’t be sure those indicate it has petrol. It’s on the A13 and close to a junction. The A13 is a major road that is often slow and can have queues and jams almost anywhere on it for any reason, and the traffic lights often produce short local jams like those shown in the image. So if I was really desperate to go straight to a petrol station with fuel, seek out queues at petrol stations on a minor roads some distance from intersections. The BP petrol station on West Street, Prittlewell, is an excellent example. The West Street BP is centre right, just above the ‘Southend’ label in the image above right. When I checked traffic information against petrol stations I found a dark red tail leading away from the West Street BP (centre right in the image below). West Street is not a major road and the BP is not close to a major intersection. The only likely reason there’s a queue leading straight to that petrol station at 8pm is that those people are waiting for fuel.

Checks and balances

Google maps image showing a detail of the Southend-on-sea area, with petrol stations marked and traffic information turned on. Some petrol stations show a red queue of traffic approaching their entrances, while others do not.
Google Maps of the area near Leigh-on-sea showing petrol station locations and traffic information. Screenshot taken at 1pm on Monday 4 October (Google Map data ©2021)

Its possible to double-check that a petrol station has fuel using the powerful statistics held in Google maps. At the time of writing it is 1pm on a sunny weekday. There should not be a lot of unusual traffic or unexpected jams that are unrelated to fuel queues and might confuse me, but if it was rush-hour I’d have to be more careful. Checking the petrol situation at the present (image above) it seems that the Tesco Petrol Station and Shell in the centre right of the image have fuel, while the Esso MFG Kent Elms does not.

Details of the Tesco Petrol Station in Southend on sea showing its address, opening hours, phone number and times when it is busiest.
Tesco Petrol Station statistics from Google Maps on 4 October 2021 at 1.25pm.
Details of the Tesco Petrol Station in Southend on sea showing its address, opening hours, phone number and times when it is busiest.
West Street BP petrol station statistics from Google Maps on 4 October 2021 at 1.25pm..

I can confirm that the traffic information reflects queues for fuel rather than any other traffic incident by checking the real-time statistics in Google Maps (this was Paul Barrett’s idea). If you click on the little marker balloon for a likely petrol station and scroll down, there’s a little graph showing popular times. If the queue on the traffic information is for fuel, the graph should show that the petrol station is currently ‘busier than usual’. If we check on the Tesco Petrol Station for now 1pm on 4 October 2021, we find it is ‘busier than usual’ (image above left), confirming the evidence of the traffic information, that showed a queue outside it. This contrasts quite nicely with the BP on West Street, which is now running out or is out of fuel and is therefore ‘less busy than usual’ (image above right).

Adapting and mis-using tools

Aside from being an interesting use of an incredibly powerful free GIS, why is my solution to a personal fuel crisis of archaeological or Egyptological significance? I believe there are two reasons. The real-world value of humanities and social science disciplines like archaeology and Egyptology are often questioned and those who study them expected to explain how their supposedly arcane subject prepares them for the real world of work. I developed this particular method of solving my real-world fuel shortage problem because of my long history of looking at maps and satellite imagery and combining various sources of data and visual imagery to address research questions. While students learn many valuable skills studying archaeology or Egyptology, the ability to marshal varied sources of data in textual, statistical and visual formats; and judiciously adapt tools for new purposes, is highly valuable in many professions.

Secondly, my method of finding petrol stations with fuel follows the same model of adaptation that is common in archaeology and Egyptology. I took an existing, common tool (Google Maps) and combined two established features of that tool (real-time traffic information and the local search function) with specific cultural knowledge (that petrol stations with fuel attract queues) to extract information on which petrol stations were likely to have fuel. I improved the rigour of my method with additional background cultural and cartographic knowledge (of the main roads and traffic hotspots) and checked it against an independent dataset (Google Maps real-time statistics on how busy locations are). The result is an efficient and effective method of obtaining information I did not previously have direct access to but which was present in existing datasets, all without developing new software or diagnostic tools. For me this is what GIS, landscape and archaeological research is all about!