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


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.

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.

Featured Image of the archaeological deposits of the ancient city of Elephantine

Should I do a PhD?

It’s that time of year again, summer has come and gone, COVID-19 is hopefully clearing up, people are putting their lives back together and some will be wondering if the time has come to do a much-desired PhD in archaeology or Egyptology. This post is inspired by a friend asking her post-PhD Egyptologist buddies if she should do a PhD and what, if anything, she should consider before she begins. We dutifully answered her, but I thought the subject could do with a longer treatment.


Before you decide to do a PhD its worth considering whether a PhD is really right for you and that means exposing several misconceptions:

A PhD does not guarantee a job

A PhD is the basic entry requirement you need for a research career, typically in academia. But it is only a foundation. To land a full-time, permanent academic job you typically need a PhD, a post-doc or two, teaching experience and a big helping of luck. There are some fields where academics do not routinely have PhDs, but academic archaeologists without a terminal degree are the exception. The normal post-doctoral route for archaeologists and Egyptologists is to undertake one or two post-doctoral projects (applying for appropriate grants, undertaking original research and publishing it), before landing an entry level academic position, often of a temporary nature. Full-time, permanent academic jobs in Egyptology are rare, and although archaeology is slightly better, there are many applicants for each job. You will often have to move location and sometimes country for every new job. It is entirely possible that you will complete an outstanding PhD but find your career stalled at the post-doc or adjunct stage. Now that is absolutely not your fault and its not the end of the world, but its worth considering carefully before you begin.

Before you decide to start a PhD please have a good look at the various authors and writers who are honest about success in academia and alternatives. Keep an eye on people like The Professsor Is In (US-centric but honest about the problems with the academic job market) and Tweeps like @FromPhDtoLife @ProfessorIsIn @AcademicChatter and #PostAc #AltAc #WithAPhD #PhDChat. From PhD To Life has just published a list of books about the many fulfilling alternatives to academia depending on what really interests you about research. Many of the jobs undertaken by Historians are also appropriate to archaeologists, such as those collated by the Employed Historian. You can also look at the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (@NCISorg on twitter) and their British partner group FIRE-UK for more information about researchers outside the academy. Having a PhD has great value in many fields and you absolutely don’t have to be an academic to find it worthwhile, but it’s not a guarantee of a career in academia or elsewhere.

A PhD is not an ego-boosting experience

A common public misconception about PhDs is that they are ego-boosting experiences, which innately clever people undertake almost without effort as an exercise in recognition. This misconception is common in TV and film where examples of the ‘omnidisciplinary scientist’ trope often have multiple PhDs. In fact, a PhD is quite the opposite of an ego-boost. No matter your competency, original research is hard work, involving multiple failures and dead-ends, problems with data, and confusion over new techniques. Academic writing necessitates regular peer review with considerable constructive, and sometimes less-than-constructive, criticism. Even the most competent and capable student is likely to experience competence-related anxiety at some point during their PhD. A PhD is absolutely not an ego-boost and may well leave you feeling like you know less at the end than at the beginning. (You don’t actually know less, you’ve just discovered how little you – and probably anyone – really knows about your chosen subject).

A PhD is ‘a real job’ and a hard one

Another public misconception is that people do PhDs because they don’t know what else to do. I’m sure there are some people who’ve done so, but I doubt they enjoyed it. PhDs are really hard and personally stressful. You’d have to be very relaxed indeed to undertake all that out of boredom. To get finished most PhDs require the passion of an interesting subject and/or the motivation of a future career.

Image of the author sitting on a balcony overlooking an Egyptian field with a differential GPS.
Programming the differential GPS on the terrace of the Marsam Hotel, Luxor. What this photo does not show is that this GPS was of an unfamiliar design and I only had a few hours of training with it. I spent two stressful days figuring out how it worked before I could begin our research.

Do you need a PhD for the next stage of your career?

PhDs are hard, stressful, challenging, expensive, confidence-sapping and there are no guarantees of either academic or career success. So why do one? If you can achieve your desired outcome without one then that is perfectly reasonable and you have saved yourself a whole lot of expense, stress, and frustration. On the other hand, there are a number of very good reasons to do a PhD. There are career options where a PhD is likely to be either essential or highly desirable. As Chris Naunton discusses in this blog post, exactly how we define ‘Egyptologist’ depends very much on our perspective, but it is much easier to be recognised as such with a PhD in the subject. Archaeology is a much broader church, but a PhD is still useful for demonstrating your mastery of higher research methods to future employers. Fundamentally there several good reasons to do a PhD:

It’s an essential requirement for your preferred career

As an apprenticeship in original research a PhD is the basic requirement necessary for various research careers. There are still some fields where academics do not generally have PhDs, but for archaeology and Egyptology if you want to have a chance of teaching and/or researching in a University or equivalent setting a PhD is the basic requirement. Various academia-adjacent careers may also expect or prefer post-holders to have PhDs. If you want to go into any sort of higher research in academia or elsewhere it is likely that a PhD is highly desirable, if not essential.

That said, archaeology offers a variety of opportunities to undertake research without a PhD. It may be worth getting experience in archaeological research before you decide a PhD is the right choice. If you can do the type of research that interests you without a PhD, you will have saved yourself considerable time, energy, and money.

It’s fun

If you don’t have career concerns or worries about paying the bills, it’s perfectly reasonable to decide to do a PhD for fun. The advantage is that you won’t be anxious about always ensuring you are in the best position for your future career, but you also won’t have ambition driving you through the harder parts. Even the best job has its boring bits and PhDs are much the same. Be prepared for those times when you wonder why you thought this would be ‘fun’. It’s also worth doing some serious self-reflection about why you want to do a PhD and what it might do to you. A PhD is an intellectual marathon. At some point, much like a marathon runner, you will hit ‘the wall’. A colleague looked at my face towards the end of my PhD and said ‘you’ve reached the point where you not only want to throw your thesis out the window, you want to throw yourself out after it’. I knew exactly what he meant. I was totally and absolutely fed up with my thesis and I wanted it to be finished. (Don’t worry, the feeling passes). You will inevitably face criticism and it may not be constructive. A PhD will expose exactly what you do and do not know and any insecurities you have. If you are going into this ‘for fun’ be prepared for it to be tough at times. To counter the inevitable bad days be sure to pick a subject that really interests you.

Author and tripods set up against an ancient inscription on a rock face.
Sometimes it’s just fun! Reflectance Transformation Imaging at Hatnub

Someone is paying you to do a PhD.

It may sound like a dream but sometimes the stars align and someone will literally pay you to do a PhD: your current employer; a research institution; or a grant-funding body. It sounds like an offer too good to miss, but depending on your benefactor they may not be as generous as they seem. If your employer is offering to fund your PhD then please make sure you are absolutely clear (and get it in writing) exactly what they are offering. They will usually pay your University fees, but you will also need funding for conferences and research expenses and time to undertake the work. Original research is intellectually taxing and unless your job is extremely easy for you, undertaking your PhD research in the evenings and at weekends will be extremely tiring. Try to negotiate time for your PhD research during your working day. You should also negotiate whether PhD-related conferences will be included in your work-time or not and who will pay for them. If your employer is funding your PhD, your research will probably relate to data they hold, but the chances are that at some point you will need to go elsewhere to collect data or relevant sources. It is worth negotiating with your employer for such trips to be paid for and included in your work time. If your employer is paying for your PhD, treat it like part of the job. Don’t let gratitude obscure the need to negotiate the details with them.

Funding from research institutions or funding bodies varies. At best funding will include your fees, a stipend, and research funds. A fully-funded PhD will allow you to work full-time on your academic achievements and provide necessary funding for attending conferences and doing research fieldwork, visits etc. Some funded PhDs form part of larger projects and are advertised on jobs boards like other academic posts. In other cases, you will need to apply for funding from the relevant body in cooperation with your University after you have decided upon a suitable project. Funded PhDs are obviously highly sort after and competition is fierce.

Can you cope with self-funding?

If a PhD is what you want to do, but you cannot obtain external funding you will need to self-fund; paying your fees to the University and finding your own living costs. You can to apply to smaller funding pots or grants for conference and research expenses, but these may not cover all your expenses.

Unless you are independently wealthy or retired, you will probably need to work while doing your self-funded PhD. Most self-funders work part-time and study part-time, but exactly how much time you can devote to working and studying is very personal. You will need to determine what you can afford, both financially and in terms of personal energy. It requires a lot of mental energy to undertake the deep thinking, creating, and analysing you will need to complete a PhD – it is ‘deep work’ as Cal Newport describes it in his book of the same name. How much of the pre-PhD, full-time work you can afford to give up is a very personal decision and depends on both what you need financially and how much mental energy your bill-paying work requires. Only you can know what you are capable of after a long day at work and how much actual work you need to do to pay the bills. Ironically, while living costs may be easier if you are living with others, that may also make it harder to move for research or future academic posts.

Focussing your PhD research to maximise your career-options

You really do need a PhD and you’ve worked out how you can afford to do one. But the post-doctoral career market is fierce and a PhD doesn’t guarantee you a future in research. How can you give yourself the best opportunity to get the career you want or the most transferable skills to shift into other sectors? It might seem strange to discuss this before you’ve even decided to do a PhD, but focussing your PhD research on the right things can provide a better foundation for the next phase of your career. There are a number of ways to maximise your chances of getting important post-doc and lecturing positions, and those skills can also help if you decide upon a career outside academia. Ideally, your PhD should include a practical inter-disciplinary skill, teaching of relevant subjects, and, if you’re an Egyptologist, ancient language:

Learn a practical skill

Being able to teach or provide a practical inter-disciplinary skill can make you more attractive as a post-doc or lecturer, and can also provide a useful practical skill you can offer to the world outside academia. Can you incorporate archaeological drawing, photography, GIS, coding, etc into your PhD? Can you get experience in a museum? How can you develop a practical aspect of your PhD that will appeal to a future employer?

Author standing on a mudbrick pyramid with a differential GPS de
Using GPS to survey a mudbrick pyramid at Dra Abu el-Naga, Luxor.

Now you can do, please teach.

Getting teaching experience can be hugely advantageous in obtaining your post-doc or first lecturing post. It doesn’t really matter what you teach, although it would be better if it was related to your PhD research. Many Universities allow PhD candidates to teach classes or cover for lecturers. Grasp those opportunities with both hands if you possibly can.

Acquire language skills

Most Egyptology lecturing positions expect you to be able to teach some form of ancient Egyptian language, often as well as various historical or archaeological subjects. Acquiring language skills and learning to teach ancient languages will be very appealing if you want to be an academic Egyptologist. As with most of the other aspects of this list, integrating these skills into your PhD research will make the process easier overall.

An offering scene showing a man and woman in front of an offering table
TT35, Dra Abu l’Naga. Being able to read and teach basic Hieroglyphs is a useful skill for anyone hoping for a career in Egyptology.

Always have a plan B!

What’s your plan B? Academic posts are rare and competition is fierce. You can write the most amazing PhD, teach, learn all the skills, get grants and publish regularly but still miss out on a post-doc or lecturing post. If you don’t get into academia or want an alternative research career, how can you set yourself up to succeed in the world of work? This is a very personal question and it depends on your pre-doctoral experience and the nature of your doctoral research. For the most part, the skills learnt during a PhD are very transferable, but you can improve your chances by learning practical skills that are valued in industry. My career has been advanced much further by my GIS skills than by my Egyptology. Coding, programming, and other ICT skills are much in demand and various industries will always appreciate skilled grant writers and researchers. Before you begin your PhD consider how you can turn your PhD and your past experience into a career both in and outside of academia.

Where should you study?

Where you study and who supervises you is an intensely personal decision. If you are funded as part of a larger project you may have little choice. Personal constraints in terms of family and employment may also play a part. It’s worth considering the requirements of the institution and the individual supervisors before you decide. It goes without saying that you will need an institution and supervisors with appropriate skills for your field of study. As a rule, it is probably wiser to pick a supervisor or supervisors who specialise in the aspects of your PhD where you are personally weakest. But there are other considerations too. How often will you need to meet your supervisors? Can you work remotely? What opportunities for teaching are there? Does their style mesh with your needs? Do you need greater independence or greater involvement from your supervisor? These are all very personal considerations that you should take into account when deciding on your preferred institution and supervisor.


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

The Egyptian collection in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes, Havana Cuba.

This post comprises a review of the Cuban collection of Egyptian antiquities housed in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes, in Havana. I visited the collection on the 24 May 2017. The museum is easy to access in central Havana, close to the Capitol and major tourist areas. Entry to the Asturian Building, which houses the Egyptian and other Old World antiquities collections, was four Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) when I visited (one convertible peso is equivalent to one dollar). The 2015 guide to the Egyptian collection was a further 20 CUC, but is well written in Spanish and English and was certainly worth the investment. Despite some minor issues with the display, the Egyptian collection contains some real gems and is not to be missed if you happen to be visiting Cuba.

The location and origins of the Cuban Egyptian collection

The Egyptian collection of the Cuban Museo Nacional des Belles Artes is housed in Havana in the building once belonging to the Asturian Society of Havana. This is a large and beautiful building close to the Capitol, where the 114 pieces of the Egyptian collection share a large hall with the Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities.

Antiquities collected by Joaquin Guma Herrera, Earl of Lagunillos form the core of the Egyptian collection, supplemented by some small subsequent donations. These later donations include a predynastic Naqada II vessel and 25th Dynasty lapis heart scarab donated by Christian Loeben, curator of the Museum August Kestnet of Hannover, and a Third Intermediate Period coffin and cartonnage donated by the Republic of Egypt in 1974.

The Earl of Lagunillas’ collection was donated to Cuba in 1955 and first displayed in 1956 with the assistance of Professor Francisco Prat Puig of the Universidad de Oriente. After the revolution of 1959 the museum was reorganised and became a Museum of Fine Arts. The collection was reorganised again and moved to its current location by architect José Linaresin in 2001.

The Asturian Building (below) is a beautiful structure and the Egyptian antiquities are housed in a hall where Asturian Society gatherings once took place. Although the hall is beautiful, information about the exhibits is limited. There are no accession numbers on the labels, which typically only include date, material, object type and case number. Where relevant the labels also include those ancient individuals named or represented on the object. Unfortunately the museum has a strict policy against photography so I am unable to provide images of the objects as exhibited.

Cuba Museo des Belles Artes, Havana..
The Asturian Building of the Cuba Museo Nacional des Belles Artes, Havana. Author photograph.

Sadly the exhibits in the museum aren’t laid out either thematically or chronologically. In one case a Roman period stela, Roman bronze statues of Osiris and Isis and several scarabs of earlier date sit next to canopic jars from the Middle and New Kingdoms. Other bronze statues of divinities are located in a different case in another part of the exhibition, and stelae are scattered across several cases with relief fragments from multiple periods. This apparently haphazard approach to display may be due to a current reorganisation. Some pieces were absent and work was clearly ongoing when I visited. The lighting could also do with improvement. The signage would benefit from more background information for the casual tourist and the inclusion of interesting aspects of the antiquities (such as detailed provenance and links with pieces in other museums) that have been discovered by the authors of the recent catalogue (see below). The present situation does not do justice to the quality of the objects, but hopefully ongoing restoration and future redisplay will provide a remedy.

An excellent catalogue

Happily much more information, including the accession numbers and some excellent pictures of the objects, can be found in the accompanying catalogue (Sosa et al. 2015). The images (by David Rodriguez Camacho of Fotografo Arte) are particularly good, well laid out and very clear, and combined with images of objects from other collections as necessary. This is particularly useful given the occasionally poor lighting in the gallery.

In addition to the images, the catalogue provides useful information for both the casual visitor and those needing more details of provenance and the origins of the collection. After describing the history of the collection, the catalogue is laid out thematically. Each section provides background information regarding the objects presented in it, and there is enough in these sections for the non-specialist to understand the context of the artefacts in the exhibition. Meanwhile experienced Egyptologists will find considerable information about each artefact in the well-researched catalogue entries. So thorough were the authors that even though almost all the artefacts in the museum were purchased on the open market and had minimal provenance, several catalogue entries describe the tombs or temples where the objects originated, thanks to dogged archaeological detective-work. A prime example are the three fragments (MNBA Havana 94-25, 94-26 and 94-27) from the tomb of Irenakhti/Irenptah/Iry, which were purchased without provenance by the Earl of Lagunillas and subsequently identified as coming from tomb G 2391 at Giza, south of the causeway to Khafre’s pyramid.

Cuban gems

Gneiss statue of 12th Dynasty Pharaoh Senusret I, similar to the granodiorite head in the Cuban Museum (Berlin ÄM 1205). Author photograph.

As the catalogue makes clear, the Egyptian antiquities in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes are a fine example of a mid-20th century private collection. There are shabtis, scarabs, fragments of relief (mostly from false doors), stelae, statues and statue fragments, Greco-Roman period encaustic mummy portraits, canopic jars, a wooden coffin and mummy cartonnage, and a range of Late Period bronze statues. So far so typical! But a list of what are, Egyptologically speaking, the ‘usual suspects’ doesn’t do justice to their quality. Many of the antiquities are very good examples of their type, well preserved and beautifully made. The knowledge of the experts (notably Bernard von Bothner and William C. Hayes) whom the Earl of Lagunillas consulted on his purchases, is evident in the quality of many of the pieces.

The Cuban collection also contains several real gems. There is a very fine small relief of Seti I (MNBA Havana 94-36), and the head of a granodiorite statue of a Pharaoh (MNBA Havana 94-37) that has been identified as Senusret I of the 12th Dynasty. Although somewhat damaged it is physically similar to other images of that Pharaoh such as BM EA 44 and Berlin ÄM 1205 (above left) and an important addition to the corpus of Middle Kingdom royal statuary.

Late Period head of Amun (MNBA 94-120) after Sosa (et al. 2015, 73).

Both Seti and Senusret are trumped by a black basalt head of Amun (MBNA Havana 94-120) that has become the emblem of the collection. Its photograph (right) is a good exemplar of the quality of the imagery in the catalogue, which more than compensates for the inability to take photographs in the gallery. Dating from the Late Period, this Theban statue fragment has two different surface treatments. The flesh is highly polished, while the crown is coarsely pecked, probably to take a covering of a different material. Traces suggest it was once covered in gold, although other precious stones, metals or inlays may have been used for different elements. The head has been matched to a body in the Louvre (E 12988), which was found during excavations in 1927, attached to the north wall of the corridor on the west side of the temple at Medmud. The archaeological context suggested that the piece was broken when Coptic extensions were made in the temple.

Other key objects in the collection include two reliefs that have been matched with other known fragments. MBNA Havana 94-35 is a beautiful polychrome fragment from the tomb of Neferu (TT 319), wife of Mentuhotep II. The fragment in Havana matches a photo in the Theban Expedition Journal from the 1925-6 season of the Metropolitan Museum excavations at Deir el-Bahri, but the artefact shown in the Journal has not been located. The catalogue authors suggest that it may be in Cairo.

More interesting for aficionados of British Egyptology is MBNA Havana 94-15, an 18th Dynasty scene showing the purification of the deceased outside the tomb (below right). This piece has been matched with one in Birmingham Museum (n. 68866) and the combined image shows a typical New Kingdom scene of mourning before the tomb. Sadly the tomb is unknown as both reliefs were purchased on the antiquities market, but the style suggests it came from Saqqara.

Line drawing from Sosa (et al. 2015, 128) showing MNBA Havana 94-15 (right) combined with it’s partner Birmingham n. 68866 (left) to form a typical mourning scene of offering to and purifying the deceased.

One exception to the purchased artefacts is the 22nd Dynasty coffin and cartonnage of Tashebet (MNBA Havana 94-39), excavated by Labib Habachi from the tomb of Kheruef (TT192) in the Asassif. This beautiful coffin-set was donated to Cuba by Egypt in 1974, in gratitude for Cuba’s assistance with the archaeological work required by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Both coffin and mummy case are beautiful examples of Third Intermediate Period work.

Complementing Tashebet’s coffins is the Book of the Dead of Bakenweren (MNBA Havana 94-47), which dates to the same period and was found or purchased by William Franklin Hood in Luxor in 1858. It passed through the collections of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Brummer before being purchased by the Earl of Lagunillas in 1949. Like the other artefacts it is a lovely example of its type and is well-covered in the catalogue (see the featured image above).

Among the many other artefacts special mention must be made of a bronze and paste Uraeus (MNBA Havana 94-115), dating from the Late Period and probably attached to a white or atef crown. A Ptolemaic coffin of a falcon (MNBA Havana 94-56) is also worth noting for its similarity to examples of animal coffins from the recent Manchester Museum Animal Mummies exhibition. Of the many Egyptian alabaster jars in the collection, it is likely that MNBA Havana 94-82 and 94-87 originated in the Hatnub quarries, which were very active in the 11th Dynasty when these artefacts were made. Another alabaster cosmetic jar still contains the oily remains of its original cosmetic or unguent (MNBA Havana 94-89) and would be a prime candidate for further scientific investigation. Among the stelae there is a good example of a ‘hearing ear’ stela (MNBA Havana 94-30) with carved ears to help the invoked god hear the prayer, and a polychrome Roman stela without text (MNBA Havana 94-13).

The Cuban collection of Egyptian artefacts in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes is a fantastic small collection. The small defects in its display (which will hopefully be rectified soon) do not detract from the quality of the objects individually and as a group, or their important relationships with other 20th century collections. The collection catalogue is a fantastic example of its type, with enough background information for the causal visitor as well as detailed information on individual objects, their provenance, relationships with other pieces and international ties. If you happen to be visiting Cuba, the Egyptian collection should definitely be on your list, and if you are able to obtain a copy of the catalogue (which sadly appears rarely on the usual websites) it’s well worth doing so.


Much of the information and three of the images in this blog are taken from the catalogue of the collection:

Sosa, M. A. Lastra, A. C. and Morfini, I. 2015. La Coleccion Egipcia del Museo Nacional des Belles Artes de la Habana. 





Will a computer take my job?: Archaeology and technological development?

In recent years there’s been a lot of discussion about how soon the computers are going to take over, which jobs will be lost to mechanisation and how we deal with the resulting unemployment and political change. Journalists and think tanks have evoked the spectre of Skynet, the evil defence system from the Terminator franchise, to ask how we deal with the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and increased mechanisation. The BBC even published a handy computerisation checker to see if a robot will take your job over the next 20 years. Some have predicted that in time a large proportion of jobs will be automated, even those that require high skills, compassion or intellect, and that we need to prepare for the effect of this on society with political and economic measures like the citizens’ income.

At present archaeology is unlikely to be automated. It doesn’t appear in the BBC list of professions likely to be automated in the next 20 years. The closest profession to archaeology is ‘Social and humanities scientist’ with a 10.4% probability of automation, a figure low enough to be reassuring. But given the march of technology and the increasing availability of computer programmes for archaeological investigation, many have suggested that even complex jobs like that of an archaeologist will eventually be automated, even if this takes 50 or 100 years.

The idea of automation also has a deep, but often unconscious effect, upon the perception of archaeology amongst both professionals and the public, particularly where archaeologists are making use of highly computerised technologies, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), satellite remote sensing, geophysical  analysis,  and others. The perception, perhaps fueled by the way technology is used as a ‘magic box’ in popular culture, is that data goes in and unambiguous archaeological answers come out. This perception is both deeply inaccurate and dangerous for the scientific profession, including the ‘technological archaeologist’. It fosters the idea that answers generated by technology are straightforward and unambiguous, when in reality they are anything but (as is well demonstrated by the debate over the radar scanning of Tutankhamun’s tomb). It also reduces the archaeologist to little more than a ‘data chauffeur’, collecting or loading the data into the programme and then presenting the answer at the end.

While grotesquely devaluing the role of the archaeologist or scientist, it is the latter issue which I believe contributes to the oft-repeated  assertion  that even subtle, nuanced jobs requiring flexibility and creativity are at risk of automation.  After all, if the archaeologist (now downgraded to little more than a technician) need only load the data and present the result at the end, then is that highly educated scientist really doing anything anyone else couldn’t do? Surely as machines get better they’ll be able to load their own data and present the result, eliminating another job?

The reality is that obtaining useful answers to archaeological questions usually requires  various intermediate stages of data processing (sometimes in a different programme from the one that will perform the ‘main’ processing), initial analysis, further analysis and statistical validation. But even this list doesn’t really convey the actual role of the archaeologist or why we couldn’t just programme the computer to undertake all those stages. To really understand why human input is required throughout the process we need to look at how an archaeologist interacts with a computer programme to obtain useful answers to their questions, where the process is or could be automated, and where it relies upon professional judgement and experience.

I have long thought that some of the public anxiety and media hype about the rise of the machines exaggerates the reality of what technology can actually achieve. While it’s clear that many jobs will be automated in the future and we need to deal with the political and economic effects of that, to truly understand which jobs will disappear we need to unpick the details of our professions and truly consider which elements could be automated and which either require, or are faster, when undertaken by a human.

My own GIS research into visibility (often called ‘viewshed analysis’) has given me some insights into how difficult it would be for a computer to be an effective archaeologist. It has long been possible for a GIS programme to rapidly and efficiently calculate visibility from a given point, either to another point (i.e. line of sight) or more generally across the landscape (generating what is called ‘a viewshed’). To do this it needs only a digital terrain model of the topography and the point from which visibility is to be calculated. But knowing what is visible from say the Great Pyramid, or Stonehenge, doesn’t actually answer any particularly exciting archaeological questions. Even the most basic archaeological question – where could the Great Pyramid be seen from – requires us to both obtain more information and make judgments, judgements a computer couldn’t make. Firstly we must decide who is doing the seeing. If we are talking about people walking about on the ground, we need to know how tall they were. If we are interested in people within a nearby city or temple, we need to know both how tall they were and how tall was any structure they were standing on (the city walls perhaps?). The most basic of archaeological questions requires us to obtain more information and make professional judgements about the nature of nearby structures and the heights of the population.  And we still haven’t really learned anything useful yet – the Great Pyramid is obviously large and obviously very visible, so we didn’t need a computer to tell us it could be seen from a large area.

To really answer interesting questions about visibility at Giza we need to interact further with our GIS programme. We’ve now determined the height of the population and any relevant structures and calculated precisely where the Great Pyramid could be seen from. Why don’t we repeat the process for the other two kingly pyramids at Giza? That might provide us with useful archaeological information, such as are there any areas where all the pyramids could be seen? Are there any areas where they were all invisible? Do those areas correlate with any specific archaeological sites? These questions might provide us with really interesting answers. But to answer them we need to interact with the GIS in stages, re-running the analysis for each pyramid, then combining the results. This involves several procedures today, but even if we could code the programme to run through the sequence by itself, the results alone tell us nothing useful archaeologically.  We’d need to look at the areas from which the three pyramids are visible or invisible and use our archaeological knowledge and experience to consider if there are any sensible archaeological reasons they might have been excluded or included. Are there any archaeological sites that might have required a view of all pyramids (the capital Memphis or the temple of Heliopolis for example)? If so, do we think, based on our knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture that a deliberate decision was made to ensure the three pyramids were all visible from those sites? Can we perform a statistical analysis to show that our results are statistically significant and aren’t just coincidence? Or can we demonstrate by analysing lots of other locations on the Giza plateau, that the locations of these pyramids were the only ones that ensured a consistent view of all three pyramids from, for example, the capital of Memphis or the temple of Heliopolis?

Each stage of this putative research involves GIS analysis, from the initial viewshed showing where the Great Pyramid could be seen, to the last investigation of the viewsheds of other locations without pyramids across the Giza plateau. While the computer performs various specific analyses at each stage, it is the archaeologist who turns computerised assessments of the visibility of individual pyramids and locations on the Giza plateau into a genuinely interesting piece of research investigating where the three pyramids could be seen from and if that is both statistically significant (i.e. it isn’t coincidental) and culturally significant (i.e. it is consistent with Egyptian culture). At each stage the archaeologist is required to exercise both experience and judgement, in collecting data and setting parameters such as the height of the population, evaluating the results of the computer analysis with reference to archaeological data such as the locations of Memphis and Heliopolis, and directing the next stage of the research towards answering an archaeologically interesting question about the motives governing the positing of the Giza pyramids.

In this particular example, and in most computerised or technical archaeological analyses, the archaeologist is the keystone that holds the digital analyses together, forming them into a coherent piece of research that answers an archaeologically interesting question. The archaeologist is only able to do that because they have experience in the technical and cultural aspects of their subject and are able to make rational judgments based on that experience, which direct the research towards the often uncertain  goal of answering useful and interesting archaeological questions. We might one day create a computer that can do this, but no modern computer can even begin to perform that synthetic but instinctual task of guiding a developing project towards an amorphous goal. A goal that often changes as the evidence develops, while taking due account the constraints implied by the specific Egyptian culture and archaeological context.

While reassuring us about the potential for human archaeology during the rise of the machines, clear consideration of exactly how we work with and interact with technology is also to be welcomed for other reasons. A better understanding of the role of technology within scientific disciplines like archaeology will mean consumers of archaeological information and results will better understand the accuracy and limitations of those results and hopefully will be less likely to be ‘blinded by science’. It should result in greater respect for the ‘technical archaeologists’, who are sometimes sidelined as ‘operators’ and ‘technicians’, and a better understanding of the complexities involved in obtaining genuine answers to archaeological research questions using technology. I suspect that this latter issue, in particular, will become surprisingly important over the next decade. We have seen a huge technological step forward in terms of the variety of data, analytical techniques and computer programmes that are available, but unlike the previous generation of technological advances (such as Carbon 14 dating or residue analysis), the application of more recent techniques to archaeological data in order to answer research questions is not always straightforward. This has led to a certain amount of technically-driven archaeology, where a new technique is applied to archaeological data but not incorporated into a theoretical or analytical framework for answering meaningful archaeological questions (this is sometimes called ‘technological determinism’).  There’s nothing wrong with applying new techniques to archaeology, of course, but they need to be applied in a way that is archaeologically meangingful. My own research into Egyptian quarries isn’t intended to develop or showcase brand new technology, but to apply recently developed techniques to answering interesting, and often previously unanswerable, research questions. If we are to do high quality archaeological research and move beyond the excitement of new technologies, we need to actively consider the processes by which we move from technical analysis to answering research questions. And while we’re at it, we might be able to help out our scientific colleagues and wider society. By demonstrating how to make technologically cutting-edge work meaningful, we can show that the imposition of the human scientist into the technological process is a necessity that cannot simply be replaced by a computer algorithm.

A gneiss sphinx: Is the Hazor sphinx made from Gebel el-Asr gneiss?


In 2013 an Egyptian sphinx was discovered at the Biblical site of Hazor, in what is now northern Israel. It was inscribed with the name of Menkaure, fifth king of the IV Dynasty and owner of the third pyramid at Giza.

On reading the reports of the discovery I was drawn to the stone from which the sphinx was made. Careful examination of the published photographs of the artefact reveal that the sphinx was made of a stone comprising dark blue and black bands in a light off-white matrix. These colours and patterning are typical of Gebel el-Asr  gneiss; comparable examples of gneiss are featured in my earlier post ‘When diorite is gneiss’, have been published by James Harrell’s website, and examples are visible on the Petrie Museum website. Egyptian objects made from examples of similarly coloured gneiss are shown below. The intact bowl (UC17722) and the broken bowl with a cartouche of King Khaba (UC15800) both date to the III Dynasty, other fragments (e.g. UC72412) from the Petrie Museum date to the IV Dynasty and come from Giza.

Gneiss bowl in the Petrie Museum (UC17722)

Gneiss bowl in the Petrie Museum (UC15800).


Confirmation of the stone used to produce the sphinx must await  further analysis of the artefact, but it is well known that the Gebel el-Asr quarries were exploited during the Old Kingdom and particularly by the IV Dynasty pharaohs. Gneiss stone vessels have been found in royal tombs from the I Dynasty onwards.  A gneiss stela of the II Dynasty Pharaoh Peribsen was found at his tomb at Abydos and is now in the British Museum (EA35597). Gneiss floor tiles were employed in the III Dynasty Step Pyramid of Netjerikhet Djoser. During the IV Dynasty large statues were produced in gneiss, including the famous example from the funerary complex of Khafre that is now in the Cairo Museum and was featured in a previous blog on this site (http://wp.me/p4wCoi-1g) . There is also considerable evidence of Old Kingdom activity at Gebel el-Asr, including stelae left at the site by the expeditions (http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/Pre2003/ShawI/shawi.html).  Gneiss vessels were even found in the pyramid complex of Menkaure, the IV Dynasty Pharaoh, who also dedicated the sphinx found at Hazor.

The inscription and original location of the sphinx are also interesting. The excavators suggest that the Hazor sphinx was originally set up at Heliopolis (known as Iunu to the Egyptians), close to modern Cairo. They suggest it was later removed to Hazor in the second millenium BC by either the Canaanite Hyksos kings, who ruled the northern part of Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period; or the subsequent New Kingdom Pharaohs, who controlled much of Canaan.

Heliopolis was the associated with the cult of Ra, the sun god, who became increasingly important during the IV Dynasty. For the first time in Egyptian history, IV Dynasty Pharaohs had names incorporating the name of Ra. Djed-f-Ra, Kha-f-Ra and Men-Kau-Ra all had names compounded with Ra  and DjedefRa was the first to use the title ‘Son of Ra’, which was later employed by every pharaoh. The true pyramids of the IV Dynasty have also been associated with solar religion, and the succeeding V Dynasty took this a stage further with the creation of sun temples in addition to their pyramid complexes.

The increasing use of gneiss for statuary in the reign of Khafre, may reflect the same interest in solar religion. The excavators of Gebel el-Asr, Engelbach and later Harrell and Brown, noted that the gneiss had a distinctive blue glow in the sunlight. Harrell and Brown suggest that this luminosity made the stone particularly attractive to the Egyptians. Given that the Egyptians attributed divine powers to certain stones and equated them with various divinities, it would not be surprising if the luminosity of the gneiss acquired solar associations. This would make a gneiss sphinx a particularly apt gift for Menkaure to provide for the solar cult centre of Heliopolis at a time when solar theology was in the ascendant.

Offline References

For gneiss stone vessels in the Early Dynastic period and Old Kingdom generally see Aston, B. G. 1994. Ancient Egyptian Stone Vessels: Materials and Forms. Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens 5. Heidelberger Oreintverlag, Heidelberg.

For  specific reports of gneiss vesssels found in Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom tombs see Firth, C. M. and Quibell, J. E. 1935. Excavations at Saqqara: The Step Pyramid. Cairo, Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte; pages 140,  180 of Reisner, G. A. 1931. Mycerinus. Cambridge Massachusetts, Harvard University Press; and page 13 of Petrie, W. M. F. 1901. The Royal Tombs of the Earliest Dynasties Part II. London, Egypt Exploration Fund.

For the gneiss floor tiles in the Step Pyramid see pages 105, 127, 193-5 of Firth, C. M. and Quibell, J. E. 1935. Excavations at Saqqara: The Step Pyramid. Cairo: Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte.

For the archaeological evidence of Old Kingdom exploitation of Gebel el-Asr see Engelbach, R. 1933. “The Quarries of the Western Nubian Desert: A Preliminary Report” ASAE 33: 65 – 74; Engelbach, R. 1939. “The Quarries of the Western Nubian Desert and the Ancient Road to Tushka” ASAE 39: 369 – 390; and the interim report on the Gebel el-Asr project work in Shaw, I. Bloxam, E. Heldal, T. and Storemyr, P. 2010. Quarrying and Landscape at Gebel el-Asr in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. In: F. Raffaele, M. Nuzzolo and I. Incordino (eds.) Recent Discoveries and Latest Researches in Egyptology: Proceedings of the First Neapolitan Congress of Egyptology, Naples, June 18–20 2008. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz-Verlag. 293–312.

For the geological investigation at Gebel el-Asr and the luminosity of the stone see Harrell, J. A. and Brown, V. M. 1994 “Chephren’s Quarry in the Nubian Desert of Egypt” Nubica 3.1: 43 – 57.
For the sun cult in general see Quirke, S. 2001. The Cult of Ra: Sun-worship in Ancient Egypt. Thames and Hudson.

For the names of the Pharaohs and their meanings see Quirke, S. 1990. Who were the Pharaohs? A History of their names with a list of cartouches. British Museum Press.

For the pyramids in general see Lehner, M. 1997. The Complete Pyramids. Thames and Hudson.

For the sun temples of Abusir see Bárta, M. Coppens, F.  and Krejčí, J. (eds), Abusir and Saqqara in the year 2010  Prague: Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. They are also covered briefly, with references, in Wilkinson, R. H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames and Hudson: London.

For the relationship between stones and divinities see Aufrère, S. 1991. L’Univers Minéral dans la Pensée Égyptienne. Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire: Cairo; Aufrère, S. 2001. “The Egyptian Temple – Substitute for the Mineral Universe.” In: W. V. Davies (ed.) Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press: London. 158 – 163. For a specific case concerning turquoise see Valbelle, D. and Bonnet, C. 1996. Le sanctuaire d’Hathor maîtresse de la turquoise. Paris: Picard Editeur. See also treatments of magic and ritual in ancient Egypt such as Pinch, G. 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press: London; Pinch, G. 2001. “Red Things: The Symbolism of Colour in Magic.” In: W. V. Davies (ed.) Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press: London; Wilkinson, R. H. 1994. Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art. Thames and Hudson: London.

Image credits

Gneiss objects from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL, on a Creative Commons  Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

Map of Egypt, made in Quantum GIS (www.QGIS.org) using data from Natural Earth (http://www.naturalearthdata.com)

Animal Mummies at the World Museum, Liverpool

The Animal Mummies exhibition, which has previously been at Manchester Museum and the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, is now installed at the World Museum, Liverpool until 26 February 2017. Entry is free and it’s a great indoor holiday activity.

Gilded Ptolemaic cat coffin made of two halves with a cat mummy sealed between them. Found at Saqqara by Cecil Firth and held by the Manchester Museum (Inv. No. 9303. a-b)

I was able to visit in late November when the exhibit was quiet, and found myself impressed. It may surprise the reader to learn that animal mummies are not this Egyptologist’s most favourite thing, but it happens to be true. Despite this I found the exhibition well laid out and highly informative. It has enough information to interest the general visitor, together with sufficient specialist material for the archaeologist, and child-friendly material including a downloadable family pack to help you get the most out of the experience. The schoolchildren who appeared during my visit particularly enjoyed the interactive elements, showing how mummies were made and are scanned and investigated, and the opportunities to dress up.

Broadly speaking the exhibit covers three main areas: The ancient Egyptian religious context for the creation and deposition of animal mummies as offerings to divinities, the rediscovery of animal mummies by archaeologists and their impact upon the Victorian imagination, and the modern rediscovery of animal mummies, their scientific investigation and potential to contribute to scientific discovery. Taken together the exhibit is informative without feeling like it’s too much to digest (or walk around).

Gilded Ptolemaic ibis statue, with hollow compartment for ibis mummy. From the Burrell Collection, lent by the Glasgow Museums (Inv. 13.283).

One of the highlights, is that the curators have sourced and presented the absolute best of animal mummy artefacts. The gilded ibis statue from the Burrell Collection (left) is a striking and beautiful object that demonstrates the overlap between coffin (since it has a hollow compartment for an ibis mummy) and cult-statue.

Another super object is the cat coffin (above right), carved in two halves with its occupant sealed inside it. It is a beautiful object and a long way from the unfortunate ends that some animal mummies came to. The destruction of so many mummies is described in the second part of the exhibition, together with some beautiful paintings showing the Victorian impression of Egyptian animal religion. Although sometimes hilariously inaccurate these attractive images have had a powerful influence over perceptions of Egyptian religion and the, often inaccurately portrayed, role of animal mummies in it.

Cat mummy in a human coffin from the Late Period. (Garstang Museum Inv. no. E.537 a-c)

A crucial element of the exhibition is how it showcases the role of science in animal mummy investigations. Upon x-ray a small humanoid coffin (above) from the University of Liverpool Garstang Museum was found to contain the mummy of a cat. Precisely what religious or emotional purpose prompted this conjunction of mummy and coffin is unclear. Did someone pay extra for a special product in memory of a child? Was it a pet? Or was it just expediency?

Detailed MRI and CT scans have shown that some mummies contain very little animal material, perhaps a single bone padded out with linen, while others comprise more than one individual. The former might be anything from outright frauds, to cheaper versions containing the minimal effective (religiously speaking) animal matter for the poorest patrons. Examples with more than one individual include crocodiles (below) and one can’t help thinking that it was easier (and safer) to kill younger, smaller animals and parcel them up together, rather than feeding a single crocodile till it grew large enough to be mummified (or eat you).

‘What big eyes you have Grandma’ – crocodile mummy made up of a single crocodile with two smaller crocodiles on its back and a package of bones from another animal behind its left hind limb. From Luxor. Roman Period. (National Museums of Liverpool, World Museum M14289)

The exhibition is a fascinating tour through animal mummies, their meaning to the ancient Egyptians, their meaning to their Victorian discoverers and purchasers, and the things we continue to learn from them. They even charmed this animal mummy sceptic and there’s plenty for children to do. So if you’re in Liverpool and have the opportunity over the Christmas holidays, then have a look at the animal mummies. They’ll make a nice change from reindeer and ‘Elf on a Shelf’ (although those crocodiles look like they might find an Elf to be a tasty treat).


For further reading about the science behind animal mummies see;

Zakrzewski , S. Shortland, A. and Rowland, R. 2016. Science in the Study of Ancient Egypt. Routledge: London. 200-201.

Ikram, S. Kaiser, J. and Walker, R. 2015. Egyptian Bioarchaeology. Sidestone Press: Leiden. 169-200.


Tutankhamun, Nefertiti and all that jazz: What have we learned?

Striding statue of Nefertiti in older age, from Amarna. Now in the Neues Museum, Berlin (AM 21263).

It’s been almost a year since the media first noticed something afoot in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The saga is well known and has been much debated. (For anyone who’s been on fieldwork in Antarctica or the Pegasus Galaxy you can find a summary of events in this National Geographic article). It is interesting to consider what the past year can teach us about Egyptology in the media age and what lessons it has for the future.

Scientific method

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the story is that the entire saga represents a case of the scientific method directly applied to Egyptology and undertaken in the full glare of professional, public and media scrutiny. The application of scientific techniques is now common in both archaeology and Egyptology, but they mostly appear in the media after they have produced a helpful result; a carbon date for an undated site or object, the residue analysis that reveals what an ancient population ate, the DNA analysis of the family of Tutankhamun. While experts may discuss and even dispute results in learned journals, such debates rarely make it into the media and are usually associated with the minutiae of the research. The public never gets the opportunity to watch the scientific process played out in real time. Scientists and social-scientists quietly formulate hypotheses, construct experiments and undertake fieldwork or analysis to investigate those hypotheses, analyse the results and come to conclusions. Those conclusions are usually published, and occasionally make it to the media, but we are rarely presented with a case where experiment, fieldwork or investigation proved the hypothesis wrong. Until now!

Like any scientist Nicholas Reeves came up with a hypothesis (published in this article), that Tutankhamun’s tomb contained hidden chambers holding the Kingly burial of Nefertiti. This hypothesis was then tested, with a visual inspection in September 2015, followed by the first radar scans in November 2015, after which we were told that Mamdouh Eldamaty, Minster of Antiquities, was ‘90% certain’ there was something behind the wall of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber.

Some specialists in ground penetrating radar (GPR) were skeptical, some Egyptologists countered Reeves’ evidence for Nefertiti’s presence and there were general calls for the radar data to be made public for peer-review by other GPR specialists. Once the data was made public, the skepticism increased and the Ministry of Antiquities sought to repeat the experiment with a new set of radar scans undertaken by a different specialist. A key aspect of the scientific method is that results should be repeatable and comments made by the Ministry of Antiquities reveal that they clearly intended the new scans to be seen as part of a scientific approach to the research in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

We all know that the new radar scan contradicted the initial one. Various experts have examined the new scans and believe there are no voids behind the walls of Tutankhamun’s tombs. No voids, no chambers and no Nefertiti. It appears that after nine months of public and media scrutiny and debate, a very public demonstration of the scientific method has proven the null hypothesis.

The backlash

There has been considerable criticism of the events, their management, the media response and of Egyptologists ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, as one social media commentator put it. So what are we to learn from these events and how should we react in future?

Should Reeves have been denied permission to investigate in the tomb?  I think the answer to this has to be ‘No’. Reeves’s theory was within the bounds of the possible, and he had a range of evidence to support it. It’s possible to disagree with some or all of his evidence, but there are plenty of equally contested theories in Egyptology. At least Reeves’ hypothesis was testable. Since so few theories can be directly subject to this type of experimentation and testing, it’s important that when a testable theory comes along we do actually test it.

Given that the research was necessary, then should Reeves and the Ministry of Antiquities have undertaken the work in secret? Again, the answer must surely be ‘No’! For many pieces of research this is usually the approach taken, with a researcher quietly beavering away until he or she comes up with a useful conclusion that can then be made public. Such an approach is unlikely to have been effective in this case.  As if mysterious tombs, hidden chambers and the prospect of golden treasures weren’t enough to capture the imagination, the characters were the perfect combination;  the most famous tomb in Egyptology (Tutankhamun’s), one of the most famous women in Egyptology (Nefertiti), belonging to one of the most debated periods (Amarna), with a side order of gender roles (did Nefertiti reign as Pharaoh?), religion and incest. No media outlet could resist such a combination once they got a whiff of something going on. It’s also exactly the sort of subject that leaks rapidly on social media, causing confusion and conspiracy theories to abound. I have previously written about how rapidly conspiracy theories can develop. Only imagine how they would accrue around headlines like ‘Secret Investigations in the Tomb of Tutankhamun’. Secrecy would also make academic and peer scrutiny difficult to obtain and suspect to those ‘out of the loop’, and might even encourage the burying or fudging of inconvenient results. Transparency is surely the best thing in such cases, even if it risks embarrassment. In an age where people are skeptical of scientific research and ‘experts’, then science (like justice) must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.

So given that a testable hypothesis should be tested, and that this should take place in a transparent way when the circumstances dictate, can anything be done about the media hype? The media (and ultimately the public) are likely to remain deeply interested in hidden tombs, Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, the Amarna period, and the prospect of golden discoveries for the immediate future, if not forever. These are the things that have captured the public imagination. Of course there are plenty of people who have a much wider interest in Egyptology and archaeology. The number of Egyptology and archaeology societies, Facebook pages, amateur groups, forums and charities like the Egypt Exploration Society and the Friends of the Petrie Museum testify to a widespread and incredibly knowledgeable body of people with a broad interest in the subject. But the national media report for the whole country, not just professional Egyptologists or knowledgeable groups, and cater for the whole sweep of opinions from the celebrity-obsessed (who naturally take to ‘royal’ celebrities of an ancient age) to the ‘fringe’. It is almost inevitable that most Egyptology in the press and media will be limited to the usual themes; Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, Cleopatra, golden discoveries, tombs, temples and mummies.

So should we Egyptologists engage? Should we present our research in an exciting way so the public gets a chance to hear what we’re up to?  I think we need to engage to a certain extent. We need to talk up our research, if only because people need to understand why we do what we do and what’s important about it. But of course we shouldn’t misrepresent our work, or only study topics that are appealing to the media. In light of the results of Reeves’ theory and the media responses to them, I think it’s very important that we defend the scientific method, that we emphasise that not all research produces golden results and that we remind people that the process they have seen played out in public is a, perhaps flawed, but clear example of the scientific process in action. Behind every exciting discovery are months, years and decades of quiet research, much of which came to nothing. Sometimes you produce exciting results and sometimes there is nothing there, and knowing when there’s nothing there is also a valid and useful result. 

This strikes me as being particularly important in view of some of the reactions I saw on social media to the Tutankhamun saga. While many people were disappointed but philosophical, observing that archaeological theories often come to naught,  others appeared almost angry that the theory wasn’t proven, arguing that they’d been misled and objecting to Egyptologists who ‘went along with it’. While its certainly true that prompt publication and peer-review of the data from the first scan would have been preferable, and helped to avoid any suggestion of misdirection, this does not mean that Reeves or anyone else perpetrated a ‘scam’. There was confusion about what the data from the first scan actually showed and it was not published or peer-reviewed as soon as it should have been, but such mistakes can be made when the stakes are high, things are being undertaken in the public eye and there are various different scientific, government and academic parties involved. The mistake was rectified, the data from the first scan was published and a second set of scans commissioned, reaffirming the importance of the scientific method. The fact that this research was permitted in the first place, announced publicly, and ultimately followed proper scientific methods is a positive thing. 

More significantly, if people react angrily when a theory breaks down then there will be greater pressure to deny requests for permission to undertake such research, requirements for secrecy that will harm public perception of the probity of scientists, archaeologists and Egyptologists, and even the temptation to hide, obscure or fudge unfavourable results. Quite apart from the morality or otherwise of any of these reactions, there are enough people trying to persuade the public that we are all covering up one giant conspiracy or another – we don’t need to add fuel to the fire.

There is nothing wrong with undertaking research and hypothesis testing in the public eye, indeed I argue above that in this case it was necessary, but if people believe they will be abused or derided when they are wrong, theories will not be published, research will not be undertaken and we will all be the poorer. The same goes for those who respond to such theories, giving public commentary, interviews or presenting television programmes. Archaeologists absolutely need to be prepared to discuss theories publicly, to provide context in the face of hype, to express the full range of possibilities that may come out of any given research and to remind the public that the essence of science is the testing of hypotheses and the investigating of theories. Ignoring possible theories because they don’t accord with the orthodox view is a dangerous path that strangles scientific debate and cultural progress. We should all be working to avoid that scenario and we shouldn’t be ashamed that sometimes our research proves the null hypothesis, that only demonstrates the importance of the scientific method to us and to the world at large.


In addition to the links in the text, A. Dodson, 2009, Amarna Sunset, published by American University in Cairo Press, provides a good introduction to the general period of Tutankhamun and Nefertiti and to the many debates surrounding it.

The sequel, A. Dodson, 2014. Amarna Sunrise, also by American University in Cairo Press, gives additional background and incorporates some of the newest evidence, including recent DNA tests of the relevant mummies. In addition to giving the author’s take on the Amarna period, both books provide an introduction and references to some of the latest debates concerning this period of Egyptian history.







Review of the British Museum’s Sunken Cities Exhibition

This post reviews the British Museum’s new Sunken Cities exhibition, which I recently visited. Photography is forbidden in the exhibition, so I haven’t been able to include any pictures from it here, but you can get a taste of the experience on the British Museum website.  Most professional reviewers seemed to enjoy it, but some suggested it would benefit from more lighting and less ambient music. The Guardian newspaper positively disliked it, complaining that it ‘patronises with Indiana Jones-style nonsense’ to compensate for dull objects.

I’m happy to say  that I found the Guardian’s reviewer completely missed the point. The exhibition contains an interesting mix of material recently excavated from the ‘Sunken Cities’ of Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus, contextualised with objects from other sites, periods and countries. Brief videos of the retrieval of the artefacts reveal the reality of underwater excavation, and the necessary scientific care that elevates excavation above ‘treasure hunting’ for ‘pretty things’, giving even the humblest artefact the opportunity to shine.  The low lighting, blue colour and music do manage to evoke an undersea feel, even an intimacy, but they are not strictly necessary as the objects are good enough to stand on their own merit. Far from a ‘weird pastiche’, the quality of the statuary shows that even in this late period Egyptian stone carving could be second to none, while the hybridisation of Greek and Egyptian styles produced some breathtaking work. The lighting felt a little low, but the objects were well lit, and the music was so inoffensive and bland I rapidly tuned it out.

The exhibition details the discovery and underwater excavation of the twin cities of Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus, which lie submerged beneath Aboukir Bay on the north-western edge of the Nile delta, 30km east of Alexandria. The details of their discovery are briefly covered in the exhibition, but there are more details in the catalogue and in this New Statesman article (Thanks to Jan Piction of Petrie Museum Unofficial Page for the link). In a largely successful attempt to provide more information about the discovery, underwater excavation and lifting processes, there are regular videos throughout the exhibition showing the excavation of principal artefacts. These videos provide a welcome reminder that these are carefully excavated objects, whose provenance provides much of the scientific information that makes them so interesting.

The cities of Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus had their heyday in the Late period (664-332 BC) and Ptolemaic period (332-30 BC). Although Ptolemaic art is sometimes derided as a ‘pastiche’, the artefacts in this exhibition demonstrate that at its best it can be breathtakingly beautiful. The truly stunning statue of Arsinoe II is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen and perfectly demonstrates the heights that could be reached when Egyptian and Greek artistry were combined. A similar, later statue known as ‘The Black Queen’, that probably shows Cleopatra III as Isis, demonstrates that even when less inspired, Ptolemaic carving was of a high quality.

The layout is rather good. Monumental statuary is scattered throughout the exhibition, including three colossi (of the Nile god Hapy, a Ptolemaic Pharaoh and his Queen) from the Aswan granite quarries that also produced the Unfinished Obelisk. Smaller cases containing medium and small objects are located around the larger objects, allowing the visitor to see objects from all around and giving a sense of intimacy. Coming around one case I suddenly came upon the rather well-preserved rear of a granodiorite sphinx. His neatly carved tail, curling tightly around his hindquarters, was so appealing I had to restrain myself from patting it.

The excavations also found exciting new evidence for the rituals of the Osiris cult. These rituals are known from both Greco-Roman writers and inscriptions in Egyptian temples, but this is the first time archaeologists have found in situ physical remains of the riverine processions. These remains provide evidence for the physical context of activities described in the texts, and how the rituals were undertaken at Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus. Situations where we have archaeological and textual evidence of the same events are extremely valuable, because the two different types of evidence provide complementary insights into the ritual intent expressed in the texts, and the practical undertaking revealed by the archaeological record.

The discovery of the remains of the riparian Osirian processions prompted the inclusion of some exceedingly interesting artefacts in the exhibition. These explored the myths and rituals of Osiris across a wide temporal, geographical and stylistic range.  From a traditional Egyptian Osiris in sycamore wood to an entirely Greek Serapis, the artefacts demonstrate both the Egyptian and Greek Osirian traditions and their hybridisation.  The famous 13th Dynasty (c. 1747 BC) cult statue showing Isis reviving Osiris harks back to the origins of both deity and rituals in Middle Kingdom Abydos, while a second century AD Roman oil lamp showing Isis nursing Horus demonstrates the longevity of these deities and their  geographical range. This oil lamp comes from the town of Durolevum near Faversham in Kent, and is a reminder that the British Museum is only 2.6km from a Roman temple to Isis that once stood on the banks of the Walbrook river, south of Bank station in London.

It is difficult to put on an exhibition that honestly represents the process of archaeological excavation, explains to the visitor the excitement of discovering new information,  and includes sufficiently interesting objects while avoiding the impression that archaeology is all about treasure hunting. Sunken Cities largely succeeds! Far from patronising the visitor, it brings you close to some truly beautiful objects, but still manages to show the reality of underwater excavation. The artefacts from Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus are contextualised with other objects from different periods, giving a greater perspective and revealing how this new evidence fits into our understanding of the Nile delta, the Ptolemaic period, the mixing of Greek and Egyptian cultures, and the Osiris cult. If you feel the need for more information, the exhibition catalogue includes both pictures of the objects (with the museum numbers that are missing from the displays) and more background information about individual pieces and the excavation of the cities.

Overall I found the Sunken Cities exhibition a thoroughly enjoyable experience and would definitely recommend it. It is both artistic and informative. I have rarely been as stunned by the beauty of a statue as I was during this exhibition. I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing some artefacts that I have only seen before in textbooks, discovering Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus for myself and getting close to new evidence about the rituals of the Osiris cult. If you are in London before the exhibition closes on 27 November 2016 then don’t miss out.


Tickets can be booked online at British Museum Sunken Cities exhibition and entry is free to Members.

The exhibition catalogue Goddio, F. and Masson-Berghoff, A. 2016. Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds. Thames and Hudson, provides images of the objects, a description of the discovery of the site, and background information on both the artefacts and their context. There is also a dvd showing the excavation of some of the objects, which is free if you buy the catalogue.