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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.

Bibliography

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

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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.)

Provenance

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)

Signage 

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.

Mummia

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.
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Wunderkammer: Southend’s Cabinet of Curiosities

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

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

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

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

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

Origins of the museum

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

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

‘One of Everything’

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

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

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

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

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

Egypt!

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

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

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

From Wunderkammer to modern Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essex’s Tutankhamun? Learning from seemingly incongruous comparisons.

An intact royal burial in Essex

In 2003 Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) found the intact burial chamber of an Anglo-Saxon noble or prince in Prittlewell, Southend-on-sea. The discovery was widely reported and media interest renewed with the subsequent permanent exhibition of the artefacts in Southend Museum in 2019. The excitement, elite nature of the tomb and presence of precious metals prompted comparisons with the discovery of Tutankhamun.

An unexpected comparison

While writing my review of the permanent exhibition I found myself thinking about the comparison between the Prittlewell Princely burial and Tutankhamun. Several commentators on social media had made slightly derisory remarks about it. Did they have a point? I set out to compare the two.

In many respects, the Prittlewell Princely burial and Tutankhamun’s tomb are vastly different. They are world’s away from each other, coming from very different cultures separated by c. 3,500 miles and c. 2000 years (since absolute dating of Egyptian Pharaohs is disputed this figure is approximate). The Prittlewell tomb was smaller than Tutankhamun’s, with artefacts numbering in the 10s rather than the thousands, and it did not contain nearly as much precious metal or jewelry.

Tut_Stool_JE62035
Tutankhamun’s folding stool (JE 62035) in the Cairo Museum (Author Photograph).

The Prittlewell burial was also much less well-preserved than Tutankhamun, requiring every modern technique of excavation and conservation to carefully extract the surviving artefacts. In Tutankhamun’s subterranean tomb the dry, relatively constant environment preserved the wooden and other perishable objects, many of which were carried out on the shoulders of the excavators. At Prittlewell, only modern ‘block’ excavation methods (where a fragile artefact is removed from the site within a large block of soil and fully excavated in the lab) have made it possible to identify and preserve many of the objects.  The difference in preservation is stark and most evident in the folding stools found in each burial.  Tutankhamun’s folding stool (JE62035) is almost perfectly preserved and is on display in Cairo (image above left). The Prittlewell Prince also took a folding stool to his burial, but as the fifth image in this Museum Crush post shows, it did not fare as well as Tutankhamun’s. Although reconstructions are possible on paper (Hirst and Scull 2019, 70) the remains of the stool are not included in the current exhibition, presumably because of its state of preservation. Such artefacts have only been identified and preserved from the Prittlewell burial thanks to careful modern excavation, conservation, and scientific techniques

Tut_cartouche_JE62117
Tutankhamun’s cartouches on an Egyptian alabaster vessel (JE 62117) from his tomb (Author Photograph).

There are also considerable differences between the occupants of the tombs. While Tutankhamun’s name is plastered all over the objects in his tomb with typical ancient Egyptian concern for its preservation, the identity of the Prittlewell tomb owner remains unknown. He is now believed to have been a royal prince rather than a King, but any suggestions as to his identity remain speculation (Hirst and Scull 2019, 96-97).

The occupant of the Prittlewell burial was also associated with a much less powerful political entity than Tutankhamun. The Kingdom of the East Saxons was only one of several in what is now England (Hirst and Scull 2019, 99-102). Tutankhamun, by contrast, ruled what can only really be described as an early superpower, with an empire, vast influence across the Middle East, and regular diplomatic interactions with both equals and vassals.

Surprising similarities

What then are the similarities that prompted this comparison, or was it just hyperbole? I came to a surprising answer. There are some important parallels between Tutankhamun’s tomb and the Prittlewell Princely burial and they become more interesting the more you investigate them.

While it wasn’t a worldwide sensation like the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Prittlewell burial certainly caused a stir amongst archaeologists and the public. Newspapers and TV carried the story and in 2005 it featured in a Time Team Special. Such publicity rapidly attracted those who wished to make use of the discovery for their own purpose. Like the many debates and scandals surrounding Tutankhamun, the Prittlewell Prince rapidly became involved in local controversy. Protestors, objecting to the road-widening scheme which originally prompted the excavation of the site, set up the protest ‘Camp Bling’  and argued that the road scheme should be stopped because it would destroy the burial site. Despite the spurious nature of this argument (the burial site having already been removed by archaeological excavation), the road has never been widened.

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‘Camp Bling’ road-widening protest, Priory Crescent, taken 20 January 2006 by David Kemp. Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA).

The discovery of both Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Prince both encouraged the archaeological community. Howard Carter spent years excavating the Valley of the Kings before his discovery of Tutankhamun demonstrated that there were still important discoveries to be made there. The Prittlewell burial, sandwiched between a road and a railway cutting in the middle of a town, demonstrated that significant archaeological discoveries are possible even in heavily urbanised areas. Such discoveries provide huge validation for archaeologists. Your average commercial archaeologist spends most of their career working in all weathers knowing that most of their work will only contribute incrementally to the sum of archaeological understanding. This incremental knowledge is important, but when you are toiling away in the rain, hacking through hard clay to excavate a dull field drain or tree throw, its encouraging to think that one day you might help to recover a truly remarkable find.

VK_fromabove
The Valley of the Kings from above (El Qurn). Howard Carter cleared the central part to the bedrock before finding Tutankhamun. (Author Photograph).

Both finds also shed new light (and provoke even more questions) about relatively obscure periods of history; the Amarna period in the case of Tutankhamun, and the Anglo-Saxon period in the case of the Prittlewell Princely burial. We are all intrigued by the unknown, and obscure periods of history often attract the attention of both enthusiasts and scholars. New discoveries offer the hope of new parallels for existing artefacts and architecture, and additional scientific evidence that may fill in some of the historical and cultural gaps in our current understanding. Of course, these hopes are rarely fulfilled and more often than not such new discoveries provoke even more questions than they answer, but it is the excitement that we feel as enthusiasts and researchers that feeds into the public imagination.

Finally, thanks to the excitement and media attention that always surrounds such discoveries, both Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Prince were given fond nicknames, although they might not appreciate being called ‘King Tut’ and the ‘King of Bling’ if they were here to hear them.

Reception and exploitation

Reviewing the similarities between Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Princely burial, a clear pattern emerges. The similarities between these two very different burials are all about our reception of them as archaeological discoveries, rather than any intrinsic similarities between the burials, cultures or people buried.  It is the public and scholarly excitement over the excavation of an intact (or largely intact in the case of Tutankhamun) burial of an elite individual, from a thrillingly obscure or controversial period, accompanied by rich grave goods that are comparable. Such comparisons say more about us than about Tutankhamun or the Prittlewell Prince. They speak to our positive enthusiasm for archaeological discovery, our interest in the past and fascination with obscure or controversial periods of history. Less positively they reflect excitement over ‘buried treasure’ and (sad inditement of our society that it is) speak of a desire to consume and even exploit the past that is present in some quarters.

So yes, in many respects the Prittlewell Princely burial is Essex’s Tutankhamun. Although far removed from each other in time, space and culture Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Prince are highly comparable in terms of the public reaction to their discovery and the use made of them by various groups. That such similarities are present with regard to two so very different archaeological discoveries says much about our culture, and that is a rare and valuable treasure in itself.

References

In addition to the digital references cited in this and my previous post, the main references for the Prittlewell Prince are:

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

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

There are innumerable references for Tutankhamun, the discovery of his tomb and its fate. The following are good introductions to the discovery, archaeological context of his tomb and the debate about how the discovery has been used and abused since:

Reeves, Nicholas. 1995. The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, The Tomb, The Royal Treasure. Thames and Hudson.

Romer, John, and Romer, Elizabeth 1993. The Rape of Tutankhamun. Michael O’Mara Books Ltd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edit

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

The exhibition

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

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

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

Star finds

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tomb owner

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

Additional material

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

References

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

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

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.

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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.

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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).

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‘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).

References

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.

 

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.

References

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.