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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edit

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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.

Provenance, fakes, uncertainty and ethics: The problems with legally purchased antiquities.

Akhenaten
Gilded bronze statuette in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum attributed to Akhenaten by its label. Author Photograph.

The Barcelona Egyptian Museum contains many fascinating objects, some inspired presentations of Egyptian artefacts and two interesting exhibitions that further explain aspects of ancient Egyptian culture. My previous post (The Egyptian Museum of Barcelona) covers the highlights of the museum but only touched on the issues my visit raised concerning the presence of possible forgeries and the ethics of creating a modern museum from purchased antiquities. This post follows on from my previous review and another recent post about black market antiquities to consider the nature of purchased antiquities and the implications of them for reviewers and researchers of museum collections.

To post, or not to post?

In the Barcelona Egyptian Museum is a small gilded bronze statuette that is attributed to Akhenaten by its label (left). My instagram image of this particular artefact prompted a number of disbelieving comments. There are several aspects of the style of the statuette that are suspicious, such as the way the kilt drapes over the thighs. The date is also incongruous. I have yet to identify a single comparable statuette of this type from the Amarna period (so if anyone reading this can think of one, they are welcome to put a link or reference in the comments). Bronze statuettes are much more commonly associated with later periods of Egyptian history. In fact the Barcelona Museum also has a number of gilded bronze statuettes of divinities dated to the Late Period, such as a gilded bronze statuette of the goddess Neith (below right), that the object label attributes to the XXVI Dynasty (i.e. within the Late Period as expected).  All these aspects combine to raise doubts about the authenticity of the Akhenaten or, at the very least, its attribution. One alternative to an out-and-out forgery is that the statuette was originally of an unnamed Late Period pharaoh, later falsely identified as the famous Akhenaten by an unscrupulous antiquities dealer to raise its value.

Neith_mobile
Gilded bronze statuette of the goddess Neith. Identified as XXVI Dynasty. Author Photograph.

The reaction to my Instagram post about the Akhenaten statuette was my first intimation that writing a blog about the Barcelona Egyptian Museum might not be straightforward. Having read the many questioning comments I wondered whether I should continue with my intended post. Various questions bubbled up. Was it ethical to write about objects that may be forgeries? What impact might it have on my reputation? How could I be fair the museum, while writing about the possibility of forgeries being on display? And should I even consider writing about a museum when most of the objects had been purchased so recently on the antiquities market, given that I am generally of the opinion that the purchase of legal antiquities is inadvisable at best and unethical at worst?

The obvious solution would have been to leave well alone. I could not be criticised if I didn’t post anything. But that would deny me the opportunity to review the other interesting artefacts in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum. It would also be cowardly. The debate my image of the Akhenaten had provoked and my reaction to it, exemplifies the difficulties we experience in working with purchased and unprovenanced antiquities. If I simply ignored the problem I would be contributing to the silence about these issues. This post is therefore an attempt to interrogate the questions and anxieties unprovenanced antiquities raise in the minds of researchers and how these influence our reactions to and treatment of such objects.

Purchase and provenance

Falsedoor_Iny
The false door and two side panels from the VI Dynasty tomb-chapel of Iny in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum. Author Photograph.

As I mentioned in my previous post, most of the object labels in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum do not give details of the provenance or the origin of the artefacts. Research on the museum’s website and wikipedia page revealed that the collection was a recent creation, with most of the artefacts purchased on the antiquities market since 1992. Further evidence of the recent origin of the collection came from the bibliographies of the artefacts from the Barcelona Egyptian Collection that featured in the Moda y Belleza catalogue of the exhibition of the same name (D’Amicone 2011). Many of the objects currently in the museum featured in the catalogues of the major auction houses from which they had been purchased from 1992 onwards.

Since most artefacts purchased on the antiquities market originate in private collections and very few come from archaeological excavations, they rarely come with detailed archaeological provenance. It is almost impossible to identify the precise house, tomb or temple context for a given object, and it may also be difficult to determine which site, region and period an artefact came from. At best the occurrence of named individuals on artefacts sometimes allows them to be associated with other objects, a known tomb, temple or site. This is the case with the VI Dynasty false door stela (image above) and reliefs of Iny in the Barcelona Museum, which were identified as part of Iny’s now lost tomb-chapel and associated with further reliefs from the same structure that are now in other museums. The multiple XII and XIII Dynasty stela now in various private collections and museums but originally from the Abydos North Offering Chapels (Simpson 1974) represent a more extensive example of the same process of archaeological detective work.

But detectival methods of assigning provenance are usually only applicable to inscribed objects and even if an object can be associated with a site or assemblage it is rarely possible to reconstruct its precise archaeological provenance to the level of a findspot or room. Even though we know that the false door and relief fragments in the Barcelona Museum come from the tomb-chapel of Iny, we do not know where that tomb-chapel was. We might suspect that it was in the Memphite region, but we cannot know precisely where. We do not know what else formed the tomb-complex or what other archaeological structures and artefacts might have been associated with it.

For most artefacts that lack archaeological provenance, the situation is even worse. Usually the only contextual information available is a rough date and perhaps the general site or region where the artefact originated, as determined by stylistic comparison with similar objects of known provenance.

Forgeries or rare artefacts?

Tetisheri
The statue of Queen Tetisheri in the British Museum, now thought by many to be a forgery. (Courtesy of David Blogg)

Artefacts that lack archaeological provenance are inevitably more likely to attract suspicions about their authenticity. Forgers have been active as long as there have been collectors, but a number of high profile recent cases indicate that forgery is increasing in ‘growth’ areas of the antiquities market including religious artefacts, biblical archaeology (Burleigh 2008) and (naturally) Egyptian objects.

Recently purchased artefacts are not the only potential forgeries. The proposition that the British Museum’s statue of Tetisheri is a forgery demonstrates how an artefact accepted as genuine for decades can later be questioned. Given the varied origins of most Egyptian collections, it is probable that every one has at least one or two forgeries. But those with a higher proportion of purchased artefacts are likely to contain more forgeries.

While scientific testing can sometimes resolve questions of authenticity, they are more often a matter of expert opinion and can therefore provoke considerable debate among experts with different views. That there is still debate about the authenticity of the statue of Tetisheri, demonstrates the problems of discerning forgeries from genuine antiquities.

NK_Coffinface_female
Gaudily painted pottery coffin mask with female face.  Dated to the New Kingdom according to it’s label. A similar mask has recently been offered at auction. Author Photograph.

An artefact is most likely to be accepted as genuine if it is typical of its period and material in style and execution. The bronzes of (supposedly) Akhenaten and Neith, which began this post exemplify this feature of archaeological research. Since a large number of Late Period statues of deities are known the Neith is much more easily accepted as genuine than the incongruous Akhenaten.  However, there is no archaeological reason why one should be more genuine than the other if both are unprovenanced. The only difference is that the Neith conforms to our art-historical expectations, while the Akhenaten doesn’t. Unfortunately if we always suspect the unusual, and accept the familiar we risk dismissing genuine artefacts because they are different, thereby losing the information they could provide about the variety of Egyptian art and consolidating cliched ideas about the conformity of Egyptian artefacts. It would be ironic indeed if further research and scientific testing revealed the Akhenaten to be genuine, while the Neith was a forgery.

Suspiciously poor quality or just not typical of ‘Egyptian art’?

Hideous_coffin
Roman pottery coffin dating from the 3rd to 4th century AD (E-620). Purchased from Christies in 2002. Author Photograph.

Another facet of this problem is the tendency to assume that poor-quality or ‘unEgyptian’ artefacts are fake. Amongst the coffins in the Barcelona Museum are two painted faces from pottery coffins, one male and one female (image above left). These are exactly the kind of artefacts that might be written off as fakes, but an almost identical female mask was recently offered for sale at auction. There is still the possibility that all three masks are forgeries, but it would be unwise to write them off without further research just because they are a little outside the norm or do not match our expectations of Egyptian art.

An astonishingly hideous 3rd to 4th century AD Roman pottery coffin (E-620) raises similar questions and doubts (right). There is no doubt it is a truly ugly object to our eyes, but just because it doesn’t conform to our expectations does not necessarily make it a fake. It is entirely possible that the owner was satisfied that the coffin would perform its function, and utterly uninterested in its (to our minds) aesthetic deficiencies. The scientific discovery of poorly formed, badly decorated or illiterately inscribed artefacts demonstrates that the requirements of ancient Egyptian purchasers were not necessarily the same as ours. The pseudo-hieroglyphs on the Late Period coffins excavated from Iurudef’s tomb at Memphis were presumably thought sufficient by their owners, but could easily have been thought a modern forgery if they had not been scientifically excavated (Martin 1991, 144).

Genuine components, modern design?

Beaddress
Bead dress in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum described as IV Dynasty (E-843) by its label. Note the winged-scarab motif on the bodice. Author Photograph.

In the Barcelona Egyptian Museum is an artefact (E-843) described as ‘Dress composed of beads. Faience and turquoise. Old Kingdom’. There are several curious aspects of this artefact that could lead to the assumption that it is a forgery. Firstly, unlike the excavated Old Kingdom bead-net dresses in the Petrie Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts the Barcelona dress only appears to cover the front of the person. Given the structure of the shoulder straps and bodice there is insufficient bead netting to cover the sides and back of a human. The design of the dress, combining broad shoulder straps with a long skirt, is generally consistent  with the excavated Old Kingdom dresses, but the inclusion of a winged-scarab motif in the bodice (see feature image above the title of this post) strikes a discordant note, both because it is a funerary motif and because such beaded images are more generally associated with the Late, Ptolemaic or Roman periods of Egyptian history, rather than the Old Kingdom.

Given these discrepancies it would be very easy to write this off as a forgery, but it is much more likely to be a recreation of a dress using ancient beads, probably from several different periods, made by some antiquities dealer to increase the value of his merchandise. Indeed the Moda y Belleza catalogue (D’Amicone 2011, 195) comes to this exact conclusion, but because this is not reflected on the object label it would be easy to draw the wrong conclusions. Unfortunately the uncertainty that is provoked by the dissonance between the nature of the object and the information on the label does not just affect this one artefact, but could potentially cause the viewer to question the authenticity of others as well.

The problem of uncertainty

None of the artefacts in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum which have provoked concern have been demonstrated to be forgeries, and indeed many (if not all) of them may yet prove to be genuine. However, the uncertainty that is provoked by objects like E-843 or the incongruous Akhenaten does not just affect the reception of those artefacts. By extension it can lead the suspicious researcher to question other objects in the same collection or similar artefacts elsewhere. As I experienced when considering how to write about the artefacts in Barcelona, even the possibility of reviewing fakes can lead to anxiety on the part of a researcher about the ethics of their actions, the reactions of their peers and the impact of their research on their academic reputation.

This anxiety is not without cause. There is a general sense that the presence of forgeries in a collection should be a source of shame. This might be justified if artefacts are envisioned as primarily economic assets, where the sale of a forgery is tantamount to fraud. But it seems a bizarre position to take when in almost every other aspect of archaeological discourse we emphasise the scientific and historical value of artefacts and rail against their treatment and sale as economic assets. If we truly believe an artefact is of purely scientific value, then finding a forgery is like locating an erroneous reading in a set of scientific data. It is useful to identify and exclude it from our research, but should otherwise cause minimal anxiety. This is not to minimise the risk of forgeries skewing archaeological discourse, but it does seem that our reactions to them can be out of all proportion to the risk they pose to scientific enquiry.  Perhaps more importantly the treatment of forgeries and potential forgeries as a source of embarrassment and shame precludes honest discussion of this problem amongst both museum and archaeological professionals and prevents us from exploring the impact of forgeries upon our research.

Part of this impact is the effect uncertainty has upon research. As I have demonstrated above it is incredibly easy to doubt the authenticity of unprovenanced and purchased artefacts, particularly when they do not have many obvious parallels or do not fit with our preconceived ideas about Egyptian artefacts. This has a significant impact upon our understanding of Egyptian culture and our ability to study unprovenanced artefacts. Almost any artefact that has been purchased (whether recently or many decades ago) without clear archaeological provenance might be suspected. But since the more typical an object is the more likely it is to be accepted, genuine but atypical or unusual artefacts run a greater risk of being dismissed as forgeries. On the other hand fake but typical objects might well be included in catalogues and typologies because they fit our preconceptions. Inevitably this risks skewing our research towards the ‘typical’ and prejudicing us against the unusual. At the same time anxiety about publishing or displaying an artefact that later turns out to be fake can inhibit the research and display of genuine but unusual artefacts.

Dealing with legally purchased antiquities

Silver_diadem
Silver diadem, probably of 17th Dynasty date and likely recovered from Dra Abu el-Naga, West Bank, Luxor. This artefact has an established history in a series of private collections and is currently on loan to the British Museum from the al-Sabrah collection. (Author Photograph)

One obvious way to eliminate the anxieties associated with unprovenanced antiquities is to avoid them altogether individually and corporately. This is an admirably ethical position, but like many noble ideals it also raises some practical questions. Should we just ignore collections like the Barcelona Egyptian Museum, either from anxiety that it may include forgeries or ethical objections to the recent purchase of the artefacts? If the ethical objection is foremost, then how long must an artefact have been in a museum before we can legitimately engage with it? There are many thousands of purchased antiquities that reside in museum collections around the world, including many important artefacts held by major museums. Can we arbitrarily decide that research into the Barcelona Egyptian Museum artefacts is unethical, while working with museum collections that include artefacts purchased during an earlier era?  Is it ethical to ignore artefacts that may provide important archaeological evidence to confirm or challenge our research just because they were purchased? As I discovered when visiting the Barcelona Egyptian Museum if we decide to ignore purchased artefacts then we potentially lose important evidence and ignore interesting artefacts, but when we engage with them we must wrestle with ethical concerns and fears about accidentally including forgeries in our research. I cannot provide definitive answers to these questions but perhaps it is time we began discussing these ethical and professional concerns more openly?

As we do so we should remember that all museums include purchased antiquities, that any museum or expert can be deceived by fakes and it is highly probable that every museum has at least a few forgeries hiding away in the stores (and sometimes even on display). While no-one would argue that we should accept the casual display of known fakes, we should recognise that forgeries occur and can be difficult, time-consuming and contentious to identify. The only way to manage unprovenanced artefacts and suspected fakes is to open an honest discussion about forgeries within Egyptian collections, the difficulties inherent in identifying them and the impact of forgeries and unprovenanced antiquities upon our research. Negotiating the ethical and professional questions raised  is never going to be easy, but if we can be honest about these issues we can develop productive debates and advance our research.

References

Burleigh, N. 2008. Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land. Smithsonian.

D’Amicone, E. (ed.) 2011 Moda y Belleza en el Antiguo Egipto. Exposición presentada en el Museu Egipci de Barcelona 20 de Octubre de 2011 – 20 de Julio de 2012. Museu Egipci de Barcelona: Fundació Arqueològica Clos.

Martin. G. T. 1991. The Hidden Tombs of Memphis. London: Thames and Hudson.

Simpson, W. K. 1974. The Terrace of the Great God at Abydos: Offering Chapels of Dynasties 12 and 13. New Haven.

Acknowledgements

I am indebted for Manon Schutz of Oxford University for information about several of the artefacts, to David Blogg for the photo of Tetisheri when she was still on display and to Roland Enmarch for the reference to the tomb of Iurudef.

I am also grateful to all of those who commented about these artefacts online and especially to Luca Miatello, Dario Nannini, Carlo Rindi Nuzzolo, the online members of the Facebook groups Sussex Egyptology Society Unofficial Page and the Coffin Club for their suggestions regarding possible parallels and dates for some of these artefacts.

I am also grateful to all the friends, colleagues and museum professionals who have engaged with me on this subject thorough constructive discussions about forgeries and the ethics of studying purchased antiquities. Long may these debates continue to inform professional discourse.

The Egyptian Museum of Barcelona

Khufu_mobile
Serpentine stone head, attributed to the IV Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Author Photograph.

In July 2017 I was able to visit the Egyptian Museum Barcelona. The museum opened in 1994 to display the Egyptian collection of Jordi Clos and introduce the public to 1,100 Egyptian artefacts and various temporary exhibitions. It forms part of the Clos Archaeological Foundation, which also funds archaeological expeditions and training.

The museum is served by the efficient Barcelona metro and easily found between Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia masterpiece and the Passeig De Catalunya, where many other modernist buildings are located. The museum is clean, tidy and well lit and the exhibits are displayed across three floors.

Most of the objects in the museum are typical of this type of small Egyptian collection. The dates range from black-topped Naqada pots to Roman coffins, and the artefacts on display include bronze statues of gods, stone statues of pharaohs and courtiers, shabtis, scarabs, amulets, coffins and cartonnages, stone vessels, jewellery and tomb models. Many of these objects are typical, but there are also a number of particularly interesting pieces worthy of further study.

Highlights

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Large wooden statue of a VI Dynasty nobleman carrying a Sekhem scepter and (restored) staff (E-422). Author Photograph.

Upon entering the museum the first group of exhibits explain the nature and role of the Pharaoh in Egyptian culture through a series of artefacts covering all dynasties of Egyptian history. Amongst the usual royal statuary is an interesting serpentine stone head attributed to the IV Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu (image top left), the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza. If correct this attribution would add an important new portrait to the relatively few known images of this Pharaoh.

There is also an interesting granite shabti of the XXV Dynasty Nubian Pharaoh Taharqa (E-643) and a serpentine shabti of the slightly later Napatan ruler Senkamanisken from their burials at Nuri in the Sudan.

In addition to the royal statuary are a number of private statues of courtiers, individuals and offering bearers in stone and wood. The highlight of these objects is a large wooden statue of a VI Dynasty nobleman carrying a sekhem scepter and a partially restored staff (E-422, image right).

There are several attractive painted scenes including the two priestesses in image at the top of this post (E-652).

Man_writing_tomb
XIX Dynasty relief of a man writing on a tomb (E-644). Author Photograph.

For those that prefer literary and literate objects, there are several inscribed statues and stelae, including a fine New Kingdom false door of Sebekemheb from the reign of Amenhotep III (E-261) and an unusual limestone relief fragment of a XIX Dynasty man writing on a tomb wall (E-644, left). The two VI Dynasty execration texts are less artistic or monumental but just as important as evidence of magical assault upon the enemies of the Egyptian state (in this case the enemies are Nubians).

Other highlights include a lovely wooden bed (E-434) with bovine feet and reconstructed leather strapping, dated to the Early Dynastic period according to it’s label.

MK_apron
XII Dynasty Middle Kingdom ceremonial apron of faience beads, including a decorative device in the shape of an animal tail (E-844). Author Photograph.

In addition to several wesekh and menat collars (at least some of which have been re-strung from ancient beads) the jewellery section contains a New Kingdom beaded skullcap decorated with gold flower motifs and a faience apron with a decorative feature mimicking a bull’s tail (right, E-844). This apron has been dated to the XII Dynasty by comparison with the similar belt and apron of Senebtisi in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The XII Dynasty coffin of Khnumhotep from Meir is a great example of a Middle Kingdom rectangular-coffin with a beautifully clear offering formula on it. It is also cleverly displayed to inform the visitor about Middle Kingdom funerary assemblages. On top of the coffin are a series of objects typical of Middle Kingdom burials, including wood and stucco model sandals (E-988 and E-999), two stone vessels – including one alabaster example still sealed with cloth, a mirror in copper-alloy and wood, and a wooden headrest. The texts on the coffin and the context for Middle Kingdom funerary assemblages are covered in detail on an adjacent panel, illustrated with images from intact Middle Kingdom Egyptian tombs.

Meir_mobile
Typical Middle Kingdom burial assemblage, based around the coffin of Khnumhotep from Meir (E-188). Author photograph.

Informative display

Several of the artefacts have been cleverly displayed to enhance understanding of their archaeological context and Egyptian culture.  While Middle Kingdom burial customs are introduced by the coffin of Khnumhotep (above), tombs of the Old Kingdom are represented by a clever reconstruction of the VI Dynasty tomb chapel of Iny. An information panel introduces the sources for the reconstruction and the content of the reliefs. Iny’s false door stela and three other relief fragments from the tomb are displayed in the reconstruction, which places them in context using information from other fragments from the same tomb that are in other collections. This is an informative way to display multiple fragments from the same tomb, and reconstituting the tomb environment in this way undoubtedly improves visitor understanding of the archaeological and cultural context of the reliefs.

Iny_tomb
Part of the reconstruction of the tomb-chapel of Iny, showing the false door stela (centre left) and further fragments of relief in the context of a small VI Dynasty offering chapel. Author Photograph.

The funerary papyrus of the Lady Bary is equally well presented. Although this XIX Dynasty papyrus is extremely fragmentary, the display shows how the surviving papyrus relates to the original vignettes (where these can be reconstructed) and also includes an information panel detailing the conservation and investigation of the papyrus. This format makes best use of an artefact that might otherwise have languished in stores as too damaged for display, and ensures visitors gain an appreciation of what can be learned from even the most fragmentary of objects.

However there are also some missed opportunities in terms of display. While Third Intermediate Period coffins and cartonnage are relatively common, the XXII Dynasty cartonnage (E-345.4) of the Lady of the House Djed-Montu-iues-ani, wife of Pamiu is a good example of the type. This empty cartonnage is displayed above a mirror to show the empty internal space where the mummy was located, emphasising the difference between a mummy cartonnage and anthropoid wooden coffin. The substantial pedestal allowed the cartonnage-covered mummy to stand up in front of the tomb during the funerary rituals. This display would be an ideal opportunity to explain the differences between cartonnage and wooden coffins and/or discuss how such objects were used in funerary rituals. Providing museum visitors with information about how artefacts were used enables them to engage with objects as elements of ancient lives, and contextualise what they see. Unfortunately in this case the information panel is limited to the name and titles of the owner, and an interesting opportunity to contextualise funerary artefacts has been missed.

TIP_cartonnage
XXII Dynasty mummy cartonnage of the Lady of the House Djed-Montu-iues-ani, displayed to show the inside of the cartonnage reflected on the underlying mirror and the large pedestal which contained the feet and allowed the cartonnage to stand up (E-345.4). Author Photograph.

Subsidiary exhibitions

Blue_painted_pottery
XVIII Dynasty blue painted pot typical of the period around the reign of Tutankhamun. Author Photograph.

When I visited there were two subsidiary exhibitions within the museum, which made use of artefacts from the collection to explore further specific aspects of Egyptian culture. These subsidiary exhibitions make clever use of artefacts that might otherwise be considered unremarkable or languish in storage.

Most of the lowest floor of the museum is occupied by a fascinating exhibition dealing with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Using excavation photographs, artefacts from the Barcelona collection (such as the typical Amarna period blue painted pot shown in the image left) and a facsimile of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, the exhibition demonstrates how the artefacts that accompanied Tutankhamun were luxurious versions of types in use in other funerary, domestic and ritual contexts. It was a pleasure to see the famous tomb dealt with as a part of a continuum of Egyptian culture rather than as an exotic treasure and the exhibition provided a new angle on an commonly-covered subject.

Beds_mobile
Partly reconstructed painted wood Ptolemaic drum (rear) and Middle Kingdom (XII Dynasty) model bed (front) both with leonine legs. Author Photograph.

The Animals Sagrats de l’Antic Egipte exhibition deals with the role of animals in the religion of ancient Egypt, including their deification and dedication as votive offerings. It contained the expected animal manifestations of various deities, appropriate animal mummies, zoomorphic cosmetic palettes and two tomb models including animal figures. As such it’s remit was somewhat wider than the recent Manchester Museum animal mummies exhibition, although it was a smaller exhibition. For me a highlight was a partly reconstructed drum with leonine legs in painted wood dated to the Ptolemaic period (304-30 BC) and a painted wooden model bed dated to the XII Dynasty (right).

Documentation

Although several innovative displays and highly informative panels explain the archaeological and cultural context of certain artefacts, the labels on many of the objects in the Egyptian museum are a little deficient in information. In particular there are no accession numbers on any of the labels and very few give details of the object’s provenance. Unfortunately unlike the Cuban Egyptian Collection there is no single catalogue containing details of the displayed artefacts or highlights of the collection.

The shop sells several catalogues associated with individual exhibitions and themes but none of these contains all the significant objects in the collection and some do not provide accession numbers, provenance and bibliographic information. I purchased a copy of the most informative of these catalogues, Moda y Belleza en el Antiguo Egipto (D’Amicone 2011), which includes many artefacts from the Barcelona Museum as well as other objects borrowed mainly from Turin and Florence for the 2011-2012 exhibition of the same name. Additional information on ancient Egyptian culture and certain objects is also available online on the museum’s website, but although this includes accession numbers it only covers a few of the many objects in the collection. All the accession numbers provided in this post have been gleaned from the Moda y Belleza catalogue or the museum website. Further information could undoubtedly be obtained by active research in the collection and communication with the museum and associated Egyptologists, but these methods would not be available to the casual visitor and are unlikely to be pursued by anyone but an Egyptologist actively researching the collection.

Provenance

There was also very little information on the origins of the artefacts or how they entered the museum. A review of the Barcelona artefacts present in the Moda y Belleza catalogue revealed that they had all been purchased, mostly within the last 30 years, with many documented in auction catalogues since 1992. This is consistent with the history of the collection, which grew rapidly after the foundation of the museum in 1994. A lack of archaeological provenance is a chronic problem with purchased antiquities irrespective of when they were bought, but it might be appropriate to include information on when the artefacts entered the museum and from where (auction, private collection etc) to provide a little additional context on the object labels.

Gneiss
Possible anorthosite-gneiss bowl, perhaps discoloured by post-depositional processes or fire. Note the darker bluish patches and streaks that are typical of anorthosite-gneiss. Author Photograph.

Further research

Several of the artefacts in the collection would benefit from more research than I have been able to undertake for this review. Among the stone vessels is a discoloured example (right), described as ‘alabaster’, which exhibits the blue-black striations and spots of anorthosite-gneiss from the Gebel el-Asr quarries. Since gneiss is often confused with other stones (typically diorite) and this example is both broken and discoloured some confusion might be expected, but it would certainly benefit from additional research. The discolouration might be product of post-depositional processes, but gneiss stone vessels are a feature of Early Dynastic tombs and at least two of the I Dynasty tombs (tombs S3471 and S3504) excavated by Emery (1949, 1954) at Saqqara were badly damaged by fire. It is possible that this vessel came from a similar context.

Beaddress
Bead dress described as Old Kingdom (E-843). Note the winged-scarab motif on the bodice. Author Photograph.

Another rather curiously labelled artefact (E-843) is described as an Old Kingdom bead dress (left). Both label and catalogue note that only two genuine bead-net dresses are known, and the Moda y Belleza catalogue (D’Amicone 2011, 195) entry suggests that this artefact is a modern confection created from ancient beads (potentially including beads from multiple periods). This is not explicitly stated on the object label but it would account for the juxtaposition of the funerary imagery of the winged scarab on the bodice (which is typical of much later periods of Egyptian history), and the much earlier style of the rest of the object which is reminiscent of Old Kingdom bead-net dresses like the example in the Petrie Museum.

There are other unusual artefacts in the collection, where the style, stated date or attribution is outside of what might normally be expected. During my online research and discussion immediately after visiting the collection several individuals raised concerns that the collection includes forgeries. Others have questioned whether it is appropriate that a modern museum was created in the late 20th century through the purchase of artefacts on the antiquities market. Further archaeological and scientific research might confirm the presence of absence of forgeries, but the other concerns are more difficult to address. For me writing this post has raised a number of issues relating to the nature and ethical implications of purchased antiquities in museum collections.  These problems cannot be properly discussed in this short museum review, but there is undoubtedly a need for further consideration of our attitudes to forgeries, unprovenanced artefacts and recently purchased antiquities in museum collections.

Conclusion

The Barcelona Egyptian Museum is a very interesting collection with many opportunities for further research. There are a number of very attractive and interesting artefacts, that will undoubtedly please both archaeologists and the public. Artefacts like the coffin of Khnumhotep and the reliefs from the chapel of Iny are treasures in their own right, and have been displayed to enhance their inherent importance by introducing the visitor to their archaeological and cultural context. The subsidiary exhibitions and informative presentation of artefacts like the papyrus of the Lady Bary make good use of artefacts that might otherwise languish in storage to contextualise and explain aspects of Egyptian culture.

It is unfortunate that the museum accession numbers and origins of individual objects (whether archaeological provenance or information about purchase) are not presented on the majority of the object labels. Some labels would also benefit from additional information and in some cases the objects could be used to expound further on ancient Egyptian culture. The cartonnage of Djed-Montu-iues-ani is well displayed but could be used to explain Egyptian funerary rituals in more detail. The museum would also benefit from a comprehensive published guide or guides to the displayed collection. Such publications could incorporate additional research into the origins and parallels for the artefacts in the collection and hopefully resolve some of the unanswered questions about a minority of the artefacts.

References

D’Amicone, E. (ed.) 2011 Moda y Belleza en el Antiguo Egipto. Exposición presentada en el Museu Egipci de Barcelona 20 de Octubre de 2011 – 20 de Julio de 2012. Museu Egipci de Barcelona: Fundació Arqueològica Clos.

Emery, W. B. 1949. Great Tombs of the First Dynasty I. Cairo

Emery, W. B. 1954.  Great Tombs of the First Dynasty II, London

Acknowledgements

I am indebted for Manon Schutz of Oxford University for information about several of the artefacts, including the Early Dynastic bed and to various individuals who have commented on the collection online or privately.

I am also grateful to Lucia Miatello, Dario Nannini, Carlo Rindi Nuzzolo, Campbell Price, Ashley Cooke, the online members of the Facebook groups Sussex Egyptology Society Unofficial Page and the Coffin Club and all the other commentators on various Facebook and Instagram posts, for their comments and suggestions regarding these artefacts and their interest in the museum.

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

Berlin_AM1205_gneiss_Sen1
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.

Cat_94-120_Amun_scan
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.

Cat_94-15_Brumreliefscan
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.

References

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.