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DNA confirms the Two Brothers’ relationship

Egypt at the Manchester Museum

Using ‘next generation’ DNA sequencing, scientists at the University of Manchester have confirmed a long-held supposition that the famous ‘Two Brothers’ of the Manchester Museum have a shared mother but different fathers – so are, in fact, half-brothers. This is the first in a series of blog posts presenting the DNA results, and discussing the interpretation and display of the Brothers in Manchester.

The ‘Two Brothers’ are among Manchester Museum’s most famous inhabitants. The complete contents of their joint burial forms one of the Museum’s key Egyptology exhibits, which have been on almost continuous display since they were first entered the Museum in 1908.

_D0V4739, 4740 (3) The Two Brothers’ inner coffins: Khnum-nakht (left) and Nakht-ankh (right), 2011

Central to public (and academic) interest have been the mummified bodies of the men themselves – Khnum-nakht and Nakht-ankh – who lived around the middle of the 12th Dynasty, c. 1900-1800 BC. Their intact…

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After Hours: Gifts for the Gods

Manchester Museum has featured a few times on this blog in the past three years. And here it is again.
This museum is my second favourite museum and, I think, for good reason. They organise so many fun and interesting things!
On the very first day of the current temporary exhibition, Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed I went to see it. The 25th of February saw a connected After Hours event. The main item on the agenda was the wrapping of an animal mummy. That was enough to make me curious.

Before the ‘re-wrapping’ began I had the chance to see the temporary exhibition again, this time with my best friend. She enjoyed it very much and agrees that it’s a small, but very informative exhibition. It covers all aspects of animal mummies you can possibly think of. This evening, however, we had the added bonus of “Mummy Auction TV”, which transported us to the 19th century when a ship full of animal mummies arrived in Liverpool. The question was: how much would you pay for just one cat mummy to prank your friends. I can tell you that the bids varied greatly.

Throughout the evening there were various activities, so never a dull moment. Anthony Parker read ‘ancient Egypt inspired’ poems. Parts of these poems you could print on textile.

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We had a chat with Pascal Nichols who was creating a clay pot for the ‘Ibis’ mummy. Of course he did not have the time to finish it completely, as in: it would have to be baked later, but we got a good idea on how it was created and how big it would be when completed. To be honest, I don’t think the finished mummy will fit in the pot, but maybe we will get an update on that at a later date.

Visitors also had the option to mummify an orange. It was good fun to see people removing their oranges’ “internal organs” by hand. Some of the bandages were quite colourful which unleashed some creativity and yielded some beautiful results!

The end result of textile printing.
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Something I have also mentioned before is that Manchester Museum is quite good in using modern technology to support their exhibitions and permanent display. They are also very active on social media. This evening was no different. The whole thing was streamed live to Periscope, so if you couldn’t make it, you could still see how the re-rolling progressed.

The animal mummy re-rolling was done by Drs Stephanie Woolham and Lidija McKnight. We were told this was their very first attempt at creating an animal mummy, but they could have fooled me. Not only did they manage in the few hours they had, the result is amazing.
This may also be the moment to explain that no real animal was used.

Drs Campbell Price, Stephanie Woolham and Lidija McKnight with their brand new animal mummy.
Photo taken by Joanne Loftus – © All Rights Reserved

In my previous post about the temporary exhibition I did mention the book that goes with it. I have now bought this book and, even though I still have to read it completely, I am quite enthusiastic about it. It’s a comprehensive book with many articles by a variety of people. It covers the entire path an animal mummy could take: from ancient Egypt to the excavations in the 19th century (and beyond), to private collections, to museum collections, to the wonderful uses (fertiliser?), to previous and current research. If you are interested in animal mummies this is certainly a book I would recommend, simply because it covers so much. Oh, the bibliography is seven (!) pages, so this book may just serve as a brilliant starting point for very extensive study, if you’re so inclined, of course. I know I am.

This ibis mummy is part of the temporary exhibition and the example this experiment was based on.
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Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed will be at the Manchester Museum until 17 April 2016.
After that it will go to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow (May-September 2016) and finally to World Museum, Liverpool (October 2016-March 2017).

Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed

Since I heard about this temporary exhibition I have been looking forward to it; for obvious reasons: I am still very much interested in animal mummies. The first day for the public was 8 October. I wasted no time, took the afternoon off and went to Manchester Museum to see the exhibition for myself. I was not disappointed.

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Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed is a small, but very well presented exhibition. Both are very good points, I think, because it seems that nowadays people lose interest very quickly. This being a small exhibition means you don’t have to spend a lot of time there if you don’t want to (even though I think you should) and it being well presented means that there is something interesting for every visitor.

The set up is very logical. It starts with a short introduction on what kind of animals you could find in Egypt, followed by a few examples of animal deities. Via an explanation of various types of animal mummies and interpretations in art you make your way to displays with quite a number of animal mummies. At this point it gets more detailed. The emphasis shifts towards technology: how do we know what is in the wrappings and what else can we learn from scientific research? It all ends with a bit of fun: if you want you can send a message to a (or several) ancient Egyptian god(s). And yes, of course I did!

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The fact that I have an interest in ancient Egypt and specifically in animal mummies means that I am biased. Manchester Museum being my second favourite museum also adds to that. Thankfully I did not go alone. I brought a friend who has never been to Manchester Museum before and knows absolutely nothing about animal mummies, or ancient Egypt, for that matter.
I was quite happy to hear that he enjoyed the exhibition and felt his lack of knowledge on the subject did not stop him from understanding the information. He also did not feel overwhelmed by the amount of information. The possibilities to interact with the exhibition is another thing he appreciated. Let’s face it: most people love to ‘look’ with their hands.

On this occasion I have not bought the book that goes with this exhibition, so I can’t review that at the moment. I fully intend to visit again (I have another friend who is interested) and buy the book then. A review of it will follow.

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I have mentioned in a previous post that Manchester Museum is quite good at using technology and media (social or otherwise) to promote their collection and exhibitions. This is a very good example. As if waiting almost two years for this excellent exhibition wasn’t enough, the curator (Dr Campbell Price) managed to wet my appetite (and probably other people’s as well) by publishing several blog posts on Egypt at the Manchester Museum.

My verdict is very positive, but don’t just take my word for it. There is a guest book at the end of the exhibition and on the afternoon of the first day there were already plenty of positive entries. I think this is an exhibition you cannot miss.

Further reading:
1. Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed – press release
2. Animal Mummies #2: Animals in the Ancient Egyptian landscape
3. Animal Mummies #3: Giving Gifts to the Gods in Ancient Egypt
4. Animal Mummies #4: Travellers, Collectors and Souvenirs
5. Animal Mummies #5: Seeing inside the wrappings
6. Animal Mummies #6: Making experimental mummies in Manchester
7. Animal Mummies #7: Micro Encounters with Animal Mummies

‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’ – Press Release

Needless to say I am very excited about this upcoming exhibition!

Egypt at the Manchester Museum

Wooden cat coffin, acc. no. 9303. From Saqqara. Wooden cat coffin, acc. no. 9303. From Saqqara.

Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed

8 October 2015-17 April 2016, Manchester Museum

Free Entry

This myth-busting exhibition will present and explore ancient Egyptian animal mummies, prepared in their millions as votive offerings to the gods. Gifts for the Gods will explain the background behind this religious practice in the context of life in ancient Egypt and the environment in which the animals lived. It will explore the British fascination with Egypt, the discovery of animal mummies by British excavators, and how the mummies ended up in the UK, as well as taking a look at the history and future of their scientific study in Manchester. The display will combine mummified specimens such as jackals, crocodiles, cats and birds with cultural artefacts such as stone sculpture and bronze statuettes, alongside 19th Century works of art and never-seen-before archives.

The exhibition…

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Iron in Egypt came from the sky?

On 24 July Manchester University held a study day to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its Certificate in Egyptology. The day was open to anyone, but, of course, there were quite a few people who had just completed the certificate course and they all got their certificate that day. I was one of these lucky students, but I also took the opportunity to talk to Dr Diane Johnson about the project called Iron from the sky.

SJ: Where does the name ‘Iron from the sky’ come from?
DJ: It comes from the ancient Egyptian for iron. The early hieroglyphic term for iron seemed to be quite a broad term. This originates from a time before we know people were smelting iron ores to produce metallic iron and so we think that this term and the context it was used in and given when it dates from it was quite a broad term. It probably applied to metallic iron and materials with similar appearance or physical properties, which is all very reasonable, but then something interesting happens. Towards the end of the 18th, early 19th Dynasty a new word appears. This literally translates to mean ‘iron from the sky’. There’s a lot of debate as to why it appears at this point in time and no one is really absolutely certain. Obviously because it’s iron from the sky there a strong inference it is iron falling from the sky in the form of meteorite iron. So we thought it was quite a nice name for the project, given that we’re exploring both the occurrences of iron in Egypt and how people perceived it.

Source: Iron in the sky

SJ: You mentioned the term ‘iron from the sky’ appeared around the 18th or 19th Dynasty, but on the website I read that you found proof of meteorite iron dating all the way back to the 4th Dynasty.
DJ: The earliest known examples of meteorite iron in use in Egypt actually date from as early as the Predynastic. So it’s around 3,400 BC that we see examples of worked iron meteorites. They appear to have been either small fragments or were originally bigger pieces which were split using the natural meteorite structure. And then they were probably beaten to some extent. They may have been ground a little, heated and then bent into tube shapes. These early examples were Predynastic beads, excavated from the Gerzeh cemetery.

Source: Iron in the sky

SJ: Is there any theory or proof that later on, when the term ‘iron from the sky’ started to appear, they started realising where it actually comes from and before that they may not have realised?
DJ: It’s very difficult to say, because if we look at the earliest example of Egyptian meteorite iron use, obviously that predates writing, so we don’t have a document to refer to in order to understand what they thought of it. We can’t actually say we’ve found any examples of descriptions of fireballs or impact events or anything like this. So it’s very difficult to say what they thought to meteorite iron coming from the sky. All we can say is what we can infer from objects made from it and their contexts. So you might argue iron was symbolic in many ways. But we don’t have any direct written evidence of what the ancient Egyptian people thought of meteorites.

SJ: Do you see any evolution or change in the type of things they made with meteorite iron through time?
DJ: Yes, absolutely. I should stress as well, we can’t say that meteorite iron was always used, because it probably wasn’t. It’s highly unlikely that a lot of the examples from late antiquity would have been made by smelting iron ores. So much of the iron seen in Egyptology collections today will be made of iron ores that were smelted. In terms of the use of Egyptian iron changing with time, certainly it did if you consider iron in general, from Predynastic times onwards, the early examples are exclusively found in tombs of important people, mainly royalty and kings. Obviously with the Predynastic iron owners it is hard to say exactly who these people were, but from the other objects found in the tombs you can see they were high status people. So it appears that iron was exclusively linked to high status. That’s a strong inference that iron, at that point in time, wasn’t perhaps valued the way we value it today, as a functional material. We tend to see it as being a hard working, strong material and we place value on it for that reason. They seem to place more value on it perhaps because of its exoticness, it’s rarity. It had that certain status symbol aspect to it which seemed to make it desirable.

Just one example: if you look at Tutankhamun, he had quite a number of iron objects in his tomb, including an iron dagger blade. We know from things such as the Armana Letters that kings in the region would send other kings an iron dagger blade considering it a suitable gift for royalty. The Armana Letters reference a blade coming to Amenhotep III from king Tusratta of Mitanni. So we know kings were doing this. If you look at correspondence from Tusratta you can see he doesn’t just do this occasionally, he does this on a regular basis. He sends these things, because perhaps he wants to send a gift, perhaps he wants to apologise for something, but it’s a gift that will keep people happy; a big symbolic thing he does, almost to sweeten people. If he’s promised to do something and he can’t do it, he sends his apologies and he sends a dagger blade. The fact that he does it and he does it consistently would suggest it has the desired affect. As I said, these were very important people so it is a strong indicator of high status.

If you look at later examples, a lot of these, if not all of them, will be smelted iron. You tend to find an occurrence of these in almost any big collection and see they’re practical things. So they’re tools, they’re nails, they’re fish hooks, they’re arrow heads, they’re scale armour. But the point is, they’re all very practical. You seem to get this sudden shift where you go from high status material belonging to kings and leaders, it’s important, rare stuff, and suddenly it goes through a phase where we seem to get this sudden influx of the smelting of iron ores. It becomes much more common and now it just becomes practical. As far as we can tell we don’t see evidence of it strongly suggesting high status. It’s just practical, more like we see it today.

Diane Johnson
Dr Diane Johnson
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SJ: Could that also be because they then started to find iron they could mine themselves?
DJ: Well, it could be. And this is another interesting aspect of the project that I am hoping to take forward. Because if you look at Egypt geologically, it has quite an abundance of iron ores. The fact that you see people making use of some kind of iron ore, for example from pigments for make-up, from really early times, makes you wonder. People like the Egyptians who could work copper, for example, they knew how to do basic metal manipulation. They knew the ores where there. Why did they not put all this together and start smelting iron ore earlier? We don’t know. It’s difficult to say why the iron age as such started when it did. Traditionally a lot of those early pieces of smelted iron were found in the Delta region so arguments have been made that perhaps the knowledge of smelting iron was brought into Egypt by immigrants. And they could have either utilised iron ores locally or perhaps even brought in a semi processed form of iron ore, but we just don’t know.

SJ: How do you determine if the iron comes from iron ores or from meteorites? How do you tell the difference?
DJ: There’s quite significant fundamental differences in chemistry. Meteorite iron is exclusively rich in nickel. So we do get different types of meteorite iron, but they are all rich in nickel to some extent. Whereas natural iron ores generally speaking don’t contain any nickel. There are possibilities with some of the early smelted examples, looking at them from other parts of the world, that at times when people were experimenting smelting they may have sometimes included minerals for some reason as an ingredient they felt would improve the smelting process. Occasionally these might have been rich in nickel. That could add small amounts of nickel which then sometimes makes it a bit more tricky analytically to work out if it is meteorite or an earlier example of smelted iron. So it’s not always straight forward. Sometimes we then have to look at the structures that have formed when it crystalised to decide if it’s meteorite iron, smelted material or it might be there’s a much lower level chemistry of other elements such as cobalt for example, which again can be very indicative of whether it’s meteorite or iron ore. But it’s quite a specialist thing. You need to understand the chemistry and microstructure to actually understand the difference. It’s not always straight forward.

SJ: I know nothing about meteorites except that they do come from above and they fall down. Do all of them contain some form of iron?
DJ: Not every form of meteorite, no. The iron meteorites in general form at the core of small planets or large asteroids. Basically, the way meteorites form: if you imagine the solar system but before the planets existed, a star died somewhere nearby to us. It expelled lots of gas, some dust swept through, but there would have been a big cloud of rotating gas and dust. If it had significant mass, gravity would pull it all together. The central point would have collapsed down when it reached a critical density. Hydrogen would start to fuse and it would basically form a miniature version of the sun. But then you’ve got all of the material which is left around it. This would slowly condense down and cool and it would start to form solids. Most of these would be silicate based, so this is rocky material. But if these build up to a significant size, again, gravity would start to pull within those bodies. So if you imagine a small asteroid for example, made up of all this primitive stuff, gravity would pull heavy elements, things like metals, iron and nickel, and it would form a core, in much the same way as the earth’s core. It’s the same kind of process how the core would form in a large asteroid or small planet. Then you would get the metal concentrating in the core. This, incidentally, is why on earth we don’t find metallic nickel naturally occurring, because it’s all locked up in the core. It’s the same with meteorite iron. So these bodies impact with each other at some point and split apart. Then the core would separate at times and then you’d get bits of nickeline alloy floating around in space. Then you get other types of meteorites formed, because these would come from higher up from that body. You’d have a core, the mantle and the crust, just like you have on earth. You get all the different types of meteorites. Some are essentially pure metal, but some of them are mixtures of metals and rocky silicate components. Some are mainly silicates and some entirely silicate. It just depends at what depth of the parent body it comes from. Or if some of it’s been recycled again, some of it would have formed planets such as Mars for example. And obviously most of the material you get from very geologically formed bodies like the earth, like Mars, like the moon, you just don’t see that metallic component, because it’s all locked away in the core.

This video explains how meteorites form and shows some of the meteorites found on earth.
Source: meteoritesaustralia on Youtube

SJ: Do you think that ancient Egypt is unique in the use of iron coming from meteorites?
DJ: No, it does happen elsewhere. Particularly if you look at prehistoric cultures there are examples world wide. If, for example, you would just concentrate on that earliest example, the use of meteorite iron in Egypt, they are quite simple little beads, tube shaped beads and, interestingly, you can see almost identical ones made by American Indians, probably by the exact same method. It’s just that this was the material they had. They may have recognised it as special, they might have known it came from the sky, it might have been just a rare material they valued. Interestingly the American Indians would again work these into specific forms and they would use them to bury with the dead in a similar fashion. So clearly either meteorites in general or meteorite iron, because it was unusual, because it was recognised as different, would have value that went just beyond, not necessarily just because it could be worked, it was special. So you do see this world wide and you see these examples at maybe slightly different points in time from China and right across the globe, really. It just depends how hard you look if you find it. It does seem to be quite common world wide.

Diane Johnson
Dr Diane Johnson talking to an attendee of the study day. Diane presented two posters related to the ‘Iron in the sky’ project.
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I would like to thank Diane for taking the time to talk to me. It’s always clear the interview is going well when I ask follow up questions and only get to use two of the prepared questions!

Interview with Campbell Price

On 14 February I attended a Manchester University study day called From Amulets to Golden Flies: Understanding Egyptian Jewellery. This was the third Manchester University study day I attended and, as before, Campbell Price was one of the speakers.

Campbell Price is the Curator of Egypt and the Sudan and, among other things, runs the Egypt at the Manchester Museum blog. It would probably take an entire blog post to list everything he does; he is a very active person. One of the things on his resume that caught my attention is the Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project. I asked if he would talk to me about it and he agreed.

Museum Meets at the Manchester Museum - 9 March 2013
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SJ: Why has the Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project ended?
CP: The Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project started through the interest and enthusiasm of Ian Mathieson who was a retired civil engineer and who had worked with Egypt Exploration Society in the 70s and 80s. As the story goes, at the end of the 1980s he went to the Egyptian government and said ‘I’d like my own consession to work using geophysical equipment’ which he had pioneered for the use in Egypt and the antiquities service said ‘pick a site at Saqqara’ and he drew a big red line around the whole of the Saqqara plateau. He got his wish and for twenty years he worked using geophysical techniques. Ian Mathieson was really an exceptional person. He inspired me a lot personally. He basically was used to using techniques for geophysical prospection in industry and for commercial reasons. For prospecting for oil and looking for different things in the Middle East. He had always been interested in archaeology and when the chance came up to help an archaeological mission, he really took it. I think it was professor Harry Smith at UCL who really encouraged him and the rest is kind of history. He used all these techniques. He got a team of people that knew a lot of different geophysical techniques; a lot of about surveying. Because if you do geophysics and you do a survey of any type you need to know where in the world you are to position it correctly. So he had excellent surveyors, excellent Egyptologists, excellent geophysicists, particularly a gentleman called Jon Dittmer who from the mid 1990s was involved. My connection with Ian Mathieson dates back to when I was a schoolboy, when I was 17 years old. I went to a lecture and I heard this incredibly enthusiastic, he was in his mid 70s then, I think, speaker talking about what they had found at Saqqara. And they had done some selective excavations. I thought ‘wow, this guy is amazing’. And proof that someone with a Scottish accent, because he was Scottish, could do something in Egyptology. So, several years after I first spoke to him, I said ‘I’d love to be part of the team’. I had a little bit of experience doing geophysics at a site called Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham, which is at the north west coast of Egypt, west of Alexandria, and I just wanted to be involved in the only Scottish mission in Egypt. It was really exciting. And so he said ‘Oh, come along’. In 2006 I went out for a season and again in 2007 and we didn’t go out in 2008, because Ian was taken unwell, but we went out in 2009. Sadly Ian Mathieson died in 2010, so he was 83, but people thought he was much younger. People were surprised when we said he was 83. It happened just before the Egyptian revolution. And to be quite frank we attracted attention when we were working before 2011, because we were mapping things out and people know you’re mapping. And so something we would see there was disturbed ground in the morning after we’d been doing some work. So there was a real ethical issue having completed pretty much completed the geophysical mapping of Saqqara, essentially completed. Should we go back to try and fill in little bits where there might not be anything and attract attention to those bits in times of unstable political situations, that might be a bad idea. And ultimately we were producing a treasure map. And I remember the first time I spoke at a conference about this. A Dutch Egyptologist said to me ‘You realise you’re producing a treasure map? And if people can find the map and can understand it, they will go and use it.’. So, for those reasons and for the fact that the people involved have other commitments we decided to stop the geophysical survey. So that is a very potted history.

SJ: Why Saqqara?
CP: Because I think it’s one of the richest, in terms of the spread of the cemetery, in terms of the times it was occupied, in terms of the status of the people buried there, it’s right next to Memphis, the principal city, the capital city for most of pharaonic times. It was very important. It was intensively used, but no one really had an idea of how all the different bits fitted together. It had been excavated from very early on in history by tourists, explorers and people not doing a good job. And then it had been scientific exploration by the Egypt Exploration Society, by Dutch, Polish, Czech mission, German missions, French missions. There needed to be an overall plan of the site, I think. So that was why Saqqara was chosen in 1990. That’s when the project started.

SJ: On the Project’s website four types of technology are mentioned [resistivity, conductivity, ground penetration radar and magnetic gradiometer], but looking at other publications there are two which are mentioned most [ground penetration radar and magnetic gradiometer]. Are all four technologies used equally or are these two predominantly used?
CP: I think those two, the gradiometry which is planning, so a plan – like a house plan, and radar were the predominant ones when I was involved. Before there were different people so different expertises who got involved and you play to your strengths, whatever is most appropriate for the people there, most appropriate for the time and the money as well. Because we were fortunate, we had equipment donated, certainly in that last season. We had new radar equipment donated, which is now being used, I should say, by other missions in Egypt. That was quite important, because people can use it and make use of this incredible technology which, in commercial terms, was old-fashioned, but in archaeology was cutting edge. So all four techniques, yes, you’re right, were used at some point, but latterly, in the last five years when I was involved, it was just the radar and gradiometry.

SJ: Staying on the subject on technology, you’re probably aware that now even satellite imagery is being used? How do you feel about that? What are you expecting for the next decade or two?
CP: If you could combine satellite technology and ground penetrating radar and gradiometry, that would be amazing! You could do a 3D map, you could map in three dimensions what’s under the ground. Give it twenty years and probably that will happen. I’m a little bit sceptical about the satellite imagery, because that doesn’t penetrate very far into the ground.

SJ: Using the technologies mentioned before, is it possible to determine if several things were built on top of each other?
CP: If you see a strong black line, that must be closer to the surface than the “ghost” structures. So, again, with fancy technology you could penetrate deeper using the radar or gradiometry and distinguish between the two. The penetration we used was five metres, so: really strong line: near the surface; really ghostly line: near the bottom and if you could develop some 3D technology you could see what’s above and what’s older and what’s younger.

SJ: Based on what’s been found by the Project have many excavations happened or do you expect more to happen in the future?
CP: We did ground testing, but to my knowledge no one has used the map to excavate. We were asked by some Egyptian colleagues about that, but nothing happened.

SJ: Because the two predominantly used technologies are non-invasive, is it much easier to get permission for this type of work than it is to get permission for an excavation?
CP: Yes, absolutely. It was much easier, diplomatically, to say ‘we’ll map the ground and help manage the site’ than to say ‘we’re going to come with our spades’ and dig it up. Technically when we were working there was a monitorium on new excavations in the Delta. So it was easy for Ian Mathieson to get repeated permissions, because you have to apply every year you’re there.

I would like to thank Campbell for an interesting and fun (as always!) lecture and afterwards taking the time to talk to me.

“Ancient lives, new discoveries” at the British Museum

One of the new temporary exhibitions at the British Museum is Ancient lives, new discoveries and it’s something a little different.

If you’ve been to a temporary exhibition at the British Museum in the past few years you will have gone to the Great Court and would have entered the exhibition either via the stairs at the side of the Reading Room or downstairs to the right of it. Not this time. This exhibition is located near the book store, which is now the exhibition shop.
What is also different is the fact that tickets are limited. They will only let a limited number of people in at any given time to ensure everyone gets an equal chance to have a good look (and read!) while inside. This means that even members of the museum have to book in advance.
All in all, the smaller numbers of people inside and the somewhat out of the way location make this a very nice and quiet experience.

Those of you who are familiar with my blog know that the British Museum is still my favourite museum. And you know I study Egyptology. However, that ‘mummy thing’ has been done a million times before, hasn’t it?
Yes, but not like this.

This exhibition tries to shed light on life in ancient Egypt by looking more closely at eight mummies, all from a different period in its very long existence. In this case ‘looking more closely’ means CT scanning. That’s been done before as well, but I get the idea not many museums make those scans available to the public by adding it to their display or exhibitions. Previously I visited the British Museum to see the CT scans they made of Gebelein man and found it fascinating.
Should you not know, Manchester Museum also uses some of its CT scans in their display (upstairs). I’m hoping they will use more of these scans in the future.

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In the case of ‘Ancient lives, new discoveries’ there are limited scans available of each mummy. For each mummy a different aspect has been highlighted and additionally some items related to the same aspect are displayed nearby.
For example, the first mummy you see had bad teeth. So the focus is on health and medicine.

The mummies themselves are obviously also on display. They are behind glass and it’s possible to almost completely walk around them.
The scans which have been made available can be manipulated. Again, this has been limited, depending on the focus of that particulaar display. Sometimes you can only turn the scan left, right, up or down. In other cases you can look beneath the wrappings and find the amulets etc.

As always there is a book which accompanies this exhibition and, as always, it’s very hight quality.

I think this is the best temporary exhibition I have seen so far. I am a very lazy museum visitor – I don’t like to spend the majority of my time reading. So large amounts of text near the object I am looking at do not make me happy at all. That is positive point number three (numbers one and two are the quiet location and low numbers of visitors) for this exhibition. There is text, but not to the extent that you spend 15 minutes or more reading before moving on to the next mummy.
All the information you could want is in the book. So I can simply sit in the comfort of my own home at a time of my choice and read the details.

Positive point number four is the fact that, like other museums, the British Museum also seems to focus more on life in ancient Egypt, rather than death. Obviously, all we have left are items and dead people and animals, but they can tell us so much about how these people used to live! And isn’t that what we are most interested in?
I am happy to see we’re stepping away from the supposed fascination the Egyptians had with death. After all, they most certainly knew how to live. As there is slowly but surely more balance in the way museums tell the ancient Egyptians’ stories, there is also a beautiful balance in the story of this exhibition. Well worth a visit.

Interview with Salima Ikram

On 26 July the EES had organised a study day: Ancient Animals: Mummies and Mysteries in London.
The first lecturer of the day was Professor Salima Ikram.

To those interested in ancient Egypt Salima is very likely quite well known. She has written books, appeared on television and she is the director of the Animal Mummy Project. I have seen her in several documentaries and was captivated by her passion.
After reading Divine Creatures I was hoping to have a chat with her. She was kind enough to allow just that during a break on this very busy day.

SJ: What sparked your interest in ancient Egypt?
SI: Well, I’ve always been interested in the past and on my 8th birthday I was given the Time Life Book of Ancient Egypt. And then, when I was 9.5 my father said “Do you want to go to Greece or Egypt?”, and I said “Crete?”. He said “No, Athens or Cairo”. So, of course, like an intelligent person, I picked Cairo. We went to the Egyptian museum and I met Rahotep and Nofret and I thought that they were my people. That was the end of that. So I decided that I would study ancient Egypt.

SJ: How did you become involved in the Animal Mummy Project?
SI: I’ve always been interested in animals in the living world and one of my favourite rooms in Cairo museum was that of the ancient Egyptian environment, the natural habitat. My mother was always very interested in flora and fauna and things like that so I’ve always had that background. I’d worked on mummification to a particular extent for my dissertation on food. When I went to live in Egypt I found that the animal mummy room had been closed for some time and I though to resurrect it. Therefore I started my work on animal mummies thinking sideways from my food mummies, doing all kinds of animal mummies.

SJ: Do you have a particular favourite type of animal mummy or a particular site?
SI: Very hard to say, because they are so adorable, many of them. I love the massive crocodiles. I think the little shrews are adorable. Cats and dogs are, of course, charming, especially when they are pets. And it’s just quite funny to get a dung ball as a mummy. So it’s hard to say. I have a snake mummy which has a shrew which is undigested in its belly.

SJ: What would you find more interesting, human mummies or animal mummies and why?
SI: Both are very interesting, but animal mummies are far more fun because they are more than one species. The mode of preparation is greatly varied as is the mode of wrapping. And one never knows what one is going to get. So on the whole I think animal mummies are fare more valuable, bang for your buck, as it where, than humans.

SJ: So you can’t really compare animal mummification and human mummification?
SI: Of course you can! Often I think they experimented on humans before trying it on an animal.

SJ: Not the other way around?
SI: Why not? You have human mummies often before. Just because we choose animals first because we think we can, doesn’t mean it was always so.

SJ: During the lecture you showed a photo of spells which were included in an animal mummy’s wrapping. Are they found often in animal mummies?
SI: No. Those are found on human mummies. Some of the linen I have from TT11 has inscriptions on parts of it and there are occasional mummies of animals with spells. Dieter Kessler has some very nice examples.

SJ: And does the same go for amulets?
SI: Yes, there are much rarer on animal mummies. I think you get them more on sacred animals: rams, some monkeys. Again, I think Tuna has the best representation. I think there are some on Ibises.

SJ: Have you ever encountered any proof of mummification gone wrong? For example: during the lecture you mentioned internal combustion.
SI: Yes, that happened in humans as well, but combustion happened after the mummies were wrapped.

SJ: You mentioned you mummified two cats for people. Does that mean you have now really figured out how mummification was done?
SI: Well, I’m going to open up one of the graves this fall to see how the cat has survived and then I’ll know.

SJ: How often do you find inscriptions on an animal mummy, for example on its wrappings or its coffin/container?
SI: It varies. There are lots of examples as Dieter Kessler said from Tuna and we’ve got quite a few from Saqqara. In fact, if you look at the publications of the EES, there are now examples of the bandages and the jars or wall inscriptions. But the majority are from Tuna el-Gebel. Because you get animal burials in so many places, but Tuna seems to have the concentration of this particular genre of evidence, which of course clues how one looks at that side in relation to others.

SJ: Does this evidence also help to understand why these mummies were made?
SI: Not always. Sometimes it’s just ‘so and so sent this from such and such’. There is space for the extrapolation argument which increases exponentially as you will see perhaps during the question and answer time.

I would like to thank Salima for a very interesting and entertaining lecture and for taking the time to talk to me.

Interview with Joyce Tyldesley

On Friday 2 May Joyce Tyldesley held a lecture about Tutankhamen at Chowbent Unitarian Chapel in Atherton.

Joyce is quite well-known to many people and this is not surprising. She is a very busy lady.
She is an archaeologist and Egyptologist. She writes books, the latest one about Tutankhamen. She can be seen on television sometimes. She also has a red belt in karate. And to top it all off, she teaches. This is how I met her. I am one of her online students, currently doing the Certificate in Egyptology via Manchester University.

Joyce Tyldesley
Joyce during her lecture about Tutankhamen
© All Rights Reserved

After the lecture she was kind enough to allow me some time to ask her a few questions.

SJ: What sparked your interest in Egyptology?
JT: I think it was several things, actually. People ask me this a lot and I’m not absolutely sure. I think, first of all, coming from the north west, because we have so many archaeological museums around us and particularly in Egyptology. That always interests me. I think being born at the right time. In 1972, I was 12, Tutankhamen was around. So that also was very inspiring. There was a lot on the television at that time about Tutankhamen and that really interested me. And it was the right age I think to get interested. And I quite like detective stories. I think that is in it as well. It’s just a big detective story, isn’t it? So I think it’s three things, to be honest.

SJ: Do you still find those same things interesting now or has that shifted or expanded?
JT: Tutankhamen is quite unfashionable. Luckily, suddenly in the past year or two he has almost become acceptable, but for a long time people have considered Tutankhamen to be too popular. But I find the whole period so fascinating. I’m interested in the idea that we know the name of somebody and yet know so little about them. And yet they clearly were very important in Egyptian history, but we don’t know that much about them. We are still reconstructing the history.

SJ: Based on the lecture you just gave it occurred to me that we have all this material, but still don’t know much about the items and their use.
JT: Yes. Obviously Carter was very good, he conserved as much as he could, but basically it just ended up in a museum and was almost forgotten about. It has only been relatively recently that we started looking at them again. That painted box that I showed, there’s a whole story behind it. Not even looking at the contents, that’s just the outside. There is just so much information there, it takes years to do that. That’s why I wanted to write a book about it. I wanted to show there is a massive amount of information in there that we could access if someone had the time to go through it.

SJ: Do you have a favourite artefact in a museum? If so, which one and where is it?
JT: I’m quite fond of the bust of Nefertiti, which is in Berlin, but that’s because I keep looking at it. I like the two jars with the bandages of the Two Brothers in the Manchester Museum. I find them quite appealing. But they are not on display.

SJ: What is your favourite site in Egypt?
JT: I spent a lot of time working in the Delta and I really liked that. But increasingly I’d like going to Luxor and look at that environment. And Aswan. And possibly the Deir el-Bahari temple of Hatshepsut. But then again, there’s a whole story there. It’s a really obvious one to pick.

SJ: Because it’s so obvious people gloss over it and don’t realise there is so much we still don’t know?
JT: Exactly! If it wasn’t Tutankhamen people would have been doing more. Now they think there’s nothing there.

SJ: As one of your online students, I have noticed there are a lot of women doing the course. Do you see the same tendency among the professionals?
JT: No. When I started there were very few professional female Egyptologists. Rosalie David is the only example I knew of in Britain. She was pretty much the only one that I knew of. And since then, it has become almost half and half. Among the students there’s a lot more women.

SJ: Would you like to hazard a guess why this is the case? Are more women interested in Egyptology or are men perhaps less likely to pick up a study?
JT: I think it could be that. I think it’s also that women may be more open to doing study. Any lecture I give there will be 3 times as many women as men. I mean, some men are quite elderly and may have lost their partner, but it doesn’t explain why more women study it and professionally it’s only recently that women have become equal. Specifically about Rosalie David being professor, I don’t think there’s anybody else.

SJ: In the late 1700s and early 1800s we had Egyptomania. Do you think that at the moment the interest in ancient Egypt is on the rise again?
JT: I think it’s been raised a lot. It’s all the new discoveries. It’s the fact it’s on the television a lot. Because 30, 40 years ago it was very rare to have a programme about ancient Egypt on television. Beyond the Tutankhamen one there was virtually nothing. So you’d have no access to it. You’d have to go to Egyptologists to find it or do a degree in it to learn it. And it’s about getting access to books. I remember writing my first books, I couldn’t access the books. Even when I was at Liverpool, if it wasn’t in that library there I couldn’t access it. It wasn’t possible to go on to JSTOR and get access to things. There’s so much access to stuff. But in a way it’s good, because a lot of people can access ancient Egypt in their own home. They can go online and read about it. They can watch television. But I have noticed that societies – I do a lot of society work to try and promote the subject – they’re dwindling. People aren’t turning out at night. I wonder also about our online course. Whether the fact that people are starting to do free online courses, whether people will be expecting to be able to get everything for free and in their own home. It possibly requires a different approach.

SJ: Without naming the best or the worst, how do courses in Egyptology at various universities (in the UK and abroad) compare? Can you even compare them on quality and the material they cover?
JT: They are very varied. It depends what you’re interested in. some will focus on period, some will focus on language. It’s hard to compare them. Each one, even in the same country, has to be looked at differently. To say you got a degree in Egyptology almost means nothing unless you know where you got it from. Because it can mean so many different things. Some people only concentrate on the Ptolemies, for example.

SJ: What are your plans or wishes for the future of your career?
JT: I would like to do some field word, because I haven’t done any for a long time; my own field work. But I’m stuck at the moment, because I’m in teaching and learning and I can’t apply for grants. And I’d like to write some fiction about ancient Egypt. I’m always very careful to say ‘this could happen’ because I don’t like it when people put their own impressions into it. But sometimes it would be nice to say what I really think has happened.

SJ: Are you considering completely fictional or strongly based on history? Like Alison Weir who wrote a book about Elizabeth I and in the back of the book explained where she had taken liberties.
JT: I don’t know. I don’t even know if I can write fiction. I’ve never done it. I’m thinking it should be completely fictional. I have read Alison Weir, but not that one. I’m very interested in the idea of using fiction to tell history. That it’s not true, but it’s not wrong either. It’s more or less accurate. The danger is that people will think the character you’ve drawn is the character, but it’s a very useful way of teaching history. You have to make it very clear that it is fiction. That’s my secret ambition, but I don’t mind sharing it.

I would like to thank Joyce for a very interesting lecture and afterwards taking the time to talk to me.

Coming soon: interviews

It’s with great shame I acknowledge the lack of activity on this blog. My many interests are each taking up too much time which leaves me too little time to write on my blog(s). But I promise you I will do better.

What better way to improve then by adding a new section?
Very soon I will launch a series of interviews. I will be speaking to people with an interest in ancient Egypt to find out why they are so passionate about it. At the moment I’m planning 2 to 4 interviews per year and the subjects of my ‘interrogation’ can be anyone – from an enthusiastic amateur to an experienced professional.

If there is anyone in particular you’d like me to speak to or if you have any questions you’d like me to ask, please let me know in a comment below.

I did say ‘very soon’ above and with that I mean that my first interview will be this Friday. So watch this space!