British Museum blog

Ancient Egyptian spells for a high-ranking lady of the court

John Taylor, British Museum

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the unfolding of the Norwich shroud, a joint project between the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

In the last few weeks the shroud of Ipu has given up more – but not all – of its secrets. A close comparison of the piece belonging to Norwich Castle Museum with a photograph of the portions in the Cairo Museum has shown that the torn edges certainly join. The Cairo fragments have parts of spells from the Book of the Dead, some of the missing words of which are supplied by the piece belonging to Norwich.

John Taylor and Faye Kalloniatis from Norwich Castle Museum examine the text. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

John Taylor and Faye Kalloniatis from Norwich Castle Museum examine the text. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

All of the texts on the Cairo pieces have been published by Irmtraut Munro, and I have now identified those on the Norwich section. So we can now say that the shroud contained the words of at least 23 spells, and it is possible that others were originally present, which are now lost.

The texts on the Cairo portion include spells to allow the dead person freedom of movement, air to breathe and the ability to control one’s heart. There is also a self-contained group known as the ‘Transformation Spells’, which enabled the dead to assume different forms, including those of a falcon, a heron, a swallow and the god Ptah.

Part of spell 64, one of the most complex and obscure of all the texts in the Book of the Dead. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Part of spell 64, one of the most complex and obscure of all the texts in the Book of the Dead. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The main part of the Norwich fragment contains spell 64, one of the most complex and obscure of all the texts in the Book of the Dead. It makes various allusions to the nature of the creator god, to the supernatural powers which the dead person claims and to his/her ability to escape the confinement of the tomb so as to enjoy the life-giving rays of the sun. It ends with a long rubric – the conspicuous columns in red ink – which recounts the mythical finding of the words of the spell inscribed on a brick beneath the feet of a statue of the god Thoth in the temple of Hermopolis.

Part of spell 149, a description of the mounds of the netherworld. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Part of spell 149, a description of the mounds of the netherworld. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

This remarkable document is said to have been discovered ‘in the time of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Menkaure, true of voice, by the King’s Son Hordjedef, who found it when he was going about to make inspection of the temples.’ After spell 64 come spell 30B, which prevented the dead person’s heart from betraying him/her at the judgement, spell 100, which enabled the deceased to enter the sun god’s barque, part of spell 149, a description of the mounds of the netherworld, and lastly spell 136B for ‘sailing in the barque of Re’.

Several other mummy shrouds bearing Book of the Dead texts are known from the 17th and early 18th Dynasties (sixteenth century BC). Three are in the British Museum, but these differ from Ipu’s shroud in having coloured illustrations as well as texts. In fact, the closest parallels for Ipu’s inscriptions are to be found on the shrouds of members of the court who were buried at Thebes. Not only are these written in a similar style but there is a high degree of consistency in the particular spells chosen and in the sequence which they follow.

So, who was Ipu? The Cairo pieces of the shroud include her title, khekeret nesu, which can be loosely translated as ‘Lady in Waiting’. It was borne by women who belonged to the court and who were usually members of high-ranking families . So Ipu was evidently a person of consequence; whether any other records of her survive has yet to be discovered.

Where was the shroud found? Nothing definite is known about the Norwich part before it was bought by JJ Colman in 1897, but the piece now in Cairo is reported to have come from excavations by Gaston Maspero at Deir el-Bahri on the Theban west bank in 1891. But since we know Maspero was not in Egypt in 1891 this date is probably incorrect.

The leather-bound catalogue, decorated with Egyptian motifs, which JJ Colman commissioned for his collection. The shroud is listed here. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The leather-bound catalogue, decorated with Egyptian motifs, which JJ Colman commissioned for his collection. The shroud is listed here. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Another very similar shroud in Cairo has exactly the same recorded provenance but independent evidence shows that this one, made for a man named Mentuhotep, was found in the Royal Cache at Deir el-Bahri. This secret tomb, cleared under Maspero’s authority in 1881, contained the mummies of many of the kings, queens and lesser royalty of the 17th to 20th Dynasties, hidden there for safe keeping at the end of the New Kingdom. Almost all of their original valuable trappings had long gone; most of them were enclosed in second-hand coffins and some were wrapped in linen that had been made for other people and recycled. Mentuhotep’s inscribed shroud had been reused to wrap around the mummy of a princess Merytamun.

So, did Ipu’s shroud perhaps come from this same tomb, where it had been reused to wrap a royal mummy? The villagers of Qurna who found the cache about 1871 removed many portable items and sold them during the years before the official clearance in 1881, so the possibility exists that the Norwich shroud passed in this way into the stock of a local antiquities dealer, before eventually entering the collection of Colman.

The shroud will be discussed in depth during the free Study Day Unveiling the Norwich Shroud: an ancient Egyptian shroud conserved and revealed at the British Museum on Thursday 7 April, and repeated on 24 May at Norwich Castle Museum.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud

Working with Chinese master scroll-mounters

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Conservation work in progress at the Shanghai Museum

A few weeks into my secondment, I started working under the guidance of Master Zhu Ping Fang, observing a large variety of conservation cases from large format hanging scrolls to hand scrolls on both paper and silk.

I first came to Shanghai Museum’s Chinese paintings conservation studio in 2005. My first thoughts on that occasion were that I had entered a secret temple.

The intensity and precision of the conservator’s activities when you see them in person reveal the incredible depth of their skill and knowledge, and I was absolutely fascinated. I didn’t know at the time how this experience would impact my education and my everyday life as strongly as it does now.

This is a busy studio and the walls are surrounded by thick wooden boards covered with drying paintings which are gradually incorporated into beautiful fabric mounts. The paintings are enclosed in the most beautiful plain and patterned silk, the style and proportions of which have been established largely by tradition.

Conservators hard at work

The same rules and methods have been used for hundreds of years and are guided by aesthetics, proportion, materials and hand-made tools. Students of scroll mounting have to practice until they have mastered the complexities of the handling and use of tools and materials including brushes, knives, paste, paper, and silk.

Some of the tools used for mounting

As assistant, I have to do everything that relates to the preparation of materials, from making paste, to dying paper and silk, selecting and preparing pigments for toning processes and preparing lining papers and silks. Equally, the assistant works closely with the master on the paintings themselves carrying out backing removal, repairs, as well as lifting or pasting large format artwork, which has to be done by two people.

Mixing the paste for mounting

Different conservation and remounting procedures take place simultaneously in the studio and so I have also assisted the masters with various treatments. I have worked on establishing the appropriate historical proportions and preparing silk to be used to surround a painting and fit it into the structure for a hanging scroll called Lizhou. I have also burnished the back of four paintings and inserted wooden fittings onto two scrolls.

The conservation studio with hanging scrolls on the walls

I lined a painting with three layers of medium weight Xuan paper and mounted it onto lined and dyed silk borders in the so-called ‘jinpian’ (or ‘frame’) format – a flat, 2D mount as opposed to a scroll mount which is rolled.

I was also assigned a work of calligraphy that required full treatment. That means assessment and selection of the appropriate procedure and materials, as well as cleaning the painting and dying its new lining paper. I’ll write more about this in a later post.

Filed under: Conservation, Studying in Shanghai, , , ,

Scientific investigation of the Norwich shroud

Janet Ambers, Scientist, British Museum

Research Fellow Emma Passmore taking UV images of the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Research Fellow Emma Passmore taking UV images of the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the unfolding of the Norwich shroud, a joint project between the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

With the shroud unfolded for the first time (although still in need of much conservation attention) David Saunders, Keeper of Conservation and Scientific Research, Emma Passmore, Mellon Research Fellow, Caroline Cartwright, scientist, and I made our first visit to see what had been revealed on the inner surface.

David has a longstanding interest in the use of imaging techniques to enhance and investigate painted surfaces, and our main objective was to examine areas where text has been applied.

Using specialist cameras, we took both infrared and ultraviolet images of the shroud. Infrared reflectography is often employed in research into paintings to reveal initial sketches under the final images. For the shroud, it will make the black text clearer. This will help John Taylor with his interpretation of the hieroglyphs while the conservators continue to treat the shroud, and also allow the hieroglyphs to be published clearly for international scholars.

Imaging with ultraviolet light may help to show surface coatings and stains. Both of these approaches are very useful for objects like this as they provide information without the need for sampling, or indeed for any contact with the surface at all.

Caroline Cartwright, who specialises in fibre identification (amongst other things), took tiny samples of the linen ground (approximately two to three millimetres long) both with and without pigment.

Examining them under the scanning electron microscope (SEM) allowed her to positively identify the fibres as linen, and give the conservators information about their construction and condition.

SEM image of a fragment of the Norwich shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

SEM image of a fragment of the Norwich shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The images here clearly show the weave of the textile, the twist direction of the fibres, and pigment sitting on the surface of the linen fibres (which appears white under the SEM). It also shows how few breaks there are in each fibre, confirming their good condition, and how surprisingly clean they are, suggesting the shroud may have been kept mostly in a folded state, and/or not extensively disturbed, be it by repeated opening and folding, handling, study or display.

SEM image of linen fibres from the Norwich shroud. The lack of tears in the individual fibres confirms what good condition they are in. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

SEM image of linen fibres from the Norwich shroud. The lack of tears in the individual fibres confirms what good condition they are in. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

My main role is to identify the pigments used. To enable me to do this Melina Plottu, our textile conservation intern from France, collected samples of the various pigments. She removed tiny pieces of single fibres with traces of colour on and placed them between two slides. I took these back to our laboratories and examined them under the microscope of a Raman spectrometer.

Textile conservation intern Melina Plottu carefully places a sample of linen with traces of colour on it into a glass vial held by scientist Janet Ambers.  © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Textile conservation intern Melina Plottu carefully places a sample of linen with traces of colour on it into a glass vial held by scientist Janet Ambers. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

This equipment uses changes in the wavelength of a laser beam shone on to a material to provide an absolute identification.

Raman showed that both the light and the dark black pigments are based on carbon. There is a possibility that crushed charcoal was used for this, but the most common Egyptian black ink is known to have been produced using soot (sometimes called carbon black in the art world).

Why some areas of black text on the shroud are much lighter than others is not yet clear. The colour in the red ink comes from hematite, an iron oxide. This is responsible for the colour of red ochre, a form of red coloured earth extensively found throughout Egypt and frequently used as a pigment in Egyptian art.

Taking a sample from the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Taking a sample from the shroud. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

Melina and Monique Pullan, the textile conservator leading the conservation, have also found a single area of white pigment, used around the area of a cartouche in the centre of the shroud. This proved to be gypsum, a white mineral common in Egypt.

Wall painting from the eighteenth dynasty tomb chapel of Nebamun. The skin of the central seated figure and male slave are coloured with red ochre © Trustees of the British Museum

Wall painting from the eighteenth dynasty tomb chapel of Nebamun. The skin of the central seated figure and male slave are coloured with red ochre © Trustees of the British Museum

The conservators were reassured to know it wasn’t huntite, another white mineral sometimes used as a pigment in Egypt – its sensitivity to moisture would have precluded many of the water based treatments used to relax and realign fragile fibres.

Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud

Looking back on the 2011 season in the cemeteries at Amara West

Michaela Binder, Durham University

After seven weeks in Sudan, we’ve just returned to England, and are looking back on a very successful season full of interesting new results. During the 41 days of excavation, Dyan Semple, Carina Summerfield-Hill and I were able to excavate 25 graves, 42 more or less complete skeletons and a large range of small finds and pottery.

Most importantly, in the chamber tomb G234 we found evidence that Cemetery C was already in use during the New Kingdom, much earlier than previously thought.

Tumulus graves G238 and G239

The last few days at Amara West were quite busy, as is usual in excavation projects like this. On one hand, all the fieldwork has to be finished.

My work at the end of the season focused on a slightly elevated area with several small shallow burial mounds (tumuli) made up of scattered schist stones and alluvial silt. In the three graves we excavated, the dead were also buried in side-niches at the bottom of a vertical shaft. However, the size and depth of the tombs (up to 1.8 metres) as well as the presence of the superstructures distinguish them from the other niche burials found further north in the cemetery.

Carved flowers on a fragment of a wooden pigment container

Even though the graves were also disturbed and looted, they still yielded ceramic vessel fragments and a few objects, among them pieces of an ivory plate and a wooden pigment container decorated with carvings of lotus flowers.

It is possible that the prominent location and size of these graves indicates that they were meant for the burial of individuals from a higher social class.

Packing skeletal material for travel

At the same time, everything back at the house had to be packed and stored away. The skeletons excavated during this season had to be wrapped and packed in crates, not always an easy task, in order to make sure they are safely transported back to England.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology

President Karzai opens Afghanistan exhibition

St John Simpson, Exhibition Curator

On 22 February 2011, we began a week of previews for the exhibition, including a communities day for groups we regularly engage with through exhibitions such as this. We had a very good turn-out from members of the Afghan community in London for whom this was a very special event. Omer Sultan, the visiting deputy Minister for Culture and Information in Afghanistan, led a special tour of the exhibition and it was touching to see and hear comments from young Afghans who had never seen such items before or believed they would see their country’s treasures in London.

British Museum Director, Neil MacGregor, with Afghanistan's President Karzai and British Foreign Secretary William Hague at the exhibition opening. © Benedict Johnson

This event was followed by back-to-back press interviews with a special press release about the Begram ivories and a press launch for the exhibition. During this time we had over 200 media organisations represented, including print, radio, TV and web, and the coverage has already been global and very positive.

Once the last reporters had left, the final stages of preparations were made for the official opening of the exhibition on 1 March. Well over a thousand invitations had been sent out months in advance but the organisation of the speeches was kept a surprise until the last minute. While the guests were assembling, President Hamid Karzai and William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, arrived at the British Museum and were greeted by the director Neil MacGregor, who led them into the exhibition on a special preview. The delegation also included members of the Afghan Ulema and Sir William Patey, the British ambassador to Afghanistan who has been a great supporter of this exhibition.

Community groups at the exhibition preview. © Benedict Johnson.

The following evening was reserved for the exhibition supporters Bank of America Merrill Lynch and another was given to the Patrons of the British Museum and on 3 March the exhibition opened to the public – the culmination of four years of planning.

The work isn’t finished though. Throughout the next four months that the exhibition is open we have a very varied public programme. It begins next weekend (12 – 13 March) with a two-day conference with papers given by some of the world’s specialists on ancient Afghanistan and its connections with the ancient world. There are some exciting surprises in store for anyone who wants to attend, including how the wonderful glass fish from Begram were made or where Alexander the Great met his future wife Roxane.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Exhibitions

A year’s placement in Shanghai

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Over the coming months I will be writing regularly about my experiences in the Painting Conservation Studio at the Shanghai Museum in Shanghai, where for a year I am studying to complete my training in traditional scroll mounting.

Valentina Marabini at work with a colleague in the studio at Shanghai Museum

Since 2003, I have been working in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum learning, under the guidance of Mrs Qiu Jin Xian, the skills and art of Chinese painting conservation and traditional mounting techniques.

It takes 10 years to acquire the necessary knowledge of these traditions. So in December last year, to undergo the crucial final stage of my training, with the support of the British Museum and the generous sponsorship of the Bei ShanTang JSLee Memorial Foundation I travelled to China and the Painting Conservation Studio of the Shanghai Museum for a year-long secondment.

Shanghai Museum

I’m here to refine my knowledge of traditional conservation and scroll-mounting, working with pictorial artefacts on paper and silk: hanging scrolls, hand scrolls, fan and albums.

There is not much literature to study or many courses to attend in order to specialise in this field, so the only way to learn the skills is by observing the work of conservators and, assisting senior teachers.

The opportunity to spend one year fully immersing myself in the work and life of the Shanghai Museum mounting studio is invaluable in increasing my understanding of the form and function of Chinese art within its historical context.

It will additionally improve my fluency in the Chinese language, but, most importantly, this placement will help me refine the skills needed to care for the Chinese paintings in the British Museum collection.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Conservation, Studying in Shanghai, , , ,

Piecing together the Chiseldon cauldrons puzzle

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Alexandra Baldwin working on one of the Chiseldon cauldrons

As is often the case, the painstaking process of excavating the cauldron I’m working on has been more complex and time consuming than we initially thought.

The majority of the cauldron was lifted from its findspot in a block of soil supported by plaster bandages. Hundreds of smaller fragments were also removed from around the object during excavation. The fragmentary state of this cauldron is partially due to the fact that it was buried upside down, and over time the weight and the pressure of the overlying soil crushed and distorted it.

I began by carefully cutting away thin strips of plaster to reveal the top of the block and clear soil from the metal. With heavy clay soil, which is more solid than the objects, this has to be done with great care using scalpels and leaf trowels to remove soil dampened with water and alcohol.

One of the Chiseldon cauldrons before being unwrapped

Working down in layers, the sheet metal is uncovered, and the true condition of the object revealed. It is highly fragmentary and even undisturbed areas are in pieces.

Fragments loose in the soil have to be rejoined back onto larger sections immediately otherwise their location will be lost. This is done using thin tabs of nylon gossamer, a thin random weave of synthetic fibres, adhered over the join.

Removing the plaster support and soil from around the object makes it very unstable and because of this you are unable to see the entire object at once; the metal is so thin and fragile that it is unable to support its own weight.

I have now laid out the fragments from the excavation on a large table and have been looking for joins between them, and also between the fragments and metal contained in the soil block. Although I have found a number of joins there have been disappointingly few.

Fragments of one of the Chiseldon cauldrons

Very quickly it became apparent that there was something strange about this cauldron – there seemed to be too much copper alloy – several folded layers in the block as well as large sheet fragments.

From knowledge of other cauldrons we can tell that they are made in sections riveted together; the iron rim supporting the handles, then below this, two sections of copper alloy bowl. As I began to reveal more it appeared that there were two bases on top of each other – was this two cauldrons one inside another? Or were we looking at areas of a separate cauldron either displaced during burial or placed into the pit in fragments?

As each layer is revealed the position of the fragments is carefully recorded. Stephen Crummy, one of the Museum’s illustrators, has been using 3D laser scanning and photogrametery to map the block.

The next stage will be to try and decipher and interpret the remains. Then, after supporting and stabilising them, we will remove sections of the metal, effectively disassembling the object from around the soil.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, , , ,

Translating the hieroglyphs on an ancient Egyptian shroud

John Taylor, British Museum

British Museum curator John Taylor examines the text for the first time with Norwich Castle Museum research associate Faye Kalloniatis, British Museum conservator Monique Pullan and textile conservation intern Melina Plottu. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

British Museum curator John Taylor examines the text for the first time with Norwich Castle Museum research associate Faye Kalloniatis, British Museum conservator Monique Pullan and textile conservation intern Melina Plottu. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

    This is the latest in a series of posts about the unfolding of the Norwich shroud, a joint project between the British Museum and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

When I visited the textile conservation lab to see the shroud unfolded for the first time, I was delighted to find that my first suspicion about its contents had been right – it is indeed a mummy cloth inscribed with texts from the Book of the Dead in vertical columns of red and black hieroglyphs.

Shrouds of this type date mainly to the early phase of the Book of the Dead (17th and early 18th Dynasty, about 1570-1450 BC) before the spells began to be written on rolls of papyrus. They are quite rare.

The handwriting appears consistent in style throughout, suggesting that all the texts were written by the same person. The script is semi-cursive: several signs have been drawn very rapidly and simply, and are closer in form to hieratic than hieroglyphic. Again this is exactly what would be expected of an inscribed shroud from the beginning of the New Kingdom.

The first glimpse of such an object brings a lot of questions crowding into the mind at once. Is it complete? Who did it belong to? What do the texts actually say?

The cartouche contains the name of King Menkaure. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The cartouche contains the name of King Menkaure. © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The eye is naturally drawn to the double column of text in red ink roughly in the middle of the cloth and I was immediately struck by the presence there of a cartouche – the oval enclosure which surrounds a royal name in Egyptian inscriptions. For a split second I wondered if this could be the burial shroud of a king, but a closer look at the surrounding words showed this was not so.

The red text turned out to be the rubric (endnote) of spell 64 of the Book of the Dead, which gives an account of the mythical discovery of the spell in the reign of Menkaure, builder of the Third Pyramid at Giza (about 2520 BC)– and his was the name in the cartouche.

So was the owner of the shroud mentioned somewhere else? I cast my eyes further, looking for a name among the words in black, and there it was: Ipu (a woman), daughter of Mutresti. Both names are typical of the very beginning of the 18th Dynasty, and they appeared several times in different parts of the inscriptions.

Everything points to this being a classic example of such a shroud, so the next step will be to identify the texts. This is a job which needs to be done in the study, but even a preliminary glance proved to be informative.

The text of the left hand column states the shroud owner’s name (Ipu, daughter of Mutresti). © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The text of the left hand column states the shroud owner’s name (Ipu, daughter of Mutresti). © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery / Trustees of the British Museum

The selection of spells that were written on these shrouds often varies, but some popular ones occur on most of the surviving examples. I recognised at the right-hand end part of spell 149, a description of the mounds of the netherworld, mysterious sacred places which the Egyptians believed they would have to pass by on the journey to eternal life.

This spell usually concludes early manuscripts of the Book of the Dead, and its occurrence at the edge of the textile suggested that we probably have one end of the shroud more or less intact. However, the left-hand edge is torn and there was no way of telling how much might be missing.

Once back in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan I began to research parallel examples and to see whether anything else might be known about Ipu. Fortunately the great German scholar Irmtraut Munro has published a large two-volume work on early 18th Dynasty mummy shrouds in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. I consulted this and, astonishingly, found that it included the shroud of a lady Ipu, daughter of Mutresti, covered with spells from the Book of the Dead.

The photograph in the volume showed that the handwriting is the same as that on the Norwich shroud and that the Cairo piece too is incomplete, so almost certainly they were parts of the same cloth.

Where did they come from and how did they become separated?

There is clearly more to be discovered about this remarkable object.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Conservation, Norwich shroud, , , , , ,

Afghanistan exhibition opens 3 March

Constance Wyndham, Assistant Exhibition Curator

On the eve of the exhibition opening, we’re now very excited about seeing this exhibition opening to the public too.

Over the last month, we have been working with eight colleagues from Afghanistan who, as curators, conservators, archaeologists and specialists, travel with the objects on loan from Afghanistan’s National Museum to oversee their installation and deinstallation at each exhibition venue.

At the Museum, they were welcomed by the Middle East department and introduced to many other departments across the Museum before we got down to working on the objects themselves, which range from Greek style Corinthian capitals to delicate gold jewellery.

We established a system of condition checking each object with Yahya Mohibzada (Deputy Director, Kabul Museum) and Abdullah Hakimzada (Conservation Dept, Kabul Museum) with our Curatorial and Conservation departments before installing the exhibition. This checking process can sometimes give the opportunity for us to learn a bit more about the objects before installing them in the exhibition space.

One of the display cases in the exhibition will show the first tomb to have been discovered at the first century AD site at Tillya Tepe. The skeleton was of a woman aged between 20 and 30 years, buried lying on her back. Her clothes were covered in hundreds of gold ornaments, stitched on to the cloth.

British Museum scientists and conservators worked with Afghan colleagues to analyse four black beads on a necklace from this hoard. The beads had been previously described as wood – but there was some doubt about this. Although they were covered in consolidant (which made it difficult to obtain accurate readings as we weren’t able to take samples) the team discovered that the beads were in fact probably made of jet.

With this discovery made, the Museum assistants Sarah Price and Xavier Duffy were then ready to recreate within the exhibition space the layout of the earrings, headdress and gold appliqués on the figure as she appeared in the tomb.

In addition to working on the installation, we have also been visiting some of the many museums and institutions in the UK that have wonderful collections of material from Afghanistan acquired from the nineteenth century onwards.

We visited the British Library where curator John Falconer showed us photographs by John Burke, official photographer to the British Army in Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) and detailed drawings by Charles Masson, the first of the European travellers to Afghanistan to record sites and monuments. Masson deserted the East India Company in 1827 and pioneered archaeology in Afghanistan. His accurate drawings of monuments such as Babur’s Tomb, Minar-i-Chakari and the Buddhas at Bamiyan have helped with modern research.

We also went to Oxford to look at Gandharan Buddhas and Kushan coins in the Ashmolean Museum. In the Pitt Rivers Museum we were shown wooden carved figures from Nuristan. The National Museum in Afghanistan has a collection of these figures on display, some mounted on horseback, but several were damaged by the Taliban.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

For more information about the exhibition, visit the British Museum’s website

Filed under: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Exhibitions, , ,

A fourth Amara West field season over but work continues….

Neal Spencer, British Museum

A busy last week saw excavations wound up in Amara West, a concerted effort to survey, draw, photograph and record all the features exposed … and then the logistics of closing the dig house, travelling south to Khartoum, and finally flying home.

The season in the cemetery has prompted us to revise some of our previous assumptions (especially the discovery that it was used for New Kingdom burials) – more on that in the next post.

In the Ramesside housing block in the northwest of the town, we did not expose any new areas, but rather delved deeper into, and beneath, houses previously excavated. A key result of the season – in the buildings excavated by Tom Lyons – has been a clear understanding of how one early house was levelled in the mid-19th dynasty, to make way for a larger house. Within a short period, this house was then divided into two.

View over building D13.4, with the walls of an earlier building beneath

A short distance to the south, Mat Dalton and his workmen discovered a new house (E13.7), later covered by the standing architecture of house E13.4. This was rather different in character from the houses to the north – less axial in its layout (earlier houses seem to be arranged around a central room, with access to other rooms in various directions, later ones are arranged more in a progression from front to back) and with nicely plastered walls (whitewashed to a metre high, and framed with a black stripe, which also ran around the doorways).

Archaeologist Mat Dalton undertaking final recording in house E13.7

Study of the plaster fragments back at the dig house suggested they may derive from both a shrine set in the wall, and from the decor behind the mastaba (low bench) itself – Mat found yellow and black paint in situ on the last day on site.

In the southwest corner of the town, Charly Vallance and Shadia Abdu Rabo exposed the levelled remains of a series of rooms built against the enclosure wall – very different in character to the large paved courtyards of the structure built over them (D13.4). One room contained an in situ grinding stone and ashy deposits with many botanical remains.

Further work is needed to see if these early rooms are contemporary with the foundation of the town. Despite all of the later pottery – of the post-New Kingdom and early Napatan era – found in this trench, it seems any buildings of that period have completely disappeared.

Crates of archaeological samples in the Sudan National Museum, awaiting export

What next? We are currently awaiting our crates of archaeological samples and skeletal material to be shipped from Sudan, through the generosity of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums. This will allow us to continue analyses of pottery fabrics, dietary habits, the use of plant materials and to analyse the health of individuals buried in the cemeteries, in the laboratories of the British Museum and also at Durham University.

In the meantime, there’s a mass of paperwork and documentation to deal with: plans to be scanned and inked, context sheets to be digitised, and parallels from other contemporary towns and cemeteries to be sought…. and a 2012 season to be planned!

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 9,300 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Artist Pablo #Picasso was born #onthisday in 1881. Here’s a study from the Museum's collection for his famous #painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
#art #drawing Happy #Diwali! This painting shows women celebrating with lanterns and fireworks
#Diwali2014 #art Actress Sarah Bernhardt was born #onthisday in 1844. Here’s her portrait in @vanityfair 
#portrait #vanityfair #art #history Paul Cézanne died #onthisday in 1906. Here’s his print of bathers from 1897. Teachers: teaching history with 100 objects now has fantastic new objects, which all feature teaching ideas and classroom resources. Check them out now!
teachinghistory100.org
#teaching #resources #history #museum Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series looking at all the Museum's galleries: Room 5.
This space is a gallery for temporary exhibitions. The current display is Ancient lives, new discoveries, looking at #8mummies from ancient Egypt and Sudan. Previous exhibitions in this gallery have included Power and Taboo, A New World and Michelangelo drawings. #museum #art #ancientegypt #history
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,300 other followers

%d bloggers like this: