British Museum blog

A correspondence with the history of Egyptology

A gallery display at the Roman Baths Museum, Bath

Patricia Usick, Honorary Archivist, Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

The archive of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan has recently acquired a fascinating collection of letters from Joseph Bonomi (1796-1878) to his friend and colleague Samuel Sharpe (1799-1881). Both men were important figures in early Egyptology with close connections to the British Museum; their friendship and interests are reflected in this lively, scholarly, and intimate correspondence of 1857-1878.

Bonomi’s contribution to Egyptology and his long and productive career have not been sufficiently appreciated.

A horse-drawn van advertising Joseph Bonomi’s ‘Panorama of Egypt’ exhibited in London in 1849

A horse-drawn van advertising Joseph Bonomi’s ‘Panorama of Egypt’ exhibited in London in 1849

Bonomi, artist and sculptor, Egyptologist curator of Sir John Soane’s Museum, and Sharpe, Egyptologist and biblical scholar, first met in 1837 when Sharpe was publishing inscriptions from the British Museum. They developed a close friendship while collaborating on the Egyptian Rooms at the Crystal Palace, and numerous biblical and Egyptian publications, including the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I, which the architect and collector John Soane had purchased when the British Museum Trustees, alas, refused it.

Bonomi had joined Robert Hay’s expedition to Egypt as his artist in 1824, producing drawings and helping to make the plaster casts of Egyptian reliefs which are now in the British Museum along with Hay’s collections. Bonomi subsequently spent nine years in Egypt in the company of many of the eminent scholar-travellers of the day. In England, Bonomi illustrated John Gardner Wilkinson’s books on Egypt, made drawings for a Panorama of Egypt, and worked in the British Museum arranging exhibits. He designed the first hieroglyphic font produced in England for Samuel Birch, Keeper of Oriental Antiquities in the British Museum, and even designed an Egyptian temple façade for a flax mill in Leeds. Birch thought that, after Gardner Wilkinson, Bonomi knew more about Egypt than anyone of his time.

One of the Bonomi letters

One of the Bonomi letters

The letters touch on many of the Egyptological issues of the day: damage to Egyptian monuments, both natural and the deliberate ancient effacement of the name and image of the god Amun; the embalming of animals; their joint publication of the Soane sarcophagus – and how well their publications were selling; the statue of Khaemwaset (now EA 947), which Sharpe purchased and presented to the British Museum; Schliemann’s discovery of Troy; the provenance of a disputed basalt stone in Bologna and a fragment of a sarcophagus with the Asiatic Society; excavations at the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III in Thebes; the mathematical papyrus ‘in Birch’s room’ (The Rhind Papyrus P. BM 10058); the discovery of the famous Moabite Stone, the oldest Semitic inscription then known; and the Museum’s paintings from the tomb of Nebamun.

Bonomi considered Rev. Lieder’s collection ‘inferior much to Mr. Hay’s’, though worth a visit, and Birch had bought ‘20 pounds worth’. Rev. Rudolph Theophilus Lieder was a German missionary and collector who worked in Cairo for many years under the Church Missionary Society and collected Egyptian antiquities. In 1861 Lord Amherst purchased his collection of 186 items for £200, the inventory of which is in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan archives. A glimpse of what must be Rev Lieder’s son in 1869 is revealing; ‘I found Mr Lieder with eyes denoting neglected ophthalmia hand trembling from much tobacco and perhaps excess in wine. I knew him a little boy in Cairo as I then thought much neglected by his mother’.

Despite tragedy in Bonomi’s private life – his four young children died of whooping cough in one week in 1852 and he was left to bring up his four following children when his wife Jessie, the daughter of the painter John Martin, died in 1859 aged 34 – his output was enormous, and his humorous observations and cheerful disposition bring a seminal figure to life.

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A closer look at what the Chiseldon cauldrons are made of

High magnification image of one of the cauldrons

Quanyu Wang, scientist, British Museum

I am a scientist specialising in metalworking technology, particularly in relation to non-precious metals such as iron and copper-alloys. The scientific examination and analysis of the Chiseldon Iron-Age cauldrons is a key aspect of the investigative process as a whole and is crucial in supporting our understanding of them.

For the Chiseldon cauldrons I have been examining the microstructure of the metal under very high magnification in order to see its composition, deduce how it was worked and explore manufacturing techniques. Some of the questions I will be trying to answer include: ‘How were the cauldrons made?’, ‘Were different components from an individual vessel made in the same workshop?’, ‘Were the same parts, such as the iron handles for different vessels, made from the same metal stocks’ and, perhaps the most important question of all; ‘Were the cauldrons made especially for burial or collected together for a particular occasion?’

Taking a sample from one of the cauldrons

Taking a sample from one of the cauldrons

Finding appropriate samples to test can be extremely difficult as the metal, particularly the iron, is extremely corroded and very fragile. The sampling process is made additionally complicated by attempting to sample a potential area that is as discrete as possible to make sure that we do not endanger the structural integrity of the artefact but will yield the best results. This is not a decision that is taken lightly and sample positions are chosen in consultation with curators and conservators. In order to reveal the structure of the metal the samples are mounted in resin, their cross-section polished, and then examined using metallographic microscopy up to x1000 magnification and a scanning electron microscope equipped with energy dispersive X-ray spectrometry (SEM-EDX) that allows us to examine them up to 300,000 times its actual size.

We have been able to deduce that the iron handles from both the cauldrons studied so far were probably formed by repeatedly hammering an iron bar while it was rotated. Additionally, iron used for the same parts of different cauldrons showed differences in microstructure and slag (impurity) inclusions, and was therefore from different stocks of metal, suggesting that these cauldrons were probably collected together rather than being made at the same time specifically for burial.

A high magnification scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of a copper alloy sample from one of the cauldrons. Darker horizontal lines were caused by many cycles of working and heating

A high magnification scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of a copper alloy sample from one of the cauldrons. Darker horizontal lines were caused by many cycles of working and heating

The copper-alloy is likely to have been subjected to many cycles of working and annealing (heating) to reduce the sheet metal to its final thickness (and shape). Significantly, there are differences in the content of sulphide within the copper alloy from one of the cauldrons, which suggest that the metal of the bowl and that of the band were probably refined to different levels or were from different sources.

Some of the results we have achieved so far are intriguing and much more revealing than expected given the condition of the material. Further analysis of the remaining cauldrons will not only provide further details of how the metal was processed and how the cauldrons were made but will help us build up a more complete picture of the deposit as a whole.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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The Beau Street Hoard: excavation progress

Julia Tubman, conservator, British Museum

As mentioned in previous blog posts, the Beau Street Hoard is not just one huge jumbled mass of coins, but actually at least six separate bags. My excavation plan is to remove these coins bag by bag, to preserve the groupings (which are potentially very significant), and give us a clearer view of the size and shape of each bag.

I had been concerned that the coins might have concreted together to such an extent that identifying separate bags would be very difficult during the excavation, but (fingers crossed!) thus far the removal of individual bags has progressed remarkably smoothly. I have managed to retrieve two whole bags of coins. I have numbered these bags five and six, and they are the two smallest bags at the northern end of the block in the x-ray (five being the smallest).

The block, after the removal of bags 5 and 6

We were excited to see that bag six almost exclusively contained denarii (the smaller coins with a high silver content discussed in Eleanor’s blog post last week), suggesting that the coins might have been bagged by denomination. Of the approximately 3,000 coins I excavated of this bag, I have cleaned around 1,000, and thus far the latest coins we have date to the third century AD.

There are actually a very small number of coins older than the third century contained within the bag: one coin was minted during Otho’s very short reign (AD 69), and an even older one, worn almost flat, minted at the end of the Roman Republic by Mark Antony (just prior to the battle of Actium in 31 BC).

This means that some of the coins were centuries old at the time of the final deposition of the hoard. As I’m cleaning the coins bag by bag in the order excavated, I haven’t yet got round to cleaning the coins kept in bag five, but thus far these all appear to be radiates.

A very worn coin minted by Mark Antony, circa 31 BC

As you can see in the photographs, it is quite easy to tell where one bag ends and another begins. The orientation of the coins themselves and the very bright blue corrosion helps a lot, but there are also other markers. The bags that held the coins would have been organic in nature (made from either an animal or plant product).My guess would be leather as they would have to be strong enough to hold large numbers of coins. Unfortunately, even organic material which has been treated and processed to form objects doesn’t always survive easily in Britain, which is why most of our surviving artefacts are made from stone, ceramic or metal. With this in mind, I knew that any piece of bag that might have survived would be in very poor condition, and I was prepared to look for scant pieces of evidence preserved in the corrosion generated by the coins.

Denarius bearing the emperor Septimius Severus, AD 193-211

Happily though, I think that I have found fragments of leather (see the light brown material loosely attached to the coins), exactly where I know the bags would have been. The leather is obviously very degraded, and as the fibre network has broken up, the leather has shrunken and split resulting in the flaky incoherent material we see today. I have taken some samples of this material, and hopefully my identification of this will be confirmed by a specialist soon.

The next stage of the excavation- the removal of bag 2

After three weeks I now have a much better understanding of the size and shape of the hoard. There were no more coins beneath bags five and six, but the x-rays taken through the side suggest this is not the case throughout the rest of the block – we suspect there might be more bags of coins beneath the six already identified.

The area excavated thus far shows that the floor of the cist is obviously not even, but seems to have been dug in a rough pit-like way. As yet I have found no evidence of any kind of wooden box that might have held all of the bags, and as I have found pieces of tile pressed up against the coins, I actually doubt that there ever was.

Given the way in which the bags have been piled (I do not want to destabilise the central bags by removing their supports), and to get an idea of what the bags of coins in the middle of the block look like, I will now begin excavating ‘bag two’ at the southern end of the block. I’m sure there will be more exciting developments to report.

Find out more about the Beau Street hoard and the Roman Baths Museum fund-raising campaign.

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The Beau Street Hoard: what’s in the box?

Eleanor Ghey, project curator, British Museum

Hoards of Roman coins from later in the third century AD are the most common sort of coin hoards we see at the British Museum but the Beau Street Hoard is very unusual. When I saw the X-ray of the hoard I was very excited to see what looked like clearly separate bags of coins deposited in a group – normally coins are found in a pot or in a hole in the ground together in one lump. Here we have at least six (and probably more) groups of coins – several hoards in one! It was even more exciting to learn that it was going to be possible for my colleague Julia Tubman to isolate the groups.

It raises all sorts of questions. Do the bags contain the same sorts of coins or different ones? Do they each contain the same amount in Roman money or in weight of metal? Are they all coins that were circulating at the same date or are they deposits of coins from different time-periods gathered together at a later date for re-burial?

An X-radiograph of the soil block before conservation. © University of Southampton

An X-radiograph of the soil block before conservation taken at the Imaging Centre in the University of Southampton’s Department of Engineering Sciences. © University of Southampton

It is already possible to start to speculate about the contents of the hoard from the few coins that have been removed from the block (although it may still hold surprises). The coins are mostly of the denomination known as a ‘radiate’ (from the spiky crown the emperor wears on the obverse (front) of the coin).

A silver radiate of Gordian III from the hoard

A silver radiate of Gordian III from the hoard

This type of coin first appears in the early third century AD and at the time was of a value double that of the denarius (the main silver coin in the earlier years of the Roman Empire). Initially, like the denarius this was a silver coin. Gradually over time the silver content of the radiate was reduced, until (by the 270s AD) they were almost entirely base metal (copper alloy) and became smaller in size.

The first coins Julia removed from the block were large and silvery in appearance (once cleaned) and came mostly from the first half of the third century AD. The earliest coin was a denarius of the emperor Septimius Severus (ruled AD 193-211) and the latest were coins of the emperor Gallienus and his wife, Salonina, dated to the AD 260s. This would be fairly typical for the contents of a hoard buried in the AD 260s.

A silver denarius of Septimius Severus (AD 193-211) from the British Museum collection

A silver denarius of Septimius Severus (AD 193-211) from the British Museum collection

However, when the hoard was first discovered, a sample of coins taken from another area of the block was quite different in nature. These were the smaller, more coppery radiates of the AD 270s (the most common type of coins we find in hoards from the 270s to 290s). This suggests that we may be dealing with bags containing different groups of coins, possibly gathered together at different times or sorted before burial.

Was this a secure store for bags of money that was added to gradually by one or more people over a fairly long period of time? It seems like an official store of money, organised into bags and purposely concealed in a place designed for that purpose. It was certainly a large amount of money (although we don’t have data for the later third century, pay scales for legionary soldiers in the AD 230s suggest they would have received about two and a half of these coins as a day’s wage) and it could have been looked after by an individual with authority.

It is rare to find hoards in Roman town centres. Perhaps it belonged to a local business in what was a busy town centre (deposited in a safe place in the way we leave money at the bank today). Why was it left for the archaeologists to find and not recovered by its owner?

Was there any connection with the nearby temple and sacred spring? We know that temples had treasuries; they may have periodically emptied out some of the coins thrown into the spring.

We are hoping that results from the archaeological excavation of the findspot will shed further light on this puzzle.

Find out more about the Beau Street hoard and the Roman Baths Museum fund-raising campaign.

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The Beau Street Hoard: excavating Roman treasure, one coin at a time


Julia Tubman, conservator, British Museum

In November 2007, during a routine archaeological excavation in advance of building work in Beau Street, Bath (a stone’s throw from the famous Roman Baths themselves), archaeologists came upon what was clearly a very large number of coins contained within a cist (a stone-lined box). Upon further excavation, they quickly came to realise they were looking at one of the largest coin hoards found in the UK, representing quite a tumultuous time in Roman Britain – about AD 270.

Some of the coins from the hoard during the initial excavation © Cotswold Archaeology

Some of the coins from the hoard during the initial excavation © Cotswold Archaeology

When groups of coins that appear to be over 300 years old are found, they must be reported to the local coroner (according to the Treasure Act 1996). The coins enter what we call the ‘Treasure Process’ where, if necessary for identification, they will be cleaned in preparation for their formal declaration as Treasure and the property of the Crown, or eventual valuation. Usually this occurs at the British Museum, or in the case of Welsh Treasure cases, the National Museum of Wales.

The hoard was lifted in a single soil block © Cotswold Archaeology

The hoard was lifted in a single soil block © Cotswold Archaeology

In order to preserve its shape and context, the archaeologists cut around the hoard and lifted it in a soil block. As a metals conservator at the British Museum, my job is to excavate the coins from the soil and clean them up. The initial excavation should take about six weeks and during that time I will be regularly adding to this blog with updates of my work as it progresses. Colleagues from curatorial departments and our science team who are involved with the project will also contribute as the hoard gradually reveals its story.

The hoard in its soil block when it arrived in the conservation lab at the British Museum

The hoard in its soil block when it arrived in the conservation lab at the British Museum

The coins are currently held together by soil and metallic corrosion. They are blue and green in colour indicating the corrosion of a copper metal, which would have been used as a base alloy for the coins. Interestingly, within this copper corrosion is actually a layer of silver that was plated over the copper during the manufacture of the coins.

The coins have also maintained the shape of the cist they were contained within, as the soil and corrosion has concreted together. Looking more closely, we can even see that there are groups of coins within the hoard; which is because this large hoard appears to be composed of six individual smaller hoards.

We had an idea that this could be the case because in December last year Dr. Mavrogordato, from the Imaging Centre in the University of Southampton’s Department of Engineering Sciences, kindly took x-rays of the block. The resulting images show what look to be ‘bags’ of coins. We don’t know whether the bags themselves have survived (they could have been made of an organic material such as textile or leather), but the corroded coins have kept the shape of their containers and I will be looking for evidence of them.

The cleaning process is fine and detailed work

The cleaning process is fine and detailed work

As my job will involve excavating the hoard, knowing that there are individual bags of coins gives me a very good starting point as it means I can deconstruct the soil block bag by bag. It will be very interesting to see if the coins were bagged together for a particular reason; for example, if they were grouped by emperor or denomination.

I’ve cleaned a few loose coins already and, after stripping away the copper corrosion, I’ve found some very impressive silver surfaces (nicer than we had previously hoped!) Given the large number of coins in the soil block, I’m hoping to be able to clean as many coins as possible using chemicals such as formic acid, rather than by hand using a scalpel. I have 18 months to complete this project, so time is of the essence.

The hoard in May 2012 in the conservation lab, excavation underway.

The hoard in May 2012 in the conservation lab, excavation underway.

Initial estimates put the number of coins at around 30,000. After having excavated the block a little since then, guesses about the maximum number of coins in the hoard have decreased and estimates vary between everyone looking at it. Readers of the blog are welcome to suggest their own figures – I say no more than 22,000 coins, what do you think?

Removing the tough shell of the copper corrosion layer is important not just to find shiny surfaces but also to find the detail on the coins needed for identification by my colleagues in the Coins and Medals department, Eleanor Ghey and Richard Abdy (who will be blogging about the significance of the find next week). At this early stage in the project, I’m only cleaning the coins so that they can be identified: I’m not cleaning them for display, by completely removing all the corrosion or soil; that would require more time.

Some of the coins after being cleaned

Some of the coins after being cleaned

When looking at Roman coins, specialists will be hoping to identify features on the ‘obverse’ (side bearing the bust of an emperor or an important relative) and the ‘reverse’ (side bearing representations of deities, animals, and other important Roman symbols). The subjects depicted on Roman coins varied according to emperor and coins of more than one emperor could be in circulation at any given time. On both sides, revealing enough of the ‘legend’ (the writing around the edge of the coin) is important, especially where the figure in the centre is very corroded or worn. Eleanor and Richard will also be looking closely for any mint marks on the coins (usually on the reverse) which indicate where in the empire the coin was struck, so I’ll have to be very careful when cleaning to reveal as much detail as possible.

Coins identified thus far have shown a real mix of the many Roman emperors of the third century AD (it was such a politically unstable time that many of them only got to reign a few years): Septimius Severus (AD 193-211), Gordian III (AD 238-249), Philip I (AD 244-249), Decius (AD 249-251), Trebonianus Gallus (AD 251-253), Aemilian (AD 253), Valerian I (AD 253-260), Gallienus (AD 253-268) and Postumus (AD 260- 268).

The Roman Baths Museum hopes to purchase the hoard and eventually display it to the public. It’s fantastic to know where the hoard might ultimately end up, and I’m working closely with curator Stephen Clews at the Roman Baths.

Find out more about the Beau Street hoard and the Roman Baths Museum fund-raising campaign.

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New treasure!


Richard Hobbs, curator, British Museum

‘New treasure!’ was the title of an email I received two weeks ago from a colleague. It refers to a new hoard, or ‘treasure’, of late Roman silver plate, recently discovered in Croatia at Vinkovci. In Roman times the town was known as Colonia Aurelia Cibalae (Cibalae for short) in the Roman province of Pannonia. Cibalae was the birthplace of the Roman emperors Valentian I and his younger brother Valens (both AD 364-375). The Cibalae treasure dates to around a similar time, i.e. the fourth century AD.

My Croatian being non-existent I’ve managed via ‘Google Translate’ to glean that the treasure was discovered during rescue excavations in advance of construction right in the centre of Vinkovci, then transported under armed guard to the Mimara Museum in Zagreb where it is now on display to the public. It consists of about 50 items of silver tableware weighing a total of around 30 kilos. For comparison, the Mildenhall treasure, the treasure I am currently researching, has about half that number of objects, but weighs almost as much (around 26kg). It is clear from the images that many of the objects are rather damaged and heavily tarnished, but cleaning and restoration over the coming months will no doubt do much to rectify this.

The Cibalae Treasure. Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

The Cibalae Treasure. Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

A more perfect set of circumstances surrounding the discovery of such a treasure could not be dreamed of. It is, to put it mildly, highly unusual for a silver treasure of this magnitude to be found at all, let alone by professional archaeologists. Such discoveries are exceedingly rare: the daily diet of most archaeologists is lots of pottery and animal bone, the occasional find of low value metalwork (perhaps an iron nail, or a copper brooch or coin). Even single finds of gold and silver objects are rarely found, let alone entire hoards. And because it has been excavated by professionals, we are likely to know a great deal more about it: we know exactly where it was buried, how deep it lay in the ground, and how it might have been buried, for example there might still be traces of a container in which it had been placed. In contrast such information relating to the burial circumstances of the Mildenhall treasure is sadly lacking.

Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

The exact contents of the treasure will become clear in the next few weeks, months and years as the painstaking process of conservation and research is carried out. At the moment, I have to content myself with scrutinising the few images which have emerged from TV and newspaper reports. I can see, for example, that the Cibalae treasure has three large platters and at least two wide and deep bowls – in comparison the Mildenhall treasure has only two platters. It has at least another dozen smaller bowls and dishes – Mildenhall has six. It has many other vessels which are not represented in the Mildenhall treasure, but are paralleled in other treasures: these include silver beakers, also known from the Kaiseraugst treasure, discovered in Switzerland in the early 1960s; at least two silver jugs, also known in other treasures; and a number of spoons and ladles, again similar in appearance to ones known in other treasures. Most intriguingly, there are some pieces which are nicely decorated: one shows what appears to be Bellerophon slaying the chimera. This scene is in the centre of a platter with a very unusual flat rim decorated with a dozen recesses in the shape of scallop shells.

Even more exciting perhaps is a pastoral scene in the centre of another platter, which shows a shepherd leaning on a crook and surrounded by sheep: as my colleague Chris Entwistle, the curator of our Byzantine collections suggested, it would be tempting to think of the Parable of the Good Shepherd. If this is the case, it would be a very rare example of a Biblical scene on late Roman silver plate.

It’s early days in the life of this new discovery. Maybe in the next few months I will be able to see the treasure for myself.

Richard Hobbs is curator of Romano-British collections and is currently on a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to publish the Mildenhall treasure

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Opening up an ancient Egyptian library


Richard Parkinson, curator, British Museum

For many years before joining the British Museum as a curator in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, my life was tied up with the so-called ‘Ramesseum papyri’: a library of ancient Egyptian papyri that were discovered in 1895-6 under the temple of Ramses II, now known as the ‘Ramesseum’. As a school boy I had bought Alan Gardiner’s 1955 partial publication of some of the papyri and my doctorate was a commentary on one of the poems preserved in them, The Eloquent Peasant.

With Mme Nelson examining new finds from her excavations at the site of the Ramesseum in 2006

With Mme Nelson examining new finds from her excavations at the site of the Ramesseum in 2006

The 24 papyri are an almost unique surviving example of an ancient Egyptian library that was buried in its owner’s tomb around 1680 BC, but although some of them have been much studied they are extraordinarily fragmentary and fragile. Over the years, Bridget Leach, the Museum’s papyrus conservator, and I have helped many students and scholars examine them, and every time we have worried about their extreme fragility. And so we were eager to have a full visual record made in high resolution colour, so that the papyri could also be studied remotely without being disturbed too often, as well as enabling a global audience to access them. Nothing can substitute for working on an original manuscript, of course, and this will continue, but a good visual record allows much of the preliminary work to be done virtually, before a final collation with the actual fragile originals.

The British Museum’s Online research catalogue format offered a marvellous tool for this visual presentation, especially as it is linked to the collections database with its descriptions and bibliographies. Unlike a print catalogue it is continually updatable (and it needs to be: in May I am in Geneva to examine a new doctoral thesis by Pierre Meyrat on the previously untranslated magical texts in the library). Many of the fragments have not been fully published, some have never been published in photographs before, so this format will open up the library for study – as a whole and for the first time in its modern history.

Lisa Baylis photographing the papyri in Berlin in 2007

Lisa Baylis photographing the papyri in Berlin in 2007

Most satisfyingly for me, the catalogue includes all of the papyri. Two of the most important manuscripts are now in the great Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection in Berlin (including the poem of my doctorate). Thanks to their immensely kind collaboration, I was there with Lisa Baylis, a British Museum photographer, in 2007, and these two papyri now sit together with the London papyri in this new virtual version of the ancient library. The excavator had distributed the objects that he found with the papyri to the various institutions that had funded him, and they are now in Manchester, Cambridge and Philadelphia, but the catalogue has links to these items in their various institutions, and so reunites not only the papyri but the whole surviving tomb-group.

Underlying the project is the sad and rather irritating fact that Egyptologists often study texts away from their material context – both their physical reality as manuscripts and their archaeological findspot – and I hope that the catalogue will help change this and encourage a more grounded and theoretically informed approach in line with the so-called ‘Material philology’ school of textual studies. But my dominant memory of the whole enterprise is simpler: the sheer fun and overwhelming kindness I’ve encountered with so many helpful friends, students and colleagues in Britain, France, Germany, America and Egypt, who all have helped us get to this point in a common project.

But this is only a beginning, simply one step in encouraging people to start re-reading these texts that have miraculously survived (only just!) from 1680 BC.

Find out more about the Ramesseum papyri project and read the catalogue

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Roald Dahl and the Mildenhall treasure


Richard Hobbs, curator, British Museum

My first encounter with the Mildenhall treasure was back in 1977 when I was eight years old. I received a copy of the new Roald Dahl book, an author of whom, like many children of my generation, I was a huge fan. ‘The Wonderful story of Henry Sugar and six more’ was a collection of short stories (I still have it; perhaps it’s worth something, as a first edition) which bear more relation with Dahl’s rather macabre tales aimed at adults than the timeless classics for children such as ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ or ‘James and the Giant Peach’. Henry Sugar is a story about a man who discovers the ability to see through playing cards, and uses his gift to win vast sums of money in casinos. After the buzz of winning wears off, he starts to use his newly found wealth for acts of philanthropy: first giving his money away to random strangers (the cover depicts Sugar throwing wads of £20 notes out of a high storey window), then building orphanages.

The Mildenhall treasure is one of the most important collections of late-Roman silver tableware from the Roman Empire.

The Mildenhall treasure is one of the most important collections of late-Roman silver tableware from the Roman Empire.

But I was more drawn to one of the other stories in the collection, simply entitled ‘The Mildenhall treasure’, and about a rather different type of discovery, the discovery of treasure: one of the few stories of Dahl’s career as a writer he based on real events.

As Dahl explains in his preface, he decided to re-publish the story, with a few tweaks, because this was not the first time the story had an airing. In fact, ‘The Mildenhall treasure’ (then entitled ‘He plowed [sic] up $1,000,000’) was one of the first pieces of journalism he ever sold as a fledgling writer in the immediate post-war years – Dahl was a fighter pilot in the RAF – to an American magazine called ‘The Saturday Evening Post’. In both versions Dahl creates a narrative around the discovery of the hoard of late Roman silver in the winter of 1942 at the height of the Second World War by local farmer, Gordon Butcher, subsequently excavated by Butcher and his boss Sidney Ford. (The story was republished for a third time in 1999, this time as a stand-alone book with illustrations by Ralph Steadman).

Dahl’s story stayed with me, and in the late 1980s when I was studying for an archaeology degree at University College London, I recalled Dahl’s story when the Mildenhall treasure was mentioned during a lecture on the archaeology of the later Roman Empire, taught by the legendary Richard Reece. Richard also alluded to a conspiracy theory surrounding the discovery of the treasure, saying that many believed it had been flown in to the military airbase at Mildenhall from somewhere in the Mediterranean, perhaps North Africa. I remember saying to him: ‘But what about Roald Dahl’s story? Surely that describes very plausibly how it was discovered?’, or words to that effect. My comment was met with a blank look. It only occurred to me afterwards that Richard had never come across Dahl’s ‘account’: it was, after all, published in a book for children.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

Of course, staff at the British Museum knew the story very well, having been contacted about it by countless school children over the years. Indeed to this day many children, having read the story, are drawn to the Roman Britain gallery to see the treasure for themselves. But how valuable is Dahl’s account? Although his intention was first and foremost to tell a good yarn, it is not without worth to archaeologists seeking the ‘truth’ about the discovery. This is because it was based on what may have been the only interview with Gordon Butcher, the original finder of the treasure. As Dahl explains in his preface, he drove to Mildenhall having read about the discovery in the Times, persuaded Gordon Butcher to talk to him, faithfully noted down everything Butcher said, and, in Dahl’s own words, ‘wrote the story as truthfully as I possibly could’.

Having successfully sold it to the American magazine, he shared the fee he received with Butcher who sent Dahl a note saying ‘you could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw your cheque’. But because Butcher’s boss Sidney Ford, not Butcher, took the treasure home, after the treasure emerged from hiding in 1946 the focus shifted to Ford, and Butcher’s part in the whole affair was rather overlooked. It appears that no-one, particularly the archaeologists who investigated the circumstances surrounding the discovery, thought to ask Butcher what he recalled of the moment when his plough struck something in the ground – no-one except Roald Dahl.

Dahl himself came to see the treasure in 1946 when it was first put on display. Of the experience, he writes: ‘It was fabulous. I got the shivers… just from looking at it.’ He was not the first to be affected in this way and certainly not the last – myself included.

Richard Hobbs is curator of Romano-British collections and is currently on a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to publish the Mildenhall treasure

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Amara West 2012: looking back on the season in the cemetery


Michaela Binder, Durham University

After seven weeks of excavation we can look back to a very successful season in the cemetery at Amara West. In total, the two field school members (Åshild Vagene and Mohamed Saad), Laurel Engbring, Milena Grybowska and I were able to excavate and document 11 graves.

Multiple burials in the eastern chamber of G314

Multiple burials in the eastern chamber of G314

All of them proved to be complex features with one or two burial chambers used for the interment of several individuals – up to 15 in the case of G314. But even though the general outline of the graves appears similar, they differ from each other considerably in terms of size, shape and orientation. The results of this season confirm our picture of a mixed culture combining elements of Nubian and Egyptian funerary customs.

Copper alloy mirror (F8448) found within G309

Copper alloy mirror (F8448) found within G309

G309, the newly discovered pyramid tomb, attests to the wealth of some individuals living at Amara West. The use of a pyramid superstructure, the decorated coffin and a copper alloy mirror, only discovered on the very last day of the season, show that the people buried in this grave chose to be buried surrounded by recognisably Pharaonic objects and architecture. However, this does not prove they were Egyptians – they could also have been acculturated Nubians, or descendants of intermarriage between Egyptians and Nubians.

The discovery of an Early or Middle Kerma tumulus, dug by Åshild and Mohamed, shows that the area of Amara West had already been occupied long before the establishment of the Egyptian town. Even though the site of settlement changed, the inhabitants of the Pharaonic settlement chose to use the same burial grounds, which would have been demarcated by the prominent Kerma tumuli back then just as they are today. Was the cemetery placed here, over a Kerma burial ground, to underline Egyptian domination of the area perhaps?

Excavation area – Due to the strong wind the graves had to be covered with tarpaulin for most of the season

Excavation area – Due to the strong wind the graves had to be covered with tarpaulin for most of the season

The preservation of organic remains allows for more refined insights into funerary customs during the New Kingdom and post-New Kingdom period. As an example, we can differentiate different types of funerary containers such as coffins, different mats, textiles and burial beds.

Abdu Yassin, Hassan Awad and Milena Grybowska excavating in G309

Abdu Yassin, Hassan Awad and Milena Grybowska excavating in G309

The coming months will see work on the large amount of drawings, notes and context sheets, while the human remains excavated this season are already on their way to London where I will again spend a few months studying them. This time I will be joined by Åshild and Mohamed for two weeks as part of the field school project.

Many thanks to the excavators, workmen and everyone else who helped make 2012 a very successful season.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, Research

Amara West 2012: a pottery kiln?


Shadia Abdu Rabo, National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, Sudan and Neal Spencer, British Museum

Towards the end of the season, working in layers beneath house E13.8, we found a circular kiln – our first at Amara West.

The kiln had been made by cutting a deep pit into the natural surface of the island, and building a circular brick structure above it, with internal cross walls. The red-orange colour of the bricks, especially on the inside, were the first indication that this might have been a kiln for firing pottery vessels, with an upper chamber for placing the pots to be fired, and the lower space – cut into the alluvium – housing the burning fuel (wood, charcoal?). A shallow pit, sloping down to the entrance of the kiln, would have allowed the fuel to be inserted into the lower chamber.

The kiln with the later wall of house E13.8 built over the top

The kiln with the later wall of house E13.8 built over the top

We only excavated part of the lower chamber, as a wall of the later house ran over it. Inside, we found debris which post-dates the abandonment of the kiln, but right at the base were the compact ashy deposits we would expect in such a structure. Beneath that lay the burnt natural surface. There was clear evidence for the kiln being refurbished, with extra layers of plaster added to line the inside.

Many questions remain: what types of objects or vessels were fired in this kiln? What temperature could it have reached? We have taken samples from the walls, and the deposits inside, which might shed light on how this structure was used.

It is also interesting to consider how the kiln fitted into urban life. We found very little evidence for architecture in this area, so this might have been an open space between the house to the south (E13.3) and the imposing town wall – suitable for what must have been a smoky, dirty activity.

There’s a description of ‘the potter’ in a famous Egyptian literary text, the Satire of the Trades, which caricatures the profession as follows:

He is muddier with clay than swine
to burn under his earth.
His clothes are solid as a block
and his headcloth is rags,
until the air enters his nose
coming from his furnace direct.

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