British Museum blog

Violence and climate change in prehistoric Egypt and Sudan

excavation at Jebel SahabaRenée Friedman, curator, British Museum

What started off two years ago as a rearrangement of a few cases in the Early Egypt Gallery (Room 64) to highlight new acquisitions has, thanks to the generosity of Raymond and Beverly Sackler, developed into a full-blown refurbishment with new themes and displays throughout. This has also given us the opportunity to integrate some of the recent research into the early, formative periods of Egyptian civilisation and present our better understanding of it.

Ancient Egyptian civilisation is the product of more than 5,000 years of development. The gallery focuses on the earliest, prehistoric, phases of this development from 8600 BC to 3100 BC when Egypt unified to become the world’s first nation state. It also highlights the advances in ideology and technology during the First and Second Dynasty that paved the way for the Pyramid Age of the Old Kingdom. To illustrate these stories we have created new displays of objects long held in the collection as well as a selection of materials only recently acquired.

Excavations at Jebel Sahaba, 1965 (photo: Wendorf Archive, British Museum)

Excavations at Jebel Sahaba, 1965 (photo: Wendorf Archive, British Museum)

Map of cemetery 117 at Jebel Sahaba. The red dots indicate those who experienced a violent death.

Map of cemetery 117 at Jebel Sahaba. The red dots indicate those who experienced a violent death. Click on the image to view a larger version.

Among the most exciting of the new acquisitions are the materials from the site of Jebel Sahaba, now in northern Sudan, which were donated to the Museum by Dr Fred Wendorf in 2002. Excavating here in 1965–66, as part of the UNESCO-funded campaign to salvage sites destined to be flooded by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, Dr Wendorf found a cemetery (site 117) containing at least 61 individuals dating back to about 13,000 years ago. This discovery was of great significance for two reasons. First, as a designated graveyard, evidently used over several generations, it is one of the earliest formal cemeteries in the world. Prior to this discovery, only isolated graves, or clusters of up to three bodies had been known within the Nile Valley. But perhaps even more significant, of the 61 men, women and children buried at Jebel Sahaba, at least 45% of them died of inflicted wounds, making this the earliest evidence for inter-communal violence in the archaeological record. Chips and flakes of chert, the remnants of arrows or other weapons, were found mixed with and in some cases still embedded in the bones of 26 individuals, while cut marks were found on the bones of others.

Excavation photo of  the two victims of violence featured in Room 64 (burials 20 and 21). The pencils point to weapon fragments mixed with the bones. (photo: Wendorf Archive, British Museum)

Excavation photo of the two victims of violence featured in Room 64 (burials 20 and 21). The pencils point to weapon fragments mixed with the bones. (photo: Wendorf Archive, British Museum)

Scanning electron microscope image of a weapon fragment embedded in the pelvis bone of Burial 21, Jebel Sahaba

Scanning electron microscope image of a weapon fragment embedded in the pelvis bone of Burial 21, Jebel Sahaba

A special case displays two of the unfortunate victims (Burials 20 and 21) and the remains of the actual weapons that killed them, recreating the burials as they were found. This is the first time these skeletons have ever been publicly shown. Both were adult men, buried together in the standard flexed position, on their left side, head south, facing east. A total of 19 weapon fragments were found in and among the bones of Burial 21 by the original excavators, including one still lodged in his pelvis. However, modern conservation of the bodies in preparation for the display has now made it possible to see at high magnification many more tiny chips. Ongoing research is also studying the velocity and directionality of the arrows and weapons based on cut marks and other micro-traces on the bones, potentially allowing us to recreate the lethal raid. Clearly, the conflict was brutal and seems to have been fairly constant, as healed injuries have also been observed.

The reasons for all of this violence most likely comes down to climate. The Ice Age glaciers covering much of Europe and North America at this time made the climate in Egypt and Sudan cold and arid. The only place to go was to the Nile, but its regime was erratic: depending on the exact dating, the river was either high and wild, or low and sluggish. Either way, there was little viable land on which to live, and resources must have been scarce. Competition for food may well have been the reason for the conflict as more groups clustered around the best fishing and gathering grounds and were unwilling or unable to move away. Two other cemeteries found by Dr Wendorf in the vicinity suggest that several other social units, or small tribes, also considered this area their home and this may have caused friction. However, the bodies in the other cemeteries show no evidence for the sustained violence seen in Cemetery 117, suggesting that this group was either very unlucky or that the cemetery was allocated specifically for those who died a violent death. As more research is carried out on the unique collection now housed in the Museum, we will certainly learn more about life in those precarious times.

The Battlefield Palette (EA 20791)

The Battlefield Palette (EA 20791)

Of course, the Jebel Sahaba people were not the only victims of violence. The newly refurbished gallery also features the return of the popular virtual autopsy table allowing a deeper look into Gebelein Man and his unfortunate end. For the actual remains of this remarkably well preserved natural mummy, the new display aims to recreate his grave as accurately as the surviving records allow. Sir Wallis Budge, Keeper of the Egyptian Department from 1894 to 1924, claims to have witnessed the excavation of Gebelein Man in 1899 and relates that the grave was covered by stone slabs and the body was surrounded by pots and other objects. Simulating some stone slabs was no problem, but it proved impossible to determine which items came specifically from his grave. Those now accompanying him do at least come from Gebelein and date to about 3500 BC, the time we think that Gebelein Man lived. This was a period when several regional centres were beginning to vie for power and territory, leading ultimately to the unification of Egypt some 400 years later. Violence no doubt played a role in this process (as made clear by the intricately carved Battlefield palette, soon to be reunited with its mending piece on long term loan from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and the stab wound in Gebelein Man’s back may mark him as an unfortunate victim of his times.

Ivory gaming piece (EA 64093). Catering for the royal afterlife, board games and playing pieces for Mehen, the snake game, were some of the objects placed in the tombs of the First Dynasty kings.

Ivory gaming piece (EA 64093). Catering for the royal afterlife, board games and playing pieces for Mehen, the snake game, were some of the objects placed in the tombs of the First Dynasty kings.

This period was not all murder and mayhem. Other themes in the gallery include how climate change has preserved for us a glimpse at the very beginnings of ancient Egyptian civilisation in the lives of herders living in what is now the Sahara desert from about 8600 BC until the drying climate forced them to the Nile. There they adopted farming, setting in motion the social and technological developments that led directly to the advent of Dynastic Egyptian civilisation in around 3100 BC. The gallery includes displays illustrating afterlife beliefs, early gods, the first writing and technological innovations, as well as a look at the sumptuous afterlife of the First Dynasty kings.

Ceramic mask recently found at Hierakonpolis, displayed in cast in Room 64, courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition.

Ceramic mask recently found at Hierakonpolis, displayed in cast in Room 64, courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition.

Working on the gallery, through the kindness of Tom and Linda Heagy, I have also been able to integrate some of the recent discoveries (in pictures and casts) from the British Museum-sponsored excavations at the site of Hierakonpolis, a major site of the formative predynastic period. Findings there are helping to chart the development of some of the characteristics that came to typify ancient Egyptian civilisation. Current research at other early sites also feature, thanks to the cooperation of many colleagues, too numerous to name, who so kindly supplied information and photographs, often at short notice. Through the display, I hope visitors will gain a better understanding of Egypt at its origin – a fascinating laboratory of dynamic experimentation – and the debt that the Egyptians of later times owed to their early ancestors.

Room 64, Early Egypt, The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery

A recent book, Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, discusses the ethical and practical issues associated with caring for human remains and presents some of the solutions the British Museum has sought to curation, storage, access and display.

Further details about human remains at the British Museum.

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Tattoos in ancient Egypt and Sudan

Marie Vandenbeusch, curator, British Museum

View of the Nile, Fourth Cataract region, before the building of the dam. Photo © Derek Welsby

View of the Nile, Fourth Cataract region, before the building of the dam. Photo © Derek Welsby

One of the eight mummies that are the subject of the exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, the mummy of a woman from Sudan, was discovered relatively recently, compared to the others. Her body was found in 2005, during rescue excavations taking place in the area of the Fourth Nile Cataract, where the building of a dam threatened to flood archaeological sites. The collection of over a thousand human remains excavated during the mission was donated by the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (Sudan) to the Sudan Archaeological Research Society, which then gave them to the British Museum. Arid climate and hot sand had naturally mummified some of these bodies, including the remains of this woman. Her soft tissues are so well preserved that conservators at the British Museum located a tattoo and other marks on her skin.

Evidence for tattooing in ancient Egypt and in Nubia is scarce, and human remains do not provide any indication of the frequency of the tattoos themselves: because of their location directly on the skin they are usually either not preserved or hidden by bandages. The first tangible examples of Egyptian tattoos date back to the Middle Kingdom (about 2000 BC): several tattooed mummies of women were found at Deir el-Bahari. The markings mainly consist of dots and dashes, often grouped into geometrical patterns, such as lozenges, and are usually placed on the chest, the abdomen, the arms or the legs.

Faience statuette of a woman with body decoration which has sometimes been identified as tattoos (Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 10942). Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christian

Faience statuette of a woman with body decoration which has sometimes been identified as tattoos (Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 10942). Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Christian Decamps

Although tattoos are rare on human remains, they seem to be more frequent on female representations. The geometrical decorations commonly adorning Middle Kingdom statuettes are very similar to tattoos found on the mummies of women who lived at the same period. However, the debate about their identification as tattoos is still open and recent discoveries regularly bring new insights to these questions.

Faience wine bowl with female lute player. Egypt, around 1400–1300 BC. National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden (AD 14)

Faience wine bowl with female lute player. Egypt, around 1400–1300 BC. Photo by permission of National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden (AD 14)

Both human remains and decorated figurines take us to the world of dancers and musicians. One of the mummies from Deir el-Bahari is thought to be a priestess of the goddess Hathor, whose patronage of music and dance is well established. There are also depictions showing a figure of the god Bes on the thigh of young ladies who appear to be dancers and musicians. This is not surprising when we consider that Bes, a god who protected the household and the family, was also associated with music and dance. The implicit eroticism symbolised by Bes in connection with these naked dancers seems to be also conveyed by the presence of tattoos.

Tattoo depicting a monogram of Saint Michael on the inner thigh of the woman from Sudan

Tattoo depicting a monogram of Saint Michael on the inner thigh of the woman from Sudan

As is still the case today, the meaning and function of tattoos can vary, some showing affiliation to a social group, others having medical or protective purposes. The naturally mummified woman from Sudan in the exhibition bears a monogram of St Michael tattooed on her inner thigh. It combines in one symbol the letters forming the name Michael (MIXAHΛ) in Greek or Coptic (both languages use a very similar alphabet). The monogram is topped with a cross. The tattoo suggests that the woman was of Christian faith, and may indicate that she hoped to place herself under the protection of the Archangel – one of the patron saints of Nubia.

The monogram of St Michael is already known in other contexts, in particular in Nubia where both the monogram and the representation of the Archangel were drawn on the walls of churches or incised on pottery, but its use as a tattoo was an unexpected discovery. We can interpret the tattoo as an invocation to the saint, but it was also a way of demonstrating one’s faith. Tattoos are still used in this way by Copts who often bear a small cross inside the wrist as a spiritual symbol of their affiliation to a community.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung.

The exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, is available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

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The sands of time: ancient Egypt and early film

Bryony Dixon, curator of silent film, British Film Institute

From Cairo to the Pyramids ( Pathé, 1905).

From Cairo to the Pyramids ( Pathé, 1905).

The British Museum’s new exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries uses the latest imaging technology to help us understand the realities of life and death in ancient Egypt. We have all seen computer-generated images of mummies brought to life in film and TV, for example in The Mummy film franchise that produced 6 films between 1998 and 2012. But if we go back to the late 19th and early 20th century, the Museum visitor would have had a similar preparation. When cinema was born in the 1890s, audiences that came to see the latest novelty would already have been thoroughly familiar with images of ancient Egypt after a century of Egyptomania – Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798, high profile excavations, public mummy unwrappings and Champollion’s well publicised decipherment of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone in the 1820s.

Illustrations of pyramids and tombs littered the illustrated press, and mummies and other artefacts displayed in museums all meant that the iconography of ancient Egypt was instantly recognisable, just as it is today. Elements such as palm trees, sphinxes, hieroglyphs, lotus flowers, the eye of Horus, feathered fans, camels and papyrus scrolls were endlessly recycled for interior décor and stage and film sets. The imagery is very adaptable and very reducible. A simple backdrop of sand, a pyramid and a palm tree and there you are! In the 1890s, ancient Egypt was a source of fascination across the Western world, but particularly in the United States, which adopted it to represent a continuity between ancient civilisation and the emerging status as a superpower: Egypt was preferable to the iconography of ancient Greece and Rome as it neatly side-stepped the legacy of the later civilisations of Europe; the USA wanted something new and unfamiliar, and so ancient Egypt rather ironically becomes associated with modernism. The Western Electric Company built an Egyptian Temple display, complete with glowing electric lights at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, complete with telephone exchange operated by scantily clad Egyptian maids, and a group of men of the same period laying telegraph lines. Ancient Egyptians seem to have been blessed (or cursed) with the power of time travel for hundreds of years. In England, the connection between ancient Egypt and early film is neatly encapsulated in the fact that the first building in England to be influenced by the Egyptian style – the legendary Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly (completed 1812, demolished 1905) – was the site of the public showings of some of the earliest films.

Not only a decorative scheme, ancient Egypt was packed full of stories with great potential for literature and the screen: Bible stories about pharaohs and Exodus, but particularly queenly power, such as the figure of Cleopatra incorporating the exotic, the erotic, and a certain level of allowable nudity. Other narratives had a horror element: talented architects (such as Imhotep) who end up walled up inside tombs, over-mighty kings, slaves, obsession with death and the afterlife (reserved for the powerful), mummification and reincarnation. A recurring theme is one of magic and transformation – mummies come alive, they turn into other things, scarabs and jewels of Egyptian princesses are cursed and change people or carry people across time. Cinema’s unique property is the ability to show these transformations and visualise stories of past civilisations as if they were really happening.

As ancient Egypt was discovered through its archaeological remains, so the stories we have are very focused on architecture and particularly the architecture of death, which lends itself well to film adaptation. Film’s ability to revivify scenes lost in time, both past and future, can re-people an environment that is generally speaking one of dessiccation. Ancient Egypt is the furthest great civilisation that 19th-century man could get back to in historical terms – the point where history met myth. The bleak romance of those cold sands of time – in which a man’s footprint makes an impression that is instantly obliterated by the wind – lent a gravitas to stories which could be exploited by popular culture including film echoing the pharaohs themselves, who left no linear history of their civilisation, just an endless succession of repeated histories, each king trying to destroy the past of his immediate predecessor. Only with the supreme effort of an over-mighty ruler with thousands of slaves could some permanent impression on the landscape be made.

Statue of Ramesses II, the 'Younger Memnon'. The head inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write Ozymandias: ... My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

Statue of Ramesses II, the ‘Younger Memnon’. The head inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write Ozymandias:
… My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

That grandeur and melancholy about Egypt that we find in Shelley’s Ozymandias lends a gravitas to films set in Egypt, as it plays on our long-term preoccupation with our origins, the rise and fall of civilisations, and the fear that everything we hold dear will one day be dust. This epic quality is probably only equalled by stories set in the distant future, in space.

The reason that ancient Egypt is endlessly recycled through film, starting from these earliest examples, is that it plays to the strengths of cinema itself; the bringing closer of the real landscape seen in travelogues and newsreel report and cinema’s greatest magic trick, rendering the familiar stories through the instantly recognisable iconography and visualising the romanticised past.


The British Film Institute (BFI) exists to promote greater understanding and appreciation of, and access to, film and moving image culture in the UK.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung

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In respect of the dead: human remains in the British Museum

relevant image alt textAlexandra Fletcher, curator, British Museum

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676)

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676)

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676). Shown with coffin lid removed.

Mummy of a Priest of Amun and Bastet, named Penamunnebnesuttawy. Found at Thebes, Egypt, 25th-26th Dynasty, about 760-525 BC. (AES EA6676). Shown with coffin lid removed.

The most frequently asked question in the British Museum is almost certainly ‘Where are the mummies?’

Understandably the collections of mummified human remains are a great source of fascination for visitors and the Egyptian galleries are always busy. The current exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries uses the latest CT-scanning technology to see within the mummy wrappings of eight individuals, providing incredibly detailed images of conditions that affected their lives and their treatment after death. It will surely be popular with visitors but these same visitors may not realise that the Museum cares for more than 6,000 human remains, which cover a much broader range of time periods and places than just ancient Egypt.

Lindow man, Mid-1st century AD, Cheshire, England, (BEP 1984,1002.1)

Lindow man, found at Lindow Moss, Cheshire, England. Iron Age, mid-1st century AD, C (BEP 1984,1002.1)

Plastered skull, from Jericho, State of Palestine, about 8000-7500 BC. (ME 127414)

Plastered skull, from Jericho, State of Palestine, Neolithic Period, about 8000-75000 BC. (ME 127414)

Some individuals are well known, such as Lindow man, the Iron Age bog-body found in Cheshire in north-west England. Others lie in storage facilities both on and off the main Bloomsbury site. They range in date from the truly ancient Jericho skull, a Neolithic skull decorated with plaster around 9,000 years ago, to more recent remains relating to individuals who died in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of the remains in storage are skeletons but there are also examples of preserved soft human tissues and human remains that have been modified into new forms or incorporated into other objects. These present different challenges for museum staff in ensuring that these individuals are respectfully stored in the best conditions to ensure their continued preservation. This means any handling, study or treatment of the remains is done within the context that they were once a living human being; a person who in common with people today had thoughts, emotions and life experiences.

So why do we curate and display human remains at all? This is a controversial subject that has been debated for a long time and will continue to be discussed. There is no doubt that there have been, and will continue to be, huge benefits in having human remains available to study. The benefits of research however, must be set against the feelings of communities with strong connections to some of the human remains within museum collections. The British Museum has experienced several repatriation claims (see under related links on our Human Remains page), which are carefully considered on a case-by-case basis. Research using museum collections has been able to advance knowledge of the history of disease, epidemiology and human biology. It has also given valuable insight into different cultural approaches to death, burial and beliefs. This knowledge continues to grow as different techniques and approaches to such studies are developed and the total body of knowledge – within which comparisons can be made – expands.

Inside Room 62, Egyptian death and afterlife: mummies. The Roxie Walker Gallery

Inside Room 62, Egyptian death and afterlife: mummies. The Roxie Walker Gallery

Display of human remains, both physically within museum galleries and online, is an important part of sharing this information to the widest possible audience. This not only spreads knowledge but may also help to generate enthusiasm for learning about our past; hopefully for the benefit of future generations. Of course, display should be done with careful thought. There is no justification for the voyeuristic display of human remains simply as objects of morbid curiosity. As in storage, displays of human remains must acknowledge that the remains were once a living person and respect this fact. Human remains should not be displayed if they are not central to the information being conveyed and this has led to removal of some skeletal remains from British Museum galleries. Where possible, visitors should be able to avoid seeing human remains should they not wish to and the views of source communities should also be respected if they do not wish ancestral remains to be on public display.

There is no final word on such matters and no doubt the decisions made today will seem as out of step with current thinking in the future, as do decisions made by earlier generations of museum workers 50, 100 and in some cases 200 years ago. Looking after human remains in museums will therefore continue as a respectful balancing act across the boundaries of ethics, learning and access.

If you want to know more, a recent book, Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, discusses the ethical and practical issues associated with caring for human remains and presents some of the solutions the British Museum has sought to curation, storage, access and display. The book also discusses some of the research that has developed our understanding of these individuals’ past lives.

Further details about human remains at the British Museum.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung

The exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, is available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, edited by Alexandra Fletcher, Daniel Antoine and JD Hill is also published by British Museum Press.

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Mummies, mobiles and 3D printing

Katherine Biggs, Education Manager, Digital Learning Programmes, British Museum

As the doors open on the new exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre (SDDC) has launched its own Egyptian season to complement the exhibition’s technological focus. The launch could not have been better timed, with the fantastic news this week that the British Museum and Samsung have been awarded an Arts & Business Award for their long-term partnership through the SDDC.

Talk like an Egyptian – 24 May 2014

The SDDC’s Egyptian season features a series of activities for families and teenagers throughout the exhibition run, and showcases some of the innovative ways in which technology can be used to engage young audiences with the Museum. The first event of the season, Talk like an Egyptian, launched on 24 May, and encouraged children as young as five to put themselves in the shoes of different Egyptian characters from the collection. They then used computer software, microphones and their imagination to bring them to life.

In the Egyptian Galleries. Photo © Benedict Johnson

This week, a completely different activity launches as part of the Marvellous Mummies half term event for families. Families will borrow mobile phones to collect the different objects needed to furnish an Egyptian tomb. Exploring the galleries, children will scan QR codes to understand ancient Egyptian funerary beliefs. Mobile technology continues to be hugely popular with visitors, and for this reason we will also be running our augmented reality trail Passport to the afterlife.

As the summer dawns, so will new activities. In June we will be launching Exploring ancient mummies, a drop-in session for families based in the Samsung Centre where children can use different digital technology to find out more about the Museum’s mummies. Expect digital microscopes, video footage and exciting exploration through our interactive surface table. The activity includes some fascinating case studies from the Conservation and Scientific Research team, which never fail to amaze our young audiences.

3d printer

3D printer at work in the SDDC

Replica amulets and 3D printed copies

Replica amulets and 3D printed copies

The most eagerly anticipated event of the season is our 3D printing weekend. As I write, the printers are in and the filament warming up. Inspired by the exhibition’s beautifully reconstructed 3D amulets, we will be asking children to recreate a choice of three amulets using computer aided design technology: an eye of Horus, a heart scarab or a djed pillar. They will be able to decide on their chosen amulet after handling examples from the collection and discovering the different spells associated with each. The amulets will then be printed in the Great Court, where visitors can also learn about 3D printing and how it is used within different parts of the Museum. To complement this activity, children will then be able to design their own amulet, and ascribe them special powers. These amulets will be brought to life using 3Doodler pens, which create 3D shapes from plastic filament as you draw.

A second day of 3D activities is aimed at our 13-18 audience. Working with a professional 3D artist, participants will animate an Egyptian river scene, using techniques and computer aided design software commonly used by the games industry. They will also have the chance to 3D-print their models. This event was fully booked shortly after it went online, with many adults disappointed that they are too old to join in. 3D printing continues to wow and stimulate thought, and we hope that next weekend will do both.

So that the grown-ups don’t feel left out, we will be opening the SDDC doors as part of the BM/PM Curse of the Mummy event when the Centre will play host to a pop-up Egyptian photo booth using green screen technology, Photoshop and of course props to transport visitors to ancient Egypt. This led us to think that a similar activity for families would be brilliant using a series of five different photo booths with different technology and collection pieces in each one. Hopefully the exhibition will extend its run so that we have even more time to try out new ideas!

The Samsung Digital Discovery Centre is sponsored by Samsung

Ancient lives, new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner: Samsung

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Eight mummies, eight lives, eight stories

John H Taylor and Daniel Antoine, curators, British Museum

We may think that we know the ancient Egyptians on account of the abundance of carved and painted images and the many texts on stone and papyrus that have survived, but these sources convey a formal, partial and sanitised view; to a large degree they tell us only what the Egyptians wanted posterity to know.

The first mummy entered the Museum’s collection in 1756, and for the past 200 years none of the mummies have been unwrapped. But modern technology, in the form of the CT (computed tomography) scanner, has transformed the way that we can study them, allowing us to see within the wrappings and the mummified bodies, in a non-invasive and non-destructive manner.

We can now look behind the mask of material culture and encounter the actual people of the ancient Nile Valley through a forensic study of their remains – and these often tell a different story to the one we knew before.

The scanning process captures thousands of cross-sectional images of the mummies at a thickness of 0.6 mm for every ‘slice’. These show internal features in startling detail, and by stacking the slices together and using volume rendering software, the mummy can be viewed on screen as a three-dimensional model. ‘Segmentation’ allows continuous surfaces of the same density – whether bone, textile, or artefacts such as amulets of faience or metal placed inside the wrappings – to be visualised and studied separately with precision and clarity.

Padiamenet, a temple doorkeeper. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contained his mummy. 25th Dynasty, c. 700 BC (EA 6682)

Padiamenet, a temple doorkeeper. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contained his mummy. 25th Dynasty, c. 700 BC (EA 6682)

The new exhibition Ancient lives: new discoveries highlights some of the remarkable findings that have been made using this method, bringing together a selection of eight mummies from the Museum’s collection, interactive displays showing visualisations and displays of related objects to shed further light on the life and death of these ancient people.

Tamut, a high-ranking priest's daughter. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contains the mummy.

Tamut, a high-ranking priest’s daughter. Shown here is a detail of the cartonnage case that contains the mummy.

Scan showing calcified plaque deposits, called atheromas, found in Tamut's left femoral artery, that runs along the thigh bone (femur).

Scan showing calcified plaque deposits, called atheromas, found in Tamut’s left femoral artery that runs along the thigh bone (femur).

Visualisation showing a view of Tamut's feet, with metal covers on her toenails and a large sheet-metal image of the winged scarab beetle Khepri propelling the disc of the sun, placed inside the mummy-wrappings.

Visualisation showing a view of Tamut’s feet, with metal covers on her toenails and a large sheet-metal image of the winged scarab beetle Khepri propelling the disc of the sun, placed inside the mummy-wrappings.

The mummies we have selected originally lived in a span of over 4,000 years, from about 3500 BC to AD 700, and came from a range of sites, from the Faiyum in Upper Egypt to the fourth cataract region of Sudan. Through them we have sought to illustrate the different aspects of the experience of living and dying in settlements along the Nile Valley. We see their faces and discover their ages, and find out from which illnesses they suffered – all things that are usually absent from the written record. We know something about what they did in life, what they ate, and what might have contributed to their death. Some of the evidence uncovered by the scans shows that diseases we often think of as ‘modern’ were prevalent then – for example, we can see very clear images of calcification of the arteries in two of the adults, Tamut, Chantress of Amun, and Padiamenet, the temple doorkeeper. This would have meant that both of them were at risk of developing cardiovascular disease and might have died from a heart attack or stroke.

Mummy of an unknown man from Thebes, around 600 BC. EA 22814

Mummy of an unknown man from Thebes, around 600 BC (EA 22814)

Visualisation showing a virtual section across the head of the man from Thebes, revealing the embalmer's tool (in green) and brain residue (highlighted in blue) found inside his skull.

Visualisation showing a virtual section across the head of the man from Thebes, revealing the embalmer’s tool (in green) and brain residue (highlighted in blue) found inside his skull.

The CT scans also allow us to glimpse some of the secrets of the embalmers who mummified the bodies. In the skull of a man from Thebes, who lived around 600 BC, it has been possible to visualise the small hole made inside the nose, through which most of the brain was removed. Unusually, a portion of his brain was left behind, perhaps because the probe which the embalmer was using broke off, and is clearly visible on the scan, lying in the back of the skull.

We hope that this exhibition will help to change the perception of museum visitors towards mummies. We are privileged to have these people of ancient Egypt and Sudan among us today. Our investigations into some of the fundamentals of human life – such as diet, disease, personal adornment, and childhood – help to remind us that all of the mummies were once living people and should be treated with respect, care and dignity.


Ancient lives: new discoveries is at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung

John Taylor and Daniel Antoine are also authors of the exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum, edited by Alexandra Fletcher, Daniel Antoine and JD Hill is also published by British Museum Press.

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New evidence of human cancer found at ancient Amara West

scan of human bone

Michaela Binder, Durham University and Neal Spencer, British Museum

Cancer is one of the world’s most common causes of death today, but there is little evidence from before industrialisation: almost nothing is known about the history of the disease in the past. We generally assume cancer is strongly related to modern lifestyle and environment. But the analysis of skeletal and mummified human remains recovered during archaeological excavations can provide insights into such diseases in the distant past.

Until now, only a small number of skeletons with evidence for cancer have been identified. While the oldest primary bone cancer is around 6,000 years old, the earliest example of bone metastases related to a soft tissue cancer dates to around 3000 BC. However, because only the skull is preserved, there are doubts about the accuracy of the diagnosis. Only nine more individuals with – often tentative – evidence of cancer predate the first millennium AD. The majority of these individuals come from Ancient Egypt. This is perhaps mainly because the long history of archaeological research has resulted in a very large amount of skeletal and mummified human remains becoming available for study. They are very well preserved and have received a great deal of attention from medical doctors and physical anthropologists since the 19th century.

View southwest over Amara West town, on the Nile river. Photo: Susie Green.

View southwest over Amara West town, on the Nile river. Photo: Susie Green.

In February 2013, the skeleton of a man who died between the age of 20 and 35 years was excavated in a tomb at Amara West, in northern Sudan. Founded around 1300 BC in the reign of Seti I, the town was designed as a new centre of the Egyptian control of Upper Nubia (Kush). The British Museum has been working at the site since 2008. Excavations in the town allow us glimpses of ancient lives: how houses were refurbished, what people ate, religious and ritual practices, where rubbish was disposed – and how the town changed over two centuries of occupation. Bioarchaeological work in the cemeteries is providing further insights into the ancient inhabitants: their life expectancy, diet and health.

The underground chamber tomb where skeleton 244-8 was buried

The underground chamber tomb where skeleton 244-8 was buried

Skeleton 244-8. The scarab (inset) was placed in the man's hands.

Skeleton 244-8. The scarab (inset) was placed in the man’s hands.

This individual (skeleton 244-8) was buried in a large underground chamber tomb (G244), perhaps used for a family around 1200 BC. The body was placed in a painted wooden coffin, with an Egyptian-style scaraboid placed in the hands. The bones of the torso, upper arms and upper legs have a large number of holes, 5-25mm in diameter. Radiographic examination of the bones revealed the holes are even larger beneath the bone surface. These holes were caused by metastatic carcinoma spreading from a soft tissue cancer: the oldest complete skeleton of a metastatic cancer found, anywhere, to date. The study, jointly conducted by researchers at the British Museum and Durham University is being published in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One.

Small holes in the breast bone (arrows). The radiographic image shows enlargement and additional holes underneath the surface.

Small holes in the breast bone (arrows). The radiographic image shows enlargement and additional holes underneath the surface.

What caused such a case of cancer? Schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease which was and still is a major health problem in the Nile valley, can cause breast cancer in men. Smoke from woodfires within houses continues to be a problem in modern Sudan. At Amara West, most of the small houses were provided with cylindrical bread ovens, often three side-by-side in a small room. Careful excavation has revealed that many of these oven rooms were roofed: these would have quickly filled up with smoke, exposing people to potentially harmful substances.

Small room in house E13.4, originally roofed, with three bread ovens

Small room in house E13.4, originally roofed, with three bread ovens

Understanding the evolution, history and factors that could have caused cancer prior to the onset of modern living conditions is important not only for archaeology but even more so for medical research. Skeletal human remains, set within a well-documented historical, archaeological and environmental context are a key element for any such attempts. This may in future be crucial to develop new research strategies and therapies in order to tackle what has become the world’s deadliest disease.

The identification of such cases, and other diseases, among the population of towns such as Amara West, provides a more direct sense of ancient experience than those provided by ancient texts, architectural remains or the objects people left behind.

Follow the latest from the British Museum team now excavating at Amara West: http://blog.amarawest.britishmuseum.org/
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Reading an ancient Egyptian poem

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collectionRichard Parkinson, curator, British Museum

Reading an ancient poem is often a difficult experience, and academic traditions do not always help.

The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant, was written in Egypt around 1850 BC and is a darkly passionate work, concerning a peasant’s quest for justice after his goods are stolen. But its elaborate style has made many academics regard it as simply a source of ancient words/vocabulary and grammar and not as a poetic work of art.

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collection

The opening sections of the poem written on a papyrus in the British Museum collection

So once, when teaching a class in Germany, I was struck that when I asked ‘what does this verse of poetry mean?’ a student replied ‘it is a perfective verb-form’. Which is an important fact, of course, but it is not the total meaning of the poetry (and not at all the answer I was looking for!).

Last year I published a new commentary on The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant to try and encourage a deeper engagement with the poetry. As well as notes on its construction and language, I included, among other things, pictures.

In the poem, the peasant hero is beaten with a stick of iser, ‘tamarisk’. It is a minor detail, unless you visualise the shrub as you read, and remember both that it is very whippy and that it grows everywhere on river banks. The poet uses this particular plant to characterise the action as not only highly sadistic but also opportunistic: the villain grabs whatever is to hand to attack the hero. Everywhere in the poem, a concrete visualisation of the imagery allows the reader to realise the vivid interconnectedness of the poet’s thought.

A tamarisk in the Wadi el-Natrun

A tamarisk in the Wadi el-Natrun

The new commentary also placed text, translation and all the notes on a single page to help the process of reading as a single integrated experience: the reader does not have to flick between different sections for comments on the grammar, historical allusions, or possible meanings. Everything the reader needs appears together in one glance, and I look forward to seeing if this has worked for students when I take up a new job teaching Egyptology in Oxford.

The ability of the poem to still speak to audiences is nowhere better sensed than in the mesmeric prize-winning film of Shadi Abd el-Salam (1970), recently restored by the World Cinema Foundation, and they have generously allowed us to include an image of the actor Ahmed Marei as the frontispiece.

Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film; courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre.

Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film; courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre.

This is a gesture towards the humanity of the original — a reminder that the poem was written by an individual for his contemporaries (and not for Egyptologists). This may even be the first time that an Egyptological commentary on a literary text has included a photograph of a living person. And this living and subtle work of art gained new resonance with the Egyptian revolution of 2011. As author Ahdaf Soueif noted then, it represents an Egyptian tradition of non-violent protest against any abuse of authority, and it is, in the words of Shadi Abd el-Salam, ‘a cry for justice, a cry that persists throughout the ages’.’

Find out more about the Reading Ancient Egyptian poems research project

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Filed under: Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , ,

Tomb figures from Ancient Egypt

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of HorendjitefAnders Bettum, University of Oslo and postdoctoral fellow, British Museum

For the past three months, I have had the pleasure of working on the British Museum’s collection of a particular kind of funerary statues, known to Egyptologists as Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures. The Museum has 117 of these figures, originating from various periods and many sites in Egypt. The assessment, documentation and registration of the collection have been possible due to the new postdoctoral fellowships which were granted by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan for the first time this year (next year’s fellowships are now advertised).

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Panakht

Anders in the Enlightenment Gallery, where the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Panakht (EA9749) is on display.

From the 19th Dynasty (ca. 1295-1186 BC) to the Greco-Roman era, Egyptian elite burials were often equipped with a statue of a deity in the form of a mummy (mummiform). The god in question is identified as Osiris in the earlier sources, and later as the composite god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. The name ‘Osiris’ may be familiar to many readers from the myth in which he defeats death and becomes the king of the dead in the Netherworld. Through the funerary ritual, the dead were assimilated with Osiris, hoping they too could live on happily in the Netherworld among gods and ancestors. The statue may therefore have been regarded not only as an image of the god, but also of the deceased. Ptah is one of the principal creator gods from Ancient Egypt, and the merging of this god with Osiris resulted in a powerful promise that death would be followed by new life. Sokar, the third member of the triad, was also a popular Netherworld deity. Like Ptah, he originates from the ancient capital of Memphis, and the two were often associated with one another. All three deities were depicted mummiform in the iconography, Ptah and Osiris as mummified men, Sokar as a mummified falcon.

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Neswy

The magnificent Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Neswy (EA9737)

What I was soon to learn on arrival at the Museum is how complex these statues are. The figure itself, ranging in height from 30 to 60 cm, is carved from one piece of wood, plastered, painted in vivid colours and inscribed on the front and back with hieroglyphic texts. For the richest burials, the face and other details of the figure were gilded. The polychrome decoration is sometimes coated with a black, resinous varnish. Pegged to the head is a composite crown consisting of two elements: a vertical pair of model ostrich feathers emerging from a sun-disc and a horizontal pair of ram horns. The false beard on the chin is sometimes carved as a separate piece. A peg was left also under the feet of the figure, to fit into the mortise in a rectangular base. The base was colourfully painted, in some cases with depictions of water basins, lotus flowers and other symbols of resurrection, power and life. It was also inscribed with hieroglyphic texts. Occasionally, a model sarcophagus was carved as a separate piece and mounted to the front of the base. On top of the sarcophagus, a small mummiform falcon is perched, facing the mummiform figure. A single statue therefore consists of about seven separately carved pieces.

But that is not all. What makes the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures different from all other funerary statues is the peculiar fact that they are not only images of the deceased assimilated to certain gods, but also containers of a certain object. A Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure always has a cavity carved into it, either in the base or in the figure itself. In the 19th to the 22nd Dynasties, the contained object was usually a papyrus inscribed with funerary texts to aid the transformation of the deceased in the afterlife. The famous funerary papyri of Hunefer and Anhai were found inside such statues. In later times, the papyrus was replaced with a part of the mummy of the deceased or alternatively a substitute thereof, a so-called ‘corn-mummy’.

Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Horendjitef

Mummy-shaped cavity in the base of the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure of Horendjitef (EA9736). The content, which appears to be a mummified lump of grass, is still intact.

Throughout the more than one thousand years in which these statues were in use, a great variety of mechanisms for closing the cavity are attested. Most impressive are perhaps the figures that were carved like anthropoid coffins, with a case and lid that were closed and sealed before being inserted into the mortise of the base. Another common type is the model sarcophagus that worked as a sliding lid, and can still be ‘clicked’ into place with a simple push to close the cavity.

It is intriguing to think about the time, effort end skill that went into the production of these objects, and how people living thousands of years ago assembled the statue, filled it with its mysterious contents before sealing the cavity and placing the it in the tomb. These activities were undoubtedly ritualized and carried out by mortuary priests as part of the larger funerary ritual.

Model coffin

This colorful statue (EA 9884) was made as a model coffin. The name of the owner has not yet been deciphered.

With their polychromy and glint of gold, the inscriptions, the complexity and mechanical aspect, the hidden ‘treasure’ inside and its connection to grand mythological and ritual narratives, the Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure have always been popular collector’s items. The manageable size of the object must also have contributed to their rapid distribution to museums all over the world. Studying the collection of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures in the British Museum, I have come across no less than 290 related objects. In addition to the 117 figures, the collection consist of a number of loose bases, ram horns, ostrich feathers, model sarcophagi and mummiform falcons that parted with their figure decades, centuries or even millennia ago. Only about a dozen are relatively intact assemblages, but this number will hopefully increase as more parts are matched with one another.

Every piece has now been thoroughly documented for the benefit of researchers and curious visitors. The analysis of the materials contained within still remains to be done, and will undoubtedly cast new light on a funerary custom that is still poorly understood.

Find out more about the Ancient Egypt and Sudan postdoctoral fellowships for 2014

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Filed under: Collection, Egypt and Sudan,

Wine and monks in Christian Egypt

Wine and monks in Christian EgyptJennifer Cromwell, British Museum

For the better part of three months, I’ve been obsessed with wine and monks.

The monks in question were residents of an Egyptian (Coptic) monastery dedicated to Apa Thomas and located in Wadi Sarga, a valley in central Egypt, dating from the sixth to late eighth centuries AD (from the fourth century, Egypt was one of the most important centres of monasticism in the early Christian world). The site was excavated in a single season before the First World War and the British Museum was the principal recipient of objects found at that time: almost 2,800 objects made from pottery, glass, metals, wood, stone, bone, and textiles. The Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan also holds the original excavation notes and photographs of the excavator Reginald Campbell Thompson. Despite this wealth of material, the monastery is often overlooked in studies on Egyptian monasticism.

Archival photograph showing remains of the monastery of Apa Thomas at Wadi Sarga (AES Ar 1260)

Archival photograph showing remains of the monastery of Apa Thomas at Wadi Sarga (AES Ar 1260)

One of the reasons for this is that less than 15% of this material has been published. My three-month postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan has been part of the process to rectify this, as part of Wadi Sarga at the British Museum, a larger project under the direction of curator Elisabeth O’Connell. This project brings together specialists from across the UK and overseas, focussing on different aspects of the collection. My focus is on the written evidence from the site.

A selection of texts from Wadi Sarga (clockwise from top left): EA 56631 (fragment of a liturgy); EA 55778 (an order to pay wine to a nun called Irene); EA 69889 (a broken inscribed bowl, preserving ‘Jesus Christ, Brother …’); EA 55876 (a wine receipt, dated 8 September)

A selection of texts from Wadi Sarga (clockwise from top left): EA 56631 (fragment of a liturgy); EA 55778 (an order to pay wine to a nun called Irene); EA 69889 (a broken inscribed bowl, preserving ‘Jesus Christ, Brother …’); EA 55876 (a wine receipt, dated 8 September)

Some 385 texts written on pieces of pottery, or potsherds (the standard writing medium at the site, known as ostraca), limestone stelae, papyrus (now in the British Library), and wall graffiti were published in 1922. Over 1,000 additional items bear text of some type, from letters to lists to labels. My first task was to photograph all this material. A search for “Wadi Sarga ostracon” in the Museum’s collection online now returns 1,441 objects with images. This resource is available for everybody interested in this topic, and means that I can continue my own work on the monastery upon my return to Australia (Macquarie University, Sydney).

My main interest is how these monks lived and how the monastery functioned: how they spent their time, what they ate and drank, and who they communicated with in the outside world and why. In everything, wine looms large.

Jennifer Cromwell, Postdoctoral Fellow in Ancient Egypt and Sudan, photographing ostraca from Wadi Sarga

Jennifer Cromwell, Postdoctoral Fellow in Ancient Egypt and Sudan, photographing ostraca from Wadi Sarga

The monastery owned vineyards throughout Egypt, as far north as the Fayum, almost 400 km away along the Nile. Somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of wine entered the monastery each year. A proportion of this wine was used to pay labour wages for camel herders, craftsmen, and goods suppliers and was sent out to other communities. But the monks also consumed a fair share themselves. Wine was the main drink in this period of Egyptian history and the monks were no exception; remains of glass goblets (currently being studied by my colleague Jane Faiers) attest to its consumption on site. In addition to standard wine, which didn’t have the same alcoholic content as that which we consume today, we find “new” wine, “old” wine (probably not “vintage” — there was no Château-Lafite Rothschild being supped over dinner), and “unmixed” (pure) wine. After consuming the wine, many amphorae, easily identifiable by their thick pitch internal coating, were broken and used to write other texts, often themselves mentioning wine.

The names of many monks are known, but it’s difficult to build biographies of most of them and to understand who they were. We know even less about what they looked like, but every now and again we are treated with a more personal glimpse. Two unpublished ostraca preserve broken visages. The first, EA 70766, has a doodle of a shaggy-haired monk with a thick mono-brow above two heavy eyelids. This (self?-) portrait was drawn in a moment of boredom from practicing writing exercises and is one of a couple of doodles on this school text. The second, EA 69879, is part of a bowl with the name Phib scratched into the surface. On the broken base of this bowl are the scratched-in eyes, nose, hair, and hands of Phib, his hands waving at us from over 1,300 years ago.

EA 70766 (left) and EA 69879 (right) showing broken images of monks from Wadi Sarga

EA 70766 (left) and EA 69879 (right) showing broken images of monks from Wadi Sarga

The texts, as part of a large body of material from Wadi Sarga, provide an excellent source for understanding life in these centuries, and are the next best thing to actually sitting down with Phib over a glass of wine and picking his brain.

A select number of items from Wadi Sarga is on display in Room 66: Ethiopia and Coptic Egypt.

Find out more about the Wadi Sarga at the British Museum research project

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Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , , , , ,

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