British Museum blog

Death, the great equaliser: Christianity on the Middle Nile

Julie Anderson, Assistant Keeper (curator), British Museum

A herd of Sudanese camels (photograph © J. Anderson)

A herd of Sudanese camels (photograph © J. Anderson)

People are often surprised to discover that two of the largest Christian kingdoms in the medieval world were in Sudan in northeast Africa. Ibn Selim Al-Aswani, an Arab traveller, visited Sudan in the 10th century AD and described the region north of Old Dongola, capital of the medieval kingdom of Makuria, situated roughly 750 kilometres upstream of Aswan Egypt, as an area of ‘about thirty villages, with beautiful buildings, churches and monasteries, many palm-trees, vines, gardens, cultivated fields and broad pastures on which one can see camels’.

Further to the south, Soba East, capital of the medieval kingdom of Alwa, located near modern-day Khartoum, was said to have ‘fine buildings and large monasteries, churches rich with gold and gardens’. This conjures up quite a romantic picture of medieval Sudan and provides us with an insight into the world in which the Sudanese female mummy, now in the exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, had lived. Was medieval Sudan as idyllic as it sounds?

Wall painting of a Nubian queen protected by the Virgin Mary and Child (Sudan National Museum 24362). (photograph Rocco Ricci © Trustees of the British Museum).

Wall painting of a Nubian queen protected by the Virgin Mary and Child (Sudan National Museum 24362). (photograph Rocco Ricci © The Trustees of the British Museum).

I am captivated by the medieval wall-paintings of saints, apostles, bishops, royalty, biblical stories and archangels, particularly those unearthed by the Polish archaeological mission in the Cathedral at Faras, Sudan, a site situated near the modern Sudan/Egypt border and now beneath the waters of Lake Nubia/Nasser. The paintings were discovered and rescued during the 1960s UNESCO salvage campaign to save the monuments of Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia threatened by the creation of the Aswan High Dam reservoir, and it is their singular beauty that inspired me as a student to focus on Sudanese and Nubian archaeology. To this day, I remain entranced by the richness of Nubian culture. The portrait in the Sudan National Museum of a Nubian queen or noblewoman, held within the protective embrace of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, is particularly striking. Splendidly attired, the queen bears a small cross on her forehead demonstrating her Christian faith to the viewer whom she gazes directly at. The age at which she was depicted is perhaps close to that of the Sudanese mummy, who would have been between 20 and 35 years old at time of her death.

The Sudanese mummy was very likely not a queen, but in death rich and poor alike received similar burials. The conversion to Christianity in the 6th century AD by missionaries from the Byzantine Empire brought about one of the most profound changes ever experienced in the Middle Nile Valley. Churches and cathedrals herald the arrival of Christianity as they replaced the earlier temples to pagan gods. The traditional system of rites and beliefs was swept away and, in its place, totally different attitudes towards death and the afterlife were introduced. Unlike earlier burials, those of the Christian period were not provided with sumptuous grave goods or food offerings. They were sparsely endowed, if at all. Death was a great social equaliser.

Christian graves were simple tombs with small, flat-topped rectangular superstructures of brick or stones that covered a narrow grave shaft. The deceased was wrapped in a shroud, and the head was often protected by a brick or stone. Bodies were placed on their backs in an extended rather than crouched or contracted position. More elaborate tomb superstructures were plastered white; they might be cruciform in shape or have rounded tops. Graves were orientated east–west, though in some places this was done according to the orientation of the Nile rather than true north. The west end of the tomb, the end which corresponded to the location of the head of the deceased, was sometimes equipped with a lamp-box, a small niche which provided protection from the wind for a lit lamp.

Pottery lamp from Faras Cemetery 4, grave 39, excavated by the University of Oxford Expedition early in the 20th century. (British Museum EA 51771)

Pottery lamp from Faras Cemetery 4, grave 39, excavated by the University of Oxford Expedition early in the 20th century. (British Museum EA 51771)

One such lamp (EA51771) was excavated from Faras Cemetery 4 early in the 20th century by the University of Oxford Expedition led by Francis Llewellyn Griffith, and is now in the British Museum’s collection. The disc on the top of the lamp is decorated with a rosette, and a retrograde Greek inscription reading ‘Great is the name of God’ adorns the shoulder.

Decorative relief frieze with an eagle or dove from the First Cathedral at Faras, 7th century AD (British Museum, EA 606).

Decorative relief frieze with an eagle or dove from the First Cathedral at Faras, 7th century AD (British Museum, EA 606).

Artistic expression was not restricted to wall-paintings or ceramics (though traces of wall-paintings have so far been found in over 50 medieval churches), but also encompassed many minor arts such as basketry, leather and metal-work and textiles. Architectural elements were often embellished with Christian motifs. Such powerful religious symbolism is evident in a 7th-century decorative sandstone frieze (EA 606) from the First Cathedral at Faras. It depicts an eagle or dove surmounted by a cross, standing between columns and altars with its wings spread. This piece, originally part of a sequence of 24 birds, may have adorned the cathedral’s apse. Its yellow background with the relief features highlighted in black would have created an eye-catching, yet pious band of decoration which alluded to the resurrection of Christ, and it may have been something upon which our Sudanese mummy or her contemporaries gazed during their lives while contemplating salvation and paradise.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is on 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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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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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

Filed under: Ancient lives: new discoveries, Samsung Digital Discovery Centre, , , , , ,

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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