British Museum blog

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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London, a world city in 20 objects: Korean moon jar

Korean moon jarSascha Priewe, British Museum

Conventionally known as ‘moon jars’, dalhangri in Korean, because of their suggestive shape and milky-white glaze, these vessels are considered a high point of Korean ceramic production during the Choson period (1392-1910).

Korean moon jar

Korean moon jar

This jar in the British Museum is one of only 20 such vessels remaining in the world. It stands 47 cm high and was produced in around 1650-1750. It was made by joining the separately thrown top and bottom sections together, thereby creating a visible joint at the centre. Although there is no firm evidence about the use of moon jars, it has been proposed that food or drink may have been stored in them or that they held flowers.

Moon jars have recently become popular in Korea and abroad. These vessels have inspired a broad movement in contemporary Korean art. Some artists, such as the famous ceramist Park Young-sook (b. 1947), whose modern moon jar is also represented in the British Museum’s collection, have recaptured their aesthetic and technical accomplishment; while others feature moon jars as a motif in paintings, photography and art installations. In this way, moon jars have become to be an icon of Korean art.

During the Choson period, Confucianism became the dominant ideology of the upper class. A moral philosophy, Confucianism governed the conduct of social relationships, and it still remains important today. It also had an impact on Choson-period aesthetics by encouraging a preference for restraint in decoration and likely contributing to the popularisation of plain white ceramics. The moon jar with its imbalance and minor imperfections in the white glaze epitomises this approach towards objects.

The British Museum’s Choson moon jar has a special connection to the United Kingdom. It was acquired by the British potter Bernard Leach (1887-1979) during a trip to Korea in 1935. Leach, who is often regarded as the ‘father of British studio pottery’, took much inspiration from certain East Asian ceramic traditions and incorporated aesthetic sensibilities, such as “nobility, austerity, strength, and warmth” that he identified, into his works. Decidedly anti-industrial, British studio potters strove to re-discover traditional artisan pottery – the ‘peasant pottery’- that Bernard Leach found resonated with many of the East Asian pieces he venerated. It is tempting to think that the British Museum’s moon jar from Korea helped to define the aesthetics of British studio potters.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 20 December 2012.

The Korean moon jar is on display in Room 67: Korea

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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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Find out more about the Amara West research project

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After-excavation care at Amara West

Elisabeth Pamberg, archaeological illustrator/conservator

Salt crystals on the rim of beer jar C8008

I visited the stores where we keep the objects excavated from the site, to check they were in good condition. Objects from a site like this one often contain salts that could damage them, so I wasn’t surprised to observe that several objects had salt crystals on them, particularly the pottery and some stone sculpture.

The artefacts retrieved at Amara West are subject to environmental conditions which include high humidity and salinity, the result of the site’s proximity to the Nile. Ceramic and stone buried in soil absorb the salts present in the deposits.

Beer jar C8007 after desalination this week

Following my advice, and discussions with Marie Millet and Neal Spencer, two beer jars from grave 201 were chosen for treatment, as they were affected by salt, with a thick visible layer of white concretions.

The salts are harmful and are not only an aesthetic issue; they obscure the object’s surface and can lead to surface exfoliation – the surface lifting off. Eventually, the crystallisation of salts can lead to disintegration.

The most efficient way to extract salt consists of soaking the objects in water over a long period of time, though extra steps need to be taken with fragile objects, or those bearing paint.

The removal of soluble salts can be a very lengthy procedure. In this case, the jars were bathed repeatedly in plenty of warm water for a period of eight days with the water being changed every day.

Unfortunately, no distilled or deionised water and conductivity meter (to measure the decreasing level of salt) is available here. Nonetheless, soluble salts appear to have completely disappeared from the jars, ensuring their long-term preservation.

Looking to future seasons, we might consider testing salt levels in the local river water, which is used for washing all pottery prior to study, recording and storage.

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Top of the pots

Marie Millet, College de France, Paris

Marie Millet sorting pottery in the Ramesside town

Since the first season of excavation at Amara West in 2009, I have been studying the pottery vessels from both the town and its cemeteries. I’m now getting back into the rhythm of living and working in Amara West and the island of Ernetta where the expedition house is located.

Typically, I work at the site twice a week – for an initial sorting of the masses of pottery which comes from the town – then the remainder of my time is spent in the study rooms and pottery store.

Cooking jar from 20th dynasty house, about 1130 BC (C4000)

Most of the pottery is broken into small pieces (sherds), but diagnostic fragments (rims, bases, decorated pieces, handles …) can allow us to identify the original shape of the vessels. Of course, we do also find complete vessels.

Firstly, all the pottery needs to be washed, for which we employ a local workman named Salah Mohamed Ali. Special recording sheets are then used to record the characteristics of ceramics from each individual archaeological context (pit, wall, oven, occupation layers).

The proportion of different types of vessel can provide information on the function of a room or space. For example, the middle room in a Ramesside house yielded a cooking jar but also trays for baking bread (dokka). In the middle of this room there was a fireplace and a grinding-emplacement, suggesting the space was used for food preparation.

An ancient kitchen? A plan of the room where the cooking jar was found

In contrast, the room next door, at the back of the house, yielded a small jug (C4019), of a type used for perfume or ointment, so this room may have been more private – perhaps a bedroom?

Ointment or perfume jug (C4019)

Despite much of the ceramic looking rather unimpressive, it can clarify important aspects about ancient life, including food preparation, trade patterns and also the chronology of different occupation levels.

It is crucial that the ceramic evidence is recorded accurately – both drawn and photographed. An archaeological illustrator, Elisabeth, helps out with some of the drawings. Eventually, these will be published, allowing the finds from Amara West to be compared with those from sites across Egypt and Sudan.

All of the pottery stays in our storeroom, so it is always a race against time to finish studying it. In fact, we are always playing catch-up: this week I am working on pottery from last year, while material floods in from ongoing excavations.

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Back on site

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Surveying newly discovered graves in the post-New Kingdom cemetery

Following months of planning, preparation and travel it is always a relief to start work – but also rather unusual in that the initial days of excavation are very different from later in the season.

In the town, we must first remove deep layers of sand that have accumulated in the houses we partly excavated last year. There are no finds or pottery in these deposits so there is little recording and a fair bit of waiting before we reach real archaeology.

Clay floor revealed in the middle room of a small Ramesside house, about 1150BC

In two of the small houses, we are already down on earlier clean clay floors, with the remnants of a cooking hearth in the middle room of each house. It is likely that further occupation phases lie beneath.

A trench inside the southwestern corner of the wall is proving a little frustrating. Here, the buildings have been badly damaged by digging for clay, so there are deep pits filled with clean sand.

Looking for the southwestern town beneath thick layers of sand

Only a few fragments of walls have appeared so far, despite over 20 men and six wheelbarrows working seven hours a day to remove the sand! Sandbags are needed to keep up the trench sides.

In cemetery C, the team has revealed a number of small graves with niches for burials, but thus far all have been robbed, with only jumbled skeletal remains and fragments of pottery remaining. The robbers missed one nice object in Grave 220 – a faience scaraboid with a representation of Thoth as a baboon in place of the usual beetle form.

Faience scaraboid (F9312) with representation of Thoth, from Grave 221.

Another reason that the start of the season is unusual is that the daily rhythm has yet to crystalise – many of us are still setting up systems for later in the season (including a new electricity supply!), ordering and obtaining equipment from the town of Abri, while also trying to integrate new workmen into our digging system – we’ve hired 38 men this season.

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
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