British Museum blog

Colourful glass adornments from Egypt: an 18th-dynasty enigma

Anna Hodgkinson, Research Fellow, British Museum

The author inspecting the glass objects

The Egyptian 18th Dynasty (around 1545-1290 BC) is renowned for the quality of glass production, particularly vessels such as the famous bottle in the form of a fish from Amarna. I have spent the last three months in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan studying a less well-known group of glass objects from the same period.

These have been widely interpreted as ‘ear-plugs’ or ‘ear-studs’. I was intrigued: how did this interpretation come into existence? The overall form of the – very colourful – glass objects resembles that of mushroom- or papyrus-shaped ear-studs, frequently found in New Kingdom contexts, with a large number coming from Amarna and depicted on tomb scenes and mummy cartonnages. However, what struck me as unusual was that all the examples in the British Museum have a small hole running through the centre of the object. Although scholars refer to these items as ‘ear-studs’ or ‘ear-plugs’, publications from over a century ago, including some by Sir Flinders Petrie and bead specialist Horace C. Beck, call them beads or amulets, because of this piercing.

The glass objects laid out during the documentation process

The objects were produced by wrapping molten glass rods around a metal rod; however, this procedure would not have necessitated a complete piercing. Scholars have suggested that the frontal hole, which would be visible if these items were worn through a pierced ear-lobe, may have accommodated a fresh flower. While this is conceivable, I would rather interpret these items as beads, since most of them have a spiral-decorated shaft. This shaft would be invisible when worn through the ear-lobe. The beads could have been threaded horizontally or vertically, worn in collars or on the ends of wigs.

Unfortunately, there is no pictorial nor three-dimensional evidence for how these objects were worn, nor do the archaeological contexts tell us much about their use. Most have been found individually, rather than in pairs, and those that appear on the art market and in private collections are usually without provenance (i.e. information about the context in which they were originally excavated or found). This shows that we must be cautious with how objects are designated, because they may be based on conjecture rather than evidence.

My time in the British Museum has allowed the updating of nearly 240 records of items of glass jewellery of the New Kingdom with full descriptions and measurements, and full photographic documentation, accessible to all through the Museum’s Collection online.

Filed under: Collection, Research, , , , , , , , ,

The Beau Street Hoard: Not quite the end… conservation, outreach and further investigations

replica of coin block before conservation
Hazel Gardiner, Metals Conservator, British Museum

The soil block after excavation of the hoard and prior to dismantling and return to the archaeologists who carried out the excavation.

The soil block after excavation of the hoard and prior to dismantling and return to the archaeologists who carried out the excavation.

For those who have been following the progress of the conservation of the Beau Street Hoard on the blog, I am delighted to announce that all the coins – around 17,500 of them – have now been cleaned to required identification standards, that is, to the point where the legend and significant features are readable. Conservator Julia Tubman carried out the bulk of this work on the c.17,500 coins contained within the hoard. Additional work has been carried out on a small number of these coins and conservation has also been carried out on c.400 coins that were initial finds from the outer edges of the hoard, before the hoard proper was unearthed. This last group of coins were in particularly poor condition and most required substantial chemical and manual cleaning. These coins were held in numbered paper envelopes, some of which corresponded to small find numbers allocated when the hoard was excavated.

Envelopes containing initial coin finds associated with the Beau Street Hoard

Envelopes containing initial coin finds associated with the Beau Street Hoard

The soil block that held the hoard has now been dismantled and returned to the archaeologists who carried out the initial excavation for final sifting and checking for palaeoenvironmental remains: that is, material that might provide further contextual information about the coin hoard.

A washed but otherwise untreated coin from surface scatter coins showing the thick cuprite (copper oxide) layer obscuring the surface.

A washed but otherwise untreated coin from surface scatter coins showing the thick cuprite (copper oxide) layer obscuring the surface.

At the time of Julia’s last post, she reported that one of the coin clusters (bag 4), had been scanned. As with the other coins in the hoard, the clustered corroded coins retained the positions that they would have held in the bag in which they had been deposited. In this instance the bag shape was particularly well preserved. The initial scan was carried out at the British Museum by Martin Cooper of the Conservation Technologies Unit, National Museums Liverpool (NML). The scan data was used to create a 3D computer model, which was then 3D printed to make a replica of the coin bag using Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), a process that uses a laser to fuse particles of plastic or other material into the required three-dimensional form. A plaster cast was then made from the print and this was painted to resemble the original coin cluster, by conservators at NML.

replica of excavated coin block

The replica of bag 4

The replica has proved very popular among visitors to the Roman Baths and was shown at a Beau Street Hoard community consultation event run by staff at the Roman Baths earlier in 2013. Members of Bath Ethnic Minority Senior Citizens Association (BEMSCA) were among those who handled the replica. As a three-dimensional record of the original form of the coin bag, which of course no longer exists now that the coins have been conserved, the replica is an excellent supplement to the information gathered about the hoard, an invaluable means of allowing people to gain some sense of the physicality of (at least part) of the hoard.

Further exciting news is the forthcoming analysis of what appear to be animal skin remains from the bags used to store the coins. In one of Julia’s earlier posts she noted that traces of what appeared to be skin product, preserved by metal corrosion products, were found on the outside of each cluster of coins, suggesting that leather bags may have been used to house the coins. Professor Matthew Collins and colleagues at BioArCh (University of York), are hoping to extract collagen from the samples provided and to identify the species of animal skin used. Identification of the animal species will be made by peptide mass fingerprinting, an analytical technique for protein identification. We look forward to hearing the results of their investigations.

Possible skin product preserved by corrosion products from the coin beneath.

Possible skin product preserved by corrosion products from the coin beneath.

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

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Filed under: Beau Street Hoard, Conservation, , , , , ,

Recording old cauldrons with new techniques


Stephen Crummy, archaeological illustrator, British Museum

As illustrator in the Department of Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum, I am always looking for the best way to help our curators interpret an object. My role is to produce artwork that shows the form, construction and nature of objects and any decoration on them so that they can be clearly understood. This will usually result in illustration for academic publications and exhibitions as a result of research work on the Museum collection, or excavations.

Traditionally I have produced pen and ink technical drawings but new opportunities are available through various computer-generated methods of recording, analysing and understanding information about objects and excavation. With the Chiseldon Cauldrons material, I am exploring some of the possibilities of these new technologies, and in this case using photogrammetry and laser scanning programs to produce 3D records of the archaeological remains of individual cauldron blocks as they are excavated by Alex and Jamie.

Three-dimensional scan results

Three-dimensional scan results

We are using a laser scanning system to produce 3D computer models of the individual pieces from each cauldron. This is achieved by plotting a thin red laser line as it is slowly moved across the surface of an object. Having recorded each piece we are hoping to use the photogrammetry programme to virtually re-construct the blocks as excavated.

The early results we achieved proved somewhat variable, especially with the laser scanning, but we are now starting to produce some very good quality scans in terms of both modelling and colour accuracy.

The plan is to produce virtual models of each cauldron as excavated which will enable us to understand much better what they would have originally looked like, and how they were made. It is also hoped that an overall plan of the pit and its contents can be reproduced. We’ll also be able to produce artwork for both printed and online publication, and to generate virtual re-constructions for publication and display. As we create interesting images, we’ll also post some of them here on the blog so you can see what we’re finding.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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

Unearthing the cemeteries at Amara West

Michaela Binder, Durham University

Michaela Binder excavating a burial chamber in tomb G305

In wintery, snow-covered Durham preparations for the coming season of work in the cemetery are underway, with only six weeks left until the new season starts. During January and February, we will return to Cemetery C, the post-New Kingdom necropolis first excavated in 2009.

The international team of three archaeologists – including myself and two new team members from the UK and Canada – all specialise in the excavation of graves and human remains.

This is crucial because we are likely to encounter complicated multiple burial situations, and only archaeologists with experience and understanding of human skeletons are able to recover all of the evidence. For example, the way in which individual bones lie when discovered can indicate whether the bodies were disturbed shortly after burial or later, after the soft tissue had disappeared.

A view over excavations at cemetery C in 2009.

During the six weeks in the field we will extend the area investigated in the previous season further to the east and to the north. A magnetometric survey is used as a guide towards promising areas, allowing us to pinpoint exactly the location of graves and tomb shafts.

Cemetery C is particularly important as it dates to a period in history about which relatively little is known, after the pharaonic occupation of the area ceased.

2.	Inspector Shadia Abdu Rabo with pottery from post-New Kingdom tomb

The finds and human remains will help us to find out more about how people lived, and what religious and cultural beliefs they were following.

We already know from the previous season in 2009 that the graves yield a large range of well preserved wooden furniture, pottery and other grave goods such as jewellery and scarabs.

An exciting new season starts in less than 40 days…


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Filed under: Archaeology, Amara West, , , ,

Getting prepared

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Amara West, Sudan

Far from the British Museum, preparations are underway for the next phase of excavations in the Amara West research project.

Amara West is an ancient town in northern Sudan, which was occupied by pharaonic Egypt between 1500 and 1070 BC. We’ve been studying it since 2008, carrying out archaeological digs every year. Our next season starts in January when we’ll be writing regular updates on our progress.

For now, I’m here with Claire Messenger, who co-ordinates the British Museum international training programme, for a two-week visit to meet with colleagues from the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums (Sudan) and to prepare the project house for the busy season ahead.

During excavations, a team of 10-15 specialists lives in a converted mudbrick house, on the nearby island of Ernetta, a short boat-trip from the ancient site. This picturesque island features clusters of traditional Nubian houses set among date-palm groves and small plots for growing fava beans and other vegetables. Three mosques, three small shops and a cemetery are also found on the island – but no vehicles.

The island seen from the river Nile

The house, owned by local primary school teacher Kawsar Mohamed Ali, is arranged around large courtyards, and is designed for the local climate, particularly the cool verandahs to encourage airflow during the summer heat. However, aspects of the house need to be changed to fit with our requirements: installation of showers, creation of object and equipment stores, and of course more bedrooms than the typical family needs. Throughout, we are trying to retain the original appearance and ambience of the house.

Mud-bricks laid out to dry next to the expedition house

Skills not taught in Egyptology or archaeology courses are needed here! Local builders are employed to convert the house, using a mixture of traditional materials (mud, sand, mudbricks) and more modern products (cement, electrical wiring). There is no mains electricity here on the island, or in the nearby area, so we only have power in the evenings, run from the neighbour’s water-pump (it doubles as a generator). Loading up the water tank

All our water comes from the Nile, for washing, cooking and drinking – we use ceramic filters to make sure it’s pure.

Many key pieces of equipment are not available locally, so earlier this week we bought a 500-litre fibreglass water tank in the capital city, Khartoum, strapped it to the roof of a Landcruiser and drove the 700 km north to site. We hope the water-tank will ensure we have a more reliable supply of water in the coming seasons. Throughout it all we’ve had the tremendous assistance of our Sudanese inspector, Shadia Abdu Rabo.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, , , , ,

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