Accessing Egyptian archaeology through a British Museum exhibition

As an Egyptologist, currently working at the British Museum, I’ve been involved in a number of archaeological digs, but most of my research life has been devoted to trying to make sense of what other people have dug up and trying to share it with a wider audience. And that’s what I’ve been busy doing today.

A lot more ancient material than people might imagine has been found and then relatively ignored in pursuit of new discoveries, and it’s not always shared with as many people as it could be. Part of the work of the curators at the British Museum, whom I have been lucky to join as part of the BM’s Future Curators programme, is trying to make sense of the archaeological legacy that has been left to us. Curators have many different responsibilities, including current fieldwork, but they also persevere in contributing research on the museum’s existing collections, which is made freely available to the public in an online database, online research catalogues, and online journals. Outside researchers are also gladly welcomed to work on the collections; there’s always more that can be learnt from the objects.

Most of what I’ve been working on today relates to a BM UK touring exhibition, Pharaoh: King of Egypt, which I’ve been highly involved in, that opened recently in Newcastle before it tours the country. The exhibition explores the ideals and realities of kingship in ancient Egypt, and, as part of the BM’s Partnership UK programme, allows objects from the national collection to tour to museums outside of London.

I started today with further research into the objects that are currently part of Pharaoh. Exhibitions shed light on objects both literally and figuratively, bringing them out of storage to be shared with thousands of curious people, as well as being an excellent prompt to pursue further research into them. My hands on research, examining the details on objects up close, has sadly already passed, and now I’m chained to the computer and library books, fleshing out the context. Today I finally got round to working on one of my favourite objects from the exhibition, the massive wooden tomb guardian statue from the tomb of Ramses I. It towers at about two metres high and through the conservation work done on it, we learned that it is surprising in its construction as it is made from native Egyptian sycamore wood rather than the imported cedar wood which was usually used for large objects. Making sense of the object also involves tracing its history back to its discovery by Giovanni Battista Belzoni in 1817 and some subsequent misinterpretation in later publications!

Of course, as all archaeologists will understand, my research time didn’t last long, as administration, meetings, and other commitments took over. I worked on our slowly evolving project of making the Pharaoh website a better guide and online catalogue for the exhibition: today we added the exhibition themes to the website, which you can see here. Then we had a debriefing meeting to discuss what we learned during the installation of the exhibition at the Great North Museum: Hancock to help us better prepare for transporting and installing the objects in the subsequent venues around the UK. All sorts of things like scheduling, personnel, improved packing techniques, security, and providing contextual information and images were discussed.

Finally I also exchanged farewells with our visiting curators from Egypt and around the world, who were here for the past 6 weeks as part of the British Museum’s International Training Programme. I led a couple of sessions with the visiting Egyptian curators, as well as attending some of training sessions alongside the ITP participants, and I certainly learned as much from them as I was able to teach. On their last whole day here yesterday, they presented their ideas for future exhibitions based on some of the new approaches they’d learned from colleagues at the BM, partner museums, and each others. It was amazing to see presentations on exhibition concepts like the trade route between China & Europe or Somali wedding traditions, and given in partnerships such as Brazilian and Nigerian curators working together.

One can always learn more, whether from meeting new people or revisiting old objects, and continually asking questions is one of the most important tenets of archaeology.

Children and Families Workshops

I’m one of the ever increasing breed of part-time workers and freelancers.  In the past twelve months I have worked for five different organisations including the British Museum, Geffrye Museum, Sir John Soane Museum, National Army Museum and at Hackney Museum for the Building Exploratory.  The most difficult part of my job is remembering where to head to each morning!

For this Day of Archaeology post I’d like to present to you the ‘Create a Canopic Jar’ children’s workshop that I’m running at the Sir John Soane Museum.  Truly a fabulously quirky and endlessly fascinating museum, if you haven’t been I highly recommend it (although be careful of the queues for their candle-lit openings).

The workshop description is thus:

Explore the Ancient Egyptian secrets of mummification and look at the magnificent sarcophogus of Seti I.  Then make your own Canopic Jar fit for a Pharaoh.”

It caters for 10 children who will spend the day with me in the Soane Museum and their education space.  The workshop itself will take place in early August but the preparations began far in advance.  It was over a year ago that I came up with this concept and was booked in to run the workshop.  In the last few months I have been planning the workshop logistics, creating material lists & resource, and, most importantly, doing a test run.  Always important to do a test run!  As well as seeking out potential problems it also helps to refine the process, you can work out where breaks should be (lunch time is a sacred time that no workshop must impinge on!), write process lists and make sure you know what’s what and when to do what.

And, with a workshop like this, you get to get your hands dirty (I used to be a fieldwork archaeologist, I miss the mud), so doing a test run is even more appealing!

So, test run day came and, with much excitement and a little trepidation (I’ve never worked with modrock before and my modelling skills aren’t exactly world renowned) I began to create my own canopic jar.

Advisory notice:  No organs were harmed in the making of this post.

Materials I had to hand:  modrock (like the stuff they use to bandage broken limbs), newspaper, masking tape (vital!), empty plastic squash bottle (although my Mother, when looking at my pictures of the test run, thought that it was a glass bottle and asked me if I should use glass with children… I am a professional you know…), bowl, tepid water, yeowling cat (I threatened him with mummification but he didn’t seem worried).

Step 1:  Make a newspaper tube that will enable the head to be slotted into the top of the squash bottle.

Canopic jar step 1

Step 2:  On the top of the aforementioned newspaper tube create the head of the canopic jar as a ball of newspaper.  Make ears and any other features for the head. Liberal use of masking tape is advised.

Canopic jar step 2

Can you guess which head I’m making yet?

Step 3: Masking tape ears and other features to head ball.

Canopic jar step 3

Step 4: Check the head fits snuggly into the squash bottle.  At this point you may need to tape the squash bottle down with duct tape, I didn’t do this.  Cue ‘hilarious’ moments during the next few steps of balancing squash bottles whilst modrocking, gently pushing cat from under feet and needing at least four arms.

Canopic jar step 4

Step 5: Quick cup of tea – necessary preparation as tepid water is needed so you might as well have tea as well. Put a layer of newspaper on the counter and put tepid water in a bowl (I suggest one that isn’t precious to you).  Now wrap the head carefully in modrock.

Canopic jar step 5

Step 6:  Stand back and admire your work so far.

Canopic jar step 6

Step 7:  Modrock the squash bottle, one layer is enough.  Give the cat a treat so that he stops trying to interfere with the artistic proces.

Canopic jar step 7

Step 8:  Voila!  Canopic jar is complete!  Well, except for adding painted decoration, but my workshop is only one day and so the children won’t have time to do this.  They will design on paper the head decoration and can complete this at home once the modrock is totally dry.

Canopic jar step 8

At this stage it is also advisable to ignore certain family members who liken your creation to Bugs Bunny.

I am also devising other activities that will complement this workshop and help to fill the whole day.  These include creating card collars for the jars (dual purpose – will be decorated like Egyptian necklaces but also serve to hide the join between head and bottle), the design of the decorated head, a tour round the museum and a discussion of the practice of mummification (to highlight not just the process but the reasoning behind it).

Workshops like this are designed to enthuse, occupy, interest, create learning opportunities and engage.