A Day in the Life… of a curator of an archaeological collection

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View of the Middle Kingdom terrace of nomarchs tombs on the north hill at Dayr al-Barsha, from the south hill.

After spending most of the year working with archaeological material in the Garstang Museum collection, it’s great when I get to be back out in the field in Egypt. As a curator of an archaeological collection, working with artefacts in their original context is a valuable reminder that all our objects, even those that have no recorded provenance, had an added value and meaning that can only come from understanding the way in which they were used and deposited. We can try to reconstruct that information for our museum collections by scouring the original excavation notes, where they still exist, but sometimes that information is lost for good. The next best thing is to compare the collections to material currently being excavated, where recording of context is now more thorough and precise than was common in the past.


Excavating small finds in 2012 from a burial chamber in tomb ‘5’ at Dayr al-Barsha.

In 2012 I joined the team from KU Leuven working at Dayr al-Barsha, Egypt, where I excavated shaft 5B in the First Intermediate Period/early Middle Kingdom tomb of the local governor Aha-nakht. Although it had been looted (at least twice – in antiquity and between 1894-1915) the shaft and its associated offering niche and burial chamber had never been systematically excavated before. As a result, we found many of the burial goods still in place – presumably where they had been placed during the funeral of the individual buried there. This included quite a collection of alabaster, faience and even copper objects.

Those objects were fairly simple to record and understand – after all they were largely intact and in their original context. It was the other major find of the excavation that was to prove more problematic. That was the wood….

There was a lot of wood in the burial chamber. It mostly seemed to be in the form of planks. I say ‘seemed’ because rain entering the tomb over the millennia had led to the wooden material becoming very degraded, and affected by fungi. There was a mixture of pieces that were relatively intact, and those that had turned to dust. Some pieces were so fragile that, although they looked whole, they would disintegrate the moment they were touched – they proved an interesting challenge to remove and carry down the cliff for storage and analysis in the dig house!


The confusion of wooden material before excavation. The planks found leaning against the wall contained incised and painted coffin texts.

The material was so confused that we weren’t entirely sure what we were dealing with at the time. We presumed, from comparison to other burials of the date and area, that we were finding the remains of a nest of two coffins, pulled apart by ancient looters. Several pieces had coffin texts, clearly visible even in the gloomy light and dusty environment of the burial chamber. The wood was all recorded, consolidated, and moved to the excavation stores by the end of the season in 2012.

As no material may be taken out of Egypt, we have only a limited time to study it each year, during the dig season. It was not until 2017 that I began to work in earnest on the wooden finds. Work on the wood had been begun by others before this, so when I arrived on site that year I already knew we were dealing with not only coffin(s), but also a canopic box. Using the plans I had produced during the excavation, we could see that all of the material that was found in a particular area came from the box, not the coffin. And we have been able to restore almost 50% of it, including an entire side. This was a big surprise as the material had looked jumbled beyond recognition – and that just goes to show why precise recording is so important during excavation!


The work space where we have been drawing, describing, conserving and generally puzzling out the mass of wooden planks from the burial chamber.

There were three of us working on reconstructing as much of the coffin as possible from the remaining wood – myself, the mission mudir Harco Willems, and conservator Mohammed Sayyid. It was an incredibly complex jigsaw puzzle, not only due to the extreme deterioration of the wood but also the presence of ancient repair pieces and additions, and the appearance of small bits of wood from other burials in the area (presumably introduced during looting) which gave plenty of red-herrings.

It has been slow going but, amazingly, more and more of the coffin – and we’re now sure it is one box coffin, rather than a nest of two or more – came together. It is even possible to read large chunks of the coffin texts – if you’re a renowned expert on coffins like Harco Willems, that is. I’m still at the stage where I can only recognise Dd-mdw and DHwty (the god Thoth) from the vague scratches remaining of the hieratic inscriptions on this coffin!

If you’d like to know more about this coffin, check out this post from the expedition.


Drawing fragments of coffin containing texts has been a very time consuming, but ultimately rewarding, process.

Working on material like that from this excavation really adds to our understanding of museum collections, like those in the Garstang. For example, model alabaster vessels and faience Hs-jars are not an uncommon type of object in museum collections. But more often than not, they are completely out of context – at best we know the tomb they came from, but not their position within that burial, or their physical proximity to other objects. By examining the context of the Dayr al-Barsha material we can begin to understand more about the nature of the funeral ceremony itself, which can then be carefully extrapolated to cover other sites – like the shaft tombs excavated by Garstang at Beni Hassan, which produced material of a similar nature.

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Shaft tombs at Beni Hasan that were excavated by John Garstang, as they appear today – photograph taken on a day off from analysing coffin fragments at Dayr al-Barsha, located in easy driving distance of Beni Hassan.

Although in many ways it would have been much easier if we had discovered a perfectly intact coffin, there are still new things to be learned from very damaged examples like this one. For example, I was able to have a close look at some of the construction methods of the coffin. We found copper coils of various sizes and shapes, which had been used to lash the coffin boards together. Because we carefully recorded the exact locations where we found these coils, we could see exactly how the different coffin boards had originally been bound together. And this is something that is rarely so apparent in a complete object – who would take apart a perfectly preserved coffin, to see the exact winding of the copper ribbon holding it together?!


If you would like to read more about the excavations at Dayr al-Barsha, please do check out the expedition web-page, which includes an extensive bibliography of publications related to the project.

By Gina Criscenzo-Laycock, curator of the Garstang Museum of Archaeology


I can’t finish the post without a special thank you to my research assistant in 2017, Marcelle. I may have been able to get through double the amount of work without her constant presence, but it wouldn’t have been half as fun!

A bust, some tiles and the Goddess Hathor…

Working closely with objects from the Ancient World is a real privilege. You often find yourself imagining who might have worn a set of beads, or who sat on the chair with lion feet. What was the world like? And what were these objects witness to? With so many amazing objects in our collection it’s often difficult to pick a favourite. However, while we have been away from our collection and have had time to reflect, we have asked our volunteers just that!


Museum volunteer, Lauren Darshan

The sculptured head of Hathor is my favourite object in the museum! Garstang discovered it while excavating at the site of Esna. The level of detail and craftsmanship is striking; I always find myself noticing something new when I walk past. The 3D rendering of the cult image makes it very life-like and her name can be read next her face, adjacent to the plumed headdress she wears. There is a sun disk between the feathers which symbolises her connection to the solar god Ra.


E.66 Head of engaged statue of the goddess Hathor, excavated at the site of Esna (Egypt) by John Garstang.

There are even remnants of paint on the object – especially on the cartouche next to her cheek. However, what really makes this my favourite object is that there are traces of gold leaf; she was painted this way to portray her divinity, as gold was believed to be the skin of the gods. You can only imagine how wonderful this piece would have looked when it was first sculpted and painted thousands of years ago. And yet it’s incredible to me that, despite some damage, it has and still continues to look out across time.


Museum volunteer, Juliet Spedding

Amongst the many items on display at the Garstang Museum are six unassuming objects (E.100-105).  They are green rectangular-shaped tiles. Visually they don’t compare to some of the other objects, they don’t attract the same attention from the public as a mummy does.  Yet it is what they are made of, their age, and the place that they were initially displayed that makes them special.

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E.100-105 Faience tiles from the Step Pyramid complex of Djoser, Saqqara (Egypt).

These objects are faience tiles from the pyramid complex of Djoser who was pharaoh during Egypt’s 3rd Dynasty (c.2667-2648 BCE).  Djoser was the first pharaoh to have a pyramid built for him – known today as the Step Pyramid due to its unique stepped appearance.  Pyramids did not stand in isolation and had whole complexes around them. It is from part of this complex that these faience tiles come.

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The Step Pyramid of Djoser. Photograph (c) François Philipp.

Faience was the first man-made non-clay ceramic. Even by Djoser’s time faience was nothing new, as it is believed to had been around since the Badarian Culture (c.5500-4000 BCE).  To create faience requires a control and understanding of chemistry, as well as a knowledge of how to use the ingredients to produce something that will not fall apart.  With these tiles they succeeded, as they have survived for over 4,000 years! Even the most unassuming looking objects can unlock insights into ancient cultures and technologies.


Museum volunteer, Mark Hayward

My favourite object is probably not what you might think. Given my PhD is on soul-houses and offering-trays it would be natural to assume that one of the examples held by the Garstang museum would my favourite but, while I do like them a great deal, they are not. My favourite object isn’t even on display, at least not in the usual sense.

On first entering the museum the visitor is faced with a head. A bust. A rather grand bust that has caused more than a few first-time visitors to jump when they catch sight of it. The model for the bust was of course our museum’s namesake, Professor John Garstang. Born in Blackburn and a graduate of Oxford University, John Garstang founded the Liverpool Institute of Archaeology in 1904 and was the professor of Archaeology at the University of Liverpool between 1907 and 1941.


Bust of John Garstang at the museum entrance (with festive decoration!)

So, why do I like the bust so much? Well, the museum has a number of pictures on display of Professor Garstang at work in Egypt. The photographs show a young, rather roguish man (another story entirely) standing in front of tombs, grinning at the camera. The bust however shows a very different sort of character. A much older, more distinguished, and, dare I say, more serious man greets each visitor on entry, but I like to think that behind the sober gaze of the older Professor, the more playful and animated young archaeologist is still there grinning at us too!

Music in Ancient Egypt

Music was just as important to the ancient Egyptians as it is to us today. Egyptian musicians and singers performed during all sorts of social occasions and religious festivals. We even have lyrics from the songs sung by farmers working in the fields.

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From the tomb of Pahery at el-Kab. Transcription and translation from John Gardiner Wilkinson (1841) A second series of the manners and customs of the ancient Egyptians (Vol 1; London), page 88.

We know how highly the ancient Egyptians valued music from the tomb paintings they left behind. Subjects did not appear on tomb walls simply because they looked nice – tomb owners went to the trouble and expense of decorating their tombs with these scenes because they wanted them to appear with them in the afterlife. Scenes showing the harvesting of crops are there to provide the tomb owner with food for eternity, and likewise scenes showing musicians playing are there to provide the sort of entertainment they enjoyed during their life.

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Musicians depicted in the 6th Dynasty tomb of Pepy-ankh Hery-ib at Meir. Photograph by Gina Criscenzo-Laycock.

Tomb art shows us that musical instruments were played individually or collectively in groups. We have representations of musicians accompanied by singers and dancers and even some with a figure that has been identified as a cheironomist, a kind of conductor.

The instruments played by the Egyptians would be quite familiar to us, representing all three of the main instrument categories: string, wind and percussion. All of which are easily recognisable today.


E.8617 Sandstone block from a temple at Meroe, Sudan. A Hathor-headed sistrum is held in the hand of a king, queen or deity.

The sistrum for example is a percussion instrument like a tambourine or rattle. Closely associated with religious festivities, and the goddess Hathor in particular, the sistrum is often depicted in tomb art and many examples have survived. Perhaps due to its religious associations, some of the surviving sistra are actually replicas. These ‘model’ sistra are also have spells or charms written on them in order to accompany the deceased in their tomb.

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E.202 Faience model sistrum dating to the New Kingdom, featuring the goddess Hathor.

Other types of percussion instruments used include clappers, cymbals and bells. Drums were also used but surviving examples are actually quite rare and the majority are now in the Cairo Museum.


E.7027 Fragment of ivory clapper depicting the goddess Hathor.

Harps could range from small hand-held instruments with four strings to much larger ones that were as tall as the musician playing it. It has been estimated that some of these larger instruments could have covered a range of two octaves. The Egyptians also used an angled harp which was made from two pieces of wood forming a rough right-angle with the strings stretched across the long edge.


JG-I-B-100. Harp found between two coffins in tomb 287 at Beni Hassan.

By studying the ancient instruments that have survived it has been possible to reproduce some of the sounds they made and even speculate as to what scales may have been used in composition. We do not know if the ancient Egyptians used something similar to the A-440 concert pitch we use today, but we do know from the Greek philosopher Plato that a system of music theory did exist and that musicians were expected to adhere to it. For example, by altering the length of the strings on a harp, either by sliding the strings along the top arm or moving the whole suspension rod itself, it is possible to change the notes produced. By doing this a musician could tune a stringed instrument to a given note produced by a pipe or flute.

Blog credit: Mark Hayward, PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool, and Garstang Museum volunteer.

Join Louise Dickinson for her latest singing tutorial ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’, where she’s accompanied by some of our very own dancing artefacts!

Meroë: Africa’s Forgotten Empire


Reconstructed statue of the god Arensnuphis, found in fragments at the temple of Isis (M600). Meroë, 1911 (JG-M-V-86).


120 kilometres north of Khartoum lie the ruins of ancient Meroë. For almost a thousand years (c.700BC-AD330) Meroë was an important religious and administrative centre in the Kingdom of Kush.

One of the earliest cities in Africa outside Egypt, Meroë was at the heart of a complex, literate culture. Abandoned in the fourth century, the ruins were re-identified as the ancient city of Meroë in 1772. Between 1909 and 1914, the site was excavated by Liverpool archaeologist John Garstang.

Today, Meroë is recognised academically as among the most important sites in the history of ancient Sudan, but its history remains all-but-unknown to the general public. Overshadowed by its northern neighbour, Egypt, Meroë remains Africa’s forgotten empire.

Archaeological Photography

John Garstang was among the first archaeologists to make use of photography to record excavations. The University of Liverpool maintains a large collection of his glass negatives. Among the most impressive finds at Meroë is the head of Augustus, now in the British Museum, likely taken to the site as a war trophy.


Head of a bronze statue of the Roman emperor Augustus. In the background, Robin Horsfall holds a backcloth. Meroë, 1911 (JG-M-AA-61).



Female statue discovered in the ‘palace’ (M295), after restoration. A local workman holds a backcloth. Meroë, 1912 (JG-M-LA-34a).



Photograph of the tipping buckets used to transport debris from the site using an ‘aerial railway’. Meroë, 1914 (JG-M-GB-10).


Finds from Meroë

The artefacts discovered at Meroë, large and small, were of remarkable quality.
Lions featured prominently in Meroitic art and sculpture, likely in honour of the Meroitic god Apedemak, who was often depicted with a lion’s head.
Another distinctive feature of Meroitic material culture is the thin, highly decorated pottery styles found throughout the site.


Large stone lion statue found at the ‘palace’ site (M295). The lower half was found close to the surface, separated from the upper section. Meroë, 1912 (JG-M-H-24).



Headless statue of a captive, kneeling and bound at the elbow and ankle, found at the Lion Temple (M6). Bound captives are a theme found in both Egyptian and Meroitic art. Meroë, 1910 (JG-M-V-03)



Two pieces from bronze sistrums (musical instruments, associated with religious rituals in Nubia and Egypt), found inside a jar at the ‘palace’ (M294). The handle is in the form of Egyptian goddess Hathor. Meroë, 1911 (JG-M-H-10).



Three cups reconstructed from fragments found at Meroë. All have the extremely thin walls and smooth surface texture characteristic of Nubian fine ceramics.
Painted decoration on Meroitic pottery ranges from geometric patterns and floral depictions, to detailed imagery of animals, people, and gods. The freeform nature of art on Meroitic ceramic wares is in direct contrast to the rigid styles found in Egyptian art.
In addition to painted motifs, three dimensional designs were created using stamps, impressions, and applied decoration. The spiked leaf pattern cup (left) is a particularly unusual example.
Meroë, 1913 (JG-M-NA-28).


Language and Art

The culture of Meroë was heavily influenced by ancient Egypt, in both art and religion. The ancient Egyptian language, and its hieroglyphic script, functioned as a sacred language at Meroë. It was used for monumental and religious inscriptions.

The Meroitic people spoke their own language, which was not related to ancient Egyptian. However, when they devised a script of their own it was based on Egyptian writing systems. They made use of this script in later periods for monumental texts, in both hieroglyphic and cursive forms. Although the writing system was deciphered over a century ago, the Meroitic language still cannot be understood, and linguists are not certain to which family of languages it is connected.

Meroitic art drew on Egyptian canons, but had its own distinctive style. The figures typically possess a fuller figure than their more slender Egyptian counterparts. Figures in Meroitic art also tend to be dressed more elaborately than ancient Egyptians. The long, richly patterned clothes of the Nubians contrast with the Egyptian preference for more plain, typically white, linen garments.

While elements familiar from Egyptian reliefs such as the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt appear, other iconographic elements are distinctly Sudanese. In the scene fragment below, the heavy, rectangular earrings worn by the king and queen are particularly Meroitic, as are the items in the queen’s hands.

Animals such as elephants, not normally part of the Egyptian canon, are also found prominently in Meroitic sculpture and relief. Lions also occupy a far more central position in Meroitic art than they do in Egyptian.

Classical art also appears to have influenced the art at Meroë, with several statues found in reclining, classical poses.


Three carved blocks found at the Temple of Amun (M279), depicting Queen Amentari and her consort, Netek-Amun. Queens played a very important, if imperfectly understood, role in Meroitic culture. A number of queens with the title kandake ruled the kingdom alone, or (as in the case of Amentari) jointly with a consort. This prominence of queens at Meroë led the Roman historian Pliny to believe that the Meroitic Kingdom was always ruled by a woman named Kandake. Meroë, 1910 (JG-M-D-25a).



Fragment of inscription in Egyptian hieroglyphs found near the centre of the city (M293), with the name of the Meroitic King Aspelta (c.600-580bc) written in a cartouche. Aspelta is believed to have been the king who established Meroë as the capital of the Kushite Kingdom, after the earlier, more northern capital at Napata was attacked by the Egyptian Pharaoh Psamtik II in 592BC. Meroë, 1911 (JG-M-V-28b).



Upper fragment of a stela (inscribed stone) in Meroitic script, found at the lion temple (M10). The inscription is topped by a winged scarab beetle clutching a sun-disk in its lower legs. The content of the inscription is unknown. Meroë, 1910 (JG-M-E-10)


The Amun Temple

John Garstang found many monumental structures at Meroë, including several buildings he identified as palaces and temples. The large temple of the Egyptian god Amun was likely built after the middle of the first century AD.

By the Egyptian New Kingdom (c.1539-1075BC), Amun had become the chief deity of the Egyptian pantheon, and his cult was exported to Nubia in this period. Amun was the most prominent deity in Meroitic religion, with many of the names of Meroitic kings and queens, such as Analamani and Amentari, containing the Nubian vocalisation of his name.

Amun is frequently depicted in ancient Egyptian and Sudanese art in the form of a ram. Two rows of ram statues would once have lined the way to the temple at Meroë.


John Garstang at work in the ‘Ptolemaic’ kiosk of the Amun temple (M280). A broken ram statue can be seen in situ at the entrance to the kiosk (lower right corner of image). Although the superstructure is mostly destroyed, the original layout of the kiosk, with six columns, is clearly visible. Meroë, 1909 (JG-M-D-04).



Decorated column capital, found at the Amun temple (M266). Meroë, 1910 (JG-M-D-64).



The Amun Temple (M260) after excavation, looking east from the enclosure wall across the centre of the temple. The outer peristyle hall (M271) with remains of a central building (M279) can be seen in the background. These are followed by two small columned halls (M270 & M273).
In front of the halls are three ‘sanctuaries’, M265 (left); M261, with the high altar (centre); and M264 (right). The ‘hall of columns’ (M266) can be seen on the far right.
The sites of three ‘divine burials’ (left to right: M268, M262, and M263) can be seen in the foreground. Meroë, 1912 (JG-M-D-08a).



Image of ‘high altar’ with relief featuring Hapi the Egyptian Nile god, found in the central sanctuary of the Temple of Amun (M261). Votive tablets, including the ‘Horus Votive Tablet’, can be seen before the altar. Meroë, 1912 (JG-M-D-10).



‘Horus Votive Tablet’, with a representation of the Egyptian god Horus on a crocodile flanked by two animals (lion and gazelle), with a hieroglyphic inscription on the base. The object is part of a type of magical stela known as a ‘cippus’. Meroë, 1912 (JG-M-D-14).


Excavation and the Aerial Railway

The size of the excavation, taking in the entire city and necropolis of Meroë, made it necessary to find new techniques to clear rubble and debris from the site.

The Mond Aerial Railway was conceived as a way of moving equipment and soil quickly on an excavation. It was designed and built by R. White & Sons, an engineering firm based in Widnes, and paid for by the industrialist and archaeologist Robert Ludwig Mond (1867-1938).

The aerial railway was first used by John Garstang in 1911 under Mond’s direction at Sakçagöze in modern Turkey. Later, it was moved to Sudan, where it was used by Garstang at Meroë. The ‘railway’ consisted of a square bucket, suspended on an automated system of ropes and pulleys.


View north across the north-eastern section of the city, with the aerial railway visible overhead. Meroë, 1913 (JG-M-C-01).



Aerial railway in use at the site. ‘Widnes’ and ‘Port Said’ can be seen written on the box (detail below). Meroë, 1912 (JG-M-A-17).

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Meroë, 1912 (detail from JG-M-A-17).



Aerial railway in action, tipping debris onto a spoil pile. Meroë, 1914 (JG-M-A-24).



In addition to the use of the Aerial Railway sponsored by Robert Mond, the sheer size of Meroë also required additional heavy machinery to move spoil and equipment around the site.

To this end, Garstang borrowed several lengths of light railway track from the Sudanese government. Garstang’s contact in the government was the Inspector of Railways, Colonel Midwinter Bey, who facilitated this transaction.  At the time of Garstang’s excavation, Sudan was under British control.

The Sudan Government Railway was originally constructed by the British to support a military campaign. The first line, from Wadi Halfa to Abu Hamad, was built in the 1890s by order of Lord Kitchener for use in his campaign against the Mahdiyah.  This was in retaliation for the Fall of Khartoum in 1885, and the death of the Governor-General of the Sudan, Charles Gordon.

After Kitchener’s victory the line was extended to Atbarah, a city located roughly 90 kilometres from Meroë.


Photograph of a group visiting the excavations at Meroë, including (from left) Midwinter Bey, Director of Sudan Railways; General Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener; General Sir Francis Reginald Wingate, 1st Baronet, Governor-General of Sudan; Professor Archibald Sayce; John Garstang; and Lady Catherine Wingate. Meroë, 1911 (JG-M-A-01a).



Excavation of the wall of the tank at the ‘Royal Baths’ (M195). John Garstang can be seen in the photograph personally supervising workmen carrying out the excavation. Mine cars and tracks for the removal of debris were set up at either side of the trench. Meroë, 1912 (JG-M-L-18).



A group of workmen tipping debris from a mine car onto a spoil heap outside of the excavation area. Meroë, 1912 (JG-M-A-12).



A steam train passing Garstang’s camp at Meroë, which is visible in the background. Meroë, 1911 (JG-M-A-02).



Garstang’s camp at Meroë. Meroë, 1911 (JG-M-A-03b).


Protecting the Royal Baths

During the 1912 season at Meroë, John Garstang reported finding “An interesting building complex […] between Palace 295 and the city wall.” The odd nature of the structure confused Garstang, and it was not until the last day of the season that he realized its true importance, naming it ‘The Royal Baths’.

The structure does resemble a typical Roman bath: it contained a deep tank pool surrounded by benches, known in Roman baths as a tepidarium. Along the benches above the pool were pieces of sculptures and reliefs set directly into the plaster wall. These include lions, gods and bright green faience tiles.

When excavating the pool itself, Garstang found a statue of a reclining figure, its obesity marking it out as a possible member of the royal family at Meroë.


Statue of a reclining figure discovered in the tank at the ‘Royal Baths’. Meroë, 1913 (JG-M-L-51).


In antiquity, the structure had been surrounded by a colonnaded courtyard, and the tank was surrounded by plastered walls, which had been painted with frescoes.

To protect his discovery, Garstang constructed a large wooden shed to prevent sandstorms from destroying the relatively fragile sandstone sculptures placed around the pool.

More recent excavations by German archaeologists have shown that the structure was likely not a royal bath, but rather a type of water sanctuary, related to the annual Inundation of the River Nile, on which the agricultural production of the Meroitic Empire depended.


Photograph of the shelter built to protect sculptures at the ‘Royal Baths’ (M194). Garstang can be seen standing on a ladder at the entrance with a workman. Meroë, 1912 (JG-M-L-32).



Interior of the tank at the ‘Royal Baths’, showing sculptures and plastered wall. Meroë, 1912 (JG-M-L-22).



South-east corner of the tank at the ‘Royal Baths’, inside the shelter after reconstruction of a number of the statues. Meroë, 1913 (JG-M-L-31).



Photograph of Garstang and his wife Marie, examining statue fragments in the tank at the ‘Royal Baths’. Meroë, 1913 (detail from JG-M-L-43).



John Garstang brought around twenty trained excavators from Egypt. In addition to this experienced workforce, he employed an additional two hundred local Sudanese workmen to carry out the excavation.

Garstang kept a record of the names of workmen he employed. We know from his notes that the chief of the Egyptian workers was Saleh Abd el-Nebi, who had worked with Garstang on many occasions.

The camp at Meroë was in a remote part of Sudan, so it was necessary to bring drinking water to the site by rail.


Two men filling a large ceramic vessel with water, from a tank on a rail truck, marked S.G.R, for ‘Sudan Government Railways’. Meroë, 1911 (JG-M-Q-045).



Workman transporting water taken from the tank. Meroë, 1911 (JG-M-Q-079).



Two workmen excavating a non-royal Meroitic tomb, containing large ceramic bottles characteristic of the site. Meroë, 1912 (JG-M-A-50).


People of Meroë in the Early Twentieth Century

After the fall of the Meroitic civilisation in the fourth century AD, the city was abandoned. By the time John Garstang began work at the site, over fifteen-hundred years later, the area was a remote rural area of Sudan. The village of Begrawiya is the closest modern settlement to the ancient city.


Photograph of a local man and a boy, taken at Meroë. Meroë, 1910 (JG-M-Z-01).



Image of a woman taking water from a well. Meroë, 1911 (JG-M-A-38b).



Photograph of three of Garstang’s Sudanese excavators. Meroë, 1910 (JG-M-Z-04).



Image of Sudanese traditional dress, taken at Meroë. Meroë, 1910 (JG-M-A-40b).



Traditional Sudanese ‘Tukul’ house near the site of Meroë. Tukul houses like these are common in Sudan and throughout East Africa. They are typically round, with a conical roof. Their construction varies according to the materials which are available in the local region. Meroë, 1910 (JG-M-Z-13).


For more information on Garstang’s excavations at Meroë, see Torok, Laszlo (1997) Meroe City: an Ancient African Capital (Egypt Exploration Society; London).

For more images from Garstang’s excavations at Meroë, see our Pinterest board, and don’t forget to check out our sketchfab page, which includes a 3D model of a Meroitic lion statuette in our collection!


By Gina Criscenzo-Laycock and Huw Twiston Davies

Communicating with the dead in ancient Egypt – offering trays and soul houses

What is this object?



Visitors to the museum will know that it is an offering-tray.

And what about this?



This is a soul-house, a close cousin to the offering-tray. Both objects were associated with ancient Egyptian burials. They are quite common in museums, and offering-trays in particular pop-up in all sorts of places. Museums throughout the North West, such as Bolton, Macclesfield and the Atkinson Museum in Southport, have a few of them. Liverpool World Museum has a number of them and Manchester Museum has one of the biggest collections of offering-trays and soul-houses in the world.

What are they though? What were these strange objects used for?

First, a bit of background. Offering-trays and soul-houses have mainly been found in Middle Egypt (roughly between Cairo in the north and Luxor in the south) with the majority coming from sites like Asyut, Beni Hasan and Deir Rifeh. Dating from the Middle Kingdom (approximately 2050 to 1700 BC), they differed from most objects associated with burials in that they were not buried inside the tomb with the deceased but were instead left outside, so that they could be used by the living.

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Entrances to shaft tombs at Beni Hasan – these graves had no superstructures, unlike the elaborate rock-cut chapels of the governors of the region, cut into the cliffs above these tombs. Photograph by Gina Criscenzo-Laycock.

The tombs where these objects have been found however are not the grand affairs that we normally associate with Egyptian nobles and kings. Instead these tombs are for the less well off. Those who could not afford to bury their family members in tombs with elaborately decorated scenes or the beautifully made wooden models that also come from this period. Instead, offering-trays and soul-houses were made from the same simple clays as the familiar pottery used by the Egyptians in their day-to-day lives. They were then placed on top of the tomb shaft once it had been sealed in order to allow visitors to the tomb to leave their offerings.

So, how were these offerings left? Look at the two objects. What do they have in common? First they both have surrounding walls with a lip or run-off at the front. Look closer, and you will see that both objects also have what look like channels running from small depressions or tanks towards the lip. These are to allow liquids, presumably water, to be poured into the depressions that will then flow along the channels, over the lip and on to the earth that seals the tomb.

See the small lumps or mounds? These represent offerings of bread. What about those odd shapes that look a bit like moustaches then? These represent offerings of meat. Indeed, model representations of most of the objects that can be seen depicted on the tables of Egyptian nobility have also been found on offering-trays and soul-houses.

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E.506 (1) – detail from the Book of the Dead of Bakhenkhons, featuring a heavily laden offering table.

In use for somewhere between four and five hundred years, these little known objects are likely to have played an important part in providing the living with a way of staying in contact with their deceased relatives.

Want to learn more about these objects? Visit the Garstang museum (open every Wednesday between 10am and 4pm)* where we have a fine collection of objects from the Middle Kingdom. Also, keep an eye out whenever you are visiting a local museum, you never know where these objects might turn up!


*When we’re not all in lock-down!


Blog credit: Mark Hayward, PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool, and Garstang Museum volunteer.

The Origin of Nose-Boops (and maybe Cats)

Cats and humans have been living side-by-side for a long time, be it out on our homesteads catching vermin, or curled up by our fires on someone’s lap. Gradually the role of the cat is moving further away from pest control and firmly entrenching itself as a companion animal. But how did we get to this point with our feline friends? And how long ago did the process start? 

For quite some time it was thought that the oldest occurrence of cat domestication took place in Egypt around 3000 years ago. This is unsurprising when you look at the amount of cat imagery that has been discovered, depicting them as everything from hunting companions to deities. But we have no reason to believe that the veneration of cats would have taken place at the same time as the beginnings of their domestication. 

This faience cat found at the site of Abydos by John Garstang shows a coat pattern reminiscent of that of a wild cat.

The oldest known example of humans and cats living alongside one another by choice occurs on the island of Cyprus, 9500 years ago. As Cyprus is an island it is possible to examine the zooarchaeological remains to see roughly when the first occurrence of a species comes about. The cat in question was found buried alongside a child, suggestive of some relationship in life. This places the earliest known cat-human co-occurrence during the Neolithic period, around the fertile crescent. It is here that it seems humanity first truly settled; with the advent of plant and animal domestication came the need to adhere to a more sedentary lifestyle. Storing quantities of food became necessary as time went on, as did the need to dispose of accumulated waste. These provided big ‘all you can eat’ buffets for mice and other household pests who would have come flocking in from the surrounding landscape to try their luck with the humans. The cat probably wasn’t far behind. Of course, at this point in time, the cats in question would have been a wild species, and while they bear a striking resemblance to our modern-day moggies, they’re far more territorial and solitary, and far less likely to put up with nose-boops and having to use a litter tray. Wild cats are a step up from feral cats, and feral cats are already considerably less easy to cuddle than a domestic cat! But nonetheless, these wild cats would have viewed the mice in much the same way as the mice viewed the grain; an unusual concentration of food that they may as well help themselves to. But other than pest control, which the cats are adept at without human intervention, there is no real reason to domesticate cats; unlike cattle or sheep, we can get no by-products from them. And thus, a commensal relationship with humans was likely born; the humans no longer had to battle quite so hard to stop mice from stealing their harvests, and the cats could just do what came naturally to them. Domestication probably came later, once the wild cats had settled into their new routines, natural selection and disposition having pushed cats that couldn’t peacefully co-exist with people further out into the wild. These creatures of commensalism that were leftover would gradually lose their fear of people, and people would come to see the connection between cats and their positive effect on granary stores. Thus, people probably began to create inviting environments for cats to inhabit, and cats adapted to the relative comfort and security that these environments afforded them. And that’s the story of where nose boops came from.

Check out more 3D models of cats (and other things!) here!

Sarah McBride


Papyrus Westcar

Continuing the theme of Egyptian literature, today we’re going to be talking about another ‘classic’ Egyptian story; the Tale of Khufu and the Magicians, also known as Papyrus Westcar.

The Westcar Papyrus (P. Berlin 3033) was (supposedly) found by Henry Westcar, a British antiquarian, in 1823-4. In 1838-9 it was (supposedly) bequeathed to Karl Lepsius, but was found in his attic after his death; there’s a deal of speculation about whether Lepsius did ‘inherit’ the papyrus, or whether it was stolen! The papyrus was viewed as a curiosity, until it was translated into German by Adolf Erman in 1890; since then, it has been re-translated numerous times.

The story is quite an unusual one, consisting of five vignettes relating to the sorcerous efforts of various priests and magicians. Each tale (save the last) is told in the court of King Khufu, the famous 4th Dynasty pharaoh and builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, though the composition of the text itself has been placed between the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period.  The first of the stories is almost entirely missing, but the others survive.

The First Story

The first story is missing entirely, save for the ending, where Khufu orders that offerings be made to the kings featured in the story. The conclusion mentions King Djoser, and may have had something to do with his famous Step Pyramid (and Imhotep, its famous architect!).

The Second Story

The first complete vignette begins when Prince Khafre stands up to speak and tells of a biayt – a ‘wonder’ – that happened in the time of King Nebka. Nebka had gone to the temple of Ptah to perform rites therein, accompanied by his chief lector-priest, Weba-iner, and the lector-priest’s wife. The lady meets a charming commoner, and the two decide to spend a pleasant day drinking in a nearby pavilion…and their ‘pleasant day’ doesn’t end until the sun has set!

Weba-iner finds out about this, and decides to exact his revenge with magic. He crafts a wax model crocodile, and passes it to the caretaker, instructing him to wait until the commoner goes for his daily swim, and then throw the model crocodile into the water.


E.620 – Model of a Crocodile, Hierakonpolis.

Meanwhile, Weba-iner’s wife sends to have the pavilion made ready again, and spends another ‘pleasant day’ with the commoner. After the sun sets, the commoner goes for his evening swim…and the caretaker throws the crocodile into the lake! When it touches the water, the crocodile springs to life, becoming a real crocodile, seven cubits long. It snaps its jaws around the commoner and drags him to the bottom of the lake!

Chuffed with his work, the lector-priest brings Nebka to the lake to see the magical crocodile. He summons it back, and it brings the commoner along for the ride. The lector-priest transforms the crocodile back into a wax figure, and explains his woes to Nebka. Outraged, the king declares that the crocodile can drag the commoner back to the bottom of the lake, while the adulterous wife of Weba-iner is burned alive.

Then, everyone celebrates how cool the magical crocodile was. Priorities.

The Third Story

After declaring that offerings be made to Nebka and his lector-priest, Khufu is ready for another tale. This time, Baufre has the floor, ready to tell a salacious story of a bored king, a boating accident, and fishnet stockings.

King Snofru is bored. So bored, in fact, that he sends for his chief lector-priest, Djadjaemankh, and complains that he has been through every room of the palace looking for something to do and found nothing. The lector-priest has an idea on how to alleviate his King’s ennui…

Djadjaemankh counsels Snofru to visit his palace lake, and sail around on it with a ship manned entirely by beautiful women. The king sends off for twenty ebony oars, plated with gold, with handles of special wood plated in electrum (why not?), as well as twenty beautiful, virginal women, with braided hair and large breasts. He also asks for twenty nets, and for the women to remove their clothes and replace them with the nets.

This may be the first historical reference to fishnet stockings in the world.

The women row back and forth, and Snofru feels very pleased with himself, but alas! He made a mistake asking for women with braided hair. The lead stroke gets entangled in her braids, and her turquoise fish-pendant falls into the water! Distraught, she stops rowing, which infuriates Snofru. He is, after all, a king, so he can just get her another pendant. Alas, she doesn’t want another pendant, she wants hers back. She gets a little bit sassy, telling Snofru, “I prefer my own to its substitute”. Ouch.

Growing rather grumpy due to this turn of events, Snofru sends for Djadjaemankh. The lector-priest arrives, and Snofru complains that he was having a rather wonderful time, but then this fish-pendant got lost and ruined everything. Without a worry, Djadjaemankh casts a magic spell, folding the waters of the lake, and revealing the lake bed. He pops over to the newly-revealed lake bed, retrieves the pendant, and then casts a spell to return the water to normal.

Cheered up once more, Snofru proceeds to spend the day partying with the entire palace, and making joyful offerings to his favourite lector-priest.

The Fourth Story

After another bout of offerings, this time dedicated to Snofru and Djadjaemankh, Khufu is amazed…but his son, Prince Hardedef, is not. Hardedef complains that all of these stories take place in the past, where one cannot easily discern truth from falsehood. Instead, Hardedef can tell Khufu of a man who still lives, and who can perform miracles! A commoner, named Djedi, who is 110 years old; he eats five hundred loaves of bread and a shoulder of beef, and drinks one hundred jars of beer every day. He can mend a severed head, make a lion follow behind him with its leash on the ground, and even knows the number of chambers in the sanctuary of Thoth!


Image of Thoth, from the Book of the Dead (2016 Book of the Dead).

Now, Khufu is intrigued. He himself had been seeking the chambers of the Thoth sanctuary, in order to make something like it for himself…so he commands that Hardedef bring Djedi to him, so he can be questioned! Hardedef sets off for Djed-Snofru by boat, and the prince is borne to Djedi upon an ebony palanquin, with poles of special wood, plated in gold (of course).

Hardedef finds Djedi, with servants anointing his head and rubbing his feet. After buttering him up, Hardedef summons Djedi to meet with Khufu, and the two return to the river bank, board ships, and head back to the royal residence. Djedi is announced to Khufu, who excitedly asks if it is true – can Djedi really mend a severed head? Djedi answers that he can, and Khufu sends for a prisoner to be brought so Djedi can prove it.

Djedi refuses to work his magic on a human, asking instead for a goose; Khufu agrees, and a goose is brought before Djedi and beheaded. The head is placed on one side of the chamber and the body on another, and Djedi works his magic – causing the body of the goose to waddle over to its head and reattach it. Khufu sends for another goose, and Djedi does the same; he then sends for a bull, and once again, it stands up and walks – with its leash on the ground (hang on, I thought Hardedef said it was a lion who would walk with his leash on the ground – oh well, I suppose Khufu wasn’t paying attention…).


E.608– Faience lion figurine.

Khufu then brings out the big question – does Djedi know the number of the secret chambers in the sanctuary of Thoth? Djedi says he doesn’t know the number – but he does know where it is kept, in a hidden casket at Heliopolis. Khufu asks him to bring the casket, but Djedi says it is not him who will bring it – it would be brought by the eldest of three children, currently in the womb of the woman Reddjedet.

“Who is she?” Khufu asks, and Djedi replies, telling him that she is the wife of a priest of Re, pregnant with his three children. These children would ascend to the highest offices of the land – a fact that Khufu is not entirely happy about. Khufu agrees to visit the woman, and the temple of Re, but the sandbanks of the canal will be cut off when she is due to give birth – Djedi assures him that he will cause water to rise there.

And then there are more offerings, of course.

The Fifth Story

The fifth vignette continues immediately, Reddjedet struggling with a difficult labour. Seeing this, Re sends for the gods Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, Heket, and Khnum, sending them to deliver these three children – who are prophesied to become the next royal dynasty. The gods disguise themselves as musicians – Khnum carries the bags – and go to visit Reddjedet.

The priest, Reweser, leads them to Reddjedet, and the gods assist with her birth. Isis commands the baby Userkaf to behave himself, and he is born into her arms with ease. After washing the child, Meskhenet and Khnum bless him.

Then, Isis brings forth Sahure, and again, he is washed and blessed by the other gods. Finally, she hastens the birth of Kakai, who is washed and blessed like the others. Having delivered the three children, the gods head out to inform Reweser, who provides them with a tip for their efforts – a sack of grain.

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E.9381 – Wooden model of Nephthys.

Isis realises that they had not yet provided a sufficiently wondrous wonder, and so the gods create three royal crowns, placing them in the sack. They summon a storm, and return to the house, asking if they can leave the grain so it will not get wet in the rain.

Later, the household are throwing a celebratory party, but there is no grain to brew beer – save for the grain left by the ‘musicians’. Reweser decides to use this grain and sends the maid to fetch it, thinking he will compensate them when they return. When the maid enters the room, she hears the sounds of celebration – dancing, singing, and music – without any obvious source. Reddjedet heads down to the room, puts her ears to the grain sack and discovers the sound is coming from inside the sack!

She realises that her sons will be kings, and is overjoyed – but fearful. Reddjedet hides the sack, locking it away in her room, and tells Reweser, who is equally joyous, and they have a wonderful party.

A few days later, Reweser has a quarrel with the maid, ordering her to be beaten as punishment, and she decides to seek her revenge by telling Khufu of the new kings. She finds her brother (or uncle, depending on the translation), and tells him of her plan, but he is appalled – and beats her with flax. Distraught, the maid rushes to the riverbank to get a drink of water and is snatched away by a crocodile (presumably not the same one from the previous story, but who knows?).

Her brother (or uncle) heads to tell Reddjedet, who is terrified that Khufu will now know about her children. He informs her of the maid’s death by crocodile…


…and the story ends there!

The Significance of Westcar

These stories appear to teach entertaining moral lessons – though some are perhaps lost in translation, and others just make very little sense to our modern sensibilities! Egyptologists have argued that these stories may have been drawn from the folklore of the common people of ancient Egypt, instead of deriving from the compositions of the royal court.

The tale was certainly written much later than it is set, and this provides the opportunity for reflection; the text itself acknowledges its fictional nature, with Hardedef remarking that it is hard to discern fact from fiction in stories from the past. Moreover, the text uses this temporal distance to create characters out of the royal figures it discusses; rather than distant, impersonal pharaohs, they are each portrayed almost as caricatures. Nebka is strict, lawful, and judgemental. Snofru is bored, cantankerous…and a little perverted! Meanwhile, Khufu is harsh, cruel even, willing to sacrifice a man’s life to see a magic trick and concerned that his dynasty will be replaced.

Is the ending of the story complete? It seems a little abrupt, but studies by Egyptologists Verena Lepper and Mirian Lichtheim both indicate that this is, indeed, how the story was supposed to end. The crocodile sequence is repeated – almost like a refrain – and in any case, Lepper argues, there was enough room on the papyrus to add more if there was any more to add.

By Christopher Bebbington.

The Destruction of Humanity

We are fortunate to have many surviving pieces of Egyptian literature and religious writings, allowing us to translate, read, and share stories that were originally composed in the ancient past. We have previously looked at the story of Osiris and Isis, one of the most famous tales from ancient Egypt. Today, we’re going to be looking at a very different tale, however – one known amongst Egyptologists by the rather unusual name, “the Myth of the Heavenly Cow”.

The Myth of the Heavenly Cow, telling the tale of the near-destruction of humanity, was first discovered in the outermost of the four gilded shrines of Tutankhamun, but in incomplete form. Three completed versions of the text were found, however, in the tombs of Seti I, Ramesses I, and Ramesses II. The text forms part of a corpus of royal funerary compositions dating to the New Kingdom, but was written in Middle Egyptian (the seminal form of the classical Egyptian language), and the ideas within it may date back as far as the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom.


E.507(2) – A section of the amduat of the 21st Dynasty songstress of Amun, Tja-ty. The amduat is another royal funerary composition; unlike the Myth of the Heavenly Cow, the amduat is concerned with the topography and inhabitants of the Egyptian underworld.

The Rebellion of Man

The story begins in the mythical past, at the dawn of Egyptian history when the land was ruled by the sun god, Re, ‘the god who created himself’. The sun god had reached old age, and his mortal subjects had conspired against him, rebelling against his rule. Re summoned his council in secret – the gods Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nun, and the primordial ‘mothers and fathers’ who were with him before the world was created. He also summoned his ‘Eye’, a fiery manifestation of his divine power, and retreated with his council to discuss what should be done about the rebellious hearts of men.

The council of gods suggested that Horus should ‘let [his] Eye go’, sending her down in the form of the goddess Hathor, to wreak vengeance on the disobedient humans below. With her power, she could smite the evildoers, preventing them from rebelling against the rule of the sun god.


E.9186 – A wadjet-eye amulet. Eyes could symbolise many things in ancient Egypt; while the wadjet is a symbol of magical protection, the powerful Eye of Re instead symbolised divine vengeance.

The Descent of the Eye

The story continues with Hathor returning triumphant; not only did she overpower mankind, but it pleased her! As Re celebrated his unopposed rule, Hathor took the form of the vengeful lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, to wade in the blood of the humans she had massacred throughout Egypt.


E.9011 – an amulet depicting the mighty goddess, Sekhmet.

At this point, Re realised that his retribution was perhaps a little disproportionate. With Sakhmet spilling the blood of people across Egypt, he sent for swift messengers – messengers who could ‘rush like the shadow of a body’ – and concocted a plan to calm the raging Eye.

The Drunken Goddess

Re sent his messengers to Elephantine, to bring him red ochre in vast quantities. When the messengers returned, he sent word that the ochre should be ground up to make red pigment, while servants were to grind barley and make beer. The pigment was mixed with the beer, creating a mix that looked like human blood; in total, 7 000 jars were made for Sekhmet.

Vowing to protect mankind against the vengeful goddess, Re had the beer brought to the fields that Sekhmet would target next, and during the night, the beer was poured over the fields, flooding them. When the goddess arrived that morning, she found the fields already full of ‘blood’, and stopped to sate her thirst on it. With the Eye drunk – 7 000  jars drunk! – she decided to leave mankind alone, returning to the other gods.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of the tale, Re leaves the earthly world behind forever, ascending to the heavens. The sky was created in the form of the Heavenly Cow, a manifestation of the goddess Nut, and the other gods joined him, separating themselves from the world of mortals. In future generations, the pharaoh would be a human – one who acted as an intermediary between the mortal world and the realm of the gods.


E.66 – cult statue of Hathor in her bovine form.

The Ancient Egyptian World and the Concept of Evil

The Myth of the Heavenly Cow elucidates the role of the pharaoh – a semi-divine emissary who ruled the world on behalf of the gods, maintaining ma’at (balance) and stopping isfet (chaos), and ensuring the gods were properly worshipped. At the end of the tenure of the pharaoh, they would take their place in the gods’ realm, ascending to the heavens and integrating themselves in the divine cosmos.

The tale also raises issues of evil in the world – even in the mythical, perfect times, humanity was imperfect and chose to rebel against the rule of the sun god. The existence of evil is not due to the actions of the creator god, but instead arises from the selfish interests of humanity; Re must slaughter the very people he created in order to stop this evil.

When the gods choose to leave, separating themselves from humanity, it creates three realms – the divine realm, the duat (the underworld), and the mortal world. It is this mortal world where evil can be found; it is the mortal world that is forever caught in the perilous struggle against the ensuing forces of chaos, and where the pharaoh must work to bring about order and divine perfection.

By Christopher Bebbington.

The A-Group at Koshtamna

The site of Koshtamna, in the Aswan region, was excavated by John Garstang in 1906. The site is approximately 7 km northeast of Dakka, and contains material remains dating from various periods of Pharaonic history. The majority of Garstang’s finds, however, dated to prehistory; material remains of the Sudanese ‘A-Group’. John Garstang’s excavation at Koshtamna was never published, but the Garstang Museum is working to bring these artefacts, and the story of this site, into the public eye for the first time.

The A-Group

The Sudanese ‘A-Group’ were named by American archaeologist George Andrew Reisner. His ‘Archaeological Survey of Nubia’, conducted between 1907-1909, explored the origins of Nubian civilisation. The A-Group did not have writing, and so this relatively dry classification was imposed upon their remains; we still do not know what these people called themselves. There are numerous issues with Reisner’s classification, and it has been challenged by numerous scholars, but this relatively simplistic naming convention persists in Egyptology and Nubiology today.


Detail from photograph JG-K-2-1-12, showing a prehistoric ‘A-Group’ burial excavated by John Garstang at Koshtamna.

The Importance of the A-Group Remains in Museums

Between 1960 and 1970, Egypt constructed the Aswan High Dam across the Nile at Aswan, a region at the southern edge of Egypt. The dam was constructed to control Nile flooding, increase water storage for agricultural irrigation, and generate hydroelectric power. Building the dam, however, came with a serious cost to the archaeological remains in the region.

The construction of the Aswan High Dam resulted in the flooding of Lake Nasser, submerging Nubian remains from Aswan to the Dal Cataract under roughly 50 metres of water. In 1959, the Egyptian government requested the assistance of UNESCO in preserving important archaeological material in this region. In 1960, the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia began; a series of ‘rescue excavations’ intended to preserve and record as much information about the submerged region as possible. As well as excavating hundreds of sites and preserving thousands of artefacts, the UNESCO campaign also deconstructed and relocated vast pieces of monumental architecture, moving them to safer ground – most famously, the temple of Philae (now located on Agilkia Island).

Due to the haste with which this material was excavated, a great deal of it has not yet been fully studied or published. Furthermore, due to the submerging of the region, one of the only ways to study the A-Group – a cultural group about which we know very little – is to study the material remains now stored in museums around the world. John Garstang’s excavations at Koshtamna, long predating the UNESCO rescue operation, have provided the Garstang Museum with a wealth of A-Group material to study, which may illuminate more about this ‘lost’ civilization.

Koshtamna: The Material Culture

The material found at Koshtamna illustrates the similarities between Predynastic Egyptian and prehistoric Nubian settlements. Much of the material from Koshtamna has parallels across both Sudanese and Egyptian prehistory; for example, numerous objects of personal adornment can be found in the Koshtamna material at the Garstang Museum. Typically, these include ‘necklaces’ made by stringing together shells, bones, or beads made of semiprecious stones; there are also numerous bracelets made of shell or bone. Though the strings tying the ‘necklaces’ together are a (relatively) modern construction, likely done on site at the Garstang excavation, the bored holes in the shells, bones, and semiprecious stones indicate that they were likely originally worn this way (though the precise arrangements are a reconstruction).

Another very common type of object found in the Koshtamna collection is the cosmetic palette – already extensively discussed in a previous blog. Nubian palettes appear similar in size, shape, and material to their Egyptian counterparts; some of these palettes may have been imported from Egypt, or may have been ‘copies’ or interpretations of the Egyptian style. They would likely have been used for a similar purpose, and reflect the natural world in the same way Predynastic Egyptian palettes do, depicting birds, fish, and other Nile Valley fauna. The majority of the palettes from Koshtamna are fragmentary, though this is no surprise – indeed, the majority of cosmetic palettes found in Egypt are also fragmentary (usually, it is only the best and most well-preserved examples that are put on display in museums!).

Pottery, of course, is another regular find at Koshtamna, whether whole vessels or fragmentary sherds. The ceramic vessels in the Koshtamna collection include numerous Egyptian ‘imports’ or ‘imitations’ – classically Egyptian-style morphologies, such as W-Ware (wavy-handled ware) that indicate trade and exchange between the A-Group and the Naqada culture to the north; whether this is direct material trade or simply the exchange of ideas is harder to know for sure. There are also, of course, numerous wares that are more typically ‘Nubian’, including the recognisable ‘black-topped red ware’ that characterises Nubian pottery.

E.4723, E.4605, E.6118


One of the most interesting finds (so far!) has been the ceramic vessel pictured below – E.6163. This black-topped vessel is marked with two holes around a break in the ceramic; evidence of an ancient repair! Holes like these would be used to bind the two broken parts of the vessel together, using string and (possibly) some form of glue to mend the break. Some 4-5 000 years ago, an individual decided this object was important enough to them that they would rather repair it, once broken, than throw it away and acquire a replacement.


Burial Practice and Mortuary Culture

What does this collection of material tell us about the A-Group? How was this material used? What was its significance?

It is difficult to reconstruct social behaviour – peoples’ thoughts and feelings – from prehistory, where there is no written evidence to guide our interpretations. However, one of the ways this material was used is obvious – it was included in burials. The majority of the material in the Garstang Museum excavated at Koshtamna comes from individual burials; the ‘K’ numbers you may have noticed on the objects refer to areas of the site and particular burials from where these objects were excavated. Though we know very little about the funerary beliefs of the A-Group, we do know about their burial practices – and once again, a remarkable similarity can be found between the A-Group in Sudan and their Egyptian neighbours to the north.

The image on the left above is from John Garstang’s photographic archive, and shows a typical burial at Koshtamna; the burial is a simple pit, covered with sand. The body is contracted, with the arms raised to the chest and the legs bent, and burial goods – typically pottery, bracelets, palettes, and other material discussed above – are laid around it. The image on the right, also from Garstang’s photographic archive, shows a typical burial at Hierakonpolis in Egypt; the similarities are very notable. Whether these ideas originated in Nubia or Egypt and made their way northward or southward (respectively), or whether (and this is perhaps more likely) there were a number of factors influencing a cultural cross-pollination that resulted in similar burial practices, it is clear that similar ideas were being shared across both cultures. Whilst it would be too simplistic to argue that the individuals interred with these possessions were hoping to ‘bring them to the next life’, this is one of numerous possibilities for why they would be buried in this way.

Illuminating the A-Group

The Sudanese A-Group is an understudied culture group, one often ignored in favour of the later Kerma culture, or the comings and goings of its Egyptian neighbours. However, these material remains provide a vital window into the prehistory of Sudan, and the origins and developments of ideas that would perpetuate and evolve in later Sudanese history, from Nubia to Egypt and beyond.

By Christopher Bebbington.

(Edited by Sarah McBride).

The Environment in Egyptian Prehistory – A Story in 3D Models!

The geography of the Nile Valley was instrumental in shaping Predynastic material culture, which often incorporates motifs drawn from the natural world. The recurring use of natural imagery in the decoration of Predynastic material culture illustrates the importance of the natural world to these people, providing us with a window into the thoughts and concerns of people living over five thousand years ago.

Thanks to the tenacious efforts of our photogrammetry team, we are excited to now present these objects in full 3D!

Painted Decoration – Creating Landscapes in Ceramic


Painted decoration was one of the most common ways of incorporating natural motifs on objects during the Predynastic. Painted decoration regularly included scenes of desert hills, plants and foliage, boats, and a variety of animals, alongside more abstract designs. Sculpted forms of plants and animals were also applied to objects, particularly ceramic vessels.


Boats and water are another motif regularly incorporated into Predynastic designs; the importance of river travel in Egypt cannot be understated. Travel by boat was much quicker than by land, facilitating communication, which in turn allowed individual groups and rulers to control larger territories and proto-states; the connections forged by the capability to travel by boat also assisted in the transmission of material and social culture.


The way in which these motifs were utilised also illustrates the way prehistoric people viewed the world; for example, in the decorated sherd above, the animals appear to be wearing some kind of collar. The emphasis of the conflict between the settled land of the Nile valley and the wild, untamed creatures of the adjacent deserts is a recurring theme in Predynastic art, and depictions of animals sometimes include collars or ‘leashes’ to indicate the imposition of human order and control over the natural world.

Representations of Animals

Predynastic material culture included objects made to resemble animals, or otherwise incorporating animalistic motifs in their design. Small figurines, such as the crocodile below, were made to resemble animals. They may have been purely decorative, or they might have had some religious or ritual purpose – unfortunately, that information has been lost to us.


The ‘Hierakonpolis bird dagger’ (E.616)


This ‘bird dagger’ is one of the most unusual and unique objects in the Predynastic collection at the Garstang museum; it seems entirely impractical, and would not have functioned particularly well as a dagger. The blade has been crafted to resemble a wing, while the hilt bears more than a passing resemblance to a bird’s beak. The purpose of this object is unknown, but its form is very interesting – the use of avian motifs here is in an abstracted form, suggesting identifying features of the animal without appearing thereomorphic.

Animal Forms (Theriomorphism)

Some Predynastic objects do not simply incorporate animal motifs on their design, but were manufactured to resemble certain animals. These are known as theriomorphic objects. The forms of these artefacts are often impractical, and it is unclear whether they would have seen actual use or whether they were purely decorative.


Palettes are one of the most common forms of material culture that incorporated natural designs; palettes were often made to resemble birds, fish, turtles, goats, and other animals from the Nile Valley. They were used to grind pigments for cosmetics.

The Natural World

The historian Herodotus said that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile”, and this was the case even in prehistory. When studying prehistoric artefacts, the lack of written evidence and poor survival of important archaeological features such as settlements, housing and clothing can distance the modern observer from the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the people who created these artefacts. By examining the recurring decorative motifs on Predynastic objects, we can begin to understand the way prehistoric people experienced the world; the things that were important to them, and the way they chose to display this importance.

If any of these objects piqued your interest, you can see them in person – visit the BEFORE EGYPT exhibition at the Victoria Gallery & Museum to discover more of our predynastic Egyptian collection.

By Christopher Bebbington (edited by Sarah McBride).

Photogrammetry Team: Ardern Hulme-Beaman, Sofie Kinzer, J.R. Peterson.