Ram of Amun from Temple T at Kawa c 680BC © Ashmolean Museum

The Gift Of The River Nile

2nd December 2011

According to the Greek historian Herodotus the gift of the River Nile was Ancient Egypt – a country whose rich culture continues to fascinate the modern world. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has just opened six new galleries devoted to its popular Ancient Egyptian and Nubian collections.

Jill Glenn went to the launch…

While the protesters fought in Cairo last week, I was being escorted around the new Galleries of Ancient Egypt and Nubia in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum by a curator whose mind was as much on his friends and fellow Egyptologists at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, right at the heart of the action in Tahrir Square, as it was on the artefacts in front of us. The irony and the contrast between the two locations couldn’t have been more marked.

Here in Oxford all is serene. The galleries are light and fresh and welcoming, with an easy flow from one to another, and remarkably little need to double back. There’s an excellent mix of display cases, text-based information on the walls (plus a clever colour-coded timeline graphic), several interpretation panels with good photographs, and large free-standing or stand-mounted objects in the centre. Much of the content was acquired via British excavation in Egypt, and most is from the Ashmolean’s own permanent holdings.

Since opening a new building in 2009, the Ashmolean has quadrupled its visitors, and now attracts the highest number to any of the free museums/galleries outside London. The £5million redevelopment of this ‘dark, cramped corner’ is the second phase of its transformation, and has created six ‘new’ galleries, to convey five thousand years of human occupation of the Nile Valley and showcase just some of the Ashmolean’s collection, which, as the Museum’s director, Dr Christopher Brown, explains, is of ‘world importance… including the most important predynastic and protodynastic holdings outside Cairo”.

The Museum is now displaying material that ‘simply hasn’t been shown for a very long time… some of the mummies have not been seen for 80 years.’ The conservation studios have been transformed into something resembling a morgue over the past few months, as coffins and mummies have received more than their fair share of tlc: some 9200 man hours have gone in to the restoration work, alongside the remodelling of the building. The display area has 20 per cent more floorspace than before, and completes the Ancient World floor, so that visitors can move around on the integrated ‘Crossing Cultures Crossing Times’ principle that has been so successful elsewhere in the Museum.

The redevelopment was a two year project, almost to the day, and was supported by Lord Sainsbury, whose determination that it should meet the time frame was, allegedly, reinforced by his threat not to pay up if two years was exceeded.

English Heritage have allowed two new openings in the walls which prevent dead ends and allow an improved throughflow, with ‘lots of breathing space’, as Rick Mather, the architect responsible, puts it.

It’s a hugely impressive achievement, especially given some of the constraints. The whole project revolved, for example, around the Shrine of Taharqa, the only pharaonic building in the UK, and far too heavy to shift from the reinforced floor on which it always sat. This astonishing piece – given to Francis Llewellyn Griffith, first Oxford Professor of Egyptology, by the Sudanese government, in gratitude for the excavation work he had carried out in Nubia – was dismantled and brought back to England in hundreds of wooden cases before being rebuilt on a foundation two metres deep.

Two statues of the fertility god Min at the doorway to the ‘Egypt at its Origins’ gallery begin a chronological journey from the pre-dynasty that ends with Egypt’s incorporation into the Roman empire. In this first section, to be fair, some of the interest for general public lies in what the artefacts convey, rather than in the artefacts themselves. They may be dull, or small, or broken, but what they represent is the flowering of a culture, the birth of a belief system. As the themes develop, though, over the next few rooms, the throbbing heart of this ancient culture is felt.

There is a marvellously detailed film of the mummification procedure (not for the squeamish, although the graphics are fabulous), which features alongside the beautifully restored coffins and mummy of Djeddjehutyiuefankh – known as Jed to museum staff and curators – who lies in splendid state, with spectacular bead network on his chest.

Jed was a Theban priest, whose body was recently taken for a CT scan; another film (still in post-production on the day of the launch) will tell this story. The scan revealed that Jed was middle-aged and healthy – his cause of death is not yet clear – and that he had been quite beautifully preserved, although, rather to the surprise of Liam McNamara, the Ashmolean Museum’s Assistant Keeper: Ancient Egypt & Sudan, his heart had not been replaced at mummification, and the heart amulet is missing. That’s not unique, but it is unusual: the Ancient Egytians valued the heart above all things, discarding the brain which they thought unimportant. The whereabouts of the rest of Jed’s organs, probably put in canopic jars, are still a mystery…

…which may yet be solved. Ongoing excavations in the Nile Valley are breathing fresh life into items that the Ashmolean has long owned. “All very exciting,” says Liam McNamara. There is, for example, in one of the early display cases, a small white ceramic figure, which has been in the Museum’s possession for years – and a German excavation has recently found in Abydos the remains of the vessel from which it was broken. The archaeologist was, understandably, quite beside himself when he spotted the fragment here.

Beyond the Shrine of Taharqa and Djedd’s coffin, is the ‘Life After Death’ gallery, containing some of the Museum’s best-loved exhibits. The funerary stelae (slabs of stone/wood), set up in tombs or cenotaph structures, were the focal point for offerings for the ka – the soul – of the deceased. There are several shown here, each bearing typical inscriptions: the name, titles and images of their owner or owners, plus food offerings and and a spell to provide offerings for the soul. They are stacked up like gravestones, looking surprisingly modern apart from the hieroglyphics, and they lead neatly in to this section that breaks the general chronology by concentrating on the Egyptians’ beliefs and practices around death and the afterlife.

Family life seems to have been just as complicated then as it is today. There are papers recording details of complex inter-generational adoptions (usually for inheritance and guardianship purposes) and wills, such as that of a woman named Naunakhte in around 1145BC, in which she disinherited three of her children whom she felt hadn’t looked after her in her old age as well as she would have liked. These have great resonance for contemporary society, and also reveal that in Egypt, unlike in other parts of the ancient world, women could own and pass on property in their own right.

The Egyptians had, according to Liam McNamara, the same ‘hopes, wishes, desires and fears as people have today’, and they loved life so much that they wished to preserve the living of it even after death. In good time, therefore, they gathered together the objects that they believed they would need in the next world. They thought, for example, that they would be expected to do the same things in death as they had in life, but, as McNamara says, ‘no-one wants to work hard for eternity’ – so they collected little shabti figures, little worker statuettes, to carry out their responsibilities, such as tilling the soil, for them in the next world. Originally they packed just a couple, but eventually they were taking one for each day of the year, along with an overseer figurine for every ten to keep them in order. It sounds quaint, but you can see the logic of McNamara’s description of them as ‘incredibly practical people’.

There’s much evidence of the glory of the royal court, plus a fascinating section on the developing cult of the sun and the Amarna ‘revolution’ when Amenhotep IV replaced worship of the state gods with worship of the royal family, changed his name to Akhenaten (Glory of the Sun) and lived in glamorous surroundings in new royal palaces. There’s a rather lovely fragment of a wall-painting (see below) showing the king and his wife Nefertiti relaxing with their daughters.

The final area unites past and present with an installation by artist Angela Palmer. Called Unwrapped: the Story of a Child Mummy, it movingly reveals the ‘internal architecture’ of a small child who died around AD80 during the Roman occupation of Egypt. The mummy was carefully scanned at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital in 2006, and some key details discovered – sex: boy; age: about two: cause of death: pneumonia – after which the artist lovingly recreated the scans in ink on to 111 sheets of glass. Viewed from certain angles, the child’s body structure is revealed with great clarity; it’s clever, artistic, effective and extraordinarily humane.

These new galleries present a vast complicted swathe of history, all made interesting and accessible without any dumbing down. No baby language here. The spectacular displays are thoughtfully presented, and, at a time when there has been much debate about the displaying of human remains, in keeping with the respect that the Egyptians accorded to their dead. One mummy is accompanied here by a translated offering inscription; visitors are invited to recite it to ensure she has what she needs in the next world.

Indeed, as Liam McNamara says, these state-of-the-art and climate-controlled display cases are, in their own way, the continuation of the ancient Egyptians' determination to preserve the body and ensure its afterlife…

Entry to the Ashmolean Museum is free. See www.ashmolean.org for more information.

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