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A new look for Papyrus and Shabtis at the Petrie Museum

By Anna E Garnett, on 23 May 2018

If you come down to the Petrie Museum, you will see some new changes in the exhibition space. In April 2018, we formally opened three new display cases in the Pottery Gallery as part of our successful Arts Council England-funded Papyrus for the People project, which has recently ended. These modern cases look somewhat different to the antique wooden cases which you are used to seeing at the Petrie Museum, but importantly they are conservation-grade and offer the opportunity to safely display a range of objects including examples from our world-class papyrus collection.

Of the three new showcases, two are to display different themes which have emerged from new translations of our written material by language specialists during the Papyrus Project. These displays will rotate every 6-8 months, partly so that we are able to offer fresh interpretations of the texts on a more regular basis, but also to preserve the fragile papyrus fragments from being exposed to too much light, as this can be damaging to the papyrus and the inscriptions.

Case 1: Working Women in Ancient Egypt 

The first case, centred on the theme of ‘Working Women in Ancient Egypt’, uses a combination of papyri, a stela, an ostracon and other contextual objects to showcase the evidence we have for women outside the home, while also emphasising that the nature of this work depended on their status. For example, we know that elite women held high-status positions, including the roles of priestess and temple musician. In contrast, lower-status women were commonly employed as domestic servants and were also drafted in to support large-scale works, including building and agricultural projects.

Case 2: A List of Containers 

The second case focuses on one hieratic text on papyrus (UC32093C). This text preserves a list of containers in two columns, which would have held different substances. The list also contains a ‘carrying pole’, perhaps indicating that these vessels were carried over the shoulders or with the pole held in the hand. Here, we explore why the vessels were made, what they may have contained, and how they may have been used. 

For this display, the papyrus is mounted in the middle of the case next to the translation of this text, which was made by Joseph Clayton as part of the Papyrus Project. To better contextualise the text, we have chosen objects from the Petrie Museum which represent some of the shapes and styles of the vessels described in the list. This method of display really brings the text to life and also offers the opportunity to present objects from the permanent collection in a different light.

Case 3: Shabtis, shabtis and more shabtis!

The third case, which will be a permanent display, showcases part of our large collection of shabti-figurines. The ancient Egyptians believed that they had to do manual labour in the afterlife, just as they did during life. Shabtis are small figures which were placed in tombs to magically perform these tasks on behalf of the deceased. They were made in large numbers for the tomb, and this display aims to show how shabtis became mass-produced using faience (non-clay glazed ceramic). Petrie himself originally arranged the shabti collection in a dense display when the Egyptian Museum first opened at UCL in 1915, and we have the opportunity here to use Petrie’s ideas as inspiration for a modern, fresh display. Why not make a visit to the Petrie Museum and see for yourself!

All photos by Kirsten Holst (www.kirstenholst.com)

Anna Garnett is the Curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL

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