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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Luxor: Places and People

By Debbie J Challis, on 13 January 2012

On Saturday 7 January artist Adele Wagstaff hung her exhibition Luxor: People and Places at the Petrie Museum and, having just returned from Luxor a few days before the hang, I thought I’d write a post with a similar name. It was my first time in Upper Egypt and Luxor,  having previously visited Cairo and Alexandria, and I was a tourist on holiday rather than doing work.

A pharoah smiting people on Medinet Habu Temple, Thebes. Petrie took casts from the prisoner heads as ‘racial types’.

Although I did visit many sites that Flinders Petrie worked on 100 years ago, excavating, surveying or taking casts for his Racial Photographs project.

The week my husband and I went to Luxor was meant to be one of the busiest of the European tourist season, though the sites and Luxor itself was fairly quiet due to both a recession in Europe and concerns about continued demonstrations in Cairo. It was great, however, to see so many Egyptian people visiting the sites, particularly in Abydos.

Omar in his ‘Reis’ clothes

Visiting these places was sorted out for us by Omar Farouk Said and his cousin Alla. Omar is a descendent of one of Petrie’s Qufti workers, who still excavates today! He was currently working with an excavation organised by Memphis University in Dra abu el Naga.

I think Deir el Medina – the town where the artisans lived who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings – was my favourite site in Thebes. Although I also loved the Rammesseum complete with Belzoni’s graffiti on the column.

Belzoni at Rammesseum

There is a myth that you go to Egypt today and see the ‘unchanged’ scenes from antiquity in the countryside and driving through the villages of Upper Egypt can seem like that. However, Belzoni’s name along with those of other European travellers dotting the monuments give the lie to this ‘unchanging myth’ and are a reminder of the politics that always surrounds ancient heritage.

On our last day I had a sherry in colonial mansion that is the Winter Palace Hotel; a place that seemed incongruously older than the ancient sites, even down to the picture of Tony and Cherie Blair on the wall of the corridor outside the bar.

It was an exciting time to be in Egypt. In the last few days we were there, elections were taking place in the

Drinking sherry in the Winter Palace bar

Drinking sherry in the Winter Palace bar

provinces. Many of the candidates for Qena, the capital city of the province Luxor belongs to, were staying in our hotel which made for chaotic scenes with TV crews and taxis when we left for Dendera early on 3 January.

There were election posters everywhere.  It was a completely different situation and feel to the atmosphere when I visited Egypt in 2008 where restaurants and roadsides had countless pictures of the former President Hosni Mubarak. The political graffitiand stencils were particularly moving. Stencils of ‘Egyptian martyrs’ who died in the cause of freedom dotted the streets of Luxor.  From Khaled Said, who died at the hands of the

Mina Daniel: 'We are all Martyr Mina Daniel'. Luxor Street

Mina Daniel: ‘We are all Martyr Mina Daniel’. Luxor Street

security forces in 2010 and was one of the first martyrs of the revolution, to this one of Mina Daniel, a young Copt who died when the military opened fire on a protest in October 2011; these images kept the continuing struggle for the election and free speech in public view.

I came home to Britain reflecting on the connections and differences between our own protests and riots over the past year and those that happened and are continuing in Egypt, and felt humbled.

There will be a screening of a documentary about how a cross section of Egyptian people in Upper Egypt were affected by the revolution, followed by a discussion on Wednesday 25 January in the Petrie Museum.

Race, Starkey and Remembering

By Debbie J Challis, on 16 August 2011

David Starkey’s comments that ‘whites have become black’ on the BBC2 programme Newsnight on Friday 12 August 2011 have been condemned in most of the media and by many politicians. There are a few who make the valid argument for freedom to say what we like, while others contend that Starkey was referring to a particular form of ‘black’ gangsta culture. The BBC has had over 700 complaints. The black MP for Tottenham David Lammy, whom Starkey described as sounding ‘white’, implied that Starkey should stick to Tudor history. The classicist Mary Beard has pointed out that any historian worth their salt should be able to apply their tools of critique to any period.  In this I concur.

David Starkey on Newsnight

Here I speak personally for myself and not for UCL or for any of my colleagues.

Starkey’s generalisations uncomfortably reminded me of Francis Galton’s letter to The Times on 5 June 1873 advocating that the Chinese move into Africa and take over from the ‘inferior negro’. Galton wrote: (more…)

Scribbles and skulls

By Rachael Sparks, on 31 March 2011

From a public perspective, objects are what a museum is all about. Yet behind every object is a story, built up from a range of sources and evidence, that enables us to contextualise that artefact and give it some form of meaning. This meaning may change as scholarship advances or audiences diversify. But without that level of research, we would have little more than a lot of nice ‘stuff’ on display.

A crucial link in this chain of information comes from archival sources. The Institute of Archaeology is fortunate in having a range of original field records to support its collections, allowing us to learn more about the circumstances in which material was originally excavated. These also provide a window into the methods and practices of seminal figures in the development of archaeology as a discipline. The tomb cards written by Flinders Petrie and his staff are a classic example.

Who is ‘the Man from Mitanni’?

By Debbie J Challis, on 1 February 2011

Museum research can be like detective work – like Sherlock Holmes in a filing cabinet. (If there are any Benedict Cumberbatch fans reading this, don’t get distracted by that image). A vital part of clue finding is not to trust what you are told by museum databases.

At the moment I am working on an exhibition and events programme around a series of photographs that the archaeologist Flinders Petrie took for ‘The Committee appointed for the purposes of procuring, with the help of Mr Flinders Petrie, Racial Photographs from the ancient Egyptian Pictures and Sculptures’. In actual fact, Petrie only received £20 from them. The scientist Sir Francis Galton gave almost £300 from ‘his own pocket’ towards the expedition in 1886-87. (More on Galton in future posts. . .). (more…)