X Close

Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Archive for the 'Question of the Week' Category

Question of the Week:

How tall were ancient Egyptians?

By ucramew, on 21 January 2015

Misha Ewen

This was the first question I was asked on the first day in my new role as a Student Engager in the Petrie Museum. The visitor in the Petrie came up with this when he was looking at some of the sandals – of different sizes – which have survived and are displayed in the museum’s collection. One sandal appeared to me to be around a modern-day size 9 or 10, so I guessed that those living in ancient Egypt ranged in similar stature to ourselves. I then directed the visitor towards some of the head rests in the collection, which, in what might be deemed a very ‘unscientific’ way, we also made some guesses about the size of ancient Egyptians, although we wondered whether we were looking at objects made for adults or children.

© Petrie Museum, UCL.

© Petrie Museum.


It seems that our guesses were not too far from some archaeological findings. In doing some research I learned that in under 2000 years the Egyptian population changed from being ‘an egalitarian hunter-gatherer/pastoral population to a highly ranked agricultural hierarchy with the pharaoh as the divine ruler’. One study suggested that from the Predynastic period (5000 BCE) until the start of the Dynastic period (3100 BCE) the stature of Egyptians increased, which was followed later by a decline (up to 1800 BCE). They put this down to an intensification in agricultural production which meant that access to food was more reliable, but they also suggested that it reflected the beginnings of social ranking. The decline in stature in the Dynastic period was the result of even greater ‘social complexity’, when there was greater difference in access to food and healthcare: essentially, the gap between the rich and the poor had widened.

Head rest with hieroglyphics. © Petrie Museum.

Nevertheless, over this whole period they found that the mean height (of their sample of 150 skeletons) was 157.5cm (or 5ft 2in) for women and 167.9cm (or 5ft 6in) for men, quite like today. What is quite different is that compared with the average difference of 12-13cm between men and women found in modern populations, in ancient Egypt it was only 10.4cm. This came as a surprise to the researchers, as men in ancient Egypt were thought to have benefitted more (than would be so today) from preferential access to food and healthcare. But their findings probably reflect the fact that the status of women in ancient Egypt was relatively high compared to other ancient societies.

Like today, there are many variables which would have determined the height of an ancient Egyptian. First off, like modern-day England, Egypt was an ethnically diverse and cosmopolitan society where body shapes and sizes of all kinds would have been found: there was no single build, nor hair or skin colour. And also quite like today, the wealth and social status of an individual played a part in determining their physique (although in twenty-first century England being overweight is more often linked to deprivation rather than wealth). All through human history we can see multiple factors – from disease, social status, access to food and cultural aesthetics (to name a few) – determining our physique. As we continue to ponder the ideal, healthy body-type in our own society, I’m sure we’ll continue to look back and ask questions about our predecessors.

For the cited archaeological study, click here.

Question of the Week: When did the tradition for Grave Goods stop?

By Lisa, on 15 October 2014

ProfileBy Felicity Winkley

Last week I had an interesting discussion with a visitor to the Petrie museum about grave goods.

The shelves of the museum’s cases are lined with an impressive quantity of grave goods, representing a date range that covers most phases of Egyptian history. And this is hardly surprising. Of the 52 excavation locations detailed in a breakdown of Petrie’s field seasons between 1880 and 1938, over half (26) are cemeteries [1].

The finds brought back to UCL by Flinders Petrie after these excavations comprise a diverse assemblage of items. Like those observed in contemporary cultures elsewhere, the grave goods in the early stages of Ancient Egypt consisted of a mixture of every day objects, food items and those more unique or personal accessories, including combs, jewellery and trinkets.

By the Middle Kingdom, however, small figures starting appearing in tombs – early versions of what came to be known as Shabti – meaning ‘answerer’ – figures. By the end of the Middle Kingdom, shabtis were an established funerary tradition and thereafter became prevalent amongst groups of grave goods in one form or another for the remainder of Ancient Egypt’s history. Petrie’s collection contains (at least, according to the electronic catalogue) 1,841 shabtis.

Most commonly shown mummified, the shabti figures act as servants for the deceased in the afterlife – bringing them food or undertaking labour on their behalf, often as instructed in the inscription from the Book of the Dead with which they are decorated [2]. Because of this, they are regularly depicted holding hoes and with baskets on their back for collecting the farmed food for the deceased: see UC39708, a black steatite shabti from the 18th dynasty (c. 1500-1298 BC) and UC39765, a pottery shabti from the 19th (c. 1298 – 1187 BC).UC39708

The popularity of shabtis continued on throughout the New Kingdom, when they were increasingly being manufactured in faience: something explored by artist and archaeologist Zahed Taj-Eddin in the current exhibition ‘Nu’ Shabtis Liberation, in which 80 modern shabtis have escaped their enslavement to pursue their own hobbies amongst the Petrie’s cases [2].

So the visitor and I had plenty to talk about.

Then she asked me ‘When did grave goods stop?’

Her husband promptly answered ‘When Christianity was introduced’, but in fact this answer is not quite so straightforward. Firstly, there is no neat way of prescribing a date to the introduction of Christianity, and secondly, contemporary studies would shy away from using burial practice, especially solely grave goods, as a direct reflection of culture.

UC39765In Egypt, Christianity first appeared during the Roman rule – which was established after Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra VII were defeated by the future emperor Augustus in 30 BC (leaving Egypt annexed to Rome as the wealthiest province in its empire) – but it was not adopted seamlessly.

The conquering Romans had left Egyptian religion well alone, indeed had many even incorporated its traditions into their own belief systems, with several Roman emperors completing Egyptian temples during their tenure. Consequently when St Mark the Evangelist purportedly chose to establish the Church of Alexandria – one of the original three main episcopal sees of Christianity – around 33-43 AD, it was not to a people who welcomed it with open arms. Christians were persecuted for their faith until 313 when Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan to prevent their mistreatment within the Roman empire – but hereafter, worship of Egyptian deities still continued: archaeological evidence in the form of graffiti at the Temple of Isis at Philae shows that worship continued there into the 6th century.

In England, recent work from Prof. Christopher Scull points towards a cessation of grave goods in the Anglo-Saxon culture shortly before the end of the 7th century, but again – this is not necessarily a hard-and-fast indication that thereafter these burials were all Christian, instead this might have been a response to broader cultural or economic influences [4]. Current approaches warn strongly that there is in fact no evidence to support prescriptive definitions of either Christian or pagan burials during the Early Medieval period. Indeed by the 11th century, grave goods were commonly included in Christian internments as a way of marking out members of the religious community [5].

And so the ‘Question of the Week’ goes almost unanswered – but does give some good food for thought on our approaches to burial practice and material culture.

Lastly, the subject of grave goods is an interesting one in the context of my own research. Until the change in legislation in 1997, grave goods were not classified as Treasure as they did not display animus revertendi, the phrase used to describe an ‘intent to return’ on the part of whoever had buried the treasure in the first place. Unlike a hoard which is buried with the intention of retrieving, grave goods are donated to the dead and intended to be left intact in the grave – so consequently were not protected as Treasure Trove before the law was updated.

As such the incredible grave goods from Sutton Hoo, that nationally recognisable Anglo Saxon ship burial, were only saved for the public benefit through the benevolence of the landowner Mrs Pretty, who would have been quite within her legal rights to see the artefacts piece by piece should she have wished to. (For more on the Treasure definition, see my previous blog here [6])

 ‘Nu’ Shabtis Liberation is on at the Petrie Museum until 18 October.

[1] http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/petriedigsindex.html

[2] http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/e/egyptian_shabti_figures.aspx

[3] http://events.ucl.ac.uk/event/event:k36-i0gmqt30-fs2rn/nushabtis-liberation

[4] A. Bayliss, J. Hines, K Høilund Nielsen, G. McCormac and C. Scull (2013) Anglo-Saxon graves and grave goods of the sixth and seventh centuries AD: a chronological framework. Leeds, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33

[5] Gilchrist, R. (2005) Requiem for a Lost Age British Archaeology 84 http://www.archaeologyuk.org/ba/ba84/feat2.shtml

[6] https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/researchers-in-museums/2013/01/14/the-staffordshire-hoard-defining-treasure/



Question of the Week: What is Pelvimetry?

By Lisa, on 10 September 2014

Lisa PlotkinLast Saturday I was engaging at the Grant Museum of Zoology where I started talking with two visitors about the history of science. As a Victorian historian, my doctoral research specifically looks at the historyof Victorian medicine and its relationship to women and the articulation of the healthy female body. There couldn’t be a better setting to discuss those themes than the Grant Museum- the only remaining zoological university collection in London, which houses a dizzying array of zoological specimens dating back to the early nineteenth-century. The museum’s founder, Robert Edmond Grant, is particularly known for his influence on the young Charles Darwin, when the latter studied under him at Edinburgh University.

As I was discussing Darwinian science with the museum visitors, one of them brought up phrenology- a not totally unexpected turn as visitors often bring up the history of eugenics when I am discussing my work. First developed in the late eighteenth century, but reaching the pinnacle of its popularity in the mid-19th century, phrenology is the pseudo-science of skull measurement in order to determine a person’s character, intelligence, and overall mental capacity. Distinct, but not unrelated to craniometry (which is the measurement of cranial features to classify people according to race and temperament) phrenology had a big impact on the concept and understanding of “race” in the Victorian period.


A pelvimeter. © Dittrick Medical History Center

This is when I introduced the word “pelvimetry” into the conversation only to receive puzzled looks. What is pelvimetry? Well, from its root word “pelv” and the fact that I am a woman’s historian you might be able to hazard a guess. In obstetrics today, pelvimetry is the measurement of the female pelvis in relation to the birth of a baby. However, in the Victorian period pelvimetry was also used to measure the female pelvis to determine racial characteristics, and to provide a medical explanation as to why a woman’s worth was inextricably linked to her reproductive system, as opposed to her brain.

Or, as the obstetrician Francourt Barnes remarked in 1884, “If woman excels by the pelvis, man excels by the head.” In keeping with this line of reasoning, the eugenics advocate Havelock Ellis ranked the races according to pelvic type and size: the oval (European), the round (American), the Square (Mongol), and the Oblong (African), emphasizing the underlying claim that the oval or European pelvic size was conducive to the healthiest brain development in babies. In this way, the female pelvic type corresponded racially to the male brain size. Craniometry and pelvimetry in easy complement, both asserting the superiority of Europeans, while at the same time stressing sexual difference to cast women as sexual and men as cerebral.

To learn more about pelvimetry see: The Female Body in Medicine and Literature (ed) Andrew Mangham and Greta Depledge or come and find me in one of UCL’s three museums- lisa.plotkin.10@ucl.ac.uk.







Question of the Week: How do sharks hear?

By Stacy Hackner, on 23 April 2014

by Stacy Hackner

“Sharks have eyes and mouths, and we hear all about their ability to smell blood. How do they hear?” Once again, a visitor had me stumped. Despite their having only tiny holes for external ears, sharks actually have very acute hearing, I later learned. Like in humans and other mammals, the shark’s inner ear has tiny hairs called stereocilia that vibrate, which is interpreted by the brain as sound. The stereocilia are arranged in three fluid-filled tubes, allowing the shark to hear in multiple directions. (These tubes are also responsible for the shark’s sense of balance.)

Sharks can hear low frequencies much better than humans, ranging from 10-800 Hertz (for reference, humans can hear between 25-16,000 Hertz), and can hear prey up to 800 feet away. In combination with their formidable sense of smell and speed, this makes them fearsome predators. (The big ones, at least.)


The angel shark, with ears visible just behind the eyes.
Courtesy Grant Museum.


Shark Trust

Sharks Interactive 

Question of the Week: What is the meaning of that funny loop-headed cross symbol?

By Lisa, on 2 April 2014

ProfileBy Felicity Winkley


UC6636: Limestone relief
from Lahun with a god holding
an ankh (12th dynasty)

Two American tourists who visited the Petrie last week spotted a pattern amongst the architectural sculpture and stelae gallery – a recurrence of a cross shaped symbol with a looped top, popping up in rows of hieroglyphs or in the hands of a god or pharaoh. They asked what it was, and what it meant? The first question is easy to answer, the second far less so.

The symbol is known as an ankh, and can be used as a stand-alone symbol or as a hieroglyphic character for the same syllable, for example in the name Tut-ankh-amun. It is widely thought to symbolise life. Therefore, in the case of Tutankhamun, the name can be translated as the Living Image of Amun, and when written you see the ankh symbol towards the end of the name, as follows:


Tutankhamun Hekaiunushema. Living Image of Amun,
ruler of Upper Heliopolis

The Ankh appears on the Rosetta Stone, the hieroglyphic content of which was translated in 1822 by a French scholar called Jean-François Champollion. In reference to Ptolemy V, it is shown in a group of three symbols that recurs frequently in or after the names of pharaohs or their households – ankh, wedjeh, seneb  – meaning life, prosperity, health.

But why was this the symbol chosen to represent life?  When Thomas Inman published Ancient Pagan and Modern Christian Symbolism in 1869, he interpreted the loop of the handle as female, and the three prongs of the cross as male – together forming a union that suggested fertility and the origins of life. Since then, many scholars have relinquished the female element from the sign altogether, and solely linked it with the male sexual organ and therefore the source of life. These interpretations are strengthened by links between the ankh and similarly penis sheaths, although there are arguments about which came first, and whether indeed the effect was deliberate or just coincidental! Even Petrie himself, however, noted similarities between the ankh and a fisherman’s girdle! [1]

For Gordon and Schwabe, writing in 2004, the ankh, djed, and was symbols are derived from the importance of cattle in ancient Egyptian society, and are taken as representations of this. Accordingly, the shape of the ankh is interpreted as the cross-section of the thoracic vertebra of a bull [2]. But can this really be the case? What do you think? Why not look out for the ankh on your next visit to the Petrie Museum.


UC055: Column fragment from Amarna, showing ankh and wedjeh,
life and prosperity (18th dynasty)


[1] Petrie, William Flinders (1892) Medum

[2] Gordon, Andrew Hunt and Schwabe, Calvin W (2004). The Quick and the Dead: Biomedical Theory in Ancient Egypt 

Question of the Week: Do boys and girls enjoy different museum exhibits/items?

By Stacy Hackner, on 26 March 2014

Stacy Hackner_Thumbnail

By Stacy Hackner

This is actually a more complicated question than one would think, especially considering the recent controversies regarding “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” toys, the Independent’s refusal to review children’s books aimed at a particular gender, and Waterstones‘ refusal to sell such books. It’s also an interesting question to ask as most of us would consider museums fairly gender-neutral spaces. According to research, museum visitors are more likely to be female, educated, older, and white — but that’s a fairly narrow demographic. Clearly there are many visitors who are male or other genders, not in (or after) higher education, young, and of varying ethnicities. There are also two competing (but false) ideologies: that girls would prefer museums because they like quiet learning and being indoors, and that boys will prefer museums because they can interact with objects and tend to like “the gross stuff”. Studies from the 1990s showed that while boys and girls both visited all exhibits at a science museum, they interacted with the exhibits in different ways and for different amounts of time – i.e. boys preferred the water jets and girls preferred face paint. (What these activities have to do with science is unclear.) The researchers showed that children display “typical gender roles” when playing and advise museums to design displays accordingly. Another article encourages girls to visit science museums because they’re an informal and thus less intimidating environment than the classroom. However, it’s important to consider these articles in the context of the views of gender held at the time – I’d hope we’re less stereotypical these days.

In my experience in the Petrie and the Grant, I’ve found both of these stereotypes completely untrue. All kids who come to the Grant like “the gross stuff”, or as they’re properly termed, the wet specimens. I’ve had both boys and girls come up to ask me questions about dinosaurs and bones and worms and mummies and jewelry and the jar of moles. Both boys and girls want to dress up in the Petrie’s reproduction Egyptian clothing, especially the loincloth. Teenage boys, including a Scouts troop I engaged with, are particularly fascinated by the baculum — but then, so were a duo of thirty-year-old women. Above all, kids of all genders are natural scientists: curious, inquisitive, and unafraid to ask crazy questions. Children who visit museums are happier and, in a country where most museums are free, it’s always worthwhile for them to come and explore.



Falk, JH. 2009. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Kremer, KB and GW Mullins. 1992. Children’s Gender Behavior at Science Museum Exhibits. Curator: The Museum Journal Volume 35, Issue 1, pages 39–48.

Ramey-Gassert, L, HJ Walberg III, and HJ Walberg. 1994. Reexamining connections: Museums as science learning environments. Science Education, Volume 78, Issue 4, pages 345–363.

Question of the week: Do other animals have belly buttons?

By Stacy Hackner, on 19 March 2014

Stacy Hackner_Thumbnail

by Stacy Hackner

This question was thrown at me at the end of a conversation about juvenile bone growth, and I was completely blindsided. I know my cat definitely has a bump in the place his navel should be, and I assumed all placental mammals have them.

Further research shows that indeed, all placental mammals start with a belly button (or navel, or umbilicus if you’re scientific). The navel is the remnant of the umbilical cord, which attaches a fetus to the mother’s placenta to deliver nutrients in utero. Thus animals that hatch from eggs don’t have them – this includes marsupials like kangaroos and wombats, which have not evolved a placental structure and instead incubate their young in a pouch. However, in most other mammals (and certain humans) they’re obscured by fur, and in some species they are a thin scar rather than a small bump, and fade over the course of the animal’s lifetime.


Umbilicus evident on a Grant Museum specimen of a fetal beluga whale.


Question of the Week: Why is brain coral shaped like a brain?

By Lisa, on 12 March 2014

Ruth Blackburn #1By Ruth Blackburn

The aptly named brain coral is a dome-shaped member of the family Faviidae which has distinct sinuous valleys (that’s the wibbly ridgey bits that look like the surface of a brain).

So why the dome shape?  This is largely driven by the position of the coral within the reef: brain coral is found in shallow parts of reef at a depth of about 1-15 metres. At this depth there is substantial wave action, which corals with a compact spheroid shape are much more resilient to than those with thin antler-like projections.

Brain coral from the Grant Museum collection.

Brain coral from the
Grant Museum collection.

The sinuous valleys on the surface of the brain coral can also be explained.  These mark the areas in which polyps – soft bodied marine creatures – are most densely found.  Polyps are able to secrete calcium carbonate (just like the scale that builds up in your kettle) to form a hard and protective exoskeleton that it can live in: this exoskeleton is what you actually see when you visit the Grant Museum.

Question of the Week: What is an animal?

By Lisa, on 5 March 2014

ProfileBy Felicity Winkley

I have been engaging with visitors to the Grant Museum of Zoology for almost two years and thought I had heard most of the unanswerable questions I was likely to be posed on a shift there by now. However, I must confess to being totally stumped when a visitor a few weeks ago approached me towards the end of the day and asked “Why is a sponge an animal?” and, after a pause…“What is an animal?”

Surrounded by skeletons, stuffed and wet specimens representing almost every family within the animal kingdom, unfortunately what the actual definition might be had never crossed my mind before! Deciding it would be best not to try and come up with my own version, I consulted Dean, the museum’s Learning and Access Officer who kindly rescued me. His response was that, in short, the criterion for defining an animal as far as a sponge is concerned is that sponges (unlike plants) are unable to make their own food, or as the Oxford Dictionary puts it: ‘synthesize organic molecules from inorganic ones’.


The full definition adds some further factors, suggesting that an animal is ‘a living organism which feeds on organic matter, typically having specialized sense organs and nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli’. Sponges, however, whilst they do qualify as animals, fall short of this definition as they lack true organs. Instead they filter water through a central cavity in order to remove bacteria and other food particles to feed upon. Whilst not capable of photosynthesis themselves, some sponge species nevertheless can play host to photosynthesising microorganisms to produce food instead.

It was Grant whose work finally established that sponges were indeed animals, and he who named the phylum Porifera, from the Latin porifer meaning bearing pores. There are approximately 5 – 10,000 known species of sponge, including the species named in tribute of Grant by his contemporary John Fleming in 1828, the Grantia.

To find out more, see: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/zoology/about/history

Question(s) of the Week: What is a toilet spoon and did you kill that

By Lisa, on 26 February 2014

Lisa PlotkinIt’s been almost two years since I began working in UCL’s three public museums as a student engager and in that time I’ve been asked a lot of amusing questions, ranging from “did you kill that?” (most often asked by children visiting the Grant) to “would you like to grab a drink?” (most often asked by visitors on Friday afternoons who don’t realize I actually work at the museum which is why I have stopped to have a chat with them) to “Is that for sale?” (asked by one visitor at the Petrie while pointing at a faience figurine dating from the middle kingdom).

As a student engager it is my job to talk to the visitors and engage them with the collection as well as my own doctoral research, which is on the nineteenth century history of gender and medicine. And by talking with the visitors I inevitably get asked a lot of questions, some of which I have absolutely no clue how to answer. I do know for certain that I didn’t kill any of the animals that currently occupy the many jars that fill the Grant Museum of Zoology. However, I don’t know how all those animals got there (a rather macabre thought) nor do I know what a toilet spoon is, or at least I didn’t until I was asked by a boy and his father during my shift at the Petrie last month. Turns out toilet spoons, or cosmetic spoons, were used to store perfumes for makeup in ancient Egyptian society.


Toilet spoon

There were also objects called toilet trays, which are small bowls made from stone and thought to be produced as offerings in the cult of Isis. Beautifully and intricately decorated, Petrie classified these trays as “cosmetic” in function- although that remains in doubt. Needless to say the little boy was a bit disappointed that the toilet spoon (and its tray sister) did not have another function in the ancient world.

And that I think is the best part of my job- learning from the visitors as much they (hopefully!) learn from me. So please come by one of our museums from 1:30 to 4:30, look for the people wearing “UCL Museums” name tags and wandering all around the museum floor and ask away! You may be surprised about what you learn- I know I will be.