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Are emojis the hieroglyphics of the 21st century?

By Julia R Deathridge, on 7 November 2017

Emojis are everywhere. Whether they’re all over your social media, on advertisements on the tube, or adorning t-shirts and bags in Primark, you just can’t escape them! A recent survey by TalkTalk revealed that 72% of 18-25 year olds find it easier when texting to express themselves with emojis rather than using the written word. And it’s not just millenials who have been affected – even my Mum can’t send me a text without including one. But this is not the first time pictorial images have been used as a form of written communication.

During a recent shift in the Petrie museum, I realised that many of the hieroglyphic carvings on display held a strong resemblance to an emoji-filled text I had sent earlier that day; this left me wondering what the similarities are between the two languages. Are emojis a step forwards in how we communicate or are we reverting back to the language of the ancient Egyptians?

Hieroglyphic inscription from an anti-chamber wall (UC45400)

Hieroglyphic inscription (UC45400)

The History of Hieroglyphics

 Hieroglyphics are considered to be one of the oldest forms of written language, with the earliest known form dating back to 3300-3200BC. The term hieroglyphics was coined by the ancient Greeks to describe the ‘sacred carvings’ they observed on Egyptian monuments. In ancient Egyptian the word for hieroglyphics translates to mean ‘the word of the gods’, highlighting its importance in Egyptian culture.

Unlike emojis, which are used by more than 90% of the world’s online population, only a small percentage of Ancient Egyptians were taught how to write hieroglyphics, such as priests, royals and civil officials. Consequently, hieroglyphics were predominantly confined to religious texts, royal documents and the recording of historical events.

Divorce document inscribed in hieratic (UC19614)

Divorce document inscribed in hieratic (UC19614)

Over time, the use of hieroglyphics became more widespread in Egyptian civilization; this resulted in a simplified cursive form of the script, known as hieratic being developed. Despite hieroglyphics being the language most commonly associated with Ancient Egypt, hieratic was actually used for the bulk of written texts. Hieratic was simplified even further into demotic scripture in 7th century BC. Thereafter, hieroglyphics were primarily used for inscriptions on buildings, and as a form of decorative writing on furniture and jewellery.

Deciphering Hieroglyphics

Use of hieroglyphics declined rapidly in Egypt under Roman rule and their meaning was lost for almost 2,000 years until the rediscovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799.

CC BY-SA 4.0. Attribution: © Hans Hillewaert

Rosetta Stone  CC BY-SA 4.0. © Hans Hillewaert

The Rosetta stone was the missing key to deciphering hieroglyphics, as it was engraved with a text written in three different ways: hieroglyphics, ancient Greek and demotic script. The French scholar Jean-Francoise Champillion used the Rosetta stone, alongside the work of other European scholars, to decipher the hieroglyphs and unlocked the language of the Ancient Egyptians once more.

Work deciphering the different written texts of Ancient Egypt is still ongoing. UCL’s Papyrus for the People Project aims to improve our understanding of the collection of written texts at the Petrie Museum and make them more accessible to the general public. You can read more about the project here.

Emojis vs Hieroglyphics

The term emoji originates from the Japanese for pictograph: e “picture” + moji “character”. Emojis are classified as a pictographic and ideographic writing system that uses symbols to represent an object or an idea rather than specific words. Although at first glance hieroglyphics may also appear to function in a similar way, the language is actually far more layered and complex.

Hieroglyphics are comprised of phonograms which represent sounds, logograms which represent words or phrases, and determinatives which are used at the end to clarify meaning of the word.

Hieroglyphic characters can also have multiple meanings depending on how they are used. For example the symbol for ‘house’, which was pronounced as pr, can also be used phonetically to represent the sound ‘pr’ in other words. Combinations of hieroglyphics characters could therefore be used to spell out larger words and composite phrases.

According to a journalist at the Guardian, emojis are an evolutionary step back, a return to the ‘static culture’ of ancient Egypt that was limited by its use of hieroglyphs. However, the hieroglyphics language was far more than ‘picture writing’. It allowed ancient Egyptians to compose a huge variety of texts from medical documents to poetry – texts that are significantly more advanced than what is possible to convey with emojis. Let’s just say if my doctor tried to write my medical report purely in emojis I would be concerned!

Emojis are a great form of communication and can add a creative flair to how we message one another. However, they will never be a replacement for the written word and I doubt they would have the capacity to help build and maintain an entire civilisation. If I change my mind and decide to write my thesis in emoji, I’ll let you know!

emoji wink

 

 

 

 

Add Like an (Ancient) Egyptian

By Cerys Bradley, on 12 October 2017

As student engagers, we work in each of the museums no matter how far from our own disciplines they are. I study cybercrime which is not clearly related zoology, art, or Egyptology; as a result, I have received many looks of surprise from visitors when they discover someone working in the museum is not an expert in the subject matter. To be a better student engager, I have learned a lot about the history of each museum and researched many objects so that I can answer questions and provide useful information to visitors, but I also like to talk about subjects related to my discipline. For the Grant Museum, this means talking about a study which looked at the trade (or lack thereof) of endangered animal souvenirs on the Dark Net; for the Art Museum, I talk about an art exhibition displaying objects purchased at random from Dark Net Markets. However, I have always struggled to link my research to Archaeology and the objects at the Petrie.

Instead, I like to talk about my undergraduate degree: Mathematics. There is evidence that the Ancient Egyptians had not only a counting system but prolifically and pragmatically used Mathematics. Records show that they used maths for accounting, architecture, and astronomy, amongst other things. Their techniques enabled a complex tax system and were even adopted by Greek mathematicians such as Pythagoras.

Papyrus showing mathematical calculations in Hieratic script.

Papyrus showing mathematical calculations in Hieratic script.

However, Egyptian mathematics was very different to that which we use today. Whilst they also used a base 10 system, at first they only had symbols for the numbers 1, 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000 and 100,000. This made writing numbers sometimes laborious – to write the number 7, you would need to write the hieroglyph for the number 1 seven times. The numbers 2-9 were added later after they began writing on papyrus using the Hieratic script instead of Hieroglyphs.  Fractions were denoted using a specific symbol and could only be of the form 1 , with a 1 as the numerator. This system made addition and subtraction simple but other tasks, such as multiplication, much more complex.

To do these more complex computations, the Ancient Egyptians would combine addition and subtraction in brute force methods that would provide approximations of the answer. For example, to multiply two numbers together, they would add the first number to itself the second number of times in a process of doubling not unlike the way computers are now programmed to do. As an illustration, to calculate 3 × 4 they would double 3 (that is 3 × 2) and then double 3 again (that is 3 ×(2+2)=3 ×4.

They would also rely on pre-calculated times tables to increase the speed of their work and prevent them from having to repeat the same problems again and again. This is believed to be the case because some of these tables have survived to today. For example, object UC32159 is a section of papyrus that displays division tables containing the answers to 2 being divided by the odd numbers from 3 to 31.

Remains of papyrus showing the division of 2, written in Hieratic script.

Remains of papyrus showing the division of 2, written in Hieratic script.

The collections in each of UCL’s museums are so large and varied that there will always be something relevant and of interest to anyone who visits.

Sports in the Ancient World

By Stacy Hackner, on 24 January 2017

engaging

by Stacy Hackner

 

I’ve written previously here about the antiquity of running, which was one of the original sports at the ancient Greek Olympics, along with javelin, archery, and jumping. These games started around 776 BC in the town of Olympia. What came before, though? What other evidence do we have of ancient sports?

Running is probably the most ancient sport; it requires no gear (no matter how much shoe companies make you think you need it) and the distances are easily set: to that tree and back, to that mountain and back. Research into the origins of human locomotion focus on changes to the foot, which needed to change from arboreal gripping to bipedal running and bearing the full weight of the body. A fossil foot of Ardipithecus ramidus, a hominin which lived 4.4 million years ago, features a stiffened midfoot and flexible toes capable of being extended to help push off at the end of a stance, but has the short big toe typical of great apes. Australopithecus sediba, which lived only 2 million years ago, had an arched foot like modern humans (at least not the flat-footed ones) but an ankle that turned inwards like apes. Clearly our feet didn’t evolve all the features of bipedal running at once, but rather at various intervals over the past 4-5 millennia. Evidence of ancient humans’ distance running is equally ancient, as I wrote about previously. Researchers Bramble & Lieberman have posed the question “Why would early Homo run long distances when walking is easier, safer and less costly?” They posit that endurance running was key to obtaining the fatty tissue from meat, marrow, and brain necessary to fuel our absurdly large brains – thus linking long-distance running with improved cognition. In a similar vein, research into the neuroscience of running has found that it boosts mood, clarifies thinking, and decreases stress.

Feats of athleticism in ancient times were frequently dedicated to gods. Long before the Greek games, the Egyptians were running races at the sed-festival dedicated to the fertility god Min. A limestone wall block at the Petrie depicts King Senusret (1971 BCE) racing with an oar and hepet-tool. The Olympic Games, too, were originally dedicated to the gods of Olympus, but it appears that as time went on, they became corrupted by emphasizing the individual heroic athletes and even allowed commoners to compete. There were four races in the original Olympics: the stade (192m), 2 stades, 7-24 stades, and 2-4 stades in full hoplite armor. It should be mentioned that serious long-distance running, like the modern marathon, was not a part of the ancient games. The story of Pheidippides running from the battlefield at Marathon to announce the Greek victory in Athens is most likely fictional, although the first modern marathon in 1896 traced that 25-mile route. The modern distance of just over 26 miles was set at the 1908 London Olympics, when the route was lengthened to go past Buckingham Palace.

Limestone wall-block with sunk relief depiction, internally carefully modelled, showing King Senusret I with oar and hepet-tool, running the sed-festival race before the god Min. Now in five pieces rejoined, and some small fragments. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Limestone wall-block showing King Senusret I running the sed-festival race before the god Min. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Wrestling might be equally ancient. It’s basically a form of play-fighting with rules (or without rules, depending on the type – compare judo to Greco-Roman to WWF), and play-fighting can be seen not only in human children but in a variety of mammal species. In Olympic wrestling, the goal was to get one’s opponent to the ground without biting or grabbing genitals, but breaking their fingers and dislocating bones were valid. Some archaeologists have tried to attribute Nubian bone shape – the basis of my thesis – on wrestling, for which they were famed. Another limestone relief in the Petrie shows two men wrestling in loincloths. Boxing is a similar fighting contest; original Olympic boxing required two men to fight until one was unconscious. Pankration brutally combined wrestling and boxing, but helpfully forbid eye-gouging. It may be possible to identify ancient boxers bioarchaeologically by examining patterns of nonlethal injuries. Some of these are depressions in the cranial vault (particularly towards the front and the left, presuming mostly right-handed opponents), facial fractures, nasal fractures, traumatic tooth loss, and fractures of the bones of the hand.

Crude limestone group, depicting two men wrestling. Traces of red loin cloth on one, and black on the other. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Crude limestone group depicting two men wrestling. Traces of red loin cloth on one, and black on the other. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Spear or javelin throwing has also been attested in antiquity. Although we have evidence of predynastic flint points and dynastic iron spear tips, it’s unclear whether these were used for sport (how far one can throw) or for hunting. Actually, it’s unclear how the two became separate. Hunting was (and continues to be) a major sport – although not one with a clear winner as in racing or wrestling – and the only difference is that in javelin the target isn’t moving (or alive). In the past few years, research has been conducted into the antiquity of spear throwing. One study argues that Neanderthals had asymmetrical upper arm bones – the right was larger due to the muscular activity involved in repeatedly throwing a spear. Another study used electromyography of various activities to reject the spear-thrusting hypothesis, arguing that that the right arm was larger in the specific dimensions more associated with scraping hides. Spear throwing is attested bioarchaeologically in much later periods. A particular pathological pattern called “atlatl elbow”: use of a tool to increase spear velocity caused osteoarthritic degeneration of the elbow, but protected the shoulder.

Fragment of a copper alloy spear head from the Roman period. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Fragment of a Roman-period copper alloy spear head. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

A final Olympic sport is chariot racing and riding. Horses were probably only domesticated around 5500 years ago in Eurasia, so horse sports are really quite new compared to running and throwing! It’s likely that horses were originally captured and domesticated for meat at least 1000 years before humans realized they could use them for transportation. The Olympic races were 4.5 miles around the track (without saddles or stirrups, as these developments had not yet reached Greece), and the chariot races were 9 miles with either 2 or 4 horses. Bioarchaeologists have noted signs of horseback riding around the ancient world – signs include degenerative changes to the vertebrae and pelvis from bouncing as well as enlargement of the hip socket (acetabulum) and increased contact area between the femur and pelvis from when they rub together. In all cases, more males than females had these changes, indicating that it was more common for men to ride horses.

Of course, there are many more sports that existed in the ancient world – other fighting games including gladiatorial combat, ritualized warfare, and games with balls and sticks (including the Mayan basketball-esque game purportedly played with human skulls). Often games were dedicated to gods, or resulted in the death of the loser(s). However, many of these, explored bioarchaeologically, would result in similar musculoskeletal changes and injury patterns discussed above. Many games have probably been lost to history. Considering the vast span of human activity, it’s likely sports of some kind have always existed, from the earliest foot races to the modern Olympic spectacle.

Stone ball, limestone; from a game. From Naqada Tomb 1503. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Limestone ball from a game. From Naqada Tomb 1503. Courtesy Petrie Museum.

Sources

Bramble, D.M. and Lieberman, D.E. 2004. Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature 432(7015), pp. 345–352.

Carroll, S.C. 1988. Wrestling in Ancient Nubia. Journal of sport history 15(2), pp. 121–137. Available at:

Larsen, C.S. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lieberman, D.E. 2012. Those feet in ancient times. Nature 483, pp. 550–551.

Martin, D.L. and Frayer, D.W. eds. 1997. Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past. illustrated. Psychology Press.

Perrottet, T. 2004. The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games. Random House Publishing Group.

 

Normativity November: Defining the Archaeological Normal

By Stacy Hackner, on 23 November 2016

This post is part of QMUL’s Normativity November, a month exploring the concept of the normal in preparation for the exciting Being Human events ‘Emotions and Cancer’ on 22 November and ‘The Museum of the Normal’ on 24 November, and originally appeared on the QMUL History of Emotions Blog.

DSC_0745by Stacy Hackner

 

The history of archaeology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries can be read as the history of European men attempting to prove their perceived place in the world. At the time, western Europe had colonized much of the world, dividing up Africa, South America, and Oceania from which they could extract resources to further fund empires. Alongside this global spread was a sincere belief in the superiority of the rule of white men, which had grown from the Darwinian theory of evolution and the subsequent ideas of eugenics advanced by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton: not only were white men the height of evolutionary and cultural progress, they were the epitome of thousands of years of cultural development which was superior to any other world culture. According to their belief, it was inevitable that Europeans should colonize the rest of the world. This was not only the normal way of life, but the only one that made sense.

In modern archaeology, we let the data speak for itself, trying not to impose our own ideas of normality and society onto ancient cultures. One hundred years ago, however, archaeology was used as a tool to prove European superiority and cultural manifest and without the benefit of radiocarbon dating (invented in the 1940s) to identify which culture developed at what time, Victorian and Edwardian archaeologists were free to stratify ancient cultures in a way that supported their framework that most European=most advanced. “European-ness” was defined through craniometry, or the measurement and appearance of skulls, and similar measurements of the limbs. Normality was defined as the average British measurement, and any deviation from this normal immediately identified that individual as part of a lesser race (a term which modern anthropologists find highly problematic, as so much of what was previously called “race” is culture).

In my research into sites in Egypt and Sudan, I’ve encountered two sites that typify this shoehorning of archaeology to fit a Victorian ideal of European superiority. The first is an ancient Egyptian site called Naqada, excavated by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie in the 1890s. Petrie is considered the founder of modern, methodological archaeology because he invented typology – categorizing objects based on their similarity to each other. As an associate and friend of Galton and others in the eugenics circle, he applied the same principle to categorizing people (it’s likely that his excavations of human remains were requested by Galton to diversify his anthropometric collection). Naqada featured two main types of burials: one where the deceased were laid on their backs (supine) and one where the deceased were curled up on their side (flexed). Petrie called these “Egyptian” and “foreign” types, respectively. The grave goods (hand-made pottery, hairpins, fish-shaped slate palettes) found in the foreign tombs did not resemble any from his previous Egyptian excavations. The skeletons were so markedly different from the Egyptians – round, high skulls of the “Algerian” type, and tall and rugged – that he called them the “New Race”. Similarities, such as the burnt animal offerings found in the New Race tombs, present in Egyptian tombs as symbolic wall paintings, were obviously naïve imitations made by the immigrants. However, the progression of New Race pottery styles pointed to a lengthy stay in Egypt, which confused Petrie. Any protracted stay among the Egyptians must surely have led to trade: why then was there an absence of Egyptian trade goods? His conclusion was that the New Race were invading cannibals from a hot climate who had completely obliterated the local, peaceful Egyptian community between the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

Of course, with the advent of radiocarbon dating and a more discerning approach to cultural change, we now know that Petrie had it backwards. The New Race are actually a pre-Dynastic Egyptian culture (4800-3100 BC), who created permanent urban agricultural settlements after presumably thousands of years of being semi-nomadic alongside smaller agricultural centres. Petrie’s accusation of cannibalism is derived from remarks from Juvenal, a Roman poet writing centuries later. It also shows Petrie’s racism – of course these people from a “hot climate” erased the peaceful Egyptians, whose skulls bear more resemblance to Europeans. In actuality, Egyptian culture as we know it, with pyramids and chariots and mummification, developed from pre-Dynastic culture through very uninteresting centuries-long cultural change. Petrie’s own beliefs about the superiority of Europeans, typified by the Egyptians, allowed him to create a scientific-sounding argument that associated Africans with warlike-invasion halting cultural progression.

The second site in my research is Jebel Moya, located 250 km south of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, and excavated by Sir Henry Wellcome from 1911-1914. The site is a cemetery that appears to be of a nomadic group, dating to the Meroitic period (3rd century BC-4th century AD). The site lacks the pottery indicative of the predominant Meroitic culture, therefore the skulls were used to determine racial affiliation. Meroe was seen as part of the lineage of ancient Egypt – despite being Sudanese, the Meroitic people adopted pyramid-building and other cultural markers inspired by the now-defunct Egyptian civilization. Because many more female skeletons were discovered at this site than male, one early hypothesis was that Jebel Moya was a pagan and “predatory” group that absorbed women from southern Sudanese tribes either by marriage or slavery and that, as Petrie put it, it was “not a source from which anything sprang, whether culture or tribes or customs”. Yet, the skulls don’t show evidence of interbreeding, implying that they weren’t importing women, and later studies showed that many of the supposed female skeletons were actually those of young males. This is another instance of British anthropologists drawing conclusions about the ancient world using their framework of the British normal. If the Jebel Moyans weren’t associating themselves with the majority Egyptianized culture, they must be pagan (never mind that the Egyptians were pagan too!), polygamous, and lacking in any kind of transferrable culture; in addition, they must have come from the south – that is, Africa.

Sir Henry Wellcome at the Jebel Moya excavations Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sir Henry Wellcome at the Jebel Moya excavations
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

These sites were prominent excavations at the time, and the skeletons went on to be used in a number of arguments about race and relatedness. We now know – as the Victorian researchers reluctantly admitted – that ruggedness of the limbs is due to activity, and that a better way to examine relatedness is by examining teeth rather than skulls. However, the idea of Europeans as superior, following millennia of culture that sprung from the Egyptians and continued by the Greeks and Romans, was read into every archaeological discovery, bolstering the argument that European superiority was normal. Despite our focus on the scientific method and attempting to keep our beliefs out of our research, I wonder what future archaeologists will find problematic about current archaeology.

Sources

Addison, F. 1949. Jebel Moya, Vol I: Text. London: Oxford University Press.

Baumgartel, E.J. 1970. Petrie’s Naqada Excavation: A Supplement. London: Bernard Quaritch.

Petrie, W.M.F. 1896. Naqada and Ballas. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.

From hearing ears to hearing impairment

By Ann E M Liljas, on 28 September 2015

Ann

By Ann Liljas

 

When visiting Petrie museum or exhibitions on ancient Egypt you may have seen amulets in the form of the human external ear. These were extremely common in the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069 BC) and onwards and served a votive function (i.e. a sacred gift to a god or goddess) as “hearing ears”. It was believed that “hearing ears” would encourage the god or goddess to hear and consequently answer the person’s prayer.

My PhD is about hearing impairment in older age and so the symbolic use of the external human ear in ancient Egypt fascinates me. Today one in five (20%) Britons aged 60 years and over have a hearing impairment. This means hearing impairment is very common in older age. And as we live longer than before the proportion of older people is growing and so does the number of people with a hearing problem. Older people with hearing impairment are more likely to have other physical health problems too which may reduce their chances of independent living. Therefore it’s important to undertake research on hearing impairment and in my study I try to understand how hearing impairment influences chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, physical disability and cognitive function. By gaining a better understanding of the links between these age-related conditions I hope to establish the impact of hearing impairment on healthy living in later life.

In my study I have used data from questionnaires on health and lifestyle completed by older men from 24 towns across Great Britain. I have then undertaken statistical calculations to measure any associations between hearing impairment and health and lifestyle factors. My findings so far have  shown that, compared to men who did not have a hearing problem, those who report a hearing problem were more likely to have poor physical functioning (e.g. having problems using the telephone or public transport on their own), poor quality of life and little social interaction with other people. Having a hearing impairment was also associated with an increased risk of chronic conditions (cardiovascular disease, stroke, chest pain, breathlessness, arthritis, bronchitis) and being obese. So what do these results really say? First of all, there have been several other studies undertaken in other countries investigating how hearing impairment may influence health in later life and my findings are similar to what has been demonstrated by other researchers. Thus, my findings support existing evidence showing that hearing problems restrict older people’s physical functioning which can limit independent living. imageBut it also show some links between hearing impairment and health that few previous studies have investigated, for example that those with hearing impairment are more likely to be obese compared to those who do not have a hearing impairment. Studies like this are important when it comes to public health policies on hearing impairment and older people. In the conclusions of my study I suggest that hearing impairment needs to be addressed in public health policies. By detecting hearing impairment at an early stage it would be possible to help people with their hearing problem before it gets worse. Such actions could also prevent poor physical functioning and poor social interaction. Local organisations could also play an important role helping older people leading active and social lives. Staying healthy is absolutely crucial to avoid age-related health problems, maintain mental well-being and remain independent in older age.

If you want to find out more about my study, which also investigates eyesight problems, you can access it online here.

For more information about the hearing ears in ancient Egypt, visit Petrie museum. Objects with hearing ears on display include for example UC 14543.

References:
Gopinath B et al. Prevalence of age-related hearing loss in older adults: Blue Mountains Study. Arch Intern Med 2009;169:415-6.

Helzner EP et al. Race and sex differences in age-related hearing loss: the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study. J Am Geriatr Soc 2005;53:2119-27.

Akeroyd MA et al.. Estimates of the number of adults in England, Wales, and Scotland with a hearing loss. Int J Audiol 2014;53:60-1.

Crews JE & Campbell VA. Vision impairment and hearing loss among community-dwelling older Americans: implications for health and functioning. Am J Public Health 2004;94:823-9.

Campbell VA et al. Surveillance for sensory impairment, activity limitation, and health-related quality of life among older adults–United States, 1993-1997. MMWR CDC Surveill Summ 1999;48:131-56.

Research engager goes abroad

By Ann E M Liljas, on 7 September 2015

Ann

By Ann Liljas

 

Our research engager Ann has explored exhibitions about ancient Egypt in Rome and Dublin.

In the last few months I have been to Rome and Dublin. In Rome I visited the Vatican Museums which consists of several museums of which one is about ancient Egypt. In Dublin I spent a couple of hours at the National Museum of Ireland where visitors are introduced to ancient Egypt. In this blog post I present a couple of items on display at these two exhibitions. If you want to find out more, visit Petrie museum in London part of your preparations for your trip to Rome or Dublin.

One of the first things you get to explore when entering the Vatican Museums is the museum about ancient Egypt. It was founded by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839 and has several interesting shabtisartefacts for those interested in the complex civilisation of ancient Egypt. Highlights include statues, papyruses, animal mummies and reproductions of the Book of the Dead. During my visit I took a closer look at the collection of small statues called Shabtis. The word Shabti refers to “respond” or “answer” and these statues of adult male or female form were supposed to carry out tasks on behalf of a person in the afterlife such as heavy manual work. The Shabti figures on display vary in size and some are made of stone and others of wood. A sign next to them tells the visitor that they were wrapped in bandages like mummies and the number of shabtis in a burial could be as many as one for every day of the year. The use of shabtis increased over time but during the Ptolemaic Period the use of these statues gradually disappeared. Now, the good news is that you do not have to go all the way to Rome to see Shabtis as there are several of them on display at the Petrie museum in London.

The exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland includes four mummies, jewellery and other personal adornments portraying life and death in ancient Egypt. The collection consists imageof artefacts from several excavations throughout the Valley and Delta led by Flinders Petrie. I really liked a painted wooden model of a Nile boat with rowers and armed guard from c.1900 BC. The model was found in a tomb and boat models of different types were often included in Middle Kingdom tomb equipment. Boats were important as they were the swiftest and most reliable mode of transport and communication. In contrast to many other models found this one includes an armed man with speckled cowhide shield. An informative sign next to the model suggests it may be that he is the officer and the crew a troop of soldiers. Military features in burials around this time may reflect the civil wars of the First Intermediate Period which ended c. 2025 BC.

Have you been to any of these exhibitions or any other exhibition about ancient Egypt outside the UK? Share your experience with me and the other research engagers next time you visit Petrie museum. Research engagers are PhD students at UCL who regularly spend time at the museums speaking to visitors about their research. We are also interested in hearing your thoughts on the imagecollections as well as research at UCL. And we love when visitors ask us questions! Although we may not be experts on ancient Egypt as our field of study ranges from mechanical engineering to epidemiology, we will try our best to answer your questions. Questions that we think are interesting to share with others may be published here on our website. We look forward to speaking to you at your next visit.  

Animal Healing: From Serpents to Coral

By Misha Ewen, on 27 April 2015

Misha Ewen

A UCL undergraduate student visiting the Grant Museum recently asked me whether I had any insight into how past/present societies have awarded ‘animal objects’ — whether teddy bears that bring comfort to poorly children or exotic specimens used in traditional Chinese medicine — with the power to heal. He was researching this question for a medical humanities course and had come to the Grant to gaze on the hundreds of animal specimens the museum displays and garner some inspiration. It seemed to be such a broad question that at first I couldn’t think of any suggestions; once we talked it over, I realised that there’s a whole host of ways that animals (the dead, inanimate and the living) have been associated with healing.

Animals have been connected to beliefs about medicine and healing since time immemorial. Even our modern iconography, the easily recognisable Rod of Asclepius as a symbol for medicine, retains this connection.

 

Rod of Asclepius

The Rod of Asclepius is believed to have originated from one of two sources. The earliest Egyptian medical manuscript, the Ebers papyrus (1500 BCE), described a technique (still in use today) for the treatment of worms by wrapping emerging worms around the end of a staff. In Old Testament lore (possibly 1800 – 1200 BCE), Moses is also connected with a similar image: his bronze staff was coiled with a serpent, which had power to heal anyone who had been poisoned by snake venom.

From either or both of these sources, the Rod of Asclepius may have emerged. Asclepius was revered in The Iliad (circa 750 – 650 BCE) as a great healer, but very much mortal. However, he was later worshipped as the son of Apollo and the patron of physicians, particularly of those who healed the vulnerable and the poor. According to Greco-Roman mythology, Asclepius killed a snake with his staff whilst he was examining a man who had been struck by one of Zeus’s lightning bolts. Miraculously, another snake appeared on the scene, healing the dead snake with herbs and restoring it to life. Inspired by the snake, Asclepius was also able to heal the man struck by lightning. Therefore, in honour of the snake Asclepius adopted the snake coiled on a staff as his own emblem.

In the Petrie Museum’s collections there are further suggestions of the association that societies have made between the serpent and medical belief. One object is the Silver Uraeus ‘serpent amulet’ (UC38689) which appears to be a coiled snake twisted around a red coral twig. Amulets were considered to be protective objects by ancient Egyptians as well as serving an aesthetic function, by communicating the economic and social status of an individual. A similar specimen of coral, which are made up of thousands of tiny animals called polyps, can be found in the Grant Museum (C274).

Coral amulet, Petrie Museum.

UC38689, Petrie Museum.

red coral

C274, Grant Museum

Another amulet (UC2341) in the Petrie collection depicts Horus, the god of kingship and celestial power, standing on two crocodiles with an oryx (antelope) and serpents in each hand. According to the catalogue, the hieroglyphs on the back and sides of the amulet are words to be spoken in defence of health, but mainly against snake and scorpion bites. In this example, it seems that the icon of the serpent is invoked to represent a specific type of protection against, and healing for, snake venom.

UC2341, Petrie Museum.

The association between the serpent and medicine survived for thousands of years, but so did the use of coral in protective amulets. In the Victoria and Albert Museum several examples of coral amulets survive in their collection. Their curators believe that stones with distinctive colours and patterns have been used as protective amulets ‘since the dawn of time’. Specimens of green or red coral or malachite were particularly associated with health and healing. In the early modern world (circa 1500 – 1800 CE) coral was also used to create amulets to protect against the ‘evil eye’ and witches who were believed to wield power to curse their victims with sickness and even death. In the early modern world, witchcraft presented a serious and very real threat, creating circumstances where actual illness became entangled with superstitious belief.

Coral amulet, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum (910:1 to 4-1872).

Coral amulet (1700-1800) © Victoria and Albert Museum

Infants and pregnant women were believed to be particularly vulnerable to witchcraft. This stemmed, Lyndal Roper suggests, from contemporary belief about the nature of witches: ’Witches were stereotypically old women, unable to have children any longer, and it was their infertile, hag-like bodies that impelled them enviously to attack the fertility of others. They would creep into the marital bedchamber at night, to press down on pregnant women, leaving them feeling oppressed, or ‘hag-ridden’, as we might say.’ For this reason, it became widespread across Europe to create coral apotropaic items, such as rattles and teething rings for small children. Coral was also sometimes hung around their necks for protection. As Roper has put it, ‘the imaginative connection between witches, birth, and envy lies close to the surface of many witch trials’.

When studying this part of history, I was always fascinated by the idea that people really did make themselves ill and presented real symptoms as a result of fear about witchcraft — they were completely convinced that a curse was upon them. But if they could make themselves sick, they could also make themselves better by firm belief in the protective value of coral.

Coral rattle (1750), courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum (M.18-1996).

Coral rattle (1750) © Victoria and Albert Museum

In both the Petrie and Grant collections there are representations of human belief in the power of the natural world to protect and heal. My own interest drew me to amulets and coral: there are intriguing similarities in the amulets from ancient Egypt to early modern Europe, and I find it fascinating to think about the emotional life of such objects — how they made their wearers feel, the ideas and beliefs they communicated to others. However, there are many more ways that visitors could reimagine this topic and I would urge you to do so.

Sources:

Katrin MacPhee, ‘Snakes, Mistakes, and Mythology! The Use of the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus in Modern Medicine’

https://museumofhealthcare.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/snakes-mistakes-and-mythology-the-use-of-the-rod-of-asclepius-and-the-caduceus-in-modern-medicine/

Kristen Elise, ‘What a Difference a Snake Makes: The Caduceus Versus the Rod of Asclepius’

http://www.kristenelisephd.com/2013/10/what-difference-snake-makes-caduceus.html

Lyndal Roper, The Witch in the Western Imagination, (University of Virginia Press: London, 2012).

Old age in ancient Egypt

By Ann E M Liljas, on 2 March 2015

AnnPeople in ancient Egypt did not grow very old. Very high infant death rates due to high risks of infections resulted in an average age at death of 19 years. However those who survived childhood had a life expectancy of 30 years for women* and 34 years for men. Most ancient Egyptians were unlikely to live beyond 40 years of age and, for example, King Tutankhamun died at the age of about 18 years. This can be compared to today’s life expectancy of 83 years for women and 79 years for men in the UK. Nowadays we routinely collect mortality data making it easy to estimate life expectancy but how do we find out about life expectancy of ancient Egyptians?

Human remains in the form of skeletal remains and mummified bodies (that would be wealthier Egyptians) are primary sources used to calculate age and life-expectancy. There are few written and visual sources that refer to age. Occasionally the age at death can be found as an inscription part of the mummy label attached to the bodies but many bodies to which the labels were attached have not survived or not been recorded. Secondary evidence of ageing includes legal documents where they sometimes have referred to the person as ‘aged’.

In ancient Egypt elders were defined as older adults who were no longer able to contribute labour. Egyptian writings indicate a social norm of respecting older people, but there was no special position in society for the elderly. Older adults were seen as venerable advisers, which is reflected in Instruction of Ptahhotep. This literary work provides both a positive and the dramatised negative aspects of growing old. Very briefly, in Instruction of Ptahhotep, the king, who is old, is requested to retire and consents to this request but he also observes that the young need the old, for “none can be born wise”. Another example is a small number of documents which refer to a ‘wise woman’ who could Old personassist in supernatural ways with unsolved cases although it is unclear if she was any special age.

Although estimated life expectancy was just over 30 years, it’s hard to say whether a 30-year-old person in ancient Egypt had wrinkles similar to many older people today. However we do know that ancient Egyptians were as concerned about their appearance as we are. Youthfulness was the idealised norm, representing eternity. Manuscripts for good health include recommendations such as remove grey hairs and cosmetic prescriptions for face and skin. This is the reason nearly all persons are depicted as young adults and could explain why there is little art showing older adults. However for those interested in getting a closer look of an older adult in ancient Egypt there is a head of an old man (UC 16452) in black granite (pictured) at the Petrie Museum.

*Women often had numerous children and these successive pregnancies could be fatal. Even after giving birth successfully, women could still die from complications such as puerperal fever. Such deaths were not prevented until the 20th century when standards of hygiene during childbirth were improved.

Find out more about old age in ancient Egypt here.

Question of the Week:

How tall were ancient Egyptians?

By Misha Ewen, 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.

Was Helen of Troy a Natural Blonde?

By Gemma Angel, on 6 May 2013

Tzu-i Liaoby Tzu-i Liao

 

 

 

 

 

 

Petrie Museum holds an extraordinary sample of pale yellow human hair, which is attached to a patch of scalp and entangled with darker curls that are most likely hair from a wig. It is very tempting to assume that the wig was used to conceal – even in the afterlife – the natural blonde hair colour of the wearer. On discovering this artefact in a tomb at Gurob, Petrie himself wrote that “the person was light-haired and wore a wig of black, hiding the foreign token.” Petrie based his argument on traditional studies of the ancient Mediterranean world. It is very likely that the vast majority of ancient Egyptians probably did have darker, coarser hair, and blonde hair in this context would have been very unusual. The use of wigs was not an uncommon practice amongst the ancient Egyptians, as many Egyptologists of Petrie’s era recognised. Indeed, bodily features were definitely a strong point of reference in recognising foreigners, and having different hair colour was surely one of them. Consider, for example, the common epithets (nick-names) for different ethnic groups used in ancient Greek literature: the hairy-headed Achaeans (kare komoontes), Abantes (Thracians), known for their long hair (opithen komoontes), and the bright-haired (likely golden, or blonde) Menelaus (xanthos) – including Helen of Troy (described as having bostrychous xanthes komes).

The example of Helen is particularly interesting for our discussion, not only because she might have been blonde, like the owner of the black wig in Petrie Museum, but also because she may have been to ancient Egypt as well. In Euripides’ tragedy Helen, the beautiful wife of Menelaus was not abducted to Troy; instead, she was sent by a god to Egypt to avoid this terrible fate. If Petrie’s theory about the purpose of the black wig was correct, Helen, as a refugee with conspicuous blonde hair, would probably have tried to ‘hide her foreign token’ with a similar black wig.

British Museum.

Ancient Egyptian mutli-tonal wig. From the British Museum collections.

 

 

While this all sounds very intriguing to a classicist like me, there is no textual or archaeological evidence which can confirm the theory that wigs were used to conceal particular hair types denoting unfavourable ethnic features. On the contrary, as the hairstyles represented in Egyptian art are often described by Egyptologists as wigs, it appears that wigs of this kind were more likely worn more commonly for other aesthetic reasons. Another wig from ancient Egypt (Thebes) in the British Museum is a good example of this counterargument. This piece consists of hair of two colours; a lighter shade arranged into looser curls on the top, and darker long braids underneath. The two colours are presented in different styles in one hairpiece, the lighter colour appearing more prominently over the darker hair. Having lighter hair colour does not seem to be too much of a concern here. The important thing is to have the style on display – or even, to distinguish the special status of the wearer. It is less likely that our blonde woman wore the black wig to make herself look just like everyone else. This wig was probably worn on special occasions, or to denote her high social status. J. Stevens Cox even suggests that the prevalent use of wigs as fashion and status markers in the Roman empire was in fact a result of contact with Egypt, where it was already a popular practice.[1]

The reason that Petrie so quickly assumed that the black wig was worn for purposes of concealment of ethnic identity, probably owes more to his interest in eugenics. Since the time of Aristotle, many people have made often spurious connections between appearance and character. In the era of eugenics, bodily features supposedly denoting psychological or moral character were not only categorised but also ranked in a hierarchy. Petrie’s interest in these theories are apparent in his archaeological work as well as in his writing; he extensively documented Egyptian monuments that displayed “racial types”; he collected glass and terracotta figurines or heads that depict ethnic phenotypes and labeled them somewhat arbitrarily (a selection of these are presented in our recent Foreign Bodies exhibition). As late as 1934, Petrie sent skulls of “racial types” to Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, for further research.[2] In the preface of his Janus in Modern Life [3], Petrie clarifies the purpose of such studies, describing them as “physiological research of the obscure causes of [present] troubles” (to use a medical metaphor), since “the present time seems to most people so infinitely more important…than the past or future,” and “[t]hey forget that it is only a fiction to speak of the present…and every such present has been entirely conditioned by its past…” Looking at his work retrospectively, it is clear that much of his own reading of the past was actually largely conditioned by his present. He made some of the very mistakes he set out to help the world to avoid.

 

References:

[1] J. Stevens Cox, “The construction of an Ancient Egyptian wig (c. 1400 B.C.) in the British Museum”, in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology Vol. 5 No. 63 (1977).

[2] For further information, please see the website of Petrie Museum exhibition Typecast.

[3] W. M. F. Petrie, Janus of Modern Life. G.P. Putnams’ Sons (1907).