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Time and Astronomy in the Petrie Museum

By Hannah L Wills, on 9 February 2018

During a recent shift at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, I was asked by one visitor, ‘what’s your favourite object in the museum?’. As anyone who has visited the Petrie Museum will know, there is no shortage of fascinating objects on display, from the museum’s 12th dynasty pottery rat-trap, to the amazing Hawara mummy portraits (naming but two of my go-to favourites when showing visitors around the collection). However, the object I find most interesting within the museum’s collection is a small artefact found in one of the cabinets in the museum’s pottery room, in and amongst a group of objects dating from the Ottoman period (1517 – 1914 CE). The object is identified on its label as ‘UC4108 Wooden astrolabe with brass dial. Probably made for teaching purposes rather than use’. From the moment I first spotted the object I was intrigued. What exactly is an astrolabe, and how would it have been used?

Wooden Astrolabe (UC4108), displayed with its handwritten museum label (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

The Petrie Museum’s astrolabe (UC4108), displayed with a group of objects from the Ottoman Period (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

 

What is an astrolabe?

An astrolabe is a kind of scientific instrument, used to calculate the time and to make observations, such as the height of the Sun and stars with respect to the horizon or meridian.[i] In the Islamic world, astrolabes served an important function in determining prayer times, and the direction of Mecca.[ii] Such instruments date back to ancient times and were used to reveal how the sky looks from a specific place at a specific time. The face of the astrolabe features a map of the sky, with the celestial sphere mapped onto a flat surface. The instrument features moveable parts that allow the user to set date and time. When this is done, the face of the instrument represents the sky, allowing the user to solve astronomical problems visually.[iii]

Teaching astronomy 

Though many astrolabes used in the medieval period were made from either brass or iron, the Petrie Museum’s astrolabe is made from wood, with a brass dial, known as the ‘rete’ (in Arabic al-‘ankabūt), affixed to the top.[iv] The museum’s catalogue suggests that the object is ‘too crudely made for any practical purpose other than teaching’.[v] Historian Johannes Thomann notes that in the Islamic world from around the mid-eighth century onwards, the main function of the astrolabe was as a tool for teaching introductory astronomy, supported by texts written in an instructional style that explained the use of key astronomical instruments.[vi] The ‘crude’ finish of the Petrie Museum astrolabe, along with its size, would have made it imprecise, and ultimately unfit for carrying out practical calculations. The instrument might instead have been used for basic exercises to familiarise pupils with astronomy, and the process of making observations.

 

To find out more about how astrolabes work, you can watch this short TED talk, “Tom Wujec Demos the 13th-Century Astrolabe.” New York: TED, 2009.

 

Do you have a favourite object in any of the UCL museums? Tweet us @ResearchEngager or find us in the museums and tell us about it!

 

 

References:

[i] ‘Astrolabe’,  in Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/science/astrolabe-instrument [Accessed 8 Feb 2018].

[ii] Unit 4: Science and the Art of the Islamic World, in Maryam D. Ekhtiar and Claire Moore, Art of the Islamic World: A Resource for Educators, https://www.metmuseum.org/learn/educators/curriculum-resources/art-of-the-islamic-world [Accessed 8 Feb 2018], p. 94.

[iii] ‘The Astrolabe: An Instrument with a Past and Future’, http://www.astrolabes.org/ [Accessed 8 Feb 2018].

[iv] Sonja Brentjes and Robert G. Morrison ‘The Sciences in Islamic societies (750-1800)’, in Robert Irwin, ed. The New Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 4. The New Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 596.

[v] UC4108 Wooden Astrolabe, Petrie Museum Online Catalogue, http://petriecat.museums.ucl.ac.uk/detail.aspx [Accessed 8 Feb 2018].

[vi] ‘Interviews with the Experts’, Charles Burnett interview with Johannes Thomann, Astrolabes in Medieval Jewish Culture, 5 March 2014, http://blogs.mhs.ox.ac.uk/hebrew-astrolabes/2014/03/05/interviews-experts/ [Accessed 8 Feb 2018].

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.

Engaging Conversations: What do a shift in the Grant Museum and the diaries of Charles Blagden have in common?

By Kevin Guyan, on 28 June 2016

By Hannah Wills

 

 

I’m thrilled to have recently joined the team of student engagers at UCL, and to have had my very first shift in the Grant Museum this month. As a historian of science, working on Charles Blagden (1748-1820), Royal Society secretary to the famous naturalist and patron of science Joseph Banks, I instantly found connections between the museum’s natural history specimens and my own subject interests. However, during my very first shift, I discovered another more personal link between my own PhD research and my experiences as a student engager.

Blagden

Sir Charles Blagden, photo credit: Wikipedia.

My work on Charles Blagden involves reading and transcribing some of his extensive diary, which he kept for most of his life, now looked after in the archives of the Royal Society. In his diary, Blagden recorded a daily inventory of his activities: where he went, whom he saw, and whom he dined with (Blagden was never one to miss out on a gastronomic get-together!).

Within this inventory-style diary are often records of the actual conversations had around the breakfast, lunch or dinner table. A friend of naturalists, botanists and all manner of scientific fellows of the Royal Society, Blagden frequently had conversations about exotic looking artefacts from fascinating and far away places, collected during the latest voyages of exploration. What’s more, many of these conversations took place with the objects of discussion right before the eyes of the company. During my first shift as a student engager, it struck me how chatting to visitors about strange and exotic creatures—ones which we had right before our eyes—seemed to echo what Blagden got up to on a nearly daily basis, over 200 years ago.

Something I’ve particularly noticed in Blagden’s dinner-table conversations is the use of comparison, and a fascination with the exotic. When in conversation about animal husbandry in China, Blagden was thrilled to learn how buffaloes, instead of horses, were used to plough fields—a very strange sight indeed! When talking about different species of nut, collected by naturalists on various voyages, Blagden and his friends compared them in size, shape and even taste, to those they had seen before, allowing them to make sense of new and exciting flora and fauna in relation to those they already understood.

Cookier Cutter Shark Jaw

Cookie Cutter Shark Jaw, photo credit: Grant Museum of Zoology (V415).

Chatting to visitors in front of exotic looking specimens in the Grant Museum, I noticed just how often we made use of comparisons between a strange looking skeleton and something we both knew well. Sometimes this comparison was suggested by the name of the creature. Standing in front of the cookiecutter shark jaw with one visitor, we both shuddered with a kind of macabre delight at how this animal uses its cookie-cutter like teeth to cut round lumps of flesh out of its victims, just as a real cookie-cutter is used to cut shapes out of a piece of dough.

There is definitely a thrill to seeing something new and exotic, something from far away, or something more mundane that you’ve simply never noticed before. As a student engager, I’m really looking forward to my next shifts in the Grant, Petrie and Art museums—not least for the opportunities I’ll get to see and learn about something completely new, and to chat about it with visitors, just as Blagden and his friends discussed the latest curiosities that made their way to London in the late eighteenth century.