The Plagues of Egypt

By Hannah B Page, on 23 October 2018

For my blog post this week I am starting a new series based loosely on the Plagues of Egypt. The idea came to me while I was working in the Grant Museum and was thinking about possible connections between the Grant and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. For some reason as I was stood next to the insect cabinet, the plague of locusts was the first thing that came to mind.. and conveniently, I have already written a blog post about the 2nd plague of frogs. Before I launch in I must note briefly that I don’t particularly wish to talk about religion or religious texts. Instead I will use the 10 plagues to discuss some (hopefully) interesting zoological and sociocultural phenomena that link the two museums.

So, what are the 10 Plagues of Egypt?

  1. Water turning into blood
  2. Frogs
  3. Lice
  4. Wild animals
  5. Diseased livestock
  6. Boils
  7. Thunderstorms of hail and fire
  8. Locusts
  9. Darkness for three days
  10. Death of the firstborn

The first plague of water turning into blood is an interesting one to start with, but the topic of the two liquids is very pertinent to both collections. Water has an incredibly important role in the ideological and cultural landscape of ancient Egypt. The waters of the Nile were the lifeblood of ancient Egyptian society. It provided vital irrigation for farming, transport through the kingdom, and was linked closely with ideology and religion in Egypt. The Greek Herodotus is recorded as calling Egypt the “gift of the Nile”, implying that Egypt itself was born from the river—this further develops an idea I have discussed in a previous blog post: that the Nile is deeply connected with fertility. With this in mind it is not difficult to see how devastating the idea of water turning into blood would be for Egyptian society.

One papyrus from the twelfth dynasty (c.1991-1803 BCE) interestingly states that the “river is blood“, which has caused some debate over the occurrence of the plagues in Egyptian history. However, the most probable explanation is that during the harsh flooding of the Nile the disturbed red river silt would create this phenomena.

Blood as well as water was also symbolically significant to the Ancient Egyptians. Wine was given as “blood of the Gods” during certain religious offerings, something akin to the Christian symbolism of using wine as the blood of Christ, and the deity Shesmu is also linked with blood, being the lord of wine and the “great slaughterer of the gods”.

It is also not difficult to connect the Grant Museum with water and blood as they are both vital components to many living creatures on earth. For this post I wish to focus in on one of my favourite water dwellers in the museum and one that has a deep connection with ancient Egypt. This mammal can certainly displace a lot of water and coincidently produces a fluid over its skin that is often called blood sweat. The hippopotamus, known as a “river horse” by the ancient Greeks secretes a substance called hipposudoric acid. The liquid is red, which gives it its colloquial name, but it is neither sweat nor blood. In fact the secretion is an example of an evolutionary masterpiece—a natural sunscreen! This fluid is very much needed due to their skin being exposed in blistering high UV environments (and being a redhead who works in sub-Saharan Africa- I can fully appreciate this)! As well as the blood sweat creating UV protection it is also a very good antiseptic, which is useful as hippos can be extremely aggressive animals.

Fig 2. Hippo skull in the Grant Museum of Zoology (Catalogue no. Z32)

Sadly, the hippo is no longer found in Egypt but in dynastic times it was a hazard to boat travellers along the Nile and was present in ideological and cultural symbolism.  The deity Taweret was often depicted in the form of a pregnant hippo as she represented fertility (like frogs!). Hippo figurines are also found on ancient Egyptian sites (Fig 3) and hippo tusk ivory was used to make pendants, amulets and sculptural pieces.

Fig 3. Blue glazed faience hippopotamus (Petrie Museum Catalogue No. UC45074)

As you can see, water and blood were and still are incredibly important cultural symbols, most probably due to their inescapable connection to the natural world and to life and death. It really is no wonder that that these themes come up time and time again all over the world.

I hope you have enjoyed my first foray into the Plagues of Egypt as much as I have… I’m quite excited about what direction they might take my research in next!

Colours of Ancient Egypt – Blue

By Anna Pokorska, on 16 October 2018

This is the second in the Colours of Ancient Egypt series; if you want to start at the beginning, click here

The colour blue has already featured in a couple of posts in this blog (e.g. check out Cerys Jones’ post on why the Common Kingfisher looks blue) but it seems impossible to me to discuss colour, especially in Ancient Egypt, and not start with blue. Arguably, blue has the most interesting history of all the colours, which can be attributed to the fact that it is not a colour that appears much in nature – that is, if you exclude large bodies of water and the sky, obviously. Naturally occurring materials which can be made into blue colourants are rare and the process of production is often very time-consuming. In Ancient Egypt, pigments for painting and ceramics were ground from precious minerals such as azurite and lapis lazuli; indigo, a textile dye now famous for its use in colouring jeans, was extracted from plants.


Left: two pieces of azurite (Petrie Museum, UC43790); Right: lapis lazuli (Image: Hannes Grobe)

However, all the above-mentioned colourants presented issues which limited their use. Azurite pigment is unstable in air and would eventually be transformed into its green counterpart, malachite. Lapis lazuli had to be imported from north-east Afghanistan (still the major source of the precious stone) and the extraction process would produce only small amounts of the purest colourant powder called ultramarine. Finally, indigo dyes can fade quickly when exposed to sunlight.

And yet it seems that the Ancient Egyptians attributed important meaning to the colour blue and it was used in many amulets and jewellery pieces such as the blue faience ring, lapis lazuli and gold bracelet or the serpent amulet from the Petrie Museum collection (below).

From left to right: blue faience ring with openwork bezel in form of uadjat eye (Petrie Museum, UC24520); lapis lazuli serpent amulet (UC38655); fragment of bracelet with alternative zig-zag lapis lazuli and gold beads (UC25970).

Therefore, the race to artificially produce a stable blue colourant began rather early. In fact, the earliest evidence of the first-known synthetic pigment, Egyptian blue, has been dated to the pre-dynastic period (ca. 3250 BC)[1]. It was a calcium copper silicate (or cuprorivaite) and – although the exact method of manufacture has been lost since the fall of the Roman Empire – we now know that it was made by heating a mixture of quartz sand, a copper compound, calcium carbonate and a small amount of an alkali such as natron, to temperatures over 800°C.









Fragment of fused Egyptian blue (Petrie Museum, UC25037).

This resulted in a bright blue pigment that proved very stable to the elements and was thus widely used well beyond Egypt. In fact, its presence has recently been discovered on the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum due to its unusually strong photoluminescence, i.e. when the pigment is illuminated with red light (wavelengths around 630 nm) it emits near infrared radiation (with a max emission at 910 nm).

After its disappearance, artists and artisans had to make do with natural pigments and, being the most stable and brilliant, ultramarine became the coveted colourant once again. In fact, during the Renaissance, it is reputed to have been more expensive than gold and, as a result, often reserved for the pictorial representations of the Madonna and Christ. And so, the search for another replacement was back on. But it wasn’t until the early 1700s that another synthetic blue pigment was discovered, this time accidentally, by a paint maker from Berlin who, while attempting to make a red dye, unintentionally used blood-tainted potash in his recipe. The iron from the blood reacted with the other ingredients creating a distinctly blue compound, iron ferrocyanide, which would later be named Prussian blue. Naturally, other man-made blue pigments and dyes followed, including artificial ultramarine, indigo and phthalocyanine blues.

However, it wasn’t quite the end of the line for Egyptian blue, which was rediscovered and extensively studied in the 19th century by such great people as Sir Humphry Davy. And not only are we now able to reproduce the compound for artistic purposes, scientists are finding more and more surprising applications for its luminescence properties, such as biomedical analysis, telecommunications and (my personal favourite) security and crime detection[2].


[1]  Lorelei H. Corcoran, “The Color Blue as an ‘Animator’ in Ancient Egyptian Art,” in Rachael B.Goldman, (Ed.), Essays in Global Color History, Interpreting the Ancient Spectrum (NJ, Gorgias Press, 2016), pp. 59-82.

[2] Benjamin Errington, Glen Lawson, Simon W. Lewis, Gregory D. Smith, ‘Micronised Egyptian blue pigment: A novel near-infrared luminescent fingerprint dusting powder’, Dyes and Pigments, vol 132, (2016), pp 310-315.

Colours of Ancient Egypt – Introduction

By Anna Pokorska, on 18 August 2018

When viewing exhibitions of objects from ancient Egypt (or any ancient civilisation for that matter) we are used to seeing the beige and grey appearance of bare stone. Indeed, we have come to appreciate the simplicity and purity of ancient sculptures, reliefs and carvings, perpetuated by the numerous plaster casts made and distributed both for research or as works of art in their own right (case in point – the Plaster Court at the Victoria and Albert Museum).

However, this is quite far from the truth. In fact, colour was not only common but of great symbolic importance in Egypt. This is hardly surprising as we use colour to communicate every day even in the modern era (with the most obvious and striking example of the traffic light system, or the wearing of black in many cultures to signal mourning). Although some traditional meanings will have changed over the centuries and varied between cultures, the principle still remains and is widely studied and exploited in a fascinating way in such fields as psychology, marketing and advertising. But I digress…

Let us return to ancient Egypt. To date, many attempts have been made to restore the original colours of artefacts. One such example is the virtual restoration of the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where experts have a created a colour projection to be overlaid on top of the damaged hieroglyphs. An article on the whole project, called Color the Temple, can be read here.

Some people object to these types of intervention, sceptical of how well they recreate and represent the work of the artist, especially if little physical evidence of the original colours in a particular artefact exists. And indeed, we must always be careful when it comes to any type of restoration to take it only for what it is – someone else’s idea of what the object would have originally looked like (often dependent on the restorer’s skill). Although they might still have a way to go, I personally find these virtual restoration techniques intriguing and full of potential. They certainly help my imagination and understanding of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.

But we can find authentic and undamaged examples of colour even in the Petrie Museum collection. One of the first objects one sees when entering the main exhibition is a limestone wall block fragment from the pyramid of King Pepy I at Saqqara, its beautiful hieroglyphs tinted in green (below).

Wall block fragment from the pyramid of King Pepy I at Saqqara. (Petrie Museum, UC14540)

Painted wooden stela of Neskhons, wife of the High Priest of Amun Pinedjem (II) making an offering to Osiris. (Petrie Museum, UC14226)


While on the other side of the display is a painted, rather than carved, wooden stela of Neskhons, wife of the High Priest of Amun Pinedjem (II) making an offering to Osiris (above).

Egyptian artists would have had at their disposal mostly pigments made from grinding common (as well as some not-so-common) minerals and earths. Hidden away in the Petrie Museum storage is a drawer full of exactly those kinds of pigments (below).

Pigment drawer in storage at the Petrie Museum. (Photo: Anna Pokorska)


The yellowed typed note reads:

‘The pigments used by the ancient Egyptians for their paintings have been analysed and are mostly made from naturally occurring minerals, finely ground, or from natural substances.

Black – some form of carbon, usually soot.

Blue – originally azurite, a blue carbonate of copper found locally. From the IVth Dynasty on artificial frit was used composed of a crystalline compound of silica, copper and calcium.

Brown – generally ochre, a natural oxide of iron.

Green – powdered malachite (a natural ore of copper), and an artificial frit analogous to the blue frit described above.

Pink – an oxide of iron.

Red – red ochre, a natural oxide of iron.

White – either calcium carbonate (whiting) or calcium sulphate (gypsum).

Yellow – yellow ochre, an oxide of iron and less often orpiment a natural sulphide of arsenic.

The pigments were pounded in to a fine powder, mixed with water to which a little size, gum or albumen was added to make the whole adhesive.’

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), this subject is too broad and interesting to fit into a single blog post and I’ve decided to explore it further, perhaps expanding beyond Egypt and the ancient times. We shall see where this journey takes me, but I hope you will join me as I investigate individual colours in my future posts.


Consanguinity and Incest in Ancient Egypt

By Alexandra Bridarolli, on 16 August 2018

My curiosity was piqued during one of my turns at the Petrie Museum. Facing all these artefacts, traces of dynasties of pharaohs, I was suddenly reminded of the stories of incest and marriages between brother and sister which were common in ancient Egypt among the ruling class. More recently, the topic was brought up again by another visitor. I was then told about Akhenaton’s androgynous appearance that could have been a result of the incestuous practices of the time. This practice seems to be a common thing and these stories made me immediately think of the Greek and Roman gods and their intricate family-love relationships. With this thought came then one question: why would pharaohs marry their sister, mother and other relatives? To act as living gods? To preserve the purity of their blood?

Fig. 1: Limestone statuette of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Princess (Tell el Amarna). [Petrie museum, UC004]

Many others questions followed: If incest was accepted in ancient Egypt among the ruling class, was it tolerated by the whole population? What makes it unacceptable in Western countries today? Health? Morality? Are marriages among siblings and/or first cousins still allowed nowadays in some countries? And what are actually the risks of incestuous relations?

From ancient Egypt to the Habsburg family in Europe, throughout history cases of consanguinity — mainly among members of the ruling classes — are numerous. It is surprising that the practice continued for as long as it has when religious and civil laws started to forbid it and when the risks associated to this practice started to be known; from the 5th century BCE, Roman civil law already forbade couples from marrying if they were within four degrees of consanguinity (Bouchard 2010). From the half of the 9th century CE, the church even raised this limit to the seventh degree of consanguinity and the method of calculating degrees was also changed. More recently, modern philosophers and thinkers argued that the prohibition against incest was a universal phenomenon, the so-called incest taboo . But this theory seems contestable in view of the Egyptian case.

So why is it that incest was accepted and practised in ancient Egypt and more recently among members of the royal family such as the Habsburg (16th-18th century)? And how did science shed the lights on family relationships, incestuous practices and the diseases resulting from them?

Let’s first take the case of the 18th dynasty, the first dynasty of the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt.

Incest in Ancient Egypt: the case of the 18th Dynasty

There is an abundance of evidence showing that marriages or sexual relations between members of the “nuclear family“ (i.e. parents, children) were common among royalty or special classes of priests since they were the representatives of divine on Earth. They were often privileged to do what was forbidden to members of the ordinary family. During the Ptolemaic period (305 to 30 BCE) the practice was even used by King Ptolemy II as “a major theme of propaganda, stressing the nature of the couple, which could not be bound by ordinary rules of humanity” (Chauveau, M.).

Fig. 2: Alabaster sunken relief depicting Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and daughter Meritaten. Early Aten cartouches on king’s arm and chest. From Amarna, Egypt. 18th Dynasty. [Petrie Museum, UC401]

But let’s go back to the 18th dynasty (1549/1550 BCE to 1292 BCE). In 2010, a team of Egyptian and German researchers analysed 11 mummies dated from the 18th dynasty which were closely related to Tutankhamun (Hawass, Zahi, et al.). The mummies were scanned and DNA extraction on bone tissues was carried out. The information they could get from these analyses enabled them to identify the mummies, determine the exact relationships between members of the royal family, and to speculate on possible illnesses and causes of death.

The results of the DNA analyses show that Tutankhamun was, beyond doubt, the child born from a first-degree brother-sister relationship between Akhenaten and Akhenaten’s sister (see Fig. 3). Moreover, the authors provided an answer to the androgynous appearance of Akhenaten. They actually showed that the feminized appearance exhibited by the art of the pharaoh Akhenaten (also seen to a lesser degree in the statues and reliefs of Tutankhamun) was not related to some form of gynecomastia or Marfan syndrome as suggested in the past. Neither Akhenaten nor Tutankhamun were likely to have displayed a significantly bizarre or feminine physique. The particular artistic representation of persons in the Amarna period is more probably related to the religious reforms of Akhenaten.

However, the incestuous relationship between Akhenaten and his sister may have had other consequences. Pharaoh Tutankhamun suffered from congenital equinovarus deformity (also called ‘clubfoot’). The tomography scans of Tutankhamun’s mummy also revealed that the Pharaoh had a bone necrosis for quite a long time, which might have caused a walking disability. This was supported by the objects found next to his mummy. Did you know that 130 sticks and staves were found in its tomb?

Fig. 3: Genealogical tree showing the relationship between the tested mummies dating from the 18th dynasty (Source: Hawass, Zahi, et al.).


Fig. 4: Scans of Tutankhamun feet (Hawass, Zahi, et al.)


Incest and common people

This article on consanguinity and incestuous marriages could easily finish here. We learned that incest was practised in ancient Egypt for strategic reasons, in order to preserve the symbolism which associates the pharaoh to a living god. We also saw how science could help us in unravelling the true stories lying behind myths, speculations and rumours.

This could be almost perfect but the incest taboo is more complex than this. As observed by Paul John Frandsen, “in a society (such as ancient Egypt) where nuclear family incest is practised there is no discrepancy between what is licit among royalty and in the populace”. Indeed, contrary to what is often admitted incest was not only reserved to the ruling class. In Persia and ancient Egypt, incestuous relationships between members of non-royal nuclear families also existed (Frandsen P. J.). This shows that incestuous relationship in the nuclear family could be more than just propaganda and that other reasons might have motivated this practice. It has been argued that this was done for economic reasons as endogamy could have been a means to keep the estate undivided and/or avoiding paying bride price. However, these arguments have been dismissed. Up till now, there is thus no reasonable explanation for the lack of incest taboo in ancient Egypt and Persia.

Keep an eye out for my next post, where I’ll talk about incest in the Habsburg royal family and King Charles II of Spain (also called “the Bewitched”)!


References (and read more!)

Bouchard, Constance Brittain. Those of My Blood : Creating Noble Families in Medieval Francia. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Chauveau, Michel.MmNm. Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra : History and Society under the Ptolemies. Cornell University Press, 2000.

Hawass, Zahi, et al. “Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun’s Family.” JAMA, vol. 303, no. 7, 2010, pp. 638–647.

Frandsen, Paul John,MmNm. Incestuous and Close-Kin Marriage in Ancient Egypt and Persia : an Examination of the Evidence. Museum Tusculanum Press, 2009.


The End of Art is Peace

By Mark V Kearney, on 2 August 2018

The title of this blog refers to a favourite line from Seamus Heaney’s The Harvest Bow, a poem that explores the humanity of the writer’s father as he crafts a decorative knot made of woven straw reeds, a traditional Irish custom strongly linked with courtship and marriage (you can see my own example below).

The end of art is peace….

A post shared by Mark (@mark_v_k_) on

Since beginning the role of Student Engager earlier this year, I have found myself thinking of this poem more frequently; one reason for this is that the Petrie Museum holds in its collection an example of a woven basket, in front of which I always stand during my shifts. The similarities of form between two objects separated by both thousands of years and miles has made me wonder just how universally pervasive the skill was.

Woven basket which is on display and the inspiration for this blog post (Petrie Museum, 7494).

Let me just mention one other important fact about all this… I’ve a background in physics and my current PhD research is based on the decay of modern materials like plastics in museums. Basket making — especially the ancient form — is a little out of my comfort zone!

It therefore came as a shock to me that the weaving skills I learnt in the classroom (as every Irish child does) can be traced back to before the use of pottery. As Carolyn McDowall mentions, many weaving techniques reflect the geographical location of the many and varied culturally different groups”. The beauty of traditional skills such as these is they can offer a connection, via our hands, to the past as little has changed in the way we construct them over thousands of years.

From a personal viewpoint, I’ve always been drawn to geometric objects such as these; its possibly the physicist in me attracted to their symmetry (or in certain cases, lack thereof). My research trip down the rabbit hole for this blog lead me to some interesting reading about the mathematics of weaving. One thing is for sure, that the resulting patterns are pleasing to the eye, and the inclusion of dyed, or painted elements into the structure elevates a simple commodity into a piece of folk art. It’s also clear that the resulting symmetrical patterns are universally pleasing – why else would we find decorative patterns in weaving in Egypt, southern Africa, and from the peoples of Native American tribes.

My research also led me to a theory about something that have always wondered – if you walk around the pottery displays in the Petrie Museum, you will notice that many of the objects have geometric patterns baked into them. I’ve never understood why they would go to the added trouble of imprinting the pattern. If, however, you acknowledge that patternation is a universal trait, and that basket weaving pre-dates pottery then the herringbone patterns found on some pottery could be the makers attempt to copy the form of woven baskets. I asked fellow engager Hannah, who’s PhD focuses on sub-Saharan African ceramics, about my theory recently. Hannah told me that “some academics have suggested that in these cases these decorated ceramics can imply that vessels made from natural fibres were also made and used in these time periods”. So it seems I’m onto something with the theory!

An example from the collection showing a herringbone pattern that Hannah says would have been applied with a stick or pointed object which the clay had been air-dried. (Petrie Museum, 14165)

The Petrie Museum has other examples of weaving skills. There are examples of sandals –

More examples of weaving from the Collection (Petrie Museum, UC769 Above & UC 16557 Below).

And Rope –

(Petrie Museum, UC7420).

One thing that stuck me is that these products must have created trade between the groups, promoting both an early economy and the spread of their technologies. Could this be why some of the patterns are common to all or could the base mathematics of weaving be a common universal trait somehow hardwired into our brains? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to answer this question during my research. I’ll have to keep digging for the answer, but in the end, I am left with an even deeper understanding and connection to the past, and an object that as Heaney says, “is burnished by its passage, and still warm”.

The Invisible Glow of Egyptian Blue

By Cerys R Jones, on 20 July 2018

If you were to visit the Petrie Museum with infrared vision, you would probably be drawn to wildly different parts of the collection than you would normally. Certain artefacts would appear to glow before your eyes. This is because of the inventively-named pigment Egyptian blue, which, as the name tells you, is a blue pigment that was commonly used in Egypt. However, Egyptian blue has a special property that makes it stand out from the rest: when illuminated in visible light, it fluoresces infrared light. If you could see infrared light, you would see all of the artefacts that contain this pigment glowing. I haven’t yet evolved to have this special power, but I have a camera that does. This is a multispectral imaging system and is what my PhD research is focused on. Multispectral imaging involves capturing images of objects that are illuminated in ultraviolet, visible and infrared light to reveal features that cannot be detected by the human eye alone.

Last November, I captured multispectral images of this Egyptian mummy mask from the Petrie Museum. In the Petrie catalogue, it is described as a “linen-based cartonnage mask, painted with blue headcloth, white face, black brows, eye-borders and pupils, and red-edged yellow band around face.” This mummy mask would have placed over the mummified body to protect the deceased in the afterlife. The Petrie has several mummy masks in the collection, including some that are gilded with gold.

Late period cartonnage mask (Petrie Museum, 55084)

The mask was illuminated in visible light and an infrared filter was placed in front of the camera lens. This meant that only infrared light was able to pass through the lens and be captured by the camera. The resulting image is below. The blue headcloth appears brightly in the image, indicating that it is painted in Egyptian blue. We were also able to confirm that the little fragment of mask in the vial was also from the headpiece, as this also fluoresced.

The cartonnage mask illuminated in visible light (left) and captured with an infrared filter (right). (Photo: Cerys Jones)

When you search Egyptian blue in the Petrie catalogue, 194 results appear ranging from Egyptian blue scarab beetles to plaster with hieroglyphs written in Egyptian blue paint. Two of my favourite items from the collection are the Egyptian blue hippopotamus and the Egyptian blue paste amulet of a lion-headed goddess. The hippopotamus represents Taweret, the Ancient Egyptian goddess of childbirth and fertility. The lion-headed goddess is probably Bastet, the goddess of warfare in Lower Egypt .

Left, hippopotamus in Egyptian blue pigment (Petrie Museum, 6489) and right, Egyptian blue paste lion-headed amulet (Petrie Museum, 52875).

Next time you visit an Egyptian museum, keep your eyes out for any artefacts that are painted in Egyptian Blue that are glowing unbeknown to your eyes!

What is the relationship between frogs and fertility?

By Hannah B Page, on 10 July 2018

During my first few weeks as a student engager I began to notice the presence of frogs… everywhere. I saw them in various forms and objects in the Petrie Museum, and found frog and other amphibious specimens in the Grant Museum. The Surinam toad quickly became one of my favourite objects to show visitors—the female stores her eggs in her back, and they then burst through the skin when fertilised (Fig 1.). As you can imagine, when you tell people this, you get a mixed response. I took this all as a sign and decided I should do a bit of splashing around in the amphibian research pool and dedicate my first blog post to them.

Fig 1 Surinam Toad with emergent young (Grant Museum W332)

What became immediately obvious when I started to do some digging is just how common frogs are in cultural and religious belief systems. Frogs are used as characters in folk law and in fairy tales—just think of the frog prince in the Grimm stories—but I discovered that their use in religion and culture goes back much, much further. Both the ancient Egyptians and the Mesopotamians saw the frog as a symbol of fertility and life giving. This connection is obvious when you understand the importance these past civilisations gave to the rivers that flowed through their lands. The Nile, Tigris and Euphrates rivers are hailed as the facilitators of the fertile lands that made the development of the first major cities and the centralised hierarchical societies that lived there possible. So the frog, as a watery symbol of the life-giving waters, was then depicted in reliefs, sculpture and objects. One such object is a beautifully crafted, smooth limestone frog in the Petrie Museum (Fig. 2). In fact, frogs are such a strong and consistent symbol in ancient Egyptian culture that they are found depicted in important and specialist objects from the predynastic Naqada periods to the Roman period—some 4,500 years.

Fig 2 Limestone frog from Meroe in the (UCL Petrie Museum, UC.43984)

The Egyptians even depicted a goddess, Haqet, in the image of a frog. Unsurprisingly Haqet is the goddess of fertility and is often depicted either as a frog or in human form with the head of a frog. Amulets were then fashioned in the shape of frogs/Haqet, and were worn, providing fertility to the wearer.

Frogs have also been the subjects of art in other areas of the world as well, for example for the Moche culture of Peru (Fig. 3). The frog species found in the Amazon basin are the most numerous and some of the most deadly, including the poison dart frog who has enough deadly toxin to kill between ten and twenty grown people. Interestingly enough, in Moche society they were also associated with fertility and growth, but with their toxicity (and sometimes hallucinogenic quality), it is thought that their symbolic meaning stretches far beyond this interpretation.

Fig 3 Moche Frog stirrup spout bottle (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.60.8)

However in Europe, frogs and toads haven’t always been seen in such a positive light. The prince in the frog prince was cursed and turned into a frog as punishment, and in the epic biblical poem Paradise Lost, John Milton depicts Satan as a toad poisoning Eve.

So, their social and symbolic importance is well recorded, but what about their biological history? For this I interrogated the case in the Grant Museum dedicated to them. Frogs and toads it seems started life in the Triassic period, some 240 million years ago. The museum even has a cast of an early German species (Palaeobatrachus) that lived around 130-5 million years ago. What is also striking about the frog is its wide native distribution across the globe, from Europe, to the Americas, Africa to Australasia. So it is unsurprising that these springy species have such an important and consistent cultural presence worldwide.

Finally in my research I discovered that the study of the relationship between human culture and amphibians even has a name: ethnoherpetology. Clearly we have a long and intimate history with our croaky friends.

So next time you’re close by, why not hop into the Grant or the Petrie Museum to see how many frogs you can find?

The Imperial Gentleman of China

By Carolyn Thompson, on 3 July 2018

I am a primatologist; that is, a scientist who studies the behaviour, abundance and conservation status of monkeys, lemurs and apes. My specialty area and the focus of my PhD research here at University College London, is the plight of the gibbons, the smallest of the apes.

The Skywalker Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing). Photograph taken on Carolyn Thompson’s recent field trip to China. (Photo credit: Carolyn Thompson)

Gibbons are often forgotten in the shadow of their great cousins — the orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas — receiving less funding, as well as research and media attention. This is very unfortunate seeing as 19 of the 20 species are on the brink of extinction. The Hainan gibbon, for example, is the world’s rarest primate with a mere 26 individuals making up their entire global population.

I am always thrilled therefore to see media articles raising some much needed gibbon awareness, even if the news story doesn’t always paint us humans in the best light.

In 2004, one of my supervisors from the Zoological Society of London, stumbled across a gibbon skull inside a tomb in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China. The skull is believed to be ca. 2,200-2,300 years old and the potential property of Lady Xia, the grandmother of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang, who is famous for his striking terracotta army. Inside this ancient tomb was a whole menagerie of other animal skeletons including a crane, bear and a leopard — yet another example of human-animal relationships that have dated back millennia.

The skull of Junzi imperialis. (Photo credit: Samuel Turvey).

Although this exciting discovery could tell us a lot about our evolutionary shared ancestry with gibbon species, there are still many unanswered questions. We are unsure if the skull, now said to belong to Junzi imperalis (meaning the ‘imperial man of virtue’ due to the strong historical relationship between humans and gibbons in Chinese culture) is in fact a new species and where it came from. There are strong indicators, however, suggesting that this potentially new species of gibbon could be the first ape to have vanished off the face of the earth due to human pressures. Now extinct, we need to look at our current impact on the planet to ensure we don’t do the same with our other cousins.

Part of my PhD research examines the relationship between humans and animals, especially amongst local communities found in gibbon habitat regions. This intrigue, along with my love of mingling with the public, led me to my new role as a Student Engager in the UCL museums. For example, the Ancient Egyptians also had a strong connection with animals which I hope to explore over the coming months in the UCL Petrie Museum, and the Grant Museum of Zoology also has a couple of gibbon skeletons hanging around. Come and see for yourself!

In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming blogs on Twitter: @gibbonresearch and @ResearchEngager

What if Bob Dylan became Pharaoh of Egypt?

By Sarah M Gibbs, on 28 June 2018

“For the times they are a’ changin’ ”

-Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back (http://nostalgiacentral.com); bust of Akhenaten (http://www.crystalinks.com/akhenaten.html)

If I were to invent a new board game, I’d call it “Who are you now?” Players would have to imagine who historical figures would be if they were alive today. Alexander the Great? A corporate raider leading hostile takeovers and selling dismantled companies to the highest bidder. Christopher Columbus? The captain of the first mission to Mars. Jean Jacques Rousseau? Head of a yoga ashram and wellness retreat in the Cotswolds. And Akhenaten, the iconoclastic pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, artefacts from whose reign are on display at UCL’s Petrie Museum, would definitely be Bob Dylan.

At first glance, the son of Amenhotep III and the folk singer from Hibbing, Minnesota may not seem like brothers from other mothers. Fair enough. The two men’s lives are separated by nearly three thousand years, and many more thousand miles. But the careers of king and artist, both of whom defined the cultures of their respective periods, evince intriguing similarities.

Let’s consider some points of convergence, shall we?

1. Artistic Revolution
Bob Dylan’s breakthrough album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released in 1963 (bobdylan.com) and launched a folk revival which defined popular music for the remainder of the decade. After the dominance of Frank Sinatra-style crooners in the 1950s, Dylan’s productions—featuring simple arrangements and complex, poetic lyrics sung by a vocalist of limited range—were a complete departure from the musical mainstream.

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (bobdylan.com)

Akhenaten likewise upset the artistic establishment. Have you ever tried to “walk like an Egyptian”? Traditional Egyptian reliefs employed multiple viewpoint perspective, a technique which presented the parts of the human body in the positions in which they appeared most attractive: head and legs in profile (feet staggered) while chest and torso faced the viewer . In contrast, the relief images produced during Akhenaten’s reign featured naturalistic representations of the body; positions and postures were relaxed, and round hips and bulging bellies were on full display.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Meritaten Worshipping the Sun-God, Aten (Petrie Museum UC401; alabaster relief)


2. Religious Upheaval
The perception of Dylan in the 1960s as a truth-telling artist of the people led his most devoted followers to view him as a prophet (one more-than-slightly deranged fan picked through his garbage in New York City looking for said “truth”). Surreal, dystopian songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” added to the effect.

Akhenaten actually did change Egypt’s religion. He was king. He could do that. Ushering in one of the first eras of monotheism in the ancient world, the Pharaoh replaced Egypt’s pantheon of gods with worship of the sun-god in his celestial “disk” form.

3. Name Changin’
A revolutionary needs an epic name. Robert Allen Zimmerman, son of a furniture store owner in small-town Minnesota, became Bob Dylan. And Amenhotep IV was reborn as Akhenaten; he incorporated the Egyptian word for “disk” (“Aten”) into his new moniker to honour his one-and-only god.

4. The City Founders
Following a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan retreated from public life. He went to Woodstock in upstate New York, and other artists followed, most notably The Band, whose debut album, Music from Big Pink, was written in Woodstock and features the classic song “The Weight.” George Harrison of The Beatles also found his way to Dylan’s idyll.

Admittedly, Akhenaten went a little bit bigger. In the sixth year of his reign, the King founded a new city in middle Egypt between the government and spiritual hubs of Memphis and Thebes. He called the city Akhet-Aten (today it is known as Tell el Amarna) and dedicated it to his god. The Collection at UCL’s Petrie Museum includes a number of reliefs and pottery fragments from the city.

Inlay from Wall Decoration at Tell el Amarna (Petrie Museum UC907)

While Dylan continues to endure, and to frustrate groups like the Nobel Prize Committee (he failed to show up to collect his honour), Akhenaten ruled for only seventeen years. After his death, Tell el Amarna was abandoned, and Egypt reverted to polytheism. The commune broke up. The flower children had to get office jobs. Some revolutions just don’t last.

“It’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
-Bob Dylan

Promotional Poster for the film Don’t Look Back (www.gigsoupmusic.com)

My Imaginary Friends in the Petrie Museum

By Cerys Bradley, on 8 June 2018

In the Petrie Museum there is a rather spectacular display cabinet containing 8 of the Fayum Mummy Portraits from the museum’s collection. These are portraits of the deceased, painted on wooden boards and placed on the mummified remains of respected elders, dear friends, and loved ones. These objects in particular are from a collection of 146 such portraits that were found and taken by Flinders Petrie from the Hawara Cemetery in 1888. They are some of my favourite objects in the museum’s collection because of how beautifully preserved they are and how well they connect visitors to the people who we now study.

Fayum Portraits are a burial practice from the Graeco-Roman Period (c. 332 BC – 395 AD) that has been found in excavation sites across Ancient Egypt but particularly in the Faiyum Basin, which is just West of the Nile and South of Cairo. They are thought to have originated during the Roman occupation of Egypt and exist in a long tradition of preserving the image of the deceased upon their death. This tradition includes death masks that were used in the process of mummification in Ancient Egypt but also for references for sculptors in the Middle Ages and then later as an aid to identify unknown corpses. Roman Images were small impressions or masks of the deceased that were kept in the family home alongside inscriptions of their achievements. In Victorian England, death portraits were photographs taken the day after death and provided a memento mori for families to help them remember what their loved one looked like.

Mummy Portrait UC19609 (I tried to write an amusing caption for this image but couldn’t really see past the monobrow, which I imagine wasn’t as much of a talking point during their lifetime).

What I love about the Fayum portraits is how full of life they are. The subjects are painted with their eyes open and their faces full of personality. In much the same way, the subjects of Victorian death portraits were positioned as if playing or interacting with living family members. I think the Fayum portraits show that the desire to see someone you were close to alive again—and to remember them as they were before they passed—is one that transcends time period and culture creating a strong connection to the people who lived two and a half millennia ago.

When the museum is quiet, I like to look at the portraits and imagine the people they depict. I haven’t yet reached the point of actually talking to them, but I have constructed personalities, preferences, and opinions for each. Especially in the context of the Petrie Museum, where you are surrounded by objects held and used by people who lived in Ancient Egypt and Kush, I think you get a unique reminder that the contents of museums like this one were made by and for real people.

Mummy Portrait UC30081 giving you some serious side eye.

The displays in the Petrie Museum showcase many different aspects of everyday life, from small things like cooking and catching rats, to grander ideas of religion and law. As amazing as that is, I think the idea that you can actually look into the eyes of someone who lived in Ancient Egypt is one of the best experiences that a visit to the museum can give you.