Why the British Museum still thrills me - even underwater

What is the British Museum to Egyptologists? Unarguably, its collection of Egyptian antiquities is one of the finest in the world, and its size and scope make it a vital research tool for all scholars. The Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan is home to some formidable scholars, and their research spans sites from the Delta in the North to far south of Egypt's borders with projects such as excavations at Amara West and the Berber-Abidiya Archaeological Project. In recent years, the curatorial team have put together exhibitions on topics from the interior workings of Egyptian mummies - brought back to life through technology - to the landscape of faith at the end of the Pharaonic period. For teachers, the Museum provides both online educational resources, and an Education department to support their teaching through classroom resources and visits for schools. 

These statistics, while impressive, don't capture the pull that the BM exerts on me as an Egyptologist though. Is it just the sheer fact of the place? Yes, I get a thrill walking into the Sculpture Gallery (Room 4) and seeing the colossal statues of Ramesses II and Amenhotep III. Yes, I still miss the Papyrus Room, where I used to spend happy lunch hours geeking out (though I also enjoy the re-display of the Nebamun wall-paintings, which have been wonderfully conserved and brought to life in Room 61). Yes, I love the exhibitions, which bring new context to familiar objects and make me think about Egyptology in new ways. Yes, my second date with my now-husband was at the BM, and it will always hold a special place in my heart because of this (I wasn't kidding about the geek part). But there's something else that makes the British Museum a very special place to me, as an Egyptologist. 

This years' Colloquium pack - full of good things!

This years' Colloquium pack - full of good things!

Every year, the British Museum brings together Egyptological colleagues from across the world for a focused, thematic conference called the Annual Egyptological Colloquium. The Colloquium is a central event in many Egyptologists' diaries, thanks to the calibre of papers which showcase the latest research, and because the conference provides a chance to catch up with colleagues and their research. 

This year, the topic of the Colloquium was Egyptian statues. Specifically, the contextualisation of statuary from Ancient Egypt. It's easy to see the appeal of statues - they are visually engaging, often beautifully carved, and they have come to be used as a kind of shorthand for 'Ancient Egypt' because of their encapsulation of so much that is quintessentially pharaonic. Heck, I chose an image with a (headless) statue for my website! It's all too easy, though, to see statues simply as works of art. Instead, this Colloquium focused on the ways in which statues were produced, placed, used, viewed, intended, re-used and even (deliberately) damaged. This was not an attempt to deny their beauty and elegant form(s), but to view them as both artistic and archaeological artefacts. 

It would be impossible in a short blog post to accurately summarise the contents of the wonderful variety of papers presented - and pleasingly, it would be unnecessary in this case, since the Proceedings of the Colloquium will be published in due course. The papers ranged from research presentations from colleagues engaged in fieldwork at sites such as Naukratis, the Mut temple at Karnak, Heliopolis and Hierakonpolis, to methodological and data-driven analyses of corpuses, to the final presentation which outlined affordable, portable, modern imaging techniques which can provide enough information to allow decisions about conservation priorities to be made quickly and in-situ. The statues presented were divine, royal, private, from the colossal to the very small; they were fashioned from metal, wood, stone, they came from all over Egypt - from Canopus (near modern Alexandria) to the 5th Cataract (in modern Sudan), from the very earliest dynasties through to the fifth century. The discussion of these statues moved beyond mere typological and art historical discussion to reconstruct production, destruction and perceptions - ancient and modern. 

Colossal Statuary at Karnak. Image courtesy of Dennis Jarvis

Colossal Statuary at Karnak. Image courtesy of Dennis Jarvis

Instead, I'll talk briefly about the keynote, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation Distinguished Lecture in Egyptology, given by Christian E Loeben, Keeper of the Egyptian Collection of the Museum August Kestner in Hanover. Dr Loeben drew on field research, historical data, 3D reconstructions, mapping techniques, and examination of texts and language and synthesised all these into a brilliant interpretation of the way colossal and processional statuary in ancient Egypt can be used to interpret the use of sacred space. Without attempting to reconstruct his arguments (I lack his fluency!) Dr Loeben showed how our understanding of the positioning, use, and design of programmes of colossal and processional statuary within and around the Theban temples allows us to see the life of those temples as working votive spaces. He explained how the variations in orientation of the various courts and pylons of Karnak temple, and the geography of the Theban sacred landscape are all part of the same universe, visible through his research into these two forms of statuary. 

Dr Loeben's magnificent talk was followed by a reception in the Sculpture Gallery, a chance to chat to colleagues over a glass or two of wine, and a private viewing of the museum's current Sunken Cities: Egypt's Lost Worlds exhibition. If you're a member, you can see the exhibition for free until 27 November 2016. 

The work of Franck Goddio and his team at the sites of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus is crucial to understanding the importance of trade between Egypt and the Mediterranean world in the later phases of Egyptian history. The discovery of Thonis-Heracleion, 'sister' city to Naukratis, in 2000, allowed Egyptologists to understand the nature of the trading relationship between Egypt and its northern trading partners in the Mediterranean, but it also highlighted the religious significance of the site. The waters that closed over the city more than a thousand years ago have also helped preserve the artefacts which form the centrepiece of the exhibition. 

The exhibition seeks to underline the connections between Egypt and Classical Greece, showcasing objects from both Thonis-Heracleion and Canpous alongside other objects which explore this theme.

Taweret, from reign of Psamtik I - Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Photo Author's Own.

Taweret, from reign of Psamtik I - Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Photo Author's Own.

There are some truly remarkable pieces, including a Taweret figurine so perfectly polished that it might be made of molten metal (see above), a 4th century BC statue of Hapy so colossal the roof on the Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery (in which Sunken Cities is housed) had to be raised to accommodate it, and (my personal favourite) a Horus cippus (called 'Horus-on-crocodiles' for some reason) which perfectly illustrates the decline in hieroglyphic literacy by this period - the exquisite details of the scenes contrast with the rather more sketchy and cursory hieroglyphic inscriptions; this is a time at which the 'text-as-object' has evolved to the point where the text is almost irrelevant, and the object of the cippus has taken on the magical significance of the text in its own right (see below).

Horus Cippus, 380-342BC, Egyptian Museum, with details of scenes (above and top right) and hieroglyphs (bottom right). Photo author's own. 

Horus Cippus, 380-342BC, Egyptian Museum, with details of scenes (above and top right) and hieroglyphs (bottom right). Photo author's own. 

Air-Con for the Pharaohs? Photo Author's Own

Air-Con for the Pharaohs? Photo Author's Own

However, the amazing objects, the atmospheric lighting, and the interesting displays did not quite make up for some of the issues with this exhibition. While it was clear that the colours (of the walls, the display cabinets and the lighting) were chosen to evoke the underwater feel, the overall effect was rather gloomy and sterile. Seeing objects such as the Osiris recumbent on a funerary bed, with Isis (in kite-form) hovering over him, from the tomb of Djer, a startling piece of sculpture which has never before left Egypt was breathtaking, however the relevance of such objects to the central themes was not well drawn out. The solitary majesty of the colossal Pharaonic statue who overlooks one of the chambers is somewhat marred by the air vents visible above his venerable head (above, right). The presence of other objects, many of which (despite their beauty and significance) had never been at Thonis-Heracleion or Canopus, diluted the epic scale of Goddio's work and the wonder of the underwater discoveries. Not enough is made of the sheer scale and diligence of the archaeological work, and too much is made of the 'mystical' atmosphere that undersea exploration confers. There was a tension between an art-historical appreciation of the sheer gorgeousness of some objects, and the feeling that there ought to be an academic discussion or three - and the tension was what won. 

On a more practical level (and echoing a conversation I had with a fellow Colloquium attendee, who is writing her thesis on museum displays), there were the usual issues with the height at which key objects and their labels were displayed - not an issue for us, but frustrating when the crowds are out in force - the lack of a clear path to follow through the objects, and strange side-chambers where wanderers will surely get snarled up like Spaghetti Junction at rush hour. Exhibitions must take into account their own (inevitable) popularity, and plan for the numbers of visitors. 

Overall, I found myself agreeing (wonder of wonders) with the Guardian's Jonathan Jones who makes the point that the exhibition skims over the contextual political and social history and as such:

it fails to bring to life an age when Egyptian art was turning into a pastiche of itself, under Greek kings going slowly bonkers in the heat.
— The Guardian, 17 May 2016

Criticisms aside, this exhibition is a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the results of 20 years of dedicated archaeology in the most inhospitable conditions (do they make trowels suitable for the sea-bed?) and explore the wonders of two cities which were very nearly lost forever.