This beautiful, richly illustrated book highlights 200 of the most magnificent and important Egyptian objects in the collections of the British Museum.
The British Museum has the largest and finest collection of antiquities from Egypt and the Sudan outside of those countries. Masterpieces of Ancient Egypt presents the highlights of the British Museum's Egyptian collection for the first time in print. This beautiful volume displays 200 of the most important and famous objects, including the Rosetta Stone, as well as a selection of lesser-known but equally significant pieces. Together, these works offer an overview of the whole of ancient Egyptian art.
Each object is illustrated with a full-page color photograph, many of which were taken especially for this publication. The accompanying text unfolds the story and features of each object. The introduction offers a brief history of the vast collections of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan and a description of how and why items are selected for display in the permanent galleries of the British Museum.
- Ancient Egypt
- Chronology of Ancient Egypt
- The Egyptian Collections of the British Museum
- Map of Sites in Ancient Egypt
- The Masterpieces
- Predynastic Period
- Early Dynastic Period
- Old Kingdom
- First Intermediate Period
- Middle Kingdom
- Second Intermediate Period
- New Kingdom
- Third Intermediate Period
- Late Period
- Ptolemaic Period
- Roman Period
- Meroitic and Post-Meroitic Periods
- Coptic/Byzantine Period and Later
- Further Reading
- Bibliography for the Objects
- Index of British Museum Numbers
- Index of Egyptian Names
- Index of Place Names
Ancient Egypt is the oldest known African civilization and one of the earliest and greatest in the world. Along the Nile river, the ancient Egyptians built temples, tombs, palaces, and houses. Their concern that their temples and tombs should endure for eternity, combined with the dry desert climate of Egypt, means that an astonishing array of elements of their material culture has survived, to be seen both on the ground in Egypt and in museum collections around the globe.
As in most ancient societies, power and wealth in Egypt belonged to a relatively small elite, in essence the royal family and a circle of powerful and trusted officials. These people were able to command considerable resources for the construction of monuments and statues, and for presenting their view of the world. It is easy to forget the largely anonymous mass of the ancient population, most of whom were farmers, with smaller numbers functioning as priests, labourers, servants, and craftsmen. Their labours were responsible both for creating the wealth of the state, which was then channelled into the production of statues, reliefs, and paintings for temples, and also for constructing the objects and buildings themselves.
The civilization of ancient Egypt lasted thousands of years, surviving many political upheavals and the rise and fall of numerous dynasties. Its history is briefly summarized below (a list of periods and dynasties, with dates, appears on pages 16-17). The Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan of the British Museum holds objects from every stage of this long history, forming one of the most comprehensive and magnificent collections in the world, surpassed only by the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This volume is the first to give the interested visitor and reader an illustrated overview of the most important objects in the British Museum's superb collection. The entries in this book are arranged in chronological order, offering an overview of some five thousand years of continuous civilization in the Nile Valley.
The History of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
Predynastic Period: The last phase of prehistoric Egypt before the establishment of a unified kingdom, about 5300-3000 BC, is characterized by a series of localized cultures, mostly named after the type-sites at which they were first recorded. The cultures of the north of Egypt were quite different from those of the south, and the close of the Predynastic Period was accompanied by the gradual northward spread of the southern material culture. Type-sites in the north include Merimde, Omari, Maadi, and the cultures of the Faiyum; in the south the main phases are known as Badarian and Naqada I, II, and III. Contemporary with the later phases of the Egyptian Predynastic cultures was the A-Group culture of Nubia. The earliest writing appeared in Egypt in about 3500 BC.
Early Dynastic Period: Dynasties 1 and 2, c. 3000-2686 BC. The Upper Egyptian late Predynastic cultures showed dramatic cultural developments that continued into the historical period. One feature was increased social stratification, leading to the development of a ruling elite, some of whom were buried at Abydos and are known as 'Dynasty 0'. About 3000 BC the Upper Egyptian cultures seem to have taken over the northern ones, leading to the development of a unified state; the identity of the first king is uncertain, but Narmer and Aha are possibilities. In later times this king came to be known as the semi-mythical figure of Menes. Cultural developments were rapid, and many of the basic symbols and characteristics of Egyptian culture emerged. Kings were buried at Abydos and Saqqara. There is evidence of military incursions into Nubia.
Old Kingdom: Dynasties 3-8, c. 2686-2125 BC. The first great phase of Egyptian culture is notable for the development of the pyramid as the royal tomb at the beginning of the Third Dynasty. During this period a great centralized power base grew up at Memphis. Kings constructed pyramids north and south of Memphis, and large necropoleis (cemeteries) of officials grew up around some of the pyramids, particularly at Giza and Saqqara. The Egyptian elite tomb developed into the basic form that endured for the next 2,500 years, with a decorated chapel and a subterranean burial chamber; many of the decorative motifs lasted almost as long. The administration of Egypt was highly organized under royal control, with a small group of senior officials overseeing the system; some administrative papyri survive from this period. The first expeditions to the east and north-east of Egypt, to the Sinai, for turquoise, copper, and various types of stone, were apparently made at this time. Late in the Old Kingdom, perhaps about 2200 BC, the monarchy seems to have weakened, a process only visible today as a proliferation of kings with very short reigns (the Seventh and Eighth Dynasties). After about 2150 BC, however, the centralized administration seems to have failed. The reasons for this are not completely clear, but may be a combination of many factors, such as low Nile floods, famines, and weak kings, and there is a general impression of problems and disorder.
First Intermediate Period: Dynasties 9-11, c. 2160-2016 BC. With the collapse of central control, the Nile Valley broke into a number of independently ruled districts centred on the different provinces. Predominant among these early on were the rulers of Herakleopolis, the Ninth and Tenth Dynasties. Little is known about them, but they seem to have controlled the country at least as far south as Asyut, whose governors (nomarchs) were loyal to them, and they may have received some nominal allegiance in other parts of Upper Egypt early on. However, the provincial rulers in the south fought with each other for control; gradually the rulers of Thebes became the dominant southern power, and began to call themselves kings (Eleventh Dynasty). Fighting between Thebes and Herakleopolis, probably around Abydos, is referred to in several contemporary texts. The Thebans were ultimately victorious, and gradually extended their control over the whole land; this process seems to have been complete by about year 39 of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep 11 (c. 2016 BC). There is little documentation for the later stages of this internal strife, but many Upper Egyptian sources record the earlier stage of the conflict.
Middle Kingdom: Dynasties 11-13, c. 2016-1650 BC. The Middle Kingdom began with the unification of Egypt under Mentuhotep 11. Following two more kings of the same name, the throne passed to a new family (the Twelfth Dynasty), also apparently from southern Egypt. These kings moved the capital north to Lisht, and were buried at sites between Dahshur and the Faiyum; all (bar the last) were named either Senwosret or Amenemhat (Greek: Sesostris and Ammenemes). Although residing in the north, they made Thebes a religious centre, and were largely responsible for promoting its deity, Amun, to the top of the Egyptian pantheon.
The Middle Kingdom was a period of prosperity and stability. Military expeditions were sent abroad, and Lower Nubia was brought under full control by means of a series of forts south of the Second Cataract; limited forays may also have been made into the Near East. Considerable numbers of people from Canaan moved into the Eastern Delta during the later Twelfth Dynasty. Internal administrative reforms improved the running of the land, and in the later Middle Kingdom, the Faiyum area was first developed for major settlements and agriculture. This dynasty's artistic products are among the finest in Egypt, and the era is also renowned for its literary output, including many of the greatest written works of ancient Egypt, such as the Tale of Sinuhe and the Teaching of Ptahhotep.
The last ruler of the Twelfth Dynasty was a woman, Sobekneferu. The following dynasty continued to rule from Lisht, effectively as an extension of the Twelfth, but there is a noticeable decline in the number of monuments and an increase in the number of kings with very short reigns, a sure sign of a less stable era.
Second Intermediate Period: Dynasties 13-17, c. 1650-1550 BC. The internal history of Egypt at this time is still most unclear. The disintegration of the state was due to several factors, such as administrative decline, famine, and plague, and the establishment of a Canaanite polity in the Delta (Fourteenth Dynasty). It seems that the weakened Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dynasties were overthrown in the north by an invasion from Canaan, doubtless the rulers known now as the Hyksos (based on Egyptian heqaukhasut, 'rulers of foreign lands')—the Fifteenth Dynasty. The south of Egypt was under varying control, but in due course another Theban dynasty (Seventeenth) reasserted the area's independence. The later Seventeenth Dynasty, particularly its last two kings, Segenenre and Kamose, fought to topple the Hyksos rulers. It seems that the Egyptians also had to contend with an invasion in the south from the kingdom of Kush, based at Kerma in the Sudan.
New Kingdom: Dynasties 18-20, c. 1550-1069 BC. Ahmose, the first king of the Eighteenth Dynasty, does not seem to have taken up arms against the Hyksos until later in his reign. He laid siege to the Hyksos capital of Avaris in the Eastern Delta (modern Tell ed-Daba) and chased them into Palestine. With this event begins Egypt's great imperial epoch. It was not long before the royal residence and capital were transferred back to Memphis, and Ahmose's successors began both large construction projects at home and military expeditions abroad. Thutmose I expanded Egypt's control into both Nubia and the Near East, reaching at least as far south as the Fourth Cataract in the Sudan and the Euphrates river in Iraq. Thutmose III, probably his grandson, mounted a series of campaigns spreading Egyptian influence further around the Near East. A permanent military presence was established in Nubia, but the Asiatic provinces were governed by vassal governors with a relatively limited Egyptian presence. Considerable international trade built up, and Egypt became more prosperous and aware of its place in the world than ever before.
Much temple-building happened at this time; in particular, the cult centre of Amun at Karnak was rebuilt and expanded dramatically. The kings built temples elsewhere, including mortuary temples for their funerary cults on the West Bank at Thebes, to complement their rock-hewn burial places in the Valley of the Kings. By the reign of Amenhotep III (c.1390-1352 BC), the furious pace of foreign campaigns had ceased, and he lavished considerable wealth on many grandiose temple schemes.
Amenhotep's son, also called Amenhotep, made some very visible changes to the practice of religion after only two or three years on the throne. He changed his name to Akhenaten, concentrated his worship on one god, the solar disc or Aten, and moved his capital to the new site of Akhetaten (modern Amarna) in Middle Egypt. (This part of the dynasty is often called the Amarna Period.) The reasons for this are hotly debated; suffice it to say that his changes barely survived him, and his successor Tutankhamun gradually restored the old ways. Tutankhamun had no heirs, and the throne passed to two of his senior officials, Ay and then Horemheb.
Horemheb seems to have designated his general Ramesses as his successor, and his family is termed the Nineteenth Dynasty. They came from the Eastern Delta, and it was not long before the residence and capital were moved from Memphis to Pi-ramesse (modern Qantir). After Ramesses' short reign, his son Sety 1, and particularly his grandson Ramesses II, undertook extensive building projects in Egypt; they also campaigned vigorously in the Near East, where many political changes in the later Eighteenth Dynasty, perhaps coupled with less active interference from Egypt, meant that the empire was smaller than in the time of Amenhotep III. Ramesses II's conflict with the Hittites (Egypt's main enemy) culminated in the famous battle of Qadesh, and led ultimately to a peace treaty. The dynasty ended in disputes about the succession, and Sethnakht, a man from outside the family, seized the throne, beginning what we term the Twentieth Dynasty.
His son, Ramesses III, was the last of the great kings of the New Kingdom. At this time, the so-called 'Sea Peoples, groups who formed part of the great population migrations in the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East in the later first millennium BC, were attempting to settle in Egypt. Ramesses kept these forces at bay, but lost the remnants of the Egyptian empire, other than in the south. This king built temples and made great donations to the cults of Amun, but Egypt began to decline. He was succeeded by eight further kings also called Ramesses. During this Ramesside Period various economic and political problems became apparent, as recorded by many documents on stone and papyri from the west of Thebes. Workmen went on strike for wages, there were unspecified threats from the desert, and tomb-robbery became common. By the end of the dynasty, the king was ruling primarily in the north, and the religious capital of Thebes had become largely self-governing, ruled by the high priest of Amun.
Third Intermediate Period: Dynasties 21-25, c. 1069-664 BC. The division of Egypt remained in force. The new rulers in the north are termed the Twenty-first Dynasty, with their capital at Tanis. Some of the Theban high priests assumed royal titles, but there was contact between the two halves of the land, and one of the Twenty-first Dynasty kings, Psusennes I, was the son of the Theban high priest Panedjem 1; Psusennes 11, the last king of the dynasty, had previously been high priest in Thebes. Upon his death, the kingship passed to Sheshonq (the biblical Shishak, who attacked Jerusalem), from a family of Libyan descent from Bubastis (Twenty-second Dynasty). This dynasty maintained stronger connections with Thebes, but the Delta became increasingly fragmented, with a number of local rulers, some of whom are possibly the Twenty-third Dynasty; the Twenty-fourth Dynasty consisted of kings in Sais.
In the mid-eighth century BC, southern Egypt came increasingly under attack from Kush, a powerful state based in Upper Nubia (northern Sudan). Various incursions were made, largely shows of strength, with the invaders returning to Nubia, but in 715 BC Shabaka launched a campaign to take over Egypt. He and his successors are known as the Twenty-fifth Dynasty.
Late Period: Dynasties 26-30 and Second Persian Period, c. 664-332 BC. With the reunification of the country came something of a renaissance in Egypt. Artistic styles based on older models harked back to the great eras of the past. Periods chosen for inspiration generally depended on the location of the new monuments—thus Old Kingdom models are more common in the north, and Middle and New Kingdom ones in the south.
After almost fifty years, Egypt came under threat from the expanding Assyrian empire. After making several attempts at invasion, the last Kushite king (Taharga) was driven out in 667 BC, and the Assyrians gained the allegiance of various vassal rulers. Of these, Psamtek of Sais (Psammetichus 1), first established himself as pre-eminent and then removed Egypt from Assyrian control; his dynasty, the Twenty-sixth, lasted until the first Persian invasion of 525 BC under Cambyses, continuing the revivals of his predecessors and producing many great works of art.
The First Persian Period (Twenty-seventh Dynasty) was punctuated by a number of Egyptian revolts, but the Persians were able to maintain control until their influence was ended by Amrytaios in 404 BC. His Twenty-eighth and the succeeding Twenty-ninth Dynasties have left relatively little material, but with the accession of Nectanebo I (Egyptian: Nakhtnebef, Thirtieth Dynasty) of Sebennytos in 380 BC, perhaps after an internal coup, another artistic renaissance began. He and his successors constructed many temples and set up fine works of art in them; the third king of the dynasty, Nectanebo II (Egyptian: Nakhthorheb) encountered renewed Persian expansion, and Egypt fell to Artaxerxes III of Persia in 343 BC. Egypt was then controlled by foreign powers until the 1952 revolution. This Second Persian Period is occasionally termed the Thirty-first Dynasty, and fell in turn to the imperial expansion of Alexander of Macedon in 332 BC, who was apparently treated by the Egyptians as a liberator.
Ptolemaic Period: 332-30 BC. Egypt's history now largely tracked that of the classical world for the next seven centuries. After Alexander's death in 323 BC, the empire was divided among his Greek generals, and Ptolemy, son of Lagos, took Egypt. His capital was Alexandria, from where his successors—all male and called Ptolemy except for the last, Cleopatra—ruled for nearly 300 years. The Ptolemaic Period is marked by a number of revolts of the native population, and, as well as putting these down, the kings made various attempts to obtain the favour of at least the priestly elites—one attempt resulted in the decree of 196 BC promulgated on the Rosetta Stone. In the arts, interesting mixtures of Hellenistic and traditional Egyptian forms attest the coexistence of the two cultures. In the first century BC, Egypt came increasingly under the influence of Rome, as did the rest of the Mediterranean, and was drawn into some of the internal Roman political conflicts, the last of which resulted in the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 30 BC at the battle of Actium, and the addition of Egypt to the Roman empire.
Roman Period: 30 BC-AD 395. With the death of Cleopatra, Egypt was no longer an independent nation but was ruled by the Roman emperor, who appointed a prefect to run the country. Egypt was termed the 'granary of Rome, as it supplied grain for the empire's needs; harsh taxes were often imposed since it was a wealthy land. Various prefects and emperors campaigned on Egypt's southern borders, and there were times when the country was threatened by Syria and Persia. Christianity, by tradition brought to Egypt by St Mark in AD 65, flourished and expanded despite persecutions in the third century AD, culminating in those of the emperor Diocletian (ruled 284-305). In the reign of Constantine (306-337), Christianity became the official religion of the empire.
Coptic/Christian, Late Antique or Byzantine Period: AD 395-642. Egypt was thus largely Christian when the Roman empire split into eastern and western halves in 395, and Egypt came under the rule of Constantinople, the eastern capital. Christianization continued apace, and the development of monastic communities boomed. Various attempts to reunify the empire achieved only minor success, and in the seventh century Egypt was again briefly ruled by the Persians. With the dramatic campaigns by Arab armies led by the successors of Mohamed, it was not long before Egypt fell to Amr ibn el-As in 642.
Arab Conquest: AD 642. The new conquerors established their capital city at Fustat, south of modern Cairo, and of course introduced Islam to Egypt. For the first 250 years of the occupation, there was little persecution of Christians, although they were subject to higher taxes than Muslims; in fact many of the more substantial older Coptic remains in Egypt date from the fifth to ninth centuries. However, gradual Islamicization did take place, and the Copts were reduced to a substantial minority in Egypt.
Kush: Kush is the Egyptian name for the southern part of Nubia. The first kingdom of Kush (c. 2500-1500 BC), also known as the Kerma culture after its capital city, came into conflict with Egypt in the later Second Intermediate Period. After a period of Egyptian domination during the New Kingdom, the second kingdom of Kush established itself in the region of Gebel Barkal in the ninth century BC, and in 715 BC took control of Egypt as the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. This period is known as the Napatan phase (ninth-fourth centuries BC) of the kingdom. The Kushite state adopted many Egyptian cultural and artistic characteristics; the Egyptian language was used in monumental inscriptions, though it is unlikely that it was spoken by the people. By 664 BC the Kushites had been expelled from Egypt by the Assyrians; they withdrew to the Middle Nile area, where their culture continued to flourish for another thousand years. In the fourth century BC, the royal residence moved south to Meroe, while Gebel Barkal remained the religious centre. This may reflect a dynastic change. Between the fourth century BC and the fourth century AD, Kushite monuments display a rich mixture of Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, and indigenous African architectural and artistic styles, and the Kushites began to write their own, as yet undeciphered, language, known as Meroitic. This later period is known as the Meroitic phase.
The Egyptian Collections of the British Museum
How did the British Museum come to hold its wonderful Egyptian and Sudanese collection? Objects have been acquired by a variety of means, mainly purchase, excavation, and donation. Understanding these different contexts of acquisition sheds a great deal of light on how the practice and philosophy of collecting have changed over the past two centuries.
The majority of the objects in the British Museum's Egyptian collection were purchased. In the first half of the nineteenth century, many people collected objects in Egypt, either for their own pleasure or with the ultimate aim of financial reward (or a mixture of both), and several of these collections now rest in the Museum. The earliest and most important is the first collection of the British Consul-General Henry Salt, who began to collect objects not long after his appointment in 1815, partly on the understanding that he was acquiring objects for the British Museum. His large first collection was purchased after considerable wrangling by the Trustees in 1823 for the relatively small sum of £2,000, and the huge range of material in it (more than 120 crates) put the Museum's Egyptian collection on a better and more systematic footing. Previously, the representation of Egypt in the Museum consisted basically of the objects taken from the French in 1801 and a variety of miscellaneous donations; while these were of the highest importance in raising awareness of the ancient culture in Britain, the appearance of the Salt material in the galleries in 1823 did much to advance the appreciation of Egyptian objects, particularly sculpture. The collection was considerably expanded by purchases from Europeans such as Joseph Sams (1834), from Salt's estate (1835), and from Giovanni Anastasi (first in 1839 but also later), and there were many smaller purchases.
Attempts were soon made in Egypt to control the frenetic collecting by foreigners. In 1835 Mohamed Aly, the ruler of Egypt, tried unsuccessfully to ban the export of antiquities; he also planned to set up an Antiquities Service. The Service des Antiqutiés founded by Auguste Mariette with the blessing of the viceroy Said in 1858 was more successful in reducing or practically eliminating unauthorized excavations by foreigners, although it did little to stop antiquities-hunting by the local population. The mid-nineteenth century was probably the time when antiquities dealing really came into its own, and the purchase of antiquities from a local dealer became the most common way in which foreigners could acquire antiquities in Egypt. The British Museum did not buy directly from Egypt at that time, as the Museum's Egyptologist, Samuel Birch, did not go there; instead he relied primarily on purchasing objects from British travellers such as the Revd Greville Chester or from dealers in Britain.
Ernest Budge (keeper 1894-1924) took a more active approach. He travelled annually to Egypt, starting before he became keeper, and during those visits made numerous acquisitions, often in circumstances which can be most tactfully called questionable, and frequently buying objects from illicit excavations. For example, shortly after purchasing the papyrus of Any (see pages 218-21) in 1887-8, he was involved in a rather difficult intrigue to avoid trouble with Grébaut, the head of the Service des Antiquités, over the purchase of this and other papyri and the Amarna cuneiform tablets. Budge also used other agents in Egypt to help him to acquire antiquities from dealers, such as the Revd Chauncy Murch, an American missionary. In consequence, the collection increased dramatically during Budge's keepership (from about 10,000 objects in 1870 to 57,000 in 1924).
Since that time, the practice of buying from dealers in Egypt has declined, and Egypt has quite rightly made the purchase and export of antiquities illegal. Nowadays the history of a potential acquisition has to be very carefully researched and exhaustive enquiries made. In the course of the 1990s, the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan helped to uncover a number of antiquities thefts, and in recent years it has been instrumental in co-operating with the authorities in returning several illegally exported objects to Egypt and the Sudan.
Donations have been an important source of objects almost since the foundation of the Museum. For example, the first mummy in the collection came from a bequest of antiquities by William Lethieullier, who died in 1756. Many important pieces in this volume were presented to the Museum—perhaps the most significant donation was a substantial set of sculptures (including the Rosetta Stone, pages 298-9) given by George III in 1802, acquired by the British Nation following the defeat of the French fleet at Abukir. This donation gave the British public their first real taste of Egyptian monumental art, which was strengthened immensely by the gift in 1818 of the colossal bust of Ramesses II (see pages 202-3). Of course, the very nature of donation makes it an unsystematic and unpredictable method of acquisition, and in the twenty-first century, a donation is subject to the same stringent rules applied to purchases; in addition, it is not now usual to accept a donation unless it materially strengthens the collection in some way.
A particularly important form of donation is that arising from excavation. Authorized foreign scientific excavations, with proper permits, began in Egypt shortly after 1881. The newly-founded Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society) of London was one of the first organizations to take advantage of this, and from 1883 onwards, objects began to come to the Museum from the Fund's divisions (as the partition of objects between Egypt and the excavating expedition is known). Over the years more than 11,000 objects have come to the Museum from this particular source, including pieces in this volume from Bubastis, Deir el-Bahari, and Amarna. This only stopped with the cessation of divisions in the 1980s,
although divisions still continue in the Sudan. Other organizations from Britain also excavated in Egypt and the Sudan and presented objects to the British Museum; they included Petrie's Egypt Research Account and British School of Archaeology in Egypt, which flourished from the later 1880s until the 1930s. Other donating institutions include the Oxford University Expedition, which excavated at Kawa and Faras in the Sudan. The British Museum has of course also conducted its own excavations in Egypt and the Sudan, and received divisions of objects. Sites investigated include Asyut (1907), Mostagedda and Matmar (late 1920s), and Ashmunein (1980s) in Egypt, and, from the 1990s on, many sites in the Sudan, including Soba, Kawa, and the Northern Dongola Reach.
In very recent years, the collection has been expanded beyond its traditional limits with the donation of a number of important collections from outside the UK, resulting from fieldwork by others in Egypt and the Sudan. Thus a vast collection of material from the work of Fred Wendorf (Southern Methodist University) at prehistoric sites in the deserts has come to the Museum, as has the collection of stone samples taken by Dietrich Klemm and Rosemarie Klemm (University of Munich) during their work on the quarries of Egypt. A study collection of material from the work of William Adams (University of Kentucky) at Kulubnarti in the Sudan is presently being accessioned.
A major problem with many objects is that next to nothing is known about the context of their discovery, particularly those acquired by purchase and donations (excluding those found in excavations, of course). There are several reasons for this, from deliberate misinformation on the part of the seller to keep the authorities off their track, to lack of interest on the part of the purchaser/owner in anything other than the object's aesthetic qualities. Often there is anecdotal evidence about the findspot (see pages 130 and 166), but it is probably no exaggeration to say that more than half of the collection has no good provenance. Examples from better-excavated contexts can help, and providing such a context for similar material is an important justification for certain types of fieldwork, but for most of these objects, their findspot has been lost forever.
Survival and Discovery
The likelihood of an object's survival is primarily dictated by a combination of the place where it was laid or abandoned by its ancient owner and the material of which it was made. The Nile in Egypt and the Sudan runs through the eastern part of the Sahara, which is so lacking in precipitation that the development of settled communities is extremely difficult or impossible without modern technology, except in places such as oases. At present there is 25-50 mm of rain annually, and there was little more in ancient times, with the present hyper-arid conditions setting in during the Old Kingdom in the mid-third millennium BC. The Greek historian Herodotos' oft-quoted statement that 'Egypt is the gift of the Nile' is incontrovertible: where the Nile flooded and laid down a thick layer of fertile sediment, it created the right conditions for agriculture and the development of the advanced culture of Egypt. However, where the Nile did not flood, there is just sandy desert. This extraordinarily fertile soil was always at a premium, and from earliest times the southern (Upper Egyptian) cultures, never far from the infertile desert, buried their dead in the desert. It will not have taken long for the inhabitants of the valley to realize that the desert preserved the remains of the dead, which probably gave rise to the remarkable culture of death and burial in the ancient civilizations of the Nile. In the Delta, settlements were mostly far from the desert and burials took place in the alluvial floodplain, usually in areas of little use to agriculture. The inevitable dampness of the environment and its frequent later conversion to agricultural land mean that little organic material has survived, so the archaeological record of funerary practices is very strongly biased in favour of Upper Egyptian material.
Thus in Upper Egyptian tombs, despite external factors such as robbery or unexpected ingress of water, delicate materials such as wood and papyrus are capable of preservation for thousands of years. Robbery took two major forms: ancient destruction of burials in the hope of recycling some of the more valuable materials, such as metals and valuable oils (see the Tomb Robbery Papyri, pages 232-5), and the wholesale ransacking of burials in search of objects for sale to foreigners, which was at its peak in the first half of the nineteenth century AD, as mentioned above.
Most ancient habitation would have been within the cultivated area, often on higherstanding land to avoid the annual Nile floods. It is very likely that the settlement pattern in ancient times was not dramatically different from that seen before the annual inundation was controlled in the course of the twentieth century AD. Moisture was never far away, which made the survival of domestic organic objects less likely; hence objects from the desert—the paraphernalia of death—are bound to be over-represented. To this must be added the contribution of archaeologists. Only in the past half-century have Egyptologists shaken off the inevitable attraction to the more openly promising finds from the deserts, which naturally worked to the detriment of knowledge of settlement sites; archaeologists experienced in working on settlement sites have only recently come to Egypt. In addition, settlement sites are very much less fossilized in time than those in the desert: they were frequently rebuilt in ancient times, and of course many (indeed perhaps most) have continued in use to the modern day, with all the difficulties that this presents to the archaeologist.
Thus, the Egyptian and Sudanese collection of a long-established institution such as the British Museum is inevitably biased towards material from burials and those contexts, such as temples, where the ancient remains have not been built over; the amount of material which relates to settlements and the daily life of the Egyptians is small in comparison. Hence this book is replete with evidence of the funerary customs of these ancient peoples, ranging from the astonishingly well-preserved burial of the man from Gebelein (pages 26-7) through the tomb groups of the Middle Kingdom to the burials of the Roman Period. Temple objects are likewise very prominent, from royal statues of Middle Kingdom temples, through the massive products of the New Kingdom, down to the Late Period resurgence in the construction and embellish ment of such edifices, and the maintenance of the pharaonic style in the products of the Meroitic phase of the kingdom of Kush. Objects of daily use are not prominent, and those which exist mostly owe their survival to burial in a tomb or desert temple (for example, the two groups of papyri in this book bearing administrative records, the Abusir Papyri, pages 60-1, and the Tomb Robbery Papyri, pages 232-5).
It is ironic that much of the information used to reconstruct daily life in Egypt is derived from funerary sources. Thus the scenes of agriculture, crafts, and even banqueting in the carved and painted tomb chapels of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms are regularly quoted as important evidence of how these activities were carried out. Similarly, items which must have had their origins in burial deposits are frequently used to illustrate the jewellery the living wore, the furniture they used, and so on. This is not to suggest that this is inappropriate, but the reader should not simply assume that tomb scenes represent daily reality, or that artefacts in tombs are necessarily objects from life taken into the place of burial.
A further irony is that some of the settlement sites which are also used to illustrate daily life are not themselves typical. The collections of the British Museum contain many objects from excavations at Amarna, the city of the 'heretic pharaoh' Akhenaten, which was used for only ten to fifteen years and was built in the desert and not in the cultivated area. Undoubtedly, the material from Amarna can be used to draw very important conclusions about the functioning of a city," but it should not be assumed to be typical. The same is true for the village of Deir el-Medina in Thebes, home to the workmen who built the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, from which the British Museum has a number of mainly inscribed objects (for example, the ostrakon on pages 206-7). The villagers of Deir el-Medina were a privileged group, and the community must be used as a source for daily life with a measure of caution.
Nevertheless, the objects represented in this book offer a vivid and impressive, if necessarily partial, picture of life and death in ancient Egypt. They open a window into a unique and sophisticated culture that lasted for millennia and which retains the power to influence and inspire us to this day.