By Andrea Byrnes. Published on Egyptological, Magazine Reviews, August 14th 2012
The Gurob Harem Palace Project (http://www.gurob.org.uk), directed by Dr Ian Shaw from the University of Liverpool, is a collaboration, jointly led by the University of Liverpool, the University of Copenhagen and University College London.
The conference took place on July 29th 2012, in Liverpool, U.K..
The location was originally named Mer-Wer. Today’s name derives from the nearby village Medinet el-Gurab. It has been investigated by a number of previous excavators including Flinders Petrie, William Loat and Guy Brunton before it fell, for many years, under military control. The Gurob Harem Palace Project has been working at the site since 2005.
Located at the southeast of the Faiyum depression, to the southwest of Cairo, the Gurob site incorporates a number of royal and domestic structures. These include a building established by Thutmosis III in the Eighteenth Dynasty, known as a “harem palace,” apparently used to house royal women, cemeteries and a manufacturing area. Over the last twelve years the Gurob site has gradually begun to emerge from beneath the desert, yielding a considerable volume of data which reveals important information about both the site itself and the periods during which it was occupied.
The annual conference was held this year on July 29th 2012 – a well organized and enjoyable event. Most of the abstracts of the lectures are contained on the Gurob Harem Palace Project website at http://gurob.org.uk/Conf_rep_2012.php. The brief overview that follows looks back at the lectures delivered, summarising the main contents and themes.
- The latest news from our 2012 fieldwork – Ian Shaw (University of Liverpool)
- Recording the 2011-12 looting at Gurob – Anna Hodgkinson (University of Liverpool)
- Gleanings from Gurob: Reinvestigation and Redisplay at the Manchester Museum – Dr Campbell Price (Curator of Egypt & Sudan, Manchester Museum)
- Gurob’s trade with the Aegean – Dr Valentina Gasperini (University of Bologna)
- Faience bowls and amulets at Gurob – Dr Tine Bagh (Curator, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen)
- Culture of Beauty in an Egyptian Palace – Dr Ole Herslund (University of Copenhagen)
- Queen Mary’s Spoon? – Jan Picton and Ivor Pridden (University College London), and
- Objects in focus in the Garstang Museum – studying Gurob-related objects.
The latest news from our 2012 fieldwork – Ian Shaw (University of Liverpool)
Dr Shaw opened the conference with an overview of the current state of the work at Gurob (figure 2). He gave some helpful background information about the site, looking at previous excavators and their contributions before the area became a military zone and unavailable for field research. Matters changed in 2005 and the Gurob Harem Palace Project was able to take up where previous investigators had left off.
Dr Shaw proceeded next to give a top-level overview about the work being carried out in each area of the site, showing how the site’s components fit together and providing helpful insights into how the work is currently being prioritized.
The audience was then introduced to the members of the team, explaining the roles that each of them performed and the skills that were required to deliver their various areas of expertise. He explained techniques employed at the site, from geophysical and deep core surveys to a new system for handling the sheer volume of pottery found at the site.
The Gurob Palace Harem Project report by Ian Shaw to the Supreme Council of Antiquities, covering the 2012 season, is now available online at the following address: http://gurob.org.uk/reports/SCA-3MonthRep-April2012.pdf. His report is much better than my notes, so I refer readers to that. It is a 34-page PDf and takes an absolute age to load, but it’s worth the wait.
Having said that, two pieces of ongoing work stood out as being of particular interest. First, geoarchaeological work has started to provide a better sense of the overall “waterscape” to the east of the main site at Gurob, consisting partly of channels that may have flowed past site in addition to the natural inflow from the Nile provided by the Bahr Yussef channel that links the river to Lake Qarun in the centre of the Faiyum depression.. Dr Shaw feels that the team is getting slightly closer to finding the harbour-front area. The importation and export of materials were important, so this should be an informative part of the site once identified. A possible location for the waterfront is delineated by a line of bricks above which successive layers wind-blown sand have been laid down.
Second, amongst the details of the overall site introduced by Dr Shaw, the workshop areas look particularly interesting. Two kilns, one only partially investigated, have been revealed. Although one appears to be a pottery kiln, the otheris of a slightly different construction, with reinforced walls, and may turn out to be a specialized kiln for producing faience or glass. During the next season this area will be opened out further and it is hoped that more knowledge about the manufacturing zone of Gurob will be revealed.
Although much of the news is very positive, Gurob has fallen victim, as have so many other sites, to looting. The scale is considerable – both in terms of the vast area covered by the looters and the depths to which some of their trenches reached.
Recording the 2011-12 looting at Gurob – Anna Hodgkinson (University of Liverpool)
Anna Hodgkinson took over from Ian Shaw to develop the looting theme (figure 3). This was distressing. Over 180 instances of looting activity were reported over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, reaching all the way to the remote northern part of site.
In order to assess the damage, teams surveyed the vast area of the site, taking with them portable Global Positioning System (GPS) units, with which they could record the location of the looted areas with a fair degree of accuracy, down to less than 2 metres. At the same time, the specific looting damage was allocated a measure of severity on a scale from 1 to 5. The least severe are those where a shovel has turned over the surface. The most severe were cases where whole shaft graves had been excavated, the contents thrown to the sides of the tomb as the looters searched for items of market value.
One of the looter trenches, quite by accident, enabled the team to examine some of the walling in the south-western part of the Palace where mud-brick had been revealed by the looters’ activities. These details have now been added to the site plan. In nearly all other cases, the looting, as one would imagine, has led only to destruction. A really grim picture of fragmented cartonnage, almost shredded, showed a really terrible jigsaw puzzle, a nightmare for the conservators to attempt to understand and salvage. Another example was the robbed grave shaft of tomb P021 just to the north of the main palace area, where looters abseiled down into the grave shaft. The team retrieved part of a pottery coffin from their spoil heap.
The scale of the problem throughout Egypt is so great that the authorities have been unable to make much of an impact on it to date.
Gleanings from Gurob: Reinvestigation and Redisplay at the Manchester Museum – Dr Campbell Price (Curator of Egypt & Sudan, Manchester Museum)
Dr Campbell Price introduced the audience to the new displays at the Manchester Museum and, as well as talking about how they will be organized in general, showed how material from Gurob and other active excavations will be incorporated into the galleries’ narrative about ancient Egypt. Manchester is in a particularly good position to give the public access to knowledge about Gurob, as they hold some 700 items from the site, excavated by the ubiquitous Petrie.
The story of Gurob, as with other objects in the collection, is dominated by Jesse Howarth. Dr Price introduced Howarth, a textile magnate who had made his money in Victorian Manchester manufacturing cloth. Howarth had picked up the account of Ameila Edwards’s 1000 Miles Down the Nile, which inspired him to go to Egypt with his wife. On his return he started corresponding with Edwards who put him in touch with Petrie. Howarth supported Petrie’s work, specifically at Gurob. Like other benefactors at the time, Howarth was a double philanthropist, financing excavations but then bequeathing objects to Manchester Museum and providing the extra funding to enable the museum to house the collection. The building that houses the Ancient Worlds collection in Manchester is called the Jesse Howarth Building.
Once the objects had arrived at Manchester, they were studied, catalogued, and summarized in the 1910 Catalogue of Egyptian Antiquities from Kahun Illahun and Gurob. The authoress was Agnes Griffith, sister of Frank Griffith (of the famous Griffith Institute). These objects form the nucleus of the Manchester Museum’s Egyptology collection. The first Egyptian gallery opened in 1912, a classic Victorian style of display containing the tomb assemblage of “The Two Brothers”, a lot of information from Kahun and objects from both funerary and settlement contexts. In the late 1980s a division was made between daily life and the afterlife, becoming very focused on mummies and death. At this point the founding material from Kahun and Gurob was slightly overlooked.
Public consultation showed that the public wanted to see more objects – and it was thought that there should be a much better balance between the funerary and daily life aspects of Egypt on display (figure 4). Dr Price emphasized the need to create a balance in the minds of the general public about how people lived and how they viewed death. The new galleries, to be opened in October 2012, are intended to do just that. Gurob will be built into the new collections to provide an insight into what a New Kingdom city was like to live in, and a royal one at that. The Museum is fortunate to have a strong collection of textiles as well as items like wooden combs and headrests and pieces of jewellery. A sub-theme that will be developed is how the Egyptians lived in nature, the natural environment that surrounds settlements. Together, Amarna and Gurob material will allow the the visitor to explore ideas of how the natural world was appreciated and incorporated into material life.
The museum is due to open on 30th October this year. This is the date in 1912 that Petrie came up to Manchester to inaugurate the first gallery there, so it will be 100 years to the day – but thankfully minus his inaugural lecture on eugenics!
The closing of the Manchester galleries has allowed a reassessment both of how museums should display ancient societies and of the value of the items in the collections. The new galleries intend to form an involving experience for the visitor that will combine education and entertainment. I tend to quake when the terms “museum” and “multimedia” are uttered in the same breath, but in this case I have every hope that it will work well. Virtual guides from the past will be on hand to talk visitors through the galleries (Ramesses III and Flinders Petrie are two of them), and in an effort to balance the need to provide information on labels with the need to keep that information to a reasonable length, the museum is looking into creating smart phone websites for key parts of the displays. I look forward to seeing it all in action.
Roll on October 2012.
Gurob’s trade with the Aegean – Dr Valentina Gasperini (University of Bologna)
Valentina Gasperini is currently investigating Egypt’s links with other Mediterranean countries, and here she presented a fascinating insight into the role that various sites in the eastern Faiyum region may have played during the New Kingdom. The sheer volume of Minoan pottery in the area, far exceeding that of any other area of Egypt, argues for a special relationship between the two areas, and pottery from Cyprus, the Levantine coast and the Mycenean area reinforces the impression that this area of the Faiyum was an important commercial zone.
Focusing on four particular vessels from the Manchester Museum, discovered by Petrie, Gasperini described how each of them indicated a different aspect of the relationship with the Aegean (figure 5) spanning the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty and the Ramesside period. One vessel, made of faience, was clearly a fusion of Egyptian and Aegean themes, whilst the others, an aksos and two stirrup jars were fully Aegean in form, typical of Beotia and Thessaly respectively. Petrie had found a number of such vessels in what he referred to as “burnt groups” – assemblages of items found with significant charring, which had been buried. Possibly relating to a Hittite tradition, this may suggest a Hittite presence at Gurob.
Gasperini’s conclusion is that the eastern part of the Faiyum was probably a commercial hub in the New Kingdom, with Gurob becoming key to ongoing commercial activity between Egypt and the Aegean.
In the discussion session following the lecture, Dr Gasperini was asked what she thought the vessels would have contained. She suggested that as they are so small that they would have held precious oils or honey, not higher volume commodities like wine or olive oil, which were traded in much bigger vessels. She is unaware of any residue analysis on similar vases.
Faience bowls and amulets at Gurob – Dr Tine Bagh (Curator, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen)
Tine Bagh opened her lecture with a lovely photograph of her first day at Gurob, showing everyone sheltering from a somewhat vicious sandstorm. She went on to describe her work with faience at the site, part of which involves recording finds and saving details in the site database. Although there are some lovely examples of whole or partially whole items, most of what Bagh works with are fragments from bowls of various shapes and sizes. Sometimes, when sherds have retained bases and rims, even quite small fragments can reveal valuable information about the shape of the vessels; but others may reveal very little, if anything.
At Gurob, faience was excavated from many areas, but the main concentration is from the palace itself and the area to the immediate north of the palace, and tombs. Tomb 467A, for example, a shaft grave explored by Brunton and Engelback, produced a complete faience bowl with a large base. They also found a complete decorated bowl buried just next to the deceased’s hip in Tomb 26. In the Palace area, Petrie found a lovely piece showing a monkey climbing a tree, and fragments scattered through different rooms in the Palace often show children or monkeys (figure 6). Dr Bagh showed various other pieces with a variety of motifs, including a woman and calf on a boat in a marsh, double female sphinxes facing each other and another showing fish in a river. Other designs are geometric, some vessels painted with spiral motifs, and others include highly stylized motifs, like bifurcating branches. But by far the greater number of items are fragments, containing just a few lines or faint details of a much larger design. Often it is impossible to determine what sort of patterns or designs they may have formed. Some are only 2-3cm (1 inch) long.
As well as the vessels, faience amulets have also been found, but in comparatively small numbers. Examples include many beads, a tiny crocodile, a Bes figurine and a 1cm tall figure of Tawaret. All are quite exquisite.
Dr Bagh went on to point out that although Gurob is quite rich in faience, Amarna produced very few faience vessels. It was suggested that there might be some correspondence between faience and women, and it was agreed that it would be interesting to compare the situation at Gurob with that at Malqata, another harem-palace of Amenhotep III, in Thebes.
Culture of Beauty in an Egyptian Palace – Dr Ole Herslund (University of Copenhagen)
Dr Ole Herslund looked at how the Egyptian conceptualization of beauty is expressed in both tomb scenes and material remains. The blend of biology and conventions that form the Egyptian ideal of beauty is, Dr Herslund observed, very appealing to the Western conception of beauty and sexuality. He showed three photographs – Nerfertiti from the Eighteenth Dynasty, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra from the 1963 movie, and Ashima-Leena in 2008, all based on the tradition of Egyptian beauty that is most closely associated in most people’s minds with the New Kingdom (figure 7).
Dr Herslund described the Gurob palace as a centre of conspicuous consumption, a framework for displaying female beauty. Beauty was so important that in a funerary scene Queen Kawit of the Eleventh Dynasty was shown sitting on a costly chair, having her hair set, with a mirror in one hand, her body adorned with jewels. Beauty, therefore, was not just about the biological appearance, but about the material components that accessorize and ensure it.
Dr Herslund went on to describe the meaning of the word nefer, which incorporates ideas of both beauty and youth, even perfection. The connection between youth and beauty was fundamental and finds expression in how the deities are perceived, with the young earthly god described as nefer and the eternal god described as s3 (great). A second word for beauty is accompanied by the logogram of a painted eye. Eye paint was used by all ages and genders and by deities too. There is even a prescription for applying makeup to cattle who are to be sacrificed in temples. Different colours were preferred in different periods, and different qualities attracted different prices. Study of scenes suggests that paint was also applied to lips and cheeks.
Both men and women used anti-wrinkle skin creams. In the Ebers Papyrus there’s a recipe “for transforming an old person into a youth”. Dr Herslund says that judging by the ingredients it was a highly expensive cream. Skin creams were kept in special containers, often animal-shaped like the famous spoons made into the form of naked girls swimming after birds.
At Gurob, Petrie found tattooing instruments made of metal. Tattooing had been an aspect of female body ornamentation since the Predynastic.
Another Gurob find was a very distinctive mirror made of polished bronze. Most mirrors had handles shaped as a lotus or deity, often Hathor. Mirrors come with a set of embedded meanings, related to their ancient Egyptian name, which is the same as the word for life – ankh. It suggests the ideas of coming to life and of living beings, with the disk of the mirror representing the rejuvenated sun god. Just as beauty was linked with youth, so the mirror was linked with the divine.
Two Eighteenth Dynasty statuettes from Gurob, Tuty and Mi, show details of dresses, sandals, wigs and jewellery. Similar to Amarna representations, they show the two women in tight dresses with thin fabrics of fine linens, emphasizing their femininity.
Hair was clearly an important aspect of beauty – there were prescriptions for covering grey hair (hair dyes) and wigs were used to cover true hair colour, suggesting that some colours were more fashionable than others. A number of hair accessories have been found at Gurob including pins, combs, and hair beads in wood and ivory. (It was funny, at this point, how so many women in the audience reached up and touched their own hair – I noticed because I caught myself doing it).
Dr Herslund concluded that by examining the material culture at Gurob an understanding of the cultural meanings embedded in objects could be achieved. Items were used and understood in many ways, bringing together intimate ideas of identity, roles and sexuality between objects and context.
Queen Mary’s Spoon? – Jan Picton and Ivor Pridden (University College London)
I was specifically asked not to provide full details of this lecture, as they will form the basis for an upcoming publication. My comments are therefore necessarily somewhat vague on specifics.
Jan Picton and Ivor Pridden (figure 8) gave a short presentation that described how museums can trace the passage of objects from the point of excavation to their current location. A specific example was used to demonstrate how this sort of detective work could be used for a variety of tasks, including finding where different parts of a group of objects that were found together are currently located. As objects were often split between different museums in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, this task is quite a common one. Another example would be research into why two of more parts of the same statue might end up in different museums.
The object chosen, one from one of the many early excavations, was used to demonstrate the use in this process of acquisition records, museum and other collection archives, letters, other written records and contemporary and later photographs. The various difficulties in gaining access to some of this information was touched upon. The story does not yet have a definitive ending, and may never do – a very typical experience with this sort of detective work.
A very lively discussion followed, concerning both the object itself and the difficulties involved in tracing object histories.
Objects in Focus – Handling Session at the Garstang
In the latter part of the afternoon we moved from the conference venue to the Institute of Archaeology in delightful Abercrombie Square, one of Liverpool’s architectural gems. There we separated into three groups to rotate between rooms, spending 20 minutes in each to look at pottery, metal and glass and faience. This worked very well (figure 9).
All the items were from Liverpool’s Garstang Museum (currently closed for refurbishment) and included some remarkable pieces. The objects were either from Gurob or were of comparable type or date. The numbers of individuals in each of the three groups was just right for the both the space available and the number of objects being passed around.
There was an excellent mix of items – some were whole, some fragmentary, all fascinating. The sessions generated a lot of discussion – everything from what influences the size of rings on wheel-thrown pottery to what sort of heat was required for pottery, glass and faience manufacture, and what were the different compositional requirements for different types of metal object. It was an excellent way to end an informative and involving day.
Unlike some of the vast conferences attended by several hundred speakers and delegates, this was a less formal gathering. Involvement was encouraged, and the question and answer sessions were more animated than usual. The tea and lunch breaks, with Hannah Pethen’s site mapping presentation showing on a flat screen display above the popular sandwiches, was a buzz of conversations about the lectures and future work.
The overall impression that I left with, as we departed Abercrombie Square, was that the Gurob team have become highly skilled at dealing with often very tiny fragments of information (both material and digital), assembling them into bodies of knowledge about both the site and its geographical and historical contexts. The difficulties were neither exaggerated nor under-played and it is clear that a lot of work remains to be done before all the different parts of the site can be assembled into a coherent whole. But they are well on their way to getting there.
Amongst the immediate challenges facing the Project are the need to analyze the vast quantities of pottery that continue to emerge and the ongoing mapping of the site using Geographical Information System (GIS) software to build up a multi-layered understanding of the site. More recently, looting has become a serious and depressing problem. The news about looting, although unpleasant, should not have come as a surprise, and the Project members were quick to devise a method to assess and record the damage. This has been incorporated into their larger mapping project. With ongoing excavation, geophysical survey and mapping techniques, the site should continue to expand our knowledge of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties.
The Gurob team is formed of an efficient and motivated group of people who clearly work very well together, complementing each others skills and learning or innovating new approaches when necessary. They radiated a reassuring sense of shared focus and are clearly looking forward very much to whatever Gurob throws in their direction.
As always, they are fund-raising. If you are interested in finding out more about their work, to become a member, or for details on how to contribute a donation, have a look at their website: The Gurob Harem Palace Project http://gurob.org.uk.
I look forward to next year’s conference.
With many thanks to Anna Hodgkinson for permission to use the conference photographs in this article, and to Jan Picton and Ivor Pridden for getting me there so painlessly!
All images copyright of the Gurob Harem Palace Project, with many thanks to Anna Hodgkinson for permission to use them.
The Gurob Harem Palace Project website: http://gurob.org.uk