Aims of the Module
The aim of this module is to look at a group of Egyptian objects in the Oriental Museum in Durham City and to unlock and understand aspects of Egyptian culture. The emphasis will be on the student to look at the objects, to describe exactly what can be seen, to quantify and analyse the various aspects of the object and to understand the aims of the person who made it. The individual themes will also discuss the interpretations of the message imparted by the object, what was its use, how was it made, for whom it was made, and how further research into the objects can be carried forward. The objects will be presented thematically and these themes partly derive from the nature of the collection itself. For example, it would be fascinating to study the art and technology of Egyptian chariots - but the Oriental Museum collection does not have one. Instead it has some sculpture, many stelae (Egyptian funerary and commemorative stone slabs), pottery, cosmetics, small fine amulets, ushabtis and these types of object are represented among the objects chosen for discussion.
The Oriental Museum Egyptian Collection
The basis of the collection are the objects from the collection of the Fourth Duke of Northumberland, Lord Prudhoe (1792-1865). He was an antiquarian and traveller who visited Egypt and developed a deep interest in the country and its past. In England, he spent much time overseeing the estates of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland and built up his collections of British and Egyptian antiquities mainly from auction sales. Further objects were added after the death of Lord Prudhoe and in 1950 it was sold by the Percy family to the University of Durham ensuring that it stayed in the north-east of England. The 2,500 or so objects were augmented in 1971 by the transfer to Durham of part of the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936). A few further objects have been acquired by gift, bequest and sale, but the collections forms an interesting complement to the Oriental Museums Indian, Japanese, Chinese and Korean material reflecting the diversity of cultures studied at Durham University and which form part of the cultural interests of the North-East.
Introduction to Ancient Egypt
Egypt is located in the north-east corner of Africa, bordered on the west by the Sahara Desert, the east by the Red Sea, the north by the Mediterranean Sea and to the south by modern Sudan. The most important geographical aspect of Egypt is the River Nile, which runs through this arid area bringing the water, which supports life here. In ancient times, the Nile used to flood once a year. The melting snows of the mountains of central Africa brought water to the sources of the Nile in the central African highlands and caused a huge inundation which swept upstream, northward through the Nile Valley and delta. The river overflowed its banks and the delta floodplain and at last finally reached the sea. When the flood waters subsided they left behind a coating of fresh silt and mud often termed the Black Land of Egypt. Egyptian farmers planted their crops, tended them as they grew and then harvested them before the next flood came.
This annual cycle was the most important factor in the rise of the Ancient Egyptian civilisation which existed here from around 3100 BCE until Egypt became a Roman Province in 30 BCE. For over 3000 years, the Egyptians managed their natural resources so efficiently that they sustained a culture able to construct huge monumental temples, pyramids and cities. The administration and elite bureaucrats under the divine authority of a king (pharaoh) thrived and the dry climate of their cemeteries and some of their towns has preserved many objects and belongings, which provide information about the culture of Ancient Egypt.
Egypt was a resource rich paradise. The Nile Valley and delta marshes were good bird hunting and fishing areas, the desert edges provided wild game such as antelopes and gazelles, cattle, pigs, sheep and goats could be grazed on the grasslands and swamps. Grasses and reeds grew in abundance and were used to make the most useful things for everyday living - baskets, mats and ropes. Though trees were not so well represented the indigenous sycomore and acacia did provide some wood. The deserts, though frightening places, contained riches in the form of all kinds of stone. There were hard volcanic rocks such as granite and basalt, softer sedimentary rocks such as limestone and sandstone, silt-stones such as slate and steatite. There were semi-precious stones such as orange carnelian, red and green jasper, and alabaster. There were also metals: in Sinai there was copper but the Eastern Desert had veins of gold and silver running through the mountains. It was said that gold in Egypt was as plentiful as the sand on the shore. In fact sand itself was one of the other main resources of Egypt used to temper pottery and as the main constituent of a substance called faience, which was very important for making beautiful objects.
These two aspects of Egypt: its geographical location and its abundant natural resources will provide the basis for almost all there is to be learnt about Egypt. They both underlie the understanding of Egyptian culture - how and why the Egyptians did things, their ideology, their world view, their own understanding of their world and the way in which they expressed themselves and prepared for their journey after death.Dr. Penny Wilson | Jul 2002