Understanding dispersed artefacts

Objects acquired from the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF, now known as the Egypt Exploration Society) were selected by chance or rather subjective judgement about who got what from the sponsored excavations. They represent over 5,000 years of Egyptian history. Some ceramic pots and stone vessels, on a stylistic ground, must be associated with the early and middle phase of the Nagada culture (c. 4,000-3,000 BC), which, near the end, overlapped the early dynastic period when King Narmer became the ruler (c. 3,100 BC).

At the other end, some fragments of fabric (E22914-020, 016 and 017) are dated to the 10th century of the Common Era (AD). The 340 items acquired by the Australian Museum from the EEF average 68 per millennium, or less than 7 per century, representing only tiny specks of the majestic Egyptian civilisation. A few, if any, pots came from the same tomb, grave, pit or building. Why? It is by design, is the short answer.

Fragment of tapestry band from Antinoe
Fragment of tapestry band, wool and linen, pattern with medallions in blue, white and red. Medalion on the left probably depicting Coptic cross. From Antinoe in Upper Egypt. Probably 9-10th century AD. Acquired in 1914 via the Egypt Exploration Fund. Size: approx. 25 x 6 cm. E22914-016 Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

Since its conception the EEF focused on digging for objects and distributing them widely to subscribing organisations around the world, including those in United Kingdom, United States, South Africa, India, Japan, and Australia. Most of the objects seem to have assumed interchangeable value to the recipient and distributor alike; each pot, shabti or pendant was as good as any other, regardless from which tomb they were recovered. And sometimes a piece of fabric has been cut to smaller fragments to give different subscribers a sample. As a result, it is likely a few ceramic pots from one grave would be scattered over five continents. This eccentric distribution was devised for various reasons, but the funding arrangements and hence commercial imperative was an important factor in shaping museum collections and, in some measure, archaeological thinking.

It is also worth mentioning that British archaeologist John Garstang, who supplied the Australian Museum with over 100 Egyptian artefacts, operated in a similar manner. And nearly 400 artefacts generously donated to the Museum by Ernest Wunderlich are equally haphazard, mostly purchased in antique shops and auctions. As a result, nearly the entire Egyptian collection is incredibly fragmented and random. Many objects can be grouped by place of excavation such as Abydos, El Mahasna, Oxyrhynchus, Serabit el-Khadim, and by broad chronology such as Pre-dynastic, 18th Dynasty, Ptolemaic Dynasty. But beyond these groupings there is little connecting a necklace with a scarab, a cup with a plate, or a shabti with any burial.

The random manner in which the artefacts were supplied to the museums was in large part underpinned by a broader concept of research whereby the objects meant to illustrate progress from crude to refined, from primitive to civilised. An iconic example is that at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in England where sequences of objects are arranged in the progression from simple to complex. But archaeologist Flinders Petri, for decades an imposing figure in excavations and operation of the EEF, followed similar sequencing, prominently in his typology of predynastic pottery. Although archaeological thinking evolved, it substantially changed only after the Second World War when many museums in western countries divested themselves partially or completely of the Egyptian collections. “Excavated assemblages were scattered like confetti, carried away in the hands of curious children for a few cents and by beady-eyed adult punters” writes British archaeologist, curator and lecturer, Alice Stevenson (2019:189) about this process in the USA.

Since 1882 Egypt was practically under British occupation (a protectorate), yet it was the French who, by convoluted colonial arrangements, influenced, and controlled the rules concerning antiquities and their removal from the country. These rules, increasingly tightening, made the removal of items of low value and so called “duplicates”, more likely and sometimes the only legally possible. The Law of Antiquities of 1912 and ultimately Egypt’s independence in 1922 significantly curbed official artefact trade. Although the 1920s-1930s was a fertile period for archaeology in the Near East and Egypt (e.g. the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922) and further progress of a discipline, foreign museums were receiving far less “spoils” and the subscriptions to the EEF dwindled.

From the perspective of time, the EEF operation must be seen as an aggressive colonial enterprise, depriving Egypt of a large portion of its cultural heritage. It was done legally with consent, although under the condition of enormous inequality between a colonised country and imperial powers. By digging into the ground, with the hands of Egyptian workers, and trading uncovered caches, the EEF spread snippets of knowledge around the richer countries of the world, but it also degraded historical sites and evidence embedded in ancient monuments and their surroundings. The commercialised method of operation encouraged a focus on recovering the object but neglecting the conditions of its finding. While only institutions, mostly museums, could subscribe and receive artefacts, some items were given as gifts to influential individuals and dignitaries on various occasions. It is difficult to say how much this model stimulated clandestine excavations and trade, but it become a significant element in the pillaging of Egyptian antiquities.

Ransacking ancient sites has a very long tradition, many tombs were pillaged in antiquity and various buildings demolished and turned into a source for construction materials throughout Egyptian history. For example, the burial chamber of King Kufu in the largest pyramid was completely cleared of all its content, probably by those of his contemporary who knew the secrets of the interior. Consequently, archaeologists have often excavated despoiled structures and ravaged cemeteries.

In principle, through excavation, archaeologists create documentation and gather material objects – a collective pool of evidence from which inferences about past human work, life and even burial practices are drawn. Objects separated from each other and from the context captured in documentation have limited evidential value. And many collections that were developed via subscription to the EEF show this fragmentation and randomness, even if they contain remarkable sculptures, paintings and sarcophagi.

The EEF has evolved since the early 20th century, and under the name Egypt Exploration Society became one of the leading organisations involved in modern research, as well as the promotion and protection of Egypt’s cultural heritage. And the complementary, wonderfully ambitious project, Artefacts of Excavation, initiated some years ago, aims to bring together in digital form artefacts and all related documents from British excavation work in Egypt during the period 1880-1980. This is a commendable attempt to virtually unite many objects dispersed around the world for several decades of the 19th and 20th centuries, but regrettably it will never fully recompense for the vanished contextual evidence crucial in archaeological practice.

For example, a ceramic bowl [E017838] was recovered from Grave H.39 at El Mahasna, excavated in 1908-1909. "This grave had been opened and the skeleton and objects completely disturbed, only a few bones of the former being found. Several objects were, however, found in the rubbish. On sifting the sand, on the floor of the grave were found a string of glazed steatite beads and a large cornelian bead of cylindrical shape. Loose in the rubbish were also found an ivory cow or dog, a small diorite mace head, an ivory comb, and a small flint flake, also several vases" (Ayrton at al 2911). Some of these objects made their way to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1909, but the Australian Museum was not given the above information as if it was immaterial.

A similar bowl [E017837] was obtained from Grave 35 at the same cemetery, described as "circular grave 54 x 54 x 60 inches deep. Plundered. The body had lain on the left side with the head to the south. A piece of sulphate of lime was found before the breast, and before the face stood a polished red pottery bowl decorated with white triangles on the inside. The burial had evidently been wrapped in a mat. A few small beads were found by the neck” (Ayrton at al 2911). Again, this information was not provided with the bowl, and even if it was given it tells us very little about the broader history or this specific burial.

Archaeology, like most of the fields of study, relies on context. Since the 1950s it adopted the very useful concept of assemblage, which can be defined as “an aggregation of diverse objects united by a distinctive and clearly defined context of variable scale” (Hamilakis and Jones 2017) for example the archaeological assemblage of an individual site or a chronological phase. Assemblage implies that objects and features discovered together may represent some common functional unit or event, if only a time and manner of deposition, such as rubbish dumps in the ruins of the ancient city of Antinoe. It has been proved innumerable times that an assemblage or a site is the most fruitful basic unit of study and analysis. If we did not know, for example, that several thousand artefacts from Tutankhamun burial belong together and were deposited at the king’s tomb, our knowledge would be so much poorer.

Even feebly documented assemblage, by modern standard, allows for meaningful research, illustrated by a study of flint artefacts from a few workshops in the quarry site Wadi el-Sheikh. With modern technical methods, individual objects or stylistic groups can be studied via forensic and specialised analyses. This is most fruitful for studying complex objects with a variety of materials and techniques such as mummified human remains in a coffin, mummified animals remains (Evans 2007), complex models, textiles and clothing.

Many museums which, via vagaries of history, assembled these fragmented Egyptian collections have an obligation to care for them well, maximise public and educational benefit and research them as much as it is possible, despite the obvious limitations. By so doing, they would redress, at least in some small way, the historical burden of Egyptomania and its legacy. We hope that “colonial brigandage” of culture will not be repeated in the future. It is interesting that many western nations consider themselves the cultural progenies of Egyptian civilisation but make an unspoken assumption that the ancient Egypt was “western” and modern Egypt is “eastern”.

* BC – commonly used in Egyptian studies means Before Common Era (BCE).

Selected references:

Ayrton, Edward R. and William L. S. Loat. 1911. Pre-dynastic cemetery at El Mahasna. Published by Egypt Exploration Fund: London.

Evans, L. 2007. The Curious Case of the “Mummified Pigeon”. Bulletin of the Australian Centre for Egyptology. 18, pp: 59-64.

Hamilakis, Yannis and Andrew Meirion Jones. 2017. Archaeology and Assemblage Cambridge Archaeological Journal 27(01):77-84 DOI: 10.1017/S0959774316000688

Stevenson, Alice. 2019. Scattered Finds: Archaeology, Egyptology and Museums. University College London.