Some places imprint themselves upon your consciousness, that strange relatively inexplicable netherworld of neurons and dreams. And there they set up camp for life, to be recalled occasionally when the senses demand it. For me one such place is the Manchester Museum, a visit to which forms one of my earliest memories.
Here’s what I remember of that first visit: it was sunny; I was very young; my parents’ broad smiles; a stuffed Bengal Tiger; losing a shoe; being utterly fascinated by the Museum’s Egyptian mummies; the wondrous abundance of strange artefacts.
Fast forward (a number of redacted) years and it’s time for my latest visit, this time as a special correspondent for Northern Soul. I’m to be given a guided tour of the Museum’s superb collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts. Jealous? You should be.
My guide for the day is Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and the Sudan at the Museum. He greets me in the entrance hall amid a vast herd of wide-eyed little people (it’s half term). Price has been in the post for two years and it’s clear his enthusiasm for the museum is every bit as fresh as that of the young visitors surrounding us. Soon we’re standing in front of a bust of the founder of this feast of ancient objects, the notable Victorian philanthropist Jesse Haworth.
Haworth was the very model of the successful Victorian businessman and he believed in backing his principals with his fortune. It was quite a fortune for among his many business interests Haworth owned the successful Manchester textile company James Dilworth & Son. As a result, when something caught Haworth’s attention he was in a position to pursue it and that’s just what happened when he read Amelia B Edwards’ bestselling travelogue A thousand miles up the Nile (1877). The book inspired Haworth, just as Egypt itself did when in 1882 he and his wife traced Edwards’ journey along the Nile and through the heart of its Pharaonic past. In fact, he was so inspired that in 1886 he began to fund the work of Sir Flinders Petrie, a pioneer in modern archaeology and the preservation of artefacts.
Petrie began his archaeological career as a teenager surveying Romano-British sites close to the family home in Charlton. By 1880, aged 27, he was carrying out the first properly systematic study into how the Great Pyramids at Giza were actually built, and to this day his work still provides much of the basic data regarding the site. For more than a quarter of a century this partnership between Petrie and Haworth was to prove very fruitful, and a steady supply of first rate artefacts, paid for by Haworth, flowed into Manchester’s newly-built museum.
Not content with having lived lives less ordinary, both men, in keeping with their love of all things Pharaonic, also enjoyed an unusual posthumous existence; Haworth by bequeathing £30,000 and his private collection of Egyptian Antiquities to the Museum and Petrie by donating his head to the Royal College of Surgeons (his body was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Jerusalem). Unfortunately the label on the jar fell off and it was some years before the donation was properly attributed. One can’t help but think Petrie would have appreciated the curious symmetry of the whole affair.
Back in Manchester, Price is explaining some of the many wonders on display, including a beautiful brooch with a rather sinister back story. The item in question is a chest decoration that depicts two elegant little birds (made from gold, lapis lazuli and precious stones) which was discovered in 1912 at a tomb in Riqqeh, Eqypt. What’s sinister about that I hear you ask? The story goes that when the tomb was excavated the archaeologists found not only the mummy but also a second corpse – a tomb robber – who’d died when the roof of the tomb collapsed on him. The brooch was found in his cold, skeletal hand.
In another gallery I find myself completely captivated by a collection of funeral portraits that were painted in the Romano-Egyptian period. These exquisite images, known as Fayum mummy portraits, clearly have their origins in the Greco-Roman tradition, which would have been imported into Egypt after the conquest of Augustus. Quite apart from being exceptionally rare examples of panel painting so beloved by the classical world, they are evidence that history rarely has neat and tidy endings. In time the Pharaohs had given way to the Ptolemies who were in turn replaced by the Caesars, and Egyptian society adapted them all. These beautiful objects, so timeless and so evocative, call out across the centuries yet at the same time the naturalistic style in which they were painted makes them seem strangely fresh, and achingly familiar.
In the other galleries Price introduces me to row upon row of carved figures of domestic servants, designed to act as surrogates for those Egyptians whose disposable income didn’t allow for the real thing to accompany them into the afterlife. These were found alongside intricate model houses, the ancient Egyptian equivalent of the second home, only this one was purchased, again on a budget, for use in the afterlife rather than in the school holidays. Elsewhere he shows me a beehive, a cast for mud bricks (the first of its kind ever found), tools and jewels, jars and statues, all in abundance. But as ever the stars of the collection are the mummies.
There are three fine specimens currently on display but the crowning moment of my visit comes when we go on a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum’s stores and workrooms. Here I encounter artefacts of all descriptions, for while the Egyptology department has a collection of more than 6,000 objects it only has space to display half of them. But that doesn’t mean the half hidden from the public view serve no purpose. Academics like Price are working on them constantly, translating inscriptions and making biographical connections. He shows me one such item, a Canopic Jar, containing the ground-up insides of a long vanished mummy. Apparently King Charles II used to imbibe such matter as a tonic, but I decide not to follow his example and so we move on to the vault of the mummies.
It isn’t really called that of course but believe me it should be, if only because of its extraordinary aroma. The climate control controlled room, which contains 11 very old, very valuable mummies, smells like nothing I’ve ever encountered. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a noxious or unpleasant smell, but it is unique, other-worldly even, and certainly not to be forgotten. The various residents are laid out in a variety of ways: some are boxed in heavy wooden crates as though they’ve just been shipped by steamer from a far off dusty dig; others lie in their sarcophagi, patiently awaiting academic attention, or perhaps merely lulling us into a false sense of security before launching a silent attack.
Over the last few years the mummies have all been put through a CT scan over at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, allowing the museum to gain valuable insights into the life and death of each one. Take Asru the temple singer for example, whose name and profession are revealed to us by the biographical inscriptions on her coffin. Clearly she was a woman worthy of remembrance, either wealthy in her own right or intimately connected with those who possessed the wherewithal to give her a very expensive funeral. Yet the scans of Asru, who lived into her 50s, reveal that she suffered from crippling arthritis, which seems likely to have been caused by prolonged hard physical labour, probably carrying heavy weights on the head.
There are of course those who feel uncomfortable with the idea of displaying mummies in museums, and with the whole practice of excavating and studying these remains. From a purely practical perspective, if the mummies had been left in situ, or even reburied as a few have called for, they would clearly be robbed and destroyed in the process, as has happened on countless occasions throughout the ages. But even from a philosophical standpoint I feel that the careful, respectful stewardship of these most ancient of ancients, shown by academics like Price, is entirely in keeping with the spirit of their own strenuous attempts to achieve immortality. As Price himself puts it, in a quote from the Book of the Dead, “if you speak a man’s name out loud, he will live forever”.
So, when you visit the museum – and visit you must – be sure to read aloud the names of the cards accompanying the mummies, and give them the immortality that in life they so desperately sought.
Images by Victoria Haydn
What: The Manchester Museum – The Egyptology Collection
Where: Oxford Road, Manchester
When: open daily from 10am to 5pm, free admission
More info: www.museum.manchester.ac.uk
Dr Campbell Price’s blog is well worth a visit and can be found at: http://egyptmanchester.wordpress.com/