Curator's Choice: Sue Giles on a toy from a child's grave at Bristol's King of Egypt show

By Ben Miller | 20 February 2013

Curator's Choice: Sue Giles, the Curator of Ethnography at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, on a linen ball from Grave 518 at Tarkhan, Egypt...

A photo of a light and dark brown linen ball against a white background
"Out of the 10,000 odd objects in our Egyptology collection, when asked for a favourite I always come back to this bit of rag. I feel it connects with ancient Egypt far more than a granite statue, a mummified cat or a painted coffin.

This is nothing more than a linen rag, maybe torn from an old bed sheet or a worn-out tunic, rolled into a ball and tied into shape with a bit of string.

But it was a loved toy for some child, so much so that someone put it into the grave when the child died about 4,500 years ago.

It was the practice to put food, personal belongings and household goods with the dead, for their use in the afterlife.

The excavation report tells us nothing about the child buried in the grave, although the papers of the British School of Archaeology should have notes on their excavations of 1912 – research for a future date.

He or she was also buried with clay pots and a stone bowl, to ensure food and drink in the next world.  But the parents added their ball, so they could play in the afterlife.

Many children in ancient Egypt died young. Parents tried amulets and magical spells to protect their children, but death came frequently despite this protection.

There are carved and painted images on tomb walls of children playing ball games.  It is usually girls shown playing ball, so we might assume that our dead child was a girl.  

She might have juggled with two or three balls, or played catch games with her friends.

Whenever I hold the ball in my hand, or look at it on display, I feel a real link with ancient Egypt. That ball was a toy for a child, was played with, was handled and thrown around by the child and her friends.

It wasn’t made especially for burial, or for show.  It was made to be enjoyed.  

I can admire the great stone carvings and the painted coffins, with all that they tell us about ancient Egypt and the customs and beliefs of the people.

But I always feel more connected through the smaller objects: the worn mallet that was used by a stone mason or carpenter; the tunic woven and worn by someone; the flowers placed on the coffin; or the toys played with by children, first in life and then, as grave goods, for all eternity."

  • Pharaoh: King of Egypt is at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery from March 16 – July 21 2013.
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