Ten of the best Ancient Egyptian treasures from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

| 16 June 2015

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology is celebrating 100 years since first opening its doors at UCL with a series of events and a special exhibition. Here's ten of their best treasures from the Ancient World

A husband and wife from Dynasty 18

a photo of two pottery Ancient Egyptian figures
Statue of a husband and wife (UC15513)© Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL
This statue from Dynasty 18 (1352-192 BC) once stood outside an Egyptian tomb. For many years, however, the pair sat in front of the desk of Amelia Edwards (1831-1892), an accomplished novelist, travel writer, suffragette and Egyptologist. 

Although the Museum is called the ‘Petrie Museum’, it would not have been here at all were it not for Edwards. On her death in 1892 she left a bequest to UCL to establish the UK’s first University position in Egyptian Archaeology and Philology, together with her collection. She chose UCL because it was the only university in England that, at the time, awarded degrees to women on equal terms with men.

A drill core of the Old Kingdom

a black and white photo of Egyptian fragments of stone and copper
Drill core (UC16036)© Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL
This was one of the first objects collected by the pioneering archaeologist, Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), around the Great Pyramid in 1881-82. He had travelled to Egypt to measure the pyramids and his survey of these Giza monuments is one of the most accurate ever made.

This drill core, which he dated to the Old Kingdom (c. 2866-2125 BC), caught his eye. Petrie was fascinated by the building methods of the past and the sophistication of Egyptian hard stone cutting was evident in the symmetry of the striations on this object. How this core was cut using a tubular copper drill continues to puzzle many people today.

Roman era Hawara portrait

a painting of a woman dating in Roman dress
Hawara portraits© Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL
Flinders Petrie’s team discovered many striking Roman era portraits at Hawara in 1888-9 and 1910-11. Hawara became especially important in the Roman period and seems to have functioned as the elite burial ground for people of the Fayum, an area between the main Nile Valley and the desert oases. The panels would have covered the face of a mummy.

The Petrie Museum has the largest collection of these ‘portraits’ outside of Egypt. Originally placed over the face of a mummified body, the portraits were hailed as the first ‘lifelike’ representations of real people on their first exhibition in London in 1888. The one shown here (UC14692) was Flinders Petrie’s favourite and excavated in 1888. The hairstyle and clothes depicted have allowed experts to date her to about AD 160–190.

Gold amulet of the late Middle Kingdom

a golden cylinder with triangular decoration
Gold amulet (UC6482)© Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL
This hollow gold amulet was worn as a pendant in the late Middle Kingdom (1850 BC – 1700 BC). The ancient craftsperson who made it had to solder on 3600 individual, tiny gold globes onto the surface.

It was excavated from a grave at Harageh by Ali Suefi in 1913-14, an Egyptian archaeologist who worked with Petrie on dozens of excavations in Egypt. Suefi also trained fellow Egyptians in excavation techniques and many of their descendants continue to work on archaeological digs to this day.

Gertrude Caton-Thompson’s photo album

a page of a photo album showing four black and white photographs of a desert valley
Gertrude Caton-Thompson’s photo album© Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL
The Petrie Museum holds a significant archive of notebooks, letters and photographs giving us a unique insight into the history of British excavation in Egypt.

This photograph is from the 1924 album of Gertrude Caton-Thompson (1888 – 1985), just one of the many important female archaeologists who worked on excavations with Flinders Petrie, directing their own fieldwork, and making significant discoveries. Caton-Thompson led the discovery of the Egyptian Neolithic and her digging techniques were ahead of their time.

Stone inscribed with Meroitic language

a photo of a stone fragment with hieroglyphs on it
Stone inscription (UC44174)© Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL
This fragment bears a portion of text (275 BC – 350 BC ) inscribed in the Meroitic language. Although the script has been deciphered, the words themselves cannot be translated.

It was excavated at the ancient city of Meroe, in northern Sudan, John Garstang, a former pupil of Petrie, for the businessman and collector Sir Henry Wellcome. Much of Wellcome’s collection of Egyptian and Sudanese objects came to the Petrie Museum in the 1960s. The material from Meroe offers an insight into a civilisation as rich but not as widely known as Ancient Egypt.

Tarkhan Dress from Dynasty 1

a photo of a jumper made of fragile cloth on a mannequin
Tarkhan Dress (UC28614B)© Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL
This dress was excavated at Tarkhan, one of the most important cemeteries from the time that Egypt was unified around 3000 BC. It was excavated from a pile of linen from a Dynasty 1 (c. 2800 BC) tomb in 1913.

It was only in 1977, when this linen pile was cleaned by the Victoria and Albert Museum's Textile Conservation Workshop, that the dress was discovered. It was then carefully conserved, stitched onto Crepeline (a fine silk material used in textile conservation) and mounted so it could be seen the way it was worn in life. It is one of the oldest garments from Egypt on display in the world.
Rosalind Hall, who re-displayed the garment, believed that the garment had clearly been worn in life, because it was found inside-out, as it very well might have be after having been pulled over the head with distinct signs of creasing at the elbows and under the armpits.

Ancient beads made of iron from a meteorite

a hand next to three small beads made of a dark grey coal-like substance
Beads made of meteorites© Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL
These three corroded beads may not look like much now, but they are in fact the world’s earliest worked iron. They were found in 1911 in a prehistoric grave (c.3400 BC) at Gerzeh. The beads pre-date iron smelting techniques by nearly 2,000 years because they are made of iron from a meteorite.

Such material would have been brittle and very hard to work, but when heated would have been shiny and strikingly fluorescent in colour. The other materials found in the same grave are also special. They include lapis lazuli beads, the closest source for which is Afghanistan, as well as a mace-head, which was a weapon and a symbol of status.

Painted plaster fragments from the ancient city of Akhetaten

a side by side image of two plaster fragments showing a face and some hieroglyphs
Painted plaster fragments© Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL
Painted plaster once adorned the walls of palaces in the ancient city of Akhetaten (modern Tell el-Amarna), a short-lived but finely-decorated capital around 1350 BC. The city was created by the 'heretic' pharaoh Akhenaten and his famous Queen Nefertiti. It was also the boyhood home of Tutankhamen.

Amarna is itself famous for dazzling decorative and fine arts. Decoration in the Pharaoh Akhenaten’s Palace included his own image (e.g. UC2267) and Queen Nefertiti’s cartouche (UC2261). They were excavated in 1891–92 by Flinders Petrie’s teams at Amarna.

Pyramid texts: a king's ascent to heaven

a stone block with Egyptian hieroglyphs carved into it
Pyramid texts (UC14540)© Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL
‘Pyramid texts’ are some of the oldest religious texts in the world. This is from Pepy I’s Dynasty 6 pyramid at Saqqara (2300-2181 BC) and give formulae for the King’s ascent into heaven.

‘Pyramid text' is the modern name for the corpus of formulae inscribed in the inner chambers of royalty in late Old Kingdom period (about 2686-2181 BC) pyramids. In later periods some of these compositions continued to be used in ritual, and were sometimes copied as funerary texts. They develop later into ‘Coffin texts’. Some academics have seen them as a precursor to the collection of religious rites and prayers known as the 'Book of the Dead'.

This text contains the cartouche of King Pepy four times. It also has the formulae for the ascent of the king to heaven and for his eternal supply of food and drink.

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More on the Petrie Museum

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The Petrie Museum is a gem. We have visited two or three times; each time is
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