Clio Ancient Art Egyptian Antiquities

Egyptian Antiquities in the Petrie Museum of Egyptology, London

Established in 1892 primarily as a teaching tool for the new Department of Egyptology, University College’s Petrie Museum of Egyptology is tucked away in a rather obscure location off Gower Street. Were it not for a few colorful banners pointing the way, it would be difficult to find. Visiting hours are quite limited. Started with the donation of a few private collections, the Petrie’s holding grew enormously in the first few decades of the 20th Century through the prolific excavation work in Egypt of Sir William Flinders Petrie. Removed from London during the Second World War for safekeeping, the collections were returned in the 1950s and housed in a former stables building, where they remain today.
The Petrie’s collections are particularly rich in Pre-Dynastic and Early Dynastic materials, especially pottery, as well as textiles and costumes, glass and faience, papyri and inscribed architectural fragments, many with string colors remaining. Unusually, much of the material has clear provenance, having been obtained through controlled excavations with find spots recorded. Also rather unusual is the fact that the Museum’s collections cover not just Dynastic Egypt but also Roman, Byzantine / Coptic and early Islamic materials.
The immediate impression one receives upon getting clear of the small admissions area and entering the Museum itself is of the stereotypical “old fashioned” dark and dusty late 19th or early 20th Century museum experience. There is nothing nostalgic about this. The fact that the Museum is housed in what was once a stables now makes its impact. The spaces are very tight. There is very little room around most of the old fashioned, academic display cases for more than one or two visitors to look at the contents. The lighting is dim (though in some instances this is to help preserve light sensitive materials), making it difficult to enjoy even the most impressive pieces. Objects are stuffed together tightly in small cases, accompanied by descriptive labels that might be less than informative to a visitor with no background in Egyptology. In most instances, obtaining good photographs is nearly impossible due to the lighting conditions and highly reflective glass of the old cases. The overall impression left is one of frustration at not being able to adequately enjoy the many wonderful pieces on display, and of puzzlement as to why such an extraordinary collection has been relegated to such an inadequate space.
Having said all this, the Petrie is still very much worth a visit for anyone with more than a passing interest in ancient Egypt and the ancient Mediterranean world in general. The images below are intended to provide only a modest sample of what awaits the visitor. Enjoy!
Clio Ancient Art Egyptian Antiquities

Ancient glass from Egypt, dating from early Roman through Byzantine & early Islamic

Clio Ancient Art Egyptian Antiquities

Display of pre-dynastic and early dynastic pottery

Clio Ancient Art Egyptian Antiquities

Egyptian and Phoenician glass inlays and small objects, mainly Late Dynastic and Ptolemaic

Clio Ancient Art Egyptian Antiquities

Coptic period St Menas Flasks and pottery

Clio Ancient Art Egyptian Antiquities

Inscription from Pyramid of Pepi II, Saqarra, circa 2250 BC

Clio Ancient Art Egyptian Antiquities

Late Dynastic shabtis of exceptional quality

Clio Ancient Art Egyptian Antiquities

Painted wood funerary stele showing the deceased adoring Horus. Dynasty XXII or later.

Clio Ancient Art Egyptian Antiquities

Painted Wooden Stela of Neskhons, Queen of Pharaoh Pinezem II, Dynasty XXI. The deceased Queen adores Osiris whose green skin suggests regeneration and rebirth.

Clio Ancient Art Egyptian Antiquities

Middle Kingdom polychromed fragmentary funerary stela.

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A Byzantine St Menas Flask and Spiritual Continuity in Egypt

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Political and social turmoil is still very much in evidence in Egypt today, 16 months after Mubarak’s departure and 1 year after Morsi’s election as Egypt’s President. Some of this unrest has had religious overtones, involving friction between Egypt’s ancient Coptic community, now numbering perhaps 10% of the population or 8 million persons, and some elements of the Muslim majority.

In light of the rapid pace of social and political change seen in Egypt over the past couple of years, it may be easy to forget that the Coptic community has a remarkably long history, dating to St Mark’s introduction of the new faith in the 1st Century CE, and flourishing with the founding of monasticism in the 4th Century CE Egyptian desert by St Anthony, whose monastery still stands today. There is more than ample artifactual evidence for this continuity, including a “St Menas Flask” on our website (see the image above and the link here: http://www.clioancientart.com/catalog/i386.html).

The namesake of this mold-made pottery flask, dating to the 6th or 7th Century CE, is considered by Coptic Christians to be a miracle worker and martyr. Menas lived in the late 3rd to early 4th Century when Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire. He presumably was tortured and killed for his faith at a time shortly before Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Toleration, which ended persecution of Christians. He was buried at a spot in the Western Desert southwest of Alexandria. In the late 5th Century CE, the daughter of Emperor Zeno was said to have been cured of leprousy at Menas’ shrine, and great numbers of people began traveling to the spot seeking cures or Menas’ intercession.

The flask on our website is characteristic of a large body of related pottery vessels found not only in the Mediterranean Near East but as far away as Italy, France, Germany and even England. These were either carried back home by pilgrims returning from St Menas’ shrine or sending these objects back to their families. They were typically filled with holy oil or water from the shrine.

Even after the arrival of Islam in Egypt in 641 CE, when the shrine and cathedral was destroyed, and the region’s gradual conversion to a Muslim majority during the middle ages, the shrine continued as a place of pilgrimage. It has been completely rebuilt in the modern era is still a popular destination. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is on their “danger” list.

The iconography on our flask requires some explanation. Both sides show essentially the same scene, one side shown above, the other side shown here:

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The figure of St Means is shown facing forward, wearing a soldier’s tunic and with arms extended in blessing. A simplified cross appears above each arm. To either side is a schematic rendering of a kneeling camel, taken from the legend that when his body was being transported into the desert at a particular spot the camels refused to go any further and this wast taken as a sign that his shrine should be erected on that spot. This imagery is enclosed by a circular border and again by another border of beads or dots.

For additional reading, we recommend:the UNESCO page for Abu Mena, including an excellent slideshow – http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/90

Here is an image we took at the Petrie Museum of Egyptology, University College, London, of several similar examples –

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For more examples of Coptic antiquities from Egypt on our website –

* http://www.clioancientart.com/catalog/i284.html

* http://www.clioancientart.com/catalog/i285.html

* http://www.clioancientart.com/catalog/i176.html