Friday, 6 September 2013

My last day out in London - the Petrie Museum

Flinders Petrie was a renowned British Egyptologist who laid down the methodical principles and techniques of modern archaelological work in Egypt. He was active over a long period during the early years of the twentieth century. Before him, excavations were much less scientific in their approach, some of them little more than frank treasure-hunting.

The Petrie Museum, hidden away in the University College London complex, contains a huge number of Ancient Egyptian artefacts, all meticulously recorded and catalogued. It's a museum for the academic and specialist, and not for the tourist looking for breathtaking displays of mummies and sarcophagi, and vast stone heads of pharaohs. If you want that, then the place to go is the British Museum, not far away. Don't misunderstand me: I enjoy very much the extraordinary effect that the larger exhibits in the British Museum can have, and have done since my first visit when much younger. One is very conscious of the magical spells in the snakey hieroglyphs, the brooding intensity of the painted eyes on sarcophagi lids, and the presence of actual dead bony bodies in their funeral-wrappings. In dim light it would all be undeniably creepy, even in the setting of a modern museum.

During the Second World War, my Dad, who was in the Eighth Army, spent some time in Cairo and at one point went around the famous Egyptian Museum. This is what he said about it, in his autobiography:

We...spent several hours in the Egyptian Museum. The Museum was housed in a huge gloomy building crammed with the antiquities of the dead. Various sized stone sarcophagus (coffins) stood here and there with bandaged mummies housed in glassed containers. A wealth of gold, gems, ebony, ivory and alabaster vases were exhibited in other glass containers. Weird looking animals, coiled serpents, fierce cats and exotic scarabs were in abundance and the treasures found by Howard Carter in the tomb of Tutankhamun were housed in two vast galleries.

Everywhere homage was paid to the Deities, the Gods Horus, Osiris, Set, Imhotep and others. The names of Rameses, Cheops, Cleopatra and Nefertiti, Pharohs and Queens of Egypt appeared among others in the writings which also contained much about Memphis and Thebes, ancient cities, long gone, but from whose treasure houses much of the exhibits had been obtained. Here and there were large tablets covered with hieroglyphics (picture writing) and intricate wood carvings.

The atmosphere in the Museum was one of mustiness and haunting menace. While I was most interested in the marvellous sights I was very pleased when we got out into the sunshine again.

There you are: haunting menace. In contrast, the Petrie Museum is full of (mostly friendly) little ornaments and pots, and all the intimate everyday things, that enable archaeologists to understand the ordinary lives of the Ancient Egyptians of two to five thousand years ago. For instance, this charming pair of busts:


Clearly not the Pharaoh and his Queen! An official and his wife, I'm guessing. But there is some 'royal' stuff also. And plenty of pots and urns:


The Museum has some well-preserved items of clothing. This linen tunic for example, owned by a woman who lived around 2,800 BC:


The explanatory note next to it said this:

The Tarkhan dress
This dress...was excavated at Tarkhan. Tarkhan was one of the most important cemeteries from the time that Egypt was unified around 3,000 BC...Petrie excavated a pile of linen from a Dynasty I (c2,800 BC) tomb in 1913. It was only in 1977, when this linen pile was cleaned by the Victoria and Albert Museum 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 that it could be seen the way it was worn in life. It is one of the oldest garments from Egypt on display anywhere in the world. ...Rosalind Hall, who re-displayed the garment, comments that: 'The garment had clearly been worn in life, because it was found inside out, as it very well might have been after having been pulled over the head, with distinct signs of creasing at the elbows and under the armpits.'

Worn and then taken off over the head, just as you would do with a modern dress. It brings you so much closer to the real person.

There was another female garment on display, this time made of durable faience beads (faience was a kind of artificial coloured glass, and therefore weighty). It was fashioned into a wide-mesh net that revealed not only the shape of the wearer's body, but all their naughty bits, the breast cups covering only the nipples. The Ancient Egyptians had no hang-ups about nudity, their paintings clearly showing that children and servants went about naked, and even clothed adults wore thin, semi-transparent items. The hot climate was adequate reason for this. But clothing also had a connection with age and social status, so that only the royal household had the importance (and the ceremonial right) to wear really elaborate costumes. This particular dress seems very sexy in intention to our modern eyes, a fetish garment, but not necessarily so when it was actually worn:


The explanatory note had this to say:

The bead-net dress
This dress...was excavated by Guy Brunton at Qau in 1923-24 and dates to Dynasty 5 (c2,400 BC). In 1994 and 1995 two conservators, Alexandra Seth-Smith and Alison Lister, re-constructed the dress. The dress may have been worn for dancing. Each of the 127 shells around the fringe are plugged with a small stone so that it would have emitted a rattling sound when the wearer moved. When it was being conserved, it was thought to fit a girl of about 12 and to be worn naked. Guy Brunton commented that the dress reminds us of the story of King Sneferu going on a sailing trip on the palace lake, recorded on a papyrus dating from around 1,800 BC. The King gets 20 young women to row a boat and, to relieve his boredom, orders: 'Let there be brought to me 20 women with the shapeliest bodies, breasts and braids, who have not yet given birth. And let there be brought to me 20 nets. Give those nets to these women in place of their clothes!' The point of the story is that the behaviour of the King is outrageous rather than normal, but this tale has been used to make the bead-net dress into an erotic and exotic garment. When Janet Johnstone, and Ancient Egyptian clothing consultant, made a replica of this dress, she found that the bead-net dress was too heavy to be worn when placed directly on the naked body. Janet also discovered that due its 'netting' structure it could fit women of all shapes and ages. Is it therefore our imaginative reading of the dress that makes it erotic?

In other words, a heavy dress like this needed an undergarment to prevent the beads digging into the skin, and any shapely female person, not just a 12 year old girl, could feasibly wear it. The nipple-pieces still suggest however that it was meant to show as much of the woman's figure as possible, erotically so, and the 'worn for dancing' idea surely holds up. Interesting that netted garments can fit any shape: this must be why fat women can look good in fishnet stockings. Maybe I should experiment!

Once again, something that was worn by a real person bridges the gulf of time. I have to say that the things people wore are, for me, among the most interesting things in museums.

I do like Ancient Egyptian things. Maybe I should look to ways of cultivating the look of a wealthy lady of those times!

1 comment:

  1. Lucy in fishnets and a bead-net dress? The mind boggles! Or did you have some other style in mind for your wealthy Egyptian look? Seriously, though, the style of that linen tunic wouldn't look out of place today.

    You dad wrote very eloquently, and the last paragraph is particularly evocative. Were he writing today, I guess he'd have a blog, just like his daughter.

    Angie x

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