Saturday, July 11, 2020

Egypt Centre Collection Blog: The Woking Loan at the Egypt Centre

Egypt Centre Collection Blog

Saturday, 4 July 2020

The Woking Loan at the Egypt Centre

The blog post for this week is written by Dr Dulcie Engel, a previous contributor. Dulcie is a former lecturer in French and linguistics and has been volunteering at the Egypt Centre for the last six years. She is a gallery supervisor and associate editor of the Volunteer Newsletter. She has a particular interest in collectors and the history of museums.

In May 2012, the Egypt Centre received a collection of fifty-eight ancient Egyptian objects from Woking Sixth Form College in Surrey, on an initial ten-year loan. The items were originally donated to Woking Girls' Grammar School in 1958. The school closed in 1976 when it was amalgamated with the Boys' School to form the basis of Woking Sixth Form College. Through documents and communications with some of the important players in Woking, and other interested parties, I have been able to piece together the story of these objects from their donation to the school in 1958 to the present day. 1958 was an important year for the Girls' School in Woking: founded in 1923, it finally moved from its original accommodation in six derelict army huts to brand new premises. Additionally, this is when the Egyptian items were donated to the school by Arthur and Margaret Marshall, school governors. Mrs Marshall was a former pupil who later became a town councillor. At the time, the school had an inspirational headmistress, Miss Violet Hill, who actively encouraged initiative in her pupils. One girl was particularly inspired by the Egyptian objects: Anna Bachelier became responsible for looking after the collection, and compiled the first 'museum' inventory. She used a basic cataloguing system of numbers, with labels for items, some of which still remain. She was also given permission to take the objects up to the British Museum for inspection. Anna went on to study archaeology at Cardiff and Edinburgh. She became a well-known archaeologist in Scotland under her married name of Dr Anna Ritchie. The School used the objects as teaching aids in Egyptian history, archaeology, and art classes.

Following the closure, amalgamation, and move to new premises in 1976 as Woking Sixth Form College, the objects were kept in the history department, and still used to teach archaeology and art. In particular, they were cared for by head of history Anne Bowey and her successor, Andrew Forrest. In 2001, Andrew made a new inventory and took the items back to British Museum for assessment by Dr John Taylor, Assistant Keeper at the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan. After researching their history and provenance, Andrew Forrest gave a talk on the collection to the College governors. When concerns were raised over display and insurance, the collection was placed in a bank safety deposit box in the Woking branch of Lloyds Bank. Andrew left the College in 2008 and in 2011 a change in bank policy led to the items being returned to the College (inside a sports bag). The then Principal, Martin Ingram, consulted the British Museum about the best home for the items, and the Egypt Centre was recommended because of its strong educational ethos. Shortly after, on 31 May 2012, the Woking Loan arrived at the museum (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Original display of the Woking Collection at the Egypt Centre

It has proved far more difficult to discover how these objects came to be available for donation in the first place, although we can be pretty sure when and where some of them were excavated, and we can make reasonable guesses about how they came to the UK. We can also be fairly sure of the approximate age of many of the items. The two main contenders for ownership before the Marshalls of Woking are the Egyptologists Robert Mond and Flinders Petrie (Bierbrier 2019). However, it must be noted that this is speculation and we actually do not know how the pieces ended up in Woking. Anna Bachelier noted the possible Mond connection back in 1958, but later Anne Bowey notes the suggestion of a Petrie connection. Indeed, we know that some shabtis (fig. 2) came from an excavation directed by Petrie (see below). Mond sponsored excavations, such as those organised by the Egypt Research Account and Egypt Exploration Fund/Society, and would have been given some artefacts. Mond is known to have given away many items in his collection to both individuals and institutions. A Mond connection would be quite serendipitous as there is a strong connection between the Mond family and Swansea (see Engel 2020).

Fig. 2: Three shabtis during the unpacking process

The artefacts are catalogued as WK1–WK58. They were originally displayed together: now the items are placed in the appropriate cases in both galleries. The collection consists of 35 shabtis, 8 amulets, 5 pottery vessels, 3 coins, 2 fretwork wooden pieces, 2 glass bottles, 1 faience bell, 1 wooden Sokar hawk, and 1 faience flower pendant. Below I briefly discuss a selection of them:
With respect to the shabtis, the largest group of objects, 19 are made of faience, 11 of pottery, 4 of wood, and one of limestone (fig. 3). They date mainly from the New Kingdom and the Third Intermediate Period. As some of the shabtis bear distinctive inscriptions and excavation labels, we can trace their provenance with confidence. For example, WK32 is inscribed Djed-Iset (Djedaset). It has a typed rectangular label on the back, reading: 'ZED-ASET'. Such labels were placed on shabtis distributed by the Egypt Research Account (ERA), set up and directed by Petrie. This shabti can be traced to the 1895–6 excavation of the Ramesseum by James Quibell (1867–1935), financed by the ERA (Janes 2002).

Fig. 3: Limestone shabti (WK34)

Visitors to the museum may well note the group of five faience shabtis, possibly carrying brick moulds. The painted items on the back are depicted in an unusual manner for seed bags, and as the replica brick mould placed next to them in the Technology case (House of Life) shows, the shape is the same (fig. 4). One of this group, WK 35, is inscribed Djed-Khonsu, but the others, which are not inscribed, are so similar that they must belong to the same group: (WK15–17 and WK56). They date from the Third Intermediate Period and range in height from 78–84mm. 

Fig. 4: Shabtis with possible brick moulds

Three of the pottery vessels date from the early Middle Kingdom. WK3 and WK5–6 are similar to each other: coarsely formed partly handmade Nile silt vessels (Nile fabric B2–C1) with slightly pointed ends, of fairly small size (ranging in height from 135 to 160mm). They are most likely to be model funerary vessels, shaped as beer jars. They are very similar to ones found in the foundation deposits of the pyramid of Senwosret I (Arnold 1988: 107–9).
The Bes bell (WK44) in the Music case is perhaps the object in the Woking Loan that has excited Egyptologists the most, particularly as it is relatively rare (fig. 5). It was also voted in 2019 as one of the thirty highlights of the museum and appears in the recently released Highlights booklet. It is a pale green faience bell, 37mm high, formed as a hollow hemispherical Bes head crowned with feathers, with a hole for suspension as well as another, presumably for the tongue of the bell. The tongue itself is missing. This particular item seems to date to the Ptolemaic Period based on parallels, including BM EA 66619 (Anderson 1976, 47). The fact that this is made from faience suggests it was a votive or amuletic item, as it would have been too fragile to shake vigorously. These bells were perhaps worn around the necks of children to protect them.

Fig. 5: Faience Bes bell (WK44)

A favourite of mine is the Sokar hawk (WK21), 96mm high, in the Woodworking case, which dates from the Late Period. The wood is coated in a layer of gesso and painted yellow, white, red, and green (fig. 6). There appears to be an excavation mark in black ink on the base, which reads 25/50. However, it is not an easily identifiable mark, and might well be a catalogue number from one of the earlier owners, or possibly an auction lot number. There is a hole in the base as these wooden birds would have been fixed with a wooden peg onto the base of a Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure. The figures combine the powers of Ptah, a creator god (mummiform), Osiris, god of death, resurrection, and fertility (represented by the two feathers of his crown), and Sokar, the hawk-headed god of the cemeteries (the bird), particularly associated with Saqqara.

Fig. 6: Sokar hawk (WK21)

The story of the Woking Loan illustrates the lasting power of historical objects to inspire: Mrs Marshall knew her old school would make good use of the collection, and they did. Just as the original sponsors of the ERA and the EES (and individual excavators) knew that gifts of artefacts to museums, universities, and schools would. A far-seeing headmistress let a fifteen-year-old girl take these artefacts up to the British Museum, encouraging her passion, which led to a distinguished career in archaeology. Much later, a history teacher at the College was inspired to discover more about the collection and spread the word through lectures; again, he took these objects to the British Museum. Finally, when the College realised the need for a safer place for the artefacts, it led to another consultation with the British Museum, who recommended a home well-known for its educational programme with schoolchildren and students. Here in the Egypt Centre, object-centred learning has always been an important element of that programme. In normal times, school groups and members of the public can handle artefacts in the gallery; members of the public, museum volunteers, students, and scholars benefit from evening classes, talks, seminars, and conferences, which involve handling artefacts normally kept in display cases or in the stores.

I was due to give a talk on the Woking Loan at Woking College in March 2020 and at the Wonderful Things conference in Swansea in May 2020. Obviously the former never happened while the latter was moved to an online format. If you have any further information/suggestions about the provenance of the Woking Loan, please contact me via the Egypt Centre! I could not have done this research without the help of Egypt Centre staff, in particular Carolyn Graves-Brown, Ken Griffin, and Syd Howells. Additionally, Ancient History staff and researchers at Swansea: Christian Knoblauch, Nigel Pollard, and John Rogers. Nor my brilliant Woking correspondents: Richard & Rosemary Christophers at the Lightbox Gallery, Andrew Forrest, Anna Ritchie, the staff of Woking College; and John Taylor of the British Museum.

Anderson, Robert D. 1976. Catalogue of Egyptian antiquities in the British Museum III: musical instruments. London: Trustees of the British Museum.
Arnold, Dorothea 1988. Pottery. In Arnold, Dieter (ed.) The pyramid of Senwosret I, 106–146. Publications of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian Expedition 22; The South Cemeteries of Lisht 1. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Bierbrier, Morris L. 2019. Who was who in Egyptology, 5th revised ed. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
Engel, Dulcie. M. 2020. The Mond family: Swansea & Egypt, Egypt Centre Volunteer Newsletter (Jan–Mar 2020).
Janes, Glenn 2002. Shabtis: a private view. Ancient Egyptian funerary statuettes in European private collections. Photographs by Tom Bangbala. Paris: Cybèle.
Quibell, James. E. 1898. The Ramesseum. British School of Archaeology in Egypt and Egyptian Research Account 2. London: Bernard Quaritch.
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