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Saturday, January 2, 2021

Egypt Centre Collection Blog: The Eyes Have It: A Pair of Inlaid Eyes from Sanam

Monday, 28 December 2020

The Eyes Have It: A Pair of Inlaid Eyes from Sanam

In August 2019 the reserve collection of the Egypt Centre was moved into a new state of the art storage facility. Yet this was only the beginning of the task to reorganise roughly 4,000 objects not currently on display in the museum. Over the subsequent eight months, around 3,000 objects had been repacked and given a new locations. However, because of the COVID-19 lockdown, this project went eye-dle for six months. Therefore, the project to reorganise these objects was only completed last Wednesday. A few weeks ago Sam Powell and I were going through one particular box when we made an eye-opening discovery. This blog post will outline the process of the discovery and the subsequent archival material related to it.


Working directly with the Egypt Centre collection during the pandemic has been a challenge since, because of the social distancing rules, I'm the only person able to work in the storeroom. However, with the rise of Zoom, it has been possible for me to work with the objects while Zooming with Sam who updates our online catalogue remotely. Therefore, this greatly improves the productivity and processing speed. A few weeks ago, we were going through a box of thirty-eight eye inlays, many of which originally belonged to wooden coffins. Some eagle-eyed readers might remember that this box of inlays featured in a previous guest post by Jiayun Zhu, a Museum Studies placement student from Leicester University. One particular pair of eyes immediately attracted our attention (W624 & W626). They are made of a copper alloy frame with the white scleras made of ostrich eggshell. Ostrich shell was used throughout Egyptian history for inlays, including occasionally for the whites of eyes (Phillips 2009). Unfortunately, in both cases the pupils are missing, although the stained outlines are still visible (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Eye inlays

So what makes these objects so interesting? Well, with the Egypt Centre collection it is always important to keep an eye out for any previous numbers written on the objects. In the case of W624 and W626, faint five-digit numbers were spotted in the lower right corners of the scleras, written in white ink (fig. 2). Only the number on W624 could be fully read (12440), which I immediately identified as a Wellcome "R" number. These were written on objects as they were registered at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (WHMM) from 1913 until 1933. In recent years, the Wellcome has digitised many of their historical archives, including the registration ledgers. The entry for 12440 indicates that the object was identical to 12439, which is described as an "eye - of bone - with haematite pupil + bronze rim from mummy". Thus, while the number on W626 was only partially readable, it was possible to identify it as 12439 having located its matching eye.

Fig. 2: Faint Wellcome number in lower left

But the story doesn't end here! The next page of the ledger indicates that these eyes were "excavated at Sanam cemetery by Llewelyn Griffith". I couldn't believe my eyes! We had no idea that the Egypt Centre housed any of the objects from Sanam, which was excavated during the 1912–13 season of the University of Oxford Excavations in Nubia led by Francis Llewellyn Griffith (1862–1934). The eyes were subsequently presented to the WHMM in 1921. I searched the Wellcome archives further for additional details on the eyes. One file contained letters of correspondence between Griffith and Wellcome, often via the curator of the WHMM, Charles J. S. Thompson (1862–1943). In one letter written by Thompson to Griffith, dated 02 February 1921, an "enamelled eye" is mentioned as one of several objects from Sanam that "would be of most interest for his [Wellcome's] collection" (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Letter from Thompson to Griffith (WA/HMM/CO/Ear/351:Box 42)

Looking further through the file, I was excited to see that the eyes were listed as having been found in tomb 691, which dates to the Twenty-fifth Dynasty (fig. 4). The accompanying tomb record reads as: "Cave tomb, 15 steep steps, drop of 70 to narrow platform before embrasure, approach L. 380, W. 100–120, total D. 380, main chamber 600 by 180, with two side chambers, axis 320. On floor of main chamber, pair of bronze eyes and eyebrows from a wooden coffin, the former inlaid with white (ostrich egg?) shell on which is fixed a raised disc of obsidian? as pupil; fragments of hollow bronze; some bluish glaze tubular and ring beads; [smaller green and yellow glaze tubular beads; a few small yellow red green and black ring beads; small yellow ball beads]. In entrance, sandstone table of offerings with papyrus stem in middle and 8 loaves between hes vases, 40 by 35, including spout." With this information, I then searched the excavation report and found that the eyes were mentioned twice. Firstly, Griffith says that "amongst the cave graves 691 preserves clear evidence of having contained a coffin in a pair of bronze eyes and eyebrows, such as are found inlaid in well-made wooden coffins from Egypt" (Griffith 1923, 84). Secondly, he said that "in the cave grave 691 were found a pair of bronze eyes and eyebrows from a wooden coffin, the eyes inlaid with white (ostrich egg) shell on which is fixed a raised disk of obsidian (?) as pupil; also fragments of hollow bronze, which perhaps had formed the lobes, etc., of a pair of ears" (Griffith 1923, 106).

Fig. 4: Selection of finds from the cemetery (Griffith 1923, pl. 21)

Sanam is located 25km south of the Fourth Cataract in modern day Sudan (fig. 5 MAP). The site is situated just a few kilometres south of the sacred site of Gebel Barkal, and between the royal cemeteries of el-Kurru (to the south) and Nuri (to the north). Over the course of four months at the site, Griffith and his team excavated an eye-popping 1550 tombs. Finds from the cemetery are scattered throughout the world, including the collections of the National Museum Khartoum, the Ashmolean Museum, the British Museum, the Ägyptisches Museum Berlin, and now Swansea. Knowing that the eyes were from the cemetery of Sanam, I contacted Professor Angelika Lohwasser, who has been researching the site for many years (Lohwasser 2010; 2012). Remarkably, W624 and W626 are the only eye inlays from a coffin found in the cemetery (Lohwasser 2012, 92). While the pupils of the eyes were recorded at the time of their registration of the WHMM, they have since become detached and subsequently lost. The eyebrows listed in the excavation report were not, however, listed as having been accessioned at the WHMM and it can only be assumed that they never accompanied the eyes to the museum.

Fig. 5: Map of the Napata district (Lohwasser 2010, fig. 1)

This blog post has presented an example of the archaeology of museums, showing that sometimes discoveries can be made right in front of your eyes!


**I am grateful to Professor Lohwasser for sending me the relevant pages from her 2012 publication. 


Griffith, Francis Llewellyn 1923. Oxford excavations in Nubia. XVIII. The cemetery of Sanam. Annals of Archaeology and Anthropology 10, 73–171.

Lohwasser, Angelika 2010. The Kushite cemetery of Sanam: a non-royal burial ground of the Nubian capital, c. 800–600 BC. London: Golden House.

Lohwasser, Angelika 2012. Aspekte der napatanischen Gesellschaft: archäologisches Inventar und funeräre Praxis im Friedhof von Sanam - Perspektiven einer kulturhistorischen Interpretation. Denkschriften der Gesamtakademie 67; Contributions to the Archaeology of Egypt, Nubia and the Levant 1. Wien: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Morkot, Robert G. 2000. The black pharaohs: Egypt's Nubian rulers. London: Rubicon Press.

Phillips, Jacke S. 2009. Ostrich eggshell. Edited by Willeke Wendrich. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 1–4. Available at:

Pope, Jeremy 2014. The double kingdom under Taharqo: studies in the history of Kush and Egypt, c. 690–664 BC. Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 69. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

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