Bolton Museum recently opened its new-look Egyptian galleries to the public. Lucia Marchini paid a visit to find out more about the collection.
In 1882, Amelia Edwards founded the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF), which has left an enduring mark on Egyptology, supporting fieldwork and research to this day (now as the Egypt Exploration Society). Egypt and the EEF have also had a lasting effect on Bolton, whose museum boasts a collection of some 12,000 ancient Egyptian artefacts.
Lancashire’s textile mills may not immediately evoke Egyptology, but these buildings, which played such an important part in Britain’s Industrial Revolution, have a surprising link with this field of research. For a period in the 19th century, mills in Bolton were importing large amounts of cotton from Egypt, and Annie Barlow, the daughter of one of the town’s biggest mill-owners, developed a keen interest in Egypt, becoming an early supporter of the EEF. From 1883, she served as the honorary secretary for the region, helping raise funds for fieldwork, and, in 1888, travelled around the Nile Delta visiting excavations. Those who had subscribed to support the investigations were allocated a selection of the finds that the project uncovered, and Barlow’s artefacts went straight to the new Chadwick Museum, Bolton Museum’s predecessor.
Now, following major refurbishment after a £3.8m investment from Bolton Council, Bolton’s Egyptian collections have been redisplayed in a new suite of rooms at the museum. More than 2,000 objects are on public view, greatly expanding the previous selection of about 500 that featured in the old gallery. The new displays explore life and death in ancient Egypt, as well as Bolton’s – and Britain’s – connections to purchased by tourists (including a crude plaster statuette bought by Annie Barlow), and products with Egypt-inspired branding. Also on view is a tube of ‘Mummy Brown’, an artists’ pigment made from ground-up remains of mummies that continued to be produced into the 1960s. The Pre- Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones is said to have reacted to finding out the deathly origins of the pigment by holding a funeral for a tube he owned and burying it in his garden.
The cyclical arrangement of the main thematic galleries offers a journey through daily life to the tomb and back to the realm of the living, reflecting Egyptian beliefs in rebirth and the afterlife. Meanwhile, the bright design of the gallery devoted to a variety of aspects of life in ancient Egypt (covering war, communication, economy, beauty, food, games, and more) similarly evokes buildings and decorative schemes with colours derived from Egyptian art. Visitors walk through a series of glass cases, with objects displayed overhead as well as at the sides, giving the chance to see an ample amount of material from a variety of viewpoints. Natural history specimens conjure up the environment around the Nile, and show what materials were available to its inhabitants. Stuffed animals representing species that inhabited the region are then seen recreated in artefacts, including a faience plaque featuring a cat, a copper-alloy ichneumon (Egyptian mongoose) from the sacred animal necropolis at Saqqara, a limestone reliquary in the shape of a shrew, and a ceramic hedgehog. They offer vivid insights into how ancient Egyptians saw the world around them.
Setting these finds in their context are excavation maps of key sites explored by the EES, such as Amarna. Founded by the ‘heretic pharaoh’ Akhenaten and excavated by Flinders Petrie, Amarna has yielded a wealth of material including small, colourful amulets and the moulds used to make them, as well as jewellery moulds. Also from 18th Dynasty (1550- 1295 BC) Amarna are fragments of finely painted plaster from the Water Court of Meru-Aten. These are juxtaposed with well-preserved plant-fibre paintbrushes found at the Temple of Mentuhotep II in Thebes, emphasising the skills and methods behind such works.
A markedly different space, dark with a starry ceiling, explores religious beliefs in ancient Egypt. Here there are carved offerings, ritual vessels, familiar objects like shabtis and scarabs, and the splendid mummy case of Takhenmes. Takhenmes’ name is recorded on the case, as is the title ‘Lady of the House’, suggesting she was married – but intriguingly the coffin presented with her mummy case carries a different name, that of Tjenkhaykhetes. Both come from Hatshepsut’s temple at Thebes, and many of those buried there were members of the priesthood. It remains uncertain if Takhenmes and Tjenkhaykhetes are just different spellings of the same name, if Takhenmes acquired a coffin intended for someone else, or if the mummy case and coffin were merely put together when they entered the museum.
Another mysterious burial is found within the museum’s impressive replica of the tomb of Thutmose III, decorated with drawings of the Amduat (the journey of the sun god Ra). This is the mummy of an unknown man, recently studied using X-rays and CT scans to try to find out more about him. His linen wrappings are high-quality, suggesting he was someone with social status, and two different mixtures of expensive resins have been identified. His head appears to have been shaven, his testicles removed, and his knees are worn, perhaps from years of kneeling in temples. Moreover, his facial measurements are almost identical to those of Ramesses II – it has been suggested he may have been one of the pharaoh’s many sons, some of whom entered the priesthood.
Fittingly for a museum that owes its Egyptian collection to the success of the textile industry, a large proportion of its holdings are textiles. A small selection of these c.6,000 fragile fabrics are on display in a regularly changing case. The textile tradition here goes back to the Chadwick Museum’s first two curators, father and son William and Thomas Midgley, who were both experts in ancient textiles. They worked with archaeologists such as Flinders Petrie, and frequently swapped their expertise for objects from excavations. The impressive array of material includes the oldest-known piece of mummy bandage, a fragment of an intensely coloured shroud with the image of Osiris, a Roman-period foot shroud adorned with the image of naturalistic feet in sandals (examples of which are on display elsewhere) and the gateway to the afterlife flanked by lions with swords, and a fine Coptic tunic buried with a child around AD 700-800.
While pharaonic Egypt always garners attention, the range of textiles and other exhibits in the galleries show there is plenty of interest beyond those famous rulers.
Bolton Museum is open 9am-5pm Monday to Saturday (from 9.30am Wednesday) and 10am-4pm Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.boltonlams.co.uk/museum.