The Story of Egypt

Posted on: 30/09/2015 with tags: ancient egypt, ancient history, egypt, history, museum, tutenkhamen

Joann Fletcher has written this fantastic article for us about the UK’s relationship to ancient Egypt!


Ancient Egypt continues to fascinate the modern world, with much of this fascination based on the exotic allure of a destination far away in both time and place. And yet the UK has had a far longer relationship with the land of the Nile than is often assumed. 

Ever since AD 43 when the Romans made Britain their most northerly outpost balancing their southern boundary in Egypt, Rome’s enthusiasm for Egyptian religion saw it spread rapidly across their empire during the early centuries AD. And with temples to Egypt’s ancient gods built as far north as Yorkshire and Cumbria, evidence for accompanying funerary rites in which bodies were wrapped in linen and embalmed Egyptian-style has been found at sites around the UK.

Although such practices were largely swept away following Rome’s acceptance of Christianity in the AD C.4th, Egypt’s pharaonic history and culture was largely forgotten in the west until rediscovered by scholars of the Renaissance. As they began to travel out to Egypt from the C.17th onwards, publishing accounts of what they saw and collecting antiquities en route, such activities went into overdrive in 1798 when Napoleon invaded Egypt with both soldiers and scholars. 

And in many ways this French occupation marked the beginnings of modern Egyptology, as Napoleon’s men discovered the Rosetta Stone which allowed Jean-Francois Champollion to finally decipher the long-dead hieroglyphic script in 1822.

Yet the celebrated stone was only one item among a haul of antiquities taken as spoils of war by the British in 1801 following their defeat of the French forces, after which Britain, like the rest of Europe, was gripped by ‘Egyptomania’. With everything from textile mills to waterworks built in the Egyptian style, the landscaped gardens of stately homes featured obelisks and pyramids to complement the Egyptian-inspired furniture and antiquities housed within.

As gentlemen scholars tried to outdo each other with the quantity and quality of artefacts they brought back from their Egyptian travels, with mummies proving particularly popular among the learned societies springing up around the country, regional museums also benefitted from such travellers’ generous largesse. So although the British Museum is invariably regarded as the place to go to see Egyptian artefacts, they can be found right around the British Isles, from the large collections of Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh to some far less well-known places too.

And it is in the storerooms of museums around the UK where new discoveries are starting to reveal all manner of surprising new facts about ancient Egypt. This has certainly been the case in Bolton, where the recent scientific analysis of small fragments of mummy wrappings in storage since the 1920s pushed back the beginnings of mummification almost 2,000 years to c.4300 BC. In Harrogate, the highlight of a former storage collection is a unique hat-like mask of the jackal god Anubis, once worn by a priest conducting sacred rites and so striking it inspired milliner Stephen Jones’ work for Dior’s spring 2004 show. In the basement of Southampton Museum, the staff bike rack turned out to be a long-lost granite statue of the Egyptian god Amun c.670 BC, while the unusual bird table in a Newcastle garden proved to be an ancient Egyptian offering table. Then only last year, a completely unknown collection covering the entire span of Egypt’s ancient history was rediscovered in museum storage in Wigan, their star piece – the gilded head of a coffin of a noblewoman (pictured) who lived just before Tutankhamen – one of the most beautiful faces to have survived from ancient times.  

With such splendours now on public display following the appropriate publicity, fund-raising events and generous donations, inevitable grumbles that such exotic artefacts ‘have nothing to do with local history’ fail to appreciate that they were originally collected by local people who had donated them for the enjoyment of all. As for accompanying complaints that in these cash-strapped times money should be spent ‘elsewhere’, there is surely nowhere better than in education, the numbers of school visits greatly increased whenever there is the promise of ‘ancient Egypt’ closer to home than a costly and usually lengthy trip to battle the crowds at the British Museum. And as more of Egypt’s ancient past continues to be uncovered around the country, our region’s museums are actively inspiring the Egyptologists of the future while allowing all of us to share in a heritage which belongs to everyone.

The Story of Egypt is available now.

Image © Wigan Council

Amy Dolman

Post author: Amy Dolman

Amy is responsible for the smooth running of the H for History website, and enjoys reading history-based fantasy. She also like to photograph sites of historical interest in her spare time with a cup of bovril and a pork pie for company. Favourite period of history: Ancient; Favourite historical read: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave; Upcoming book i'm most looking forward to: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick

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