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New gallery of Early Egypt opens at the British Museum

The British Museum

ON JULY 14, 2014, as part of a refurbishment of the ever popular Ancient Egyptian galleries, the British Museum re-opened a gallery space dedicated to Early Egypt.

Ancient Egyptian civilisation is the product of more than 5000 years of development. The galley focuses on the earliest, prehistoric, phases of this development (from 8500BC to 3100BC) down to the end of the Second Dynasty and the beginning of the Pyramid Age, presented in the light of advances in the museum’s understanding gained from over two decades of intensive research.

The new gallery includes the re-display of objects long held in the collection as well as a selection of materials only recently acquired.

Among the most exciting of the new acquisitions are the materials from the site of Jebel Sahaba, now in northern Sudan, which were donated to the museum by Dr Fred Wendorf in 2002. Excavating here in the 1960s, Dr Wendorf found a cemetery dating back to about 11,000BC, making it one of the earliest organised burial grounds anywhere in the world.

At this time life was hard, as the Nile Valley was cold and dry, the river wild and high, and resources were scarce. Remnants of weapons, found in the bodies of 40% of the 61 men, women and children buried here indicate that they died of inflicted wounds, the earliest evidence for communal violence in history. The gallery includes the display of two of the victims and the remains of the actual weapons that killed them, recreating the burials as they were found. This is the first time these skeletons have been shown in public.

Other objects from Dr Wendorf’s excavations are allowing us to trace the beginnings of Ancient Egyptian civilization to nomadic people who roamed in what is now the Sahara desert, after it had been transformed into a savannah by the warmer and wetter climate following the last Ice Age.

From about 8000BC, using some of the earliest pottery known from Africa and herding its earliest domesticated cattle, these pastoralists lived in this precarious environment, until gradually the climate turned dry again. Forced to abandon the desert by 4400BC, they settled in oases and along the river banks. There they took up farming, an innovation from the Levant, setting in motion the social and technological developments that led directly to the advent of the Dynastic Egyptian civilization at about 3100BC.

The gallery explores the accelerated cultural developments in the 5th and 4th millennium BC following the emergence of settled farming communities. These include the creation of a series of female figurines that are amongst the oldest known Egyptian sculptures of the human form. Boldly carved from hippopotamus ivory or elegantly modelled from clay they were made by Badarian farmers at about 4200BC.

It also examines the distinctive cultures in northern and southern Egypt, religious concepts and practices, the introduction of specialized crafts and the establishment of international trade relations.

Another key feature of the gallery is the display of Gebelein Man, the best preserved example of natural mummification dating to around 3500BC. A virtual autopsy table, a state-of-the-art interactive tool based on medical visualisation will let visitors explore this natural mummy for themselves and learn how the museum has been able to discover his age and determine the surprising way that he died.

Using the interactive touchscreen and the gesture based interface developed by the Interactive Institute and Visualization Center C in Sweden, it is possible to strip away the skin to expose his skeleton, and make virtual slices to view his internal organs and his brain, still present in the skull, organs that were often removed when the ancient Egyptians began to artificially mummify bodies.

The process of unifying Egypt under one king began near the end of the prehistoric, or ‘predynastic’ period, about 3300BC and culminated 200 years later in the First Dynasty. Actual events are unknown, but the early rulers (including Egypt’s first king Narmer) recorded their victories on beautifully carved temple objects. They saw themselves fighting these battles on behalf of the gods, to protect the world from chaos.

Two of the most important of these temple objects are redisplayed in the gallery: the Hunters Palette, the earliest of the elaborately carved temple palettes, and also the first to show the beginning of the very specific way the ancient Egyptians depicted the human form, and the Battlefield Palette, which has been reunited with its joining piece on long-term loan from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The early origins of writing and the technological developments during the first dynasties that made the age of the pyramids possible are some of the other themes which are explored.

The hieroglyphic script is a distinctive aspect of ancient Egyptian culture, but its origins are controversial. Once thought to have been borrowed from Mesopotamia, Egyptian writing is now understood as an independent invention. Small labels dating to 3250 BC, found in Abydos (in southern, Upper, Egypt) Tomb U-j, provide the evidence. Most show symbols, but some bear hieroglyphic signs denoting sound values that write place names.

These hieroglyphs are unlike anything known earlier, suggesting that writing was a deliberate creation by early rulers to control a growing bureaucracy. Labels like those found in Abydos, and possibly originating from that tomb, are on display.

Unification brought rapid advances and prosperity. First Dynasty kings were buried at Abydos, with everything needed to make their huge tombs luxurious palaces for eternity – food, dishes, furniture, jewellery, tools, weapons and even board games (the gaming table and playing pieces for mehen, the ‘snake game’ will be on display).

When a First Dynasty king died he took with him not only all the luxuries needed for a palace in the afterlife, but also the people to run it. Wives, officials, bodyguards, and servants were interred around his tomb and funerary temple. The fact that most were adolescents or young adults show their deaths were not natural. Reaffirming the king’s power for eternity, their sacrifice also guaranteed the retainers privileged positions in the afterlife.

One of the sacrifice courtiers was a person called Nefer, meaning ‘beautiful’, who was one of a dozen people with dwarfism buried amongst the retainers surrounding the tombs of First Dynasty kings. From his depiction, we can tell he had a genetic condition called achondroplasia. In Ancient Egypt this was not considered a disability, but a mark of divine favour. Such individuals were valued members of the royal court, they were also among the select few to have limestone stelae placed on the low mounds covering their graves. Nefer’s limestone stelae is on display in the gallery.

The new Early Egypt gallery covers over 5000 years of dynamic experimentation during which many of the characteristics that came to typify ancient Egyptian civilization were first developed. Through the display the visitor will gain a better understanding of how and why this occurred and the debt that the Egyptians of later times owed to their early ancestors.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG

Website: www.britishmuseum.org/

Exhibitions for 2014.