Egyptian Blue: Giving Voice to the Objects of the Eton Myers Collection

A short walk from the University of Birmingham campus, and within the confines of a bank-vault-like room, one can find a treasure trove of objects which come to us from all along the wide expanse that is ancient Egyptian history, and which are on loan to the University of Birmingham from Eton College. Additionally, the former curator Dr Martin Bommas also introduced modern African objects from his own personal collection. Last year, I and a number of other students – variously of history, classics and archaeology – were given the opportunity to work with these objects as part of a module, the aim of which was to create displays around select items from the collection. Given that many of the objects were beautifully rendered in bright and alluring faience, the module was called: Egyptian Blue. I hope to give a bit of a flavour of this process with a look at how my own display and ideas developed as time went on.

Being mainly interested in religious history and ritual myself, I knew that I wanted to construct my display case around a complementary topic. Having had a brief opportunity to see the collection two years prior, faded images of shabtis and funerary amulets came flowing back into my mind. However, the wonderful twists and turns which a concept can take in the course of an hour or so of perusing such a wide body of little curiosities soon saw that initial idea off.

I found myself taken with something of an enigmatic object: a pale green faience loop sporting three sets of circular holes and a small, worn visage at its base. ECM 282 was its affectionately given name. It so caught my attention because – at first sight – I hadn’t the slightest idea what it actually was. In the case of most of the other items, I had at least some notion, but this object truly eluded me. After a short while spent digging on the collection database, I discovered that it was in fact a sistrum. However, aside from now having a vague understanding of it as some kind of musical instrument (or a representation of one, given its size), this was still new territory for me.

ECM 282. © Research and Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham courtesy of Eton College, Myers Collection

It was upon finding out that the face which looked out – with glazed expression – from either side of the object was that of Hathor, that the potential which this object had to tell a story came to the fore. This face was not merely decorative, but told of a complex ritual liturgy that was of immense importance to Egyptian faith, and which stretched back deep into the roots of their civilisation. Not only the sistrum, but clappers, cymbals, harps, menats, and more, formed a great orchestra of ritually significant instruments.

This idea of musical accompaniment to ritual, and my relative ignorance of it in the Egyptian context, gave me my overarching theme for the display case. I would look to highlight the importance of gaining an understanding of (or, at least, acknowledging) the more intangible aspects of human experience (smell, sound, and so on) that are oft forgotten in historical study; their ephemeral nature so often placing them firmly beyond our reach. This is especially important in my research area of ritual, in which one must be aware that the physical remnants of liturgical practices only likely form but a small sliver of the process in its entirety.

In ritual, there is often a need to create a certain ambience which serves to separate the auspicious act from the more mundane aspects of everyday life. This, of course, goes far beyond the physical aspects which we can detect archaeologically; many sensory layers being employed to set the given time and place apart in ritual performance. During Amenhotep III’s Heb-Sed jubilee festival (depicted in reliefs at the tomb Kheruef, Thebes), the sistrum was the main instrument permitted within the temple (being played by the royal daughters), and thus is seen to form part of a multifaceted sensory liminal boundary. One physically moves from the exterior, to the interior, of the temple; one perceives a change in the very air as the incense burned within plays at the nostrils; the cacophonous crowds are replaced by the rustling sistrum; one is now in the place of the gods.

Early layout planning for my case.

I had initially thought that this sistrum would prove to be somewhat of a problem object around which to construct a display. It is neither very big, nor (at first glance) was there apparently any solid connection to the other objects in the collection, save its being made of faience. How exactly would I go about building a visually interesting display around themes of intangibility? Furthermore, how would I do that when the gateway object of said display was a piece of faience that could scarcely fill the palm of my hand? But, here the beauty of nosing about amongst drawer upon drawer of objects came to my aid. I found that my sistrum – and the deep cultural significance behind it – had a few intriguing relations.

One of these was ECM 1021, an amulet of the protective god Bes in the act of dancing with a round tambourine; an object which was – unfortunately for me – quite considerably smaller than even the sistrum (I was legitimately concerned that I would end up inhaling him at some point!). In addition to this was another – thankfully slightly larger – Bes amulet (ECM 1666) and another of Hathor, who had become something of a leading lady within my discourse of ritual music. As well as these, I added a faience bowl (ECM 1758), bearing an image of a cow making its way through reeds.

If you are wondering how exactly a cow bowl fits in with my theme of music in ritual, I am not surprised; I certainly didn’t expect to be using it when I first set eyes on the thing at the first session. It shared, however, an unexpected and revealing relation to the sistrum. In its capacity as a tool of devotional practice, one of the functions of the sistrum (in the cult of Hathor in particular) was to soothe the tempestuous goddess and have her manifest in one of her more agreeable, benevolent forms. It did this by replicating the sounds of the rustling reeds and rushes of the Nile Delta; a locale inhabited by the goddess in her bovine form. In this bowl, I had not only found an exact visual representation of the sistrum’s symbolic significance, but also a wonderful glimpse into the Egyptian ritual mind. You can buy a sistrum online, and hear its sound for yourself, but you are – in this way – still unable to fully appreciate its significance in the Egyptian context. Indeed, one can hear how it sounds, but not what it sounded like to the Egyptian ear. The cultural context can be, here, something of a final hurdle in getting at the sounds of the past, and – indeed – any intangible evidence.

It was an incredible opportunity to work with the objects of the Eton Myers collection. I have given a brief account of my own ideas surrounding the objects, and their development, but this creative process allowed – within the group – a veritable smorgasbord of ideas to bloom. We had displays on Egyptian jewellery and fashion; on the significance of the ibis; concerning amulets used in mummy preparation; looking at protective charms across different cultures. The variety of intriguing topics that could be realised using these objects was seemingly inexhaustible. I think Egyptian Blue was a brilliant, thoroughly enjoyable module, and overall experience. Certainly, more opportunities for students to actually see pieces in the flesh (or, the faience), and to use them in such projects would be a welcome addition to courses here at Birmingham; in fact, to any curriculum.

Finished case and poster.

You can find out more about the Eton Myers collection on loan to the University of Birmingham here.

Further information about the Myers collection can also be found on the Museum of Antiquities at Eton College website.