Understanding Stone Objects in Museums: The Eton Myers Collection

When we think of ancient Egypt we may instinctively recall its monumental architecture, iconic landscape, and distinctive representations of Egyptian deities and pharaohs. Surviving artefacts and monuments that convey key aspects of Egyptian culture and religion are often attractive, brightly coloured and engaging; such objects are naturally appealing to wider audiences and demonstrate how ancient artefacts can incite interest in a modern context. In contrast, other types of objects are less aesthetically pleasing or immediately recognisable as being ‘Egyptian’, and thus are more challenging to effectively display in museum exhibition and gallery spaces.

Fawn coloured flint core (ECM 1145), © Research and Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham courtesy of Eton College, Myers Collection

Evidence from the beginning of Egyptian history typically includes stone tools and weaponry, with some of the earliest indications of modern humans working with stone dating to the Middle Palaeolithic Period, approximately 175,000-40,000 B.C.[1] These objects can crucially inform us about how ancient people exploited the landscape and its resources; for instance, flint was a widely available item in ancient Egypt that could be locally obtained from riverbeds and other sources above ground.[2] Though sherds can range vastly in quality, as a characteristically tough and durable sedimentary rock it was an ideal material for weapons and tools. Flint could also be shaped to requirement via repeated strikes with a heavy object, for instance to create the sharp edges found on arrow heads.[3] A selection of stone tools shown in Figure 1 (page 2) demonstrates the varied manipulation of the natural materials which became increasingly sophisticated over time. The great skill, precision and effort of the ancient Egyptian craftsmen required to produce such finely worked implements later evolved into the mass production of goods such as pottery, and the large-scale constructions of monumental buildings and statuary.[4] This progression is often exemplified in a modern museum context through chronological displays, outlining the earliest technological innovations and developments towards the more widely known areas of ancient Egyptian history. This is a popular display format as many of these stone tools are typically regarded as ‘specialised’, and of less interest to wider general audiences.[5] Additionally, where the tools lack a secure date and provenance depending on when and how they were acquired, they also become more difficult to contextualise.[6] Stone tools can often be small in size, with neutral colours and complex technical classifications, where comparatively larger and more visually striking objects are often far richer in archaeological detail.[7] Yet the sheer amount of extant lithics far outweighs the survival of any other Egyptian artefact[8], and these provide valuable insights into the technological development of early human civilisation. Their importance was also recognised by early archaeologists such as Flinders Petrie and Howard Carter, and continues to be acknowledged in the 21st century with new discoveries of important evidence of flint-working sites in ancient Egypt.[9] More recent research includes detailed technological evaluations of known quarry sites and studies concerning the ideological significance of the materials used.[10]

Flake hand axe ECM
4920 © Research and Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham courtesy of Eton College, Myers Collection

The difficulties of researching and displaying such objects are currently being explored within the Eton Myers collection held at the University of Birmingham (Figure 2), which spans almost the entirety of ancient Egyptian history from the Palaeolithic through to the Roman Period. On loan to the University of Birmingham from Eton College, much of this private collection stemmed from Major William Joseph Myer’s travels to Egypt in the 1880s and subsequent additions from other contemporary collectors.[11] As is the case with many private collections established in this era, details of the objects’ original contexts were rarely noted, highlighting the practices of early archaeologists and private collectors which formed the basis of many other larger museum collections.[12] Of over 540 ancient Egyptian objects from the collection held at Birmingham, 20% of the collection is comprised of stone tools, hand axes and arrow heads. Each of these objects would have held a variety of functions in everyday use, such as food preparation and hunting and gathering.

Brown flint arrowhead (ECM 1216), © Research and Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham courtesy of Eton College, Myers Collection

Many of these tools were donated to the Eton Myers collection by a 19th century explorer named Heywood Walter Seton-Karr, who was also an Etonian ‘Old Boy’ and contemporary of Myers. Seton-Karr is well known as a collector of Egyptian artefacts, and also credited with the discovery of flint mines in the Eastern desert.[13] Various objects acquired by Seton-Karr illustrate their ancient function and manufacture, but simultaneously also represent the practices of these early collectors of adding personal labels. Figure 3 is an example of a flint core from the collection which features the collector’s name and additional details of a location. This item demonstrates the conflict between early collecting and contemporary museum conservation practices, but also speaks to the nature of collecting in this era. Seton-Karr not only records a setting (which may not be the original location as these objects could be disposed of anywhere, particularly if they were no longer functional), but almost akin to the way we might label our own belongings, Seton-Karr includes his own name.[14] He provides a statement of who the object ‘belonged’ to, and thus a visual juxtaposition of the changing views on acquiring foreign objects and ideas of ownership within museum collections.

Core (ECM 4671) © Research and Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham courtesy of Eton College, Myers Collection

Technology played a fundamental role in the development of early ancient Egyptian culture, and it only through mastering the use of stone tools that the more visually appealing, prestigious objects we often associate with ancient Egypt could have been produced.

This is the beginning of a new project within the Eton Myers collection, which aims to provide new accessible information about our stone tools including detailed images, measurements and further research and cataloguing to contextualise the objects. This project also aims to utilise specialist knowledge found within the University of Birmingham, and to continue to utilise the collection as a teaching resource within the University, from lithics workshops to tours and object handling sessions. In addition to promoting interdisciplinary research and engagement with these objects across the University, another anticipated aspect of the project is to consider the role of the collector and insights into early archaeological practices in further detail. Engagement with these artefacts from the 19th century to present day is also an important aspect of their history. While private collections such as these often face complications through missing details such as a lack of provenance, these objects have multiple potential facets to their display and are valuable additions to the overall collection.

As work continues, we will strive to share regular updates about the project through Research/Curate and social media channels. The collection is also accessible to wider audiences, and we welcome anyone to get in touch to arrange a visit to the collection or to find out more about some of our objects. Please feel free to contact the Eton Myers Collections Assistant Jennifer Turner directly for further information. We look forward to sharing our progress with this project with you in later articles!

[1] Hikade 2010: 1-2. The entire Palaeolithic Period is approximately dated 700,000-10,000 BP, which is then divided into the Lower, Middle, Upper and Late Palaeolithic Period (Aston et al: 2000: 5-6; Shaw 2000: 481; Shaw 2012: xiii-xiv).

[2] Mining in the Eastern desert began during the Predynastic period, c. 5300-3000 BC (Shaw 2000: 482), as the demand for larger tools began to increase. The Eastern desert was a well-recognised source of raw materials, actively quarried and continually used until the New Kingdom (Hikade 2010: 7).

[3] Aston et al 2000: 28-29, 66-69.

[4] Shaw 2012: 61-64. The sophisticated technical processes of stone quarrying are discussed in further detail by Arnold (1990), Klemm and Klemm (2008), Lucas (1962), and Nicholson and Shaw (2000).

[5] Barket and Yohe 2011: 27; Pearce 1990: 156. Mangum (n.d.) suggests the study of stone tools was often neglected as the objects were also viewed as obsolete in comparison to later developments.

[6] While samples be taken to identity the stone type (Klemm and Klemm 2008: 11-21), for many ‘stray’ tools found on the desert surface there is no secure form of dating, though in some cases typology can help to narrow down potential approximate time periods (Hendrickx and Vermeersch 2000: 17-18).

[7] Criteria such as object shape, colour and size also determine what is most ‘visually and intellectually compelling’ to the modern museum visitor (Falk and Dierking 2011: 69-71; Pearce 1990: 134).

[8] Bard 2008: 73. According to Klemm and Klemm (2008: 11), 70% of museum exhibition objects in many Egyptian collections are items of natural stone.

[9] Lucas 1962: 63-64. The Elkab Desert Survey Project announced in June 2018 the discovery of extensive flint working areas in Bir Umm Tineidba near Wadi Hilal.

[10] For instance, Barket and Yohe (2011) consider the site of Wadi El-Sheikh, related to the collector Seton-Karr (see footnote 13); Graves-Brown (2010, 2015) has focused particularly on the role and significance of flint within Egyptian prehistory. Useful wider studies of ancient stone tools and archaeology also include Odell (1996) and Stocks (2003).

[11] The Museum of Antiquities at Eton College holds the majority of the Myers collection (detailed further in their online catalogue, and objects held at the University of Birmingham can also be viewed through our online database).

[12] Moser 2012: 9.

[13] This site is known as Wadi el-Sheikh (Seton-Karr 1898; Barket and Yohe 2011: 28). Bierbrier (1995: 385-386) notes Seton-Karr’s donations of flint tools to various museums including the British Museum and the Cairo Egyptian Museum. Some of his objects have also since been featured in other collections within the UK, including the Liverpool World Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

[14] Seton-Karr was not alone in writing his own name upon objects or even monuments. Examples of graffiti from 20th century travellers can be seen on the columns of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak and many other sites throughout Egypt, such as on the walls of the much later Isis temple at Philae.

 

 

Bibliography

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