The Egypt and Sudan Gallery tells stories of the people we now call ‘ancient Egyptians’, a diverse population who lived in Northeastern Africa from around 3000 to 30 BCE.
The homes of the ancient Egyptians do not generally survive, but our collection includes exceptionally well-preserved everyday objects from a pyramid-builders’ town known as Kahun. These extraordinary artefacts are nearly 4,000 years old and give a glimpse into how ordinary people lived. The gallery also tells us about the lives of the wealthiest people in ancient Egypt. Intricate hieroglyphic texts enable us to identify some names and titles of these elite individuals. Early archaeologists chose to excavate temples, because they were covered in detailed inscriptions, and tombs, which held the promise of valuable items that very few ancient Egyptians could have afforded. This bias is reflected in the collection.
One of the highlights of the collection is the range of materials preserved from ancient Egypt. Elaborately decorated mummies, covered in either gilded masks or realistic painted images known as ‘Faiyum Portraits’, date back to the Graeco-Roman Period (around 300 BCE to 300 CE). Again, the people in these paintings will have been the wealthier members of society. Although stylised and not portraits in the modern sense, they are captivating – they help us feel close to the ancient Egyptians and relate to the past.
As well as the people and places of ancient Egypt, the gallery tells equally important stories about the ways in which objects were found and moved. Following the British invasion of Egypt in 1882, the European-controlled Egyptian government allowed foreign archaeologists to export some of the items they excavated on Egyptian and Sudanese land. This led competitive and wealthy European businessmen to sponsor archaeologists to search for objects which would be displayed in the West.
Manchester was the beneficiary of this colonial system; it holds around 18,000 objects from Egypt and Sudan following local cotton merchant Jesse Haworth’s financial support of excavations led by Flinders Petrie between 1887 and 1892. As well as civic pride, Haworth and Petrie’s excavations were driven by a desire to compare the ancient Egyptians with modern people, often projecting their own ideas into the past. So, while the collection gives us a glimpse into an ancient society, it also reflects the obsessions, values and politics of the late 1800s and the early history of the museum