Lecture archive


Tree Goddesses of Ancient Egypt 

Dr. Joanne Backhouse

Paddle Dolls in Ancient Egypt : Gaudy or Godly?

Megan Clark

Creatures of the Nile

Dr Gina Criscenzo-Laycock

Wherever I Lay my Hat : The Grand Hotels of Egypt

Lee Young

Senenmut, Mastermind Behind Hatshepsut's Masterpieces? 

Dr. Campbell Price

“Nilotic” scenes in the art of the Prehistoric Aegean: Egyptian, Egyptianizing or pure pastiche? 

Dr Gina Muskett

Tree Goddesses of Ancient Egypt
Dr Joanne Backhouse

January  2024

Dr. Backhouse began by showing a picture of a sycamore growing in Egypt today;(Ficus sycomorus) this is not the same variety we see in the UK but one with edible fruits providing nourishment, timber and shade. She went on to consider how the majority of the gods and goddesses in Ancient Egypt were often portrayed in multiple forms, human, animal and as objects and likened them to a vase. We can think of the gods as the empty vessel that could be filled with any of the 3 identities.

Trees, being one such identity, were used by many of them with Hathor, Isis and Nut as prime examples. A good illustration of this is found in the tomb of Sennedjem. He and his wife are shown in the Field of Reeds with lush farmlands and an orchard, mirroring a scenario from the afterlife which they hoped to achieve. The trees represented in part of the scene appear to be Ficus Sycomorus which are cultivated all over Egypt, though are probably originally native to Southern Africa. In the tomb of Meketre, 24 small models were found depicting an idyllic life. These included butchers, brewers, weavers and a model of a garden with a pond area that could be filled with water. The trees in this garden would provide a delightful shady area for leisure.

Many goddesses can represent water or breath. Today we understand that as trees add oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the air they have a practical use in improving air quality. Perhaps the Ancient Egyptians grasped this subconsciously, without having a scientific understanding of the process of photosynthesis. The wood obtained from the native trees, though often of poor quality, was valued, amongst other things, for the construction of coffins, such as the 6th Dynasty coffin of a priestess of Hathor displayed in the British Museum (EA46634 BM). Coffin texts often show the deceased greeting a goddess in her tree form. Many tomb paintings show scenes of sycamore fruits and wood being harvested.

Pairs of sycamores have an important association as part of the essential cycle of day to night to day, based on the travels of the gods and the deceased through the underworld and back into the light. The pairs of trees were associated with general offerings at first but later with individual goddesses, especially with those whose title was ‘Mistress of the Sycamore’. This title was also linked with the goddess Hathor, a major national goddess who was often called ‘Mistress of the Sycamore in all her places ‘. A statue of Menkaure in the Cairo Museum shows her empowering him to carry out his jubilee Hebsed ceremony.

Many early priestesses were the daughters of the king but later we start to see non-royals taking on this title. The worship of Hathor as Mistress of the Sycamore probably started at Memphis, although it is not possible to know this for certain.

One of the coffin texts from the First Intermediate Period says :

Where it is granted for you to eat

Say they who are there

Under the branches of the sycamore

I desire it

Together with the musicians of Hathor.

This shows an idealised picture of the afterlife with a depiction of two trees with the sun rising between them. In KV34 Tuthmosis III is shown suckling and taking sustenance from a tree, combining the concepts of the goddess Isis as a tree and his mother; a cleverly devised reference to fertility and nurture. In the tomb of Sobekhotep there are two representations of him and his wife or a goddess, who emerges from a tree and presents fruits, giving him permission to eat. They are by a lake full of solar symbols such as water lilies and tilapia fish which are representations of rebirth and suggest he is reborn in the afterlife. In the tomb of Nakht (TT52) from the reign of Amenhotep III, goddesses are shown wearing trees on their heads as symbols. The false door shows relatives bringing offerings. Two sycamore trees are shown on his Book of the Dead, placed in the coffin to help him transfer successfully to the afterlife and then be reborn like the sun. In the tomb of Khabekhnet the deceased, attended by Anubis, is accompanied by the goddesses Isis and Nephthys with a tree on either side to create a space for the transformation to take place.

At Dendera, the goddess Nut is shown using two ished trees to direct the life-giving rays of sun to the temple dedicated to a local form of Hathor. Nut is named in the tomb of Khensumose, priest of Amun-Ra (21st Dynasty), who stands in front of a tree giving sustenance to him. Some papyri are also a source of illustrations of the veneration of tree goddesses, showing the deceased sitting under a tree in the afterlife or often the tree stands in a pot on a small table and is adored. In the tomb of Qenamun, chief Steward of Amenhotep II, a tree is named as Onn, a representative of the goddess Nut. Similarly in the tomb of Sennefer (TT96) he is shown venerating an ished tree as a manifestation of Isis. This symbolism becomes incorporated into the Garden of the West; the ideal garden to which the family could withdraw. The tree is linked to water and shows the whole agricultural cycle of the year. No two trees are painted the same, showing the infinite variety in the garden.

Nut, Hathor and Isis are often shown in human form with a symbol on their head, or we sometimes see a local manifestation of these goddesses, such as Imenet as a local variant of Hathor. Another example in Nakhtamun’s tomb has Taweret as a representative of Nut as a tree. The scene continues to show a djed pillar with Isis and Nephthys and a composite god, representing rebirth. Later in the 18th Dynasty trees are often shown personified with hands reaching out from inside. A representation of Ramesses II from Deir el Medina, shows him being breast fed by Nut under a sycamore and this is the focus of the whole scene.

Dr. Backhouse, through her richly illustrated lecture, linked earthly life and the afterlife with tree goddesses. Trees provided food, shade and wood in both this life and the next and assisted in the passage of the deceased between the two. She also highlighted the association with water and breath, necessities in both earthly life and the afterlife, and demonstrated comprehensively how and why tree goddesses were so venerated in Ancient Egypt.

Paddle Dolls in Ancient Egypt : Gaudy or Godly?
Megan Clark

February 2024

The Society was pleased to welcome back Megan to give us another very interesting lecture on the subject of her PhD research – paddle dolls.

On first glance, they look rather like wooden spoons or miniature wooden paddles. She was first inspired to undertake this research after seeing the examples held in the Atkinson in Southport. There are only a relatively small number of these objects which, almost exclusively, came from the 11th and 12th Dynasties and, in Museums around the world, there are only 30 collections holding examples. The Atkinson is, therefore, very fortunate to have three. Prior to Megan undertaking her research they had not previously been studied in very great detail and there is so much more to reveal about them.

Megan showed us a number of examples in these 30 collections, including three from the Met and others from Boston, Leiden, Manchester, Swansea, Liverpool, Scotland, Cambridge, Stockholm and, of course, Southport. Whilst all have many similarities and are instantly recognisable as paddle dolls, the side by side images illustrated very clearly the differences between the dolls in terms of size, shape and decoration. The different elements of decoration include clothing in checkered, herringbone or diamond design, necklaces, dotted cross-over lines, tattoos and figure motifs, generally of Bes or Tawaret, and elaborate hairstyles. Some are fairly plain and representative, some highly decorated with a more shaped torso, often painted or inked with pigment. They all tend to be similar in shape with a bulbous lower end and usually a rounded base. The arms are truncated and there is a strong focus on the pubic region.

Locally, some can be found in the Atkinson Museum in Southport, and in both the Liverpool and Manchester collections. The Atkinson examples show differences in construction and preservation. One shows evidence of considerable damage. The length of the arms and legs suggest it is truncated and the base is squared off, with most of it missing. Most of the hairpiece is also lost. Another is covered with a white residue and again damaged at the base with little hair. The third has a hairpiece that seems to have been bulked out with straw, possibly added later to make it more saleable as, on close inspection, it looks like two pieces joined together. The grain of the wood can be clearly seen on the paddle doll in Liverpool’s World Museum and there is very little decoration. It is shorter and wider at the base than most examples and the very full hairpiece is quite different, being made of coiled linen strands on a linen base, rather than mud beads. The Manchester doll is more like the Atkinson dolls and is quite plain in design with some pigment decoration.

The Egyptologist Herbert Winlock, described paddle dolls as “barbarous looking things whittled out of thin paddles of wood, gaudily painted and with great mops of hair made of strings of little beads of black mud ending in elongated globs.“ This rather dismissive attitude prevailed for some considerable time, before any more serious academic study began.

Some museums now arrange activities involving children making paddle dolls as part of their educational programme because they can use bright colours and string for striking hairstyles. The work of a local artist, Emily Burke, has been influenced by them and Pagan Portals make similar objects but puts an emphasis on magical aspects and witchcraft.

But what was their function? Were they simply playthings placed in tombs as children’s toys as Garstang suggested? Herbert Winlock considered them as possible concubines for the afterlife where they were found placed in men’s tombs. Ellen Morris has made a more in depth study of one body of paddle dolls found near Deir el Bahri considering a number aspects, relating to the dolls themselves and associated tomb deposits, including location, tattoos, demographics, mirrors, costumes, music, general exposure and menat necklaces. She believes that this group could have represented dancers and musicians of the Khener Dancers connected to the court of Hathor. These are also seen in tomb paintings and texts particularly in the area around Deir el Bahri. The collection she studied had dolls in varying sizes and she felt this was a reflection of the make-up of the actual troupes which incorporated children, young girls and adult women. She also questioned whether the different costumes and tattoos distinguish between different types of dancers or singers. She considered whether there was an association with the goddess Hathor, who exposed her pubic area to her father, the god Ra. A further apparent connection to the goddess might also be seen in the associated menat necklaces and mirrors in the burials, both Hathoric emblems, or do some of the dolls represent Hathor herself as some show signs of a covering of gold leaf or paint?

When she started to look at paddle dolls, Megan said she did not think they always had hair. After researching in more detail, however, she now believes they all started out with hairpieces. The example in the Victoria and Albert Museum, missing its hair, has a resin residue still attached to the head. Other examples have a few strands attached to a coiled piece of linen with a little hair remaining and yet others appear to have mud stuck on the front. This is easier to identify on the examples made of wood or bone. The British Museum has some very rare examples of linen dolls that have very similar hair attachments. There are some regional differences to be identified in the hair attachments. It seems all were added on completion, with ‘hair’ often sewn onto a skull cap shaped piece of linen which was then glued onto the doll with resin. The hair could be mud beads or coiled or knotted linen.

Unfortunately many examples come with little or no provenance. Some fakes were bought by Joseph Sands and show the same motifs, style and colour as known originals.

Their true purpose is still not clear. More research is still needed that will look at all the dolls in the museums spread across the world and ideally include those in private collections, try and link them with other material culture of the time, establish if there are regional differences, look for links between the tombs they were found in and look to separate fact from myth in respect of what we really know about these archaeological oddities.

photo - Cheryl Tempest taken at World Museum, Liverpool

Creatures of the Nile
Dr Gina Criscenzo-Laycock

March 2024

Creatures of the Nile.

Gina is putting on an exhibition this year at Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery and Museum entitled Creatures of the Nile, to run from 4th May to 5th October 2024, and she treated the Society to a detailed preview through her lecture.

The exhibition includes animals from the Nile Valley and Sudan, which call the Nile home and considers the natural environment as a whole, drawing on material culture primarily from the Garstang’s own collection as well as loans from other museums, principally Manchester and the World Museum. Many of the object are not just art, they also have a function. The fact that the Nile runs though many different areas and environments is highlighted, with the joining of the Blue and White Niles at Khartoum and flowing all the way to the delta emptying out into the Mediterranean. The exhibition demonstrates how this long expanse of river was inhabited by Egyptians and Nubians from neolithic times right through to the Roman and Byzantine periods.

The fertility of the Nile aided a flourishing of human settlement from very early times and these people left behind images of animals that impacted on their lives. The habitat consisted of the river at its centre, green fertile strips on either side, leading off to the desert east and west and above it all the sky, with its bounty of birds; some seasonal and some permanent. The desert was not always the hostile, arid environment we see today and until about 5000 years ago was more savannah-like in parts. Finally, in all areas, there were the insects.

The river was teeming with life. Many tomb scenes represent this vast variety, although it is not always easy to identify specific species in the paintings. Some fish, however are very easy to spot, such as the tilapia and catfish. The banks often have dense foliage packed with ducks and geese. But not everything is benevolent and crocodiles and hippos often feature in fishing and fowling scenes. Many examples of these ferocious creatures are found in the material culture from the predynastic times onwards.

The land, incorporating the margins by the river, the grasslands/savannah and desert edges, is again often seen on tomb walls; Khnumhotep at Beni Hassan is depicted on a desert hunt chasing wild animals. But domesticated cattle and donkeys are also represented in art, both in painted images and, in the Middle Kingdom, in the form of models taken into the tomb for the afterlife. These domesticated animals were important both as a food source and beasts of burden. There was competition for the resources of water and fodder between the two groups and the wild animals could present significant danger with leopards and lions present. Leopards often formed part of priestly attire and lion representations featured through time in both Egypt and Sudan. Hyenas are not seen very often in material culture, so the Garstang is very fortunate to have three examples.

In the sky falcons were the most commonly known and depicted birds with many deities connected to them, starting with the hawk deity at predynastic Hierakonpolis. Another prominent bird in the iconography is the ibis, associated with Thoth, and vast numbers of mummified ibises used as votive offerings have been uncovered. Again in the imagery some of the birds are easily identifiable, but this is not always the case, especially in some of the earliest examples.

Insects are often overlooked, but form an essential part of the ecosystem. It appears that they are not often included in imagery, but closer inspection can reveal dragonflies, grasshoppers and bees, which of course were very important with their royal connection.

There was a very close connection between animals and the divine, with gods often shown as an animal or with animal attributes, being a manifestation of the power of that particular animal. The Lion manifests as Apademak in Sudan and Sekhmet in Egypt. Harnessing the danger and making it work for, not against, them is a key element well illustrated in the various snake-related deities. Hippos as powerful and aggressive creatures are perhaps not an obvious choice for a sympathetic and caring goddess like Tawaret, but they are at their most aggressive when protecting their young, so perhaps are emphasising maternal instincts. However, not all of the animals chosen were ferocious, such as Hathor being represented as a cow.

An example of an actual sacred animal is the Apis bull and the burials at the Serapeum attest to its importance. Otherwise animals were used in huge numbers as offerings to the associated god; cats for Bubastis, ibises for Thoth, dogs for Wepwawet. Mythical creatures also feature in both Egypt and Sudan such as the Ba bird and most famously the sphinx.

The use of animals by humans varied. They were a food source but also used in agriculture and for transport. When used as food, the non-edible parts did not go to waste and bones, hides, shells and feathers were used as raw materials for tools and decorative objects. Raw materials were also obtained from wild animals captured in the river and in desert hunts. Leopard pelts, ostrich feathers and ivory were highly prized and often feature on furniture, jewellery and clothing, with the imagery used as the decoration, rather than the animal itself. In writing a very large number of hieroglyphs are inspired by the natural world.

Over time different animals appear and disappear in the artistic repertoire indicating changes to the environment – some natural and some caused by humans. Elephants, giraffes and lions disappear from Egypt mostly from climate change but later introductions are also made with horses, chickens and camels. Human settlement impacts on the wild life by pushing it to the margins and hunting, frequently with dogs, and there are many representations of the tools and weapons used to catch fish, animals and birds from the river, land and sky.

The Society is looking forward to a group visit to the exhibition as soon as it opens.  https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/garstang-museum/news/articles/university-gallery-explores-world-of-ancient-egyptian-and-sudanese-animals/

Wherever I Lay My Hat
The Grand Hotels of Egypt

Lee Young

April 2024 

Egypt has had its fair share of Grand Hotels and universally accepted as the grandest of all was Shepheard’s. Of course in the early days of these luxury hotels, staying there depended very much on one’s status in society.

Lee took us back in time to look at how and why hotels first began. Accommodation offering facilities to guests was known from early Biblical times. The Romans offered lodgings – an example was found at Pompeii – and they were the first to introduce thermal baths. Later caravansaries popped up along the Middle Eastern trade routes and in the UK Abbeys took in travellers before inns were developed and staging posts, where horses could be changed. Hotels also developed to cater for pilgrims and crusaders to the Holy Lands. France was the first country to introduce a law requiring a register of guests to be kept and the UK soon followed suit. The very first guide books for travellers were also published in France. The building of hotels really blossomed in the 19th century after the industrial revolution.

Before tourism took root, in the early days of travel to Egypt, the majority of people were just passing through and arrival at the port of Alexandria was the way to facilitate this. A few arrived in Egypt as invalids looking for a better climate, but most were en route to India or other parts of Africa. They generally spent only one night there before moving on and the standard of accommodation was not particularly exciting. However, in 1887 the luxurious San Stefano hotel opened its doors. It faced the sea, had a full length latticed veranda and many facilities and gardens and soon became very popular, especially with the Cairo elite escaping the heat of the capital for the Summer months. Initially it only opened over the Summer, but later as guest numbers grew it remained open all year. More hotels were built, including the Cecil, but the San Stefano remained the most fashionable. However, after 1900 revolution and the departure of the more prominent families led to a decline and it wasn’t until Alexandria was seen as a place for tourists to visit in its own right in the 1980s that it finally began to revive. But in 1993 the San Stefano closed its doors and was subsequently demolished. The Four Seasons now stands on the same site.

In the early 1800s there were a few, but not many hotels in Cairo; Hill’s was the oldest, with D’Orient, Levicks and the Giardino as its competition. In 1850 Samuel Shepheard opened Shepheard’s and by the end of the century this was one of the most famous hotels in the world. Cairo was transforming at the same time as Shepheard built his hotel with a new city being created at the side of the old one and more hotels were built, such as the Grand Continental, to coincide with the opening of the Suez Canal. But there were also quite a number of new more humble hotels to cater for the ever growing numbers of tourists. At one point the numbers spiralled to such an extent that steamers on the Nile were drafted in as floating accommodation. Shepheard’s remained the choice of the elite and the terrace there was a famous and popular meeting place. In 1890 the hotel was torn down and replaced by a lavish structure with Italianate architecture. The interior was very grandiose and the hotel boasted 340 bedrooms and 240 bathrooms. The number of bathrooms was remarked on as very generous! Competition between hotels was fierce and they all strove to up their game with many alterations and additions. But through all this Shepheard’s stayed at the top. Post war many viewed the hotel as a seat of imperialism and disaster struck in 1952 with an arson attack by rioters. The hotel was totally ruined and never rebuilt. The plot on which it stood remained empty until the last years of the 20th Century. The hotel we currently know a Shepheards is in a different location and thoroughly modern.

The pyramids were visible from the city but there was no road there and the Nile had to be crossed by ferry. An expedition to the pyramids took two days by donkey. There was only basic accommodation there, which wasn’t to the liking of wealthy visitors. But then an English couple who had acquired the famous hunting lodge overlooking the pyramids, built a hotel at the side of their home and in 1886 the splendid Mena House opened. For their guests they ran a coach and four from the hotel to the Thomas Cook office in Cairo, until a tramway was completed, at about the same time as electric lighting was introduced. Tea on the terrace was very popular. Since those days there have been numerous additions and changes of ownership, with the result that the hotel looks very different to us today.

Moving south to Luxor, the Winter Palace is of course the grand hotel there. It opened in 1907 and, although there were quite a number of existing hotels, these were much more modest. The Winter Palace was built on a much larger and grander scale – an orchestra played in the vestibule - and it was always intended as the pre-eminent hotel. Within a week of opening it was full, attracting superior guests and, of course archaeologists. Lord Carnarvon made it his base of operations. In the 1960s and 70s air travel enabled a huge increase in tourism and many more hotels popped up in Luxor, but the Winter Palace always retained its place as the grandest and, despite many refurbishments and restorations over the years it still retains its character today.

Heading further south again, to Aswan, Lee’s chosen grand hotel was of course the Old Cataract. In the 19th century it took two days sailing to reach Aswan, until the railway opened in 1898. This was at about the same time that construction of the first dam began and word of how beautiful the area was soon spread, bringing an influx of tourists. Thomas Cook steamers brought many passengers, who initially had to stay in the few existing small hotels. Another steamer company set itself up as rivals to Thomas Cook and they built their own hotels to cater for their guests. Thomas Cook’s response to this was to outdo them with the construction of the hugely imposing Old Cataract, opening in 1899. It initially had 120 rooms, nearly all looking over the Nile and quickly proved so extremely popular that tents had to be erected in the grounds to accommodate the overflow of guests. In 1902 a third storey was added, bringing the room total to 220 and the hotel still looks the same today. The large veranda overlooking the river was immediately one of its most popular features and remains so to this day.

The Old Cataract also had its fair share of famous visitors including Agatha Christie. Whilst it is known for certain that she stayed there, it would be lovely to think that she penned Death on the Nile whilst at the hotel, but sadly there’s no evidence to suggest that she actually did.