The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Campbell Price
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Honestly, anything in the wonderful Egyptology collections of Manchester Museum! It is a great privilege to work with such a range of objects, inscribed and otherwise, and the pandemic has only highlighted to me how I have tended to take physical access to objects for granted.
There is, for example, a lovely little (well, little for a Pharaonic monument…) piece that is a personal favourite. It is a small basalt offering table, in the shape of the ‘hetep’ hieroglyph, meaning ‘offering’. It was dedicated by Queen Tiye to her husband King Amenhotep III, around 1350 BCE. They were the likely grandparents of Tutankhamun, Egypt’s most famous pharaoh.
It is just a touchingly personal piece – although we don’t know the real context of its creation, it is unusual to have an object dedicated by a woman like this. I always tell students to try to resist being sentimental about the past, but sometimes it’s difficult!
When did you first come across this piece?
I first encountered this piece in Manchester Museum’s storerooms when we were looking for something else – as so often happens – and the inscription struck me. It is not the most impressive piece but the hieroglyphs attracted my attention because they carried two royal names – in oval rings called ‘cartouches’ by Egyptologists. They named a husband and wife, which is fairly uncommon on objects as small as this. It just so happens that they are two of the most famous figures in Pharaonic history!
Can you tell me a bit about the table and its context?
This little offering table came to light during excavations conducted by workers for William Matthew Flinders Petrie at the royal palace site of Gurob. Used between around 1400 and 1100 BCE, the palace was plausibly somewhere that Queen Tiye may actually have lived. The inscription refers to ‘the royal ka (of) the Osiris, Neb-maat-re [Amenhotep III]’, implying that the king had died and she was praying to (and for) his spirit. Because the object is so modest in scale, you wonder if the widowed queen actually used it to make offerings to her deceased husband’s spirit during her stay at the palace.
What is it about this source that appeals to you most?
The text has a touchingly personal tone, rather atypical of ancient Egypt. It reads: ‘The Great Royal Wife, she made (it) as her dedication for her spouse, her beloved, the perfect god, Neb-maat-re [Amenhotep III]’. The term that I have translated as ‘spouse’ is ‘sen’ in ancient Egyptian and can mean brother, kinsman or family member – ‘spouse’ seems most appropriate here. We are so used to seeing colossal statues of Egyptian royalty –Amenhotep and Tiye more than most – but this is an ordinary, human thing – especially seen in light of the pandemic, when people have had to mourn in their own simple ways at home, including even Queen Elizabeth II for her own husband. There’s something strangely powerful about this.
This piece is featured in an innovative new programme at Manchester Museum, called ‘To Have and To Heal’, which aims to use objects to explore difficult topics and promote mindfulness. More about this here: http://www.socialresponsibility.manchester.ac.uk/news/november-2020/to-have-and-to-heal/
And finally… what do you do, outside of studying the ancient world, to cheer yourself up?
Go for a nice long walk in the sunshine, do some gardening – or mix myself a cocktail!
Dr Campbell Price has been Curator of Egypt and Sudan at the Manchester Museum, one of the UK’s largest Egyptology collections, since 2011. He completed his BA, MA, and PhD in Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, where he is now an Honorary Research Fellow.
Campbell has undertaken fieldwork at Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham, Saqqara and the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. He is Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Egypt Exploration Society, the foremost UK charity supporting Egypt’s cultural heritage.
Campbell has published widely on ancient Egyptian material culture. His books include Pocket Museum: Ancient Egypt (2018) and Golden Mummies of Egypt. Interpreting Identities from the Graeco-Roman Period (2020), to accompany Manchester Museum’s first international touring exhibition. The book is available to buy through Manchester Museum Shop online: https://www.manchestermuseumshop.co.uk/books-and-prints/golden-mummies-of-egypt
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.