Tea (and cake) with the Sphinx
You thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you? Not so. It’s just been stupid busy around here, cats, chickens and children with a side order of guinea pigs, lectures and other stuff I now can’t remember and that probably wouldn’t alliterate nicely anyway.
So, after the keynote speech by Chris Naunton, we had DEATH! The first paper was by Chris Elliott and entitled The New Zealander on the Bridge: Cleopatra’s Needle as Memento Mori for Victorian London.
Now, I had never heard of the New Zealander on the bridge cliche, how I’m not entirely certain given its ubiquity in nineteenth-century journalism, but Chris gave a fascinating talk about Cleopatra’s needle, the idea of empire, London as the embodiment of the British Empire and the uneasy relationship Victorians had with the city itself and the fear that the British Empire would go the way of all other empires – see momento mori – it all fits together nicely, that Chris Elliot knows how to write a paper, I can tell you! He also – and this is where I demonstrate that once an archaeologist always an archaeologist – mentioned some of the things that were put in the cache underneath the foundation stone, including a bronze model of the obelisk itself, why? Why would you put in a model of the thing you were erecting? I got completely side tracked by this and spent far more time than is possibly healthy thinking about depositions and what the Victorians were trying to say with a portrait of Queen Victoria and a box of hairpins.
Thankfully I was rescued from this by Nichola Tonks talking about Egyptomania and the Material Culture of British Burials; or, How Hamilton Lost His Feet.
While Nichola told us many sensible things about the middle classes, garden cemeteries and the increasing popularity of Alexander MacDonald‘s polished granite, it was Alexander Hamilton‘s mummification by Thomas Pettigrew that has stuck in my head. The 10th Duke of Hamilton bought a sarcophagus in Paris to sell to the British Museum, as you do, the BM decided they didn’t want it, so Hamilton kept it and decided to be buried in it, again, as you do. Unfortunately the sarcophagus belonged to a woman and Hamilton was too big to fit, he worried about this on his death bed, but Pettigrew solved the problem by chopping off Hamilton’s feet – post mortem I hasten to add – and tucking them into the sarcophagus under Hamilton’s arms. No, really. You can read about it here.
Nichola was followed by Ellie Dobson, her paper, The Sphinx at the Séance: Literature, Spiritualism and Psycho-Archaeology was just as fascinating. Nineteenth-century spiritualism, seances with Egyptian motifs producing mummy cloths, writing, portraits and hand prints, Madame D’Esperance, archaeologists verifying the Egyptian-ness of it all, despite the very obvious westernisation of these supposedly Eastern manifestations.
Meanwhile society ladies were dressing up as, corsetted, Cleopatras, tourists were having their photos taken and superimposed onto sarcophogi and sphinxes and Bram Stoker (amongst others) was writing Egyptian themed literature. It was, as Ellie stressed, a safe way of accessing the occult otherness of Egypt, a safe way of appropriating the East. All of this appropriation, including the many excavations taking place, was accepted as cultural entitlement and by framing the West as inheritors of Egypt’s past – conveniently assuaging any residual guilt.
After lunch – onion bahji sandwich anyone? I confess I wussed out of eating those, but I did stand next to people who ate them, adventurous eating by proximity – the theme moved on to travel., with Louise Ellis-Barrett getting Up Close and Personal: Sir John Gardner Wilkinson Pictures Egypt. Louise’s starting point was a critique of Jason Thompson‘s biography of Wilkinson, there was, she argued, so much more to be said about such an interesting and complex character.
Using his sketchbooks, notebooks and diaries, Louise is beginning to put together a very different and multi-dimensional view of such an important figure in the history of Egyptology. She was followed by Charlotte Booth talking about Alice Leider. Alice was the wife of a German protestant missionary and together they took a trip down the Nile in 1850/1 visiting many of the famous sites. Charlotte has been following in Alice’s footsteps trying to link the squeezes Alice made (or had made for her) to the inscriptions.
Such research is partly a way of identifying what has now been lost – in many instances the nineteenth-century squeezes are all that is left – but it’s also an insight into traveller’s lives, an indication of what they thought was interesting or important to record. In Alice’s case this is a wonderfully random selection of inscriptions, and included any contemporary and near contemporary famous names she came across – all presented with Charlotte’s commentary of her visits to the sites adding an extra layer of narrative and history to those of us who like to stroke our chins and say ‘hmmmm’ in an intelectualist stylee.
I’m trying to compress what I’m saying because I’m aware I’m in danger of going on as long as the conference itself, I’m not succeeding – you can see why I struggled with twitter, although I am now the Queen of Tweets, oh yes! Anyway, minimalism* that’s what I’m striving for here, so the Comics session – 2 excellent papers by Daniel Potter and Nickianne Moody. Dan was talking about “Doctor Fate and the Blood of the Pharaohs”: The Reception of Ancient Egypt in Comics. I’d never heard of Doctor Fate or his Egyptian power sources, I am rubbish at comics, but this didn’t matter a jot!
The combination of Dan’s enthusiasm, his graphics – not just comic book superheroes but also the discovery that there’s a division of the ages of comics from gold to bronze to modern – and the level of knowledge displayed by modern comic writers and illustrators made this one of the most enjoyable presentations I’ve ever heard/seen. More people should be doing this sort of stuff**. Nickianne is not going to get the write-up she deserves, I was paying attention, I was really interested, how could I not be in a talk about Girls’ Comics, Egyptian Priestesses and Feminine Power?
And I have notes about the use of the past in the popular literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries, particularly mummies as themes and tropes of complexity, moral ambiguity and women’s power. The comics Spellbound and Misty both drew on this tradition and I swear I was paying attention to the use of Egypt to create active rather than passive heroines but imagine the effect of seeing something you once burned to possess
So, yes, sorry Nickianne, if it hadn’t been for the Supercats Secret Diary I’d have a much better summary of your paper – and I wouldn’t have remembered a long forgotten grievance!
We ended the day with Egypt in the British Isles aka 2 really entertaining papers by Emmet Jackson and Martyn Barber. Emmet was talking about Guinness with the Sphinx: The Reception of Ancient Egypt in Ireland and how in Ireland Egyptomania was very much an Anglo-Irish phenomena: from travellers such as Lady Harriet Kavanagh and Sir William Wilde to the Wellington Monument in Dublin, to the obelisks and faux pyramids found throughout Ireland – all Anglo-Irish. From these eminent folk Emmet moved on to the Freemasons Lodge on Molesworth Street in Dublin (the second largest Freemasons lodge ever!) which has an Egyptian room – of course, given the Freemasons’ Eastern links, but this is an Egyptian room of superb garishness and it has a secret trapdoor.
I think there was more to this than ‘Look at the decor! Look! A secret trapdoor! I went down there!’ but again I missed it. But, come on! Look at that decor. And a secret trapdoor. You’d have got sidetracked too. Anyway, once I’d got over that, Emmet had moved on to Irish origin myths linking to Egypt and their use in creating a national identity – Dr Hastler (James Whittley Boswell), Yeats and the other Celtic Twilight writers all either directly traced Irish history back to the Egyptians, or they linked Irish Celticism to the Orient with both spheres constructed as other, magical and colonised. Joyce disparaged the Celtic revival writers but he too used Egyptian motifs in his work proving the longevity of this theme.
And finally, Martyn and his ‘what’s in the box?’ paper “Let Sleeping Scarabs Alone”: When Egypt Came to Stonehenge. There’s more Egyptian stuff in Wiltshire than you’d think y’know, particularly the bits Alexander Keiller was involved with (I blame his interests in witchcraft and pornography, I may have just made us liable to being sued) not only did he replace the missing stones at Avebury with obelisks, he also designed a museum for Stonehenge that was shaped like a mastaba. However, Martyn was actually talking about 2 scarabs
found in Wiltshire in 1928 (or 1930, confusingly I wrote down 2 dates), hyperdiffusionism both academic – Grafton Elliot Smith and W. J. Perry – and the more populist – H.J. Massingham and Rendel Harris who saw Egyptians everywhere he looked, particularly in placenames, and published prolifically on the subject. Back to the scarabs, were they real or fake? And, if real, what were they doing in Wiltshire? Various opinions were offered, the original Stonehenge scarab went missing, Crawford, Engleheart and a rather mysterious individual called Paul Collignon all had theories (you can read Engleheart’s report here) and to further complicate matters A.D. Passmore (presumably after he went bonkers – if we’re going to be sued might as well be sued en masse, eh?) wrote a letter claiming he had owned the scarabs and used them as paperweights but, tantalisingly, the rest of his letter has been lost. Unsurprisingly, in the face of this confusion Maud Cunnington, the keeper of Devizes Museum, decided not to catalogue them and ‘let sleeping scarabs lie’.
This is, I know, a monstrous post and I haven’t done justice to any of the speakers not just the ones who waved shiny things at me, nor have I finished my report. I will continue, but maybe not for a few days – I’ll give you all time to recover.
*I have a cunning plan.
.**I have another plan, a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel, it involves watching Scooby Doo to research how archaeology is shown in Hanna Barbera cartoons. Now that is cunning.