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Tea with the Sphinx – the final part*

November 3, 2016

Why do you never get a good earworm? Why is it always something completely regrettable? Anyway, the final installment of TwtS, as it shall henceforth be known, I’m going to whiz through the final day being considerably less wordy than on previous occasions. Not because the second day was less word worthy, it was as excellent as the first day (and there was more cake) but if I don’t get a wriggle on we’ll be here until Christmas.

So – day 2: having overslept and got lost, again, I arrived part way through the first session on Mummies, which meant I missed the beginning of Jasmine Day‘s paper. This was extremely annoying since Jasmine Day knows all about Mummymania and her paper was as entertaining as you’d expect. I’m hoping I got the gist of it, apologies if I’ve missed something essential. Focussing on the illustration of Allamistakeo from Edgar Allan Poe’s Some Words with a Mummy (1845) Jasmine talked about how Poe was at the vanguard of satire, using comedy to sharpen his social and political critiques. The nineteenth century saw the unashamed stripping of bodies (and places) and while Poe’s work didn’t question the ethics of colonialism it did raise the question of cultural imperialism and certainly questioned the morality of disinterment. Intertwined with this, Jasmine discussed eugenics, ideas of race and mummies and the feminisation of mummies in nineteenth century literature, brought back to life such mummies could be seduced and therefore neutralised.

Jasmine was followed by Angela Stienne talking about the typology of engagement with mummies before real Egyptology began. Discussing the mummy dissections performed through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century by Denon, Hadley, Granville, Belzoni and Pettigrew Angela suggested that these dissections are part of the history of engagement with mummies undertaken for a variety of reasons illustrating the fluidity of the mummies’ identity during this period. Angela’s contention is that mummies are multi-layered objects with a multitude of meanings that have to be addressed and we, and particularly museums, have to discover ways of engaging with their history while acknowledging that they are not simply objects, but corpses. Angela’s solution is object biographies which would emphasise their humanity. This led to a fascinating discussion about the difference between actual dissections and digital unwrapping, the idea that if the mummies name is prominently displayed in a museum gallery it goes some way to fulfilling ancient Egyptian rites, who mummies belong to and all sorts of other really interesting stuff.

We then moved on to Religion and Howard Carlton discussing the re-imagining of ancient Egyptian religion by fraternal societies and esoteric cults. I had no idea Mozart was a freemason and this is why he was contracted to write the Magic Flute. Admittedly what I know of Mozart could be summed up as ‘composer, lived quite some time ago, German? Magic Flute, Rock me‘ so pretty much anything anyone told me would be new information. Anyway, Howard talked about Count Cagliostro and other ocultists using supposedly ancient Egyptian themes in freemasonry, the Rite of Memphis-Misraim (linked to Garibaldi y’know – which, again, I didn’t) and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – who sound quite splendidly bonkers. Throw in some Rosicrucians, Champollion’s decipherment of hieroglyphs, nineteenth century revolutionary movements and you have a heady mix of real and imagined sources to draw on for your cult/society.

Howard was followed by Charlotte Coull discussing framings of Indian religion and Ancient Egypt as seen through British Empire eyes. The Great Exhibition emphasized the differences between India and Egypt, Egypt was portrayed as the land of mysterious past while Indian goods were contemporary products emphasizing the economic potential of the country. Similarly, although there were attempts to incorporate Buddhism into Christian understandings, Egypt’s significance in the Bible outweighed this attempt and while Egyptian motifs were used – stripped of their religious significance – in British death architecture, Indian architecture was avoided since it belonged to an idolatrous living religion, to the extent that whereas Ancient Egyptian material was prominently displayed in the British Museum, Indian material was tucked away in a basement – I may have misremembered that part? Islam was seen as dangerous in both countries, but Ancient Egypt was constructed as the land of the Bible, particularly after the EES began their explorations. Ancient Egyptian beliefs could be incorporated into horror and supernatural literature and later films, their familiarity rendering them safe, whereas Indian religion was seen as fetishistic, foreign and threatening.

Staying with literature, Sara Brio discussed Rider Haggard’s Cleopatra as a microcosm of changing Victorian attitudes to Christianity and Sara argued Rider Haggard used Ancient Egypt to explore his doubts and worries about Protestantism. The commodification of sensational aspects of Ancient Egypt was already well established by the time Cleopatra was serialised in the Illustrated London News and Haggard was drawing on this tradition knowing his readers would recognise and understand the Biblical connection and significance of his characters. The illustrations accompanying his text reinforced the message, echoing Biblical scenes, and as Sara pointed out, this was set against the Victorians’ growing doubt surrounding the idea of the Christian afterlife, concerns Haggard shared.


Copyright Sara Brio, photo taken

However, regardless of his conflicting beliefs, Haggard’s work merged Ancient Egyptian religion and Judeo-Christian beliefs in a form that allowed him to explore his uncertainties and fears while being careful not to alienate contemporary or future readers.

Because I am not an art historian nor do I know anything about nineteenth century literary tropes, and despite the papers being so interesting and instructive, I will admit I was relieved that the next session was about something closer to my comfort zone. Mara Gold presented a stonking paper about archaeology, fashion and Egyptology in the early twentieth century. In a paper which mentioned Sarah Bernhardt, Theda Bara, Claudette Colbert, the Ballet Russe, Erté, Cartier and Lady Asquith, Mara discussed the increasing sexualisation and modernisation of Cleopatra during the twentieth century. Egypt, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, as well as Egyptian architecture, were part of the early twentieth century British lexicon.


Copyright Mara Gold. Photo taken by Kelee Siat

Haper’s Bazaar, Vogue and the Illustrated London News carried ‘think pieces’ about Ancient Egypt as well as reinterpreting ancient clothing as fashion. The power and authority of Ancient Egyptian women, particularly Hatshepsut, was used as an argument for empowerment in suffrage and educational circles. It was expected that any well-read woman would know all about Egyptological discoveries, archaeology, feminism and femininity were all connected, so that  Frances Willard could argue Egyptology was a good job for women.

Mara was followed by Gabrielle Heffernan of Hull Museums. Now, I knew that there had been replicas of Tutankhamum’s tomb on display at the British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley Park in 1924. What I hadn’t realised was that the artefacts were still in existence and on display in Hull, insofar as I’d considered what happened to them post-Wembley I’d assumed they were fairly rough copies intended for temporary display, but no: Gabby explained that the replicas were made by William Aumonier a well-known sculptor, he was advised by Weigall and used published photographs to make the copies. Howard Carter heard of the exhibition and sued – of course he did – but lost and the display went ahead. However, the objects exhibited were more about Britain than Egypt. Gabby suggested a 4-fold explanation for the creation of the objects: the social context – a post-war demonstration of the success and power of Britain; to boost the economy by investing in British work; to imbue a sense of shared social identity as the excavation was being framed as a British achievement; and finally popular culture, the never-ending media interest in magic and mystery of the East. But Gabby’s paper told more than a nice story, she discussed the role of replicas, questioning why we visit sites and what happens when the site itself is moved or closed and we’re directed to a replica, as has happened with Lascaux, Tutankhmaun’s tomb and Abu Simbel. What is the difference between  a replica and a reconstruction? When does a replica become an object in its own right? Are the boundaries between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ straightforward or are they blurred and fluid? All very interesting and thought-provoking.

I appear to have abandoned brevity again. Sigh. I will conclude this conference report. I will, damn it! But maybe that’s enough for today. I’ll try and finish tomorrow, children and half-term permitting.


*ish, yes, the final-ish part.


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