Entertainment & Arts

Ashmolean Museum's Egyptian gems seen in new light

Image caption The Egyptian life after death gallery at the Ashmolean has some new displays

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has the best collection outside Cairo of artefacts from the earliest years of Ancient Egypt.

But now its new Egyptian galleries will let visitors discover far more about one of the world's great civilisations.

The old Egyptian galleries at the Ashmolean Museum were so crowded that there was no space for what will surely become one of the big draws - the mummies newly taken out of storage.

The most striking is a Roman mummy from around AD130 which shows the invading power picking up on Egyptian traditions. Unusually the facial portrait remains clear and intact, showing a woman wearing a fine set of pearls.

'Playful and innovative'

But the glory of the Ashmolean collection remains its holdings from Egypt's earlier predynastic era, even outdoing those at the British Museum in London.

The predynastic period dates from 5500BC and ending with the formation of a recognisable Egyptian state in 3100BC. It's a huge period of time, longer than that separating us from the birth of Christ.

The first thing visitors see on entering the new galleries, designed by the architect Rick Mather, is two big statues of the fertility god Min.

They were excavated in Coptos in 1893 by Flinders Petrie, regarded by some as the father of modern archaeology.

In both cases, Min has lost the phallus which represented his potency to the Egyptians.

Some objects are more domestic. There's a kitchen colander from the Kingdom of Kush, remarkably well-preserved and whose intricate patterning suggests it came from a high-status tomb.

At the other end of the scale is the impressive shrine of the Pharaoh Taharqa, built at Kawa in around 690BC. Kawa was in Nubia (now Sudan) and one of the stories the galleries tell is the competitive relationship between the Egyptians and the Nubians.

The Ashmolean's Liam McNamara says the idea is to take visitors on a chronological journey, while still drawing them into specific themes such as attitudes to death or Egypt's relationship with Greece and Rome.

"Compared to earlier layouts, when there was much less space available, we think the museum is now quite playful and innovative in giving a real sense of what Ancient Egypt was like across the millennia," he explains.

"Some things changed but much of the culture was consistent. So if you know a lot about Ancient Egypt - or almost nothing - you can still enjoy the visit."

One gallery looks at the Amarna period, in many ways the pinnacle of Egyptian power.

"The empire stretched from what's now Sudan to the Middle East and there were strong connections to the Mediterranean world and beyond. We tried to use our new space to shed light on that story," says Mr McNamara.

Image caption Mummiform figurines form part of the exhibition

He adds that another aim is to show visitors how dynamic the study of this area remains.

"We're learning new information every year. And that breathes new life into existing collections in the world's museums."

"We regularly return to investigation reports from the 1800s to discover new information which wasn't so obvious then. In fact there are more excavations than ever, although mainly they're smaller than in what is regarded as the golden age."

With the completion of the Ashmolean's galleries, two years on from its major re-opening in 2009, visitors can investigate four big ancient civilisations: Egypt, Rome, Greece and China.

It put the museum in a position to shed light on how, over the centuries, political power has been won and lost around the globe.

The new Egyptian Galleries at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford open on Saturday 26th November

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites