With Egyptian antiquities as the ancient, yet now quite commonplace, staple of many British museums, the academic collection of Egyptian artefacts at UCL might at first glance be brushed off as relatively uninteresting. But the private collection of William Finders Petrie, who was the first appointed Edwards professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology, forms not only one of the largest archaeological collections in the world from Egypt and Sudan, but also a very special and unique museum experience.
With tough competition in the form of the British Museum, which possesses the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of Egyptian antiquities, the Petrie Museum on the UCL campus still very much holds its own, offering something unique and different from the usual displays of Egyptian artefacts that can be viewed in museums throughout the country. With over 80,000 artefacts, most of which were obtained by Petrie throughout his career, there is a huge amount of material to draw on for display and, whereas the likes of the British Museum will display their antiquities in clear and predictable ways to educate the masses, the Petrie Museum adopts a refreshingly understated presentation which sometimes gives the impression of looking into your professor's own office cabinet. Objects are crowded into the display cases, in most cases with only their catalogue number and a few words as explanation - with the result that you can stand and peer into one single section of the display for some time, absorbed, looking from a pair of bronze hair curlers in the form of a galloping horse to a carved toilet brush to a limestone carving of two monkeys in an affectionate pose from the Amarna period. Individuals will be able to pick out items that they find intriguing out of the general mass - beautiful faces formed in stone and finely carved needles - creating a sense of discovery.
Considering that only a small selection of the collection is able to be displayed in the two small rooms of the museum, there is an astounding range of periods covered. There are Paleolithic blades and harpoons spanning a period from 800,000 to 200,000 BC, and a tool thought to be the earliest identified recording of the days and nights by a lunar calendar. The development of ceramic skill, the introduction of metal, and glass in the Roman period, and evidence of delicate clothing are all documented in Petrie's artefacts. And whilst there are certainly the standard impressive Egyptian artefacts that are usually on display at larger museums, including an array of burial portraits brought in during the Roman period, gilded coffin cases and a huge earthenware pot with human remains inside, there are also many items used in the everyday life of the people from the Nile valley from throughout the ages - a rat trap, hair pins, lanterns and amulets all offer interesting insights. And clearly the collection possesses its own very many notable artefacts, including the earliest known 'dress' made of beadnet for a dancer from the Pyramid Age in 2400 BC (that could be taken for underwear or jewellery, rather than clothing), early glassware from the Roman period (that looks so clear it could have been made in the twenty-first century), and the oldest gynaecological papyrus.
Petrie did not take the time to completely catalogue everything he found, and this display is the result of decades of work by academics and volunteers - with a complete online catalogue now available as a testament to the extent of the work that has been carried out. The way in which this huge quantity of items has been displayed, with very little information offered on individual artefacts, gives a sense that this is a collection that will be most adequately be admired by those studying ancient Egypt and Sudan. Yet despite the more user-friendly Egyptian display at the British Museum being just down the road, the Petrie Museum offers far more in atmosphere and intrigue - a sense of discovery that cannot be beaten.
The Petrie Museum houses an estimated 80,000 objects, making it one of the greatest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world. It illustrates life in the Nile Valley from prehistory through the time of the pharaohs, the Ptolemaic, Roman and Coptic periods to the Islamic period.
The collection is full of 'firsts': One of the earliest pieces of linen from Egypt (about 5000 BC); two lions from the temple of Min at Koptos, from the earliest known examples of monumental sculpture (about 3000 BC); a fragment from the first kinglist or calendar (about 2900 BC); the earliest example of metal from Egypt, the first worked iron beads, the earliest example of glazing, the earliest 'cylinder seal' in Egypt (about 3500 BC); the oldest wills on papyrus paper, the oldest gynaecological papyrus; the only veterinary papyrus from ancient Egypt, and the largest architectural drawing, showing a shrine (about 1300 BC).
Costume is another strength of the collection. In addition to the 'oldest dress' there is a unique beadnet dress of a dancer from the Pyramid Age, about 2400 BC, two long sleeved robes of the same date; a suit of armour from the palace of Memphis (awaiting reconstruction), as well as socks and sandals from the Roman period.
The collection contains outstanding works of art from Akhenaten’s city at Amarna: colourful tiles, carvings and frescoes, and from many other important Egyptian and Nubian settlements and burial sites. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of Roman period mummy portraits (first to second centuries AD).
More than these highlights, though, the collection is uniquely important because so much of it comes from documented excavations. The large typological series of objects (amulets, faience, objects of daily use, tools and weapons, weights and measures, stone vessels, jewellery) provide a unique insight into how people have lived and died in the Nile Valley.
Admission is free.
Petrie Museum of Egyptian ArchaeologyUniversity College London, Gower Street
London Greater London United Kingdom WC1E 6BT
Group and research visits on Mondays by prebooking.
Closed over Christmas and Easter holidays.