Petrie Museum Unofficial Page

Petrie Museum Unofficial Page This page celebrates a great museum - the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL, and the work of the Friends of the Petrie Museum (PMF) to promote the Museum, organise lectures and events, and raise funds for conservation of objects in the museum.

Operating as usual

We first posted this in 2014 but many Friends either have forgotten it or never saw it, and many of the links have chang...

We first posted this in 2014 but many Friends either have forgotten it or never saw it, and many of the links have changed! (corrected here, if anyone spots an error, please let me know). Tian Tian gave a fascinating lecture on Friday night about Chinese discovery and study of Ancient Egypt ending with a lively discussion of the role of Xia Nai who invented a bead seriation to rival Petrie’s pottery sequence dating. Tian has now completed a Chinese transcription, and an English translation, of Xia Nai’s PhD so Stephen Quirke’s hopes in the last para below have been fulfilled. (JP)

“Without exaggeration, this is quite possibly the most important and exciting piece of Petrie research to be made available online, and easily available to the public. And it only took 74 years!

There are some 3000 strings of beads in the Petrie Museum. These formed the subject of a dissertation in the 1940s by Xia Nai, one of China's leading archaeologists and pioneers after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. Xia Nai's dissertation was only published in 2014 and to ensure that the research that underpinned this was also available, scans of Xia Nai's 1760 index cards held in the Petrie Museum archives were made.
You can read more about the bead index in a piece from curator Kristin A. Phelps,
or read curator Stephen Quirke's short biography of Xia Nai.
Shuoting Zhang and Daniel Takacs have produced a concordance of Xia Nai and UC numbers.
We are very grateful to the staff, volunteers and students who have contributed to making the Xia Nai archive resource publically available: Sam Washington, Daniel Takacs, Kristin Phelps, Shuoting Zhang and Marwa Helmy.
Online Resources
Xia Nai index cards can be accessed here.

Xia, Nai (2014) Ancient Egyptian Beads. Springer. Details here for e-book and hard copy (but a HORRIBLE price).

We are very grateful to the staff, volunteers and students who have contributed to making the Xia Nai archive resource publicly available: Sam Washington, Daniel Takacs, Kristin Phelps, Shuoting Zhang amd Marwa Helmy.
A message from Professor Stephen Quirke: "For now, I am hugely hugely grateful to [many people] for this possibility of making freely available one of the uniquely useful resources of the many internationally important assets of the Petrie Museum - when a hard copy of the Xia Nai PhD publication becomes available, it could have very substantial impact on Egyptian archaeology (which has never managed a bead corpus publication ...)" But Stephen obviously hasn't seen the price of the book !
Photo: UC29133
Random string of beads: 11 carnelian barrel beads, 3 blue glass barrel beads, 4 yellow glass barrel beads, 1 white glass barrel bead, 1 carnelian wd3t eye amulet, 1 pisciform green glazed steatite seal with name of Imn.R' on base, 1 green faience scarab edged with a silver (?) band and incised Mn.hpr.R' (Tuthmosis III), 1 rectangular green glazed steatite plaque with name of Ramesses II: Wsr.M3.R' and 1 larger green glazed steatite scarab with name of Tuthmosis III: Mn.hpr.R' and winged scarab

Random Objects 31 - UC25504, a tiny Old Kingdom stone vessel that contributes to a complicated history of smuggling, col...

Random Objects 31 - UC25504, a tiny Old Kingdom stone vessel that contributes to a complicated history of smuggling, collecting and the redistribution of museum collections

On several recent posts, the practice of “partage” has been mentioned in passing. Partage is the process by which, in the past, the finds from archaeological excavations were divided amongst the institutions and people who helped to finance the excavations. The Egyptian Antiquities Service selected the pieces that it wanted to retain, but the rest of the collection might be split between any number of organizations across the planet, including museums, universities, schools and private contributors (see map below). This was standard practice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In his 1948 volume Mostagedda, Guy Brunton, a former student of W.M.F. Petrie, provides an example of this sort of arrangement for the excavations carried out in Mostagedda between 1928 and 1929:


As well as acquiring objects via sponsorship, many excavators and collectors regularly bought unprovenanced items (where no location of the object’s origin is recorded) from antiquities dealers and even directly from those who robbed graves. Museums were themselves active purchasers of antiquities via both dealers and personal collectors, who not only sold to museums but often collected in their own right. Personal collections might consist of just a few items but could also consist of several hundred or more pieces. Many of these objects have eventually found their way into museums as personal gifts and bequests, and a lot of objects have moved between museums when collections have been reviewed and rationalized. Once excavated or plundered, objects could have complex travel trajectories before finding themselves in their present location, and some might yet be loaned out for exhibitions or teaching purposes.

Sometimes, of course, it is difficult or impossible to track museum objects back to their points of archaeological origin, often making it awkward to use them for research purposes. Even when officially excavated, objects may lack precise provenance, such as a grave number within a cemetery. The earliest investigations into Egypt’s past were little more than legitimized tomb robbing but even as the situation improved, the quality of excavation work in the late 19th and early 20th Century was inconsistent in terms of technical approach, attention to detail and record-keeping. Some excavations were distinctly haphazard, others were very poorly recorded.

Even when working with the records of archaeologists who had the best of intentions and usually practised excellent procedures for the day, like Petrie, it can still sometimes be difficult to track on object back to the assemblage from which it originally came. Petrie's work at Naqada is a good example, the result of his excavations an absolute muddle for modern researchers who are trying to untangle the Predynastic period. Some excavated sites were never published. In other cases, excavators provided details only about the most sensational of the finds from a particular site, only drawing plans for a tiny fraction of the total number of graves in cemeteries and failing to list complete records of grave goods. Sometimes years passed between the excavation and a publication, and the resulting reports could be unhelpfully brief. G uy Brunton’s final publication about the Badari area, which was excavated in the 1929-31 seasons, was not published until 1948 and was much less detailed and informative than his earlier works, leaving the sense of a job half done. Gertrude Caton-Thompson always intended to build on her 1928 published work on the Badarian period, on which she worked alongside Brunton, but her delay was costly: her notes were lost during the Second World War.

Private collections based on purchases from dealers are particularly difficult to assess. As soon as foreign travellers started buying such items a vigorous market developed in Egypt, and that market was at first completely unregulated and policed. Subsequently it began to be regulated, but enforcement was challenging. Marianne Brocklehurst is a good example of a European traveller and collector. She cruised the Nile in private sailing boat called a dahabeiya at the same time as Amelia Edwards. As well as investing in excavations and benefiting from the partage system, she purchased several of the objects in her collection in blatant violation of a ban on exporting Egyptian antiquities. Her diary entry for the purchase of a mummy and coffin describes how she revelled in the act of “smuggling on a large scale under the nose of the Pasha’s guards.” The “Pasha” was Auguste Mariette, Director of Egyptian Monuments in Egypt. It was agreed that following payment, the mummy was to be brought at night to the boat in which Marianne and her friend were travelling, to be handed through a cabin window, and this is exactly what happened. The mummy was disposed of, buried by the side of the Nile, and the coffin was hidden in a linen cabinet on board the boat. At the end of the trip it was successfully smuggled out of Alexandria and it eventually became the star object in the West Park Museum that was built by Marianne and her brother to house the collection.

When museums started recruiting both experts like Petrie and well-informed travellers like Reverend Greville John Chester, who became a friend of Petrie’s, the market exploded, meaning that increasing numbers of graves and temples were plundered, more objects were removed from their contexts without any record of where they had originated, and a staggering amount data was lost to posterity.

Pinning down the journeys that some museum objects took, working out which objects had originally been deposited together as single assemblages and considering how best to use unprovenanced items have become very important topics, as researchers increasingly use museum collections as resources. One part of this problem, reconstructing the places of origin of excavated items now held in museums was one of the goals of a three year programme of investigation called “Artefacts of Excavation.” This project took place between 2014 and 2017 and was a collaborative initiative between the University of Oxford, University College London and the Egypt Exploration Society, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. One of its multiple goals was to track down dispersed items from the British School of Archaeology in Egypt and the Egypt Exploration Fund and bring them together on a website hosted by the Griffith Institute so that researchers could reconstruct, in a virtual environment, assemblages of objects that had been deposited together but are now dispersed across two or more collections.

The project estimated that more than 140 institutions around the world received objects from these two sources between 1882, the year that the EEF was founded, and the First World War. As an example, in their book “The Badarian Civilzation,” Brunton and Caton-Thompson record that objects from the 1925-1929 seasons went to 28 institutions world-wide, mainly museums. When an object is received by a museum it is “accessioned” or registered, and this process allocates it a unique number within the museum that ties it to some basic essential information (such as country, region, site, context within site, dimensions, materials, general description including translation of hieroglyph, and further references if available). Sometimes this information was not recorded in full, often due to lack of information about the object at the time, or because either the information or the object was later lost. Using excavation reports and excavators’ personal notebooks are two ways in which modern researchers can attempt to connect an object back to its original context.

One of the techniques used to track individual items is to study what is written on the objects themselves. And at last we get to UC25504! UC22504 is a delectable little Old Kingdom stone vessel, beautifully worked. Stone vessels were a particular feature of Old Kingdom funerary assemblages, and miniature versions are common. UC25504 is both a perfect example of one of these miniature stone vessels, and a good example of how museum professionals and researchers can use modern markings to track down the original provenance of a particular piece. In the case of UC25504, as well as the original accession record there are two markings that, should it ever find itself lost, would enable someone to track its travels once it left Egypt.

Although now in the Petrie Museum, the object was sent not to the Petrie but to the Wellcome Library. American national Henry Wellcome made the switch from salesman to entrepreneur in 1880 when he co-founded a pharmaceutical production company in London and amassed a large personal fortune, part of which he used to buy Egyptian antiquities, including UC25504. The company became a trust when Wellcome died in 1936, the Trust undertook to organize Wellcome’s collection of books and objects. When UC25504 became part of the Wellcome Trust collection it was given an accession (registration) number, which included the date it was accessioned, and this was written in ink on the vessel: R4031/1937, as shown in the photograph. Between Wellcome’s death (in 1936) and 1985, many of the objects in the Wellcome Trust collections were transferred to other institutions that had the expertise to care for them. UC25504 was one of many objects that found its way over to the Petrie Museum at that time.

When it arrived at the Petrie its new accession number (UC25504) was again clearly marked on the object below the Wellcome number, in ink, as shown on the photograph below. If we go onto the Petrie Museum’s Online Catalogue, we can type this accession number into the search engine, and it will come up with some basic details about the object, including a photograph, the object dimensions (3.4 x 2.8cm) and the information that it is a 6th Dynasty collar-necked alabaster vessel with a slightly chipped rim, excavated from Mostagedda tomb 10012. A bibliographic reference, complete with page and plate numbers, is also provided so that we can look up the site and the individual grave: Guy Brunton’s 1937 publication “Mostagedda and the Tasian Culture. 99, pl.64, No.4, pl.46.”

If we check the book we will learn that Mostagedda is in the southernmost part of Middle Egypt, where the biggest local settlement is Badari. We will find that it is a multi-period site, probably best known as one of three centres of the prehistoric Badiarian period, which marks the beginning of the Predynastic. We learn that some of these early sites are cut into by later period graves, including shaft graves of the 6th Dynasty (Old Kingdom) to which UC25504 belongs. If we go on to read Brunton’s report on the other Old Kingdom graves and look at the rest of the illustrations, we will learn a fair amount on the subject of the site at this period. Brunton’s introduction to the section tells us that if we want to become more expert, we need to look at some of his earlier publications:

Flipping to the correct page shown in the Petrie Online Catalogue, page 99, we can find a few terse details about grave 10012 itself, including some of the other objects that were found as part of the grave assemblage: “The floor of the chamber was 40 cms. lower than the floor of the shaft. The two pots were at the north end of the coffin, and the four alabasters at the feet. The mirror lay in the centre.” We can then go and look up the tabulated listing for the tombs (plate 46), which shows if any other items were found in the grave, and we find that there were other objects found in grave 10012, especially a number of amulets. These had not been deemed worthy of description in the main text.

Finally, we can check out the illustrations and photographs, shown below. First, plate 64 includes a plan of the shaft grave 10012, a sketch of the female skeleton found within it, and illustrations of the objects that accompanied her, including UC25504. On plate 56, two of the amulets from the grave are shown on a page dedicated to the main amulet types found.

So by following the marks on the vessel to find out more, we can provide ourselves with part of the object’s full history and its context. Of course, we don’t know what its life was like before it found itself in the grave, and nor do we have many details about its owner, but if we were to delve further, the grave does tell us something about the sorts of goods that were considered suitable as funerary equipment, the skills and technology required to produce UC25504 and accompanying grave goods, and the sort of ideas that produced these objects. It also tells us a lot about how museums worked at the turn of 19th/20th Century, and about how objects move around in the modern world. If we investigated further, we might ask questions stemming from the context of the find about Guy Brunton, his background, his aims and his excavation techniques, his talented artist wife Winifred, the lives of the Egyptian workers who did most of the excavation work, about early versus modern museum management, and the careers of early versus modern museum curators. In fact, this one object could lead us in all sorts of fascinating directions.

I selected UC25504 because I saw it in an article about the “Artefacts of Excavation” project by Alice Stevenson and Emma Libonati published in 2015, and I followed a link from the article to the Griffiths Institute website. On the “Object Marks” web page UC25504 is again featured, accompanied by other examples of marked objects. This morning, the little vessel has a real-time starring role here on the Petrie Museum’s Unofficial page. So the object continues to lead a very useful life in the modern world, particularly online, albeit a life that would seem very strange to whoever placed it in Mostagedda grave 10012 in the 6th Dynasty!

For anyone disappointed that I didn’t talk about the Old Kingdom context of this little vessel, I will be talking about Old Kingdom stone vessels on a future post.


Bierbrier 2012, M.L. Third Edition, revised (Dawson, W. and Uphill, E. 1995). Who Was Who in Egyptology. Egyptian Exploration Society, London, pp.96-97
Brocklehurst, M. 2004. Miss Brocklehurst on the Nile. Diary of a Victorian Traveller in Egypt. Millrace Books
Brunton, G. and Caton-Thompson, G. 1928. The Badarian civilisation and predynastic remains near Badari. British School of Archaeology in Egypt
Brunton, G. 1937. Mostagedda and the Tasian Culture. Quaritch
Available to download from the Internet Archive at
Brunton, G. 1948. Matmar. Quaritch
Available to download from the Internet Archive at
Petrie, W.M.F. 1892, Ten Years’ Digging in Egypt, London, p.126.
Stevenson, A. 2014. Cairo, Camden and the Cape. UCL Culture blog, January 17th 2014
Stevenson, A. and Libonati, E.2015. Artefacts of Excavation. Egyptian Archaeology 46, p.27-29.
Szafran, M. 2020. Object Biography: Manchester Museum 7556. Birmingham Egyptology Journal 7, p.70-86. Available to download from:

Artefacts of Excavation website, Griffith Institute
“Object Marks” page, Artefacts of Excavation website, Griffith Institute
“Decoding Distribution Documents” - Guide (location of excellent PDF document) (foot of page for link to PDF)
Petrie Museum Online Catalogue
Wellcome Library Archives and Manuscripts (online search)
“Researching objects from the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum,” Wellcome Library


University College London, Malet Place

Nearest Tube Stations: Russell Square, Goodge St, Warren St, Euston, Euston Square Buses: 10, 24, 29,59, 68, 73, 168

General information

Just five minutes from the British Museum! Leave by the Montague Place exit, travel up Malet Street, across Torrington Place by the Waterstones book shop and into Malet Place. A bright red banner hangs above the entrance

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Wednesday 13:00 - 17:00
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