Our Dark Materials: Rediscovering an Egyptian Collection

Welcome to Our Dark Materials: Rediscovering an Egyptian Collection

Introduction

Our Dark Materials: Rediscovering an Egyptian Collection examines Stanford University's forgotten collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, which provides insight into the experiences of ordinary Egyptians in daily life and death.

This publication is a digital supplement to a physical exhibit on view in 2018–2019. The site is a non-linear multimedia platform that presents additional content and interactive features not possible in the physical exhibit. Like the physical display, however, this digital publication highlights the special aspects of Stanford University Archaeology Collections’ Egyptian collection: the artifacts’ material qualities, the ways they reflect everyday life and death, and their connections to the history of Egyptology.

In rediscovering these enduring materials, we are inspired to challenge assumptions about where value is found in ancient Egyptian collections.

For tips on navigating this digital publication, see How to Use this Website.

Value in trivial things

Our curatorial process has returned these enduring materials to an active object life—not the one their makers and users intended, but one that nevertheless celebrates their many kinds of value.

Sir William Flinders Petrie, whose energetic methods helped establish the field of Egyptian archaeology, was fascinated by the small objects of ancient daily life. In Ten Years’ Digging in Egypt: 1881–1891, he wrote, “Most trivial things may be of value, as giving a clue to something else.” We respectfully disagree. We find that even “trivial things”—ordinary, cheap, worn, broken—are of value in, and especially of, themselves. 

These materials once again shape worlds of experience and entangle the living with the dead. They provide unique paths of inquiry into the lives of ancient Egyptians. And they inspire critical consideration of the forces of imperialism, exoticism, acquisitiveness, and memory that brought them to Stanford over a hundred years ago.

A bit of background

The background image of this site illustrates one way that items in this exhibit have helped us build a deeper understanding of ancient Egypt.

Cartonnage fragments (22231) under visible and ultra violet light.
Despite the long collection history of Egyptian cartonnages, and the significant attention paid to their decorative styles, their fabrication methods remain only partially understood. The range of pigments used; periods of use; their origins locally or via foreign trade; their complex processing and artistic application; their elemental interactions with substrates and binders—these are questions driving current cartonnage research.

The fragmentary cartonnage shown in the background is stylistically typical of Late Ptolemaic and Early Roman Egypt (ca. 100 BCE–100 CE). It continues to honor, and originally protected, a woman we believe was named Senchalanthos. She or her loved ones favored pink in the full-body portrait adorning her burial container; they may even have provided the pigments for the artist. Under UV illumination, these areas light up a bright orange-pink. This result proves the artist used madder red pigment for this striking color. In Hellenistic Egypt, traditional Egyptian madder red, a stable pigment derived from a plant root, was being replaced by lead oxide red, a Greek and Roman colorant. The use of madder on this late period piece may help define this artistic—and cultural—transition.

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