‘Meroë: Africa’s Forgotten Empire’ exhibition at the Garstang Museum

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Friday, 13 May 2016 was Light Night in Liverpool; a night when the city of Liverpool comes to life with family events, late-opening museums, libraries and galleries, and a whole host of arts-based fun. For the past two years, the Garstang Museum of Archaeology taken part in Light Night. Last year, they welcomed the Garstang Mummy back to the museum after a sixty-year sojourn in the Department of Anatomy. This year, Light Night was the opening night of the exhibition, Meroë: Africa’s Forgotten Empire.

A closeup of a photo of fragments of temple wall pieced back together. It shows the head and shoulders of a king - shown by his wearing the double crown of Egypt - with a goddess behind him. She wears a headdress of a sundisk and cow horns, and she has her hands up in adoration
Wall inscriptions from a temple

 

Meroë and Nubia: a brief primer

Meroë was a city in Nubia, the country at the southern border of Egypt. Nubia was Egypt’s only true next-door neighbour, stretching from from Aswan, at the first cataract of the Nile, down to modern-day Khartoum. Egypt was shielded to the west by desert, to the east by desert also and the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean to the north.

 

Because of this, Egypt and Nubia had a unique relationship. They started to develop, culturally speaking, around the same time – 4000 BC – although Egypt then began to advance at a greater rate from around 3000 BC. This was probably due to the vaster tracts of fertile land in Egypt; much of Nubia was hard to farm and couldn’t support a population as large as Egypt’s. However, what Nubia lacked in farmland, she made up for in tradable goods. The country had gold, semi-precious stones, copper and hard stone (such as diorite). She was also beautifully placed to connect the Mediterranean to more southern regions of Africa, and was an important passageway for traded goods..

 

Egypt and Nubia had a bit of a rollercoaster relationship over the centuries. At times, they traded peacefully; other times, not so much. Egypt annexed parts of the country at times, and built strings of fortresses to protect the resources they needed from Nubia. Other times, particularly during times of Egyptian political weakness, such as during the Second Intermediate Period, Nubia was more powerful.

 

The pinnacle of the relationship, from the Nubian perspective, was during the 8th and 7th centuries BC, when Nubian kings took the throne of Egypt: the ‘Kushite’ 25th Dynasty. These kings, however, were ousted by Assyrian invasions of Egypt in the mid 7th century BC. The next couple of centuries remain a bit of a mystery as the archaeological record is bare.

 

The 3rd century BC saw the rise of the civilisation again, Meroë, in particular (whose existence has been attested in the archaeological record since at least 800 BC). Meroë is far down in the south of Nubia, about 200 km northeast of Khartoum. She was an industrial city, a royal residence and, crucially, positioned next to a particularly fertile area of grassland. Her strategic position, both agriculturally and industrially, allowed her to grow in power. The area remained a passageway for trade goods and, when Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, trade continued vehemently (albeit following a number of skirmishes between Rome and Nubia).

 

Meroë’s industry focused primarily on iron smelting, trading as far afield as India and China. However, they also traded textiles and ceramics, and continued to pass ‘exotic’ goods from further south in Africa through to the Mediterranean. Although heavily industrial, Meroë also boasted grand edifices including several temples, palaces and a lot of pyramid tombs.

 

Due to her importance in the trade industry and the close relationship shared with Egypt, the culture of Meroë was a real mix-up of African, Egyptian and Greco-Roman influence, Egyptian in particular. Many of their gods were Egyptian in origin, they buried their kings in pyramids (Nubia has more pyramids than Egypt) and the script that developed during the Meroitic period was a derivation of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

 

The exhibition: a closeup

Looking diagonally across the room. The back and left walls are included, which have tall, metal gridded stands to which large reproductions of the excavation photos are attached. In the middle of the room stands a table-sized display case with artefacts inside. Just behind the case is another stand without its glass top with colourful 3D prints of artefacts on top
The exhibition room

The exhibition – primarily a photographic one – is in a single room within the Garstang Museum. Around the perimeter of the room are gridded metal stands, onto which photos are mounted. The photographs are enlarged prints of pictures taken during John Garstang’s excavations at Meroë in the years 1910–1914, embellished with a collection of excavated artefacts in a display case in the centre of the room.

 

The artefacts show an interesting cross-section of Meroitic culture, such as their finely crafted ceramics, religious iconography and styles adopted from other cultures. Alongside the artefacts sit a collection of 3D-printed pieces. These are genuine artefacts which were scanned and then printed out to create replicas. Visitors are welcome … nay, expected … to pick up these replicas and have a play. And I recommend you do; you can have a really good, closeup look at ancient artefacts without risk to the original.

 

The photos themselves are a wonderful mix of archaeological photos and pictures of a more documentary nature, capturing local people and everyday sights he saw during his time in the country.

 

Looking through the doorway of the exhibition. Just before the door, on the left, part of the reception desk can be seen. Inside the doorway is a large reproduction of a black and white photograph of a stone statue of a Merotic god

The entrance to the exhibition room

Looking through the doorway of the exhibition. Just before the door, on the left, part of the reception desk can be seen. Inside the doorway is a large reproduction of a black and white photograph of a stone statue of a Merotic god
Looking at the artefacts in the centre of the glass display case. There are a couple of larger, stone pieces, one in the shape of a sundisk with cobras on the sides. The other is rectangular with large hieroglyphs inscribed on it. To the left are three fine ceramics and a selection of fragments with hieroglyphs. To the right are a couple more fragments with depictions of cobras.

Various ceramics and depictions of cobras

Looking at the artefacts in the centre of the glass display case. There are a couple of larger, stone pieces, one in the shape of a sundisk with cobras on the sides. The other is rectangular with large hieroglyphs inscribed on it. To the left are three fine ceramics and a selection of fragments with hieroglyphs. To the right are a couple more fragments with depictions of cobras.
Closeup of the fragments of ceramics. There are six fragments in total, all around a couple of inches in size.
Closeup of the fragments of ceramics. There are six fragments in total, all around a couple of inches in size.
A closeup of the three fine ceramics in the display case. There is a red jug with black lines of varying thickness around the main section. The top is narrow, with the handle attached to the top of the jug. There are also two bowls, around half the height of the jug, with banding around the top

Ceramics

A closeup of the three fine ceramics in the display case. There is a red jug with black lines of varying thickness around the main section. The top is narrow, with the handle attached to the top of the jug. There are also two bowls, around half the height of the jug, with banding around the top
Three of the larger 3D printed lions are facing away from the camera, looking towards one of the photos, which is of a large stone statue of a lion

Lions

Three of the larger 3D printed lions are facing away from the camera, looking towards one of the photos, which is of a large stone statue of a lion
Looking straight on at the largest of the 3D-printed lions to highlight the detail of the carvings in the face (nose, mouth and whiskers) as well as the stylised mane and criss-cross pattern across the chest

3D-printed lion

Looking straight on at the largest of the 3D-printed lions to highlight the detail of the carvings in the face (nose, mouth and whiskers) as well as the stylised mane and criss-cross pattern across the chest
Detail of one of the photos. It shows part of the excavated royal baths, which is surrounded by carved lion heads. At the right of the picture is the statue of a woman, carved in a Hellenistic style

The royal baths

Detail of one of the photos. It shows part of the excavated royal baths, which is surrounded by carved lion heads. At the right of the picture is the statue of a woman, carved in a Hellenistic style
The photo is of a stone statue of a god. He is a man wearing a kilt, a neckband and a tall crown. He has a Pharaonic-style beard. He is very Egyptian in style. The rest of the photo is black.

Reconstructed statue of the god Arensnuphis

The photo is of a stone statue of a god. He is a man wearing a kilt, a neckband and a tall crown. He has a Pharaonic-style beard. He is very Egyptian in style. The rest of the photo is black.

 

Light Night and the 3D printer

Light Night was the date chosen to launch the exhibition. And, as a special treat, they brought in a 3D printer to print out replicas of the lion statue during the evening.

 

It was surprisingly fun to watch!

 

The smallest lions, less than an inch tall, took 30 minutes to print. I’d brought my two girls along to see the exhibition, and my eldest stood and watched a whole lion print for half an hour. When the machine’s countdown screen got to the last minute, she counted the seconds, and was so excited when it finished, the very nice man looking after the machine let her keep the print.

 

But, as well as being a bit of fun and entertainment, the prints demonstrate just how close we can get to history and archaeology, but without putting original artefacts at risk. As a university museum, having such accurate replicas like this can be great tools to use with students. They are also a wonderful way to engage your visitors (as my daughters have shown) and, most importantly, they can bring archaeology and history into the hands – literally – of people with visual impairments and other disabilities. The potential for technology to expand the horizons of archaeology is quite exciting.

 

Looking at the back half of the exhibition room. There are a few people in there. Next to the display case are two women looking at the 3D printed lion statues
Looking at the back half of the exhibition room. There are a few people in there. Next to the display case are two women looking at the 3D printed lion statues
Three men standing next to the 3D printer, talking
Three men standing next to the 3D printer, talking
A face-on view of the 3D printer. It's rectangular in shape and open down the front. the printer head is at the top, printing. the object being printed stands on a glass shelf, which moves down the inside of the printer as the object is being printed. The inside of the printer is very bright
A face-on view of the 3D printer. It's rectangular in shape and open down the front. the printer head is at the top, printing. the object being printed stands on a glass shelf, which moves down the inside of the printer as the object is being printed. The inside of the printer is very bright
A closeup of the printer head and the lion statue being printed (it's one of the very small ones).
A closeup of the printer head and the lion statue being printed (it's one of the very small ones).
A collection of 3D printed artefacts. There are several lions, ranging in size from around 6 inches tall to less than an inch. There is also a reproduction of a Hathor head. The prints are either red, white or blue in colour.
A collection of 3D printed artefacts. There are several lions, ranging in size from around 6 inches tall to less than an inch. There is also a reproduction of a Hathor head. The prints are either red, white or blue in colour.
Two young girls, in school uniform, standing next to the table and playing with the 3D-printed lion statues
Two young girls, in school uniform, standing next to the table and playing with the 3D-printed lion statues
A man is taking a photo of the 3D printer on his phone. There are other people in the room, including two young girls
A man is taking a photo of the 3D printer on his phone. There are other people in the room, including two young girls
A young girl is standing and watching the 3D printer, with a look of total fascination on her face. The camera is looking down through the front of the printer at her; her head is partially hidden by parts of the printer
A young girl is standing and watching the 3D printer, with a look of total fascination on her face. The camera is looking down through the front of the printer at her; her head is partially hidden by parts of the printer

 

The exhibition is on until 14 September 2016. The museum is open on Wednesdays, 10.00am until 4.00pm, and it won’t cost you a penny to go in. If you’re in Liverpool, you could easily use a lunchtime to visit.

 

Further reading

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