Virtual Kemet: an on-line resource

Virtual Kemet

I was a curator in the Department of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge from 2002 to 2015. During this time I worked on a number of special exhibitions, including one that traced the history of the head rest in East Africa from Kemet through to the early 20th century CE; another that explored how the Romans interpreted the culture of Kemet; and the final one that I worked on in 2013, which explored the history of the hair comb in Africa and amongst the African Diaspora. A number of resources relating to Kemet can be found on the museum’s website. The idea for the Afro combs exhibition came from Black British community groups and to ensure that the communities maintained a degree of control over the final exhibit, a community committee was set up to guide the whole process.

However, I also work with community members who cannot physically visit the museum. For the past 13 years I have worked in a number of English prisons. Following my first ever lecture in a prison the men, who were serving long term sentences, asked if there was any way of creating a virtual museum so that people who could not visit in person could still access the collections.

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Virtual Kemet

The result of nearly 4 years work was Virtual Kemet, an on-line resource that presented Ancient Egypt from an African-centred perspective.

The site

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Middle and Old Kingdom cases in the Fitzwilliam Museum, as seen on Virtual Kemet

The site is divided into 4 parts: People of Kemet; Daily Life and Religion; Funerary; and FAQ’s. You can navigate around the galleries on line and then obtain more information about any object by clicking on a magnifying glass. This opens a new section with a close up of the object (see above).

The benefits of a virtual gallery

Many museums have on-line resources. However, when I showed the standard searches and catalogues to the men who came up with the idea for the virtual gallery they felt that accessing the past should be more interesting. There was an added problem of not being able to access the internet, and this has also been an issue for some people overseas who only have access to slower speeds. The virtual gallery can be downloaded and used remotely.

There is another benefit of presenting museums on-line. If you speak to any curator they will tell you how limited they are in terms of sharing information. Every object needs to have basic information such as its accession number, material, date, culture, place of origin and how it got to the museum. This takes up quite a bit of space on a label even before any other information is shared.

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Information panel in Gallery 65 at the British Museum

When community members have asked some museums why they fail to situate Ancient Egypt in Africa as Kemet, they are often told that this is due to lack of space, or the cost implications of replacing or designing additional information panels like those above. A virtual gallery removes these obstacles and means that curators can directly share their knowledge with the public. It also means that alternative interpretations and cultural links that are physically impossible to make in the museum building can easily be presented on-line.

 

Combs from Kemet: further thoughts on ancient Egyptian hair combs

Combs from Kemet (and Ghana)

I spent the best part of 3 years researching African hair combs. And just when I thought that I knew everything there was to know and had found every possible parallel for the combs from Ancient Egypt, I came accross a number of very interesting combs in the National Museum in Accra, Ghana (below).

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Bone items from Dawu, Ghana, including two combs or hair adornments. The National Museum, Accra

The objects above were excavated by a British archaeologist Thurston Shaw at the site of Dawu. The rubbish dump where they were found was dated to between the mid-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries CE. This coincided with the time that the town was absorbed into the Akwapim Empire. The comb on the left is important because it is almost identical to the combs that were made by African people who had been enslaved and transported to the US. The comb, or decorative piece, in the middle on the right, struck me because it is almost identical to a comb that is housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The difference being that the Cambridge comb (below) is around 6000 years old and from Kemet.

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Ivory hair comb or hair decoration from a grave at the cemetery of Abydos, Egypt. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge (E.59.1900)

It isn’t possible to say that two combs that are 6000 years apart are directly connected. We can only make this assumption if we can show continuity through time. However, until I saw the Dawu comb I had failed to find any parallels for the comb above apart from those in Ancient Egypt. It is possible that the two combs were used as decoration for the hair, or that they served a particular purpose in styling.

 

 

 

A better understanding

By looking for parallels within other African cultures we are able to obtain a better understanding of how items that relate to hair were used in Kemet. Ethnographic photographs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries show that combs were used for multiple purposes.  This includes combs being used as status symbols, as decoration for the hair, and as tools; which accords with the evidence from Ancient Egyptian burials. There are also parallels in the decorative techniques that were used in both Kemet and West African cultures. The incised circular decoration on the teeth of the Dawu comb (below right) was also used in Ancient Egypt.

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An ivory Predynastic comb from Ancient Egypt. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (E.GA.3204.1943)
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A bone comb from Dawu. National Museum, Accra.

 

 

A good reminder of the variety of different types of comb used for African type hair

I started this post with an image that I took when the Origins of the Afro comb exhibition was on. Being a curator allows you to display objects that you have always wanted to see together and which are not typically shown in that way. For me one of the most exciting things about curating that exhibition was being able to display a 1970s Black power comb  next to an Ancient Egyptian comb that was found in a grave at the cemetery of Abydos.

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The iconic ‘fist’ comb from the 1970s and a 5500 year old comb from Abydos Egypt. Taken at the origins of the afro comb exhibition. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 2013
  • In Predynastic Kemet, combs were used as a status symbol and were also worn in the hair. This is a common practice in other African cultures.
  • The earliest combs were in the form of a ‘pik’.
  • The symbols on the handle are often in the form of an animal or part of an animal; perhaps suggesting a religious or power connection.

Once again we can’t make a direct connection between the two combs above, but in terms of their form they are the same. And it is worth noting that we do not find this type of hair pik in any ancient cultures outside of Africa. Even William Matthew Flinders Petrie, who I mentioned in a previous post, noted that there were no European parallels for this form of comb. He wrote the following in his 1927 publication Objects of Daily Use:

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Predynastic combs from Egypt as shown in Petrie publication: Prehistoric Egypt,1920

The early European combs, of bronze age and onward, differ entirely from the Egyptian examples, being always single edged and run backed

Combs with shorter teeth

I was pleased to be reminded, by the Dawu combs, that many African combs are not in the form of a ‘pik’. Of course combs with longer teeth are only appropriate for specific styles of hair and in the same way that not everyone with African type hair uses a ‘pik’ today, the same is true of earlier periods.

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Wooden hair comb dating to around 1550 BCE. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum (E.1.2009)

From around 4000 years ago the form of comb illustrated above was commonly used in Ancient Egypt. The main difference between those from  Kemet and ancient European combs is the width of the gaps between the teeth. Those from Africa tend to have more space, presumably because the users and makers of combs were aware that African type hair can be fragile and prone to breakage.

*Please share your thoughts and comments below*