Bexhill Museum has an important collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts and this is the first time that most of them have been exhibited together. A small display of some of the more eye-catching objects has been a permanent fixture in the museum for several years but this had only shown a small selection of what we hold.
Given that we have had many of these pieces since 1914 why have we waited so long to show them off? The honest answer is that we really did not know what we had. Thanks to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London, and the hard work of Egyptologist Margaret Serpico we know much more about the collection. This exhibition gives us the opportunity to reveal the results of last year’s work and research.
Much of what we now know came about through what could be called ‘re-excavation’ of the objects. Often, all that was known was the year that the object came into the museum, that it came from an archaeological excavation in Egypt and a location where it was allegedly found. Through combing old records and publications, it was discovered that sometimes the place of origin was a nearby site where excavations were going on simultaneously. Particularly important in reconstructing this post-excavation history was the discovery, on some of the artefacts, of the number of the grave where it had been found, written on the object when it was first excavated decades ago. This important information helped track many objects back to their original find spot.
How Egyptian artefacts came to Bexhill
The substantial part of the collection came to Bexhill from Dr Walter Amsden. He was a medical doctor and had worked with the great Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie at his excavations in the Fayum District. At the start of the First World War in 1914 Dr Amsden was working at Cooden Camp, the military base where the 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th Battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment were raised.
Dr Amsden and his wife were friends of Kate Marsden, one of the first female Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society and a founder of Bexhill Museum.
Perhaps as a result of this initial contribution, the museum maintained an interest in expanding its collection and subscribed in 1921 and 1924 to further excavations carried out by Petrie himself or by the organization he founded, the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. In return for this, the Museum received a selection of objects from those excavations.
Minutes of the Museum Committee, 1914:
“The Chairman then reported a quite recent gift of rare Egyptian Pottery by Dr Amsden two large cases having been unpacked by Mr T….., Mr Thompson and himself. Dr Amsden accompanied Flinders Petrie’s party and was present at the finding of the treasure in the Ancient City of Lahun about 60 miles from Cairo.
Some of the pottery is from the 10th, 12th, 18th and 22nd Dynasties – and goes back to 3,400 B.C. Some of it is prehistoric and goes back before the 1st Dynasty. Three or four of the prehistoric pots are very interesting from the fact that they are covered with a red glaze.
There is also some Roman pots – date about 200 A.D. Also some Roman sandals and other things such as human hair 3,400 B.C. A fine collection of chipped flints from the 12th Dynasty and a number of beads from the necks of mummies. There is also a mummified alligator.
On the suggestion of the Chairman a vote of thanks proposed by Miss Norris and seconded by Mrs Swann was accorded to Dr Amsden and carried unanimously. Miss Norris mentioned that Dr and Mrs Amsden were friends of Miss Marsden and when Miss Marsden was dining with them she asked Dr Amsden for a gift for our Museum and that is how we are now in possession of the treasures.”
Rev. J.C. Thompson’s article in the “Bexhill Observer”, in 1914:
“One of the most interesting and valuable collections recently received by the Committee of the Bexhill Museum is that given by Dr Amsden, who was the medical officer attached to the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, under Professor Flinders Petrie. The gift consists of a quantity of pottery – prehistoric implements, mummy beads and other things, most of them of very ancient date. Visitors to the Museum may be glad to have a little more information concerning them than can be put on a card in the cases where the objects are shown.”
“The Pyramid of Illahun is at the mouth of the Channel in the desert which leads into Fayum, about sixty miles south of Cairo. The Pyramid was built by Senusert II (according to Professor Petrie) It stands upon a rocky hill, and is built of black brick with an outer casing of fine limestone. Because of the valuable treasures of gold and many precious ornaments belonging to the dead Kings, their Queens and Princesses having been buried with them, the tombs were ravaged by robbers and everything of value stolen. The designer of this tomb of Senusert took the utmost precaution to hide the entrance. The chambers were executed in the solid rock, and the entrance was by the way of two shafts.”
“The Pyramid was enclosed by a stone wall, 12 feet high, and near this, fourteen tombs of the Royal family were found. In one of these, the tomb of a Princess, which had been ransacked, the workmen were directed to clear away a heap of hard mud which lay in a small recess. They had scarcely begun operations before they came upon “about a pound-weight of tubular beads of gold.” As they broke up and sifted the mound they came upon treasure after treasure, including a gold crown valued at £20,000; also armlets, necklaces, pendants, and vases of great historical value and intrinsic worth.”
“At Kahun, close to the Pyramid, the excavators discovered the remains of the town Hat-hotep Usertesen, which had been occupied by the workmen and overseers with their families during the building of the Pyramid and its temple. The town covers an area of about eighteen acres. Over 2,000 rooms have been examined. There are larger houses for the officials and crowded alleys of little dwellings for the workmen.”
“In this old town a great quantity of pottery was found, water jars, wine coolers, and flower pots with a hole in the bottom for drainage, used for growing lilies in. It awakens strange feelings in one’s breast to simply hold one of these vessels so gracefully moulded by human hands over 5,000 years ago.”
“There are many other things which I am sorry to say cannot be shown for lack of cases in which to exhibit them. The Museum has been appreciated ever since it was opened, by visitors and residents alike, and perhaps one day the town of Bexhill will wake up and realise that the old Pavilion has been put to some useful purpose, and has an educative and refining influence worthy of a better support.”
Report by The British School of Archaeology in Egypt
(Reprinted from “The Times”, 1914)
“At the mouth of the Fayum, about 60 miles south of Cairo, stands the high, dark mass of the brick pyramid of Senusert II………. The older custom of building pyramids of solid stone had given place in the XIIth dynasty to the shorter method of building the bulk of black brick, and then covering it with a casing of large blocks of fine white limestone.”
“The work of the British School has also been very successful on a cemetery a few miles from Lahun, where Mr Engelbach with a second party of excavators has discovered much of the XIIth dynasty remains. Some beautiful wooden statuettes, gold amulet cases inlaid, and with minute granulated patterns, gold fish pendants of the most faithful naturalistic work, ropes of amethyst bead, several fine inscribed tablets, and two tombs with long inscriptions have well rewarded the labours of the British School. Nor have the anthropological interests been neglected, as Dr Walter Amsden has measured over 400 skulls. Mrs Flinders Petrie made the tomb plans, and Mrs Brunton and Mr B. Gunn assisted with the drawings, while Messrs. C.T. Campion, F. Frost, and D. Willey were occupied also in supervision and management of men and material.”
“The Treasure of Lahun”
(Extract from Chapter 1, the work and the site)
“The work of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt during the winter of 1913-14 was carried on at two different localities. Professor Petrie on 6th Dec. 1913, began operations round the pyramid of Lahun, near the entrance to the Fayum; this work closed on 9th April. Mr Engelbach’s camp was at Harageh, five miles away.
Pyramid work in 1889-90 had proved the builder to be Senusert II, and had disclosed an entrance into the pyramid on the S.E……”
“The party of workers at the pyramid comprised Professor and Mrs Flinders Petrie, Mr C.T. Campion, and Mr and Mrs Brunton; while Dr Walter Amsden, Mr R. Engelbach, Mr F. Frost, Mr Battiscombe Gunn, and the late Mr D. Willey divided their work between Harageh and Lahun.”
“Besides the nucleus of men and boys from Quft, a large gang of natives was engaged from the neighbouring villages of Lahun, Hawara, and Hammam. The clearing of the pyramid site lasted from 6th Jan to 31st March 1914, and a further three weeks were spent in the tombs in the vicinity.”
Our Museum. Some of its contents
From the “Bexhill Observer”, 2nd September, 1916
“Now, what is the next object to catch our eye? Apparently it is a cartload of old flower pots; but this cannot be, so we will ask the Curator. To my suggestive inquiry he replies “Certainly not; those are domestic pots and pans from a village where, some thousands of years ago, the people dwelt who built those wonderful and mysterious structures that we call the pyramids.” These old relics of far-off ages came to our Museum per favour of Dr Amsden, who used to live at Cooden and who accompanied Professor Flinders Petrie on some of his exploring expeditions which have made him famous throughout the world. Moreover we have Dr. A’s word that the pencilled notes on the various articles in this collection were made by the hand of Flinders himself.””
Our Curator also told me many more details of these and other exhibits, but I can’t take shorthand, and if I could I couldn’t read ’em, so I will have to trust to memory and my friends tell me that’s not reliable…..”
The Founding of the Museum
The creation of Bexhill Museum was the idea of Kate Marsden F.R.G.S. and Reverend J.C. Thompson F.G.S. In 1912 they approached the Bexhill Corporation to suggest the founding of a municipal museum, and offered to donate their private collections to help get it started. Kate Marsden had a collection of tropical shells and Reverend Thompson had a collection of geological specimens. The Bexhill Corporation’s reaction was not the one they hoped for; they were informed that if they wanted a museum they must run it themselves – and so they did. The Bexhill Corporation made available this building, which was previously the Egerton Park Shelter Hall and public conveniences. The Bexhill Museum opened to the public in 1914. Included in the displays was a fine collection of Ancient Egyptian Artefacts.
The Ancient Egyptian collection
The Museum’s accession register records over 200 Ancient Egyptian objects in the collection. Most of the items come from two sources, from Dr Amsden and from the British School of Archaeology in Egypt.
Ancient Egyptian Chronology
It is difficult to comprehend the length of time involved with Egyptian archaeology, we are not just describing a period but rather the history of a whole country starting in prehistory and ending at the early Christian period.
The date range of the collection
Bexhill Museum is fortunate in having Egyptian artefacts which date from the Pre-dynastic Period through to Roman times. The collection is particularly well represented by pottery and other objects from the Pre-dynastic and Early Dynastic Periods, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom. There seems to have been an effort to ensure that the museum received pottery from most periods of Egyptian history, with an emphasis on examples dating to the Middle Kingdom (2055 – 1650 BC).
The Fayum region
About 60 kilometres to the southwest of Cairo is a large fertile depression, covering about 12,000 square kilometres of the Libyan desert, called the Fayum. Within the Fayum is the pyramid of Lahun and town of Kahun. The majority of the objects in the Museum come from the excavations in the area to the east and south of the Fayum region, at the sites of Harageh, Lahun, Sedment and Gurob.
Lahun or El-Lahun. This site features the pyramid complex of Senusret II of the Twelfth Dynasty with a large late Middle Kingdom town next to the Valley Temple. Also located there were cemeteries of the Early Dynastic, Middle Kingdom, Third Intermediate Period and Byzantine Period. Petrie first worked at this site in the late 1889, but returned to excavate there for the British School of Archaeology in Egypt in 1913-1914 with the help of Guy Brunton. It was during this season that they discovered the burial of the king’s daughter, Princess Sit-Hathor-Yunet, which Dr Amsden was able to see first-hand. This burial included a remarkable cache of her jewellery, now in the Cairo Museum and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. A small number of pottery vessels from the cemeteries was given to Bexhill Museum through Dr Amsden.
A site with a number of cemeteries ranging in date from the Pre-dynastic Period through the New Kingdom, and also with later Coptic material; also a small settlement area of late Middle Kingdom/Early New Kingdom date. Of particular note are the burials dated to the late Middle Kingdom, including a number belonging to wealthy individuals. In the winter of 1913-1914, while Petrie and Brunton were working at nearby Lahun, Reginald Engelbach and Battiscombe Gunn excavated this site, with Dr Amsden studying the human remains. Most of the objects donated by Dr Amsden came from this site, including several dozen pottery vessels.
Petrie first excavated the site in 1904, but returned with Guy Brunton for the British School of Archaeology in 1920-21. This was a multi-period cemetery site ranging in date from the Early Dynastic Period to the New Kingdom, but was particularly rich in burials of New Kingdom date including intact examples. Petrie believed this site was the cemetery of the inhabitants of the nearby ancient city of Heracleopolis. Bexhill Museum received a selection of artefacts from the 1920-1921 season through subscription to the excavation. Among the objects given to Bexhill Museum was the remarkable cartonnage mask.
Gurob (or Medinet Ghurab) is the Arabic name (‘town of the raven’) used by Egyptologists for a site south of Lahun. Petrie worked here a number of times, first in 1889-1890 and again in 1903-1904. He later went back, with Guy Brunton, from 1919-1921, on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. The site features a series of cemeteries of varying dates, beginning in the pre-dynastic period. However, the New Kingdom cemetery is especially extensive and a main feature of the Eighteenth Dynasty is a royal palace. The palace and town retained their importance through the Amarna period, during the reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti. Through subscription, Bexhill Museum received a selection of items from the 1920-1921 excavations at the site.
Qau and Badari
Within these two adjoining areas were cemeteries as well as settlement and temple sites. The excavations were carried out by Petrie, Guy Brunton and Gertrude Caton-Thompson for the British School of Archaeology in Egypt between 1923 and 1925. About 7000 tombs were found, excavated, recorded and published. The excavations are extremely important because they span an entire region, and cover much of ancient Egyptian history from pre-dynastic times to the early Islamic Period. The pre-dynastic burials, which feature the distinctive black-topped pottery of the period, also provided evidence for the earliest farming communities in Upper Egypt. Bexhill Museum received examples of this pottery, as well as a range of other objects, through subscription to the excavations in 1924.
Abydos was an established site by pre-dynastic times, and is significant for the tombs and valley temple enclosures of the kings of the First and Second Dynasties. It was the cult centre of Osiris, and became a major national religious centre. Several parts of this multi-period site have been excavated through the years by a number of archaeologists, revealing not only royal burials, but a number of temples, settlements and cemeteries. Petrie spent several seasons at this site, first between 1899 and 1904 on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund, and then again in 1921-1922 for the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. Through subscription to these later excavations, Bexhill Museum received a number of pottery vessels from burials of officials and others serving under the very first rulers of Egypt, during the First Dynasty of Egyptian history.
Early photographs of Egypt
As the numbers of tourists to Egypt began to increase in the mid 19th century, many visitors wanted souvenirs of their travels. To meet this need, a number of professional photographers, including British photographer Francis Frith, began selling photographs of the monumental archaeological remains and local scenery as well as images of modern Egyptians. These were generally large albumen prints made from wet-plate collodion negatives; the postcards of the time. These pictures are a valuable record for us today. Not only do they give us an important glimpse into the society of the time, but they also preserve for us the condition of the archaeological sites and monuments as they were decades ago. These remains have often changed dramatically since the photographs were taken and much information has been lost over the years. To people who visit Egypt today, these photographs can serve as a visible reminder that we must make an effort to preserve the past; to the archaeologist, they are a vital record of information which is now gone forever.
Bexhill Museum is fortunate in having a number of photographs taken by two notable photographers of the time, Félix Bonfils and Antonio Béato. Today, many museums and historical societies around the world boast treasured collections of these photographs.
Félix Bonfils (1831-1885)
French photographer who set up his studio, Maison Bonfils, in Beirut in 1867, following an earlier tour of duty there while in the army. He photographed many locations in the Mediterranean and his images were popular with tourists on the Grand Tour. In 1871, he claimed to have produced 591 negatives and 15,000 prints of the eastern Mediterranean. His wife, Lydie, assisted him in the studio, which she ran for some years after his death with their son Adrien.
Antonio Béato (? – 1903)
Italian photographer who lived in Luxor from 1862 until his death. His photographs, which were taken mainly between the 1860s to the 1880s, were sold in sets to tourists and many have been used to illustrate books. He was said to have had a collection of over 1,500 negatives. In 1907, his widow sold the negatives to the Cairo Museum.
Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942)
Born in Charlton, Kent in 1853, the son of William Petrie the civil engineer and surveyor and Anne Flinders, the daughter of an explorer. He was perhaps the most famous Egyptologist and was certainly the most prolific. He began his archaeological career on sites in England and surveyed Stonehenge in 1872. He first travelled to Egypt in 1880-1882 to survey the Great Pyramid at Giza and went on to excavate dozens of sites in Egypt the course of his long career. In later years, he also excavated in the Near East and died in Jerusalem in 1942.
He was financially supported in the early years by the writer Amelia Edwards, founder of the Egypt Exploration Fund. In her will, she bequeathed a sum to University College London and Petrie was made the first Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology in 1892. This was the first chair in Egyptology in England. Petrie at first excavated on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund, but in 1894 he founded the Egyptian Research Account to fund his excavations; this later, in 1905, became the British School of Archaeology in Egypt with its base in University College London.
In 1896, he married Hilda Urlin, and she worked side by side with him in Egypt and the Near East, often drawing the monuments and artefacts. She was also an active fundraiser for his expeditions and was Honorary Secretary of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt for many years.
Petrie is often regarded as the pioneer of the scientific approach to archaeological excavations. For the time, his documentation was very detailed and he took special interest in ancient technologies. He developed the method of ‘sequence dating’ using pottery in order to establish a relative chronology for ancient Egyptian archaeological sites. He was also a prolific author, publishing over 100 books and countless articles. As well as reports on his excavations, these included many insightful overviews of objects such as Tools and Weapons, Scarabs and Cylinders, Amulets and Objects of Daily Use. Many famous Egyptologists trained under him and two of these, Guy Brunton and Reginald Engelbach, excavated sites from which Bexhill Museum received objects. Petrie was knighted ‘for services to Egypt’ in 1923 and retired in 1933.
The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
Dating back to 1884 the collection was originally a teaching resource for the post of Professor of Egyptology and Philology, created by the bequest of Amelia Edwards (1831-1892). Her collection of objects formed the core of the museum but this was greatly expanded by the enormous assemblage of objects excavated by Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853-1892). Petrie excavated dozens of sites in Egypt during his long career and there are an estimated 80,000 objects within the Petrie Museum’s collection.
The Museum is part of University College London, Malet Place, London and is open to the public.
The Ancient Egyptian collections of Buckinghamshire County Museum, Bexhill Museum, Brighton and Hove Museum, Ipswich Museum, Manchester Museum and the Petrie Museum will be brought together through a website, Accessing Virtual Egypt, which should be available on-line by April, 2004. All of these museums have material that was excavated by Sir William Flinders Petrie, including objects from the same sites, and sometimes even the same burials, as those represented at Bexhill. The website will allow all of the items to be searched through from the comfort of your own home as if it were one large collection. It will also allow viewers to see objects which were found together reunited virtually for the first time since they were excavated.
The Petrie Museum’s website, which includes an on-line searchable catalogue of its entire collection and details on visiting the museum, is already available at
We are delighted to be able to show so much of the Ancient Egyptian collection. With the help of the Petrie Museum we have vastly increased our knowledge of the objects we hold.
Credits – thanks to:
Margaret Serpico, Alan Beecher, Jenny Banaghan, Dennis Branson, Jennifer Elliott, Alan Malpass, Kerri Honeyset, Don Phillips, Rachel Palmer, Julian Porter, Gill Streater
Funding for the cataloguing of the Egyptian collection at the museum has been provided by the Designation Challenge Fund and the Arts and Humanities Research Board.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Did you know Shelley was buried in Bexhill? More astute readers have good reason to doubt that statement, but it is true – just not the Percy Bysshe Shelley quoted above. Percy Bysshe Shelley Leigh Hunt, who died in 1899 and is buried in Bexhill’s Barrack Road cemetery, was the son of the poet Leigh Hunt and was named after his friend, the original Shelley.
The famous Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in Warnham near Horsham in 1792 and drowned sailing near Pisa in 1822; his body washed ashore and was burnt on a pyre.
Abydos – Jars from 1st Dynasty burials at Abydos. The group includes a jar with hieroglyphics, two with pot marks and two jars from the same burial-grave 601-with a tomb card and a photograph of the original burial.
Qau and Badari – Pottery vessels from a range of dates beginning in the pre-Dynastic period through to the New Kingdom. Many are from known burials including black top jars from grave 3731 at Badari.