Ancient and classical cultures

The Ancient and Classical Cultures are well represented by artefacts from Egypt dating from the Predynastic to Graeco-Roman Periods. The Predynastic and Early Dynastic artefacts, mainly pottery, are from Kafr-Tarkhan and were excavated by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853–1942). Petrie was an English Egyptologist and a pioneer of systematic methodology in archaeology. He was also known as the Father of Egyptology. A catalogue of the Tarkhan ceramics within the Iziko collection was compiled by former curator Anlen Boshoff. The collection also includes objects from Tell el-Amarna, which were excavated by Petrie, as well as artefacts excavated by Sir Guy Brunton (1878-1948). 

Forming part of the Ancient Near Eastern collection are cuneiform tablets that are mostly of Neo-Babylonian origin, with one being Sumerian. These are mainly from the Offord collection and have been translated by Peter Hulin. They are mentioned in The Neo-Babylonian Ebabbar Temple at Sippar: its administration and its prosopography by A.C.V.M. Bongenaar published by ‘Het Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut’ in Istanbul in 1997. Babylonian and Akkadian cylinder seals from the De Pass collection are also represented.

From Greece is the valuable De Pass collection of Attic Red-figure vases and Attic Black-figure vases. Some of them are listed in Sir John Beazley’s books. John Boardman and Maurice Pope undertook published research on the vases (Greek Vases in Cape Town, South African Museum Guide no. 6, 1961).  

Rome is also well presented by various pieces obtained by donation or purchase. The collection includes glass, ceramic lamps, medical instruments and other pieces of ceramics.

Background to the Egyptian Collection:

The connection between Egypt and South Africa with regards to the collection dates back to 1829 when the well-known Egyptologist Flinders Petrie’s paternal grandparents, Margaret Mitten and William Petrie, resided at the Cape of Good Hope. William Petrie senior was a British army officer stationed in Cape Town.

Their eldest son, William Petrie junior married Anne Flinders, daughter of Ann Chappell and Captain Matthew Flinders, the explorer and cartographer of Australia. Their only child, William Matthew Flinders Petrie, later called Flinders, was born on 3 June 1853.

Another South African connection is Guy Brunton (1878-1948) and his wife, Winifred, who lived in South Africa. Brunton later became assistant director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in 1931, but on retirement he and his wife returned to South Africa to White River. His wife Winifred Newberry, an artist in her own right, grew up on the family farm Prynnsburg near Clocolan in the Free State province of South Africa. Her father, Charles Newberry (1841–1922) immigrated to South Africa in 1864 and made his fortune in the Kimberley diamond mining industry.

The first Egyptian objects arrived in South Africa during the late 19th century and went to the South African Museum (SAM) in Cape Town, which had been established in the 1820s. In the mid-1960s the SAM became predominantly a natural history museum when the SA Cultural History Museum (SACHM) was established in 1966. Certain historical collections of the SAM, including the Egyptian collection, were transferred to the SACHM at the time. Today these collections all form part of Iziko’s Social History Collections department.

Iziko possesses an Egyptian collection of approximately 500 objects. The core collection comprises material excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie and arrived in this country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These artefacts are mainly from Kafr-Tarkhan where graves from the Predynastic to the Roman Period were found.

The bulk of the Tarkhan collection consists of pottery, but linen, cosmetics palettes, beads, alabaster vases, basketry, sections of a wooden bed, a reed coffin, a bone spoon, pebbles, iron ore, seashells, and bone bangles are also included.

The Egyptian collection includes artefacts from Tell el-Amarna (also excavated by Petrie) as well as objects excavated by Guy Brunton, who worked with Petrie on some of his excavations. Later Brunton himself ran excavations and artefacts from Mostagedda (1928), dating from Predynastic to Coptic times, form part of the Museum’s collection.

Capetonian, Alfred Aaron de Pass (1861-1952), businessman and benefactor to the city, purchased many of the antiquities that Iziko owns for the South African Museum. His noble intention was that the ‘public of Cape Town benefit from seeing original examples of the artistic achievement of ancient civilisations’.

The bulk of the Ancient Egyptian collection of ceramics dates from the Early Dynastic Period (3050-2686 BCE). These artefacts were excavated during Sir Flinders Petrie’s 1911-1912 and 1912-1913 expeditions to the Kafr-Tarkhan region. Petrie found cemeteries from the early dynasties to the Roman Period. To distinguish between the older and later burials, Kafr-Tarkhan, a nearby village, was selected for the earlier phases and the other one, Kafr-Ammar, was used to identify the periods from the Second Dynasty onwards, including the Roman Period.

Excellent pieces of furniture, linen, basketry, slate palettes, copper tools and alabaster jars were recovered from tombs. A very important jar, with a seal indicating the name of Narmer, was found. Narmer is believed to be the founder of the First Dynasty.

A catalogue of the Tarkhan pottery was compiled to establish a cultural historical background against which ceramics, as part of the material culture, could be discussed. Former curator of the Antiquities Collection, Anlen Boshoff, compiled this catalogue.

Apart from the Tarkhan pottery excavated by Petrie in the early 20th century there is a large corpus of ceramics also excavated by Petrie in the late 19th century. Research is underway to establish the provenance. This is undertaken with the assistance of the Petrie Museum in London and the University of Stellenbosch (Department of Ancient Studies).

There are a number of Predynastic and early Dynastic alabaster and pottery vases, palettes and other objects excavated by Guy Brunton at Mostagedda in 1928. He previously worked with Petrie on some of his excavations.

Recent studies

The Iziko collection holds a small number of Egyptian mummified animals. Mummification is a process by which the body is preserved and placed in a coffin/sarcophagus with objects needed for the Afterlife. Tomb models, canopic jars and ushabtis were some of these objects. Animals were often mummified as pets or as offerings and were linked to certain gods and goddesses for example the ibis was linked with Thot and the hawk with Horus.

The Department of Ancient Studies at the University of Stellenbosch arranged for the Egyptian mummified animals in Iziko’s collection to be scanned with the University’s Computed Tomography (CT) scanner.

The process revealed that of the five mummified animals one bird-shaped object was a complete fake, containing only plant material, mud, linen and perhaps stones. The second bird (falcon shape) revealed a leg and talons surrounded by reeds/feathers and linen. Two objects were complete birds, the first possibly a kestrel falcon – the eyes, beak and some feathers clearly visible. The second bird of prey also shows some discolouration and the wing and tail feathers with no damage to the bones. The last animal was not identifiable as its head, front legs and vertebrae were missing, but is thought to be a small kitten.

These findings had been widely disseminated by the principal study leader Professor Sakkie Cornelius and his co-researchers Drs Ruhan Slabbert and Anton du Plessis.

In 2013 Professor Cornelius was instrumental in arranging a visit to our Antiquities collections by the celebrated Egyptologist Professor Salima Ikram. She was particularly interested in the mummified animals but also enjoyed viewing the Egyptian pottery collection as well as our Greek vases. Professor Ikram is with the American University in Cairo.