Ashley Fiutko Arico, who recently earned her Ph.D. in Egyptian Art and Archaeology at Hopkins, held a talk at the University’s Archaeological Museum featuring objects she identified from pre-dynastic Egypt. Her presentation, which took place in Gilman Hall on Friday, Feb. 24, was based on a project she began in 2012. Her presentation explained that the majority of the objects in the Museum were given to the University by the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF).
Arico spent much of the Museum talk discussing the University’s long relationship with the EEF, a British organization founded in 1882 now known as the Egyptian Exploration Society (EES). It was founded in the same year as the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Collection.
“[The EEF] was a very popular way to acquire objects with archaeological provenance [in the late 1800s and early 1900s],” Arico said. “Which of course for us as scholars is very important, because it’s really lovely to look at a pot that was maybe painted 5000 years ago.”
These ancient artifacts donated by the EEF were found in two excavation sites, El Mahasna and Abydos. They were burial goods and therefore well-preserved. Some of the objects on display included blades, micro-blades, an ivory comb, ceramic and stone vessels, a makeup jar for storing eyeliner and a masthead.
“During the pre-dynastic period, people are generally buried in what we call pit burials, which essentially means they went out to the desert where it was very dry,” Arico said. “They would dig a hole in the cemetery, they would bury the person, usually in a fetal position on his or her side and then surround them with different kinds of goods they might want for the afterlife.”
Hopkins got involved with the EEF when Baltimorean James Teackle Dennis traveled to Egypt and developed a fascination with its culture. He decided to become an archaeologist, and after earning his degree from Hopkins, began working for the EEF. Dennis arranged for Hopkins to subscribe to the EEF to build the University’s collection, and he also made donations himself.
“You, either as a private individual if you’re interested in Egypt, or an institution, if you were Johns Hopkins, would purchase a subscription to that season,” Arico said. “You would give them a donation. And in return, at the end of the season, when [the EEF] received their portion of the finds they were allowed to take back to England, they would divide those up based on how much you had given, or what your subscription deal had been, and you would get to take those to your home institution.”
The University’s collection has also relied on the efforts of Baltimorean Colonel Mendes Israel Cohen, who was one of the first Americans to amass a personal Egyptology collection and the first man to fly the American flag up the Nile.
Arico’s interest in her project began when she was cataloguing an Egyptology collection as a graduate student at Hopkins. She discovered how difficult it was to keep track of artifacts, to identify where exactly they came from and to figure out what they were.
“A lot of the objects had really bizarre notations on them, different series of letters and numbers that don’t really correspond to any of our numbering systems here at the museum,” Arico said. “So I started trying to research what those codes might be and it turned out they were very helpful for us at being able to identify where these objects originally came from.”
According to Arico, the EEF had a reputation for incorrectly matching up information on what collectors were supposed to receive and what these collectors actually received.
“This is actually a huge project that’s going on in London right now, trying to find out where everything went, called Artifacts of Excavation,” she said. “I found that with our own collection many times. I’d find something that’s clearly from one burial when it’s said we didn’t get anything from there, and another burial that’s supposed to have five things but we only have one. It’s a little bit of a detective job.”
Some of Arico’s resources were published excavation volumes and the published catalogs of excavations at the Archaeological Museum. Catalog cards had images of different objects in the collection, which Arico used to compare with the actual objects she came across. She also recognized repeating patterns in the codes assigned to the artifacts.
“The first one that kind of struck me was the letter ‘H’ on a lot of things,” she said. “What does ‘H’ mean? It has nothing to do with any number or system we have. It only appears on Egyptian art and objects that are pre-dynastic, and only a very small number. And usually the ‘H’ is followed by a number.”
After some research she discovered that ‘H’ was the letter the EEF assigned to objects excavated from El Mahasna. The EEF, which through a small team of archaeologists began excavating around the beginning of 1909, dug through about 300 burials in the course of two months.
“Today that would be crazy for us to dig 300 burials in the course of a couple months,” Arico said. “But they did it.”
With multiple concurrent excavations taking place, they wound up having hundreds of thousands of objects every year crated up and sent back to England, and used these codes to keep track of them.
“They kind of arbitrarily assigned each subject a letter,” Arico said. “So Mahasna is H. Abydos gets divided into many things so we have things from Cemetery F and Cemetery U. Probably other cemeteries as well. So once I figured out that I started going looking at from the letters what I thought we should have.”
With this knowledge she was able to identify other objects, including 16 different objects that belonged to object groups coming from Mahasna. The majority of these are different types of pottery.
“One thing that’s interesting that you can kind of get a sense of from here, is that it’s clear that they were aware when they were distributing these things that we were a university teaching collection, and that we wanted a representative sample of different types of pottery, different sizes, different shapes,” she said. “So they really seemed to make an effort to divide it up. Sometimes they also tried to give us specific groupings, burial assemblages.”
She has also located 11 objects in Cemetery F of Abydos and 18 objects from Cemetery U.
“It’s an ongoing project but those several dozen objects we’ve usually been able to attribute to a very specific burial that they came from, so it’s making it much more valuable to us as scholars,” Arico said.