Department of Antiquities

Ancient Egypt and Sudan

Mummy_portrait; AN1966.1112

The Egyptian collections of the Ashmolean are amongst the most extensive in Britain, and they represent every period of Egyptian civilisation from prehistory to the 7th century AD. Predynastic Egypt is a notable strength. The first objects arrived in the Museum in 1683, the year of its foundation, but the major holdings come from British excavations in Egypt from the 1880s until the late 1930s. Oxford University excavations in Southern Egypt and Sudan from 1910 on added a representative collection of Nubian material. The Department also houses extensive collections of papyri, ostraca, wooden labels and writing boards, including the Bodleian Library's ostraca collections.

Mummy portrait;

More about the Collections

Ancient Egypt and Nubia in the Ashmolean

Although the first objects came to the Ashmolean in the year the museum was founded, 1683, other Egyptian antiquities are derived from British excavations in Egypt from the 1880s until the late 1930s.  During this time, bodies such as the Egypt Exploration Fund and the British School of Archaeology in Egypt (directed by W.M.F. Petrie, the founder of Egyptian field-archaeology) received financial support from the University for their excavations. Some of the resulting finds thus came to Oxford, together with comparable items donated by individuals such as H.M Kennard and Jesse Haworth, both staunch supporters of Petrie’s early work.

In the early twentieth century, the University itself sent expeditions to Lower Nubia,  directed and largely funded by Francis Llewellyn Griffith, the first Professor of Egyptology at Oxford.

Link to the list of sites and excavations represented in the collectionHTML page

Highlights of the Collections

Among the most significant groups of material are the objects of Predynastic and Early Dynastic date (5000-2650 BC) from excavations at Naqada, Abydos, Koptos, and Hierakonpolis.  These include such masterpieces as the Scorpion and Narmer mace-heads, and a statue of King Khasekhem.

The museum’s extensive collection of funerary material includes the finest set of coffins from a group belonging to a family burial of Theban priests within the temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri. These were discovered by the first archaeologist to work for the Egypt Exploration Fund, Edouard Naville.

From excavations at Tell el-Amarna, the capital of the so-called ‘heretic king’ Akhenaten (1353-1335 BC), came many pieces of sculpture, objects of daily life, and fragmentary paintings, of which the ‘Princesses fresco’ is the best known. 

Professor Griffith's excavations in Nubia brought to Oxford a representative collection of material from this region (the area now comprising southern Egypt and northern Sudan). It includes the largest object in the museum  –  the Shrine of Taharqa, the only complete pharaonic building in this country.

Many of the donations and bequests which have enriched the collections are associated with famous Egyptologists and Oxford scholars. From Sir Alan Gardiner, the greatest twentieth-century English scholar of Egyptian language, came documents on papyrus, such as the Will of Naunakhte.

In addition to papyri, the Ashmolean houses many ostraca, the potsherds and fragments of limestone which served as a cheap writing medium in the ancient world. These include the Gardiner collection of hieratic ostraca, as well as the Bodleian Library's collections of writing boards, labels, and ostraca. They provide examples of all the scripts and languages that have been used in Egypt (Egyptian, Greek, Coptic, Aramaic, and Arabic), and documents which range from school texts to private letters.

Further Reading

P.R.S. Moorey, Ancient Egypt (2nd rev. edn 1988)
J.C. Payne, Catalogue of the Predynastic Egyptian Collection in the Ashmolean Museum (1993, repr. with addenda 2000)
A. MacGregor, The Ashmolean Museum. A Brief History of its Collections (2001)
H. Whitehouse, Ancient Egypt and Nubia in the Ashmolean Museum (2009)

Objects proposed for protection under Part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 (protection of cultural object on loan)