Under The Eaves: The Dancing Girl of Naukratis

Museum News

Under The Eaves: The Dancing Girl of Naukratis

Back in February, the museum posted a blog I wrote about the curious story of the Egyptian items on display in our Victorian Classroom. Little did I realise quite where this story would take me.

I wrote that there were a handful of items. This is true of the objects on display, but under the eaves I discovered more. The contents of two shoeboxes mark the extent of the Margaret Taylor Collection, items transferred to the Museum of Cornish Life when the Camborne Museum closed in 2005. There is a substantial project in itself to review the Camborne records (confusing at times) and match these cards to the objects themselves – I would make a crude estimate of an additional 200 items held in storage.

Tasha Fulbrook (the FINDS liaison officer) and I have been through the boxes once together since we made the film for the Collection Tour that aired in January. One of the items, this ushabti of a Dancing Girl, intrigued me. When I first handled her, I was horrified that there was a sticker on her back! That’s not the way we look after ancient objects, or any objects! With an object-handling head aside, I am grateful because it has provided me with a gossamer thread to the past.

The Dancing Girl is the size of my little finger, she is light coloured, glazed in part, light to handle and time has mottled her features. The sticker on her back, in loopy script, reads:

Ushabti of Dancing Girl fr Naukratis, c 580 B.C.

The process of research is a joy as much as a frustration. Chasing down references, or names, or places (whatever the criteria you have carefully selected) can seem endless, sometimes pointless, sometimes intriguing (and wildly off course). The moments when a past point in time touches the present is like a kind of magic. Your heartbeat quickens, you hear a gasp and realise that it is you that has made the sound, and there is a fizz, a spark of something. On a scanned document, buried in a research website, I saw Dancing Girl written in the same handwriting that was on the sticky label.

Tasha had provided a link to a research project that explored British Excavations in Egypt 1880-1980, with a project aim that examined the distribution of Egyptian artefacts found in British excavations around the world. This three-year project started in 2014 and makes for fascinating reading. It has enabled me to trace the dots that link ‘our’ Dancing Girl ushabti, to an excavation made in one of the two Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF) financed excavations, in either 1884-85 or 1885-6.

The dancing girl from the scanned document wasn’t ours. She was on a list of items that were being distributed to Toronto in 1902 by EEF. A time when Miss Emily Paterson was their General Secretary, and she was writing the lists and making the transfers happen. The Toronto dancing girls were also from Naukratis.

Flinders Petrie discovered the archaeological site of Naukratis and co-directed the first excavation in 1884-5. A second season followed in 1885-6, with a last one in 1903 (not by EEF). The ancient site of Naukratis is no longer accessible as it lies flooded under a lake. For more about the mysteries of Naukratis, this World Archaeology article provides a good introduction.

It is worth commenting that it was exceptional for artefacts from EEF excavations to end up in what was private possession. The EEF had, and has, clear aims that the discovery of artefacts should be distributed to end up in the public realm. In the project website, it states that ‘in very exceptional circumstances did individuals personally receive single token objects.’ They cite a case in point. In 1899 there was a discovery of a high number of ushabti at Abydos, so the fund presented one to every EEF subscriber… with the understanding that they would be kept in the public realm.

What conclusions can we possibly draw from these threads?

The Dancing Girl came to the museum from Margaret Taylor’s bequest, but it came to her from Miss Emily Paterson.

The EEF’s distributions were almost entirely to institutions in Britain and around the world. Distributions to individuals were made under exceptional circumstances, but it seems unlikely that an individual distribution would have been from a Naukratis excavation.

The Dancing Girl is from Naukratis, from an excavation that took place in one of the two season, 1884-5 or 1885-6. The two Dancing Girl ushabti that went to Toronto were from the 1885-6 excavation, so perhaps it is more likely that the one in our stores is from the same project. Perhaps the museum in Toronto can help me close this research gap.

What does it mean for us as a museum?

We have a connection of a specific object to a specific excavation. In our own way, we can begin a process of restitution. This feels both small and significant in the quest to understand our collection better, understand where things have come from, and where they rightfully belong.

Julia Webb-Harvey
Volunteer Researcher
Citizen Curator 2020

A ushabti is a funerary object, a small figurine, that was buried with the deceased. There were often many ushabti accompanying the dead on their next journey, representing servants or minions who could be called upon to do manual labour in the afterlife. 

Museum of Cornish Life