Wah-ib-ra-em-akhet: an immigrant in ancient Egypt

By Faye Kalloniatis, Research Associate

In my recent work on the Egyptian collection, and in preparation for publishing a catalogue of it, I looked closely at the shabtis and ushebtis – funerary figurines which were buried with the dead. These figures often had spells written on them and translating these can add valuable information. In translating the spell on this ushebti, I found it to be of a ‘standard’ kind.

[1] 2000-107 shabti front

NWHCM : 2000.107 – Ushebtis like this one were buried with the deceased to act as servants in the afterlife.

The ushebti, which was expected to magically come to life, was commanded to do all the menial work for his owner (the deceased) in the afterlife. One activity he was directed to do was ‘to ferry the sand from the west to the east and vice versa’. This instruction is thought to refer to the construction and repair of ditches and fields, an important agricultural activity if the deceased wanted an eternal supply of food. The figurine also carries hoes in his hands and at his back is a seed basket – all confirming his labouring role.

[2] 2000-107 shabti back

The seed basket is slung over the ushebti’s left shoulder. Actual baskets were filled with seeds ready for planting in the fields.

Apart from the shabti spell, the inscription also gave the name of the owner – a man named Wah-ib-ra-em-akhet, whose mother was called Sedjy. This was very useful information because it was now possible to see if that individual was known through any other artefacts – as indeed he was. As I continued to work through the translations of the spells on the Norwich figurines it turned out that there was another one in the collection belonging to the same man.

[3] 2000-167 Shabti

The second ushebti of Wah-ib-ra-em-akhet in the Norwich collection. 

In fact, it so happens that there are many other ushebtis belonging to Wah-ib-ra-em-akhet in museum collections across the world. This confirms the ancient Egyptian practice of burying not just one but hundreds of ushebtis with each owner.

Wah-ib-ra-em-akhet is also known through his inscribed sarcophagus. Collectively all these items tell us something about Wah-ib-ra-em-akhet’s background. He lived during the Saite Period (Dynasty 26, 664 – 525 BC) and was of Greek descent, his parents having come to Egypt from Greece. At that time some Greeks came as mercenaries to help maintain order in the recently reunified country of Egypt. As a second-generation immigrant, Wah-ib-ra-em-akhet was well-established and had clearly done well for himself, judging by his very finely carved stone sarcophagus.

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The Egyptian Collection at Norwich Castle Museum by Faye Kalloniatis is now available to buy.

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Conservation, Collections & Collaborative Working for Loans

By Deborah Phipps – Textile Conservator

In May the Conservation Department fulfilled a loan to Anglesey Abbey, a National Trust property in Cambridgeshire, historic home of Lord Fairhaven.

Lady Fairhaven, Cara Leland Broughton, was a fashionable woman and, after her death, several Louis Vuitton packing cases were discovered that held her wardrobe and accessories. These were divided between the V&A Museum and Norfolk Museums Service. The breadth of this collection allows an in depth look at the fashionable clothing of a wealthy woman in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Agreements to lend collections to other organisations are always a group consideration and this was no different. Curator, Registrar and Conservator come together to assess often long wish lists for suitability before a final selection is made.

Once the list has been decided, correspondence between the Registrar, the borrower and the conservator confirm details such as display parameters, insurance figures, transport requirements and installation dates.

Prior to the objects leaving the collection for installation, Conservation will produce Condition Report Forms which record the exact condition of all the objects with written notes and annotated images.

The chosen objects for this loan were transported to Anglesey Abbey by Constantine, a company specialising in the logistics of transporting art. Deborah Phipps, Textile Conservator, worked alongside the House and Collections Manager to inspect the objects on arrival, condition report forms were checked and signed, then the mannequins were dressed and moved into their final position.

Once the objects were installed, labels and barriers in place and light levels checked, the Conservator is free to look around the rest of the exhibition.

Having only been installed in mid-May, dates are already being discussed and transport booked for the return trip in September to return the objects to our stores. But in the interim, more of our wonderful collections get to be viewed and enjoyed by visitors beyond our own doors.


Preparation in the Conservartion Lab


The Textile Conservator working onsite at Anglesey Abbey

Anglesey 2

The costumes on display

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A Week in the Life of the Collections Management Trainee

By Wednesday Batchelor, Collections Management Teaching Museum Trainee

Because my role is so very diverse, I thought that I would share with you an idea of the things that I get up to day-to-day.

For instance, Monday was spent in Great Yarmouth, performing a firearms audit in the collections at the Time and Tide museum, which included checking these beautiful WW1 mauser rifles.


On Tuesday I was based at the Norfolk Collections Centre at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, where I am working on an ongoing project to document and repackage the Great Yarmouth natural history collections. This week I dedicated to sea shell collections, which included cutting plastazote to fit each shell into and choosing appropriate storage methods to best suit the objects.7B005E1C-CC2F-41E3-8B71-4E80AEFAA3F4

I took some time researching female collectors of botany whose finds have come into our collections, on Wednesday, then worked on cleaning a dolphin skeleton from the collections.02EBF51F-FBD6-41D1-AC2A-E27E8A1AEBA4

Thursdays I usually spend at Strangers’ Hall, where I conduct an audit in the toy stores. I have been working through boxes of Noah’s Ark toys, documenting, cleaning and packing them. This set consisted of over 200 animal figures all of which are described on the MODES record. The animals were made up of various species including numerous birds, farm animals and more exotic creatures such as camels and tigers.ca314eb9-6db1-4498-8d18-ccdb2d4a1a1e.jpeg

Time and Tide Museum hosted their Museums at Night event on Friday, so I was more than happy to go along in full pirate queen attire and help with children’s crafts for the evening. Lots of people came and got involved which was very lovely to see!35E82479-DF4B-44CE-8086-DD7225B4C858


So, there you have a brief summary of a week in my role! Next week will no doubt be completely different!

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Norwich Castle Keep – The Decant

By Wednesday Batchelor, Collections Management Trainee.

In preparation for the project at Norwich Castle, the Keep has been cleared of collections and (just about) all cases and structures.

Over 1300 objects have been carefully packed and moved, structures removed and cases have been dismantled, salvaged, stored or re-homed. Filming and photography have been recording the process throughout the time-frame. The result is that the magnificent Keep is visible to the public in all its structural glory for the next few months, prior to the handover in the Autumn for the next phase of the project.

Keep Decant

Above: The Norwich Castle Keep has been emptied and is open to view in its structural glory before the next phase of the project commences.

To enable this to happen, every department has employed each of their own specialisms. In the collections management team, Rosalind Palmer (Registrar) has ensured the safe return or storage of British Museum and V&A loaned objects, Mitchell Hudson and I (Wednesday Batchelor) (British Museum trainee and Teaching Museum trainee) have assisted in packing and documenting objects from the decant, whilst Wayne Kett (Collections Officer) has applied his Tetris like skills in allocating storage space at the Collections Centre and supported Alan West (Archeology Curator) to provide enhance storage space in the Archeology department. Part of this included settling the three Norwich Snapdragons into the Norfolk Collections Centre, where they now sit proudly and comfortably, together in each other’s company.

Keep Decant 2

Keeps Decant 3

Above: The conservation team hard at work protecting the Norwich Castle Snapdragon for transportation and storage.

The collections management team has utilised the powers of documentation via our software (MODES) to carefully record, track and update each of the objects taken off display and put into store.  Previously in large scale object moves such as this, members of a packing team would have laboriously completed paper packing lists and updated each record individually. To streamline processes the team have employed the use of ‘object movement procedure records’ and established a methodical and rigorous programme which has ensured that we can account for each and every object throughout the move.

Congratulations and grateful thanks are in order to all who have worked so incredibly hard to complete this milestone in the project on time. This would not have been possible without the collaboration between colleagues in conservation, collections management, a range of curatorial depts, D&T and building services, while colleagues in learning and FOH staff have had to be flexible in delivery of our services to the public.


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Winging It!

By Wednesday Batchelor, Collections Management Trainee

As the Teaching Museum trainee in collections management, this is my first of many posts to come! My name is Wednesday Batchelor and I am based with the collections management team between Shirehall, Strangers’ Hall and Gressenhall for the next year; the role has already been diverse and exciting with no two days the same, so I’m very grateful to be here!

On the first bank holiday Monday of May the Norfolk Collections Centre were a part of “Winging It!”, a day at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse dedicated to birds, with various crafts and activities as well as teaching opportunities and live birds. Our involvement was a display of Victorian cased taxidermy birds from the store, which had not been seen by the public for a number of decades. Because of this, there was plenty of preparation to be done, including conservation cleaning and some research.

The birds were brought out of storage, their conditions assessed and cases cleaned; this takes considerable patience and due care. Some of the specimens had very little information recorded about them, but I was able to research the species and the taxidermists associated with some examples to create display materials for the event, and spent some time creating artwork to support each bird.


Conservation cleaning of a young male roller prior to the event – in the second picture you can see the difference between the front and back of the glass where cleaning has taken place.

There were twelve cases displayed on the day, including Red-Crested Pochards, a Bittern, a Scoter and a trio of Palla’s Sandgrouse. We also displayed a gannet which was in very poor condition, having been damaged by pests whilst stored some years ago; it gave us the opportunity to convey the message that museum collections require considerable care and upkeep, and to discuss the ways that we deal with pests.

Another interesting specimen was a hybrid taxidermy, meaning it consisted of parts from different animals – in this case it was the head of a Great Northern Diver, attached to the body of another bird and the wings of a different, far smaller bird. Unfortunately, the motivation behind the creation is unknown, but he’s a very fabulous frankenduck.

Some of the displays from the ‘Winging It!’ event

Overall, the event was a lovely success, and despite the downpour we were well attended and managed to engage plenty of people!

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The Norwich Snapdragon

Over the past few weeks we have gradually been removing objects from Norwich Castle keep, in order to clear the space for the next phase of our exciting project: Gateway to Medieval England.

This meant the transportation of one of our Snap Dragons from Norwich Castle to the Norfolk Collections Centre. I say ‘one of’, because we actually have three Snap Dragons! And they are now all re-united in store…..


Three Snap Dragons at the Norfolk Collections Centre (we also have the head of a Snap Dragon on display at the Museum of Norwich). 

In 1984 Norfolk Museums Service published this very informative information sheet summarising the long and fascinating story of the Snap Dragons. It is a longer read than our blogs tend to be, but if you are interested in learning more about our Snaps then I recommend giving it a read……..




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Tracking down an ancient Egyptian artefact

By Faye Kalloniatis, Research Associate

This rectangular coloured-glass plaque was ‘re-discovered’ recently while I was working on cataloguing the museum’s Egyptian collection. In a booklet, ‘Curios from Egypt’, which belonged to the donors of this item (the Colman family, of Colman’s Mustard fame), it was listed as a ‘glass plaque with head of gorgon’. I had ransacked the stores over many months trying in vain to locate it. I’d finally given up when, walking through the Roman gallery one day, my attention was drawn to a colourful glass plaque with a rather distinctive face. It had large staring eyes, a bulbous nose, an impossibly small mouth and red dreadlocks. This surely was what I’d been looking for – and a quick check of the accession number proved that I was right.

[384] 1921-37-161 glass inlay

NWHCM : 1921.37.161 – Mosaic-glass plaque of a Greek theatre mask.

colman catalogue

‘Curios from Egypt’, the Colman booklet which mentions the glass plaque.

It was an intriguing, if alarming, face – its disconcerting expression clearly due to the way in which it had been made. Imagine a rectangular mosaic glass rod decorated with only one half of a face. Then, cut this rod into two thin slices, flip one of them and place them alongside each other, and there you have it – an unnaturally symmetrical face cut in two by a vertical line running along its centre. But who or what did this face represent? After some delving, I came across other, similar, images. They belonged to courtesans, one of the most-represented characters in the popular plays of the Athenian playwright, Menander. These glass plaques were made to imitate the tragi-comic theatre masks of the ancient Greeks.

Yet the Colman family had bought this item during their visit to Egypt and so what were these ancient Greek mosaic-glass ‘courtesans’ doing there? Egypt’s ancient past readily solves this mystery. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and so began the Ptolemaic Period with its influx of Macedonian Greeks. Living in Egypt and accepting Egyptian customs, the Greeks nevertheless added something of their own into the mix. Ever fond of their playwrights (whose plays captured the flavour of ancient Greek life and culture), the Greeks exported some of that to their new homeland. Greek theatre became popular in Egypt and a ‘spin-off’ of this was the production of small mosaic glass plaques. These colourful items illustrated many of the characters which populated the ancient Greek comedies and tragedies – the brothel keepers, the maeneds (female followers of Dionysos) and many more. Of all of these, the courtesans were amongst the most popular.

But how might these small plaques have been used? Some had thought they were intended as jewellery and worn for adornment. Yet, with no visible means of attaching them to clothing or threading them onto a chain, this theory became problematic. Then, by good fortune, some were found with wooden backing and so these items are now thought to be inlays for luxury wooden boxes. Look closely at the Norwich ‘courtesan’ and you will see what appear to be wooden fibres on the bottom edge of the plaque.

Whichever way they were used, they must have provided a ready reminder of home for Greeks living in Egypt and an entertaining view of another culture for the Egyptians.

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The Egyptian Collection at Norwich Castle Museum by Faye Kalloniatis is now available to buy.

kalloniatis egyptian catalogue

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