Politics of Viewing
Stephen Quirke; Reader, Curator of the Petrie Museum, University College London
What gives a viewer the right to look at a picture? Or an object? Or these
two drinking cups, of fired Nile mud, made three and a half millennia ago in
the lower Nile Valley, and buried at a site an archaeologist chose to dig in
1914 and chose to call Harageh, the pair now sits on a low glass shelf in a
university museum in London. What gives us the right to learn, might be the
recognition of political realities, that London had troops occupying Egypt in
1914, that London museum-goers and university students have higher living standards,
better health service, higher literacy rate, that politics, society and the
economy, after all, exist. And a live connection with the home-town of the man
who dug out the pots for the archaeologist, to let people living in that part
of Egypt see London as it is.
These two cups were the only surviving finds along
with some glazed beads and the remains of a body identified as a male child: The record card from the excavation (in the Petrie Museum Archive)
Ceramic typologists place the cup form in the local production sequence at
c.1600-1500 BC, when the kings based at Thebes, in the South, fought to reunite
Egypt. It is not possible to identify the precise date, so to know whether the
cups were made before or after the reunification – and from that to imagine
the lives of the makers and users, and the people who buried this child.
A Museum Object?
A dilemma in the control records of the institution: is a pair two objects
or one? A pair is as easily breached as any set, by taking one physically separable
item to a different place, by the choice of not keeping a link that is reinforced
here by the words on them, that continue from one to the next cup. The same
breach or keep is continually created-undone either by the memory of or by the
sight of the rest of the world around the display-case, or around the computer-screen.
The ‘it’ only becomes an object – museum object, object of study – by heavy
Of fired Nile-flood silt, at one level these two objects embody
Water-drinking, a pair of regular drinking cups – the shape is found abundantly
enough on archaeological sites of this region and period. These two have, though,
been chosen for a moment out of the ordinary, a choice that has left its traces
in faded writing. Special words, special use, that makes these cups more precious
than other cups, not for reflecting literate (elite) life, but for reminding
us of the sacredness of the everyday: not to assume what any other cup might
have been at a moment of its use; and instead to remember how we depend on the
incessantly repeated act of drinking water. A literate user had a life, a producer
had a life, an illiterate user had a life, but history and archaeology and their
philologies use some users more comfortably than others. The museum display
naturalises the social hierarchy that we bring to the object, but this pair
disrupts the hierarchy of the bog-standard drinking-cup by making it more obvious
that any Thing can be sacred in its ordinariness, because this pair is covered
in ritual recorded in writing, and this ritual makes explicit precisely the
sacredness of all Material and every Thing.
Deities named in this ritual include the creator, the sun-god Ra; the god of order and kingship, Horus; the god of metal arts, Ptah; and the goddess of sensual life, Hathor.
(on cup UC 16129)
Pronouncement for offering things to the Transfigured Spirits,
opening the mouth at the beginning of reading.
‘Heaven shall be opened to you;
earth shall be opened to you
the ways in the Land bearing the God shall be opened to you,
so that you may go out and in with Ra,
when you have ranged like the Lords of Eternity.
Receive senu-loaves as the gift of Ptah,
and pure bread off the altars of Horus.
Your flight-soul lives, your limbs flourish;
your sight is clear in the ways (of darkness).
The Nile-flood god gives you water;
The Grain-god gives you bread;
Hathor gives you beer;
The Cow-goddess gives you milk.
You wash your feet upon blocks of silver on slabs of turquoise;
you don the ‘pure’-garment,
(continued on cup UC 16128)
[and are wi]th Ptah,
You are given bread from your barley,
you drink water at the altar of Ra.
Osiris gives you [new forms].
You glimpse the shining of the water,
when you have moved out from your house of darkness;
The Nile-flood strikes seven cubits deep over your fields in your house of thirst.
You drink a jug of milk, as the gift of the cow-goddess Sekhat-Hor.
You don the ‘pure’-garment, and untie any other,
the hands of the Weaving-goddess have clothed you.
You look at the Sun-disk, and worship Ra.
You pacify the one who rises in the Primeval Waters.
You are given bread in Hutkaptah (Memphis), pure in your offerings.
UC 16129 and 16128 Photos online at