New exhibition highlights Stanford’s collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, multicolored ceramics

The Stanford Archaeology Center showcases ancient Egyptian stone tools, parts of a mummy case and other artifacts that were collected by Jane Stanford; her son, Leland Stanford Jr.; and other university affiliates.

Remnants of an ancient Egyptian mummy case, bronze figurines of the mythological god Osiris and miniature ceramic jars are among some of the objects on display as part of two new exhibits at the Stanford Archaeology Center.

Students working in archaeology center

Stanford students Shana Charlie Levine, left, and Ariela Tovah Algaze research pieces of ancient Egyptian cartonnage, some of which are now on display in the new exhibit at the Stanford Archaeology Center. (Image credit: Christina Hodge)

The main exhibition, called Our Dark Materials: Rediscovering an Egyptian Collection, provides insight into the daily experiences of ordinary Egyptians thousands of years ago.

The displayed items were collected by Jane Stanford; her son, Leland Stanford Jr.; and other affiliates of the university in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Several objects, including pieces of a broken cartonnage, a type of case that stored mummified Egyptian bodies, were originally part of a gallery exhibit at the Stanford Museum during the 1906 earthquake.

The disaster damaged many artifacts, including the cartonnage, which was once whole, according to historic images from the museum’s interior, said Christina Hodge, academic curator and collections manager of the Stanford University Archaeology Collections. After the earthquake, the destroyed items were put away into boxes, hidden for over a century.

The new exhibit reexamines these forgotten, broken artifacts and presents them in a different light, Hodge said.

“A lot of the materials we have featured this year came pretty close to ending up in a trash heap after the 1906 disaster,” Hodge said. “It’s exciting that the university saved those items because they still generate research value. They also give students a unique opportunity to deal hands-on with materials from an ancient past.”

The exhibit also displays a variety of artifacts used by ancient Egyptians during different periods of their civilization, including stone tools, such as a ceremonial knife, as well as ceramic containers and figurines.

Every spring quarter, Hodge leads a group of undergraduate and graduate students in installing and curating materials from Stanford’s archaeology collections as part of the course Museum Cultures: Material Representation in the Past and Present.

As part of putting the exhibit together, Hodge’s students researched each of the pieces now on display. In the process, several students discovered previously unknown information about some of the artifacts. Some objects, including the mummy case, have inscriptions that were not observed by previous researchers.

Sabrina Papazian, a doctoral candidate in anthropology, noticed some faded hieroglyphics etched on a base that had broken off of a metal figurine. None of the museum documents about the figurine mentioned the writing on its base and the text has yet to be translated.

“At first glance, the metal base looked insignificant, especially without its main statue part,” Papazian said. “But it was really interesting to discover the hieroglyphics on it. I’m curious if we can figure out what they mean after further research.”

Papazian was also in charge of putting together a part of the exhibit that explains how the Stanford family collected some of the artifacts.

“I see artifacts as having a double life: the life they had when they were used and the life they had once they were dug up from the ground,” said Papazian, whose research is focused on the study of cultural heritage and how it is managed in communities. “I’m especially interested in examining that second life. I think it’s fascinating that objects have different meanings that constantly change with time.”

A second, smaller exhibit, called In the Surface: Material Expressions of Iron-Bearing Ceramics, showcases several ceramic jars, pots and other dishware that was decorated with iron. The items are a mix of ancient and contemporary artworks from Asia and the Americas.

This exhibit represents an ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration between the Archaeology Center, Stanford University Archaeology Collections, the Cantor Arts Center and Stanford’s Ceramic Art, Science and Culture program.

The public is encouraged to check out both of the exhibits, which are going to be available for at least the next several months. The ancient Egyptian exhibit will run through May 2019. The ceramics exhibit is scheduled to be up until the end of January.

Media Contacts

Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service: (650) 497-4419, ashashkevich@stanford.edu