Educational pack for “Sounds of Roman Egypt” exhibition

If you are planning a visit with children to the Sounds of Roman Egypt exhibition at the Petrie Museum, then we have some materials for you!

Tray displaying replica objects. Photo: © Hypercube Photography | Oliver Siddons

We’ve created an activities and resource pack aimed at children studying history and music at Key Stage 2 (7-11 years).

You can download the pack here: SoundsOfRomanEgyptSchoolResourcePack

This pack contains supplementary information and activity sheets relating to the contents of the exhibition – it’s suitable for both school visits and families.

The exhibition runs until the 8th June 2019 (please note the museum is closed over Easter), however the pack includes all the identifying UC numbers for the artefacts in the collection, so the activities can still be completed after the exhibition ends. The objects can be viewed online via the museum’s catalogue:


“Sounds of Roman Egypt” exhibition

On the evening of the 21st January 2019, our project exhibition, Sounds of Roman Egypt opened at the UCL Petrie Museum. We marked the occasion with a Private View, where visitors could see our display for the first time.

Sounds of Roman Egypt display cases in the Petrie Museum. Photo: © Hypercube Photography | Oliver Siddons

Friends, colleagues, supporters, and collaborators joined us to celebrate the completion of this aspect of our project. It was exciting to see the artefacts we have been studying displayed so beautifully, and alongside our replica instruments within the cases. Sound clips of the replica instruments being played to Roman rhythms and accompanying song are available through interactive laptops and complement the replica instruments which are on hand for visitors to handle and play.

Visitor using the laptops to hear the sounds of the replica Roman instruments. Photo: © Hypercube Photography | Oliver Siddons.

We were also joined by musician Alan Bryant who brought a range of percussion instruments to supplement our replicas, which visitors could have a go at playing themselves.

Impromptu jam session at the private view! The Bes bell replica (UC8976) is being played to the left, and bird rattle replica (UC34972) played centre. Photo: © Hypercube Photography | Oliver Siddons.

The evening was a great success and a wonderful way to kick off the exhibition’s run. Sounds of Roman Egypt will be on at the Petrie Museum until the 8th June 2019 and is free to visit. See here for more details:

The booklets which accompany the exhibition. Photo: © Hypercube Photography | Oliver Siddons.

Announcing our Exhibition!

We’ve been working very hard behind the scenes here recently on an exciting part of our project – the temporary exhibition at the Petrie Museum, showcasing our research on the musical instruments in their collection and our work creating playable replicas.

The replica instruments. Photo: UCL Petrie Museum.

We are excited to announce that our exhibition opens to the public on the 22nd January 2019!

The exhibition reveals how different instruments were used to create particular experiences, for instance the role of instruments within religious and ritual activities, in the Egyptian home, and in processions and performances. Sound-making objects were important not only for entertainment, but also had practical uses in everyday life, for instance as toys, protective amulets, and alert or alarm sounds.

Project replica terracotta rattle, likely a child’s. Photo: Jo Stoner.

The replicas (discussed in blog posts here and and here, and based upon the sound-making artefacts within the Petrie’s collection) form an integral part of the exhibition. We have used this display as an opportunity to show the processes and technologies involved in their creation – from laser-scanning and creation of 3D virtual models by Kent Archaeology technician Lloyd Bosworth, to 3D printing. The craft replicas produced by University of Kent technicians Georgia Wright and George Morris, and local jeweller Justin Richardson in materials like ceramic, wood, and bronze are also included.

The original Bes bell which will feature in the exhibition alongside its modern replica. Photo: Ellen Swift.

Visitors will see the original Roman instruments displayed alongside some of the modern replicas, and learn about how they were used in the Roman period. Some replicas are also available to be handled and played, with additional sound recordings providing an evocative illustration of the sounds of Roman Egyptian life.

These sound recordings were created using computer software that mimics the acoustic qualities of specific interior and exterior spaces. Information on Roman buildings from archaeological excavations in Egypt has been used to allow us to hear the sounds of the instruments as though they were being played within these ancient spaces. Further evidence from ancient sources, such as musical texts from papyri documents, has allowed authentic tunes, rhythms and scales to be replicated. See below for a preview of one of the replica sets of cymbals (based on UC35798) played with one hand in the Paeonic 5/8 rhythm!

A lot of work has gone into the production of this exhibition from writing text for information panels (and making sure it is the correct length to fit the space!), to selecting which artefacts would be best to display (taking into account factors such as their state of preservation), to programming the computers with sound clips via a user-friendly interface. We also sourced an Arabic translator to ensure that non-English speaking visitors could benefit from the display. We are thus incredibly excited to share this event with you!

The 3D printed panpipes which will feature in the exhibition alongside their original Roman counterpart. Photo: Jo Stoner.

Finally there will be a series of public workshops based around our replica instruments aimed at both families and the general public to accompany the exhibition – please see here for further details. These workshops provide an opportunity to try out the full range of replica objects, hear live demonstrations, and learn how to play some ancient rhythms. A Key Stage 2 schools-pack with additional materials will also be available to download from the Petrie Museum website.

The exhibition is located in the pottery gallery of the Petrie Museum – further information including opening hours and the museum’s location can be found here.

Experimental archaeology, instruments, and Vindolanda: TRACamp 2018

A couple of weeks ago, the project’s replica instruments (accompanied by Ellen and myself) got the opportunity to be played at an authentic Roman site. We were lucky enough to attend TRACamp at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall – an event run by the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference which combined papers on research using experimental archaeology, with a day of workshops and live demonstrations for members of the public who visited the site.

The site of Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall – with amazing weather! Photo: Jo Stoner

We gave our paper on the processes of reconstruction for making the replica musical instruments from the Petrie, alongside papers from other researchers. Topics were diverse and ranged from the issues of working with modern craftsmen to reproduce Roman glass bangles (Tatiana Ivleva), to the production processes used by Roman potters (Graham Taylor), to the role of technology in reproducing light levels within Roman houses (Lucia Michielin) – the full list of speakers can be found here. The day was incredibly useful and provided a great opportunity to hear about the benefits and challenges that others working with both old and new technologies have encountered during their experimentations. The second day at the site saw us set up an interactive instrument session within the reconstructed Temple of the Nymphs near the museum in Vindolanda. The location was beautiful and also provided us with a great opportunity to hear the instruments played outdoors in a different environment.

The Temple of the Nymphs, where our instrument workshop was located, next to the stream in Vindolanda Museum. Photo:

The Temple is situated next to a stream, and the cymbals, clappers, and panpipes could all be clearly heard above the sound of the water, and as far as the workshop tents on the other side of the outdoor area. Members of the public had the opportunity to visit and learn about the different rhythms used in the Roman period, and to try them out on the percussion replicas – the pottery rattles, wooden clappers, and brass cymbals.

Ellen Swift playing the finger cymbals inside the reconstructed Temple of the Nymphs, Vindolanda. Photo: Jo Stoner

Visitors also learned about the processes involved in scanning and 3D printing the panpipes, as well as being able to have a go at playing them! By numbering each pipe on the replica, we were able to create instructions for playing a simple tune – the end phrase of the theme Ode to Joy by Beethoven – which many people successfully had a go at! Some of the insights that visitors provided us with were great – whilst discussing bells we had a fruitful conversation about modern practices of placing bells on horses to repel evil spirits. Many people also had suggestions about how the wooden clappers were originally tied together based on the extant holes – something we are still mulling over.

Some visitors to the Temple of the Nymphs try out some Roman rhythms on the wooden clappers. Photo:

Whilst this was happening, other stalls on the site were offering further interactive events – and we managed to sneak out to take a look ourselves. Food specialist Sally Grainger had brought a range of different garum based sauces for visitors to try.

Food specialist Sally Grainger, with some of her fish sauce (garum). Photo:

One was in the form of a vinaigrette, mixed with olive oil, honey, black pepper, and reduced grape juice to produce a sweet and sour dip that was served with melon. The garum itself was potent but tasty! Smelling very similar to Thai fish sauce, it was rich in umami savouriness – something we learnt was thanks to the high levels of nitrogen that ensured its protein-based flavour.

Clothing expert Faith Morgan with a very willing model. Photo:

One of the other stalls included reconstructed late Roman clothing – various tunics, cloaks, and mantles for men, women and children – all made based on patterns and dimensions from archaeological remains by clothing specialist and Kent alumnus Faith Morgan. These were available for visitors to try on, and set up next to reenactor Michael Gasparro who was on hand to create intricate Roman hairstyles for willing participants. The weather was beautifully clear but rather cold….which ensured that some of the conference attendees took the opportunity to try on the replica clothing! This resulted in an impromptu procession across the Vindolanda site, with our replica musical instruments a key part of it. The aim was to evoke the contexts and behaviours in which many of our instruments would have been originally used – for example, in religious processions and ritual activities.

The procession participants playing the Roman instruments in the fort of Vindolanda. Photo:

It was a real treat to be able to hear the sounds of our Roman replicas drift across the original Roman fort and towards Hadrian’s wall. To see more photos from the two-day event, along with the full list of speakers and workshops, see


Camels vs dinosaurs

We made an unusual discovery on one of our visits to the Petrie just before Christmas. It seems as though we have found the first evidence for the presence of dinosaurs in Roman Egypt!

The Roman brontosaurus. Photo: Ellen Swift.

Okay, so it’s impossible that this animal is supposed to be a dinosaur, despite its remarkable similarity to the dinosaur shaped breaded turkey pieces from childhood. This small copper alloy pendant is more likely to represent a camel, a creature that that is much easier to imagine in Roman Egypt. It is probably also a camel that adorns a string of later Roman beads, also in the Petrie Museum.

Late Roman string of beads and pendants, including a camel bottom right of picture. Photo: Ellen Swift.

It’s interesting that both these camels adorn pieces of personal jewellery – the pendant would likely have been attached to a necklace or bracelet and worn on the body. Camels in particular became a motif associated with one of the early Christian saints in the later Roman period. Saint Menas was a Roman soldier who was martyred in the third century AD. A popular figure in Egypt, a huge pilgrimage centre grew around his burial site, with Menas flasks taken as souvenirs by Christian pilgrims visiting Menas’s shrine. These flasks feature standardised decoration of the saint flanked by two camels.

Flask showing Saint Menas flanked by two camels. Photo: Met Museum, NY.

The story goes that after his death, the body of Menas was carried back to Egypt from Phrygia (now Anatolia, in Turkey) for burial by these animals. When the camels reached Lake Mareotis outside Alexandria, they laid down and refused to move, thus marking Menas’ chosen place for burial, and the site of the subsequent shrine that was built over his tomb. These flasks have been found in archeological contexts across Egypt and the Roman Empire as a whole and would originally have contained water or oil blessed through contact with the shrine. They would then be worn by Christian followers of Menas around the neck, or displayed within the home. Perhaps the dinosaur-like pendants in the Petrie were also worn by admirers of this saint as a sign of devotion?


Bonus Find: a beetle update!

We have an update on our mysterious friend in the box of beads. Animator Rosie Miles contacted us to suggest it might be a Golden Spider Beetle – and it seems to be a pretty good match!

Our beetle friend. Photo: Jo Stoner.
The Golden Spider Beetle. Photo source.

So what does the identification of this beetle tell us? The Golden Spider Beetle, or Niptus Hololeucus, is found in the UK in birds’ nests and places like basements where they feed on vegetable and animal debris. They are generally considered a pest, especially in the museum environment, as they eat organic artefacts such as wood, paper and textiles…they are certainly not the curator’s friend!

However, the Petrie Museum is proud to be pest free, thanks to the care and vigilance of the collection’s staff and the controlled environmental conditions. In fact, the presence of this little beetle instead shines a light on the history of the collection itself. Before it became the Petrie Museum, it was in fact two private collections – that of the explorer Amelia Edwards, and the collection of artefacts archaeologist Flinders Petrie had acquired through purchase and excavation. On the death of Edwards in 1892, they were bequeathed as a new museum collection to UCL. Up until this point, Petrie’s own collection had been laid in piles separated by sheets of paper, accumulating soot and dirt (hardly the conditions to keep the artefacts pest-free!). On a number of further occasions, the artefacts that form the Petrie Museum collection again found themselves in less than ideal storage situations, due to reasons beyond anyone’s control. For example, during the Second World War, the majority of the collection had been boxed up in tea chests and carried to the UCL vaults for protection. However sadly the Egyptology Department was gutted by a direct bomb hit, and when firemen hosed down the burning building, water flooded the basements where the artefacts were held.

The survival of the collection to the present day is inspiring, with the presence of a small insect revealing more than you might first think. The history of the Petrie Museum makes for a fascinating read – if you want to find out more check out this book (free to download!) about the collection, edited by the former Museum curator Alice Stevenson.

Headline news in 1923

Dealing with a collection like that of the Petrie Museum means we often encounter unusual objects that reveal the history of the original excavations, as well as the artefacts themselves. This is often reflected in the materials that the small finds were originally packed in. It’s not unusual to examine an artefact brought over with a cocoa tin, a cigarette box of a long-lost Egyptian brand like Melkonian or Maspero Freres, or simply a match box. Such ad-hoc containers clearly reflect the materials the excavators had to hand, as well as their own supplies on site in Egypt, giving us an evocative insight to life during the digs.

Roman beads in a Bryant & May’s matchbox (UC73767). Photo: Jo Stoner.

As well as reused containers, other fragments of life from the origins of the collection can also make an appearance. Whilst handling a large bone cosmetic pot, it became apparent that it was packed with a page from an edition of The Times dating from December 1923. The pot itself is cracked lengthways and held together with a strip of fabric, presumably the same sort of age as the newspaper.

Roman cosmetic pot with two lids, in a page of The Times from 1923. Photo: Jo Stoner.

So, for anyone who missed the headlines on Wednesday 19th December 1923, I can help fill in the gaps. The proposal for the Northern and Western Motorway, to be built by the region’s unemployed, appears to be a controversial idea. “Sinister” Communist Sunday Schools are not proving popular with a certain Mr Perry of Coventry. And finally, Charterhouse beat Shrewsbury 4-0 at Crystal Palace.

Photo: Jo Stoner
Photo: Jo Stoner


Spot the bonus find

As the project looks at (amongst other things) domestic artefacts and dress accessories from Roman Egypt, Ellen and I often find ourselves rummaging through boxes of miscellaneous beads and jewellery fragments on our research days at the Petrie. As well as beads, some boxes also contain pendants and amulets, bits of original and modern stringing, spinning whorls, fragments of carved bone, scraps of textile, moulded glass, finger rings, and earrings. These often come all together in one container, sometimes from one tomb, and have not been touched since they were packed up after excavation. These kinds of boxes can be intimidating in terms of their quantity of artefacts…but also very exciting. It’s like an archaeological lucky dip.

A box of miscellaneous beads and other items. Photo: Jo Stoner.

However, sometimes you can find some bonus extras hiding within these collections. These might be in the form of “organic” beads – what appear to be balled up leaves threaded on to string, perhaps as part of the funerary ritual. Or the surprise might be in another form….can you spot the bonus find in the image below?

Here’s a closer look.

A beetle! Long dead it seems, but well preserved – it’s gold appearance makes it perfectly suited for its surroundings. We think it probably came from Egypt with the other finds. Perhaps this beetle became part of this specific assemblage during the Roman period, or perhaps it was a contemporary of Petrie himself during the dig. When we get a spare moment, we plan to try to identify the species. If you know what kind of beetle this is, let us know! (John, Paul, George, or Ringo are not acceptable answers).

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