The EDFU Connection

The international collaborative project The Edfu Connection highlights the collection of a single hoard of Ptolemaic sealings now held at the Allard Pierson and the Royal Ontario Museums. Both halves were acquired in early 1906 by F.W. von Bissing and C.T. Currelly likely from the same local dealer in Egypt who related that they were found in a jar in Edfu, a town south of Karnak and Luxor. While the Bissing collection eventually became the foundation of the Egyptian department of the Allard Pierson in Amsterdam, Currelly would become the founder of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Seal Impressions from Hellenistic Egypt

The collection of about 800 clay seal impressions was found in Edfu, the site of the temple dedicated to the falcon god Horus at ancient Apollinopolis Magna in Upper Egypt (about 20km north of Aswan). The lumps of clay must have originally sealed papyrus documents that were destroyed when the temple archive caught fire. Over half of the seal impressions show male or female heads or busts, mostly of kings and queens of the Ptolemaic dynasty that reigned over Egypt in the last three centuries before the common era. From the royal portraits the series of sealings can in fact be dated from ca. 185 bce to ca. 25 bce, for the set include many of the portraits from Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra I to the famous Cleopatra VII and even Julius Caesar.

Significance of the sealings

The importance of this collection lies in part in the fact that it forms the largest find of sealings from Hellenistic Egypt. Moreover, they offers a fascinating glimpse of the political and priestly ties in the Egyptian administration in this era. Additionally they provide insight in the spread of various Greek and Egyptian themes, and the meeting of these cultures. Apart from the many royal portraits, the clay seal impressions – made from signet rings or seal stamps – show gods familiar from Greek and Egyptian religion, as well as Hellenistic Egyptian deities: for instance Apollo and Athena, Demeter and Dionysus, Isis and Osiris, Hathor and Thoth, Sarapis and Ammon.

From the animal world mythological and fantastic beings, sacred cows and royal cobra’s, birds and bees can be seen on the sealings. Some 50 display short hieroglyphic texts – including the royal cartouche of Ptolemy XI, dating to his second reign (ca. 89/8-80 bce). Several examples mention Isis of the Pure Isles Philae and Abaton at the first cataract of the Nile.

Research questions

The Toronto half has been published merely in a preliminary manner over a century ago, while only sporadic examples of the Amsterdam half. The systematic comparison of the complete collection, ultimately resulting in a joint catalogue, is essential for an optimal understanding of the political and religious, ideological and iconographic implications of the Edfu seal impressions. An interesting question emerges what the interconnections were between the priests of the Horus temple at Edfu and those of Isis at Philae and Abaton, as well as other temples in southern Egypt.

Do the many royal portraits reflect official correspondence between the temple priests and the Ptolemaic court in Alexandria? Or, should the portraits be interpreted as a reflection of the wide acceptance of the dynasty among the local elites? The themes thus reveal aspects of ethnicity and identity – on the local as well as the state level, in terms of Greek and Egyptian backgrounds, as well as the meeting of cultures in the Hellenistic world.

International Networks

Generously sponsored by the Dutch Mondriaan Fund, the research is led at the Allard Pierson Museum by Dr. Branko van Oppen, who coordinated various events, presentations and publications around the collection of seal impressions. Scholars collaborating in The Edfu Connection have thus far included Catharine Lorber (American Numismatic Society), Dr. Robert Bianchi (Fondation Gandur pour l’Art), Dr. Jeffrey Spier (J. Paul Getty Museum), Dr. Helmut Kyrieleis (Deutshe Archäologische Institut), Dr. Dimitris Plantzos (University of Athens), Panagiotis Iossif (Belgian School of Athens), among many others. The project’s network also includes partners such as Hogeschool van Amsterdam, Digital Museum Lab, MuseumCamp, Digitaal Erfgoed Nederland, and Moobels 3D design.

Expert Meetings

Since the inception of the project in 2015, two workshops and an international conference have been organized at the Allard Pierson Museum. At the first meeting (Jan. 2016), experts in the fields of sigillography (sealings), numismatics (coins), glyptics (engraved gems) came together with museum professionals to discuss matters of iconography, digitization, multimedia presentation and public display of miniature objects. The second workshop (Jan. 2017), of similar nature, intended to further advance insight about the public presentation and academic dissemination of the research.

The two-day conference (Jan. 2018) brought together an array of specialists who shared the results of their various research projects in the field of Hellenistic sealings and archives. It was the first international meeting of experts in this form in over 25 years. The Edfu Connection thus provided the next major step in this area of specialization.

Presentations and publications

While a selection of 25 sealings have been on display in the mid-1980s at Royal Ontario Museum, the ca. 320 sealings now held in Amsterdam have not before been presented to the visitors of the Allard Pierson Museum. At MuseumCamp 2016 some 75 museum professionals gathered in Amsterdam to tackle some of the most challenging objects held in the UvA Cultural Heritage collection. Thus a team conceived of a way to show the Edfu sealings in the museum for the first time. Later (Feb. 2017), students of the Hogeschool van Amsterdam presented case studies around the sealings, similarly dealing with the challenge of presenting miniature – and visually unappealing – artefacts to the museum visitors. The entire collection of Edfu sealings in Amsterdam has since been on display in the museum.

Robert Bianchi, Catharine Lorber, Stefano Caneva, Vicenzo Ria as well as Branko van Oppen have given presentations or published articles about the Edfu sealings at national and international conferences, as well as in academic and popular scientific journals. Locations include not only the Allard Pierson itself, but also the J. Paul Getty Museum, École Normale Supérieur in Lyon, the Universities of Rome, Cologne and Groningen, as well as Taormina (Sicily) and Nicosia (Cyprus). Additionally, six articles have thus far been published.

SigNet Consortium

An invaluable result of The Edfu Connection is the creation of a partnership of specialist entitled the SigNet Consortium. Led by Dr. Marie-Françoise Boussac (Paris-Nanterre and Lyon), this consortium aims to build an online image database to advance the scientific research of Hellenistic sealings and archives. Such a database will facilitate matching and associating identical or similar clay impressions, contemporary coins, signet rings and engraved gems now dispersed among the world’s museums. Partner institutions include the University of Turin, the Kelsey Museum of the University of Michigan, and the American Numismatic Society; specialist and advisors include Prof. Sharon Herbert, Dr. Vito Messina, and Peter van Alfen, among others.

With The Edfu Connection, in short, the Allard Pierson has successfully positioned itself as a top ranking museum of archaeology and art history, at the juncture of scientific research and public engagement in the culturally vibrant capital of a multicultural society. While research continues on the Edfu sealings – with the aim of a forthcoming catalogue of the two joint collections of the Allard Pierson and the Royal Ontario Museums – scholars and generally interested visitors are invited to examine the display of the clay seal impressions in the museum.

Published by  Allard Pierson Museum

14 March 2018