The Ure Museum: The Nine Lives of A Mummified Cat’s Head

By Dr. Claudina Romero Mayorga, November 2020.

This year’s edition of Heritage Open Days (11-20 September) at the Ure Museum was a bit different. For the annual HOD we would normally host a talk and open the museum on a Saturday with free activities for families, but the pandemic forced us to step up and go virtual. What could we offer to attract people back to their computer screens during a time when families had already been online for 6 months!?

Since the theme for this year was “hidden nature” we chose to focus on the mummified cat’s head that is spending its afterlife in one of our cases. Our staff and some colleagues in the Department of Classics created a series of short videos under the title “The 9 lives of the Ure Museum’s cat’s head”. Each life of the cat – and each day of the festival – would be devoted to discovering a specific aspect of our feline. After all, the internet loves cats.

Dr Hana Navratilova started with Bastet and the wide range of powers that this Egyptian goddess displayed. Prof. Ian Rutherford then offered a refreshing and honest point of view: what we know–and don’t—about the ancient Egyptian custom of sacrificing cats. Dr Claudina Romero Mayorga gave us a gory insight into the mummification process and a step by step guide to mummifying a sardine (and to keep our cat well fed in the afterlife). Prof. Rachel Mairs provided us with an eco-friendly vision of ancient Egypt by focusing on how papyri were recycled into cartonnage.

The Ure Museum curator, Prof. Amy Smith and the assistant curator, Jayne Holly, then reminded us of their important “behind the scenes” work. By tracing back the cat’s provenance—where it comes from, when was it added to our collection, who gave it to us–we discovered bits of our own history. Lending our feline to another museum and running some tests in the lab to become part of the ancient Egyptian Animal Biobank also expanded our knowledge of this spooky artefact.

All videos were posted on our website and advertised on social media, enabling us to engage with people around the world. Our number of followers on Twitter and Facebook rocketed; international institutions liked our posts and we created a series of colour-in pages that accompanied each video for younger kids. In the end, our Heritage Open Days were more accessible than ever. If you missed the videos, you can still watch them at: https://collections.reading.ac.uk/ure-museum/whats-on/cat/.

Seminar Series Programme -Autumn 2020

The Department of Classics’ Autumn 2020 seminar series will take place on Wednesdays at 4pm, via MS TEAMS. To request a link to attend one or all of the following sessions, please email a.c.smith@reading.ac.uk

7 October: Prof. Thorsten Fögen (Durham), Rival or ally? Competition, controversy and polemics in ancient technical discourse

14 October: Dr Maria Pretzler (Swansea), The Beginning of the Peloponnesian League – not quite as Herodotus tells it?

21 October: Dr Chris Stray (Swansea), Uncovering Kenneth Dover: A scandalous eminence.

28 October: Dr Jennifer Cromwell (Manchester Metropolitan), The use of indigenous languages in conquest societies: the case of Coptic in early Islamic Egypt

11 November: Prof. Fiona Macintosh (University of Oxford), Archiving and Interpreting Performance

18 November: Dr Jack Hanson (Reading), Cities, temples, and scale: A comparative approach

25 November: Dr Julia Hamilton (Leiden), Secondary epigraphy in Old Kingdom Saqqara

Dr Matthew Nicholls Wins Guardian Higher Education Award for Teaching Excellence

It may not quite be the Oscars, but the recent Guardian Higher Education Award ceremony in London was certainly an exciting night out, and I was delighted to come home with the award for Teaching Excellence. The award recognised my work in using digital modelling of ancient cities in my University teaching – both my large model of Rome, now nearing completion, and my course on Digital Silchester. Those projects have been the subject of various other posts and articles, by me and others, so I thought I’d post some thoughts here about the evening and the award itself.

The call for entries was circulated in mid-October, just as the academic year was getting underway. The University collected nominations and decided which ones to enter; my suggestion for the HEA-sponsored Teaching Excellence category was selected and I was asked to write a series of 300-word paragraphs outlining my work, describing how it was delivered, stating its outcomes with relevant evidence, and listing any funding received. At this stage I was not particularly hopeful about the outcome; the entry process did not allow for any pictures to be added to the strict word count, and as mine is such a visual project I thought that this would limit how well I could convey it to the judges.

In early December, however, I was excited to learn that I had been shortlisted (alongside the University of Nottingham’s 5-year pharmacy degree programme). To be one of two shortlisted entries was extremely gratifying, given the level of competition. I was pretty sure that I would not go on to win: all the other entries in the awards scheme, including Nottingham’s, seemed to be big projects run by groups of people, whereas mine is essentially an individual piece of work – albeit one strongly and consistently supported by my department and by the wider University. But to find out, I would be going to the awards ceremony in London in the new year.

The 26th of February eventually rolled round, and I headed down to London in a very smart chauffeured car with Gavin Brooks, the Pro-Vice Chancellor (Teaching and Learning), and David Carter, one of my Faculty’s Associate Deans. The Guardian was hosting the awards in style at 8 Northumberland Avenue, a distinguished Victorian hotel building off Trafalgar Square now restored (after a period as offices for the Ministry of Defence) as a very grand conference venue. There were between two and three hundred people there, representing the shortlisted universities and the sponsors of the various awards.

I had been shortlisted for a BUFAVC award for Learning on Screen in 2013, so the format of the evening, including the long and increasingly tense wait for one’s own award category to come round, was familiar. After an hour or so of high-decibel mingling over some very nice canapés and Champagne, we moved into the large ballroom, set out with tables (bearing yet more canapés) facing the stage. The evening’s host was Victoria Coren, who writes the poker column for the Observer. She moved fairly briskly through the award categories, keeping the evening moving along with good humour.

The announcement of each category’s winner was preceded by a little video in which the chairman of the judging panel made some remarks about the field of entries – a high standard, difficult to choose, and so forth – and then a sentence or two about why they had chosen the winner (without revealing who it might be). The first intimation that I might have won came when the judges for the Teaching Excellence award said that they had chosen to reward a scheme that was about teaching, rather than about organising teaching – David and I had time to exchange a could-it-be? sort of glance, and then ‘University of Reading’ was announced as the winner – a really exciting moment. A burst of rather loud and lively music and some flashing lights gave me time to walk up to collect my trophy and pose for pictures, with Victoria Coren and Stephanie Marshall, the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Academy.

David had prudently brought his iPad along and hooked up to the venue’s wifi to Tweet a series of images and messages. Like most events of this type now there was an official Twitter hashtag and a live video feed of messages, so we enjoyed seeing ours scroll past, and then seeing nice emails, FB posts, and Tweets pouring in.

The excitement of winning a trophy at a big national ceremony was wonderful, and the sort of thing that does not come often in a career. The trophy is on my desk, my mother has a copy of the photos, and the whole thing left a warm glow that will, I should think, last a while. That apart, though, I was particularly glad about two things.

One was the recognition for the support I’ve enjoyed from my departmental colleagues and students, and from the wider University. They have all consistently supported me through allowing me to try unusual new modules, through TLDF, Digitally Ready, and UROP grants and a University Teaching Fellowship, and more broadly through an environment that genuinely encourages innovation and the use of technology in teaching practice. Reading is very supportive to those willing to try something new, or adapt a practice or technology to their own subject.

The second, connected to this, is that the HEA in judging the award chose to recognise a project that is essentially the creation of me as a single academic, which links my research straight into my teaching. The other award categories on the night reflected the nature of modern universities as large, diverse businesses run largely by committees and teams: there were honours for business partnerships, communications and PR campaigns, community engagement, facilities projects, HR initiatives, and so on. These are all important, but it does seem to me that research and teaching are really our ‘core business’, and in my own humanities discipline, the individual researcher/teacher model is still at the heart of a lot of what we do – though we work well as a team, my colleagues and I all enjoy pursuing our own specialised work and conveying it to our students.  I was very pleased that this way of working was able to hold its own on the night.

Matthew Nicholls

Classical Association Conference 2013 – Plenary Lecture

If you had to miss it, or if you would like to relive Prof. Charlotte Roueché’s powerful lecture ‘Back to the Future? Rediscovering Classics in a Digital World’, you can now do so on YouTube. The lecture was delivered on occasion of the 2013 Classical Association conference at the University of Reading:

2013 Classical Association Conference at Reading

The 2013 Classical Association Conference will be hosted by the University of Reading and will take place from Wednesday 3rd to Saturday 6th April.

Highlights of the conference include the presidential address by Robin Osborne, plenary lectures by Alan Sommerstein on translation and Charlotte Roueché on digital Classics, and an informal evening with the author Tom Holland.  Over two hundred speakers will participate in parallel panel sessions on a huge range of subjects, including: the Ancient Ideal in Contemporary Greek Music; the Changing Character of Ancient Warfare; Christianity and the Roman Emperors; Travel Writing and the Idea of the Past; Classics in Children’s Literature; the Ancient Bibliocosm; and a great many topics in Greek and Roman literature and history.  Among the numerous coordinated sessions are panels organised by the American Philological Association, the Council of University Classical Departments, the Joint Association of Classical Teachers, the Classical Reception Studies Network, the International Network on the Legacy of Greek Political Thought, and KYKNOS. One particular highlight of the conference will be the number of panels on issues in Classics teaching, in both secondary and higher education.

Excursions on the afternoon of Thursday, 4th April, will include visits to the Roman town of Silchester, the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, the Museum of English Rural Life, and a Thames river cruise.  Delegates will also be able to visit our exhibition hall for browsing and purchasing the latest books from a variety of publishers.

Delegates will be leaving comments on papers and excursions through the conference twitter account @CA2013Reading.