4 November 2022


"Our hands imbibe like roots,

so I place them on what is beautiful in this world."

St. Francis of Assisi

"Our hands imbibe like roots,

so I place them on what is beautiful in this world."

St. Francis of Assisi

I'm at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and I'm here to view the collection of Egyptian objects on display. As I walk through the cultural detritus of thousands of years of ancient history, there emerges, out of a shadowy glass cabinet, the humble rectangular form of a small muddied artefact. What I have come to see, within the basement of the museum, in a room devoted to Ancient Egypt is a "soul house". This particular soul house is a little bigger than a large format camera, made from terracotta, with two arcaded storeys. It is accessed by an exterior staircase springing from a courtyard floor embossed with offerings.

It was Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie who first brought the worlds attention to these transient entities in 1907. He excavated a number of these clay houses from Rifeh - a series of cemeteries near to the ancient town of Shashotep in Egypt dating from 2025-1700 BC. There are a number also held at the Manchester Museum and they are thought to be descended from the offering table placed inside the tombs of the deceased.

It is thought that these soul houses were created to be residences for spiritual allurement; to allow the soul of the deceased to dwell; the offerings to nourish the soul and the stairs to allow it to meander without becoming restless. Some of the houses also have a portico or 'loggia' - a covered exterior space, neither inside or outside - the physical embodiment of transience - perhaps a conscious recognition of a space in-between.

I have a visual in my mind: a soul house is being made by Ancient Egyptian fingers, caked in clay, pinching out a stairway, thumbing in a colonnade, pricking out a window. The loved one is within the cross-hairs of the maker’s mind, but the grieving has been deferred in order to honour the process, to create an object that will hold for perpetuity the dead in suspended animation.

Much later, at St. Mary in Ketton I come across a textile map that replaces the soul house thumbing process with that of cross stitch. It's a map of the village with every single building represented. The end result is essentially the same: a powerful work of art that transcends its material form through the cohesive act of its creation - the fabric is infused by the people who made it.

In the same way that I imagine the soul house being made, I imagine the creation of the textile map - the coming together, the chatter, the memories and the laughter - all being inmbibed into every stitch of this fabric of place. In return the textile map becomes totemic - hung within the church - a powerful beacon contributing to community identity and wellbeing, and a dwelling place for future generations.

View next entry:

A Year in the life: 25 November 2022
I get a bit obsessed with the textures and patterns - the way that the personality of a place can change in an instant with the light.

More about this Digest:

From Breakdown to New Vocation: My Genius Loci Digest Journey
In the late 1990’s I had a breakdown that ultimately led me, through a journey that took me away from depression, to a new career in photography. But what was the spark that ignited my journey?

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