Inside The Fitzwilliam Museum

The Soul House at The Fitzwilliam

I came to the Fitzwilliam Museum to view the collection of Egyptian objects on display, and as I walked through thousands of years of ancient history, there emerged, out of a shadowy glass cabinet, the humble rectangular form of small muddied artefact.

What I had come to see, within the basement of the museum, in a room devoted to Ancient Egypt was a "soul house". This particular soul house was a little bigger than a large format camera, made from terracotta, with two arcaded storeys. It was 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.

Behind the concept of the soul house is a connection between spirit and structure conveying the most tactile embodiment of genius loci that I have come across. It’s so satisfyingly grounding to be able to engage with the ancient world through its material remains and quite wondrous to be able to witness an earthly swaddled construct of the soul.

It is also a powerful indicator as to our relationship with the places that we dwell revealing our homes as extensions of ourselves, connected to us in a way beyond its physical walls.

The Soul House at The Fitzwilliam

Subscribe to my Genius Loci Digest for free

'This Digest helps keep the past alive as a memory bank. Many of the answers can be found in the wisdom that sits in places, because buildings that survive from the past are the mouthpiece of history. In this Digest I tell stories about them and my encounters with them.'


Spirit of Place * History * Material Culture * Heritage * Continuity * Photography * Travel * Architecture * Vanlife * Ways of Seeing * Wellbeing * The Historic Environment * Churches * Art * Building Conservation * Community * Place Making * Alternative Destinations * Hidden Gems * Road Trips * Place Writing *

"You are the 21st century version of a wandering minstrel except you tell stories by image not song."