Small Wonder: The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology

Massive museums. You know the ones I mean. The ones the size of a small country. The ones that (slightly annoyingly) require more than a single visit to see everything – and where you sometimes find yourself inadvertently going round the same bit twice before you’ve been round the bit you really want to see once. They’re a total joy, of course. But so are the smaller of the species – especially those micro-museums with a laser focus on a particular specialist sphere. And when that sphere coincides with your own core interest…well, the result can be a museum-based match made in heaven.

All of which brings me to my recent trip to the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology at the University of Reading, forty miles west of London. With its compact space jam-packed with fascinating and enlightening exhibits, the Ure isn’t just home to Britain’s fourth-largest collection of ancient Greek ceramics. You’ll also find a splendid collection of eye-catching artefacts from ancient Egypt, dating from the dawn of the murky pre-dynastic period right through to the later phases of this civilisation’s rich history, plus the occasional Roman and Etruscan gem. At the Ure, then, you’ll not only gaze on Alexander the Great’s unmistakable profile (albeit at tiny scale!) and stare into the malign eyes of the gorgon Medusa, but also be moved to reflect on the potential workload facing a typical Egyptian shabti – a tiny figurine placed in a tomb to lend the deceased a much-needed hand in the afterlife.

Limestone tombstone – from Roman Libya, second century AD.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

This fine little museum nestles at the end of a corridor in the university’s Department of Classics, located in the Edith Morley building on the welcoming Whiteknights campus. It’s just a ten-minute bus ride from Reading’s main railway station; you take the number 19, otherwise known as the ‘Claret’ bus which, disappointingly, refers to the vehicle’s colour rather than a complimentary drinks service for passengers. All in all, it’s a great destination for a short, thought-provoking jaunt, perhaps after savouring the delights of the remarkable Bayeux Tapestry replica at Reading Museum (see my previous Mainly Museums article).

Founded by Percy Ure (the University’s first professor of Classics) and his wife Annie (the curator for over a half a century), the museum celebrated its centenary last year. The couple weren’t just experts on antiquities – they were also hands-on archaeologists whose CV included important excavations in the Greek region of Boeotia. And while this may have been an era before formal ‘mission statements’ became fashionable, the Ures had a clear goal in mind for their museum: “to give life and variety to the study of Greek history”.

The Ure Museum houses an awesome collection of ancient Greek pottery.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

Assembled through gifts, bequests, purchases and loans, the collection of over three thousand items includes more than three hundred Egyptian objects. But Greek pottery is the prime focus, with plenty of great finds from across the Greek-speaking world, and Boeotian material particularly in evidence. In fact, the Ure Museum houses the world’s second-biggest collection of Boeotian pottery outside Thebes (no – not Egyptian Thebes; the Greek city that led the Boeotian confederacy and humbled mighty Sparta in pivotal battles in the fourth century BC). The museum also houses an impressive archive of excavation records, correspondence and other material shedding light on some of the pioneering archaeology undertaken during the early twentieth century. Indeed, a number of the museum’s exhibits were unearthed during digs led by Sir William Flinders Petrie – one of the discipline’s most celebrated trailblazers.

Many of the museum's exhibits are grouped by theme.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

A majority of the artefacts are displayed by theme – such as Myth & Religion, Warfare, Citizenship, Household, Education, Music and (inevitably) Death. It’s an interesting approach, enabling comparisons across cultures and periods. The main comment I’d make is that the museum could do with a bit more space! There are so many great exhibits, set out in such close proximity to each other, that it’s all too easy to miss a gem. As for highlights, well – there are too many to choose from. But here’s my personal ‘Six of the Best’:

1. A Stone to Turn You to Stone… The scary face of a patently malevolent Medusa stares out from an impressive antefix – an ornament that hid tile-ends at the edges of roofs. Her job would have been to frighten off evil-doers from the building she served. I’m guessing she was pretty good at it!

Medusa – ready, willing and able to repel evil-doers.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

2. Pushing the Boat Out… Unearthed at the ‘Tomb of the Officials’ in the ancient Beni Hasan cemetery and dating from around 1900 BC, a model barge – made of wood, equipped with crew and symbolising the deceased’s journey into the afterlife – gives a great insight into the Egyptian way of death.

Next stop – the afterlife! Egyptian model boat from a tomb in the Beni Hasan cemetery.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

3. Alexander, on the Face of It… It’s hard to believe that the tiny profile on a tiny coin represents one of the most ruthless, most successful, most famous conquerors in human history – Alexander the Great.

Coin (no.18) depicting Alexander the Great, probably mulling on his next conquest.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

4. A Jar from Sparta… A counterpoint to the Ure’s outstanding collection of black-figure and red-figure Greek pottery portraying scenes from history, mythology and daily life, the plain, almost painfully functional sixth century BC black ‘krater’ from no-nonsense Sparta counterintuitively caught my eye.

The (somewhat spartan) Spartan krater.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

5. Shabtis Reporting for Work… A little ‘team’ of four shabtis, dating from Egypt’s nineteenth-dynasty heyday (in the thirteenth century BC) and made from faience, are all primed and ready to put in a serious shift of hard graft.

Four shabtis (front of display case) awaiting instructions.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

6. A Bit of a Stele… A stone slab complete with funerary inscription, dating from 750-600 BC and discovered at the key Egyptian site of Abydos, strikingly includes vulture wings surrounding the sacred disk of the sun-god Ra.

Egyptian funerary stele from Abydos, with sun-disk and vulture wings looming over the inscription.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

The very small but beautifully formed Ure Museum really is a wonderful resource not just for the University of Reading but for researchers from further afield too. More than that, there’s plenty to interest the casual visitor with a taste for ancient history. Events and Open Days are regular features of the programme – keep an eye on the museum’s webpage (see below). Oh and did I mention that entry’s free of charge? And who knows – you may even find a crack team of shabtis willing to sign up for a few of your tiresome daily chores…if it’s OK with Medusa.

Practical Information

See the museum’s webpage for more details, including opening times (currently Tuesday to Thursday 09:30 to 16:00). Entry is free, with an option to make a donation. Reading is less than half an hour by fast train from London Paddington and the museum is a short, inexpensive bus ride from right outside the front of Reading Station (number 19 bus, ‘Claret’). Get off at the ‘UoR Whiteknights House’ bus stop. Once at the university, you’ll find lots of campus maps dotted about – head for the Edith Morley building.

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Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

Prof. Jasper Heathcoat-Beech is a historian and archaeologist. His latest unorthodox history book, ‘HOO-HA! History’s Commotions, Sensations, Fusses, Flaps, Rucks & Rumpuses’ includes chapters on Greek, Egyptian and Roman history, and much, much more besides (as they say!). Twitter (or whatever they call it now…): @JasperBeech