A MYSTERY OF EGYPT
Boxes like this are often found in Ancient Egyptian tombs, however this is a much more elaborate and ornate version
This fragment is from a 3,400-year- old cosmetics case, once owned by the pharaoh’s granddaughters
Earlier this year, two elaborate fragments of Ancient Egyptian wood were reunited with the 3,400-year-old cosmetics case they once adorned. SANDRA LAWRENCE learns how the puzzle was solved and how, in the process, the box’s pharaonic origins were confirmed…
over 100 years, the fearsome features of household god Bes have menaced visitors to the National Museum of Scotland. Ancient Egypt’s merry dwarfgod brought good luck, especially to women in childbirth, and scared evil spirits by pulling faces and sticking out his tongue. In the museum, he guards the contents of an 18th dynasty casket that probably once belonged to a princess. Fashioned from cedar wood, ebony, ivory, copper alloy and gold from the far reaches of the empire, the cylindrical box boasts the wealth of an established kingdom yet, as a highly personal object, may never have left the royal bedroom.
‘It was made during the reign of the Pharaoh Amenhotep II, who ruled Ancient Egypt around 1427–1400BC,’ says Dr Margaret Maitland, senior curator of the Ancient Mediterranean collections at National Museums Scotland. ‘Boxes like this are often found in Ancient Egyptian tombs, however this is much more elaborate and ornate; its design is unique. We believe it was used in the royal palace to hold cosmetics or perfume and that it likely belonged to a member of the king’s family, most probably one of his granddaughters.’
The object’s exact origins are unclear, but we do know it is from a tomb of 10 princesses excavated in 1857 by Scottish archaeologist Alexander Henry Rhind. Rhind pioneered the science of recording details of archaeological finds, routine procedure today but unknown then. ‘ When the tomb was excavated, it had already been looted in ancient times, leaving it in a mess,’ says Maitland. The situation was further complicated in that the tomb would not have been the princesses’ original resting place; at some point the graves had been moved.
Tragically, Rhind died after a long period of ill health just a few days before his 30th birthday, in 1863. He left his discoveries to the National Museum of Antiquities (now the National Museum of Scotland). The shattered fragments of the royal casket ended up in a box of miscellaneous objects.
In 1895, curator Joseph Anderson found the parts and reconstructed the box. During the 1950s, another curator, Cyril Aldred, made a detailed drawing and watercolour of the casket before commissioning an extensive restoration. The box has been on display ever since – lidless, baseless, backless, priceless.
The missing links In March 2015 at an art fair, two fragments of highly decorative Egyptian wood caught the eye of Martin Clist, managing director of Charles Ede, a London-based antiquities specialist. Clist bought the pieces, knowing they would be seductive to several clients, but
something stopped him from immediately passing on the purchase. ‘ We could tell from the material that this would have been owned by someone of wealth, probably imperial,’ says Charis Tyndall, director at Charles Ede. ‘Cedar of Lebanon, ivory inlay; this wouldn’t have been native to Egypt. The way the piece had been designed and worked showed it was an item of great luxury and would have been costly. Stylistically, it points clearly to the New Kingdom,’ she continues, pointing out exquisite carvings of lotus and papyrus. The two plants represent the old kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt, which were unified some time around 3000BC. As both symbols are included, the box was almost certainly made after unification.
The pieces had been mounted incorrectly, side by side. ‘ It was clear they were two fragments of the same piece,’ says Clist. ‘ We had them remounted together.’ Clist and Tyndall believed the pieces were from a casket, but assumed they were part of a curved lid from a more common, treasure chest- style box. They showed them to Dr Tom Hardwick, an Egyptology expert, who suggested they contact the Museum of Scotland.
Hardwick showed them images of the museum’s casket. ‘ The elements were the same,’ remembers Clist. ‘ The container had traces of gold and so did the fragments. Then we realised there was a huge gap in the back of the box…’
‘ We were not aware of the existence of these two additional fragments until we were approached by Charles Ede Ltd,’ admits Maitland, who came down to London to inspect the fragments. She had to tread carefully. ‘Everyone in this business has to be sceptical,’ says Clist. ‘ We have to think: “Why should I
The way the piece had been designed and worked showed it was an item of great luxury and would have been costly. It all points to the New Kingdom
believe you?”’ Particularly interesting was a minute section of coral- stained ivory, an element not included anywhere in the original box. Then they remembered the box’s 1950s restoration. With the decoration missing at that spot, the restorers had given it their best guess and got it wrong. The tiny coral- coloured inlay fitted perfectly, forming the imperial hieroglyph. It confirmed a longheld belief that the casket was from the royal household.
There was no question of the fragments being sold to anyone else. The Antiquities Dealers Association’s code of conduct would have taken a very dim view of anyone knowingly breaking up a piece but, more importantly, it would have been completely against everything the experts at Charles Ede believe in.
A fair price There was, however, a practical issue. What is a fair price for a unique piece? The parties consulted various experts, including the British Museum. Provenance, often a sticking point, was not in doubt – the box had been recorded many times and lived in a museum; the fragments were clearly part of the box. A price of £25,000 was set – a considerable sum but much less than the pieces would have fetched on the open market. ‘It took about four months to get all of the funding in place,’ says Maitland. ‘ We were thrilled to receive generous support from the Art Fund and the National Museums Scotland Charitable Trust to make the acquisition.’
The Art Fund was equally delighted to support the project. ‘ We are really happy to have helped National Museums Scotland take this unique opportunity
to reunite the two fragments with their larger whole,’ says Stephen Deuchar, Art Fund’s director, ‘one of the most significant objects in its Ancient Egyptian collections.’
One more question remains: could the box be restored in its entirety some day? Clist would not be surprised. ‘ The fragments had been in a private collection,’ he says. ‘ There could easily be more out there.’ Until then, even in its imperfect state, it remains one of the finest examples of decorative woodwork to survive from Ancient Egypt.
ABOVE The two missing fragments (mounted together on one stand) which, after much detective work, solved the Ancient Egyptian puzzle
ABOVE The box’s oval ivory inlays are cartouches of Amenhotep II’s throne name, above the hieroglyph for ‘gold’ – a symbol for divinity and eternity BELOW Amenhotep II’s sarcophagus inside his tomb. He was buried separately to his granddaughters at Thebes