A MYS­TERY OF EGYPT

Boxes like this are of­ten found in An­cient Egyp­tian tombs, how­ever this is a much more elab­o­rate and or­nate ver­sion

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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…

For

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

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