Reaction to the recent news that the tomb of Tutankhamen may still conceal hidden chambers makes it clear that the west’s fascination with ancient Egypt remains as strong as ever. And while much of this is based on the allure of a destination far away in both time and place, ancient Egypt is often far closer than you think, for there are more than 200 collections of Egyptian artefacts around Britain.
Although westerners were already venturing out to Egypt by the seventeenth century, the real turning point in Europe’s relationship with the land of the Nile came in 1798, when Napoleon invaded Egypt with an army of both soldiers and scholars. And this potent combination soon proved invaluable when a large stone slab was discovered during the building of coastal defences at Rosetta. Carved with an ancient decree written in both Greek and Egyptian script and now dubbed ‘the Rosetta Stone’, it provided the means of deciphering the long-dead hieroglyphic script in 1822, finally unlocking the secrets of a culture which had dominated the ancient world for much of the last three millennia BC.
Yet the celebrated stone was only part of a spectacular haul of antiquities the French had collected, destined for the Louvre in Paris until seized by the British as ‘spoils of war’ in 1801, and shipped off to London’s British Museum where they can be seen today.
Indeed, the British Museum is still very much the place to go in order to engage with the more grandiose aspect of Egypt’s ancient past, not to mention the mummified dead in its famous mummy rooms. But for a more intimate picture of real life in ancient Egypt, it’s hard to beat the nearby Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Packed with over 80,000 of the most extraordinary ancient items (be honest, did you know they had woolly socks, suits of armour and soft toys in ancient Egypt?), there is everything from ‘the world’s oldest dress’, found inside-out from the last time it was taken off some 5,000 years ago, to the most touching correspondence in which a woman writes to her late husband in a so-called ‘letter to the dead’.
But of course ancient Egypt can also be found far beyond London, and certainly in the north where gentlemen scholars tried to outdo each other with the artefacts they acquired throughout the nineteenth century. As wealthy industrialists began to support excavations in return for a percentage of finds made, their generosity in donating such things not only benefitted the larger museum collections of Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh but rather less well-known places, which are increasingly the source of new discoveries helping us rewrite what we thought we knew about ancient Egypt:
1. Antony and Cleopatra in Barnsley
Perhaps one the most significant finds of Egyptian-related material in an unexpected place is a collection of coins minted by Cleopatra’s husband Mark Antony in 31 BC, in order to pay the troops who would fight for the couple at the naval Battle of Actium that same year. Bearing the image of one of Cleopatra’s 500 warships on the front (obverse) and Antony’s legionary standards on the back (reverse), the silver coins were part of several large hoards found in Darfield in Barnsley in the 1940s during the construction of a housing estate, thereafter placed in long-term storage until Barnsley’s wonderful new museum opened to considerable acclaim in 2013.
2. The Jackal God of Harrogate
As the highlight of a private collection once displayed in the upstairs rooms of a Yorkshire farmhouse until bequeathed to Harrogate corporation in 1968, a unique mask of the black jackal god Anubis was originally made for a priest to wear to imitate the god during sacred rites in the early centuries BC. With its rediscovery in storage making headlines back in 2002, the striking mask inspired the headwear for a Dior couture show, then briefly loaned to the V&A as part of an exhibition by milliner Stephen Jones, it is back on display at Harrogate’s Royal Pump Room Museum where you can even try on an exact replica for that perfect pharaonic photo opportunity.
3. Mummy Wrappings in Bolton
Fragmentary linen mummy wrappings discovered at Mostagedda in southern Egypt in the 1920s were sent to Bolton Museum and placed in long-term storage. But only recently did scientific analysis reveal that the wrappings had been coated with an antibacterial tree resin as long ago as c.4300 BC – almost 2,000 years before mummification is supposed to have begun in Egypt.
4. The Golden Mask of Wigan
Only last year, artefacts covering the entire 3,000 year span of ancient Egyptian history were rediscovered during the relocation of museum stores in Wigan. With the star piece a gilded head from the coffin of a noblewoman from around the time of Tutankhamen, her beautiful smile now welcomes visitors as part of the exhibition Ancient Egypt Rediscovered at the Museum of Wigan Life, alongside more recent memories of Wigan Pier and Wigan Casino.
5. The World’s Oldest Bike Rack
In addition to their famous gold death masks, the Egyptians are equally well-known for their multiplicity of gods, one of the finest statues of Egypt’s great state god Amun spending more than a century in the basement of Southampton Museum, where staff had apparently leaned their bikes against it. Eventually identified as a long-lost statue of the god made around 670 BC, one newspaper described it as ‘the world’s oldest bike rack’, which can now be seen in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum where it is it on loan.
With treasures like these now on public display following the accompanying publicity, in many cases helped by fund-raising events to augment diminishing museum budgets, inevitable grumbles that such exotic artefacts ‘have nothing to do with local history’ ignore the fact they were either found in the local area or in most cases collected and donated by local people. And as more of Egypt’s ancient past continues to be uncovered around the country, our region’s museums are the perfect place to inspire future generations while allowing us to enjoy a heritage which surely belongs to everyone.
Immortal Egypt with Joann Fletcher continues on BBC2 today (Monday 11th January) at 9.00pm