Museum had ‘lost’ treasure for 100 years
WHEN visiting British Museum curator John Taylor asked to inspect Queensland Museum’s collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts, he did not expect to stumble upon a long-lost section of the burial scroll of one of the civilisation’s greatest builders.AAP
The world-renowned Egyptologist, in Brisbane for the opening this week of a touring exhibition of mummies from his museum, was poring over a display case of antiquities when his eye was drawn to a shred of papyrus bearing the distinctive hieroglyphs of Amenhotep, a chief builder in the 15th century BC, whose burial scroll, known as a ‘‘Book of the Dead’’, was scattered across the globe in the 1890s.
Intrigued by the fragment, donated in 1913 by an unknown woman, Dr Taylor asked whether there were any more pieces in the museum’s dungeons.
‘‘When I was brought into the conservation lab to see them, after a very short period of time it became apparent that we did indeed have many fragments of the Book of the Dead of this extremely important man,’’ Dr Taylor said yesterday.
‘‘This is not the papyrus of just anybody — this is one of the top officials in Egypt at the peak of Egyptian prosperity.’’
After an archeological quest spanning more than a century, it is hoped the fragments can be used to piece together the ‘‘massive jigsaw’’ littered across some of the world’s great museums.
Books of the Dead contained magical spells and were entombed with mummified Egyptians to ensure their safe passage from one life to the next. The more wealthy the deceased, the longer the scroll.
Dr Taylor suspects that when it is completed, Amenhotep’s book could be in excess of 20m long, representing one of the longest and most historically significant Egyptian burial scrolls in existence.
‘ ‘ If we can reconstruct the whole document, then that’s going to tell us a whole lot about how these religious texts were put together in ancient Egypt (and) how they selected different component spells,’’ he said.
The fragments are too fragile to be moved unnecessarily, but Dr Taylor hopes to virtually match up digital images of the fragments with other sections from the British Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
‘‘If they can all be photographically documented, then it should be possible to do a huge jigsaw puzzle and put the pieces together,’’ he said.
Amenhotep was Egypt’s chief builder during the construction of the Great Temple of the god Amun at Karnak, near Luxor, about 1520BC.
‘‘Of course that temple is one of the most impressive sights in Egypt that tourists flock to see, and there is a very strong probability that Amenhotep was one of the people who actually constructed parts of that temple,’’ Dr Taylor said.
The papyrus that caught his eye is not normally displayed publicly, but was brought out to accompany the Egyptologist’s Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb exhibition.
The fragment was donated to the Queensland Museum by a private citizen almost a century ago, but curators are refusing to name the mystery woman until they have researched her background.
Queensland Museum director Ian Galloway defended his curators over not recognising the significance of the fragments despite preserving them for almost a century.
‘‘We expect when you deal with objects and specimens that over time, with changes in technology and increases in knowledge, we’re always taking off new layers of understanding with each object,’’ Mr Galloway said.
"In this particular case, the knowledge was embedded here in John Taylor."
‘‘I would say these fragments are priceless, but our collections are valued every year and perhaps this year our collections will go up a notch.’’
Dr Taylor said he never expected to make the ‘‘once in a lifetime’’ discovery on his visit to Australia, adding the long-lost relic could have turned up almost anywhere. ‘ ‘ In Egypt in the 1890s, people were collecting and digging up antiquities at a very fast rate and often it wasn’t documented where these things were going,’’ he said.
‘‘Private individuals would go on holidays to Egypt and buy things like this and take them home, so there’s still a lot of material out there that people haven’t seen.’’
Dr Taylor, who curates the British Museum’s Egyptian funerary antiquities, amulets and jewellery, declined to estimate what the fragments could be worth.