National Museum of Scotland offers unique glimpse of life and death in ancient Egypt

Conservator Charles Stable unpacks the coffin of the estate overseer Khnumhotep. Picture: contributed
Conservator Charles Stable unpacks the coffin of the estate overseer Khnumhotep. Picture: contributed
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Next month sees the National Museum of Scotland open the first permanent display of its Egyptology collection and Angela Wyld takes a look at some of the key exhibits.

In spring 1819, following a tour of Egypt, the Fife-born Sir Joseph Straton donated three items to the University of Edinburgh – a coffin, a mummy board and a mummified man. These three objects marked the very beginning of what would become National Museums Scotland’s Ancient Egypt collection.

Ancient Egypt Rediscovered showcases the remarkable breadth of this collection in vibrant, new displays

Two hundred years on, a new, permanent, gallery at the National Museum of Scotland will display some of the remarkable treasures from that collection. Opening on Friday 8 February, Ancient Egypt Rediscovered showcases the remarkable breadth of this internationally significant collection in vibrant, new displays.

The gallery explores more than 4,000 years of history and highlights the extraordinary stories of the people who made, owned, and used these objects, as well as those who would rediscover them thousands of years later. Here are some of the highlights which you simply can’t miss…

Qurna Queen coffin

Dating to 1585-1545 BC, this coffin comes from the only intact royal burial group outside of Egypt. It is believed that the coffin’s occupant was a royal woman, however her identity remains a mystery because the name on her coffin has been damaged. The group of objects she and her child were buried with offer important insights into what life was like for the Theban royal family at a time when Egypt was divided by competing rulers. There are fine, imported Nubian pottery vessels and a selection of gold jewellery, including items of high-purity and skill, which is unexpected for a period when Egypt was less wealthy. There are also rare, fragile items, such as finely woven net bags.

Akhenaten stela

The array of damage suffered by this carved stone slab – known as a stela – of King Akhenaten attests to a dramatic attempt to erase the controversial ruler from history. Akhenaten – husband of Nefertiti and father of Tutankhamun – completely uprooted Egyptian traditions and abandoned the ancient gods in favour of sole worship of the sun. Dating to the first 18 months of Akhenaten’s reign, this early representation of his new god is still quite traditional, showing the sun god as a falcon-headed man. After Akhenaten’s death, many of his monuments were destroyed, including this stela, which was smashed. His name has been erased, the figure of the king on the right has been lost entirely, and the lower section of the stela shows evidence of burning.

Haraga gold catfish pendant

This ornate gold catfish pendant is a masterpiece of skilled gold working. It was part of a group of jewellery from an intact tomb at Haraga, an incredible collection of gold and semi-precious stone jewellery dating to c.1862-1750 BC, excavated by Flinders Petrie. This jewellery will be displayed as a group for the first time in generations.

The funerary canopy of Montsuef

This funerary canopy is part of a burial group which comes from the first Egyptian tomb to be systematically excavated and recorded, by the Scottish archaeologist Alexander Henry Rhind in 1857. It is the only one of its kind on display in any museum in the world. It was designed as a miniature temple to protect the official Montsuef and aid his divine transformation in the afterlife.

Box of Amenhotep II

One of the finest examples of decorative woodwork to survive from ancient Egypt, this box is made from cedar, ebony, ivory and gold. It was made during the reign of the Pharaoh Amenhotep II, who ruled ancient Egypt during the 18th dynasty (around 1427-1400 BC). The exotic materials come from different areas of the ancient Mediterranean, signifying the extent of the king’s empire and its wealth. The box was probably used in the royal palace to hold cosmetics or expensive perfumes and likely belonged to one of the king’s granddaughters. Palace objects from ancient Egypt are extremely rare.

Coffin made for two children

This unique coffin made for two infants is the only double coffin ever found in Egypt. Dating to 175-200 AD, the exterior is painted with images of the two boys, Penhorpabik and Petamun. Ancient Egyptian coffin interiors typically depicted a protective image of the sky-goddess Nut, but this coffin has two painted sky-goddesses; one for each child. Inside the coffin, each boy was provided with amulets and funerary papyri, which record that Penhorpabik died aged three years and three months, while Petamun was younger.

Sphinx statue

This limestone statue is a stunning example of royal Egyptian sculpture. It was probably carved for King Ahmose, who reunited Egypt around 1550-1525 BC and restored the country to its former power, ushering in a golden age in Egyptian history. In ancient Egypt the sphinx – a hybrid of a lion and the king – represented royal power. This sphinx was excavated at Abydos, an ancient sacred site related to kingship and the god Osiris, and was probably one of several which would have lined the processional route to the temple.

Cast of the Rosetta Stone

Discovered in 1799, the Rosetta Stone helped scholars crack the code of hieroglyphics; the ancient Egyptian writing system. On display will be one of the four original plaster casts of the Rosetta Stone produced in 1802 and sent to universities in Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Dublin for experts to decipher. This one, which came to National Museums Scotland from the University of Edinburgh, is the only known surviving cast of the four. It was rediscovered during an assessment of the Ancient Egypt collection in preparation for the new gallery.

Mummy portrait of a Roman-era woman

Originally placed over the face of a mummified young woman, this world-renowned portrait is one of the most celebrated examples of Roman-Egyptian painting. Dating to c.110-130AD, its lifelike realism was achieved through a technique called encaustic, which mixed pigment with beeswax. While the portrait is Roman in style, its owner clearly still adhered to ancient Egyptian funerary beliefs. Dubbed ‘“Jewellery Girl” by its excavator, Flinders Petrie, the woman is shown wearing a rich array of gold jewellery adorned with pearls and emeralds.

Ancient Egypt Rediscovered will open at the National Museum of Scotland on 8 February alongside two other galleries; Exploring East Asia and Art of Ceramics. The launch of these new galleries marks the culmination of a 15-year, £80 million transformation of the National Museum of Scotland. For more information visit www.nms.ac.uk/seethewholestory