Hilary Wilson on… Unexpected Egypt

Visitors to stately homes and minor museums will frequently come across isolated ancient Egyptian artefacts with little or no explanation of their provenance.


From the mid-18th century, privileged young people customarily spent months, if not years, on character-building foreign travel. Known as the Grand Tour, it was intended to improve their minds by exposing them to the history, art, and culture of Europe and, for the more adventurous, Egypt and the Holy Land. Grand Tour souvenirs included a wide variety of sculpture, paintings, and antiquities, and led to Egyptian artefacts being found in the most unexpected places. Today’s visitors to historic houses, like those managed by the National Trust in Great Britain, may encounter an incongruous Egyptian item, like the top part of a small basalt figure, described as a nomarch, on a bedroom chimneypiece at Petworth House, Sussex, or the kneeling statue of Ramesses II on the staircase at The Vyne, Hampshire. Quite possibly, there will be no indication of the object’s age, origins, or purpose. If the visitor is lucky, they will find a display label, or an entry in a guidebook or online catalogue, but the history behind the object’s presence is more commonly unexplained.

This head of a statue –probably made of basalt and described as a nomarch – is on display at Petworth House, Sussex. Image: Hilary Wilson
Thomas Jefferson designed his own gravestone in the form of an obelisk. Image: Tony Rice, CC BY 3.0 via Wikcommons  
A kneeling statue of Ramesses II on display in The Vyne, Hampshire. Image: Hilary Wilson
The obelisk clock that was designed by Thomas Jefferson. Drawing: Hilary Wilson

In 1823, a visitor to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s mansion near Charlottesville, Virginia, reported seeing a cork-carved scale replica of the Great Pyramid on the entrance-hall mantel. Jefferson acquired this from the Comte de Volney, a traveller and author whom he had met in Paris. (The pyramid now on display is a modern replica.) Jefferson described his interest in antiquities as the hobby of his old age, and his collection was bequeathed to the Museum of the University of Memphis. Jefferson’s fondness for ancient Egypt was demonstrated in his use of the obelisk form in his designs for a clock and for his own gravestone.

The green siltstone head of a pharaoh, thought to be Nectanebo I. Part of Charles Towneley’s collection, it is now in the British Museum (EA97). Image: SG

Some of the world’s greatest museums and galleries benefited from purchases, donations, and bequests from Grand Tourists. The antiquary Charles Towneley, of Towneley Hall in Burnley, Lancashire, made three Grand Tours. On his death in 1805, his impressive sculpture collection was sold to the British Museum, including a green siltstone head of a pharaoh wearing the nemes headcloth, purchased in Rome.

A statue of Antinous, from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, outside Rome. It is now in the Vatican Museum. Image: Hilary Wilson

The Towneley Marbles included busts of the Roman emperor Hadrian and his deified favourite Antinous, who drowned in the Nile. These sculptures, like many in collections around Europe, came from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, outside Rome, which boasted a Serapeum adorned with images of Egyptian gods. Antinous was a particularly popular subject with Grand Tourists, and many copies were made of the statues now in the Vatican’s Gregorian Museum. At Cliffe Castle in Keighley, Yorkshire, home of textile industrialists, and a public museum since 1959, two mirror-image Antinous copies flank a doorway in the Great Drawing Room. Another Antinous, purchased for Queen Victoria in 1850, is at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

The wealthiest collectors bought directly from excavators, or relied on negotiations conducted through diplomatic connections. Occasionally, a private person acquired, through purchase or gift, an Egyptian object of true historical significance, such as the Philae Obelisk erected by William Bankes at his Dorset home, Kingston Lacy. Two of Amenhotep III’s Sekhmet statues, acquired by Bankes for the Sixth Duke of Devonshire, are listed in the 1845 handbook of Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. Originally placed in the gardens, these are now on display in the house itself.

The Philae Obelisk, at William Bankes’ residence of Kingston Lacy, Dorset. Image: Hilary Wilson

Lesser artefacts were displayed in personal collections alongside coins, fossils, shells, and other curiosities. In the Grand Tour era, Egyptian souvenirs could be readily acquired from dealers in Luxor or Cairo, where thriving markets in real antiquities, as well as fakes or replicas made specially for the tourist trade, were firmly established by the early 1800s. Visitors could purchase genuine artefacts directly from the Cairo Museum, such as the mummy board and coffin of Taqherheb now in the Perth Museum in Scotland. Other items came from more dubious sources, such as the Perth scarab said to have been bought from a Shepheard’s Hotel employee. Museums and educational institutions worldwide received donations of minor artefacts acquired by military personnel stationed in Egypt, especially during World War I.

The most sought-after souvenir was a painted coffin, preferably with a resident mummified body. In 1901, Keighley MP Sir John Brigg donated a Roman-era mummy to the Cliffe Castle collection.

The Roman Period mummy of a child, donated in 1901 to the Cliffe Castle museum, Keighley, Yorkshire, by local MP Sir John Brigg. Image: Hilary Wilson

In 1895, Adolph Sutro, Mayor of San Francisco, put on public display his personal collection of Egyptian antiquities, which included two mummified bodies, now in the San Francisco State University Museum. Over time, many collectors’ residences and their contents passed into public ownership, becoming local or regional museums, or headquarters for antiquarian or historical societies, with collections ranging broadly across the natural sciences.

Pottery from the distribution of John Garstang’s finds, in Towneley Hall, Burnley, Lancashire. Images: Hilary Wilson

Excavators including Flinders Petrie and George Reisner financed their digs by raising subscriptions from individuals or institutions, in return for a share of the finds. The British Egyptologist John Garstang funded his work through Excavation Committees, composed of wealthy merchants, industrialists, and philanthropists, cultivating their support through correspondence and personal appearances. The distribution was made in proportion to the amount promised, and individual subscribers commonly nominated local public bodies, educational establishments or learned societies as the recipients of their share. Small Egyptian collections such as those at Towneley Hall, or the Bournemouth Natural Science Society on England’s south coast, hold assortments of pottery, amulets, and shabtis from Garstang’s diaspora of finds.

Ivory clappers gifted to the Metropolitan Museum by Mrs John Hubbard from her share of artefacts from the Egypt Exploration Society excavations at Amarna from 1931 to 1932. ; Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The generous support of New York socialite Mrs John Hubbard for the Egypt Exploration Society’s excavations resulted in significant acquisitions of Amarna material for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The EES preferred finds to be kept in public ownership, to the benefit of minor collections worldwide, for example in Keighley.

The painted Twenty-fifth Dynasty coffin of Tahemaa, in the collection of the Bournemouth Natural Science Society in Dorset. Image: Stephanie Roberts
A typical tourist souvenir ‘scroll’ formed out of scraps of old papyrus wrapped around a stick. This example is from the collection of the Bournemouth Natural Science Society.  Images: Hilary Wilson

The Egyptian artefacts held in small municipal or private collections must include a large proportion of unprovenanced, uncatalogued, and now untraceable items, and others that are reproductions, replicas of museum exhibits or outright fakes. In Bournemouth, a ‘scroll’ made from a few unrelated scraps of papyrus wound around a stick – a typical tourist souvenir – shares a display with a plaster cast of the Rosetta Stone, and a genuine Twenty-fifth Dynasty mummy in an anthropoid coffin.

A fibreglass coffin made for the 1959 Hammer horror film The Mummy, on display in the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Scotland. Image: Geni, CC BY 4.0 via Wikicommons

The Perth collection includes a counterfeit mummified ibis and a wooden shabti of Sety I, as well as a fibreglass sarcophagus from the 1959 Hammer horror film The Mummy. Some smaller collections are poorly labelled, if at all, and artefacts are displayed alongside each other with no distinction between the real and the impostors, but discovering Egypt in unexpected places is always a bonus for the avid Egyptophile.

Hilary Wilson is a retired maths teacher and Chairman of the Southampton Ancient Egypt Society. She is now a freelance lecturer and writer, and the author of several Egyptological books and articles, as well as the previous Per Mesut series in Ancient Egyptmagazine. Under the name Hilary Cawston, she writes fiction with an Egyptian theme.