Object Lesson: Lost Dixon Relic

What is it?

This cigar box, containing several wooden splinters that make up a piece of cedar discovered in the Great Pyramid of Giza, was recently found in the University of Aberdeen’s collections. The piece of wood is one of just three objects ever recovered from the pyramid. It was discovered in one piece in the 19th century, but exposure to air has caused it to disintegrate over time. It was originally part of a much larger wooden object, the remainder of which was last identified inside the pyramid during an exploration using a robotic camera in 1993. It has been suggested that it may have been part of a measuring rule used in the construction of the pyramid, but this remains uncertain.

Image: University of Aberdeen

Where was it found and when?

The cedar piece is one of three objects, known as the ‘Dixon Relics’, found in the so-called Queen’s Chamber by Waynman Dixon in 1872. It was donated to the University of Aberdeen in 1946 as part of the collections of Dr James Grant, who assisted Dixon in his exploration of the pyramid, but its whereabouts remained unknown for over 70 years. In 2001, a record was discovered that indicated the wood fragment may be hidden among the university’s collections, and an extensive search was carried out, but as the piece had never been classified it could not be found. It was only at the end of 2019 that it was finally located, mistakenly stored in the university’s Asia collection.

Why does it matter?

Two of the Dixon Relics, a copper hook and a dolerite ball, were donated to the British Museum after their discovery, but the third, the piece of wood, went missing for decades. The mystery of its location was finally solved during a review of the University of Aberdeen’s Asia collection, when curatorial assistant Abeer Eladany noticed that the cigar box in which the fragments are kept featured Egypt’s former flag and appeared to be in the wrong collection. By cross-referencing it with old records, she soon realised the true significance of the artefact.

The rediscovery of the cedar fragment presented an important opportunity to carry out radiocarbon dating. This was delayed by COVID-19 restrictions, but has now revealed that the wood dates to the period 3341-3094 BC, c.500 years earlier than the Great Pyramid, which historical records date to the reign of Pharaoh Khufu (2580-2560 BC). This could be due to the wood coming from the centre of an old tree, or because timber was so scarce in Egypt that it was carefully reused and recycled for many years. The date does indicate that it was likely to have been left there at the time of the pyramid’s construction, rather than belonging to later explorers, but the artefact’s use remains a source of debate.

See for yourself
The University of Aberdeen hopes to display the fragments as soon as COVID-19 restrictions allow.