Egyptian art – unearthed in Scotland

This nearly 4,000-year-old sculpture is the highlight of the 18 Egyptian artifacts found in the ground next to Scotland’s Melville House. © National Museums Scotland

They are usually discovered in the country along the Nile. But now archaeologists are reporting Egyptian art objects that were surprisingly found in Scottish soil. Since 1952, students had come across one of the millennia-old artifacts next to their schoolhouse three times in a row. During a systematic search, 15 additional objects were discovered on the site of the former Scottish mansion. The possible explanation is that it could be evidence of the 19th century's passion for collecting that was accidentally buried.

Melville House is located in the rural area of ​​Fife, Scotland, north of Edinburgh. The manor house with extensive gardens was built in 1697 by the first Earl of Melville. The owners later changed and in 1952 the building was finally converted into a school. As the National Museums of Scotland report, the strange discovery story on the property also began this year.

Surprise when searching for potatoes

At the beginning there was a student's punishment: he was supposed to dig up potatoes that were being grown in an area of ​​the property at the time. He came across an object that he initially thought was a potato. But he was surprised to see that it was a statue head. The find was then taken to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. There the experts discovered that it was a particularly finely designed Egyptian sandstone sculpture from the middle of the 12th Dynasty (1922 to 1874 BC). The mysterious find then became part of the museum's collection.

The second discovery followed in 1966: During a physical education class on the property's grounds, a student noticed something partially sticking out of the ground. A bronze votive statuette of an Egyptian Apis bull finally came to light, which was then handed over to the supervising teacher. Curiously, this teacher was the former student of the institution who had found the sandstone head in 1952. The find was then handed over to the National Museum of Scotland.

But it was find number three that led to a systematic search: In 1984, a group of teenagers brought an object to the museum that they had found on the grounds of Melville House using a metal detector. It was an Egyptian bronze figure of a man. The museum's then-new curator, Elizabeth Goring, learned that Egyptian objects had appeared on the property's grounds twice before.

Evidence of the passion for collecting in the 19th century

So Goring finally initiated an excavation. 15 additional ancient Egyptian artifacts were then discovered in the ground. These included a faience figure of the goddess Isis suckling her son Horus and part of a faience plaque with the Eye of Horus. Following the excavation, investigations were carried out to clarify how the objects could have ended up in their strange location. Only now have Goring and her colleague Margaret Maitland brought together all aspects of the history of the find and its possible background, report the National Museums of Scotland. “Excavating and researching the Melville House finds was the most unusual project of my archaeological career and I am delighted to now be able to make the story known,” says Goring.

Research had revealed that the artefacts may have come from a former owner of Melville House: Lord Alexander Balgonie (1831 to 1857). He apparently visited Egypt with his two sisters in 1856 in the hope of improving his health. At that time it was common for traders to offer ancient Egyptian antiques to rich guests. It is possible that Balgonie or his sisters acquired the collection and took it with them to their native Scotland.

The objects were probably initially stored there at Melville House. When Lord Balgonie died at a young age soon afterwards, perhaps out of mourning, they were packed away and eventually deposited in an outbuilding on the estate. When this structure was later demolished, the long-forgotten items may have accidentally found their way into the rubble buried on the property, is one possible explanation. “The discovery of ancient Egyptian objects in Scotland is of course surprising and subsequent research into the origins of the collection has uncovered an interesting story – albeit one whose details will probably never be fully understood,” Goring concluded.

Source: National Museums Scotland

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