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Ancient Egypt & Scotland: A Legacy Revealed

Cue the Indiana Jones theme music, put on your fedora and leather jacket, and get ready to join me on an archaeological exploration to ancient Egypt via…Scotland. Yes, you heard me right. This week I’m thrilled that our latest instalment of our on-going museums of Edinburgh series features the brand-new Ancient Egypt gallery at the National Museum of Scotland.

Today was the Gallery’s opening day to the public, and I spent the morning on the hunt for treasure and artefacts, and the Museum did not disappoint. The Museum also opened a new East Asia gallery that I will feature in a separate post in the very-near future (along with posts dedicated to each section of the Museum). In the meantime, grab that whip because, while we won’t encounter the snakes Indy feared most, we just might come across a hippopotamus and crocodile or two…

I’ve been obsessed with all things ancient Egypt since I was little. That fixation carried through to my university studies in anthropology and archaeology and remains strong to this day. Therefore, when I heard that the National Museum of Scotland was opening a new gallery dedicated to Ancient Egypt, I knew that I would be visiting opening day.

When you walk into the gallery, you come face-to-face with a magnificent, mummy-shaped coffin, and you are immediately transported back in time. If you concentrate hard enough, you can practically feel the sun beating down on you and the sand sliding underfoot.

Magnificent Artefacts and Treasure

From the beginning, the curators are upfront with the discussion of Egypt’s ‘scattered heritage’ and mention the laws that now protect Egyptian antiquities. Archaeologists must now work with Egyptian authorities, and there is a magnificent tomb chapel fragment that outlines this joint relationship. According to the Museum, although the the fragment on display was removed from the tomb chapel in the early 20th century, the tomb chapel itself was rediscovered in 2000 and was studied jointly by Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and National Museums Scotland.

As we continue our journey through the gallery, watch your step as- not to be outdone by last week’s post featuring elephant bones- we come across a rather large and intimidating skull of a hippopotamus. Can you imagine, as an ancient Egyptian resident, coming across one of these magnificent beasts in the Nile and just how scary those rather large teeth would be?! And yet, the crocodiles in the Nile were probably the most feared of the Ancient Egyptian residents of the water. The Egyptians certainly recognised the important role they played, and there is a peculiar mummified baby crocodile on exhibit.

One of the more significant artefacts on display is a casing stone (c. 2589- 2566 BC) from the Great Pyramid of Giza. It is one of the few surviving casing stones from the Great Pyramid that was built for King Khufu. It was brought to Edinburgh by Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900). In 1865, he and his wife, Jessie (a geologist), completed the first accurate survey of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Two rather poignant items on display are the coffins of a mother and child. The larger, gilded coffin that captures the eye is that of the ‘Qurna Queen’. Perched on top of the Queen’s coffin, is a smaller, rather unadorned coffin of a child that died at approximately three years old. Archaeologists found matching jewellery in the child’s coffin that suggests it was most likely the child of the Qurna Queen.

Towards the back of the gallery, you confront the legendary beauty of Nefertiti- the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten (also known as Ahmenhotep IV) along with a relief fragment from his reign. After Akhenaten died, his legacy was violently erased from history- leaving mostly fragments from his reign behind.

Nearby, as if straight out of a Hollywood movie, is a stone from a tomb with an inscription warning those visiting the tomb not to take anything…

Daily Life of Ancient Egyptians: Small Artefacts and their Stories

The artefacts throughout the gallery are quite impressive- both large and small. Of course, we are all captivated by the amazing funerary objects- mummies, coffins, etc. However, it is many of the smaller items displayed throughout the gallery that really start to tell the story of life in ancient Egypt.

Sprinkled throughout the gallery are various personal items that belonged to the Ancient Egyptians. There is a lovely mirror with a papyrus-shaped handle, razor, and even a wig curler/trimmer. Particularly fascinating is a kohl tube applicator which the exhibit describes as “ancient sunglasses”. Most of us have seen the beautiful artwork depicting the Egyptians with their kohl-lined eyes. While both men and women wore it to highlight their eyes, it was also a form of protection from the glaring, Egyptian sun- positively ingenious!

Diversity and Multiculturalism in Ancient Egypt

The Museum does an excellent job at highlighting the diversity that existed in ancient Egypt with artefacts that showcase the history of Egypt and influences from other cultures. For example, the Nubian culture played an important part in Egyptian history- with their people first coming as slaves but eventually taking over and ruling the land as Pharaohs. On display is a well-preserved, inner coffin of a Nubian pharaoh dating from c.680- 650 BC.

The gallery also features an impressive collection of Roman-Egyptian artefacts showcasing their fascinating ancient history. The artefacts provide evidence of how they sometimes combined Roman and Egyptian gods- such as one item that joined Cupid and Horus.

There is a particularly wonderful section of the gallery that displays some of the last mummy masks made before mummification was abandoned due to Christianity. One such mummy had a very interesting juxtaposition of the mummy with the realistic portrait of a Roman-Egyptian face.

In my opinion, one of the most unique items on display in the entire gallery is a double-coffin (the only known one to exist) that was for two boys (AD c.175- 200). It features the protective figure of the sky goddess, Nut, which, according to the exhibit, was often painted inside Egyptian coffins. Each of the two boys were given his own sky goddess.

Scotland’s Place in Egyptology

One fantastic, golden thread that is woven throughout the gallery is how Scotland’s history and connection with archaeology and Egypt is featured. The curators have done a superb job at telling the story not just of Egypt, but of some of the Scottish heroes that worked behind the scenes (starting many decades ago) to ensure that this gallery could even become a reality.

One such star is Annie Pirie Quibell (1862-1927). Born in Aberdeen, Ms. Pirie was one of the first women to study Egyptology in Britain. Another Scottish scholar featured was Mr. Edwin Ward (1880-1934). He spent a few winters excavating the ancient capital city of Memphis as well as other sites, and eventually became the Museum’s director. The last person I would like to mention is Alexander Henry Rhind (1833-1863). What is significant and important to mention about Mr. Rhind is that he was the first to pioneer archaeological recording in Egypt. Therefore, he literally ensured that the scholarly field of Egyptology could and did exist- truly a ‘founding father’ of the discipline. According to the Museum, ‘his most important discovery was a tomb built around 1290 BC, reused for over 1,000 years, then sealed intact following the burial of the Roman family of Montsuef’. On display is an exquisite funerary canopy of Montsuef (9BC). What predominantly catches the eye on this funerary artefact are the beautiful, rich colours.

What a truly inspiring and magnificent morning I had exploring the National Museum of Scotland’s Ancient Egypt gallery. I hope that you have enjoyed our brief archaeological visit, and, as I said previously, sit tight because we will be returning to the Museum in the coming weeks for an exploration into the new East Asia gallery that also opened today.

If, like me, you are a fellow enthusiast of history, culture, and archaeology, then please check out our homepage to find out more information on how to book a tour with us so we can explore Edinburgh together.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!

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