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Out of the rubble

19 February 2018 by Ashley Cooke

One of my favourite parts of being a curator is the detective work done in storerooms, archives and libraries. I really enjoy making a match between an object and an archive reference. This is incredibly useful when you’re curating a collection that was devastated by a fire in the Second World War. Many objects salvaged from the ruins of the museum were no longer marked with an accession number – the unique number that links object with documentation. Objects were reassigned new numbers but they had lost their ‘identity’.  Without the original number we can’t easily identify an object in the archives that record its history. Their ‘biography’ was stripped away by the fire. We don’t know who donated it to the museum or where and when it was excavated. Sadly, without that background story, it becomes a little bit less of an object.

Since I arrived at World Museum in 2006 I have found a new pleasure in reuniting objects with their original number. One such object is part of the new displays in our Ancient Egypt Gallery. It’s a 4,000 year old basalt statue of a seated noble that was broken into six pieces and salvaged from the ruins of the museum in the Second World War. What first caught my eye was the broken head sitting on a four metre high shelf (I was on a ladder). The wavy wig is very distinctive and straight away I recognised it from a photograph of the Ancient Egypt Gallery taken in 1932. The statue was one of the best we had and came from the remarkable collection of Joseph Mayer, donated to the museum in 1867. Pretty soon I started to find other pieces that fitted together. He’s missing both legs below the knee and part of both arms but he’s mostly all there. This was back in June 2009 and now thanks to the skill of sculpture conservator Marisa Prandelli the pieces have been re-joined and the statue is back on display after 77 years in storage.

Frontal image of a statue showing a seated man

The re-joinedstatue back on display, 77 years after being shattered into pieces by a fire

Egyptologist recording information about the statue

Egyptologist, Dr Simon O’Connor, studying broken parts of the statue in 2012

The name of the seated man has not survived, but he must have been an important person to have had such a fine statue carved out of highly prized basalt. Eight incised hieroglyphs on the left side of the seat are all that remain of an inscription that provide the owner’s name and titles. They can be translated as: “Hereditary noble and mayor, king’s advisor”. These titles proclaim his attendance at the royal court and his regional importance as a mayor. His shawl-shaped wig with gentle undulations is of a type that became fashionable in the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1985 – 1773 BC). I was prompted to write this blog after exchanging emails this week with Dr Simon O’Connor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, who came to see the statue in 2012 (when it was still in quite heavy pieces!). Simon is including our statue in a book he is writing about Middle Kingdom statuary. It’s pleasing to know our statue is once again being admired by visitors and will soon be more widely known in the academic community.

  1. Andy Jardine says:

    Great work. Brian Weightman is doing similar record item matching at Glasgow museums resource centre. Best of luck from Carlisle and district Egyptology society.

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