Wednesday, October 05, 2011
A 2,500-year-old mummified boy, who is a star draw at Devon's oldest museum, has unexpectedly been put in the shade – by the very coffin in which he lies.
Ever since he went on show as part of a major revamp at Torquay Museum in 2007, Psamtek – the only human mummy on public display in the county – has captured the imagination of thousands of curious visitors.
But now his own mummy-shaped coffin has stolen the limelight, after museum officials were told the ornate near-4ft-long object (1.2m) is nearly 1,000 years older than the body it contains.
Further investigation reveals the coffin may have been made for a junior member of royalty more than a century before the time of the famous boy king Tutankhamun.
Museum curator Barry Chandler said: "It's an extraordinary discovery and means that the coffin is now the most spectacular exhibit in our entire collection.
"It's extremely rare – even the British Museum doesn't have one quite like it."
Both the coffin and its contents were gifted to the museum in 1956 by Lady Winaretta Leeds, daughter of sewing machine heir Paris Singer, who re-modelled Paignton's Oldway Mansion on the Palace of Versailles.
Fascinated by Egyptology, Lady Leeds, who had a holiday home in Alexandria, travelled to the Middle East many times. It was during one of her visits in the 1920s that she is thought to have bought the artefacts.
For years they were kept hidden away in storage until the Torquay Natural History Society completed a £2 million refurbishment of its museum building and decided to make the items the centrepiece of an Egyptian exhibition in a new explorers' gallery.
But before they put the artefacts on show, museum staff decided to try and find out more about the mummy. They took him to two local hospitals where an X-ray and CT scan revealed that, while there was no obvious cause of death, he probably perished from disease. And when he died he was less than four years old – three years younger than previously thought.
His coffin has since been examined by Dr Aidan Dodson, a senior research fellow at the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Bristol University, who is undertaking a long-term project that aims to catalogue every single Egyptian coffin (and bits of them) in the ownership of English and Welsh provincial museums.
Mr Chandler said: "When I walked into the gallery for the first time I realised that the coffin was really something special.
"Not only was it of a design of which there is probably only one other example in the UK – in Bristol – but the quality was exceptional.
"Cut from a single log of cedar wood, it is exquisitely carved, inlaid and painted. For a child to have been given something like that, he must have had very important parents – perhaps even the king and queen.
"Unfortunately, the part of the inscription which had named the boy and his parents is so badly damaged that we cannot be certain.
"The inscription had been re-worked at some point for a new owner, while the mummy that came to Torquay with it is nearly 1,000 years later than the coffin itself."
Mr Chandler said the museum always thought the coffin and its contents had not gone together and that the original occupant had been taken out so it could be reused.
"We thought perhaps the coffin dated back another 200 years or so to about 700BC," he said. "But we never realised it had actually been made somewhere between the reign of Ahmose I and the early years of the reign of Thutmose III – the first and fifth rulers of the 18th Dynasty – so somewhere between 1525 and 1470 BC.
"Not only has it gained an awful lot of age, but it has gone back to one of the most famous Egyptian dynasties of all."
No-one knows who exactly Devon's own Psamtek was. It's possible that he perished during a turbulent period in Egypt's past when coffins were in short supply."
The coffin is covered in linen impregnated with plaster. Predominantly painted white, it has a red-painted face – indicating a male – and eyes that are made from volcanic glass and limestone mounted in bronze. Further down, "perfectly modelled" knees are another of the features that indicate that the coffin must have originally contained someone important – either the child of a pharaoh or the offspring of a government minister.
Psamtek, is also wrapped in linen, but is covered in a beaded net. Attached to it are tiny figures of four gods whose role was to protect his vital organs – all of which are wrapped together inside the mummified remains.
The youngster is not the only mummy currently on show at the 166-year-old museum in Babbacombe Road. As well as their own Egyptian displays, which are on permanent display, the museum has a travelling "Secret Egypt" exhibition, comprising artefacts from some of Britain's finest collections, including the British Museum.
Among the visiting exhibits is a full-sized mummy of the Egyptian priestess Perenbast, who lived 3,000 years ago.