This small (4.2cm wide) object has perhaps the most dramatic biography of any in the Manchester Egypt collection, and one which would not seem out of place in a Hollywood movie script. Known today as the Riqqeh Pectoral after the site at which it was discovered, this ornate chest ornament, with two loops for suspension indicating that it was worn on a necklace, is an undoubted highlight of the Manchester Museum. The piece was created using a technique termed cloisonné, in which separate gold sections are filled with semi-precious stones. Lapis lazuli (dark blue), carnelian (red) and turquoise (blue/green) give the pectoral its colourful appearance and gem-like lustre. The reverse is chased in gold with details of the figures: two wedjat eyes (or ‘eyes of Horus’) flank a sun disk above two falcons (sometimes described as ‘crows’) on symbols for ‘gold’. The composition is arranged symmetrically around a stylised papyrus umbel suggesting a sekhem sceptre – a symbol of power. Two inward turned papyrus stalks frame the group.
The pectoral was found in association with two other items, each in the form of a king’s name: Senuseret II (Khakheperre) and Senuseret III (Khakaure). It can therefore be reliably dated to the second half of the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1900-1840 BC). It is a fine example of delicate jewellery on a small scale, typical of the best Middle Kingdom royal pieces.
But it was the archaeological context of the pectoral that is most remarkable. Between 1911-12 English Egyptologist Reginald Engelbach was excavating in a cemetery at el-Riqqeh, near the entrance to the Faiyum lake region. At the bottom of a deep tomb shaft (no. 124), Engelbach discovered an apparently-intact chamber, the roof of which had collapsed in antiquity. At the centre of the chamber was a coffin containing a mummy – but with the arm-bones of another body lying on top of it. The remaining bones of this second individual lay nearby. According to the excavator, “it appeared as if it had been suddenly crushed while in a standing, or at least crouching position when the fall occurred.”
Within the mummy wrappings several items of jewellery, including the pectoral, had apparently been partially dislodged. All the evidence suggests that a robber must have been crushed in the act of rifling for valuables when the roof collapsed. Tomb robbery was a well-known fact of life in ancient as well as post-Pharaonic Egypt. Many objects are likely to have been stolen not long after they were interred. Yet it is exceptional to have the circumstances of a robbery preserved in such a fashion: a gruesome snapshot of the “mummy’s curse” in action.
The pectoral is one of the most often-illustrated items in the Manchester collection, and the most popular – judging by considerable postcard sales for this image. Few people, however, know the story behind its discovery. To put the pectoral into its proper – albeit unusual – archaeological context, the group of jewellery from Riqqeh tomb 124 will feature in Gallery 1 of our Ancient Worlds redisplay, as part of a narrative told from the point of view of a tomb robber – one of several guides to the exploration of archaeological finds.