One of the most exciting aspects of working in a Museum is the occasional discovery of long-forgotten gems that lie in storage and which are often only brought to light by the chance enquiry of an inquisitive researcher. Such was the case this week when Anna Garnett, our British Museum ‘Future Curator’ trainee and I went in search of objects bearing ancient Egyptian plaster, to take samples for a researcher. Lists of object numbers, provenances and dates gave some indication of the sort of objects we were looking for but – because many of the items in the collection have still not been photographed – the physical identification of items often yields a surprise.
I was pretty sure that I knew all the “key” pieces in the collection. These tend to be the ones that are mentioned in publications, because of their own significance or their relationship to other objects of note. These connections are not often obvious, and usually require book-based research. Yet, sometimes you open a drawer, register the form or decoration of something and immediately recognise it as part of a larger whole. Thus it was with genuine amazment that I opened a drawer to discover a piece of one of the most famous paintings to survive from ancient Egypt. I don’t mind admitting that I let out an audible gasp of surprise. How could I not have read that THIS was here?!
The colours were a clue but the patterning was unmistakable. A small-ish piece (20 x 15cm) of mud brick, with thin painted plaster coating from Petrie’s excavations at Amarna. Number 8740. It is part of the much larger scene featuring two small princesses – daughters of Akhenaten – from a palace wall now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Petrie (Tell el-Amarna, 1894, p. 15) describes “the patronising air of the elder sister chucking the little one under the chin” and speculated that the paintings of the two figures is “perhaps the only use of light and shade by the Egyptians.” The princesses sit beside the much larger-scale foot of an adult – Akhenaten or Nefertiti – showing how large the original wall scene must have been. Petrie records many smaller fragments of painted plaster belonging to the wall – and that is what we must have in Manchester. Our fragment seems to represent part of a patterned fabric – a cushion? – in the reds and yellows distinctive of this scene.
Other bits are doubtless scattered in collections around the world. But the thrill of recognising just one small part compares with Petrie’s joy at first sight of the whole.