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Curator’s Diary 13/3/13: Early Photographs of a Prince’s Journey in Egypt

Nakhtmontu stela

Stela of Nakhtmontu © HM Queen Elizabeth II

Last week I attended the opening of a new exhibition, ‘From Cairo to Constantinople’, at the Queen’s Gallery of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. The exhibition presents photographs taken by Francis Bedford – the first official photographer to accompany a royal tour – on the trip around the Middle East made in 1862 by the then-Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).

The Royal Collection houses a number of objects that the Prince brought back from his travels, several of which are displayed in the exhibition. The most striking is the black granite statue of a 12th Dynasty queen (to an unnamed king), called Senet. Sadly the piece, which is less than half-life-size, lacks an exact provenance and the face of the statue has been damaged and restored in modern times. The Royal Collection is currently lending several objects to our temporary exhibition, ‘Breed: The British and their dogs’, and it was a pleasure to see some of their Egyptological material on display.

In addition to ancient scarabs mounted in gold as jewellery presented to Edward’s wife Princess Alexandra, the exhibition contains two further ancient Egyptian antiquities. The first is a painted wooden stela of early Ptolemaic date belonging to a priest named Nakhtmontu – mounted in a rather fanciful, Egyptianising gilt frame. The Prince records the stela’s discovery in his diary: “I was looking at some excavations… behind the Memnonium [the Ramesseum]; the Viceroy had been kind enough to give permission for them, and that everything that was found I might have; only a small mummy and a tablet were however found, wh[ich] I took with me.”


Late Period wooden stela, Acc. no. 10939.

Although the ‘concessions’ awarded to the Prince were not scientifically recorded, it is satisfying to have some idea of provenance of this object. The Ramesseum location matches both the Theban titles mentioned in the text and known Late – Ptolemaic Period burials in the area. A similar, if somewhat earlier, stela in Manchester may derive from a similar context – all that is recorded is that it comes from the collection of a Lady Marten, and was given in 1953 (right).

Finally, perhaps most important in terms of its connections to other known objects, is a set of sheets cut down from the papyrus of a man called Nesmin, showing the Amduat, found ‘upon a mummy in a tomb…’ Only one sheet (out of seven) is on display, but highlights the crisp penmanship of scribes producing the best papyri at this period. Nesmin is most likely to be the same man that owned the early Ptolemaic Bremner-Rhind Papyrus in the British Museum.

The superbly displayed objects in the exhibition combine with the photographic and diary record to really bring to life this royal tour. The photographs themselves are a valuable record of many monuments before they were ‘cleaned up’ for more popular tourism, and they compare well with those of the Zangaki brothers and others (prints of which we found at the Museum in 2011), taken around the same time.

As a record of the exhibition and of the tour, the catalogue is a sound investment and highlights the key role of temporary exhibitions of this nature in putting on view material that is rarely, if ever, seen.

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