The archaeology museum at the University of Birmingham houses an object that is a constant curiosity to staff, students and visitors alike. Although many claim to know its history, very few understand its true and confusing story.
The unconventional history of this object, a coffin lid, stems from the unfortunate situation in the late 19th and early 20th century when archaeological objects were distributed from official excavations in Egypt without proper documentation — a process that rarely, if at all, occurs today.
During his work at the necropolis of Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt in the early 20th century, John Garstang, later the Professor of Archaeology at Liverpool University, is known to have excavated quickly (possibly up to three ‘mummy pits’ a day) and rarely recorded the context of the objects which he discovered. Garstang did however, go some way in documenting where the objects that he discovered at Beni Hasan went, with the distribution lists now located at the University of Liverpool.
In his first letter to Garstang in 1904, Hopkinson asks the excavator ‘to consider the University of Birmingham’s archaeological museum’ in his distribution of objects, stating that ‘a grant of pottery from Beni Hasan would be a most valuable addition [to the collection]’.
Garstang appears to have readily agreed to the request, and sent not only several items of pottery, but also a ‘wooden sarcophagus (or part thereof),’ which Hopkinson gratefully accepted on behalf of the university in a letter dated 18 March 1904. A further letter, sent to Garstang in June 1904, details the safe arrival (except for ‘a few minor breakages’) of the cases of pottery and the ‘mummy case’.
At this point Hopkinson also asks for advice on how to deal with the wood of the lid and its tendency to ‘start’, an issue which had not likely been helped by Hopkinson’s treatment of the lid with ‘paraffin wax’, which he also details in this letter. If Garstang did send any advice, or indeed the ‘full label for the mummy case’ which Hopkinson also requested, these documents have now been lost.
The manner in which the recording and distribution of archaeological objects were dealt with in this instance, particularly the fact that no photograph, drawing, or even a brief description of the lid were provided in any of the correspondence between Hopkinson and Garstang, directly leads to the very curious and interesting object biography for this coffin lid.
Within the archaeology collection at the University of Birmingham the coffin lid soon drew attention from staff and students alike. Although it is only part of a larger object, the highly-decorated surface of the wood, complete with a beautiful depiction of goddess with outstretched wings and a panel of seven columns of hieroglyphic text, display the quality of ancient Egyptian craftsmanship.
The delicately carved face also provided viewers with an insight into the individual for whom the lid was made. From the translation of the hieroglyphs this was almost certainly a man named ‘Ahmose’. No documentation relating to the coffin lid, or indeed the wider archaeology collection, exists until around 1960 when the Classics Department moved to its current location on the Edgbaston Campus, a few miles outside Birmingham City Centre.
Shortly after this move the coffin lid left the archaeology collection. Until 1990 its new home of the coffin lid was unknown, but then Dr Tony Leahy, Senior Lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Birmingham, noticed a curious object on display in the Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum. Writing to the Office of the Registrar and Secretary of the university on 22 January 1990, Leahy detailed a label next to this object, a coffin lid, stating that it was ‘a gift from D.R. Dudley, Professor of Latin, University of Birmingham, made in 1960. The coffin comes from Garstang’s excavations at Beni Hasan in 1903-4′.
Leahy clearly recognised the lid as the one originally housed in the archaeology museum and Professor Richard Tomlinson, one of Hopkinson’s successors, set the wheels in motion to discover the reason why the object had left the university all those years ago, and to assess the possibility of its return.
Several people who had worked at in the Classics Department in the 1960s were contacted in an attempt to ascertain the details of Dudley’s gift to Leamington Spa. Problems arose due to the poor description and lack of drawing or photograph in the letters between Hopkinson and Garstang without which, at this time, it was difficult to be sure that the object on display in Leamington was the very same as that given by Garstang to the university in 1904.
It was during this time that unfounded stories began to circulate about the it, including details of a tense relationship between classics professors at the university leading to the ‘gift’ of the coffin lid to another institution ‘out of spite’.
Perhaps the most famous myth linked with the coffin lid is that it was found in the lost property at Tamworth Railway Station; this story was detailed in a short article in the Leamington Spa Morning News of 6 January 1960 in which T.A. Dorey, a Leamington Spa councillor and lecturer at the university, noted that he was told that the Tamworth Stationmaster took charge of the coffin lid after its abandonment – and it was then passed on to Professor Dudley. The coffin lid arrived at Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum in August 1960 and was displayed ‘as an art exhibit — not as an example of Egyptology’ (Leamington Spa Morning News 16 August 1960).
The coffin lid was one of the highlights of Leamington Spa museum for many years, until it was loaned to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in the late 1980s. However, it was only ever stored there and no plans were made to display it. After Tomlinson’s first correspondence in 1990 contact continued between the University of Birmingham, Leamington Spa, and later Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to determine the reason for 1960 gift of the coffin lid.
Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum generously agreed to a long term loan of the coffin lid back to the university, pending ownership agreement, conceding that at least it would be on display at the university. During the refurbishment of the university’s archaeology museum in 2002 the coffin lid was conserved. The foot base was cleaned and re-adhered, as were the various parts making up the face, the paint edges were stabilised, and the varnish and paraffin wax were removed.
After conservation the lid was placed in a custom made case within the Archaeology Museum where it is once again on view to staff, students and, by appointment, visitors. By a decision of Warwick District Council in November 2012, ownership of the object was formally passed by gift from Leamington Museum to the University of Birmingham.
The history of the lid has long been clouded by rumours and assumptions and it is only recently that the true timeline has being uncovered by peeling away the layers of curiosity and ascertaining the object’s biography.
Despite Garstang’s lack of detail in his distribution, the coffin lid at the University of Birmingham is almost certainly from Beni Hasan and dates to c.550BC (research by both Egyptology staff and students on the artistic style of the lid have helped to confirm this). The myth of the lid been discovered at Tamworth Railway Station is simply that — a myth. How exactly such a story began is unclear, but it is obvious that it continued for many years- it is still mentioned within the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity today! The myth it fits with the mysterious and intriguing themes that Egyptology can conjure up.
The defining aspect of this curious history is the insight it provides into the nature of object biographies and the extent to which we, archaeologists and academics, can affect them. Every piece of research, process of conservation, and, in the case of this coffin lid, unrecorded detail or correspondence that institutions carry out on an object, directly affects its individual timeline – one which does not end once the object enters a museum collection.
In this way museums not only display history, but they also make it. The coffin lid is now permanently displayed in the Archaeology Museum at the University of Birmingham where curation and research will continue to add to its history, although hopefully this will cease to be as curious and confusing as before.
Text by Emily Millward
Emily Millward holds a BA (Hons) in Archaeology and Ancient History from the University of Birmingham and is undertaking a PhD there in Egyptology. She also works as a Collections Assistant at Research and Cultural Collections, the University of Birmingham.