Sometimes what glitters is gold

In these times when curators of large, famous Western museums are grappling with the contentious issue of repatriation of cultural artefacts, it is interesting that even smaller, regional museums also have collections of objects from ancient times and very, far-flung places. This situation has partly arisen from the Victorian obsession for collecting combined with their civic movement that saw the building of museums in many county towns across the country.

Ipswich Museum is like many regional museums in this respect and has a section devoted to the Ancient Egyptians. The outstanding core of this collection is a small, dark room with at its centre a decorated Egyptian mummy that contains the remains of Lady Tahathor. She was a wealthy woman who lived and died in Luxor 2,500 years ago. She was brought to England in 1856 by George H Errington, then in 1871 she was donated to Colchester Museum and since 2010 has been the centre piece in Ipswich Museum’s Ancient Egyptian gallery.

This coffin contains the mummy of Lady Tahathor. 2,500 years old. A CT scan was performed at The Oaks Hospital, Colchester and suggested she died of natural causes in her mid-twenties.

At the head of this display and spotlit to catch the drama is a gold death mask. This is not from Ancient Egypt per se, but was in fact made between AD80-120 for a Roman citizen who lived in Egypt and wished to be buried in the style of an Ancient Egyptian god as opposed to the usual Roman manner.

Golden mummy mask for Roman Titus Flavius Demetrius. Ad80 -120.

The Roman citizen’s name was Titus Flavius Demetrius and his golden mummy mask was excavated by pioneering Victorian archaeologist Flinders Petrie at Hawara in Egypt in 1880. Only a death mask for Titus is on display and there doesn’t seem to be any record of what happened to the mummy. However, the early 20th-century curator, Gay Maynard, is credited with the masks acquisition for Ipswich Museum.

Titus’s death mask is not the only golden death mask on display at Ipswich Museum. There is another also from the time of the Roman occupation of Egypt made for a man known as Syros. It is nearly 2000 years old and is made of layers of linen or papyrus paper with plaster. It bears a gilded face of inlaid limestone with glass eyes and painted brows and has a border with painted vignettes and Greek text on top of the head.

This mask was placed on the mummy Syros who lived and died in Roman occupied Egypt. (On loan from the British Museum)

This golden mask is a longterm loan to Ipswich Museum from the British Museum who bought it in 1889 from the Rev. Walter L Lawson. Apparently, the Rev. Lawson collected Ancient Egyptian objects from excavations at Hawara in Egypt in 1889-90, but it is unclear whether he actively took part in the digs. However, there are records of him purchasing pieces from the antiquarian market in Luxor in 1889.

Nut, goddess of the sky. Ancient Egyptian goddess.

It is intriguing how the Ancient Egyptians still hold such fascination for many of us and it is encouraging that a local museum can share an interesting display of fine, original objects. The provenance and ownership of some pieces may be tricky, not least the mummy of Lady Tahathor, but maybe sharing human histories and practices can partially eclipse any ‘generating society’s’ privileges.

The two Romans, Titus and Syros, rejected their society’s death practices and in a way appropriated those of the Ancient Egyptians, maybe they were simply converts. However, for whatever reasons they had, the result for us 21st-century visitors to Ipswich Museum is to witness their choices made 2000 years ago in the form of these two gilded masks. Both are indeed finished with real gold even if technically they were not made for ‘real’ Ancient Egyptians. Oh, the delicious complexity of being human.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

8 thoughts on “Sometimes what glitters is gold”

    1. Yes, funny you should like the ‘Nut’ piece as all things ‘Nut’ were my favourite souvenirs when I visited Egypt and brought home the holiday gifts for family members.

  1. Small municipal museums contain astonishing treasures sometimes. I did some work experience many years ago at Rochdale Museum, which has really important Egyptian collections. Best not ask how they came to have these treasures I guess (I can’t remember actually).

  2. Sorry that got away too soon…so much was plundered across the world and the repatriation movement is interesting but in the meantime we get to see these fascinating treasures! Lady Trahathor died in her 20’s of ‘natural causes’ – seems young.

    1. Yes, as soon as I started to think about the display I knew that I’d find myself tying myself up in knots writing about it. I certainly don’t think there’s any justification in what is basically stealing the art and cultural output of peoples and one would like to think we all know better now. However, it would be even better if we could see all living peoples now more equally and repatriate artefacts, not least deceased human beings, when requested.
      Yes, natural causes in your 20’s sounds tough, it might have been during childbirth perhaps?

  3. If I ever get the chance to see Egyptian artifacts again – and I know I have seen some on display in Australia, I just don’t remember where – then I will come at the display with a greater appreciation thanks to your ever informative explanations. I too thought ‘natural causes’ a pseudonym for childbirth in one so young.
    Actually, thinking more about it, I think the display I am thinking of was in Cambridge, or maybe Oxford – but no doubt we here downunder did our share of plundering also.

    1. The plundering is not an easy thing to square these days in any circumstances. In a way it is a manifestation of that undignified inclination humans have to commodify anything and everything.

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