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.
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.
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 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.
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.