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Egyptian Antiquities



There have always been able collectors in England interested in Egyptian archaeology, and the great national collection is largely indebted for its treasures to the efforts of private collectors. In addition to the collections in the national museums, there are several large private ones, notable amongst which may be mentioned that at Alnwick Castle, formed in the early part of the nineteenth century by Algernon, fourth Duke of Northumberland, and the collection that has been formed by the late Earl of Carnarvon.

To what magnificent proportions this collection will eventually grow remains to be proved. No one yet can tell what, out of the glories recently discovered at Luxor by Lord Carnarvon, and his able searcher, Mr. Howard Carter, will fall to Highclere Castle, but all of us who are interested in Egyptian antiquities hope that the Egyptian Government will show itself generous towards the man who spent so many thousands of pounds upon excavation, and will permit his widow possess some of the choice treasures which he sacrificed his life to discover.

The world has become remarkably familiar with Egyptian art in these days, owing to the excellent photographs taken by Mr. Harry Burton, that have appeared in The Times and other journals, with reference to the amazing discoveries that have been made.

Previous to these investigations, the most notable collection of Egyptian antiquities ever brought together was that which was exhibited in 1921 at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. In the little gallery of that club there were presented many objects so fine that connoisseurs were amazed at their perfection, and some of the most notable amongst their number had little idea that Egyptian art was capable of producing sculptures and decoration of such extraordinary beauty. A great many of the things exhibited in the gallery of the club were later on sold at Sotheby's for very high prices, one notable head, the finest known example of Egyptian sculpture, fetching no less than L10,000 It would almost appear, however, as though all our ideas of the perfection of Egyptian art were to be re-estimated, in view of all the fine things that this newly-opened tomb presented to us.

It is only the great collector who can afford to indulge his hobby to the extent of purchasing the very choice things, but there are a large number of small collectors who are gradually forming very interesting collections, and there are constant opportunities for such persons to buy beautiful and interesting Egyptian curiosities, for they are often exposed for sale in the auction-rooms and in the shops of the dealers. There are certain things in Egyptian art that are fairly easy to get hold of. The sepulchral figures called Ushabti, or "respondents," are often to be found. These are the figures which were deposited with the dead to absolve the deceased in the future state from certain duties which he was supposed to be called upon to perform. They bear upon them, as a rule, the names of the persons for whom they were made, together with their titles and positions, and in some cases the names of the monarchs. They are often beautiful in colour, of the glorious vitreous blue of which the Egyptians only possessed the secret, and merely from the point of colour are beautiful, but they are of great importance in history because from them we have been able, more or less, to complete the list of monarchs of Egypt. We are in danger sometimes, in thinking of Egypt, to imagine that Egyptian art was always far in advance of that of other nations, ignoring the fact that what we call Egyptian antiquity spread over a period which started before 3400 B.C. and extended down to A.D. 400, ranging from what is known as the prehistoric and pre-dynastic period, through the various dynasties, from the first down to the thirtieth, then to - the Ptolemy period and the Roman period. During all this vast period of time, there were waves of progress and depression, periods in which Egyptian art was magnificent and supreme, and periods in which it was inferior to that of other nationalities. In its supreme time, it was in certain particular respects even grander than Greek art, and there are certain pieces, notably one that was once in the MacGregor collection, and another in the Highclere Castle collection, which are amongst the greatest pieces of portraiture in sculpture that art ever produced.

The Egyptian objects that are easiest to obtain are scarabs. Why exactly the ancient Egyptians attached so much importance to figures of the dung beetle, the scayabaus, we are not even now quite certain, but they compared the pellet which the beetle rolls to the globe of the sun, and they regarded the insect as sacred to the sun god, and as representing the sun, and thus to a certain extent, especially when supplied with outstretched wings, as typical of the vivifying soul. These scarabs were laid upon the breast of the mummies, and others were placed about the body, and they were also used as seals, and as the bezels of finger rings. In consequence, there are an enormous number of them, and many are of peculiar interest. by reason of the hieroglyphics inscribed upon them. Sometimes they are inscribed with references to the various divinities, with military devices, or the names of priests, or monarchs. They appear as pendants upon necklaces, in rows for bracelets, and in all kinds of arrangements for feminine decoration. They vary in colour and in size, extending from the gigantic monstrous ones that are huge monuments, down to the very tiny ones used in seal rings.

Collectors must be warned that there are multitudes of forgeries about, that nothing is much easier to forge than a blue vitreous scarab, and that these forgeries are even buried in suitable places, so that they may be exhumed and create a sensation. It is impossible to educate the collector how to distinguish a forged scarab from the real one, although in some instances the very feel of the forgery gives away the trick, but it is only by careful study of genuine scarabs, and by consulting those who really do understand the subject, that the collector can avoid disappointment.

The ancient Egyptian women were very fond of decoration, and a great part of the objects that collectors seek for are connected with the costume and toilet of the people; the necklaces and strings of beads are often very beautiful, the beads composed of jasper, red and dark green, porcelain, glass, garnet, carnelian, shell and crystal. There are mirrors and combs to be found, cases for holding cosmetics, sandals and the boxes for holding them, signets and finger rings in multitudes, toilet vases, and amongst the great treasures exhibited by Lord Carnarvon at the Burlington Fine Arts Club was the most amazing toilet box of wood veneered with ebony and ivory which belonged to the twelfth dynasty, say a period of over 2000 B.C. and which had its toilet vases, and its silver ornaments and knobs and its veneer of ivory almost complete, as it was deposited in the tomb at Thebes where it was found.

Near to that, and belonging to the same period and collector, was an almost equally wonderful thing-a gaming board of wood and ivory, with its little drawer and its holes to receive the ten gaming pins, which were also with it.

Then there are all kinds of vases, from the very tiny ones used to contain unguents, to those of enormous size made of aragonite, alabaster, granite, porcelain, terra-cotta, wood and other materials, and often decorated in wonderful fashion with hieroglyphic inscriptions. One of the common objects for collectors is the symbolic eye, uta, consisting of an eye with two appendages, which seems to represent the eye of the cow of Athor, the mystical mother of the Sun, with the fluid dropping from it. The right eye was the symbol of the sun, the left of the moon, and eyes were used as charms and amulets, and formed portions of necklaces and decoration.

There are a11 kinds of writing utensils found, and papyri. There are the wooden boxes called teb, with covers and ties, which were to hold objects of attire, and papyri; there are the extraordinary spoons or small bowls made of wood and ivory, and basalt and shell; there are bronze tools, chisels, adzes, knives, saws and mortising tools; and then there is that very large group of models of animals, because secondary to the worship of the gods was, in Egypt, that of the worship of sacred animals. The Egyptians grouped all animals as either sacred or profane, and the sacred ones lived in the courts of the temples. The animals not deemed sacred were either those into which the soul of Set might have been thought to have divided, or those into which such souls as transmigrated passed, and even the deities who were hated had animals sacred to them, such as the hippopotamus, the pig and the ass. There are models of the ape, lion, jackal, ram, bull, hare, sphinx, and large numbers representing the cat-the sacred animal of the goddess Bast Bubastis-to be found ; there are many representations of the hawk, the emblem of the god Horus; and one also finds the duck, crocodile, vulture, uraeus serpent, toad, frog and fish amongst these models.

The smaller collector is hardly likely to obtain a complete mummy, but he may get hold of a piece of mummy cloth, of portions of the woodwork in which the mummy was enclosed, sometimes gorgeously decorated, strings of mummy beads or pieces of decoration, especially painted limestone figures, some of which are of extraordinary beauty. Lord Carnarvon's limestone statue of a lady of rank, a piece of painted portraiture belonging to the Fourth dynasty, is quite one of the wonderful things of the world, and yet, even in their way, some of the smaller figures that may come into the possession of the amateur collector are, in proportion, almost as beautiful. There are plenty of opportunities for advantage in a collection of Egyptian antiquities, there is ample scope for speculation; scarabs bought for a very small sum often turn out to be valuable and rare; portions of statues, especially painted limestone work, are precious, and the collector who brings together examples of Egyptian art has an enormously wide field for study, and the pleasure of accumulating objects of remarkable beauty.

If he confines his attention, say, to only one section, that of glass, he will find the beads, bottles or pieces of broken cups objects of extreme charm, full of diversity and intrinsic beauty.

The whole section is far too large to be dealt with en bloc-collectors must specialise as to what section will particularly interest them, but the whole subject is full of mystery, and the inscriptions, when unraveled, open up stories of peculiar importance and reveal information about historic events about which we know far too little.