The mystery of Egyptian treasures on the grounds of a Scottish school

Categories: Treasures , Nálezy nejenom s detektorem ve Velké Británii a Irsku

In 1952, a student at the private Dalhousie School at Melville House was punished with menial garden work. While hoeing a flower bed, he came across what looked like a potato. But instead of a tasty eggplant-like tuber, he discovered a 4,000-year-old Egyptian masterpiece. It was the first artifact of 18 others discovered by various schoolchildren over the next 30 years.

Most of the objects discovered are now in the National Museums Scotland (NMS). In 1952, the boy's first discovery was transferred to what was then the Royal Scottish Museum. The Egyptologist there, Cyril Aldred, discovered that it was the head of a red sandstone statue from the mid-12th Dynasty (c.1922 - 1855 BC), the craftsmanship of which suggests a connection with the royal workshop.

In 1966, pupils in a physical education class on the same school site found an Egyptian bronze votive statuette of the bull Apis when, while exercising, one of the boys fell on a spike protruding from the ground. It later turned out to date from the late to Ptolemaic period (c. 664-332 BC). Supervising teacher McNie took the object to the museum for identification. In a remarkable coincidence, it was he who found the head of the statue 16 years earlier. Mr. Aldred offered to have the teacher conserve the find, but McNie kept the bull and later disappeared without a trace.

Following the closure of Dalhousie School, Melville House was purchased by Fife Regional Council in 1975 for use as a juvenile detention centre. In 1984 a group of teenagers visited the museum's curator, Dr Elizabeth Goring, with an object to identify. It was an ancient Egyptian bronze male figurine. Goring recalled her predecessor Aldred's account of the Egyptian finds at Melville House and realised that the find might be related to previous ones.

She wanted to visit the site of the last discovery and explore the immediate area, but the finder had since ended up in Saughton Prison in Edinburgh. Eventually a meeting was arranged at Melville House under the supervision of a probation officer and the finder was finally able to mark the spot. Goring found a further 15 items there. These included the upper part of a fine faience figure of the goddess Isis nursing her son Horus, and part of a faience tablet with the eye of Horus. The unusual figurine is described by British Museum experts as a priest offering sacrifices. It was probably created during the 25th Dynasty (c. 747-656 BC).

"Excavating and researching these finds at Melville House was the most unusual project of my archaeological career," said Dr. Goring, who published her story last week in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. "The discovery of ancient Egyptian artefacts in Fife is clearly unexpected. Subsequent research to establish the origins of the collection has provided a fascinating story, albeit with further mysteries that may never be solved," she added.

Further research was to verify whether the valuable artifacts were collected by members of the Leven and Melville families who once owned the property. But in 1984, it was agreed that the finds from that year should be treated as treasure and acquired by the museum. The objects may have been acquired by Lord Alexander Balgonie, who visited Egypt in 1856 with his two sisters to recover from tuberculosis contracted while serving in the Crimean War. But a year later, aged just 24, he died of the disease.

Perhaps grief and the association of the antiquities with his early death prompted someone to dispose of them. Perhaps the "mummy curse" stories of the 1860s linked the artifacts to bad luck and someone buried them out of superstition. In any case, they are very rare and their mystery is still waiting to be solved. Equally interesting is the story of the first finder and later teacher, McNie, who has not been heard from since...

Any curator can tell all sorts of extraordinary stories, but this is one of the most unusual that has happened to me in my 26 years at the museum," Dr. Goring concluded.

Roman Němec


nms and balfarg volunteers on the melville house grounds in 1984

sandstone head of a statue of a man from the mid-12th Dynasty

top half of a faience shabti with the name hor-sa-iset

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