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Sekhemka statue causing a stir

Ruth Thomas with an Egyptian coffin lid at Abington Park Museum in Northampton.

Ruth Thomas with an Egyptian coffin lid at Abington Park Museum in Northampton.

As far as we know, there is no curse on the ancient Egyptian statue of Sekhemka.

But that is not to say it has not already stirred up a storm.

Last night, the latest Northampton Borough Council cabinet meeting was due to discuss the figure’s fate: Should the £2 million piece be sold or not?

While some believe the 30- inch limestone figure, which dates back to 2400 BC, should be kept by Northampton museums, others believe the sale could bring the benefit of valuable investment into local heritage sites.

But as well as Sekhemka, the debate has also drawn increased attention to the fact that Northampton’s museums – Abington Park and the Northampton Museum & Art Gallery – have a wide collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts.

And since the 1990s, Northampton has even had its own independent ancient Egyptian society, which now has between 80 and 90 members.

While Abington Park boasts a display of Egyptian pieces, the other museum in Guildhall Road has about 200 artefacts in store, a collection which the Chron was this week not allowed in to see.

Instead, I ventured into the Abington Park Museum to meet Ruth Thomas, chairman of the Northampton Ancient Egyptian Historical Society, to find out more about what the museum’s collections include.

The collection at Abington Park is a draw for local school groups and it is easy to see why young minds might be attracted.

Entering the display area I pass a creepy looking wooden coffin lid, dated between the 16th and 11th century BC.

In the case itself is an array of tomb statues and even a withered, broken-off hand and foot which, Ruth tells me, would have been the kind of thing people did to mummified Egyptian corpses.

Ruth said: “They used to break off the feet and hands as robbers would get in and try to get hold of the jewellery on a body. Anklets and bracelets were more difficult to get off.”

The mummified remnants are believed to have been passed on to the museum from the 19th-century collection of Beeby Thompson, a local geologist whose items were purchased for the museum in 1922.

Many of the other items, including Sekhemka, came from Spencer Compton, the second Marquis of Northampton.

Among the museum collection is a black statue from the tomb of the nobleman, Surero (1300 BC), which includes fully preserved hieroglyphic text. Many of the artefacts are statues from tombs.

Ruth said: “The tomb statue was a place for the spirit to rest, one of the important things that Egyptians believed in. The Ka statue looks like the person, almost like a photo but in 3D.”

The stored items in Guildhall Road are now contained in two boxes, including many ushabti funerary figurines. But, according to Ruth, the collection also contains three Book of the Dead scrolls, which she would like to see displayed.

Councillor Brandon Eldred, Northampton Borough Council’s cabinet member for community engagement, said: “Our museums have an important role in helping curious young minds explore their interests as well as supporting teachers.

“Our focus is on helping to explain the story of our town and why we should be proud of our rich heritage. However, we have a number of other collections which fit with the curriculum as well as encouraging independent study.”

Sekhemka

At 30 inches high, Northampton’s Sekhemka might seem a small statue to attract a valuation of 
£2 million and upwards. But, according to Ruth Thomas, the slight size of the piece is one of the keys to its rarity and value.

She explained that the artefact comes from a time in Egyptian history when purse strings were tied tight and the construction of statues happened less frequently. “He comes from a time in Egyptian history when not many statues were made. In the time of the Old Kingdom, they built these huge pyramids but it is thought that the pressure of building these things caused a drain on the economy.”

She continued: “Pieces like Sekhemka would normally have been full sized but the statues from this period were created small. There are probably not many statues in the world from that period.” The figurine has long been held in Northampton, having been presented in about 1870 by the third Marquis of Northampton following on from a visit that the 2nd Marquis Spencer Compton is known to have made to Egypt in 1850.

Another Sekhemka statue is also known to be held by the Brooklyn Museum in America. One great hope Ruth has is that Sekhemka will still be seen by the public after any potential sale.

She said: “If the council insists on selling it, the best thing that could happen would be for Sekhemka to go to the British Museum. Sekhemka is the single most important item in the museum collection as it is of international importance.”

The Northampton Ancient Egyptian Historical Society meets at St Andrew’s Hospital several times a year. For more information ring Ruth on 07989454995. To find out more about last night’s cabinet meeting, visit the news section on this site.

 

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