Great Pyramid Casing Stone Exhibit On Rocky Ground As Egypt Challenges Its Legality
The National Museum of Scotland announced that they plan to exhibit a marvelous block of fine white limestone that was brought to the UK in 1872 as a centerpiece in a new permanent gallery called Ancient Egypt Rediscovered. However, an article in The Scotsman says Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities are claiming that the stone “may have been illegally smuggled into the UK.”
One of the few surviving casing stones from the Great Pyramid will go on display in Scotland from February 8. The announcement was made on the bicentenary of the birthday of Astronomer Royal of Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smyth, who alongside his geologist wife Jessie, ‘arranged’ for it to come to the UK 146 years ago.
Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819–1900), Astronomer Royal of Scotland. (Public Domain)
Question of Illegal Procurement
In 1865, Smyth conducted a relatively accurate survey of the Great Pyramid, the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza pyramid complex which was built for King Khufu about 2589-2566 BC. According to a report in The BBC, once builders had completed the interior of the mega-mega-structure, the exterior was “clad in bright white, polished limestone brought from a quarry at Tura, 15km (9 miles) down the Nile.”
Dr Margaret Maitland, senior curator of ancient Mediterranean at National Museums Scotland told the BBC that the finished pyramid “would have gleamed in the sun and had a smooth, shining finish, unlike the rough, "stepped" surface which is more recognizable today.” And she added that staff at the museum are “very excited to be able to offer our visitors the chance to see the only casing stone from the Great Pyramid on display anywhere outside of Egypt.”
The Great Pyramid of Giza as it appears today, stripped of casing stones. (CC BY 2.0)
All these plans are being brought into question after Egyptian embassy officials contacted the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh demanding “proof that they legally own the rare artifact” through producing “documents of ownership and export certificates of that stone mass, the method of exit from Egypt and the date of obtaining it.” And playing hardball, Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities said they will “demand the stone is returned to Egypt if the museum cannot provide documentation that it was legally imported into the country.”
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Plate I from Charles Piazzi Smyth: Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid. 3rd, much enlarged edition. London 1877. (Public Domain)
Reconstructing The Ancient World
Regarding “how” these massive casing stones were originally transported to the top of the Great Pyramid, archaeologists have long wondered about the system adopted to have hauled these stone blocks into place, some 4,500 years ago. A recent Live Science article suggests this question might have been answered after archaeologists “discovered the remains of a system at the site of Hatnub, an ancient quarry in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.”
Yannis Gourdon, co-director of the joint mission at Hatnub, told Live Science, “This system is composed of a central ramp flanked by two staircases with numerous post holes… and could have been used to transport heavy stones up a steep ramp.” According to archaeologists from the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo and the University of Liverpool in England the builders used a sled to carry stone blocks up “steep slopes of 20 percent or more.”
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Casing Stone of the Great Pyramid, Cairo by Harry Pollard (CC BY 2.0)
How Did The Casing Stone From Egypt Get To Scotland?
In AD 1303, Egypt was struck by a massive earthquake that collapsed many temples and loosened the stones on the casing of the Great Pyramid. Many were stolen and used in buildings elsewhere, and it is known that Charles Piazzi Smyth discovered the casing stone going on display in National Museums Scotland's collection “buried among rubble at the foot of the Great Pyramid,” according to the museum.
They said the stone was discovered “among loose rubble at the base of the pyramid in 1869” and it was brought to the UK three years later by an English engineer called Waynman Dixon. Smyth later brought the stone back to Edinburgh where it was displayed in his Edinburgh home in a custom-made glass case and it was donated to the National Museums by the Royal Observatory in 1955.
The Egyptian Exhibition
The opening of the gallery plans to celebrate the 200th anniversary of “the first ancient Egyptian objects entering National Museums Scotland's collections” it will chart the significant contribution made by Scots to the development of Egyptology. As such, among the exhibits will be some of Charles Piazzi Smyth's measuring equipment that he used to survey the structure in the late 19th century.
Also on display in the exhibition which promises to cover “4,000 years of history” are statues of King Imhotep who invented the step pyramid and of King Snefru who commissioned the first true pyramid. What is more, the gallery are proud to be exhibiting exceptionally rare objects like, for example; the only intact royal burial group outside Egypt and the only double coffin ever discovered. A cosmetics box will also be shown which is regarded by Egyptologists as one of the finest examples of decorative woodwork ever created in ancient Egypt.
A spokeswoman for National Museums Scotland said, “we have received a communication from the Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt regarding this object” and staff are currently considering their response to the request.
Top image: The Great Pyramid casing stone. Source: National Museums Scotland
By Ashley Cowie