In 1952, a schoolboy was digging up potatoes, assisting a gardener in the grounds of his school in Fife as part of a punishment. He stumbled across a bulbous shape that he initially mistook for a potato, only to discover later that he had found an Egyptian masterpiece made some 4,000 years ago.
The idea of finding ancient treasures buried in the Scottish countryside, rather than beneath the sands of Cairo, is somewhat unlikely. Yet this was to be the first of 18 Egyptian antiquities unearthed on three separate occasions by schoolboys over some 30 years in the most unexpected of places – Melville House, a historic building near the small parish of Monimail in Fife.
Most of the antiquities are now in National Museums Scotland (NMS), which is for the first time telling the remarkable story behind the discoveries. In 1952, Melville House was occupied by Dalhousie School. A teacher brought the boy’s discovery to the then Royal Scottish Museum – now NMS – where its distinguished Egyptologist, Cyril Aldred, realised its significance as an important mid-12th dynasty red sandstone statue head (about 1922-1855 BC), whose quality suggests a royal workshop.
Fourteen years later, in 1966, an Egyptian bronze votive statuette of an Apis bull was found in the same school grounds by pupils doing a PE class outdoors. During a vaulting exercise, one of the boys landed on a spike protruding from the ground. It turned out to date from the Late or Ptolemaic Period (about 664-332 BC).
The supervising teacher, a “Mr McNie”, brought the object into the museum for identification. By the strangest of coincidences, he was the very boy who found the head in 1952. Aldred offered to have it cleaned by museum staff, but McNie took the bull away with him and it disappeared without trace.
Following the closure of Dalhousie School, Melville House was purchased in 1975 by the then Fife regional council, who used it until 1998 as a residential school for young offenders and children with behavioural issues.
In 1984, Dr Elizabeth Goring was the museum’s curator of Mediterranean archaeology when a group of teenagers visited with an object for her to identify. They sensed it might be old, and it turned out to be an ancient Egyptian bronze figurine of a man. Goring recalled her predecessor, Aldred, telling her about previous Egyptian finds in Melville’s grounds, and she realised that the figurine found there must be connected.
This is one of the most extraordinary stories that happened to me in my 26 years at the museum
Dr Elizabeth Goring, NMS
Its discovery established beyond doubt that there had once been a collection there, but how the objects got there, and why they ended up buried, was a mystery.
Intrigued, she decided “to dig a little deeper”, and arranged to visit the school to establish where the figurine had been buried. However, by the time it had been brought into the museum some three years later, its finder had ended up in Saughton Prison in Edinburgh. But a meeting with him at Melville House was arranged under the supervision of his probation officer, and he showed her the rough find-spot.
Experts at the British Museum agreed the figurine represented a priest bringing offerings, an unusual subject. It was possibly created during the 25th dynasty (about 747-656 BC).
Goring explored the site further, finding other objects, ranging from the top part of a fine faience figurine of the goddess Isis suckling her son Horus to part of a faience plaque bearing the Eye of Horus.
Melville House is a fine stately home commissioned by the first Earl of Melville in 1697, and now serves as self-catering holiday accommodation.
Goring’s research extended to the antiquities’ legal title, to establish whether they had been assembled by a member of the Leven and Melville family who had once occupied the property. But, in 1984, it was agreed tthat he finds of that year should be treated as treasure trove and acquired by the museum.
The story of the discoveries is being told for the first time by Goring and her successor, Dr Margaret Maitland, in the forthcoming Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, to be published on 30 November.
One possible explanation is that they were acquired by Alexander, Lord Balgonie, heir to the property, who visited Egypt in 1856 with his two sisters to improve his poor health after falling ill during service in the Crimean war. But he returned to Britain weaker, and died in 1857, aged only 24, from TB.
It is possible that grief and the sad association of the antiquities with his early death prompted someone to dispose of them. It also could be that stories of “the mummy’s curse”, dating to the 1860s, linked such antiquities with ill fortune, prompting someone to bury them.
Maitland, NMS’s principal curator of the Ancient Mediterranean, said: “We can’t be sure whether superstition played any role in their abandonment, but it’s not impossible.”
The sandstone head, which measures 110mm in height, is on display in the NMS. Maitland said: “This is an extraordinary masterpiece, highly important in terms of Egyptian culture.”
Goring added: “Every curator can tell you some extraordinary stories, but this is one of the most extraordinary that happened to me in my 26 years at the museum.”