Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Budgie and His Giant Suitcases

The most important archeological development in Aswan since the building of the magnificent ancient temples was the dismantling of the same temples in modern times. This was part of an international project aimed to save more than a dozen temples from inundation. The rise in water level was caused by the Aswan High Dam, an impressive dam that sits astride the Nile above a lower dam built by the British in1902. The High dam has a generating capacity of 2,100 megawatts and was begun in 1960 and inaugurated in 1971.

The lake so created (which is called Lake Nasser in Egypt but beyond the border with Sudan the name changes to Lake Nubia) is also impressive, a point driven home when you fly over it on your way to Abu Simbel.

There are two temples at Abu Simbel, the principal one is dedicated to the chief gods of Heliopolis, Memphis, and Thebes by Ramsses II (1250 BC). The second is dedicated to Hathor and honors Ramesses’ beloved wife, Nefertari. As the water rose, flooding the area, a remarkable engineering feat was begun in which both temples were cut apart and reassembled 650 ft. away on higher ground. The main temple is oriented as in the original so that the first rays of the rising sun illuminate the innermost sanctuary.

The temples were discovered in 1812 by the Swiss explorer, Johann Burckhardt, but they subsequently proved a disappointment to the collectors and looters of the 1800’s, who were looking for portable goods. In those days well before the advent of the High Dam the temple complexes of the region were in danger of being dismantled by the governer, Mohammed Ali, who was determined to build a modern Egypt and needed building blocks for his new offices and factories. Abu Simbel was left untouched because of its remoteness and being covered with sand, but Ali had little use for any of the other ancient structures and allowed Henry Salt, Giovanni Belzoni and Bernardino Drovetti to divide Egypt between them and plunder systematically.

They were not shy about their motives, which were to fill the European nation’s appetites for new, different and important antiquities, and in the process to make money. In their footsteps came Flinders Petrie with his “science of observation, registration and recording,” whose goal was to understand, and Budgie who took anything left behind and anything else not nailed down to satisfy his passion as a collector.

On his first trip to Egypt in 1887 Budge left off his excavation work in Aswan and made a side trip to Wadi Halfa where he was approached by Col. Holled Smith who had been hard at it on the western bank of the Nile clearing sand from the Temples of the 18th Dynasty Pharaohs, Thutmose II and III (1500-1425 BC). Smith found a door jamb and part of a stele of Thutmose III, a statue of Ka-mesu, one of the ancient viceroys of the Egyptian Sudan, a stele set up by Seti I in the temple of Thutmose II, a stele of another viceroy, Setau, and a stele of Mernetchem, an ancient inspector of the gold mines in the Sudan. All of these were presented by Smith to Budge for the Museum. Later Budge added a group of good Egyptian steles from Akhmim, a rectangular slab of stone with a Greek inscription on each side from Kom Ombo, and many pieces of sculptured stone from some ancient buildings in Philae to this horde.

Toward the end of Budge’s stay in Aswan, it happened that another Army friend, General de Montmorency, received orders to take over command of the Army in Alexandria. As he was packing up his household goods in preparation for the move, he had all of Budge’s collection packed up and crated as well. Budge could then leave Aswan and travel on while the bulk of his goods were sent as military baggage via a special Government barge.

In Luxor, Budge acquired a few more items including a gilded bronze figure of Seth the god of Evil, the first figure of that god ever found, an exquisite ivory amulet of Seneb, a lady who flourished under the 18th Dynasty, on which was cut figures of the Earth-god, Aker, and many other deities, animals and fabulous monsters, the first of its kind acquired by the British Museum. In addition, he bought a remarkable waxen book, with seven tablets and covers with inscriptions of an unknown character, as well as a wooden board inscribed on both sides with thirteen lines from the Iliad, a large handsomely written Demotic papyrus, with Greek dockets, and several smaller Demotic papyri.

Luckily, while he was in Cairo he was able to put all of his new booty into the cases from Aswan as they were passing through. At this point he craftily separated out six cases that he sent to be examined by the Egyptian Antiquity Service. Presumably, as they were less noteworthy pieces, they were quickly expedited and sent on. Budge’s goal was to obtain token clearance while the other eighteen cases remained embedded in de Montmorency’s shipment. We know something of this because it was seen in transit by Flinders Petrie, the noted Egyptologist who was then on a research trip in Egypt. He was astonished to see one ‘case’ that was actually a block weighing ¾ ton, and for which no packing could be found except railway ties. These were spiked together with 6 inch spikes after the item had been draped in canvas and clearly labeled, ‘Military Baggage.’ Petrie thought it was the largest ‘suitcase’ he had ever seen.

The day before Budge left Cairo he was told to stop in and see the Consul, Sir Evelyn Baring, who evidently was highly displeased. Specifically Baring disapproved of Budge’s operations in Egypt and wanted him to stop.
“Mr. Budge, (paraphrasing Budge’s autobiography) I’m at a loss as to how to make this more clear. I strongly object to the exportation of antiquities from Egypt, whether to the British Museum or to any other place, and I order you, not only to cease buying from native dealers, but to return them.”
“Return them?” asked Budge.
“Yes, everything that you have acquired.”
“Sir, I respectfully point out that I have been sent to Egypt at public expense to dig out tombs for the Sirdar, and in return the Trustees expect me to take back to the British Museum the share of the results to which they are entitled. Unfortunately, the tombs which I cleared out contained nothing that I can give to the Trustees in return for my services. Not wanting to return to England empty-handed I’ve taken the opportunity of purchasing a number of objects to fill up gaps in the National Collection.”
“I understand you, sir,” said Baring. “I want you to return them forthwith.”
“I can’t,” said Budge.
“Why not?”
“I’m afraid they’ve already been dispatched to London.”
“My God, sir, you take the cake. But at least there is one thing you will not leave with.”
“What is that, sir?”
“After leaving Aswan you’ve been reported to have got hold of a book of wax tablets inscribed in Greek shorthand. The Antiquities Service knows about this and wants it left here.”
“I’m sorry, that’s also gone. And I’d like to add that I’m not one of your staff. I am an employee of the Museum and I intend to carry out the task the Trustees have set me...”
“Get out, sir!” roared Baring now red in the face.

In all, on his very first collecting trip, Budge brought home to England 1,482 items. What a way to start your career. His second trip to Egypt was a hurried one that he made on route to Baghdad during Christmas week of the following year. On that trip as we’ll see in the next post, he was only allowed a few weeks in Egypt, which meant that he had to be very selective. One goal of his next trip was to follow up on a rumor of important “finds” by private collectors in Luxor. It is on this second trip that he was caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Next post, Budgie the Keeper and the Luxor Caper.

© Copyright J. Gaudet, 2009, all rights reserved. (Old Photo of Abu Simbel from Library of Congress)

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