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Jersey’s lost Egyptian treasure

Features | Published:

Mike Sunier tells the story of how a mummy from the time of the pharoahs was once proudly displayed here.

Among the pioneering Egyptologists searching for the tombs of the pharaohs in the 19th century was a little-known man of Jersey origin whose family would later make a sensational gift to the Island.

John Gosset appears in the pages of a diary written by Edward Lane, acknowledged as one of the first group of modern Europeans to seriously investigate the archaeological remains of the great Egyptian dynasties now so familiar to us.

Intrepid adventurers such as Lane and Gosset were investigating the tombs following the massive surge of interest across Europe in the Ancient Egyptians that was sparked by Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt and the subsequent archaeological investigations which led to the publication of a spectacular illustrated survey of the tombs, monuments and other remains. In 1835, Gosset was in Thebes, (today known as Luxor), living in one of the tombs which had been converted into living quarters for the few explorers investigating the tunnels and it was here that he met Lane, who had sailed from Cairo to escape the plague which was virulent in the Egyptian capital. Lane based himself in the same tomb accommodation and together, the two of them spent time exploring.

Writing in a journal, Gosset described how he and Lane found ancient mummies inside one of the tombs during a night-time exploration following a tip-off from locals. ‘From the tomb we descended…into a small cavern hewn into the rock in which we groped upon our hands and feet and found three mummies. We were covered with dust and almost stifled going down the pit to the cavern but were delighted to see the manner in which the ancient Egyptians buried their dead.’

They were together in Thebes at least until August that year when Lane recorded in his diary that he and Gosset took a steam packet to Malta via the port of Alexandria. By then the plague had reached them in Thebes and although they tried their best to quarantine themselves, at least one man with a connection, the father of one of Gosset’s tomb guards, died from the disease.

Sadly, John Gosset was not long to survive himself, for shortly after his return from Egypt, he died. Edward Lane, meanwhile, would become one of the leading Arab scholars of his generation and his accomplishments were recognised in London’s National Portrait Gallery where there is a bust honouring his achievements.

However, the impact of Gosset’s explorations were felt in Jersey when his father, Isaac, donated the antiquities he had acquired in Egypt to the Island and the star find were the mummified remains of a body within its preserved and decorated sarcophagus.

This gift prompted the Jersey authorities to open a museum in the Island to house his collection. It is known that the mummy and other finds were open to the public and on display by 1836 because Jersey resident Harriet Le Couteur mentions the museum in her diary, visiting it as she describes it ‘in embrio and was much pleased with the most perfect mummy I ever saw with its two splendid coffins brought from the tombs in Thebes.’ More excitement was to follow.

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Professor Thomas Pettigrew, surgeon and antiquary, with a long interest in Egyptology and the writer of A History of Egyptian Mummies a few years earlier, was invited to Jersey to unroll the Jersey mummy in November that year. A Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal Society, he was hugely experienced at examining mummies that had been brought to Europe from the tombs in Egypt. The formal unrolling took place in front of many of Jersey’s high society of the day.

In London the following year, Pettigrew gave a talk to his scientific colleagues, about the unrolling, a talk which was printed in a scientific journal, with drawings of the Jersey sarcophagus and its contents. Pettigrew read extracts from Gosset’s own diary about how he discovered mummies in an untouched tomb. Initially there had been some excitement because evidence pointed to the ‘Jersey mummy’ being the body of a pharoah, but it was concluded following closer examination after the unrolling, that it was a more ordinary mortal, though its identity remained uncertain.

Pettigrew anticipated that the new museum would ‘rise rapidly into distinction’ with the Egyptian artefacts among its chief attractions but sadly the museum proved not to be viable and it closed not long after.

What happened to the ‘Jersey mummy’? With the assistance of the staff at the Société Jersiase library, it’s been possible to track down its fate.

On Saturday 16 April 1856, police investigated a suspected murder in St Saviour where the perpetrator had tried to burn the bodies; for two skulls and other bones were found in a pyre in a field. A man was arrested on suspicion of murder but while an inquest was continuing on site, much to the amusement of the bystanders, a young man came forward and told police that they were not investigating a murder at all, but had stumbled on the remains of the ‘Jersey mummy’.

Following the closure of the museum, the mummy had passed to Philippe Gosset, a nephew of John. Tiring of being the custodian of these ancient artefacts and as they appeared unwanted, he took the decision to burn them in a bonfire. The so called ‘murder’ was resolved, but sadly a treasure from the ancient past donated to the Island was lost forever, though at least the scientific account of the mummy’s examination, including diagrams, remains on record.

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