Mystery as boy digging for spuds uncovers masterpiece of Egyptian sculpture

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    It was in the middle of the last century when a schoolboy in Scotland accidentally discovered an ancient statue – and all he’d been trying to do was dig up potatoes as a punishment.

    It was the first in a series of discoveries of ancient Egyptian sculptures and artefacts in the grounds of the lad’s school in Fife.

    And now, more than 70 years later, experts reckon they’ve worked out how they ended up there.

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    The finds were made between 1952 and 1984 at Melville House, a stately building that became a boarding school after the war. But for a long time, no one had a clue about how they had arrived there.

    The fascinating collection – which is made up of 18 pieces – includes a statue head that’s nearly 4,000 years old carved out of red sandstone, and bronze and ceramic figurines dating from between 1069BC and 30BC.

    In 1984, a group of boys from Melville House visited Elizabeth Goring, a curator at the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh (now the National Museum of Scotland), and showed her an Egyptian bronze figurine, which one of them had recently found with a metal detector in the school grounds.

    Elizabeth got cracking with her research, and quickly connected the most recent find to the sandstone head found in 1952 and a bronze statuette that had turned up in 1966.

    She excavated the site and discovered a number of other fascinating artefacts. They included the top half of a glazed ceramic figurine depicting the goddess Isis suckling her son Horus, and a ceramic plaque bearing the eye of Horus, reports Live Science.

    After years of research, experts now think the artefacts were taken to Fife by Alexander Leslie-Melville, aka Lord Balgonie. He was an heir to Melville House who had travelled to Egypt in 1856 but died a year later back in the UK.

    “Excavating and researching these finds at Melville House has been the most unusual project in my archaeological career, and I’m delighted to now be telling the story in full,” said Elizabeth.

    She said Balgonie might have bought the artefacts while he was away. Dealers often flogged those sorts of things to foreigners during that period.

    It’s likely that his bits and pieces were moved to an outbuilding after he’d died, and when that building was later demolished, the artefacts ended up getting buried in the grounds of Melville House.

    “This is a fascinating collection, made all the more so by the mystery surrounding its origins in this country,” said Margaret Maitland, principal curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at National Museums Scotland, where most of the objects now live.

    “The discovery of ancient Egyptian artefacts that had been buried in Scotland for over 100 years is evidence of the scale of 19th-century antiquities collecting and its complex history. It was an exciting challenge to research and identify such a diverse range of artefacts.”

    The full story will be published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland journal.

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