Relief fragment from the tomb of pharaoh Sethos I Hieroglyphic inscription in raised relief, a part of the third hour from the Book of Gates. Originally placed on the corner pillar of the sarcophagus chamber. Polychrome limestone. Egypt, New Kingdom, 19 th Dynasty, H. 36 cm, W. 15 cm. © Galerie Eberwein Ancient Art
PARIS.- A dealer due to stand at the world’s most important art fair for the first time has revealed an astonishing discovery linked to the 3300-year-old tomb of Pharaoh Seti I.
Antonia Eberwein, of Galerie Eberwein Ancient Art in Paris, has helped fill in a missing piece of the jigsaw to shed light on the tomb, which has had to be sealed for the past 30 years because of deterioration.
She will unveil the piece at TEFAF Maastricht on March 16.
Despite being one of the best-known tombs in the Valley of the Kings and having seen millions of visitors, Seti I’s resting place remains one of the most mysterious and unknown of Egypt’s monuments to the cult of the dead.
Humidity and tourists have had a damaging effect on the colours and clarity of the designs and hieroglyphs in the tomb, and only a few, rather inaccurate drawings of the interior have ever been published.
When Giovanni Belzoni, who discovered the tomb in October 1817, first entered it, he found wall paintings, some still looking fresh, and even artists’ paints and brushes on the floor.
He set about recording what he saw, and even created a model of the entire tomb, which was put on display in Piccadilly Circus in London in 1821. At the time, the tomb became the most popular attraction in the Valley of the Kings, and it was over a century before it was overshadowed by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Later expeditions removed other parts, which can now be found in the Louvre, as well as museums in Florence and Berlin, and further excavations in the 1950s and ’60s led to the collapse of parts of the tomb.
In 1824, the British Consul, Henry Salt, with the help of Belzoni, had the sarcophagus removed and shipped to London, where it rests in Sir John Soane’s Museum. Four years later, Jean-François Champollion, famously the man who unlocked the secrets of hieroglyphs by translating the Rosetta Stone, damaged the tomb by removing a wall panel from a corridor.
All of these interventions contributed to on-going frustration over understanding of the tomb, as they destroyed evidence and led to access being restricted. Perhaps most frustratingly, Belzoni’s original recording of the tomb was never completed and so gaps remain over details to key areas. Eberwein’s discovery fills one of those gaps.
Seti’s tomb, the longest in the Valley of the Kings at 450 feet and the first to be decorated throughout, consists of 11 chambers and two side rooms, designed and decorated to protect the dead in the afterlife, record the voyage of the afterlife and ensure the continuation of the cycle of the Sun. These are all encapsulated in The Book of the Dead and The Book of Gates, whose inscriptions and images depict the Pharaoh with the gods and life in the Netherworld, the stories extending along the walls of the tomb.
Eberwein explains how everything started.
“A few months before I bought the fragment I went to the exhibition in Basel called Scanning Seti, which was about what they are doing about the tomb, scanning every little piece of it and adding to the jigsaw by scanning museum material from around the world to create as complete an image of the tomb as they can in digital form.
Having seen all this detail on display, when I came across the fragment, part of a funerary bas-relief that was being dispersed from a private collection, a few months later, I realised that it might be linked to the tomb and I bought it.”
Just as Belzoni’s drawings were never completed, so the photographic record published by Harry Burton in 1920 also failed to cover the whole contents of the tomb. Drawings recorded during the 1882-84 French mission had also left gaps.
“Looking at the fragment, I realised that it must come from an area that was not recorded by any of them, so I contacted the Egyptologist, Florence Barberio, who is working on the scanning project, to see what she thought.”
The response was astounding.
“She sent me an email that not only confirmed that it came from Seti’s tomb, but that the length of the inscription on it made it possible to identify the text and the provenance.”
It transpired that the inscription was an excerpt from The Book of Gates, which was located in the room of the sarcophagus with a yellow painted background.
“According to its content and the orientation of the signs to the left, the text most likely belongs to the 2nd door (preceding the 3rd hour of the Book), and corresponds to a fragment of the 1st column (the text reading from the right to the left),” Barberio wrote.
So the inscription actually identified the exact location of the fragment within the tomb. Next, Eberwein returned to Belzoni’s drawings, “and I realised that it came from an area just beyond the edge of where he stopped drawing. Did he stop there because the corner had already crumbled or because he became too tired (he is known to have given up because of this)? We will never know.”
Eberwein has since lent the fragment for scanning and it has now been added to the digital record, making its contribution to the project of creating as complete a 3D picture of the entire tomb as possible.
“This was such an exciting find because so little of this type of material still available on the market,” says Eberwein, who will be unveiling the piece in March on her stand at TEFAF Maastricht, where she will be exhibiting for the first time. The asking price for the piece will be €70,000.
“The discovery itself was one of those very rare moments one enjoys during a long career, but the opportunity to contribute to the scanning project and Egyptian scholarship in the process is what made it extra special."