By now many of you will have seen the news of the German boy who found a mummy in his grandmother’s attic. Last week, ten-year old Alex Ketter found three cases in the corner while playing in the attic in the small town of Diepholz. Neither his grandmother nor father knew what was inside the cases… so they opened them up.
You can imagine their surprise when they discovered a large sarcophagus and inside that, a mummy! Upon opening the other cases in the attic, they also found an earthenware Egyptian death mask and a canopic jar. While it is entirely possible that these items are fakes – indeed, the sarcophagus and death mask are thought to be replicas – there is a good chance the mummy is genuine. Alex’s father, Lutz, will be taking the mummy up to a university in Berlin where it will be inspected by an archaeologist and friend of the family.
How does a 1.6m mummy in an even larger sarcophagus end up in an attic in Germany? At this point, Lutz suspects his father may have purchased the mummy and associated objects while travelling through North Africa in the 1950s. While Egyptomania was at its peak during the 19th century, it is certainly an enduring interest… ever heard of those pyramids things? Lutz wonders if at the time of purchase his father had in mind something along the lines of an unwrapping party (where the host would acquire a mummy to be unwrapped in the presence of their guests to see what was inside). If this mummy does turn out to be gen-u-ine I hope it ends up in a museum, along with its fascinating story of discovery.
Which makes me think… what other interesting objects have been discovered in attics and ended up in a museum?* I have compile a list of seven objects whose stories I think you need to know, because they are just too weird and wonderful to be forgotten.
1. A Cat. Earlier this year a man from Cornwall, Robert Gray, discovered a cat-shaped pile of rags in his attic. Thinking it was a stuffed cat he took it to a vet’s to be x-rayed where they were surprised when the outline of a perfectly preserved cat was revealed. Further examinations at the Royal Museum of Cornwall confirmed the cat-shaped pile of rags to be a 2000 year old mummified cat! How did it end up in his attic? Nearly 50 years previously, in the 1970s his father, Peter Gray a keen Egyptologist, had been given it as a thank-you from a museum. Of course! He always told his son Robert he should have it x-rayed…
2. A French Monarch. In 2010 a mummified head, which had been kept in a French tax collector’s attic since 1955 (because obviously) was donated to Prince Louis de Bourbon, the head of the dynasty that once ruled France for two centuries. Why did a retired tax collector give a prince a mummified head? Because it is the head of King Henri IV, his long-dead royal relative. King Henri IV died in 1610, but his head was pillaged from a grave near Paris during the 18th century revolution that ousted the monarchy. How did it end up in the tax collector’s attic? Well, what we know is that in the early 1900s a couple purchased the head from an auction house and then in 1955 it was purchased by Jacques Bellanger and promptly put away for a rainy day. Okay and yes, while the skull had been interred in the Basilica of Saint Denis, which is strictly speaking not a museum, but who cares? This is my list and there is no way I was leaving this off.
3. A Really Old Wedding Cake. I mean, reeeally old. An oranate wedding cake was donated to the Hampshire Museum in 1995 by Ruby Philpott. Her father had made the cake to display in the window of their family bakery… in 1898. Ruby had found it in the attic, where it discoloured over the years, and, oh, had been cracked by vibrations during wartime bombing! The cake was carefully conserved by the museum conservation team (which required the totally-not-in-any-way-nerve-wracking cake transportation by a very gutsy driver). The cake is now on display. I can’t imagine it tastes nice anymore… probably a bit stale.
4. A Witches’ Ladder. In 1911 Anna Taylor, the wife of anthropologist Edward Burnett Taylor, donated a “half meter long piece of string with a loop at one end through which feathers had been inserted along its length” to the Pitt Rivers Museum. It is a witches’ ladder, found in the attic of a house of an old woman that had been destroyed in 1878-9, alongside a chair and six brooms (super incriminating). It was used “to get milk from neighbour’s cows and cause people to die.” Riiight… Even if this isn’t true (cough, cough) it seems this may be the very first witches’ ladder, which now features prominently in folklore and modern Wicca practices.
5. A Lot of Bugs. Okay, so there are lots of bugs in lots of attics. But theeese bugs were really important ones! In 2006 Richard Wallace, grandson of Alfred Russel Wallace, found an historic collection of 219 insects in the attic. Alfred Wallace? Yeah, he was one of the guys who discovered evolution, alongside Charle Darwin (you’ve heard of him, right). The collection was of specimens that had been collected in Southeast Asia in the 1850s and 1860s. Most of Wallace’s collections had been sold by 1870 to support his family (because discovering evolution wasn’t exactly a bread-winner back in those days), but he kept a few of his most favourite specimens – including some previously unknown-to-us ones. The discovery was donated to the Natural History Museum where it was meticulously restored and added to the Wallace collection.
6. A Violin. Not just any violin. A violin that had been thought to be at the bottom of the ocean. The violin that had played the hymn “Nearer, My God, To Thee” as the Titanic sank beneath the icy North Atlantic after striking an iceberg. It was discovered seven years ago in Bridlington… you guessed it, in an attic! The instrument, belonging to band leader Wallace Hartley, was presumed to have been lost when Wallace drowned that historic night in April 1912. It had been a gift from his fiancée Maria Robinson and likely survived inside a leather bag that had been strapped to him, although it was not recorded among his possessions when his body was recovered. It was returned to Maria by the Province of Nova Scotia and was eventually donated by her sister to a Salvation Army Band after her death in 1939. It was then given to an amateur musician and violin teacher and was passed on the current owner, her son, who discovered it in the attic. While discussions are on-going with several museums and auction houses, the violin has been on display at museums in America and the UK.
7. A Dragon’s Egg! This last one was found in an attic… of a museum. Which I think means it ticks all the boxes required to be on the list (and since number two isn’t even in a museum, then it is definitely alright). When the Victoria and Albert Museum was under-going renovations to the Cast Courts, staff was reviewing their on-site storage of plaster casts… in the museum’s attic. What they didn’t expect to find when auditing the old crates was a dragon’s egg. That’s right. I said a DRAGON’S EGG. Winter is coming. In fact, it is a rare plaster cast of a casket in the shape of a Viking house, from around the 10th-11th century. The original reliquary had, until WWII, been in a small town on the North coast of Germany. When the area was attributed to Poland in the Treaty of Postdam, the egg disappeared – either destroyed or looted – in the ensuing chaos. However, it seems a cast of the object survives… and it was hiding in the attic of a museum all this time!
I think this list just goes to show, it pays to have a relative who is a hoarder. Provided they hoard priceless objects from history and not just tins of cat food.
*I am purposefully not including stories of discoveries of comic books, baseball cards, unknown paintings and the like that have earned their finders large sums of money, because if I include them I will ignite an age old argument within my family about how my parents sold my brothers’ original Ewok village without telling them… which is now worth a bucket load of money (and more importantly was super awesome).