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Development since World War II (1945 - )

Papyrus collection has, surprisingly, been one of the more successful fields of acquisition for the Egyptian collections since the Second World War. In 1950, the bulk of a temple archive found at Abusir in 1893 by Egyptian farmers was purchased, the earliest group of documents to enter the Museum, and a most important addition for the collections. In 1956 another group of Middle Kingdom papyri, discovered as early as 1896 in excavations in the Ramesseum, was presented by Sir Alan Gardiner; these were of various categories, literary, religious, medical, and official. In 1960 came a papyrus roll in almost perfect condition, containing a 'Book of the Dead' written for Paynedjem II, High Priest of Amun in the Twenty-first Dynasty; it had been acquired in Thebes in 1874 by Lord Blythswood. The flow of papyrus into the Museum has by no means ceased; the most recent presentation by the National Trust consists of miscellaneous texts, including private letters and religious texts, obtained in 1816 in Thebes by William John Bankes, one of the earliest travellers to Egypt after the Napoleonic invasion.

Active support by the Museum for excavations in Egypt continued to result in useful acquisitions until changes in the antiquities laws in Egypt led to the suspension of the policy of allowing parts of excavation finds to be allotted to the excavating institutions. Up until the 1960s objects were received from the work of the Egypt Exploration Society at Saqqara and Qasr Ibrim. From Saqqara came material from the great tombs of the earliest dynasties, and also from Late Period religious foundations associated with animal cults. At Qasr Ibrim the work was started as part of the campaign for the saving of the monuments of Nubia threatened by the building of the High Dam and the creation of Lake Nasser. Qasr Ibrim, a fortress site, with well preserved remains dating from the New Kingdom down to the eighteenth century of our era, produced huge quantities of documentary material (mostly retained in Egypt), textiles and domestic remains, many examples of which have come to the Museum. There were also important stone monuments, including a small obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut.

Departmental excavations since the early 1980s at Ashmunein (Hermopolis) in Middle Egypt and at Tell el-Balamun in the Delta, have not resulted in additions to the Egyptian collections, but they have usefully extended the activities of the Department. But other excavations conducted by departmental staff for the Sudan Archaeological Research Society, have been more profitable as a result of enlightened policy of the Sudanese Department of Antiquities. Since the early nineteenth century the British Museum has received important material from the Sudan, like the Prudhoe lions in 1835. Budge successfully negotiated the acquisition of a large and important relief from the pyramid chapel of a female ruler at Meroe, dating to the second century BC. Many small objects, fine bronzes and some fine royal sculpture were obtained from the Oxford Expeditions to Nubia in 1912 (from Faras) and the 1930s (from Kawa). Excavations of the Egypt Exploration society at Sesebi and Amara before and after the Second World War, and at Buhen in the late 1950s-1960s continued the Nubian connection, and the current work in which the Egyptian Department is deeply involved, including survey and excavation in the stretch of the Nile Valley between the Third and Fourth Cataracts, has already achieved very positive results. There are excellent possibilities of important additions for the Nubian/Sudanese collection in coming years.

The size of the Egyptian collections now stands at over 100,000 objects, and it will continue to increase over the years as new acquisitions are made, principally from excavations, but also from donations and occasional purchase. For collections of this size and diversity it is rare that very important pieces will be available, or will fall within the range of what can be bought. Yet, from time to time objects worth acquiring will emerge from the obscurity of private collections; such was the monumental granite sarcophagus of the Fifth Dynasty, which was acquired in 1990, coming from a private collection in the North of England. Ornamented with panelled decoration, it was a significant addition to the Museum's collections; it was of a kind that even Budge failed to obtain during his vigorous campaign to acquire a representative series of funerary objects for the Museum. In its unexpected acquisition lies the expectation of further discoveries among the shadowy corners of old British collections. The time has not yet come to draw a line beneath the total of the Egyptian antiquities in the British Museum.