Collecting Ancient Egyptian antiquities during the First World War

By Mr James Donaldson (Manager/Curator, R D Milns Antiquities Museum, The University of Queensland) and Dr Brit Asmussen (Senior Curator, Archaeology, Cultures and Histories, Queensland Museum)

The First World War Antiquities Project (Queensland)

This blog is one in a series developed from research conducted during “The First World War Antiquities Project (Queensland)”, a collaborative project between the R.D. Milns Antiquities Museum, The University of Queensland, Brisbane and the Queensland Museum. This is the first systematic survey of antiquities collecting by Australian service personnel during the war.

Bric-a-brac of war

During the First World War, Australian service personnel were particularly zealous collectors, bringing home antiquities from all of the places they served. Here we overview the war service and antiquities souveniring activities of several service personnel who served in Egypt: and whose collections were donated to Queensland Museum. To find out more about the ethics of collecting antiquities during wartime, read our “Objects of War” blog post.  

Driver Leonard Dimmick   

Leonard Dimmick served in both the Second Boer War (1901-1902) and the First World War. He served as what was known as a Driver – a skilled horseman in charge of teams of horses, in the 2nd Light Horse Regiment at Gallipoli and Mudros. While in Egypt, Dimmick took the opportunity to see the sights, a newspaper reporting he had ‘excavated’ Roman coins near the Pyramids, which he then sent back to his father in Australia. Although digging for artefacts in this way was not legal in Egypt, it was a common pastime for soldiers during the war. They might undertake such diggings alone, but often were lead to a likely spot by a local guide, who had seeded the area with genuine and genuine-looking artefacts for unsuspecting service personnel to find. Unfortunately, Leonard did not survive the war, dying of dysentery and heart failure, and is buried in Egypt. In addition to the coins he sent home to his father, Leonard also acquired three scarabs and series of figurines, which were said to have been discovered near Mena Camp, close by the Pyramids.

Three coins that Leonard Dimmick sent back to his father, said to have been collected at Mena Camp, in 1915, © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

The coins, along with scarabs and figurines, were donated to the Queensland Museum by Leonard’s father, William Dimmick in 1923. In the donation letter, William Dimmick wrote, “My two sons who served in the 2nd light horse and 15th bat[allion]in Gallipoli met in Egypt before going on and spent Sunday afternoons digging among the graves for curios of which they sent me several small ones. The principal one is a seated female figure with a child on her knees (4”) by what I have read I suppose this represents Isis and Horus. As the son who sent this did not return, I have not been able to get any explanation.” Poignantly, the figure below is the very one mentioned in the letter by Leonard’s father. The central statuette shows Isis in her most well-known pose suckling Horus. Such statues were produced in large number and reflect the qualities for which Isis was most valued – as life-giver and protector. It is a modern reproduction, rather than a genuine antiquity.   

Statuette of Isis and Horus, said to be collected by Driver Dimmick © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

Scarabs, said to be collected by Driver Dimmick, Egypt, near Mena Army Camp, 1915. ©. Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.
Scarab with head of Sphinx (missing), collected by Driver Dimmick c 1915 © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

Private Frank Chenery  

Frank Chenery enlisted at 27 years of age, and spent his war in England and France, including seeing action at Villers-Bretonneux. The Chenery collection of First World War antiquities held in Queensland Museum consist of shabtis (figures acting as servants in the afterlife) and statuettes and a set of small ‘cats’ or ‘jackals’ These objects remained in Frank’s family after he passed away in 1973, and were donated by relatives in the 1980’s. Exactly how these objects were acquired by Frank remains a mystery: he never appears to have been to Egypt during his war service. They may have been bought by Chenery, or a fellow soldier on Chenery’s behalf.

Another interesting aspect about this collection is that the statues are not ‘authentic’ antiquities, they are very likely modern ‘fakes’ or replicas of authentic pieces. Such items were made by craftspeople for sale to unsuspecting visitors to Egypt, including First World War service personnel. This project has identified many collections which include both genuine and reproduction antiquities of varying quality. The jackals are undergoing further examination to determine their authenticity.

Collection of fake shabtis, figurines and ‘Anubis’ jackal figurines, Terracotta, AD 1900-1915. Said to have been collected by Pte. F Chenery, Egypt, 1917-18. © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

The sale of fakes to tourists was a well-known problem in 19th and 20th century Egypt. A useful guide to Egyptian forgeries was produced by a Dr Wakeling in the years before the First World War and includes many anecdotes about the sale of fakes to tourists, as well as many parallels to the types of shabtis shown here. Acquiring fakes wasn’t problematic from a legal standpoint, but an interesting line of inquiry is whether soldiers knew what they were purchasing wasn’t original. Selling replicas as genuine antiquities had been big-business in Egypt for hundreds of years. The large number of soldiers travelling through or training in Egypt would have been an absolute boon for souvenir sellers, including those selling ‘genuine’ antiquities and faux objects ‘inspired’ by the genuine antiquities. Although these are not authentic Egyptian antiquities, these are nevertheless important for the study of antiquities and replica trade.  The majority of objects collected during the war tend to be small, light and portable, such as the jackals, however, the statues are somewhat larger and this may suggest that they were posted home or brought back in luggage.

Private Gilbert Daveney

Gilbert Daveney enlisted at 50 years of age, and survived the war after serving only a few months in Egypt. He had seen earlier service in the Boer War, and as an experienced horseman, stayed behind from Gallipoli to service the Remount Lines at Ma’adi Camp. The Daveney collection consists of six ancient coins and a faience necklace, apparently acquired from “amidst Egyptian tombs near Heliopolis”. In July 1922 Gilbert donated these artefacts to the Queensland Museum where the coins are described as “mainly Roman”. The necklace is more unusual and is said to have been made up of tube and ring beads. Coins were commonly purchased as souvenirs by service personnel while on service in Egypt and are the most common type of artefact documented in this project. They could also have been discovered in the field while visiting ancient sites, as appears to be the case here, but this was not legal in Egypt at the time. However, purchasing antiquities from licensed dealers, including the Cairo Museum, was legal in Egypt during this period, although those making the laws were often Europeans with vested interests in the ongoing trade in antiquities. A pamphlet for soldiers published in 1915 even recommended visiting the Museum shop to by real finds, including coins.

Coins said to be collected by Pte. Daveny, collected from Egypt. © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

Sapper John H. Lowe

John Lowe enlisted quite late in the war after a call for specialist telegraph operators in 1917. Lowe spent most of his war in Palestine, but travelled to Egypt on leave and collected two fragments of ‘alabaster’ said to be from the pyramids, and four fragments of ‘limestone’ from the Sphinx.  He wrote his loved ones at home: “Well I saw the pyramids but they are nothing to tear your shirt over. You have seen dozens of photos of them so I won’t describe them. They were originally covered with alabaster but it is nearly all fallen off. I have two small lumps of it. I went to the Sphinx, walked around the back of the neck and knocked two chips off the back of his head. I also inscribed my name in large letters (with blue pencil) on his bald spot”.  While in serving in the Middle East, Lowe also collected some religiously themed items, including bark and acorns from the Oak of Mamre or Abraham’s Oak near Hebron in Palestine, and glass beads representing the Hand of God (on display in the Anzac Legacy Gallery on Level 1 of Queensland Museum.)

Two pieces of alabaster said to be from the Pyramids, and pieces of limestone from the Sphinx, collected from Egypt, by Sapper John H. Lowe © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

Officer George H Bourne

George Herbert Bourne was commanding officer of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment from 1916 until the end of the First World War. He saw service at Gallipoli and in the Sinai and Palestine campaign, and spent time in Egypt where he visited museums and archaeological sites. The shaped and polished piece of Egyptian alabaster (calcite) is said to be from ‘The Tombs of the Queens at Luxor’. The Valley of the Queens, situated on the Western bank at Thebes (Luxor) contains the tombs of royal wives and their children. The tombs are made up of a small antechamber leading to a narrow corridor, which in turn leads to the burial chamber. The largest and most lavishly decorated tomb is that of Nefertari, the favoured wife of Pharoah Ramesses II. Bourne also collected an illustration depicting the Shellal mosaic.

Alabaster said to be from “The Tombs of the Queens” Collected by G H Bourne © Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

This blog is developed from research conducted during “The First World War Antiquities Project (Queensland)”, a collaborative project between the R.D. Milns Antiquities Museum, The University of Queensland, and the Queensland Museum. This is the first Australian survey of antiquities collecting by Australian service personnel during the First World War.

We sincerely thank the descendants and families of John Lowe and Leonard Dimmick for their support and assistance.   

Please contact the RD Milns Museum about antiquities of interest to the project: Mr James Donaldson, Manager/Curator, RD Milns Antiquities Museum, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry or 07 3365 7490.