How an ancient Egyptian artefact was discovered in Aberdeen - and what it is?

In a miraculous case of ‘the right place at the right time’ an Egyptian researcher at the University of Aberdeen has discovered an ancient artefact which has been missing for over a century.

Wooden splits found in a cigar tin in the university’s Asia collection, could have been mistaken for something insignificant.

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But the relic has now been confirmed as belonging to the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

So why is the discovery so important, and how did the artefact end up in Aberdeen of all places?

What is the missing artefact?

The wooden fragments of the relic date back to somewhere between 3341-3094BC, making it around 5000 years old.

The cedar wood pieces are part of the Dixon Relics, originally discovered in the pyramid’s Queens Chamber in 1872 by engineer Waynman Dixon.

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Some have speculated that the piece of cedar was originally a measuring rule which may have been used for construction of the pyramid.

What are the other Dixon Relics?

The other two artefacts which make up the collection are a ball and hook.

They are now housed in the British Museum.

How did the artefact end up in Aberdeen?

It is thought that engineer Dixon befriended James Grant, a medical student at the university, after they met in Egypt while Grant was helping with an outbreak of cholera in the 1860s.

Grant then assisted Dixon with the exploration of the Great Pyramid, where they discovered the relics in 1872.

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During this time, Dixon gave the cedar wood to Grant and it remained in his possession until his death in 1895, when the rest of his collections were then donated to the University of Aberdeen.

However, the wooden splints remained with his daughter until 1946 when she then handed them over to the university.

There was no classified record of this donation and so there was no official record of the artefact being stored there among the hundreds of thousands of other pieces of history stored in various collections.

Who discovered the missing piece in Aberdeen?

In 2001, a record indicating that the wood fragment may have been donated to the University of Aberdeen's museum collection was discovered.

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However, the record had never been classified and the artefacts never materialised, until they showed up in 2019.

While Egyptian researcher and curatorial assistant Abeer Eladany, was sorting through the Asia collection at the university, she recognised a cigar tin with the former Egyptian flag on it.

After cross-referencing the fragments inside with other records, she recognised them as the missing artefact.

The archaeologist, originally from Egypt, said of her discovery: ”I'm an archaeologist and have worked on digs in Egypt but I never imagined it would be here in north-east Scotland that I'd find something so important to the heritage of my own country.

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"It may be just a small fragment of wood, which is now in several pieces, but it is hugely significant given that it is one of only three items ever to be recovered from inside the Great Pyramid.

“The university’s collections are vast – running to hundreds of thousands of items – so looking for it has been like finding a needle in a haystack. I couldn’t believe it when I realised what was inside this innocuous-looking cigar tin.”

Despite the artefacts being discovered in 2019, coronavirus held up the dating of the wood, but results now show it can be dated to somewhere in the period 3341-3094BC.

What is the Pyramid of Giza?

The Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in a complex bordering Giza in Greater Cairo, Egypt.

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Dating back to around 3000 B.C., it is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as well as the only one still remaining as it appeared thousands of years ago.

It originally stood 146.5 metres high, making it the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years - until the Lincoln Cathedral was built in 1311.

The pyramid is made up of three chambers - the Lower Chamber, the Queen’s Chamber and the King’s Chamber.

It was initially thought that the pyramid was built for Pharaoh Khufu - however, the dating of the cedar wood artefact could call this into question as they are thought to date back to 500 years before Khufu was born.

Why is the discovery so important?

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The new dating of the cedar wood raises questions about the history of the pyramid, as they date back to some 500 years earlier than it was believed the Egyptian pyramid was built.

The pyramid is the last Wonder of the Ancient World which is largely intact and the relics are one of only three remaining original objects from the time the pyramid was built.

Neil Curtis, head of museums and special collections at the University of Aberdeen, said: "Finding the missing Dixon relic was a surprise but the carbon dating has also been quite a revelation.

"It is even older than we had imagined. This may be because the date relates to the age of the wood, maybe from the centre of a long-lived tree.

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"Alternatively, it could be because of the rarity of trees in ancient Egypt, which meant that wood was scarce, treasured and recycled or cared for over many years.

"This discovery will certainly reignite interest in the Dixon relics and how they can shed light on the Great Pyramid."