Tests Show Museum's 5000-Year-Old Egyptian Vase Is For Real

By David Prudames | 05 August 2004
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Shows a photograph of a tall ceramic vase on which has been painted a figure lying in a foetal position on a boat.

Photo: its good condition has made experts think it might be a fake, but could this vase really be one of the earliest depictions of an Egyptian burial on a ceramic vessel? © Harrogate District Council.

For over 30 years it was considered a fake, but recent tests have revealed that a vase owned by Harrogate Museums may well be one of the earliest ever depictions of an Egyptian burial on a ceramic vessel.

A question mark has hung over the painted vase since it was donated to Harrogate Museums Service in 1968. Experts thought its remarkable condition meant it must be a fake.

But tests carried out by experts at York University have dated the vase back 5,000 years to Egypt’s Pre-dynastic era.

"You get quite used to dealing with old objects in museums," Ceryl Evans, Head of Museums and Arts for Harrogate District Council told the 24 Hour Museum.

"But this one brought that little shiver of delight to all the staff."

Shows a photograph of an elaborately decorated sarcophagus.

Photo: the vase is part of a small but significant collection of Egyptian antiquities held by Harrogate Museums. © Harrogate District Council.

A local collector bequeathed the vase to Harrogate Museums Service in 1968 along with various Egyptian statues, stone carvings and a complete sarcophagus, which had been excavated during the late 19th and early 20th century.

However, with no chips and the red paint depiction of a figure in the foetus position on a boat still bright and vivid, the general consensus of experts was that it was probably a fake.

"They weren’t saying it was definitely a fake, but there was a question mark over its provenance," explained Ceryl. It was the paint, she said, that caused the most concern.

It seems that, eager to capitalise on the 19th and early 20th century European obsession with antiquities, unscrupulous dealers and agents would, in Ceryl’s words, "tart something up to make it more exciting".

While the vase may have been a genuine artefact from ancient Egypt, the suggestion was that its decoration was likely to have been the work of a crafty individual with an eye for a deal.

Shows a photograph of a stone slab, into which images and hieroglyphics have been carved.

Photo: © Harrogate District Council.

But, using the very latest technology, scientists from York University were able to take tiny samples of both the paint and microscopic dust particles on the surface of the vase.

The results show that far from being a modern trick by con artists, both the vase and painting on it date back to around 3,200 BC, making them older than the pyramids at Giza.

Coupled with the fact that some early Egyptian burials are thought to have placed the dead in a foetal position rather than mummifying, this makes the vase a very significant artefact.

Experts now consider it to be potentially one of the earliest known depictions of an Egyptian burial on a ceramic vessel.

The vase will be on display from August 6 as part of a small display of Harrogate Museums Service’s archaeological collections.

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