A lost artefact from the Great Pyramid dating back around 5,000 years has been discovered in a cigar tin in a university collection.
The fragment of cedar wood was one of only three objects ever recovered from inside the pyramid at Giza in Egypt after they were discovered in the Queens Chamber in 1872 by the engineer Waynman Dixon.
Two of them – a ball and hook – are now housed in the British Museum but the piece of wood had been missing for more than a century.
In 2001, a record was discovered which indicated the wood fragment may have been donated to the University of Aberdeen’s museum collections but it had never been classified and could not be found.
At the end of last year, curatorial assistant Abeer Eladany, from Egypt, made an unexpected discovery while she was conducting a review of items housed in the university’s Asia collection.
The archaeologist found a cigar tin with Egypt’s former flag on the top which did not seem to belong in the Asian collection and, after cross-referencing it with other records, realised it was the lost fragment, now in several pieces.
She said: “Once I looked into the numbers in our Egypt records, I instantly knew what it was and that it had effectively been hidden in plain sight in the wrong collection.
“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.
“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.”
Covid restrictions delayed the dating of the cedar fragment but recently-returned results show the wood can be dated to somewhere in the period 3341-3094BC – some 500 years earlier than historical records which date the Great Pyramid to the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu in 2580-2560BC.
This supports the idea that the Dixon relics were used during the construction of the Great Pyramid and were not later artefacts left behind by those exploring the chambers.
It is thought the fragment may have been donated to the University of Aberdeen’s museum collections as a result of a connection between Dixon and James Grant, who studied medicine at the university and in the mid-1860s went to Egypt to help with an outbreak of cholera.
There, he befriended Dixon and went on to help him with the exploration of the Great Pyramid, where they discovered the relics.
Following Grant’s death in 1895, his collections were bequeathed to the university while the “five inch piece of cedar” was donated by his daughter in 1946.
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.
“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.”