Ancient Egyptian treasure discovered at British private school after being mistaken for a potato

A student at a private school in Scotland who was sent to dig up potatoes as punishment ended up discovering a mysterious treasure from ancient Egypt.

The first of a series of remarkable discoveries at Melville House in Fife between 1952 and 1984 are being reported in full for the first time by experts at National Museums Scotland.

The finds began when the boy from the house, then Dalhousie Castle private school, dug up and hit a mid-12th Dynasty red sandstone statue head, which he initially mistook for a potato.

Fourteen years later, more treasure was discovered by a boy during a PE lesson, before, in 1984, another object was found by a team with a metal detector.

In total, 18 objects have been discovered, most of which are in the collection of the National Museums of Scotland.

Dr Elizabeth Goring, who has since investigated the site, said: “The excavation and investigation of these finds at Melville House was the most extraordinary project of my archaeological career and I am delighted to now tell the story in full.

Sandstone head of a male statue, mid 12th Dynasty (ca. 1922-1874 BC)

(National Museums Scotland)

“The discovery of ancient Egyptian artefacts in Fife is clearly unexpected and the subsequent research to determine the provenance of the collection has provided a fascinating story, albeit with more mysteries that may never be solved.”

After the first discovery, in 1966, an Egyptian bronze votive statuette of an Apis bull was found in the garden when a boy participating in a vault exercise during a PE lesson landed on the statuette, which protruded from the ground.

The supervising teacher, who happened to be the same boy who had found the sandstone head in 1952, brought the object to the Museum for identification.

Upper half of a shabti from a faience inscription for a man named Hor-sa-Iset, Late Period (ca. 664-332 BC)

(National Museums Scotland)

In 1984, students found another ancient treasure – an Egyptian bronze figurine of a man – using a metal detector and brought it to the museum.

It then became clear to museum experts that the three items were linked and that there had once been a collection associated with Melville House.

Lead bronze priest figurine, Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1069-656 BC)

(National Museums Scotland)

Dr. Goring, a new curator at the museum at the time, investigated the site and discovered a number of other artifacts. These included a faience figurine of the goddess Isis nursing her son Horus on part of a faience plaque bearing the Eye of Horus.

Nearly 40 years later, experts now have a possible explanation for how these items ended up buried at Melville House.

Volunteers from NMS and Balfarg working in the grounds of Melville House, 1984

(National Museums Scotland)

They suggest that the objects were acquired by Alexander, Lord Balgonie (1831-1857) the heir to the estate who visited Egypt in 1856 with his two sisters to try to improve his poor health after falling ill during service in the Crimea war.

During this period in Egypt, consuls and merchants would visit hotels or passing boats to sell antiquities, so it is possible that the objects were transported in a Balgonie bed or that his sisters assembled the collection.

On their return to the UK, they may have been held for a time at Melville House before being placed in an outbuilding. It is possible that they were either forgotten in the immediate grief of young Balgoni's death or abandoned as a very painful memory of the journey.

Eventually, the outbuilding in which they had been deposited was demolished and these long-forgotten items passed unnoticed in the building's debris.

Fragment of a faience plaque depicting the Eye of Horus, Late or Ptolemaic period (ca. 664-30 BC)

(National Museums Scotland)

Dr Margaret Maitland, Principal Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at National Museums Scotland, said: “This is a fascinating collection, made all the more so by the mystery surrounding its origin in this country.

“The discovery of Egyptian artefacts buried in Scotland for over a hundred years is testament to the scale of the 19th century antiquities collection and its complex history.

“It was an exciting challenge to research and identify such a diverse range of objects, including some remarkable objects – the bronze statuette of the priest is a relatively rare form, while the sandstone statue head is a masterpiece of Egyptian sculpture.”