Ipswich's answer to Tutankhamun

MAY is national Museums and Galleries Month, encouraging you to discover what they have to offer. Fresh back from a trip to Egypt, features editor TRACEY SPARLING discovers Ipswich's answer to Tutankhamun.

By Tracey Sparling

MAY is national Museums and Galleries Month, encouraging you to discover what they have to offer. Fresh back from a trip to Egypt, features editor TRACEY SPARLING discovers Ipswich's answer to Tutankhamun.

JUST two weeks ago I was lucky enough to see the most famous mask in the world, Tutankhamun's blue and gold icon at the Cairo Museum.

I stood with the crowd, awestruck by its gleaming but haunting beauty, trying to get my head round the fact that it was 30 centuries old - yet so pristine. I had no idea that back home in Ipswich, our town's museum held a similar treasure.

Gilded in gold, with decorations almost as bright as the day they were painted, a striking Egyptian mummy mask takes centre stage in a room at the High Street museum. Ipswich has its own globally-important collection of Egyptian treasures - some donated by none other than Howard Carter who discovered Tutankhamun's tomb.

Ipswich's golden mask was unearthed by William Flinders Petrie, in a cemetery from the Roman period at Hawara in Egypt. It was found nestled among a rich collection of painted and gilded masks, which showed that the fascination and tradition of Egyptian funeral culture remained almost unchanged long after the Pharaohs ceased to rule.

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The mask belonged to a Greek man Titus Flavios Demetrios (named after the emperor Titus) who probably died early in the 2nd century AD, and reflects what he looked like. Masks were a very important aspect of ancient Egyptian burials because they provided the dead with a face in the afterlife. The Egyptians also believed a mask helped the spirit to recognize the body.

“It's my favourite piece in the museum,” admitted Philip Wise heritage manager for Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service.

“Just to be able to see this portrait of somebody who lived 2000 years ago is remarkable. You get this direct, immediate relationship with his face.”

Beyond the aesthetics, this mask harbours a historical importance. Philip said: “It is almost the last of its type to be produced. It's extremely rare and there are only one or two in the British Museum.

“It features images of Egyptian gods, yet very shortly after it was made in around 120 AD, people in Egypt became Christian.

“We are also lucky enough to know who it was made for. Titus was a Roman citizen of Greek descent, who had been living in Egypt, so his mask was designed in Egyptian fashion and decorated by a Greek painter - or at least been influenced by Greek painting. The details of the painting is exquisite and I particularly like the hawk painted to represent the Egyptian god Horus, which is in itself a beautiful little scene.”

Alongside the mask are a mummy's wooden coffin, and various other tomb finds including deities, jars, knives, arrows and a model boat - which had all been placed in tombs to help the deceased move on to the afterlife they believed in.

Howard Carter who excavated Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt, gave some of his other finds to museums across the country. Things were organised differently in the 1920s and he was allowed to remove a certain number of objects and give them to museums - he gave some to Ipswich Museum.

Philip said: “Outside London this is the finest collection of Egyptian archaeology in the country. We plan to open an Egyptian Gallery upstairs and bring a mummy from Colchester Museum here. In the coming months and years we want to make the most of this collection. It's a very exciting time and I hope people will take the opportunity to see this nationally-important collection at its best.”

The theme for this month-long event is: 'Try it, you might be surprised!' - a theme which has sparked some events at Colchester and Ipswich Museums.

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Friday to Monday A special 'Welcome Weekend' will begin the activities and includes talks, trails and workshops.

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Saturday Egyptians Adventurers' Day at Ipswich Museum, High Street - A chance to make your own clay sphinx, mummify your friends and family, make your own mask and hear tales and stories from ancient Egypt.

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Sunday 'Victorians at the Mansion' - Meet characters from Victorian days at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich and take part in some well-loved pastimes from the era.

Call 01473 433 550 or see www.ipswich.gov.uk/Services/Museums for more details.

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If you want to head further afield in pursuit of Egyptian treasures this year, Tutankhamun and The Golden Age of the Pharoahs will open at the O2 Centre in Greenwich, London on November 15.