A Newly-discovered Royal Diadem of the Second Intermediate Period
Nicholas Reeves
Minerva, vol. 7, no. 2 (March-April 1996), pp. 47-48

(p. 47) Among the best-known Egyptian treasures of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden is an inlaid diadem of silver and gold, fashioned in the form of a "boatman’s fillet" and associated, by tradition, with the Dra Abu’l-Naga burial of King Nubkheperre Intef of the 17th Dynasty (c. 1650-1550 BC). An early and important find from the pioneering days of Egyptology, the Leiden crown was for long considered unique. Now - and quite unexpectedly - a second diadem of similar type has come to light, not in the course of excavation in Egypt, but from the dusty recesses of an obscure and forgotten English private collection. The piece was disposed of in the 1950s by a provincial museum, where a year or two earlier it had been noticed by a now senior British Egyptologist. The indications are that the new diadem may have arrived in England more than a century ago, perhaps close to the time the Intef crown reached the Netherlands. Surprisingly, in the interim, it
has escaped any published notice whatsoever.

Description and Technology

Fashioned wholly in silver, the new diadem has an average diameter of 19 centimetres and a maximum overall height of 15 centimetres. Perhaps lightly cleaned at some stage, waxed and now again darkened by age, it displays the same excellent, flexible condition as the Leiden crown. A single small area of corrosion may be discerned on the outer surface of one of the pendant streamers, conceivably where it made contact with the floor of the coffin in which the diadem had evidently been found. The three component parts of the new diadem are as follows: A circlet - chisel-cut and chased with characteristic, Second Intermediate Period "basket-weave" decoration (paralleled, for example, on the coffin of Nubkheperre Intef in the British Museum and on other rishi-decorated (p. 48) coffins and masks of the period); a floral bow with pendant streamers - chisel-cut from a single sheet, attached at and securing the join of the circlet by means of three hollow(?) rivets (one now replaced with a short length of wire) and decorated with incised surface detail; twin uraeus serpents - each hammered from the solid, shaped by filing and embellished by surface tooling, and each attached at the brow by two further hollow(?) rivets (one now missing). Overall, the workmanship is fairly rudimentary, in common with much extant jewellery of Second Intermediate Period date. The technology follows extremely closely that of the Leiden crown, the principal difference being that in the construction of the present diadem there is no evidence for the use of solder. The antiquity of the Leiden solder is in any case debatable.

Examination of the new diadem’s surface by X-ray fluorescence (XRF) confirms that the composition of the metal is ancient and wholly consistent with 17th Dynasty metallurgy. Interestingly, a significant difference may be discerned between the low-gold and low-copper composition of the flat sheet sections (silver 96.7- 97.0 percent, copper 2.0-2.5 percent, gold 0.4-0.7 percent, lead 0.3 percent, with traces of bismuth) and the higher-gold and higher-copper alloy of the uraei (silver 89.2-90.2 percent, copper 6.6-6.8 percent, gold 2.6-2.9 percent, lead 0.3-0.4 percent, again with traces of bismuth) - which latter, it may be noted, in certain lights exhibit a slight gold tinge. The use of differing alloys in the manufacture of a single object is frequent in ancient jewellery, where more than one metal-source could be utilised for the various elements - as for example, with the distinct alloys of the gold shank and bezel of the massive 18th Dynasty "Ashburnham Ring" in the British Museum (Reeves, in Jour. Eg. Arch. 79 (1993), 259-61).
One surprising feature highlighted by a scientific examination of the new diadem is that the fine surface decoration of the uraeus hoods appears to be "engraved", in the sense that metal has actually been removed rather than merely displaced as in chasing. The Leiden uraeus exhibits a similar technique. Once considered a feature characteristic of late or post-pharaonic work employing iron tools, engraving has, nonetheless, now been identified as early as the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200- 2040 BC) on a gold button-seal in the British

Museum, and, supposedly, in jewellery from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Further research is necessary before its employment at this early date can be fully understood, but the existence of engraving of sorts before the introduction of iron tools now seems certain.

Ownership and Provenance

That the diadem was prepared for royal use, like the Leiden circlet, is indicated by the uraei which decorate the brow; the use of silver, which is usually held to have been much rarer in Egypt than gold at the time the piece was made, similarly reflects the importance of its original owner. Unless the Leiden diadem was originally fitted with a second gold uraeus, now lost and leaving no visible trace on the circlet, the occurrence of two brow-serpents rather than one should identify the owner of the new diadem as a queen - though, if so, we have here its earliest attestation. The first occurrence hitherto noted for the employment of the double uraeus by a queen appears to be in the early 18th Dynasty tomb of Tetiky (no. 15) at Thebes, where, in the painted scenes of the tomb-chapel, it is worn by Ahmose-Nofretiri; the device is employed by several queens sporadically thereafter, in particular Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III, Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaten, and Nofretiri (Nefertari), wife of Ramesses II.

Pursuing this lead, we discover that only one queen’s burial appears so far to have been uncovered in the Second Intermediate Period royal necropolis at Thebes: that of Mentuhotep, Great Royal Wife of the ephemeral 17th Dynasty king Sekhemre-sementawy Djehuty. The documentation relating to the Mentuhotep find is scanty, but the queen’s tomb appears to have been found, substantially intact, at the suuthern end of Dra Abu’I-Naga by local diggers during the early years of the nineteenth century. Its contents were dispersed: Mentuhotep’s toilet box (originally prepared as a canopic chest for the burial of King Djehuty, and seemingly presented by him for her use as a funerary cosmetic chest), is now in the Berlin Museum, having been acquired by the Italian excavator Giuseppe Passalacqua sometime between 1822 and 1825; while the queen’s wooden coffin, now lost to sight, was seen at Thebes in 1832 by the Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson, who copied its texts and noted its shrine-shaped form. Any uninscribed material from the tomb outside these defined groups will presumably remain unidentified.
The excellent condition of the newly-discovered diadem would indicate that it, too, had been taken from an undisturbed burial, where it had presumably been positioned, like the Leiden crown, over the bandaged head of the coffined mummy, away from the corrosive effects of the body and the salty desert sand. Given the apparent queenly nature of the piece, and the paucity of suitable candidates for its ownership, it requires no great leap of faith to conclude that cosmetic box, coffin and crown may well have shared a common origin.

The possibility that the diadem’s first owner was none other than Queen Mentuhotep herself is intriguing, and seems, for the moment, to fit the available facts. We can only hope that further light will, in time, be shed to confirm the origins of this rare and extraordinary object, one of the most significant additions to the corpus of early Egyptian royal funerary jewellery for many years.

Dr Nicholas Reeves, FSA, is the author of Valley of the Kings and The Complete Tutankhamun.



Figs 1-2 The newly-discovered Egyptian silver diadem. D: 19 cm. Photos: Douglas A. Howden.

Figs 3-4 The Leiden diadem, of silver with gold uraeus and glass or faience inlays. Reg. no. AO. 11a. D: 18 cm. Photos courtesy of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.


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