HAVING tragically died before the full bloom of youth, the body of the boy priest Hatemui was meticulously prepared for that final journey through the darkest chasms of the Underworld in anticipation of attaining the ultimate, eternal goal… a place in the Afterlife.
But while his soul – or “ka” – may well have ascended that spiritual realm so central to the sacred beliefs of many age old religions, his mortal remains, by some peculiar quirk of fate, wound up at a somewhat less celestial location… Swindon.
Not even the Ancient Egyptians, with their powerful Gods, revered, all-knowing priests and mysterious rites and rituals, could have anticipated that one. Today, some 2,300 or so years after sadly slipping his mortal coil at the age of between nine and 13, Hatemui is Swindon’s oldest resident.
But how do the mummified remains of a fledgling priest from the Land of the Pharaohs (31st Dynasty, or thereabouts) – complete with colourful, ornately patterned wooden sarcophagus – end up in Swindon? Good question.
Raised in all likelihood by a wealthy family, Hatemui lived during Ancient Egypt’s Late Period of 350-305BC; 1,000 years after the elaborate entombment of Tutankhamun, three centuries before the reign of Cleopatra, and shortly before Alexander the Great’s Conquest of Egypt.
From the hieroglyphics inscribed on his brightly painted sycamore sarcophagus/coffin we know the boy’s name and that of his mother – Tashentnetaihet.
The inscription also seeks the protection during his journey to the Afterlife of Osiris, God of the Dead.
As well as being able to roughly date the mummy, experts say that it probably came from a tomb in one of the ancient cemeteries of Luxor, site of the famed City of Thebes and close to the Valley of the Kings: an area widely regarded as “the world’s greatest open air museum”.
While his youthful death remains a mystery, X-rays revealed a fractured skull, indicating that Hatemui was dropped following his passing – possibly by priests while removing his brain during the mummification process.
But what about that arduous journey of an estimated 2,500 miles by land and sea from the arid desert of Upper Egypt to the green fields of Wiltshire?
It is believed the mummy was collected during the early 19th Century by an English gentleman engaged on the Grand Tour – a traditional rite-of-passage undertaken by upper-class young men in search of art, culture and other interesting stuff.
The tour traditionally concluded in Southern Italy, so in all likelihood the remains of Swindon’s future mummy were transported to that country across the Mediterranean and sold to an English aristo as a must-have souvenir – relics of Ancient Egypt being all the rage at the time. What is known is that Hatemui eventually found his way to a country house in Devizes and then went on show in the town centre, eventually coming to the attention of Swindon’s assiduous collector of all things exotic, interesting and just plain wacky, Charles Gore.
Former GWR coach builder turned men’s clothier Gore (1866-1951) is one of those singular characters whose influence, over the decades, can still be felt today.
Throughout his adult life he fervently collected anything of interest that he could lay his hands on: fossils, military regalia, Roman coins, prehistoric arrowheads, stuffed animals… If the term had existed a century ago then he would almost certainly have been diagnosed with a mild form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
So all-encompassing was Gore’s ever-growing hoard of artefacts that he was fast running out of places to store them. Also, people kept knocking on his door asking to come in and have a look.
So in 1919 he offered the lot to Swindon town council and the people of Swindon.
Allotted a former Unitarian chapel in Regent Circus, a lifetime’s worth of ardent collecting reached a satisfactory conclusion for Gore in 1920 when he was appointed curator of Swindon’s first museum.
But the ex-place of worship wasn’t big enough for a snowballing cluster of exhibits and a decade later he carted it all to Apsley House, Bath Road (with its grand Doric portico) where the museum exists today. Having been acquired by an excited Gore in 1922, Hatemui spent the first eight years of his Swindon residency in the old chapel before going on display in Bath Road.
For some 70 years the mummy found itself in a room surrounded by an unlikely assortment of bedfellows: a collection of bone china, a gold leaf painted Buddhist shrine, an antique bassoon, a German army helmet.
In September, 2001, however, things began to look up for our most senior citizen. A display room resembling an Egyptian Tomb – reminding him, no doubt, of old times back in Luxor – was specially created.
I was lucky enough to witness the transference, up a flight of tricky stairs, of the fragile Hatemui in an operation that took five people three hours to achieve. A box was constructed around the mummy to ensure its safe conveyance.
Museum curator at the time Isobel Thompson said: “We have padded the whole thing out to make him nice and secure. Hopefully he will feel more comfortable in his new home.”
Overseeing the enterprise, Wiltshire council conservationist Lynne Wootten added: “These are very old human remains. We have to ensure that the head remains attached to the body!”
Now the mummified boy priest is set for another move after Swindon council last month approved a scheme to create a much anticipated cultural hub in the vicinity of the Wyvern Theatre.
At its heart will be a new museum and art gallery that will see the complete transference of the town’s highly rated collection of modern art, along with thousands of disparate museum exhibits, from the cramped Bath Road premises to a spacious, spanking new home. After around 90 years in Old Town Hatemui will once more be housed in the town centre. That’s right – The Mummy Returns.
The Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, Bath Road, Old Town opens Wednesday to Saturday, free of charge, between 10am-5pm Tel: 01793 466556 Website: www.swindon.gov.uk/museumandartgallery
- During 30 years as a dental technician at Princess Margaret Hospital in Swindon Roger Lawrence undertook some fairly tricky tasks.
But none quite so unusual – or in this case downright bizarre – as the day he was summoned to the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.
His talents for rebuilding teeth were urgently required by the museum’s most popular resident, its fearsome 16ft Indian gharial.
The big-bellied creature, akin to a crocodile, is allegedly one of the largest stuffed specimens of its kind in the UK.
It once boasted a set of menacing gnashers but over the years around a third of its pegs had been wrenched out, somewhat disrespectfully, by children.
Today Roger, 80, who has long since retired and lives in Purton, recalls: “Its jaws were in a poor state. I had to make 34 new plastic teeth for the gharial and then fix them all in.
“It’s not every day you get asked to do some dental work like that; so yes, I remember it well. I made the old boy look respectable again.”