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Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Philae obelisk at Kingston Lacy

Philae, a robotic probe, landed on a distant comet today. The European Space Agency hopes that the information that it gathers will help scientists understand the early development of the Solar System.

It shares its name with the Philae obelisk which stands at Kingston Lacy. The inscriptions on this obelisk helped Georgian scholars to understand Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Philae obelisk, Kingston Lacy
Philae obelisk, Kingston Lacy
Discovery of the Philae obelisk

The Philae obelisk was discovered by William John Bankes on his first journey into Egypt in 1815. The pink granite needle was one of a pair in front of the Temple of Isis on Philae, an island in the Nile. The island has since been flooded as a result of the building of the Aswan Dam. Giovanni Finati acted as Bankes' guide and his travel journals give details of some of Bankes’ excavations.

William John Bankes Portrait at Kingston Lacy
William John Bankes
Portrait at Kingston Lacy
Finati wrote that Bankes
“by the light of his candles at night found an inscription in it that had never been observed up to that time. It was also during this short stay that he first brought to light the granite pedestal of the obelisk, which has more than twenty lines upon it in the Greek character; this was buried altogether below the surface; but the probable position of it was conjectured from the obelisk lying near the spot, and search was made there accordingly. Some steps were taken, even then, towards the removal of this monument; but, for want of proper tackle, it was abandoned for that time.” (1)
On his second journey into Egypt in 1818-19, Bankes’ party included Henry Beechey, son of Sir William Beechey, the famous portrait painter; Dr Alessandro Ricci; Louis Linant de Bellefonds, a French midshipman; and Giovanni Belzoni. After starting out as a performing strong man at Sadler’s Wells, Belzoni had become a hydraulic engineer specialising in the excavation of Egyptian antiquities.

A disastrous attempt

Bankes employed Belzoni to take the Philae obelisk back to his family home of Kingston Lacy in Dorset, England.

Kingston Lacy, Dorset
Kingston Lacy, Dorset
The operation was fraught with difficulties and the first attempt to remove the obelisk ended in disaster. Finati wrote:
“Meanwhile the obelisk had been brought on rollers to the water's edge, and a boat below to receive it; all hands were at work, and five minutes more would have sufficed to set it afloat; when all at once the temporary pier built for it gave way under the pressure, and the monument plunged end long into the river almost out of sight.” (1)
A striking descent

Belzoni tried again with more success. Finati wrote:
“Mr Bankes said little, but was evidently disgusted by the accident, and set sail within a day or two afterwards, leaving me to witness Mr Belzoni's further operations respecting it. These were certainly conducted with great skill, though not quite without injury, and the scene of its actual descent down the cataract (2) (the passage being at that time narrower, and the fall more considerable, from the decrease of the Nile) was very striking, the great boat wheeling and swinging round, and half filling with water, while naked figures were crowding upon all the rocks, or wading or swimming between them, some shouting, and some pulling at the guide ropes, and the boat-owner throwing himself on the ground, scattering dust upon his head, and hiding his face. The danger, if any, was but for a few seconds, the equilibrium was recovered, and the mass glided smoothly and majestically onwards with the stream.” (1)
The obelisk arrived in England in 1821 and the Duke of Wellington offered to send a gun carriage to transport it to Kingston Lacy.

Duke of Wellington by William Salter (c1839) in the NPG
Duke of Wellington
by William Salter (c1839) in the NPG
The pedestal

The excavation of the obelisk’s pedestal was equally difficult. Finati wrote:
“The only commission left with me, was to see to the removal of the Greek pedestal belonging to the obelisk, from the spot where it had been left by Belzoni” but “the inundation (3) had already put the stone quite under water and out of sight, which rendered useless both the tackle and the boat that I had brought with me on purpose. For unfortunately, Mr Belzoni, fearing fresh disputes as to Mr Bankes's property in this pedestal, (though the original and uncontested finder of it,) had, in default of means for sending it at once down the cataract, carried it across from Philae to a low sand bank opposite, and there laid it on its so little judgment, that the smallest rise of the river must inevitably cover it, and make the transport impossible, during all those months of the year when the passage by water is the easiest, and it was owing to this, that, at length, after more than two years, it was found to be the best expedient to drag it by land, till it could be shipped below the rapids.” (1)
The Philae obelisk in the garden of Kingston Lacy
The Philae obelisk in the garden of Kingston Lacy
The platform

Finati noted that:
“This platform consists of four blocks only of red granite, and had served, without doubt, as the base to some obelisk now destroyed.” (1)
It was not until 1829 that Linant de Bellefonds, who had accompanied Bankes on his second trip to Egypt, sent what was left of the matching obelisk and the three huge steps of granite from Maharraga which were used to make the platform.(4)
 
Finati wrote:
“The heaviest block weighs nearly eleven tons, and was not removed till 1822, nor brought to England till 1829, when nineteen horses were required to drag it to its position at Kingston Hall.” (1)
It was damaged in transit and had to be repaired using some granite from the ruins of Leptis Magna – a prominent city in the Roman Empire situated in what is now Libya – given to Bankes for the purpose by George IV.

The inscription around the bottom of the Philae obelisk, Kingston Lacy
The inscription around the bottom of the Philae obelisk, Kingston Lacy
A monument to tax exemption!

The Duke of Wellington chose the spot in the garden, south of the house, for the site of the obelisk. He laid the foundation stone in 1827, but it was not until 1839 that the obelisk was finally erected.

The inscription written around the bottom of the obelisk reads as follows:

THIS SPOT WAS CHOSEN
AND THE FIRST STONE OF THE FOUNDATION LAID BY
ARTHUR DUKE OF WELLINGTON
AUGUST 17 1827.

WILLIAM JOHN BANKES ESQ MP ELDEST SON OF HENRY BANKES ESQ MP (5)
CAUSED THIS OBELISK AND THIS PEDESTAL FROM WHICH IT HAD FALLEN
TO BE REMOVED UNDER THE DIRECTION OF G BELZONI IN 1818
FROM THE ISLAND OF PHILAE BEYOND THE FIRST CATARACT
AND BROUGHT THIS PLATFORM FROM THE RUINS OF HIERASYCAMINON
IN NUBIA.

THE GRANITE USED IN THE REPARATION OF THIS MONUMENT
WAS BROUGHT FROM THE REMAINS OF LEPTIS MAGNA IN AFRICA
AND WAS GIVEN FOR THAT PURPOSE BY HIS MAJESTY
KING GEORGE IV.

THE INSCRIPTIONS ON THIS OBELISK AND PEDESTAL RECORD
THEIR DEDICATION TO KING PTOLEMY EUERGETES II
AND TWO CLEOPATRAS HIS QUEENS
WHO AUTHORIZED THE PRIESTS OF ISIS IN THE ISLE OF PHILAE
TO ERECT THEM ABOUT 150 YEARS BC
AS A PERPETUAL MEMORIAL OF EXEMPTION FROM TAXATION. 

The significance of the Philae obelisk

Bankes studied the obelisk carefully, and found he could make out the names of Ptolemy and Cleopatra. He made lithographs of the bilingual inscriptions – both Greek and hieroglyphic - and this helped scholars in their understanding of hieroglyphics.

Recently, a new study has been conducted on the obelisk. Current researchers have been able to confirm that Bankes’ lithograph, particularly of the hieroglyphs, was very accurate. Modern imaging methods have made it possible to read the whole of the Greek inscription for the first time. Much of this had been worn away by the time the obelisk arrived at Kingston Lacy.

Notes
(1) From Finat's Life and Adventures (1830).
(2) A cataract is a large waterfall.
(3) An inundation is a flooding.
(4) Finati mentioned four blocks of granite, but only three were used in the platform for the obelisk. It is not clear whether only three were transported or whether Finati remembered incorrectly.
(5) William John Bankes was the second, but eldest surviving son of Henry Bankes. His elder brother Henry died in 1806.

Sources used include:
Finati, Giovanni, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Giovanni Finati, edited by William John Bankes, Esq (1830)
The National Trust, Kingston Lacy (guidebook) (1994)
The National Trust website

Photographs © Andrew Knowles - www.flickr.com/photos/dragontomato

3 comments:

  1. I've just finished reading about the comet landing but I do find this much more interesting Thank you Rachel :P

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    Replies
    1. Thank you :) It so happened that I was at Kingston Lacy this week but it was not until I saw a post by the National Trust that I made the connection between the obelisk and the space probe. The obelisk took even longer to reach its destination than the Philae probe!

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  2. Thank you . I'm Egyptian and I did not know about that obelisk before. ^_^

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