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A Golden Face from a Golden Age: Wigan’s Egyptian gem

This time on our tour of ancient Egypt in the north, we reach Wigan and the superb Museum of Wigan Life. Having only just reopened after a major refurb, its new displays really do bring both local and global history to life, for this treasure house of local gems celebrates everything from the works of George Orwell to the legendary music of Wigan Casino - and one of the finest ancient Egyptian objects ever created. 

The Museum of Wigan Life designed by architect Alfred Waterhouse & its new Egyptian galleries © Wigan Council/Ian Trumble

A stunning golden coffin face, it forms the centrepiece of a small yet superb collection of antiquities presented to Wigan by the family of Sir John Scott (below). Born in 1841 in the centre of Wigan close to the site of the museum which opened in 1878 (above), Scott had studied at Oxford before taking up a career in the legal profession. But when ill health then forced him to relocate to a warmer climate in 1871, his move to the south of France also allowed him to learn French until it soon became apparent that an even drier climate was needed. So just like Lord Carnarvon some 30 years later, Scott travelled across the Mediterranean to Egypt for the sake of his health.

Sir John Scott (1841-1904) photographed in Cairo in 1898, with Alexandria’s seafront Ras el-Tin palace, summer residence of Muhammad Ali and his successors © ImmortalEgypt

Relocating to the cosmopolitan coastal city of Alexandria in 1872 (above), its sea breezes proved most therapeutic and Scott resumed his legal profession at a time Egypt was very much at the centre of international politics. With its nominal rulers the Turkish khedives, successors of Mohamed Ali, increasingly controlled by the dual powers of Britain and France, Wigan-born multilingual Scott fitted perfectly into Anglo-French Egypt.

Appointed a judge for Egypt’s new International Courts of Appeal, he began tackling corruption, and wanting to make the law accessible to all was particularly keen to help Egypt’s working majority the fellaheen who were frequently forced to undertake unpaid labour on behalf of the state in a system known as corvée. First introduced in pharaonic times, the forced labour used to build the pyramids had continued down the millennia, culminating in 1859 when Egypt’s Turkish ruler Said Pasha allowed the French to begin work on the Suez Canal.

Designed to connect the Mediterranean to the Red Sea to provide the fastest route to India vital to international trade, official statistics (The Egyptian Workers Who Were Erased from History | Egyptian Streets) reveal that one million people were involved in excavating the 193km canal over its 10 year construction. And while some were migrant workers from Syria, Sudan, Greece and central Europe (During the construction of the Suez Canal, people from Europe travelled to Egypt in search of work (, mostly men but some women too, the vast majority were the Egyptians (below), forced to work manually in conditions little different to slave labour. It’s believed that around 100,000 Egyptians lost their lives during the decade-long project, many falling victim to cholera before the canal’s eventual completion in 1869, when Said’s nephew Ismail, now khedive, presided over the canal’s lavish opening ceremonies involving many of the crowned heads of Europe. 

Egyptian workers beginning to dig out the canal © JD Rogers PowerPoint Presentation (

So Scott’s arrival in Egypt soon afterwards was most timely, his dramatic reforms leading to the end of this state system of forced labour which had been in place for some 5,000 years, along with an end to slavery and torture. He also pushed for a system of modernisation, visiting schools, police stations and prisons as an advisor and setting up a law school to train Egyptian lawyers. And gaining such a reputation for fairness the Egyptians referred to him as ‘Scott the Just’, he even risked his life to protect court records during riots in 1882, when his bravery earned him the Order of Osmanieh (below), presented by Ismail’s son and successor Tewfiq (below) whom Scott then went on to serve as judicial adviser. 

Tewfiq and his predecessors also awarded their advisors with antiquities as diplomatic gifts, ancient objects sought out by the khedives’ antiquities agents around Egypt ranging from stone from the Giza pyramids to mummified bodies and coffins from further south. And Scott, like fellow countrymen Lords Cromer and Dufferin who also advised Tewfiq, fully realised that Egypt’s ancient past had a direct influence on its present and certainly on its future. 

Ismail and son Tewfiq, successive rulers of Egypt for whom Scott worked © SouthWritLarge

Already connected socially with those who created the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria in 1892, Scott’s new legal reforms also meant he spent much of his time travelling the length of Egypt as far south as Aswan during the 1890s. As a time unprecedented archaeological discoveries were being made by the British and their French counterparts (who’d also created Egypt’s antiquities service with its museum in Cairo), the first excavations at Amarna by the British in 1892 were followed by the  French discovery of the tombs of Middle Kingdom queens at Dahshur in 1894, complete with their lavish jewellery c.1850 BC (below). 

French archaeologist Jaques de Morgan with gold diadem of Queen Khnumet 1894 (© ILN) and jewelled pectoral necklace of Princess Mereret also from Dahshur (© Egypt-Museum)

Then in 1895 British excavations at Naqada had revealed the existence of Egypt’s predynastic period preceding its unification, a momentous event marked by Egypt’s earliest historical document, the Narmer Palette, discovered in 1897 by the British at Hierakonpolis. And in 1898 during Scott’s final year in Egypt, the French made spectacular discoveries in the Valley of the Kings, uncovering both the tomb of Tuthmosis III (see ANCIENT EGYPT IN THE NORTH: THE VALLEY OF THE KINGS IN BOLTON ( and that of his son Amenhotep II, which not only contained Amenhotep’s body but 14 other royals reburied within, including Tutankhamen’s grandparents Amenhotep III and Queen Tiy and the body we and many others now believe to be Nefertiti (The Search For Nefertiti: Fletcher, Joann: 9780340831724: Books).


Mummified bodies displayed in Egypt’s Antiquities Museum when housed in Ismail’s Giza palace © Egyptian Chronicles

With most of these royal bodies sent north to Cairo’s Antiquities Museum, which at that time was housed in an annex of the Giza palace of Scott’s one-time boss Ismail, Scott was particularly drawn to Egypt’s ancient rulers. Spending time among them and studying their features, he commented how he was “once more fascinated by Seti I and his son Ramses II. They are intensely real. High cheekbones – a domed not flat head, a strong chin...”. With both bodies having been discovered in 1881 within another great cache of royal mummies at Deir el-Bahari, Ramses’ remains had been unwrapped in 1886 in the presence of Scott’s boss Tewfiq when “the right hand relieved of pressure slowly lifted and it remains now in the air”.

Mummified body of Pharaoh Seti I shortly after partial unwrapping in 1886 (public domain) and Scott’s Giza retreat beside the Great Pyramid (public domain).

And Scott certainly appreciated Egypt’s ancient past as an antidote to the pressures of work, spending the cooler evenings at the desert edge beside the Giza pyramids in order to regain ‘a sense of peace’ after days working in court room temperatures sometimes exceeding 100˚F degrees. 

Scott with his Egyptian medals in this portrait by JH Lorimer © Museum of Wigan Life.

Yet by 1898 Scott’s workload, combined with deteriorating health, forced him to take early retirement when still only 57, his colleagues within the Egyptian courts marking the event by commissioning his portrait by artist John Lorimer (above). At a farewell banquet at Shepheard's Hotel attended by Egypt’s PM Mustafa Pasha, Lord Cromer and many colleagues Egyptian and foreign, Scott’s farewell speech told them that “I came to Egypt first in 1872 as a perfect stranger. I was welcomed on all sides as a friend, and from that day to this I have received nothing but kindness from all who dwell in Egypt. It is a satisfaction for me to feel that I have done some little good in the country which has treated me so kindly and which I love so well”. 

His old Oxford college gave him an honorary doctorate, and having already been knighted by the British government in 1894 and given the freedom of Wigan the year before, Tewfiq’s successor Abbas II awarded Scott the Order of the Medjidie(below) to add to a growing collection of honours and awards.

Scott’s Order of Osmanieh (L) awarded by Khedive Tewfiq in 1883 and his Order of the Medjidie (R) awarded by Khedive Abbas II in 1898 © Identify Medals

And having also acquired his fine collection of antiquities whose precise origins we’re trying to track down, Scott moved permanently back to the UK where he died in 1904. With his antiquities cared for by his widow until her death in 1924, their son Sir Leslie Scott, Conservative MP for Liverpool, donated the antiquities to the people of Wigan that same year and they were placed on public display. Local resident John Johnson remembered seeing them as a boy, when they triggered a lifelong love for ancient Egypt culminating in his creation of Wigan’s Horus Egyptology Society. Now one of the UK’s largest such societies Horus Egyptology Wigan – Horus which has been going strong for over 20 years, this amazing society has raised many thousands of pounds for the Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project Colossi Project – Horus Egyptology Wigan, best known for its iconic Colossi of Memnon statues.

At some point, Wigan’s Egyptian objects had then been placed in long term storage and their precise whereabouts uncertain until 2014, when Wigan Council were improving and streamlining their museum stores and rediscovered these truly ‘wonderful things’. 

John, Stephen and Jo with Wigan curators Lynda and Carrie in 2014 © Horus Egyptology Society

Calling in John for his expert opinion along with that of his colleague Hazel McGuinness, who wrote up the rediscovery of ‘Egyptian Treasures in Wigan’ for British Archaeology magazine (British Archaeology - July/August 2015 (, we too were delighted to be invited along one rainy afternoon to an anonymous-looking council building which, to our complete amazement, held a superb collection of Egyptian objects, including the golden coffin face of breathtaking beauty.

The golden coffin face in Wigan © Horus Egyptology Society & Lion TV

Placed back on public display in 2015 in a gallery we were deeply honoured to have named after us, this is the face of an elite Egyptian woman whose stylistic details date her to the early C.14th BC. For this was the 18th dynasty ‘Golden Age’ when Egypt was at the height of its power, presided over by its greatest pharaohs whose minor wives and offspring could number several hundred(!). And we think this is surely the face of one such woman - not a queen given the absence of any trace of the protective uraeus snake over her brow, yet clearly someone of significant status.


Detail of the inlaid eyes of calcite and obsidian with extended cosmetic lines © ImmortalEgypt

And despite a lack of personal name on this part of the coffin, our Wigan Lady exudes the wealth and confidence of the time in which she was created, most likely during the reign of the greatest of all pharaohs Amenhotep III. With eyes of calcite and obsidian staring back at us, her slight smile belies the fact this was once part of her coffin, that same smile shared by others from this same reign including Lady Tuya, Amenhotep’s mother-in-law, on her own golden death mask. 

Wigan’s golden face (© ImmortalEgypt), gold mask of Lady Tuya in Cairo (© EgyptMuseum) & golden coffin face of Lady Henutwedjebu (© Kemper Art Museum).

And this cuts to the heart of ancient Egyptian culture, which faced death in the confident knowledge it was simply a transition into another state of existence. For as the deceased passed into the care of afterlife deities far removed from the gloom of our own Grim Reaper, they were instead taken into the warm embrace of the maternal goddess Hathor ‘the Golden One’, daughter of the sun god. And with this same symbolism to be found in the specifically 18th dynasty colour palette of gold and black, the gold represented the life-giving sun as the ultimate symbol of daily resurrection, while black was the colour of new life based on the Nile mud which made possible annual harvests in an otherwise desert landscape. 

So for me, this face encapsulates ancient Egypt in a single, stunning object which has two histories: having been created at a time Egypt was the world’s leading superpower, and later acquired by someone who did so much for the Egyptian people. And displayed at the heart of the Museum of Wigan Life as part of the new displays, she’s a true superstar, dazzling visitors and all those who saw her starring role in our BBC series ‘Immortal Egypt’. And I for one feel honoured to know her. 

Wigan’s ‘golden lady’ with Jo and Stephen © Wigan Council.


Jo will be giving her annual talk at the Museum of Life this October, and for more information about the new Wigan galleries see History and heritage galore as What's In Store opens at Museum of Wigan Life


Jo at Abu Simbel_edited.jpg

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