The Egyptian Collection of William Joseph Myers
Nicholas Reeves
Eton Collections Review 3 (December, 2008), pp. 22-37

DURING THE five and a half centuries of the existence of Eton College, the school has produced prime ministers, soldiers, writers, and men of fame in all fields. Over the years former pupils have expressed gratitude to their old school in countless gifts and bequests - including one of the finest collections of Egyptian decorative art anywhere in the world.

This collection was bequeathed by William Joseph Myers, who was at Eton from 1871 to 1875. His scholarly achievements were modest and left little mark, but he was clearly exceedingly happy at the school. On leaving Eton he went to Sandhurst, and in due course he obtained a commission in the King`s Royal Rifle Corps in which he would serve for sixteen years, until 1894.

Myers first arrived in Egypt at dawn on November 3, 1882, aged 24 and having already seen action in the Zulu War. He had come as aide-de-camp to General Sir Frederick Stephenson, the newly appointed commander in chief at Cairo. British troops had begun their occupation of Egypt, which was to last until 1954. He landed at Alexandria, which was still in turmoil following the British naval bombardment of the city four months earlier and the ensuing land battle. Myers` first impressions were, not surprisingly, unenthusiastic. With his soldier`s eye he observed “guns knocked all over the place ... immense pieces of our shells, many unburst, lying about, and in the magazines great quan¬tities of Egyptian ammunition”.

Myers reached Cairo that same evening, where he booked in to the famous Shepheard`s Hotel. He joined his regiment the next morning in barracks commandeered from the disbanded Egyptian army – “a bit rough at present but when the crockery and plate come up will be alright. Actually no kitchen either for officers or men but about to make one”. That very same first afternoon, Myers “rode across the Nile to look at the polo ground. Then to opera to take a ticket”.

The words are from his diaries - so far unpublished - which reveal a fascinating picture of military, social, and archaeological life in Egypt at this time. Myers quickly settled in to the pleasant civilized round of English society parties; attendance at the theatre, concerts, and opera; frequent polo matches at the Gezira Sports Club; and duck and quail shoots along the Nile. But the diaries are soon filled with descriptions that convey local colour: visits to mosques and Coptic churches; purchases of rugs, mosque lamps, velvets, and decorated tiles in the bazaars; and performances of whirling dervishes.

It was not until 1 February 1885, more than two years after his arrival in Egypt, that Myers embarked on a luxury yacht put at his party`s disposal by the Khedive. Only a few days before, Myers had met Emile Brugsch, assistant curator of the Bulaq Museum - the nucleus of today`s Egyptian Museum: “Went in the morning to the Boulac museum and Brugsch Bey showed us round ... He is a charming man”. Myers` interest in ancient Egypt had been fired. Brugsch, believed to be a natural son of Kaiser Wilhelm I, knew the best sources for Egyptian antiquities and was to guide Myers in his collecting for the rest of his life.

Myers` first trip up the Nile lasted less than three weeks. On February 8 1885, at Korosko south of Aswan, Myers heard the terrible news of the fall of Khartoum. “Wilson had found Khartoum in the hands of the Mahdi, and Gordon either a prisoner or killed. Wilson was returning with his two steamers having been shelled from Khartoum when they ran on a rock and one boat sank, so he is in a critical position too”. Myers was summoned by telegram back to Cairo.

The diaries are full of the sights encountered and hastily explored during this first short trip. At Abu Simbel he “was sorry to see that many of the men going up had written their names over the carvings, which is a reprehensible practice”. At Aswan Myers wandered alone around Elephantine Island with Amelia Edwards` book, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, which, published in 1877, had already become a classic. “I searched among the ruins of the old town for some of the pieces of pot described in Miss Edwards` book. Didn`t find any but got some from the natives at the village close by”. At Philae he found the columns of the inner portico “with beautifully coloured capitals pleased me more than most anything I ever saw ... All different and supposed to represent different flowers. The colours are most delicate and as bright as the day they were put up”. On his last trip up the Nile in 1896, with an incalculably greater knowledge of Egypt than he had had eleven years before, Myers was no less enthusiastic about the beauty of Philae. “It is a very interesting and beautiful place and perhaps strikes one more than any other place in Egypt outside Cairo”. However, now it was “infested with tourists”.

Soon collecting would be proceeding on every front. At Luxor, returning from an¬other trip up the Nile with General Stephenson, which had been devoted mainly to inspecting the troop positions as far as the new border with the Sudan at Wadi Halfa, Myers wrote, “I employed the rest of our time there in visiting the antique dealers, bought a few things from Mustapha [the old Mustapha Agha`s son] and Mohammed but they hadn`t got much. Idris, who has the most things, is back in Cairo”. When Myers was back in Cairo himself on October 29, “`Brugsch came to lunch and to look at my antiques wh[ich] pleased him very much”. His knowledge of where and from whom to buy was employed by even the highest British official in the land. “In afternoon went to the Turkish bazaar and looked up at the different shops and chose some things for L[ or]d Baring ... Went to bazaar in morning and got some pretty pieces of velvet ... Afternoon went to Gizeh to see the antiquity vendors and got some rugs very cheap ... Went with Abdel Malik in morning to a pearl merchant. He hadn`t much however, but had some nice diamonds”. And on the trail of a good deal, Myers was ready for anything. “I quickly disguised myself in plain clothes and tarboosh ...”
On the last day of 1887 General Stephenson and Myers completed their tour of duty. Myers` emotions were mixed and heightened. “As soon as the General arrived [at the station] a salute of 17 guns was fired from the citadel. I suppose everyone in Cairo was there to say goodbye ...I have certainly had a most happy time in Cairo and never expect to have so good a one again. I have also left some very good friends behind whom I regret very much ...”

Myers would, in fact, make three more visits to Egypt: February to March 1894, March to April 1896, and December 1896 to March 1897. He was by now a familiar and respected figure, with a wide acquaintance among the leading archaeologists and collectors of his time and well liked in social and culrural circles, both native and European. During these last three visits Myers` collection of Egyptian art, already substantial, grew daily. The diaries continually mention meetings with well- and lesser-known dealers and collectors, such as Kyticas, Reinhardt, Philip, Fouquet, Dattari, and Robinow - and always under the watchful eye of Emile Brugsch.

But time was running out. In 1898, four years after retiring from the army, Major William ]oseph Myers found himself back at Eton as Adjutant to the Volunteers, a force made up of boys from the school. Within a matter of months restlessness had set in. Myers determined to return to the colours, travelling to South Africa and the defence of Queen Victoria`s empire. The decision proved a fateful one. Within four days of his arrival Myers was dead - killed by a Boer sniper`s bullet on 30 October 1899 at the battle of Farquhar`s Farm, Natal. It was a tragic and unexpected end.

Despite his wanderlust, Myers` days at Eton had been happy ones, and it came as no surprise to those who knew him that he should remember the school in his will. At the time of his death, his Eton home was filled to overflowing with the collector`s treasures - prints, brocades, porcelain, brass, stamps, and, of course, the abundant souvenirs of his time in Egypt. Of this material, much would remain at Eton. It was a far-sighted legacy. As one of the last of the great nineteenth-century collections to remain substantially intact down to our own day, the Myers bequest represents a resource of enormous significance.

Myers was, for his time, an immensely sophisticated collector. The twin themes of perfection and colour - qualities which, for him, were at the essence of Egyptian decorative art - are very much in evidence in almost everything he acquired. And those pieces which remained at Eton were very much the cream of the crop, Myers` personal favourites, the finer objects with which he had chosen to surround himself in his Eton home. That this collection of choice objects is together still, to inspire in its perfection and beauty a new and very different generation and world, would for Myers be a source of immense satisfaction. As “a ... memorial of a brave soldier and a collector of fine and discriminating taste” - to quote the famous nineteenth-century connoisseur Henry Wallis - it could hardly be bettered.

With grateful acknowledgement to Stephen Spurr.

The thirteen items reproduced below are a selection form the Eton Myers Museum catalogue.


Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, reign of Senwosret I, ca 1935 BC
From Thebes (perhaps Deir el-Bahri)
Glazed steatite, height 6.5 cm
Eton College, Myers Museum, ECM 1588

THIS MAGNIFICENT double-sided mask of the goddess Bat - a manifestation of Hathor, goddess of love and music - comes from a sistrum or rattle employed in temple ritual to attract the attention of the divinity and mark rhythm in the proceedings. Exquisitely carved in steatite, richly glazed and with copper-framed, inlaid eyes, it represents an object of exceptional quality and status. The inscriptions on the brow on each side are those of king Senwosret I, who dedicated the object for cultic use at one of the temples embellished during his reign in southern Upper Egypt - not improbably the Theban cult center of Hathor herself, on the west bank at Deir el-Bahri. The instrument-type continued in use throughout Egyptian history, down into the Roman Period and beyond.


Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, reign of Senwosret II or Senwosret III, ca 1875/1860 BC
Probably from Dahshur
Electrum, with remains of lapis lazuli, carnelian, and feldspar(?) inlays
Height 3.8 cm
Eton College, Myers Museum, ECM 1585


Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, perhaps reign of Senwosret II or Senwosret III, ca 1875/1860 BC
Possibly from Dahshur
Gold and amethyst
Diameter 2.5 cm
Eton College, Myers Museum, ECM 1846

THIS EXQUISITE pectoral - or pendant breast-ornament - was broken into two sections at the time of its discovery, sections which were sold separately sometime before 1895 and reunited at Eton only in 1921. Because of this rough treatment, most of the colourful, cloisonne inlays which originally decorated the outer face of the jewel - each colour of significance in the overall design - are now lost, though the finely chased decoration on the jewel`s reverse preserves the detail of the decorative scheme. The central element has been thought to contain an allusion to Sithathor, a daughter of Senwosret II whose anciently robbed burial (with its hidden cache of jewellery) was excavated at Dahshur by Jacques de Morgan in 1894. If so, the pectoral doubtless represents a stray from that plundered tomb. Among other likely finds from this cemetery now at Eton is a series of scarabs of Wadi el-Hudi amethyst - a material which appears for the first time in the Middle Kingdom, only to disappear again until Roman times. The amethyst scarab shown here was set in antiquity as a ring on a carefully and deliberately knotted gold wire.


Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, ca 1825 BC
Painted wood
Height 13.5 cm
Eton College, Myers Museum, ECM 1474

THIS BEAUTIFULLY carved element from a composite sculpture demonstrates well the advantages of working in wood rather than stone, which allowed the sculptor far greater freedom in his compositions and detail in the finish. The surface of the statuette is coated with a thin wash of reddish-brown pigment, with details highlighted with admirable restraint in white and black. The figure is of the type usually placed within or beside the coffin, intended to serve as a repository for the owner`s ka or spirit should the body itself be destroyed. The furrows of the face and brow, and the intricate detail of the ears and hands, are perhaps influenced by the royal "portraiture" of king Senwosret III and his immediate successors of the 12th Dynasty, to which period this piece is usually assigned.


New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca 1425 BC
From Thebes (Dra Abu`l-Naga tomb TT A7)
Painted (with resin), gilded and inlaid wood
Eton College, Myers Museum, ECM 1876

THE THEBAN tomb of the master-builder Amenhotep and his wife Mutresti is that now numbered A7 at Dra Abu’l-Naga. The tomb was brought to light essentially intact by locals in about 1890, and its contents dispersed. A range of items from the burial has now been identified on the basis of their texts, including the trough of this same coffin (which is in Uppsala), fragments of the owner’s funerary papyrus (in London, Stockholm, Boston, Newport, Amsterdam, and New York), and four canopic jars and a shabti figure (in Chicago). Amenhotep’s name and title – "Overseer of the builders of Amun" – are here inscribed in a vertical column of neatly drawn yellow hieroglyphs on the lid’s inner surface, alongside an exquisite linear image of the goddess Nut, who metaphorically embraces the body of the deceased.

New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, reign of Amenhotep II, ca 1410 BC
Height 16.0 cm
Eton College, Myers Museum, ECM 1631

THE BODY of this superb, palm-shaped cosmetic vessel carries the cartouches of Pharaoh Amenhotep II and a three-line panel of hieroglyphic text proclaiming the king’s physical and military prowess: "O perfect god in all truth, the sovereign, life, prosperity, health, one in whom there is no boasting, son of Amun, beloved of Montu, champion of all the gods as one whom Amun created of his own body; he has granted you victory such as no king has achieved since the first moment of creation". Below this inscription two teams of chariot horses are shown, with, extraordinarily, the actual name of each horse given: "Amun-is-before-him"; "The-good-leader"; "The-one-who-is-great-beneath-his-legs"; and "Inheritance-of-Amun". The horse was first imported into Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period, and proved essential for the combat in which the Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty were actively involved in Syria-Palestine.


New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, reign of Tutankhamun, ca 1330 BC
Height 4.0 cm
Eton College, Myers Museum, ECM 1887

EGYPTIAN COLLAR terminals are encountered in a variety of shapes, the type seen here being assymetrical – curved at the top and (when complete) flattened at the bottom, a characteristic late 18th Dynasty form. The material is a pale green faience, now lacking much of its original glaze but displaying an interesting and uncommon mix of techniques: raised relief for the king himself and a column of incised hieroglyphs which identify the subject as "The perfect god, lord of the Two Lands, Nebkheprure …" – the boy-Pharaoh Tutankhamun. The king wears the blue crown, and is shown drinking from a white lotus chalice similar to two actual examples preserved in the Myers collection.


New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty reign of Seti I, ca 1280 BC
Red jasper
Height 3.5 cm
Eton College, Myers Museum, ECM 1655

THIS EXQUISITE face, carved in red jasper, preserves the distinctive profile of Pharaoh Seti I, which is familiar not only from numerous two-dimensional representations at Abydos but may also be compared with the well-preserved profile of the king’s mummy found in the Deir el-Bahri cache at Thebes in 1881. Since the features of the reigning king were as a matter of course applied to images of the gods, this face may come from a depiction of a deity rather than of the ruler himself. The subtly modelled surface of the inlay has been polished to an almost mirror-like sheen, with eye and eyebrow once inlaid in separate, contrasting materials.


New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty, reign of Ramesses II, ca 1220 BC
Length 7.0 cm
Eton College, Myers Museum, ECM 1656

LARGE-SCALE SCARAB-SHAPED funerary amulets inscribed with anything other than a version of Chapter 30B of the Book of the Dead or a related text are rare, and their precise function uncertain. It is possible that the scarab shown here, carrying a version of the nomen of Ramesses II ("Ramessu-beloved-of-Amun"), was one which had originally been bandaged in with the king`s mummy (recovered from the Deir el-Bahri cache) as part of his amuletic funerary equipment. Certainly, Myers appears to have been present at the Cairo unwrapping of one or more of the ancient Egyptian royal dead, and was presented with several specimens of textiles removed from the kingly dead at that time.


Third Intermediate Period, 22nd Dynasty, ca 930 BC
From Tuna el-Gebel
Height 14.5 cm
Eton College, Myers Museum, ECM 1583

ETON BOASTS one of the finest groupings anywhere in the world of blue faience vessels and study fragments, these pieces now ranking as the national collection of such wares. Pride of place is taken by an astounding array of blue- and white-lotus chalices. While the outer surfaces of the bowls of the earliest blue-lotus chalices are generally decorated in a naturalistic manner, the latest and rarest examples, though they continue the delicate, developed shape, carry scenes in detailed raised relief illustrating various themes of kingly power and rebirth. The best-preserved is shown here. An important fragment, also at Eton, is inscribed with the cartouche of Sheshonq I of the 22nd Dynasty, confirming the precise date of this particular decorative style - which occurs not only on the chalice vessels but extends to the decoration of faience flasks also.


Late Period, 26th Dynasty, probably reign of Psamtik I, ca 610 BC
From Sais
Height 17.0 cm
Eton College, Myers Museum, ECM 1709

THE ROYAL shabti figures of the 26th Dynasty are notoriously difficult to assigne, and it is far from certain which of the three Psamtik kings is represented in this superb figure. The consensus, based primarily on quality, is that it represents the first of the line - Psamtik I, instigator of the 26th Dynasty "renaissance" in Egypt`s artistic and political fortunes. Several specimens of this shabti type are extant, but what distinguishes the Myers example is its partially blackened surface. It is a condition which recalls Herodotus`s tale that at least one of the Saite royal tombs was put to the torch by the invading army of Cambyses, the Persian king. Though such stories are usually dismissed as anti-Persian propaganda, the Eton figure suggests that they may well contain a germ of truth.


Late Period, 26th Dynasty, ca 600 BC
From Sheikh el-Farag (Naga ed-Deir)
Height 13.0 cm
Eton College, Myers Museum, ECM 1587

THIS IMAGE of the ibis-headed Thoth is one of the finest examples of Late Period faience in existence, its original perfection marred only by minor breaks and by the loss of the god`s curved beak (now restored). A number of identical images are known, distinguished by the twin suspension lugs at either side of the wig, the god`s unusual nakedness, and the slipper-like, fennec-headed terminals of his feet (evidently a reference to the god Wepwawet, "Opener of the ways"). From its scale and delicacy the piece seems more likely to have been a temple votive than a personal talisman.


Roman Period, ca AD 165
Encaustic on limewood
Height 40.0 cm
Eton College, Myers Museum, ECM 1473

OF THE three encaustic paintings now preserved at Eton - two depicting bearded men and the third a youth - this is justly the most famous and in fact represents one of the finest paintings of this class to have survived. It depicts an anonymous adult male, shown wearing the tunic and decorated sword-strap typical of an officer of the Roman army. The anonymous subject`s hairstyle and beard recall sculptured portraits of the emperor Lucius Verus (ruled AD 161-169), during whose reign it is probable the officer will have served.

After a century of relative inactivity, the Myers Museum has over the past decade made great strides. Its impressive Egyptian collections have now been sorted, studied, inventoried and - for the first time in their history at Eton - provided with adequate, purpose-built storage and space for teaching and display. The Museum, increasingly a Mecca for scholars, is now firmly positioned on the international map, having toured a series of major exhibitions within the United States (New York, 1999), the Netherlands (Leiden, 2003), Germany (Hildesheim, 2004/5), Spain (Madrid, 2005), France (Bordeaux, 2007), and Japan (Utsonorniya, Atami, Hamamatsu, Nagoya, Kobe, and Tokyo, 2008). These exhibitions, accompanied by a series of authoritative catalogues in a range of languages, have in turn generated valuable funding for Eton`s Collections as a whole. Most significant of all, directly inspired by the revived vision for Major Myers`s unique bequest, three years ago the first Etonian ever went on to study Egyptology at university level.

Those interested in learning more about the Myers Museum. its history and its remarkable treasures should consult:

Nicholas Reeves, "London and Eton. Egyptian antiquities from Eton", Burlington Magazine 130/1023 (June, 1988), pp. 482-83

Nicholas Reeves and Stephen Spurr, "Ancient Egypt at Eton", Egyptian Archaeology 6 (1995), pp. 19-22

Stephen Quirke, Nicholas Reeves and Stephen Spurr, Egyptian Art at Eton College (exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1999)

Nicholas Reeves, "The finest faience: the Tuna el¬Gebel find", Ancient Egypt, the Great Discoveries (Thames and Hudson, London and New York, 2000), pp. 92-93

Nicholas Reeves. "Selections from the Eton College Myers collection of Egyptian art exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum", KMT A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt 11/3 (fall, 2000), pp. 18-31

Nicholas Reeves and Robert Shorrock, Talking Heads: Ancient Lives, Ancient Letters (exhibition catalogue, Brewhouse Gallery, Eton, 2002)

Stephen Quirke, Nicholas Reeves, Hans Schneider and Stephen Spurr, The Small Masterpieces of Egyptian Art: Myers Museum, Eton College (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden, 2003)

Joyce Filer and Nicholas Reeves, "Mummies at Eton", Friends of the Eton College Collections Newsletter 31 (2004). pp. 7-12

Nicholas Reeves, "The Small Masterpieces of Egyptian Art - Selections from the Myers Museum at Eton College", Friends of the Eton College Collections Newsletter 31 (January, 2004), pp. 13-14

Nicholas Reeves and Eleni Vassilika, Meisterwerke aegyptischer Kunst. Schaetze aus dem Myers Museum am Eton College (exhibition catalogue, Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim, 2004, available on-line here)

Teresa Bedrnan, Francisco Martin Valentin, Nicholas Reeves and Stephen Spurr, Azules egipcios, pequenos tesoros del Arte (exhibition catalogue, Conde Duque Museum, Madrid, 2005). (A video presentation of the exhibition is available here)

Bernadette de Boysson, Stephen Quirke, Nicholas Reeves, Hans D Schneider and Stephen Spurr, Egypte, trois milles ans d`art decoratifs. Musee Myers - collection du College d`Eton (exhibition catalogue, Musee des Arts decoratifs, Bordeaux, 2007)

Craig Barclay, Tom Hardwick, Stephen Quirke, Nicholas Reeves, John Ruffle. Hans D Schneider and Stephen Spurr, Egyptian Art at Eton College and Durham University (exhibition catalogue, Tokyo, 2008). (Catalogue text in Japanese, with an English translation available here)

1. Sistrum fragment of Senwosret I (ECM 1588)
2-3. Pectoral ornament and knotted wire ring with scarab (ECM 1585 & 1846)
4. Upper part of the figure of a man (ECM 1474)
5. Fragment from the coffin of Amenhotep (ECM 1876)
6. Cosmetic tube of Amenhotep II (ECM 1631)
7. Collar terminal of Tutankhamun (ECM 1887)
8. Face inlay (ECM 1655)
9. Scarab of Ramesses II (ECM 1656)
10. Chalice with narrative decoration (ECM 1583)
11. Shabti of Psamtik I (ECM 1709)
12. Figure of Thoth (ECM 1587)
13. Portrait of a man (ECM 1473)