I peered cautiously over her shoulder, smelling the freshness of her newly laundered lab coat and hearing her breath of concentration. "Weve discovered that he is virtually identical to the Marsh Hawk we have in British Columbia," the voice beneath the lab coat said cheerily. "The X-rays are quite remarkable."
Never mind the X-rays I thought to myself, the entire scene was remarkable and the casualness of her comments belied the excited buzz that lay beyond our cloistered environs.
This was a behind-the-scenes preview of the Eternal Egypt exhibit, which opened July 10th at the Royal British Columbia Museum, and we were both within inches of a 2,000 year old mummified hawk. Where the ancient, paper-thin linen wrap had fallen away, delicate feathers, curled talons and polished beak were clearly visible; defiant against all time, and alive with an invitation to explore its long, lost life.
And this is exactly what Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum promises to do. It is, without doubt, one of the most ambitious, prestigious and significant exhibits the province has ever staged. The insurance costs alone are $600 million.
Vying for such an event is a competitive business, and the ability to provide remedial conservation expertise (the RBCM were leaders in the Ice Man research) can go a long way in securing a multi-million dollar show like Eternal Egypt.
Thats how I found myself in this backroom, an unpretentious laboratory of history, where bones are carefully laid out to recreate skeletons, and fossils and feathers are lovingly tended. I watched incredulously as Lisa Bengston, object conservator, layered air-thin Japanese rice paper to areas where the petrified Egyptian bandages needed some strength just to keep the relic from crumbling.
"Any work we do can be undone," noted Bengston as she applied her artistry with the focus of threading a needle. "Every artifact can always be returned to the original state in which it was found."
As I watched her work, I felt like I was part of some archeological dig. The myths of ancient Egypt seemed to come alive before my very eyes and that reality filled me with awe.
Eternal Egypt is made up of more than seven semi-trailer loads of artifacts 144 artifacts in total that span a 3,000 year era from Ramses the Great and the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza, to the fall of Cleopatra. Highlights include original papyrus scrolls from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a gilded death mask of Satdjehuty and exquisite gold jewelry; a delicate glass fish perfume bottle barely 15 cm (6 inches) long, a colossal quartzite sculpture of the head of Amenhotep III (who built the Temple of Amun), and a 2,300 kilogram red granite lion that once guarded the temple of Soleb. You can only imagine the logistics of getting that particular item into the elevator, let alone the construction of special walls and floors needed to withstand its weight.