Tomb Raider

An exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum marks 200 years since a flamboyant explorer discovered the sarcophagus of the Pharaoh Seti I. The Post reveals how one of the most important antiquities ever found in Egypt ended up in our neighbourhood.

Giovanni Battista Belzoni was the Indiana Jones of his day. Born in 1778 in Italy, he was a trainee monk who switched careers to become a strongman in a travelling circus in England. At 6ft 7ins, he lived up to his stage name as the Great Belzoni.

He was also an amateur engineer and a famous Egyptologist, though during his first visit to the Great Pyramid he became tightly stuck in one of its passages. Belzoni travelled to Egypt in 1815 and employed his engineering knowledge for moving ancient monuments. Recruited by Henry Salt, the British consul general in Cairo, he transported the granite bust of Ramesses II from Luxor to the Nile, from where it was shipped to the British Museum.

It was the start of a career as one of the great explorers of ancient Egyptian tombs and pyramids. However, Belzoni’s early archaeological methods could be crude: he smashed through walls with battering rams, crunched bones underfoot and even sat on mummies. In a recent biography, Belzoni: The Giant Archaeologists Love to Hate, he was described as “the most notorious tomb robber Egypt has ever known”.

Belzoni was certainly determined, thanks in part to the support of his equally intrepid wife, the pipe-smoking Sarah. His adventures ranged from entering temples guarded by man-eating serpents (at least according to the locals) to more comical events, such as the time a camel fell on him and the tunnel that was backed up with bat dung. In October 1817, he made his greatest discovery: the entrance to the tomb of King Seti I, who reigned from 1290-1279 BC. It turned out to be most magnificent burial site in the Valley of the Kings. Not only were there many passages, chambers and paintings, it was in almost perfect condition.

The one potential prize missing from Belzoni’s tomb (as it became known) was Seti himself. It later emerged that the king had been removed around 968BC; the well-preserved mummy was found in a different location in the 1870s.

Belzoni did make some astonishing discoveries, though, including the king’s shabti dolls (servants of the dead), carvings of deities and, of course, the sarcophagus. As the explorer later wrote of the coffin: “I cannot give an adequate idea of this beautiful and invaluable piece of antiquity… nothing has been brought into Europe from Egypt that can be compared with it.”

This great treasure, carved from calcite, was transparent when illuminated from the inside. The lid was missing, though Belzoni discovered fragments. It was the discovery that made his name, and Belzoni increased his fame by staging an exhibition of a replica of the tomb in London in 1821. But he was soon wrangling with Salt over his stake in the sarcophagus, which had been shipped to the British Museum.

The museum decided it couldn’t afford the high price being demanded. Fortunately, architect and collector John Soane was fascinated by Belzoni’s haul, which he had admired at the 1821 exhibition. Soane, who had a morbid streak, paid the huge sum of £2,000 for the sarcophagus in 1824. By that point, though, Belzoni was dead: he had succumbed to dysentery a year earlier while trying to discover the source of the Niger. The explorer’s widow got nothing because of a clause that Belzoni would only be paid half of the proceeds after the first £2,000.

In May 1824, the sarcophagus was installed in Soane’s home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. As newspapers reported, an opening had to be made at the back of the property and it was lowered down to the basement, later known as the Sepulchral Chamber.

It was Soane’s finest acquisition, so of course he wanted to show it off. Over three nights in March 1825, he opened his house to 890 guests (the Soane archive still has the bills, including invitation cards made in Snow Hill and cakes from a confectioner in Fleet Street).

The sarcophagus glowing in the lamplight would have been a stunning sight for the fashionable crowd, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, JMW Turner and Sarah Belzoni. In his diary, Benjamin Robert Haydon described “fancy delicate ladies of fashion dipping their pretty heads into an old mouldy, fusty, hierogliphicked coffin”.

Almost 200 years later, crowds will still be flocking to our neighbourhood to see the ancient Egyptian sarcophagus discovered by a former circus entertainer. 

“Sir John Soane’s Greatest Treasure: The Sarcophagus of Seti I” (Pimpernel Press) by John H Taylor is out on 5 October.
Egypt Uncovered: Belzoni and the Tomb of Pharaoh Seti I opens on 11 October at Sir John Soane’s Museum.