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The most precious of gifts

Today is the 12th day of Christmas – on which traditionally I receive all manner of gifts from my true love – so many leaping lords, drummers and milkmaids, I’m not sure where I’m going to keep them, let alone how I’m going to feed them!

Joking aside, 6th January – The Epiphany in the Christian calendar – has been the day for many people that gifts are given, as it is traditionally the day on which it is celebrated that the Three Wise Men, Kings or Magi, having followed the star to Bethlehem, brought precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the newly born Son of God.

It did not take much research to find that Manchester Museum’s collection includes all of these items, revealing another story of generosity and gift-giving…

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

So, what are these gifts? And why are they considered so precious?

Gold, frankincense and myrrh at Manchester Museum (Nos.: 5640, Kk 1522)

Jesus is an important figure in many narratives, both biblical and otherwise. Despite limited information relating to his historical identity, it is generally agreed that the events of the New Testament date to the start of the first century AD (or CE). And time and place are good keys to understanding their value and importance.

Out of the three, the value of gold has been transmitted across the last two millennia with the most ease. Its scarcity, malleability, and the way that it doesn’t tarnish have made it sought after for adornment, decoration and currency across ancient and modern civilisations worldwide, and it is little wonder, shining bright like the sun, that it has been held in such high esteem by so many cultures.

(L-R) Xipe Totec, Aztec god of goldsmiths (amongst other things), without his skin, he was depicted as a golden god (commons.wikimedia.org), Jason returns with the golden fleece on an Apulian red-figure calyx krater, ca. 340–330 BC (commons.wikimedia.org), Egyptian gold – pendant with the name of king Senwosret III from Riqqeh (No.: 5986, Manchester Museum)

So, what about frankincense and myrrh? Today, for many people, their renown lies in their biblical associations, but there must have been value in these commodities, in order that they would be considered gifts fit for a king.

Both are aromatic resins that are used in incense and perfumes. Frankincense is tapped from the Boswellia sacra tree, unusual for its ability to grow in the most unforgiving environments – sometimes even growing out of solid rock. As the resin bleeds out and hardens, these beads of frankincense are called ‘tears’.

Myrrh is extracted from small, thorny trees of the genus Commiphora. And in addition to its use in perfume and incense, myrrh has often been used in medicine; mixed with wine can also be ingested.

Frankincense and myrrh part of the ‘materia medica’ at Manchester Museum, formerly from the Pharmacy Department, University of Manchester.

Just like gold, these ‘exotic’ resins have been infinitely tradable commodities for the last 5,000 years, especially on the Arabian Peninsula, in North Africa, all the way down to Somalia. All three were held in high esteem by the ancient Egyptians, each appearing on the walls of the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, the famous female Pharaoh from the second millennium BC, being brought back as tribute for the Queen from mysterious Land of Punt. Myrrh was used by the ancient Egyptians, along with natron, for the embalming of mummies.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh – decoration on the walls of the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri (Image: Margaret Maitland twitter.com/eloquentpeasant)

The biblical associations of these precious resins extend far back before the nativity (as narrated in Matthew 2:11); both are consecrated incenses (HaKetoret) described in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. The Old Testament references trade in frankincense from Sheba (Isaiah 60:6; Jeremiah 6:20), and it is also mentioned in the Song of Solomon (Song of Solomon 4:14). In numerous places in the Old Testament, such as Genesis 37:25 and Exodus 30:23, myrrh is referred to as a rare perfume with intoxicating qualities.

An act of generosity

The story of the Adoration of the Magi epitomises the idea of the giving of gifts, and although there is an entanglement of the idea of the gift within anthropology (cf. Marcel Mauss) and philosophy (cf. Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard), especially as a mechanism for social control, lives are punctuated by those moments when a gift is given with kindness, without obligation or necessary reciprocity.

Manchester Museum has been in receipt of many generous donations and gifts. Just as Jesus, in a stable in Bethlehem received gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, in 1956, the ultimate bequest of the Robinow Collection, meant that Manchester Museum too was in receipt of gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh…

The Robinow Collection

The Robinow story is not just one of giving, but is filled with intrigue and the adventures of antiquities collecting at the close of the nineteenth century, at a time when the romance of treasure hunting and searching for lost kings was being replaced by scientific method and the contextual archaeology that was being developed by Flinders Petrie and his contemporaries.

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Max Emil Robinow, 1845-1900 (Image courtesy of the Booth family)

One of the strengths of Manchester Museum’s Egyptian and Sudanese collection is the number of objects with a documented archaeological findspot, especially owing to the generosity of local cotton magnate Jesse Haworth (1835-1921). However, as with many museums, Manchester also has a considerable number of objects without secure provenance or for which the findspot is tentative at best; this includes the majority of the Robinow collection.

Despite his extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities, German émigré Robinow was not an Egyptologist, but a shipping merchant. In the late nineteenth century, collecting had become a popular recreation and provided access into elite social communities for like-minded people. And the ideas of aesthetics and public display are reflected in the initial loan of the collection to Manchester Museum in 1896.

Max did not dig for treasure – as one of Manchester’s wealthy middle class built on the industrial successes of the city, he commanded the financial resources to compete with high-profile collectors, for high-quality objects!

In this way, late nineteenth century antiquities collecting produced orphaned archaeological objects, carefully selected for their aesthetic appeal, that were sold to wealthy collectors, who were effectively cherry-picking the most exquisite to match their budget and their baggage allowance.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh from the Robinow Collection: Left: Painted linen shroud with gilded jewellery (No.: 11309); Right: Incense burner, with traces of frankincense and myrrh (No.: 11241).

Nos.: 11309 and 11241 are two such objects. The first is a painted linen shroud, adorned in gilded jewellery, the style of decoration shows that it belongs to a group of similar shrouds discovered at Antinoë, where the Roman emperor Hadrian founded a new city in AD 130. The style of dress indicates that the shroud was made in the late 3rd century to mid-4th century AD (c. AD 280-350).

The second is a Roman Period pottery incense burner, made in two parts, connected by a chain of pottery loops. Traces of incense remain inside the lower half of the burner, and the incense has been identified as containing frankincense and myrrh.

Despite being orphaned from their archaeological context, these evidence the special value placed on the three commodities – gold, frankincense and myrrh – across Egypt and the Levant at the beginning of the first millennium AD. And although identification relies on comparisons and parallel, in the context of the Robinow Collection, it is objects such as these that give us an insight own tastes, but also the availability of certain types of objects to wealthy collectors at this time.

The final act in this play spanning two thousand years was one of giving. Max’s eldest son William, despite having a clear understanding of the monetary value of his father’s collection, on his death in 1956, bequeathed it in its entirety to Manchester Museum, where many of the objects can be seen populating stories of time and place, and of people and objects across the Ancient Worlds Galleries.

Michelle Scott

For further discussion on Robinow and his collection:

Price, C. and Scott, M. [forthcoming]. ‘The Egyptian Collection of Max Robinow in the Manchester Museum’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library.

Scott, M. 2016. ‘‘The blundered name of Khufu’: Ancient identity and modern identification’, Birmingham Egyptology Journal, Occasional Publication 3: 19-28

For more about the Egypt and Sudan collection at Manchester Museum, have a look at the Curator’s blog – Egypt at the Manchester Museum.

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