John Fowler Hull: the scholar who brought Tahemaa to the UK

Written by Bryan Popple & Kathleen White, January 2020

Research has been ongoing into how Tahemaa came to the UK circa 1824 as the purchase of an English scholar who stopped in Egypt on his way to India. The buyer was John Fowler Hull, born to a well-off Quaker family in Uxbridge in 1800. John didn’t go into the family milling business or into banking, like his other relatives, but instead studied languages. He learned 30 languages, including Greek, Latin, Bengali, Sanskrit, Malayan, Coptic, Ethiopian, German, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese, choosing to correspond in Latin with his friends. Between 1820 and 1822 he divided his time between Uxbridge and Paris, where he had a number of language tutors, including an Egyptian who had been one of the oriental interpreters at the court of Napoleon, to help him learn Arabic and other Eastern tongues.

John Passmore Edwards (1823–1911), portrait by George Frederic Watts, 1894

John had the money to travel widely, and as he did he collected manuscripts and books, many of which he bequeathed to the British Museum. In 1823, on his way to India, he stopped in Egypt and travelled to Thebes (Luxor), where he purchased the coffins of Tahemaa and her father Hor, which were shipped back to Britain while he continued on to India. His studies took him first to Bombay, then to Darwar, with plans to travel to Madras and Calcutta, but he was taken ill in the village of Sigaum, just south of Darwar and died on 18 December 1825, before medical help could arrive. In his will, he left over 120 manuscripts and 600 volumes of printed books to the British Museum. Both mummies were left to his brother Samuel Hull, a banker in Uxbridge.

Head of Tahemaa’s mummy case, showing the Egyptian Scarab Beetle God Khepri, revealed by recent cleaning by our conservator, Bethany Palumbo. (Image by Martin Western).


The mummies disappear from sight until 1880, when Samuel died and his estate came up for auction in Uxbridge. Almost nothing remains on record about Samuel, but we do have records of the auctions where his property was sold – which was considerable, including many ground rents, houses, residences and land – but also 2 Egyptian mummies. John Passmore Edwards, MP of Salisbury, bought both mummies, donating Tahemaa to the Salisbury & South Wilts Museum and Hor to the British Museum.

Hor’s coffin at the British Museum


Going back to John Fowler Hull, there is still much to discover, including the journal he kept on his travels, left in the hands of friends and which may give us clues to Tahemaa’s origins in Thebes. One friend, T. Grimes, wrote a ‘Biographic Memoir of Mr. John Fowler Hull’[1]. It was clear he was considered a genius by his colleagues, although Grimes notes:

“… however great his attainments in learning were, they were equalled, if not excelled, by a uniformly kind, amiable, and unassuming disposition, perhaps never surpassed by any other individual. His company was enlivening by a ready and playful wit. His generosity was unlimited; and, being in the enjoyment of a considerable income, he was able to dispense his bounty with a liberal hand… The poor in his neighbourhood have cause long to remember him, while many charitable institutions have not escaped his notice and liberality.”


[1] T. Grimes, The Oriental Herald, and Journal of General Literature, Vol. XX, January to March, 1829 (London: W. Lewer, 1829), pp. 303–310.

Coffin Conservation: Part 1

Coffin Conservation: Part 1 (written by Bethany Palumbo)

When Tahemaa died 2700 years ago, she was wrapped in linen and buried in an elaborate coffin. The coffin, made from wood, was layered with plaster and fabric to create the gentle curves and shape of the coffin. On top of this is the painted layer, created with mineral pigments mixed in a natural gum or resin to make a paste. While we still need to officially identify the pigments and materials used in the composition of the coffin, we can see how they are deteriorating.

These types of organic materials are extremely vulnerable to deterioration caused by environmental changes. As the environment around Tahemaa becomes hotter or colder, more humid or drier, the materials used to make the coffin expand and contract. These fluctuations, repeated over many centuries, have caused the wood, plaster and paint to crack and flake. The layers of the coffin have even separated in some areas, lifting away from the wood (figure 1).

Figure 1- Layers of the coffin structure peeling away.

Many decades without a display case has also resulted in a large build-up of fine, engrained dirt and this is concealing the bright colours of her decorative paintwork (figure 2).

Figure 2- Original colours are darkened with the build-up of surface dirt.

While we want Tahemaa restored to her formal glory, her age and historical significance means that any conservation treatment undertaken needs to be sympathetic and minimal. The priorities of treatment for the coffin are therefore to clean the surface to remove the accumulation of dirt and to consolidate the paint and plaster layers to prevent any further cracking or surface losses.

The first step of cleaning is to use dry methods. This was undertaken using ‘smoke sponge’ a type of vulcanized rubber that could be gently wiped over the surface. This picked up lots of loose surface dirt. Afterwards I decided to further clean Tahemaa with solvents, but decided against aggressive chemicals or detergents. Instead I decided to clean Tahemaa’s coffin using human saliva. While somewhat controversial, human spit is used in museums all over the world as a tested and highly effective cleaning method. Human spit contains 99% water and 1% enzymes and it is these enzymes that breakdown the dirt. Spit also evaporates, leaving behind no chemical residues that would require rinsing.

Using cotton swabs, I gently cleaned the surface of the coffin (figure 3) adjusting my technique for areas of existing surface damage.

Figure 3- Cleaning the coffin with cotton swabs and a lot of patience.

The result is amazing, with dark areas lightened, the gorgeous colours of the paint work underneath can now be seen (figure 4).

Figure 4 – Shows the effectiveness of enzyme cleaning on the painted surface, before (left) and after (right).

This process is time-consuming but for an object like this coffin, patience is key! You can find me in the Egyptology room at the BNSS every Tuesday for the next few months carrying out this work so please come by and say ‘hi’.

Bethany Palumbo 27th July 2019


References- Royal Society of Chemistry, online article. International Institute for Conservation, Studies in conservation, Volume 35, Number 3, p.153-155 (1990)

Tahemaa Transformed

Who is Tahemaa? (written by Bethany Palumbo)

‘Tahemaa’ is the name of our Egyptian Mummy. We know this because it is written in hieroglyphs on the side of her coffin. The hieroglyphs also tell us she was the daughter of Hor, a high priest of Montu, the Falcon-God of War. We do not know for sure where she lived, died and was eventually buried, but we have some evidence to suggest it was in ‘Wasat’ the ancient capital of Upper Egypt, renamed Thebes by the Greeks and today known as Luxor on the river Nile.

We can date Tahemaa to 700 BCE, making her approximately 2700 years old. We believe she was of Nubian descent, which would fit with this period as the Pharaohs at the time were the Kushites, Nubians that had invaded Egypt from the South. Today, the region of Nubia is split between Egypt and Sudan.

We originally thought her to be in her twenties when she died but CT scans in 2009 have shown that her teeth were in truly terrible condition, with missing teeth and abscesses that are not usual for a young person. For this reason, we now believe her to have been middle-aged, between 35-55 years old, which was an exceptional age for an Ancient Egyptian!

We don’t know much more about her or how she came to the UK but we do know that John Passmore Edwards, an MP for Salisbury donated her to the Salisbury Museum in 1880. They then gifted her to the BNSS in 1922 where she spent many decades locked in a store room and only visited by special appointment. In 1993, due to her popularity, the BNSS put her on permanent display in the Egyptology room where she remains today.

Why does she need our help?


The coffin of Tahemaa is nearly 3000 years old and for the most part it has managed to remain intact. However, it is starting to show signs of deterioration. Environmental changes have caused the structure to crack and the original paintwork to flake. UV light risks fading the pigment while many decades without a protective display case have left it with a great build-up of surface dirt.

The conservation of Tahemaa’s coffin is part of the project ‘Tahemaa Transformed’ and our Conservator Bethany will tell you all about the complexities of the conservation process in the next blog post! We will be fundraising for the Tahemaa Transformed project throughout the summer of 2019 through a dedicated online Gofundme page and via donations from visitors, who can come to the BNSS every Tuesday between 10am and 2pm from 25th June to see Bethany at work and get a close-up and personal view of Tahemaa. Suggested donation, £5.

Our GoFundMe campaign page is here

Please visit our Facebook page here to see the recent BBC South segment on the new facial reconstruction of Tahemaa created by Vanessa Pearson, a 2019 graduate from the Arts University Bournemouth.

Also keep an eye out for Tahemaa and other rare and unusual objects from the BNSS on the Objectivity YouTube channel here

Bethany Palumbo, 6 June 2019