It was the autumn of 1838 when the English merchant ship Beatrice set sail from Malta bound for the port of Liverpool. She never arrived. The news of the loss of the ship was reported in Lloyd’s ‘Loss and Casualty Book’.
The entry for Thursday, 31st January 1839 reads: “Beatrice, Wichelo, [the skipper of the vessel], sailed from Alexandria 20th Sept. & from Malta, 13th October for Liverpool, & has not since been heard of”.
The vessel, it seems, had simply vanished, and along with it disappeared one of history’s priceless and unique relics – the sarcophagus of the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Menkaura, builder of the third pyramid at Giza, who ruled more than four thousand years ago.
|The sarcophagus was found in the “sepulchral|
chamber”, now generally referred to as the permanent burial chamber. From Vyse’s Operations Carried on at the Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837
But in early June 2008 news broke that Dr Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, had approached the National Geographic Society to fund a search from the sarcophagus off the Spanish coast near the port of Cartagena. The Egyptian Ambassador in Madrid had met Spanish officials this month to seek their co-operation in the search, it was claimed. It was further reported that American ocean explorer Robert Ballard, famous for his discovery of the sunken R.M.S. Titanic and who is president of the Institute for Exploration, scientist emeritus from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and director of Institute for Archaeological Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, has been approached to lead the search. Both Dr Hawass and Dr Ballard are ‘explorers-in-residence’ with the National Geographic Society.
Dr Hawass told the Cairo-based newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly (29th May – 4th June) that old maps and newspaper reports have helped pinpoint the wreck off the Spanish city of Cartegana. And in The Times (14th June) quoted Dr Hawass as saying: “I will seek a formula for co-operation with the Spanish Government and we will agree to return the sarcophagus to Egypt.”
Salvage – even if technically possible given the logistical difficulties and cost – of the Beatrice and her cargo will present a legal minefield about ownership of the wreck and cargo. This was a British ship carrying Egyptian artefacts now lying in Spanish territorial waters. Hawass believes the sarcophagus was removed from Egypt illegally. “Stolen by the British in 1837,” he maintains (The Spectator, 17th May 2006).
|A detailed drawing of the sarcophagus, showing its elaborate decoration. From Vyse’s Operations Carried on at the Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837|
|Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Menkaura|
Ernest A. Wallis Budge (The Mummy, 1893) wrote: “The stone sarcophagus of Mycerinus, of which only a small fragment has been preserved (B.M. No. 6646), and parts of the coffin and mummy, were lost by the wreck of the ship in which they were being brought to England, on the Spanish coast, on the western side of the Straight of Gibraltar. ”
German Egyptologist Heinrich Brugsch-Bey (Egypt Under the Pharaohs, 1902), more or less agrees with Budge. This “valuable memorial of antiquity, ship and cargo sank to the bottom of the sea off Gibraltar.”
American Egyptologist Bob Brier (Egyptian Mummies, 1996) says: “The sarcophagus, a masterpiece of Old Kingdom workmanship, was sent to the British Museum in 1838 on the merchant ship Beatrice. The ship stopped at Malta for supplies and then left that port on October 30, 1838, and neither the ship nor its precious cargo were seen again. It sank in deep water somewhere near Cartagena.” And in a later book (The Encyclopedia of Mummies, Checkmark Books, 1998) he reaffirms this: “The Beatrice sank in deep waters somewhere near Cartagena. ”
Peter France (The Rape of Egypt, Barrie & Jenkins, 1991) suggests: “The sarcophagus “was lost off Carthagena in October 1837, and today remains on the seabed with its ancient cargo.”
Christine Hobson (Exploring the World of the Pharaohs, Thames and Hudson, 1994) opts for a wreck site even farther a field. Beatrice sank in the Bay of Biscay, north of Spain, she writes.
And then we come to the Italian scientific journalist and photographer Dr Alberto Siliotti (The Pyramids, George Weidenfeld, 1997), who tells us intriguingly: “The basalt sarcophagus was later lost when the ship taking it to England sank in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain, in an area only recently identified.” Just one year later Dr Siliotti (Egypt Lost and Found, Thames and Hudson, 1998) writes that the sarcophagus “was sent to the British Museum, but never arrived because the ship that was carrying it sank in a storm off the Tuscan coast. ”
Peter A. Clayton (Chronicle of the Pharaohs, Thames and Hudson, 1994, reprinted 1999): The “ship carrying the sarcophagus sank in a storm in 1838 shortly after leaving Leghorn. Efforts made in recent years using highly sophisticated technical equipment have failed to locate the ship.”
Nicholas Reeves (Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries, Thames and Hudson, 2000) says: The “exquisite” basalt sarcophagus was “subsequently lost at sea, either off Malta or close to Cartagena, when the ship carrying it to England sank.”
Salima Ikram and Aidan Dobson (The Mummy in Ancient Egypt, Thames and Hudson, 1998), describe the sarcophagus as “perhaps the finest of all sarcophagi with this decorative scheme”. They add: “Regrettably, we can only appreciate its quality from nineteenth-century engravings, for it was removed from the burial chamber under the Third Pyramid at Giza in 1837 and lost at sea off the Spanish coast. ”
Timothy R Roberts (Gift of the Nile, Metro Books, 1999) says: “The basalt sarcophagus bore designs on the outside that represented a temple.” And then he adds a twist: “Unfortunately, this magnificent container fell overboard off the coast of Spain while being transported to the British Museum. It was never recovered, and we only know what it looks like because some curious observer had made a sketch.”
So suggestions as to the wreck site include: somewhere off Gibraltar; between Malta and Spain; off the Spanish port of Cartagena; off the Tuscan coast of Italy; and the Bay of Biscay. They cannot all be right.
The story of the Beatrice and the lost sarcophagus needs to be placed in context of what was happening in Egypt and England in 1838. Queen Victoria had just succeeded to the English throne and Egypt, ruled by the Turks, was a land ravaged by plague and the plundering of its antiquities, as well as being of great strategic importance to the expansionist plans of competing
Into that world came Richard William Howard Vyse (1784-1853), soldier, politician and explorer. It was he who led the expedition to enter the pyramids of Giza, including that of Menkaura. His use of gunpowder as an excavation tool on the pyramids has earned him much condemnation by modern scholars.
In 1840, Vyse’s book Operations Carried on at the Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837 (James Fraser, London) was published. In it Vyse describes finding the sarcophagus of Menkaura in what he called the “sepulchral chamber”, now generally referred to as the permanent burial chamber. The container “was entirely empty, and composed of basalt, which bore a fine polish of a shaded brown colour, but was blue where it had been chipped off or broken,” he wrote.
Besides sand, stones, rubbish and assorted débris, Vyse noted that there was a “black dust” in the chamber, which he put down to insect and bat droppings. The dung of large birds – probably vultures, thought Vyse – “appeared in many places, particularly on the sarcophagus, and seemed to have been there for many years.” (It is hard to imagine vultures inside the pyramids, so ornithology might not have been one of Vyse’s skills.)
Vyse thought that “some sharp substance”, such as emery powder, had been used in constructing the sarcophagus, and it appeared to have been sawn. This, he thought, was “remarkable, as the art of sawing marble was not known as Roman till a late period.”
The sarcophagus lid had been originally fixed in place by two pins, and also by a dovetail. Vyse said that a plate of metal seemed to have been applied “so carefully underneath it, that in order to insert a lever for its removal, it had been found necessary to cut a groove across the rim of the sarcophagus.”
The stone sarcophagus was eight feet long and three feet one inch wide. Its height was two feet eleven inches. The inside dimensions were six feet five inches long, two feet and one half an inch wide and two feet and one half inch deep. Vyse estimated its weight at nearly three tons.
There was no inscription or hieroglyphs, but it had finely carved decoration in a style Egyptologists refer to as ‘palace-façade motif ’. The lid was broken and pieces of it were found in the burial chamber and elsewhere in the pyramid.
The burial chamber was twenty feet eight inches in length on it north-south axis with an east-west breadth of eight feet seven inches. The height was eight feet nine inches at the sides, rising to eleven feet three inches at the centre. Originally placed in the centre of the chamber, Vyse thought that at some stage in antiquity the sarcophagus had been moved, for, as can be seen in the illustration below, it was found against one wall of the burial chamber. Perhaps it was moved by robbers who thought that it might have concealed treasures buried beneath it?
“As the sarcophagus would have been destroyed, had it remained in the pyramid, I resolved to send it to the British Museum,” wrote Vyse. Just why he thought it would have been destroyed remains a mystery, but this was often a convenient (and sometimes valid) excuse at this period to remove objects.
By 9th August, Vyse was in Alexandria preparing forhis return voyage to England. He sent a message to colleague Henry Raven, still working at the pyramids, ordering him remove the sarcophagus, a task which Vyse later admitted, was “not trifling”. On 27th August, Vyse sailed for Malta on the first leg of his journey home to England.
Meanwhile, inside the pyramid one of the ramps in the inclined passage had to be removed in order to getthe sarcophagus into a larger space, where it was placed upon wheeled trucks. Blocks in the anteroom were also removed in order to get the sarcophagus to the bottom of the entrance passage.
Using sheer muscle power and a ‘crab’ erected at the mouth of the pyramid, the stone casket was hauled up the passage, but the going was not easy. Half way up, the truck on one side of the sarcophagus gave way. Space was too tight to allow any repairs. Now the sweating labourers resorted to using levers to lift the sarcophagus up the passage. At last this “arduous undertaking” was over and the sarcophagus was safely hauled out of the pyramid into daylight for the first time in over four thousand three hundred years. It was then placed on a carriage and with planks of wood positioned beneath the carriage wheels, the sarcophagus was pulled over the rocks and sands to the expedition’s tents. Later the sarcophagus was “cased with strong timbers” and sent to Alexandria, presumably by boat along the Nile, although Vyse gives no details of this operation.
Vyse made only one reference to the loss of the sarcophagus. “It was embarked at Alexandria,” he wrote,“in the autumn of 1838 on board a merchant-ship, which was supposed to have been lost off Carthagena, as she was never heard of after her departure from Leghorn on the 12th October in that year, and some parts of the wreck were picked up near the former port.”
The loss of the sarcophagus was not exactly a loss to everyone, for in June 1839 the British Museum received a payment of £148 10s. 0d. from an insurance claim on the transport of the sarcophagus. At today’s prices that
would be around £10,000.
At the time Vyse was in Egypt, everything found at the Pyramids, and indeed at any other site, was acknowledged to be the property of the ruling Pasha, and it is not clear what permission Vyse had for the removal of items; but
there was an established routine for obtaining the requisite permissions, which one must assume that Vyse might havefollowed. Two lists exist (published in Vyse’s book), one naming items to be sent to England (mostly bits and pieces, historically interesting and valuable, but not spectacular),and the other of items to remain in Egypt (again mostly bits and pieces, historically interesting and valuable, but not spectacular). Interestingly the sarcophagus does not appear on either list.
The sarcophagus was clearly a well known and important object and its arrival in Britain was eagerly awaited. The British Museum’s Egyptian collection was growing impressively at this time.
In 1824, Rev. Josiah Forshall (1795-1863) was appointed Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. In a letter to Forshall from British Consul Patrick Campbell, written in Alexandria and dated 2nd July 1838, the following, passage occurs: “I beg to inform you that the sarcophagus taken by Colonel Vyse out of the 3d. Pyramid at Ghizeh, and which in your letter to Viscount Palmerston of 7th February last you requested His Lordship to instruct me to send to England, has this day been embarked on board of the English ship the Beatrice, bound forLiverpool and London ... .”
The Beatrice was a type of vessel known as a snow. These were two-masted European merchant ships used between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. As well as having large square sails on both masts, a snow carried a small triangular sail behind the mainmast. The term snow is derived, apparently, from the Dutch word snaauw, meaning snout, a reference to the bluff shape of the ship’s bows.
These sturdy vessels had U-shaped hulls which maximised their cargo carrying capacity. The largest snows could be up to one thousand tons, although the Beatrice was small, at 224 tons. Built in Quebec in 1827, her overall length was 87 feet 9 inches and her breadth 24 feet 2 inches. The hold had a depth of 15 feet 1 inch. Carvel-built (the planks of the hull fitted to the ship’s frames with no overlap, giving the ship smooth sides), she was square-rigged, squaresterned, had a standing bowsprit, sham quarter galleries and the bust of a woman for a figurehead. In 1830, she had been registered to the Port of London. Lloyd’s Register for 1838 and records show her stated voyage was between Liverpool and Alexandria.
Her master and co-owner was Richard Mayle Whichelo, or according some sources, Wichelo. Born in Brighton, Sussex, on the south coast of England, he was about fifty-two in 1838. In 1805, he had served on the hundred-gun First Rate ship, H.M.S. Britannia, as a clerk at the Battle of Trafalgar and had been awarded the Trafalgar Medal.
From copies of Lloyd’s List between 1830 and 1838, it is possible to chart the Beatrice’s voyages between England and Egypt. Her route was always between Liverpool and Alexandria. Regular ports of call included Gibraltar,
Leghorn, Genoa, Civita Vecchia and Malta.
From Lloyd’s List we know that on 20th September 1838, Beatrice left Alexandria’s harbour, ultimately bound for Liverpool. If she sailed with a full complement of crew, there were about twenty men and boys aboard, on a journey and route they should all have known well. From this point the vessel’s movementsbecome hard to track with any degree of certainty.
Vyse says the Beatrice visited the Italian port of Leghorn and departed on 12th October, and that wreckage was later spotted off the Spanish port of Cartagena. Lloyd’s List, on the other hand, records the Beatrice as being hundreds of miles to the south of Leghorn, leaving Malta on 13th October. Clearly it is impossible for Beatrice to have left Leghorn on the 12th, to arrive in Malta on the 13th and sail back to the Spanish coast in a day or so.
It is in this confusion of ‘facts’ that the Beatrice and Menkaura’s sarcophagus disappear, the victim, perhaps, of a sudden storm. It is often assumed that the Beatrice vanished along with her crew, but this may not be
true. The Beatrice’s skipper definitely survived.
Despite, Lloyd’s List stating that the Beatrice and Whichelo sailed from Alexandria on its last, fateful journey on 20th September 1838, the truth is that Whichelo was not on board. We know that he died in 1858; so why was he not on board his own vessel when it sailed? This question will probably never be answered. We do know that twenty days after Beatrice sailed, on 10th October, Whichelo boarded H.M. Steamer Blazer as a passenger in Alexandria bound for Malta.
This nugget of information was reported in the Malta-based newspaper Il Mediterraneo. On 14th October, the Blazer and Whichelo docked in Malta – just one day after the Beatrice had sailed. Presumably, if Whichelo remained on board the Blazer, he would have arrived home in England in late October or early November.
There the story would end, were it not for the fact that in recent years many people have said that they believe they have solved the ‘mystery’ of the lost sarcophagus, or at least think they know where the vessel might be found.
Spanish Egyptologist Esteban Llagostera Cuenca is convinced that he knows where the Beatrice sank. In an interview with the Spanish magazine La Clave (10-16th Jan. 2003) he says the Beatrice sank off the Spanish coast near Cartagena and that he has researched the loss of the vessel in Italy, Egypt, Cartagena and in London.
Among the claims he makes are that the Beatrice sailed under an Italian flag, but cites no source for this statement. He further claims a movement of the ship’s cargo caused the vessel to sink and that Lloyd’s sent inspectors to Cartagena. He says the crew survived and swam ashore and, because they were able to do this, he estimates the wreck could be no more than a mile offshore.
The Professor hints that the wreck now lies within the sea-access routes of a Spanish submarine base, and that any search in a military zone has been vetoed.
I have tried to contact Señor Llagostera for furtherinformation about his theories, but have not, as yet, had any reply to my letters.
Another Spanish magazine, La Aventura de la Historia (No. 25, Nov. 2000), published an article by AlejandroAnca Alamillo and Francisca Navarro Taravila on the fate of the Beatrice and the sarcophagus.
The writers say Vyse chartered two ships to return his ‘booty’ to England, the sarcophagus being loaded on the Beatrice. After leaving Alexandria, the ship visited Cyprus where she experienced problems with moving cargo. The authors add that there was another rumour that the sarcophagus was disembarked on the island, but dismiss this as unlikely.
On 13th October, a sudden and violent storm hit the Beatrice as she neared the Spanish coast. The captain decided to maintain a course for Cartagena but hit rocks that ripped open the wooden hull. The crew were saved, but the cargo was lost. Despite the survival of the crew, it seems no one was able to know the exact location of the wreck. However, it is rumoured that a local diver in Cartagena has discovered the location of the wreck in the entrance to the harbour. He has even recovered a small bell from the vessel. The precise location of the ship remains his jealously guarded secret.
There is also another intriguing question about the Beatrice: what else was in its hold. It is surely unlikely that the sarcophagus was the only antiquity onboard.
Dr Ivan Negueruela of Spain’s National Museum for Maritime Archaeology in Cartagena, told the Spanish newspaper Laverdad (6th June): “The sarcophagus is somewhere on the coast between Cabo de Palos and Mazarrón.”
It is, he said “very important”, but then he adds intriguingly: “so are other objects that are at the bottom of the sea with it. Yes, there may be some surprises.”
The “surprises”, suggests the article, include 200 boxes of antiquities, containing funerary, pink granite sphinxes and gold pieces.
Whether there is any truth in any of these stories, or whether they are the fanciful tales that inevitably get attached to rumours of lost treasure, remains unknown.
If a search is indeed made, it will certainly not be easy, even using the latest technology. International maritime courts might be needed to determine who legally ‘owns’ the sarcophagus: Britain, Spain, Egypt or the
Time has wrapped the story of the lost sarcophagus in romance, rumour and conjecture, fuelled by the prospect of recovering an amazing treasure. It is clear, from the few images that have survived, that the sarcophagus is a splendid item and of course historically important too. Will it ever be recovered from its watery grave? Only time will tell.
|A view of the pyramid of Menkaura at Giza.|