Anyone who has seen the movie Gallipoli is familiar with the Anzacs training in Egypt – and playing football in front of the pyramids.
It’s a poignant image of the world’s youngest nation coming to the world’s most ancient land to prepare to fight an utterly pointless war.
It turns out those Diggers were possessed of insatiable curiosity – and a few of them were even connoisseurs.
Captain Charles Pinney and fellow Australian soldiers on camels with Egyptian guides in front of pyramids and sphinx, 1914-1916. Photo Credit: Macleay Museum, The University of Sydney
One such antiquarian was Dr John Basil St Vincent Welch, who was in the first wave on the original Anzac Day 1915 and was twice wounded in the Gallipoli campaign before finally being evacuated with jaundice.
He made it back to Australia and his wife Mildred in 1918 but succumbed to his wounds soon after, begetting a single son shortly before his passing.
In addition to his son who bore his name, the physician also left behind a priceless collection of 185 Egyptian antiquities some of them thousands of years old, including cartonnage coffin fragment, amulets, scarab beetles, bronze figurines, Roman coins, and even a mummified cat.
This collection has now found its way into the Nicholson Museum at Sydney University after a century tucked away in a glass case on a veranda in a home in Northbridge on Sydney’s leafy north shore.
The Nicholson’s assistant curator Candace Richards says the St Vincent Welch collection is remarkable for both the range of material collected and its scale.
“No single Australian soldier is known to have collected as many artefacts during their service,” Richards says.
“The majority of items in the collection are genuine antiquities, dating from the New Kingdom through to the Greco-Roman period.”
However, there are at least three curious Sphinx-headed scarabs that are certainly fakes.
“Such curios were for sale everywhere throughout the marketplaces of Cairo and Luxor.”
The official Australian war historian C.E.W. Bean warned the Diggers to be on the lookout for these fakes in his 1915 booklet, What to know in Egypt: A guide for Australasian soldiers.
“He advises the unwitting soldier that the ‘little antiquities offered for sale in the streets may be genuine but are almost always a modern sham’, and informed his readers that genuine relics are able to be purchased from the museum sale room.”
“It is possible that some of the collection, such as the Roman coins the bronze lizard mummy container and maybe even the amulets still tagged were purchased through the museum.”
When she began to examine the bequest by Welch’s descendants Richards says she was “very excited, and really intrigued by what could actually be in this home”.
“The St Vincent Welch collection is indeed a significant donation to the Nicholson Museum and is the largest collection from a single WWI soldier in Australia to make its way into a public museum.
“What makes it so special is the variety of materials he collected from amulets, to small bronze items like the lizard mummy coffin and Ptolemaic and Roman coins as well as the mummified animal.
One long object wrapped in linen and covered in resin is thought to be the mummified cat, and will undergo medical imaging scans to determine what animal, or even if it is an animal wrapped within the bandages.
“One unusual item I enjoy in the collection is a plain ceramic container that has been held together using medical tape, perhaps an on the spot conservation job by St Vincent Welch, using the materials he had to hand being a doctor. “
The St Vincent Welch collection, while the largest and most recent addition, is not the only collection of Sydney University Alumni and WWI soldiers held by the Nicholson Museum.
“New research into the museum archives has revealed there are several diggers who returned from the war front with small collections of Egyptian artefacts, both genuine and fake, that were donated to the Nicholson by themselves or their descendants.
“These include Dr Harry Leaver, whose collection of 14 items includes some of the earliest painted pottery from ancient Egypt, dated 3300-3200BC and Dr Reginald Halloran whose collection of 15 items includes shabti figures, who were to assist one in the afterlife, and calcite platters dated to the first Dynasties of Egyptian Pharaohs,” Richards concludes.
Header Image: Australian Army camp in Egypt, 1914-1916.
Image Credit: Macleay Museum, The University of Sydney