In the popular Indiana Jones film series, Dr. Henry Jones, an intrepid and highly romanticized rendition of dedicated academic archaeologist, travels the world in search of ancient treasures lost to time. Among his exploits had been the recovery of the Arc of the Covenant of Old Testament fame, as well as a quest for the Holy that put him face-to-face with an immortal Templar Knight who protected the sacred carpenter’s cup.

During his adventures, Indiana Jones had to battle legions of Nazis, whose esoteric interests and evil plans for world domination set them on course for the acquisition of such powerful artifacts. Fortunately, in real life no antiquities with miraculous powers were ever recovered by the Nazis, nor do many real archaeologists carry whips, wear fedoras, or travel the world battling against the forces of evil.

However, from time to time stories do emerge that would at least be worthy of comparison to the Indiana Jones films. In fact, one recent discovery of this very sort led a German museum to the discovery of a lost stone tablet from ancient Egypt, with an unusual history dating back at least 3,000 years.

During the reign of Rameses II, Ptahmose, High Priest of Amun and Vizier of southern Egypt, commissioned a portrait of himself, which was chiseled into stela (also called a stele). As a means of preserving the image, a glaze was applied to the finished stela, an unusual practice for Egyptian art of that period.

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The Stela of Ptahmose

In 1910, Berlin’s National Museums were able to secure purchase of a fragment of the slab, which had previously been kept in an English collection. It remained on display in Berlin up until the onset of World War II, after which the looming threat of war led to much of the museum’s rarest antiquities being moved off site to prevent destruction.

The Stela of Ptahmose, however, was left behind; thus, after the war it was long believed that this fragment of Egypt’s ancient past had been lost, or even worse, destroyed during the bombings that ensued during the war years.

That is, until recently. In late May 2017, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation announced that Nico Staring, a Dutch Egyptologist, had recovered the stone fragment, which had resided all these years in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. reports that the missing portion of the Ptahmose stela had been recovered in 1945, at which time it was brought to the United States:

Research showed a Dutch-American scientist, Samuel Abraham Goudsmit, had purchased the stele in 1945 from a private collector in Germany and bequeathed it to the Michigan museum, the foundation said.

Goudsmit was the scientific head of a secret U.S. army mission investigating Nazi Germany’s efforts to build a nuclear bomb, as well as an enthusiastic amateur archaeologist.

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Goudsmit in 1928

In other words, Goudsmit, who was famous for being one of the originators of the concept of electron spin (with George Uhlenbeck) in 1925, was a physicist, rather than an archaeologist.

Nonetheless, his story is fascinating, as well as the fact that the famous fragment of the Ptahmose Stela had made its way all the way to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where it has remained since the Second World War.


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