Mansoor Amarna Collection

Dr. Fred Stross Report

From the University of California, Berkeley

Dr. Fred H. Stross, has been familiar with the Mansoor Amarna Collection since the early 1950's. He has made several presentations to academic institutions and published a number of papers on the subject of the Amarna Collection. The following is a recent summary of relevant scientific evidence on record at this time.

Invited Paper presented at



May 1-3, 1987
The University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas

An Examination of a Group of Amarna Limestone Carvings.

Fred H. Stross

Archaeological Research Facility and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory,
University of California, Berkeley, California.

The " Amarna " period of the reign of Akhnaton ( Amenhotep IV ) and his queen Nefertiti represented a strange interlude in the New Kingdom era of Ancient Egypt. Lasting less than two decades ( ca 1379 - 1361 B.C ), it revolutionized the power structure relations between court and clergy. It also produced profound changes in the arts - a trend away from the codified usage of artistic representation to a freer, realistic, and eventually highly stylized, even caricaturing mode. Its high level of achievement, as well as its departure from the conventional made the relatively rare objects from that period uniquely interesting, and valuable. During the first quarter of this century, the Deutsche Orient Gesellschaft and the Egyptian Government jointly undertook the first large-scale excavations of Akhnaton's short-lived residence. The sensational publication in 1923 of the finds signaled the birth of an interesting new industry, the forging of Amarna sculptures. Soon, the purchase of an Amarna object on the open market came to be considered the equivalent of a purchase of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Nevertheless, in 1924, a Cairo dealer in antiques by the name of M. A. Mansoor acquired two small limestone heads in the Amarna style, which were to be the beginning of a cohesive collection of 106 limestone sculptures, ostensibly of the same provenience. Mansoor, whose outlets in Cairo's great hotels ( 1 ) and elsewhere were famous for nearly five decades, was quite aware of the Amarna phenomenon and its ramifications. He considered the pieces he had purchased to be genuine, but subsequently the collection created one of the most celebrated controversies in the antique - art world in recent times ( 2, 3, 4 ). Since the references cited are available, the details of the background will not be repeated here, and only the matters of scientific interest will be discussed in context considered necessary for understanding.


The first technical examination of Mansoor's collection, or parts of it, was made by Alfred Lucas in 1942 ( 5 ) at the request of the Cairo Museum authorities who were interested in acquiring unique Amarna pieces. Lucas' short report, based on visual study of 27 pieces, touched upon weathering characteristics of the surfaces, and on the role played by dendrites in the authentication especially of ancient Egyptian stone objects. He concluded in favor of authenticity of the objects examined ( 6 ).

In 1947, on the suggestion of the representatives of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, several pieces of the collection were brought to New York. A consultant to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by the name of W. J. Young was asked to examine some of the Amarna carvings.

The first report by Mr. Young stated that " .....The larger of the two heads.... appears not to be a natural material. It shows all the indications of being a made stone which could be fabricated in a great many ways..... ." After consultation with E. S. Larsen, professor of geology at Harvard, this startling statement was retracted, and after two years an unfavorable report was issued, dealing mainly with examinations under ultraviolet light and with dendritic deposits, to be discussed below. Even though this final report presented its conclusions without evidence of substance ( 7 ), it set the stage for the problems in store for the collection and its owners.

During the following years the Mansoor family submitted a number of the sculptures to many recognized experts in various fields, who were considered capable of contributing evidence in establishing the antiquity - or lack thereof - of the cut surfaces. Geologists with their specialties in petrology, microscopy, and mineralogy, as well as forensic scientists and chemists, were asked to use their expertise, and imagination, to provide a firm scientific basis for resolving the problem. In the interests of clarity, the telling features of the reports will be discussed under the respective headings in the following sections.

Nature of the stone.

Questions concerning the nature of the stone were first raised by W. J. Young, as stated above, who thought the raw material to be a " made " stone. This was retracted by its author, and it was subsequently shown repeatedly that the material is foraminiferal limestone ( 8 ) known to occur in Egypt ( see A. Lucas' text referred to under ( 5 ). The actual nature of the rock, however, is of distinct interest, since it plays a role in providing evidence in the problem before us.

The carvings are of more or less fine-grained foraminiferal limestone. The stone in the different pieces is pink to dull red, yellow, pale grayish yellow, and white. The colored limestone is not common, but by no means unknown in ancient Egyptian sculpture ( see Lucas, op.cit., p. 414 ). There are well authenticated examples in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and a number of other museums, including some in the United States ( 9 ).

Erosion ( weathering, polishing ).

This aspect was studied by Kirk, Compton, Iskandar, Silver, and Arnal . In this term we include weathering - " natural " - erosion, and also " artificial " erosion, the final polishing, finishing, of a sculpture, since this step leaves characteristic marks discernible with the microscope, and at times with the naked eye. This is of interest in this connection, since a modern forger would normally use modern tools, files, rasps, cutting or polishing wheels which would leave parallel marks on the object. The many tool marks visible are sub parallel or random and indicate that a pointed tool of some type had been used in the polishing process.

Silver's observations in this connection are that " the sculptured surfaces were apparently finished with some sort of loose abrasive, which left patterns of sub parallel, fine lines on the surface. These lines or grooves are approximately 0.1 mm in width ......". The pieces examined by Silver apparently also had undergone polishing with loose sand, a finishing method also widely used by the ancients.

There is also a suggestion that the modern abrasives tend to be detected by careful microscopic study. The late Professor Kirk, who taught forensic chemistry at U.C. Berkeley for many years, often pointed out that it is nearly impossible to remove characteristic materials so completely from an area that no telltale traces can be found even a long time after contact.

Silver dissolved surface scrapings in acid, and on examining the insoluble residue found only constituents to be expected from the type of rock under study, and no evidence of modern, artificial abrasives. Although only negative, this item of evidence is consistent with the other findings reported here.

Natural weathering produces diagnostic effects on the different pieces of the collection. This feature was studied in considerable detail by Arnal, Compton, Iskandar, and others. On some pieces the visually observable erosion is greater on one side than on the other - the erosion of sand- bearing wind, or shifting sand might well produce such a differential effect. Microscopic study shows another interesting effect: In places, the slightly softer limestone matrix has been eroded away from the foraminifera, so that the fossils stand out 0.1 to 0.5 mm above the present level of matrix ( Fig 1,2). It is difficult to imagine producing such an effect artificially, especially before ca 1924, when the objects in question were acquired.

Visual and low-power magnification study of the surfaces yields further evidence. Silver remarks that the " irregular fracture surfaces show an etched quality similar to that of the sculptured surfaces. Only the grooves ( from the finishing steps ) are missing in some places. This strongly suggests that all of the surfaces are of the same age ".

Compton also comments on weathering effects. The breaks on the pieces range from unweathered, modern, to highly weathered, with some surfaces showing intermediate degrees of weathering. Breaks could have been made hundreds of years after the objects had been buried, and still have had time to experience considerable weathering. Compton suggests that the unequal weathering itself is strong evidence for the authenticity of the sculptures.

Compton also attempted to simulate weathering by chemical means. Pitted and honey- combed surfaces were produced, the matrix and the foraminifera were etched to the same degree, and startling colors were also produced. It is also known that attempts artificially to weather limestone surfaces generally cause embrittlement and continuing decay of the surfaces. In the more than sixty years since the objects have been in the possession of the Mansoor family, the character of the surfaces of the sculptures has not noticeably changed.

Patination, miscellaneous surface deposits.

The term " patina " is applied to a number of materials, and indicates an alteration of the surface during long-term exposure to the chemical action of the ambient. Here we take it to mean a very thin, tough, glossy film appearing somewhat irregularly, but pervasively, permeating even the innermost parts of the minute foraminifera.

Patina generated by long exposure to the elements in deserts is know as" desert varnish ", and was studied in an authoritative and detailed article by Engel and Sharp ( 10 ).

In order to apply the information provided by Engel and Sharp, to the Amarna sculptures , Silver set out to see if enrichment of any elements of the rock had taken place in the patina. In 1959, when Silver performed his studies, the sensitive and more direct methods of today were not available. To carry out the determinations, " ....four samples were taken [ on sample # 144] for purposes of comparing the chemistry of the surface and the interior limestone. Surface samples were taken out of both the gray and yellow materials on an old fracture surface by very shallow scrapings of the patina. The same materials were sampled internally along a fresh saw cut from which material had previously been removed for petrographic examination. Table 1 is a comparison of analyses by emission spectroscopy normalized against a series of well established standards for analysis of carbonate rocks. Calcium oxide and carbonate are not reported and make up most of each sample."

For Table I - Please refer to Dr. Leon T. Silver's report, page 6.

In addition to the elements listed in Table I, a general spectrographic survey of trace elements concentrations in the same samples was made. Only two significant enrichments appeared in the surface materials and they are given in Table II.

For Table II - Please refer to Dr. Leon T. Silver's Report, page 6.

" From this table the following conclusions may be drawn :

( 1 ) The samples have the composition of typical impure limestones with the yellow part being somewhat higher in Fe2O3 and MgO than the gray part.

( 2 ) The interior and the surfaces are generally similar with one exception which is believed to be significant. The MnO content increases from .018% to .0325 on the gray surface, and from .024% to .029% on the yellow surface. This is despite the dilution nature of the surface sampling. The surface scrapings include more than just the patina and the contribution of the surface is diluted in these values. In the characteristic natural desert rock patina, the so-called" " "desert varnish " , it has been shown that manganese oxides are invariably enriched more than most other elements. This enrichment process is a very slow one whose precise rate or mechanism is not known, but geologists consider this a reliable indicator of ancient weathered surfaces. ( see article by C.G. Engel and R. P. Sharp....) ".( 10 )

The patina observed and mentioned by most of those who have studied the sculptures was found to be resistant to water, alcohol, acetone, and pyridine ( Iskandar ) and carbon tetrachloride ( Arnal ). Attempts artificially to produce the patina by methods well known to many archaeologists and others dealing with Egyptian antiquities ( including burial of the objects in salt soil, manure, and the like ) results in surfaces that begin to disintegrate and effloresce within a few years. The patina on the objects has not changed, as stated above.

A feature often observed on lithic and ceramic objects that have been buried for long periods of time is a dark, crystalline, fern- or tree-shaped deposit that adheres very firmly to the surfaces to which it is attached. Such deposits are known as dendrites, and are thought to form by passage, residence, and evaporation of ground waters as they leach out and reprecipitate mineral salts, notably those of manganese and iron, which are then converted to the insoluble oxides. Such deposits have long been considered by archaeologists strong evidence for antiquity of artifacts, for it has not been possible so far convincingly to reproduce the characteristics of true dendrites, although it is easy enough to produce soft, spongy dendritic deposits that do not show the hardness, insolubility, and firm adhesion of the ancient counterpart. Iskandar, Silver , Arnal, Compton, and others have described this feature in some detail and recognized it as one of the most telling pieces of evidence. Young, also, in his report acknowledged that dendrites such as he found on the objects he examined " show some indication of considerable age ". However, he continues, " When dendrites are formed in the surface and cleavages, it does not have any significant bearing as to the authenticity of an object ...". This line of reasoning was dismissed out of hand by all other investigators mentioned, since many of the dendrites visible are clearly formed on the carved surfaces of the sculptures ( Fig, 3 ).

In addition to the inorganic deposits, small dark deposits are found on some of the Mansoor objects, which were analyzed by Iskandar and found to be nitrogenous organic substances, " probably animal excretions. Animal excretions, when old, acquire a resinous appearance and are attacked by organic solvents only with difficulty. Since the excretions mentioned are not easily affected by the different solvents, are resinous looking, impregnating, and extremely adherent to the stone, they must have been excreted on these objects since a very long time thus supporting the genuineness of the objects".


In reviewing the studies presented it becomes clear that all of the evidence agreed on by the investigators points to ancient working and subsequent weathering of the carved surfaces, evidence such as was largely worked out after the acquisition of the pieces by M.A. Mansoor. It also seems clear that very few of the features could have been artificially brought about even with technology at our command today, let alone in the 1920's when the objects were acquired. The only tangible arguments made against the antiquity of the work were allegations that 1) the material was " a made stone", 2) the dendrites, admittedly present, and a sign of antiquity, were "embedded in the surface rather than "formed on the surface ", and 3) fluorescence under ultraviolet light gave " a general indication that a false condition exists" ( Young ), and 4 ) two small heads of princesses were made of " lime-sandstone ( ? ) my knowledge was not used during the entire pharaonic history of the Nile valley either in architecture, nor in relief art, statuary or in minor arts " ( Muller ). That there is no merit in these arguments has been demonstrated by many of the investigators ( as discussed in the foregoing ), and agreed on by all, except their originators.

In conclusion, it should be emphasized that all of the technical depositions were arrived at only after lengthy and careful study by the respective investigators. On the other hand, a number of individuals disputing the authenticity of the sculptures on stylistic grounds, have refused to see, let alone to study the sculptures. There are, of course, a number of highly regarded egyptologists and art historians, however, who have studied the sculptures and have thought, and still believe them to be products of antiquity.


  1. Nelson, N. Shepheard's Hotel, passim. Barrie and Rockliff, London 1960
  2. Hochfield, S. ARTnews 77 ( 6 ), 50-57,1978
  3. Stross, F. H., Analytical Chemistry 32, 17 A- 36A, 1960
  4. Stross, F. H. and W. J. Eisenlord. A report on a group of Limestone Carvings Owned by M. A. Mansoor and Sons, published privately, 1965
  5. Alfred Lucas was Director, Chemical Department, [ Government of ] Egypt, and Consulting Chemist to the Department of Antiquities. His Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries remains a classic on the subject. The text repeatedly quoted here is co-authored with J. R. Harris, 4th Edition, 1962
  6. Lucas. A., " In my opinion, the balance of evidence is in favour of the objects being genuine ".
  7. Cf , for example, the report by the late P. L. Kirk, professor of criminalistics ( U.C. Berkeley ), March 16, 1959 : "....The sole report in which the authenticity of the sculptures is brought into question is that of W. J. Young. His report is chiefly impressive for its lack of reasoned conclusions, and the distinct impression that he is expressing only a personal opinion that he does not believe the sculptures to be genuine; hence any observation he makes is so interpreted. His conclusions from examination with ultraviolet light cannot be given unqualified acceptance by anyone experienced in the technique ." Professor F. J. Turner ( U. C. Berkeley, Earth Sciences ) comments : "The report of W. J. Young.... carries no conviction. The evidence cited by him gives no indication of the relative age of the sculptured stone surfaces. His comments are couched in language that in places is meaningless to a scientist... The report and appended ' results and conclusions ' cannot be taken seriously as a solution to your problems. "
  8. E.g. in the report by Richard L. Hay, Professor of Geology, ( then at U. C. Berkeley ), February 10, 1975. " The intact nature of the delicate foram tests together with the euhedral shape of dolomite crystals shows that this limestone could not have been made by cementing crushed limestone; it must have been made b consolidation of globigerina ooze in situ ( without application or pressure ) ... Unquestionably this is a natural limestone....."
  9. A well-known example from the 18 th dynasty is the pink limestone head of Amen-em-heb, overseer of the estates of King Thotmes III in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. An unfinished pink limestone statuette representing Men-Kau-Ra is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Boston Fine Arts Museum also has several pieces of pink and yellow limestone, and so do other museums. It is surprising that this fact does not seem to be known to some egyptologists of renown ( see report by H. W. Muller, 2-15-1960)
  10. Engel, C. G., and R. P. Sharp, Chemical Data on Desert Varnish, Bull. Geol. Soc.America, 69, 487-518, 1958.