Mystery of Ancient Egypt Diary Uncovered

10 October 2013


An excerpt from Max Weidenbach’s diary.

The important diary of a famous Ancient Egypt explorer has been uncovered – allowing his German-born family to visit and connect with his legacy.

Researchers were aware of the diary of Maximillian (Max) Weidenbach – an explorer and goldminer – which was written in the 1840s.

The diary was found just days before Weidenbach’s descendants were due to arrive at the Museum to view other items from his collection.

In the 1990s, South Australian Museum Honorary Research Associate Michael O’Donoghue was researching shabtis – Egyptian funereal statuettes – from the Museum’s collection when he began to dig deeper into their history.

“I went back to the acquisition records and found that some of these shabtis were part of a much larger donation to the Museum from a Mrs Arnold in 1944. A whole range of Egyptian items were donated, along with around 40 books – including a handwritten diary in German,” said Michael O’Donoghue.

Mr O’Donoghue began using his detective skills to trace the family history and find out where these Ancient Egyptian artefacts came from. Mrs Arnold had inherited the collection from her husband, Mr Arnold Arnold – but tracing the origin of the collection then became more difficult.

With the help of the Arnold family, Mr O’Donoghue discovered that Arnold’s original name was Mr Arnold Weidenbach. He had changed his name during World War I when widespread paranoia surrounded German heritage. The collection had been passed to him by his uncle, Max Weidenbach.

The Weidenbach family was incredibly helpful during Mr O’Donoghue’s investigation and they knew that the handwritten diary was Max’s account of the Egyptian expedition. Intrigued by all he’d learnt, Mr O’Donoghue decided to study Weidenbach’s diary. There was one small problem – he couldn’t find it.

“We searched and searched through the South Australian Museum archives and storage facilities and we also enlisted the help of Adelaide’s Ancient Egypt study group, but we couldn’t find it,” said Mr O’Donoghue.

When he was 19, Max Weidenbach and his brother Ernst joined a three-year expedition to Egypt. The expedition, from 1842 to 1845, was led from Germany (then Prussia) by the famous Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius after he’d convinced the Emperor of Prussia to fund the project. The purpose of the expedition was to collect information on, and antiquities from, Ancient Egypt. Weidenbach was trained to copy hieroglyphs while his brother was an artist.

Earlier this year, descendants of Weidenbachs planned a reunion in Adelaide and Ernst’s descendant arriving from Germany had asked to view the items donated to the Museum. Mr O’Donoghue was preparing for the visit with the Museum’s Head of Foreign Ethnology DrBarry Craig when good fortune struck.

“Barry and I were pulling together all of the items from the different sections of the Museum, when we came to the Rare Books section of the Library. Barry handed me a green, bound book – the diary. We were thrilled.”

Max Weidenbach's bound diary.

Max Weidenbach’s diary.

The Museum’s Rare Books Library only holds bound, printed books and not handwritten manuscripts. At some stage Weidenbach’s diary had been bound and looked like a normal, printed book. It had been hidden from sight.

The family was delighted. They knew that the Museum had spent years searching for the diary and they could now view it alongside the many other donated objects. Although the diary was written in Old German, some parts of the diary could be read by the family for the first time.

“As their descendants tell us, Mrs Arnold didn’t like her husband’s Egyptian collection – there were parts of mummies, hands and all sorts of things – so she donated it to the Museum after he died,” Mr O’Donoghue said.

In contrast, the Emperor of Prussia was so pleased with the expedition and the artefacts collected that he gave each member an inscribed ring made from gold and lapis lazuli. Max and Ernst Weidenbach’s rings have been passed down through their descendants and are the only ones remaining today.

Weidenbach migrated to Adelaide a few years after returning from the expedition and travelled to the goldfields in Victoria with his brother Moritz, who had earlier migrated to Adelaide. A record of the gold he found also appears to be listed in the back of his diary, although it still remains to be completely translated. Weidenbach’s time in the goldfields was successful. In 1861, he built what is now known as Abergeldie House at Glen Osmond in Adelaide and became a winemaker.

Modern technology means that Max Weidenbach’s diary will never be hidden again. The binding has been carefully removed and each page electronically scanned, so that it can be transcribed and translated and shared with other researchers and historians around the world. A copy is now being translated by Dr Susanne Binder at the Australian Centre for Egyptology, Macquarie University. Michael O’Donoghue and the team at the South Australian Museum are eagerly awaiting the completion of the translation to learn more about Max’s adventures – and fill in more pieces of the puzzles of Australian and Ancient Egyptian history.