Divided goddess to become whole again

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IF YOU CAN'T possess the whole goddess, then get your hands on as much of her as you can. That, at least, has been the principle of many of the world's collectors since the last century - with disputes over rightful possession of ancient treasures rumbling on for decades.

Museums in Australia and Egypt, however, have joined forces in a way that provides a model of co-operation for all those less mature countries and institutions who squabble over the human heritage, rather in the manner of the "mother" who came before Solomon and agreed to have the baby she claimed cut in half.

Sydney University's Nicholson Museum has possessed since 1860 the torso of a statue carved out of black volcanic rock in the reign of Tutankhamun in 1300BC. The statue probably represents either Isis or Hathor.

Since the later part of the last century the Egyptian Museum in Cairo has possessed a head from the same period, believed to be either Isis or Hathor. The head was found in the Temple of Karnak in Luxor. The torso was bought by Charles Nicholson, who founded the Australian museum, but no-one knows where he got it, as his papers were destroyed in a fire early this century.

So things might have stayed, without the intervention of the American academic Ray Johnson, who guessed the head and torso might belong together.

He persuaded the Australians and Egyptians to check for a possible fit, and for the first time for millennia, Isis/Hathor had the chance of being a whole goddess once more.

That would of course have meant one or other of her possessors surrendering their bit of her for the sake of art. Such love is possibly too much to expect on the human rather than the divine level, and anyway, Egyptian law now prevents Tutankhamun artefacts being taken out of the country.

But the museums did come up with the next best solution. Mohamed Saleh, the director-general of the Egyptiam Museum, has just delivered an exact cast of the head of the goddess to Australia. And he will return to Egypt bearing an exact cast of the torso.

So the world - or at least the Egyptian and Australian part of it - will now be able to admire Isis/Hathor in all her 3,000-year-old glory. In a manner of speaking, anyway.

However, to view her in her true glory, as she was originally created, we will have to wait for an age even more golden than our own.