Gold from our geological collection, and frankincense and myrrh from our Pharmaceutical collection.
The three gifts the Magi traditionally brought to the infant Christ are enshrined in symbolism dating back many thousands of years.
In 243BC the Syrian King Seleucus II Callinicus made an offering to the God Apollo at the temple of Miletus in modern Turkey which included vessels of gold and quantities of frankincense and myrrh amongst other rare and valuable gifts.
Gold has always been rare and alluring, some have suggested that its colour and incorruptibility made it symbolic of the sun, but in Roman times frankincense and myrrh were far more valuable and ideally suited as offerings for kings and gods alike. Gold is generally found as flakes or nuggets, so is easily worked and can be found all over the world, even in the UK.
In modern times it has become economically viable to extract gold from ore with as little gold content as 0.5 parts per million. As well as its use in jewellery, gold is important in the electronics industry and can be found in smartphones and computers, it’s even used in food and drink and has been designated the E number 175.
Frankincense and myrrh are small trees in the family Burseraceae whose resins are collected by tapping or cutting the bark.
Ancient Egyptians highly prized both, in fact the earliest reference to frankincense was its use by Queen Hatshepsut (1478–1458 BC) as an eyeliner, and myrrh was used in the embalming of mummies.
Frankincense and myrrh were both imported from Arabia and were often burnt as incense over the dead, with the aromatic smoke helping to usher the soul to the next life, and both were used by the Greeks as perfumes. Some of the earliest information about Greek perfumes comes from the writings of the Greek botanist Theophrastus who wrote a nine volume text entitled ‘Enquiry into Plants’ the ninth volume of which deals with medicinal plants, gums and resins. For his time, he was rather more scientific than many of his superstitious contemporaries. For example, he lightly ridiculed the idea that peony should be gathered at night, because if you do it by day and are seen by a woodpecker whilst gathering the fruit you risk blindness, but if you’re cutting the root at the time, you risk an anal prolapse!
Both frankincense and myrrh are still mainly collected from wild trees and due to their rarity still command a high price.
Sadly both species are classed as Near Threatened due to their rarity, but their economic value makes it unlikely they will become extinct.
So, as you hear the various stories and carols this season spare a thought for the intriguing history of these kingly presents.
And finally, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from all at Scarborough Museums Trust.
The gold, frankincense and myrrh are part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust.
For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on [email protected] or 01723 384510.