Beginning the Cylinder, an image from a series of 16 albumen photographs that sold at £2800 and depicted various stages in the moving of Cleopatra’s Needle, variously titled by Waynman Dixon in pencil on the mount.

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In 1819, in the wake of the Battle of the Nile and the restoration of control of Egypt to the Turks, Mehemet Ali, the Pasha of Egypt, offered Britain a token of thanks - a 200-ton obelisk of rose pink granite marking the victories of Thothmes III from a site at Alexandria. We know it better as Cleopatra's Needle.

The gift was a magnificent one but it was a case of postage and packing not included. Originally erected with its sister obelisk (which now stands in Central Park, New York) before the Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis, both had been removed by the Romans to Alexandria to adorn the palaces of the Caesars.

In 1301 an earthquake had brought 'Britain's' obelisk to the ground, where it remained for over five and a half centuries.

More than 50 years had passed following Egypt's generous gift but - with the government reluctant to risk public funds on such a major engineering project - none of the various proposals to bring the 'the prostrate obelisk' to London had come to fruition.

It was not until 1876 when Sir Erasmus Wilson, a leading surgeon and freemason eager to see a memorial to Nelson on the Thames, put up £10,000, that the project was taken seriously.

He commissioned John Dixon, an engineer and fellow freemason from the north east of England, to arrange its excavation and passage. Dixon offered his brother Waynman, fellow engineer turned Egyptologist, a key role on the project.

Dixon's ingenious plan was to encase the obelisk in a huge floating iron cylinder, 92ft (28m) long and 15ft (4.57m) in diameter. Cleopatra had a vertical stem and stern, a rudder, two bilge keels, a mast for balancing sails and a deckhouse for the crew. It was made buoyant by dividing the case into eight watertight compartments.

The vessel left Alexandria towed by the P&O steamer Olga on September 21, 1877. Progress was steady until 20 days into the journey when the Olga encountered a violent storm in the Bay of Biscay. In a desperate attempt to save Cleopatra's crew, six men were drowned and the cargo cut loose. Thanks to superb Victorian engineering, the giant cigar case was spotted five days later floating off the Northern coast of Spain - although additional costs of £8000 in salvage fees were incurred before it could make its triumphal journey up the Thames to the Embankment on September 12, 1878.

The story of how an Egyptian obelisk was brought to London from Alexandria was contained within letters, watercolours and photographs offered for sale by Hampton & Littlewood of Alphington, Exeter on January 30-31.

The £20,000 archive prompted interest from a number of institutions including the British Museum. It was being sold by a direct descendant of Waynman Dixon.

Among the most commercially valuable of the 20 lots was a series of 16 albumen prints depicting various stages in the transport of the Needle, all variously titled in pencil on the mount by Waynman Dixon (who is also seen in most of the photographs).

Some of the prints were signed in the negative Borgiotti, Pho Alexandrie D'Egypte, the photographer appointed to record the events. They took £2800 (plus 17.5 per cent premium).

A group of 22 watercolours and one pencil sketch painted by Waynman Dixon while in Egypt took £3400,
while a collection of 27 detailed letters he wrote to his family from 1872-76 took £4000.

Sent from various addresses, such as Ghezih Bridge Works, on board Dahabuah 'Griffin', Hotel Abbot Alexandria, Hom-Ed-Dikkeh Alexandria etc, this four-year correspondence traced the young engineer's life and work in Egypt and includes reference to his most famous discovery - the air shafts at the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

It was while examining one of the large internal rooms known as the Queen's Chamber that Waynman Dixon found the wall to be hollow in two places. Inserting a piece of wire into one of the joints in the masonry he exposed the enigmatic 8in (20cm) diameter shafts that extend the full depth of the structure.

Plans in Dixon's own hand showing the West and East wall of the Queen's Chamber of Khufu in elevation dated Cairo 21/6/73, took £850.

One secret was not divulged by the archive. It has been alleged that Dixon discovered three sacred objects in the chamber, which he removed and gave to his brother John for safe passage to England. Legend has it they were placed within the pedestal on which Cleopatra's Needle now stands.

By Roland Arkell