A World Beneath the Sands: Adventurers and Archaeologists in the Golden Age of Egyptology
Toby Wilkinson, 2020. London : Picador. 512pp. Available in hardback, paperback, and ebook from various retailers. ISBN 9781509858705

– Eleni Vassilika

The non-specialist museum visitor may wonder how ancient Egyptian objects have ended up in western museums. Specialists will scan labels for provenance information that may confirm the taste of the collector, who made the gift or bequest. What cannot be gleaned from a museum visit is the back story—the circumstances by which the objects made their way out of Egypt. Wilkinson provides that back story, tracing the [re-] discovery of Egypt under Ottoman control where, until Napoleon’s conquest and subsequent loss of the country, western visitors were infrequent.

Dominique Vivant Denon is associated with Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt attended by 155 intellectuals (savants), who produced fine documentation of Egypt’s monuments towards the publication of the Description de l’Egypte (140 drawings were Denon’s own). It’s a famous story. What may not be known to all, though, is that Denon had been a diplomat/spy for Louis XV to Russia, Sweden and Naples, that his properties were confiscated during the revolution or that he attached himself to the widow Marie-Josèph-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, who came to be known as Joséphine, wife of Napoleon. The less laudable aspect of the two men’s association is how Napoleon and Denon travelled throughout Europe confiscating artworks for the Louvre, where Denon would be appointed director in 1802, holding the post until 1815. Bernardino Drovetti was another Napoleon faithful, who served in the Egyptian campaign and thereafter as Consul-General for France until 1814 and again between 1820-29. He had a virtual monopoly on ‘collecting’ antiquities, which he did ruthlessly and indiscriminately with an eventual sale in mind. When his British counterpart Henry Salt arrived on the scene in 1816, the competitive ransacking would proceed in earnest. Their mutual dislike would characterise British and French administrative and scholarly relations (to which the Germans were unwelcome latecommers) for the next century. Through the help of Giovanni Battista Belzoni in this drama, Salt sent the colossal bust of Ramesses II —referred to variously as Ozymandias or the Young Memnon— to the British Museum. Belzoni aspired to win credibility in London, and brought a scale model of the tomb of King Sety I to the Egyptian Hall Piccadilly in 1821. Another exhibition highlight of that year was the arrival in the Louvre of the Circular Zodiac from the Temple of Dendara. A letter written by one Champollion applauded the fact that it had ended up in Paris and not London, but expressed regret all the same for its removal, and he admonished the French not to follow the example of Lord Elgin.

The author provides a lengthy exigesis on the understanding of hieroglyphs from Diodoros Siculus (1st century BC), through Horapollo (4th century AD) to the Enlightenment and its neoplatonic mystical (non-philological) approaches. Then comes the self-important figure of Jean-François Champollion, a committed Bonapartist, nearly indicted for treason for his participation in a rebellion in Grenoble (1821), losing his college post as a result, and using the free-time now to decipher hieroglyphs (1822).  Champollion did not acknowledge the crucial prelimary work of the self-effacing British Quaker, Thomas Young, who had been warned by Champollion’s own professor not to offer him too much information. Enjoying the code-breaker’s limelight, Champollion, visited Turin (1824) just as Drovetti’s first ‘collection’ of some 5000 objects, sold to Carlo Felice, Duke of Savoy, was being unpacked; thence to Florence to visit Leopoldo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, to cast his eyes over the recently acquired collection of Giuseppe di Nizzoli who had capitalised on the high price paid for the Drovetti Collection. From there Champollion proceeded to the Livorno docks (1825) to see Salt’s newly arrived collection, which he lobbied hard for King Charles X to acquire (1827). Champollion succeeded where the horse-trader-turned-antiquities-dealer Giuseppe Passalaqua had not; the latter’s collection of 1600 pieces was sold to Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia for Berlin (1828), where Passalaqua was conveniently installed as curator. Champollion received a post at the Louvre, but the colleagues there disliked both him and his politics and created obstacles, plus his membership to the Académie des Inscriptions was blocked. He pulled off a leave of absence —for a Franco-Tuscan expedition to Egypt together with Ippolito Rosselini (1828)—to  which Drovetti threw up further obstacles. Champollion returned to his unhappy post in the Louvre in 1830, dying of a stroke two years later at the age of 41.

This collecting frenzy Toby Wilkinson sets in an historical context, with Pasha Muhammad Ali usurping privileges from the Ottomans on the one hand, and on the other using antiquities as a form of currency to encourage European help in modernising Egypt. The Ottoman Empire’s days were numbered, thanks in part to a Greek rebellion against the yoke of four centuries’ rule, which Britain, France, and Russia endorsed. Muhammad Ali had militarized Egypt and now had to respond to the Ottoman call for military aid (in exchange for Crete), but his fleet was thoroughly destroyed by Allied forces at the Battle of Navarino (1827).

In addition to the historical background, Wilkinson entertains the reader with the bit-players in Egypt. William Thomson, who had left Inverness after a brawl, joined the British army in Egypt, was taken prisoner, became enslaved and converted to Islam; he was ultimately freed (by Salt in 1815), took to wearing Turkish dress and was thereafter known as OsmanEffendi. Slave auctions in Cairo were a source for paler-skinned Greek women (three to ten times the price of darker women) whom Egyptologists (James Burton, Robert Hay) bought as companions or to educate. An 1855 edict would end the practice, but the rural population was still bound as intermittent corvée labour. Many were the ex-army men and chancers who had made their way to Egypt.  Richard William Howard Vyse explored the pyramids at Giza by using his army blasting skills and boring with rods (1836). Louis De Bellefonds also blasted at Saqqara (1850s). The Prussian army officer Johann Heinrich von Minutoli dutifully collected antiquities for his crown prince (1820-21 later Friedrich Wilhelm IV). Other characters visited the Nile for health reasons, like Lucy Duff Gordon (1862) who lived on the roof of the Luxor Temple and vociferously championed the peasantry. She befriended all types including the American EdwinSmith, known from museum labels in Brooklyn, but who was also said to produce fakes.

In 1836 there were 3000 foreign residents in Egypt, but by the 1840s that number had grown to 50,000. They risked death from regular outbreaks of plague (which took Henry Salt’s wife, 1824) and dysentery (killed Salt in 1827 and Osman Effendi in 1835). Egypt’s modernisation was not driven by the Sultan in Constantinople, but by the semi-autonmous Pasha Muhammed Ali relying on western know-how for development: land reclamation (1.25 million acres), irrigation canals (8400 miles), railways (1,185), primary schools (4500) bridges (430). The largest project, the Suez Canal, was entrusted to the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, arousing British anxiety lest it threaten their access to India. The British pressured the Sultan and received navigation rights and 130 million francs in return for permitting the project (which cost 453.6 million francs) to proceed and duly open in November 1869. Corruption exacerbated the Egyptian debt problem which soared from $16 million (1862) to $443  million (1875), leaving Ismail Pasha (who negotiated the title Khedive or Viceroy from the Sultan) unable to meet interest payments. He sold his 44% interest in the Suez Canal to Britain for $4 million (part funded by the Rothschilds). Effectively, the British took administrative control of Egypt, allowing the French primacy over intellectual activities (confirmed by an entente cordiale in 1902).

This is how the French came to run the Egyptian Antiquities Service and the Egyptian museum for a century.  AugusteMariette would be the first of a long line, arriving in Egypt in Autumn 1850 in a failed attempt to acquire ancient manuscripts for the Louvre, and he ended up spending the Louvre’s funds instead on clandestine night excavations at Saqqara in search of the Serapeum (mentioned in Strabo’s 1st century account). Along one one axis alone he found 134 sphinxes. Mariette’s finds were smuggled aboard French ships escorted by navy frigates. To confuse the local daytime antiquities inspectors, Mariette’s assistant produced fakes. Eventually, the poacher turned gamekeeper to head the Antiquities Service. Fearing German ascendancy in Egypt following their siege and capture of Paris (January 1871) and the subsequent ceding of Alsace and Lorraine, Mariette appointed the German Emile Brugsch as assistant in the Museum, but effectively blocked his further promotion.

Egyptologists went to Egypt to make copies of inscriptions like the German Karl Richard Lepsius (1842), but also to collect for their sponsoring institutions like Ludwig Borchardt as the new Germany played colonisation catch-up. It was Borchardt, who contrived to take the now iconic bust of Nefertiti to Berlin (1913, initially to the home of his excavation sponsor James Simon). Most wily of them all was the English Egyptologist Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge, buying agressively for the British Museum (between 1891 and 1930). Budge, of mysterious birth, supported and mentored by the future Prime Minister Gladstone, was utterly unscrupulous. While under police surveillance, he arranged for local men to tunnel into a building to retrieve his sequestered crates of antiquities. Because of his good relations with local dealers, Budge acquired excellent material, despite the increasing number of forgeries that were making their appearance by the 1890s. The American Charles Edwin Wilbour made his fortune, took up Egyptology as a pastime, went to Egypt to copy inscriptions and built an important collection now in the Brooklyn Museum.

The Antiquities Service was ineffectual at stemming the illicit antiquities trade. Meanwhile voices lamenting the rape of Egypt were being raised. The American consul George Gliddon published a particularly sharp attack (1841), followed by the English writer Amelia Edwards who founded the Egypt Exploration Fund (1882)  to elevate digs to scientific archaeological status in an effort to preserve Egypt’s patrimony. She was dismissed as sentimental by the BM’s Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities so that the actual founding of the society took place in the Department of Coins and Medals. Amelia wanted Heinrich Schliemann to lead the excavations, but Gaston Maspero, Mariette’s successor, could not bear the idea of an arrogant and abrasive German. On a fundraising tour to America, Amelia was inspired by the college dedicated for women at Vassar, leading her to endow a chair of Egyptology at UCL, where women could study for degrees, unlike  at Cambridge or Oxford. To lead the EEF excavations, Amelia chose William Matthew Flinders Petrie He was thorough in his approach, valued the study of stratigraphy and pottery, and he published his reports and books after every season. He was a difficult man, who lived a spartan existence on sites and ate out of often aged tins, expecting the same from others; this included T.E. Lawrence, who joined one of his excavations. Another scholar described Petrie thus: ‘thoroughly unkempt, clad in ragged, dirty shirt and trousers, worn-out sandals and no socks… not merely careless but deliberately solvenly and dirty’. Petrie fell out with the BM over the quality of his finds, which they considered worthless, and he would soon quit the EEF (1886). But he continued to excavate and to complain against a French-run antiquities service that would award more promising site-concessions to native Egyptian antiquities dealers.

The first museum in Egypt (1835) was denuded by the Pasha through diplomatic gifting (the final clear out would go to Archduke Maximilian (1855), and is now in Vienna). The next museum at Bulaq proved unsuitable and was moved to Giza, to the Old Harem Palace  (1890). A series of disastrous short-lived Antiquities Service directors succeeded Maspero (Grébaut 1887; De Morgan 1892; Loret) and the illicit trade flourished. Finally, Maspero agreed to return from France to lead the service (1899), just as eleven columns in Karnak’s Hypostyle Hall came crashing down. With renewed energy he oversaw the creation and publication of a series of Cairo Museum catalogues, the invigillation of sites, the electric lighting of tombs, the excavation of the Karnak Cachette (which produced some 472 statues 8000 bronzes and a total 17,000 objects) and its transfer to the new (French-designed) purpose-built neoclassical museum we know today in Tahrir Square (1902). Even here, high Nile inundations caused flooding, and the submerged decorated coffins caused one Egyptologist to start a project to document the important corpus of religious texts they bore.

Theodore Davis, essentially a chancer, may have earned an illicit fortune in New York, then purchased a Theban necropolis concession and became a hobbyist archaeologist. Later he hired Howard Carter (1903), who struck lucky finding the royal tomb of Tuthmosis IV (chariots, furniture and a total of 612 objects, 84 of which went to Boston’s MFA), and the rich tomb of Yuya and Tjuyu, which went to the Cairo Museum (1905). Having discovered 18 royal tombs, Davis imagined that he had exhausted the Valley of the Kings and stopped (1914). His own rich collection went to the MMA, and his excavation concession was taken over by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon of Highclere Castle  along with Carter in his employ. When the Turks joined the Central Powers (1914), the British found themselves at war with the Ottomans and took the opportunity to declare a formal protectorate over Egypt. After the war, Howard Carter struck it lucky again with his discovery of the immensely rich royal tomb of Tutankhamun (1922), that took a decade to empty. Growing nationalism, decided the fate of the 5000 objects: they would go to Cairo. This was in stark contrast to the earlier discovery (1906) of the intact private tomb of Kha, whose 500-odd items Ernesto Schiaparelli hastily emptied in three days and managed to send to the Turin Museum to join the thousands of object he had excavated, almost by remote control, elsewhere in Egypt.

Wilkinson’s prodigious accountbrings the names we encounter on museum labels vividly to life along with the mostly turbulent historical context. He is not judgemental in his description of the veritable pillage of Egypt, perhaps purposely, so that the reader draws conclusions and disabuses him/herself of the beautiful illusion that Egyptian art made an orderly entrance into western museums. This is a book any archaeologist  would have wanted to write, but somehow never did. As the Egyptologist Arthur Weigall wrote (1923) “It is the business of the archaeologist to wake the dreaming dead: not to send the living to sleep”. Toby Wilkinson has managed the former admirably.

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