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“The idea of a kind of intact tomb, at a certain moment where the archaeologist breaks through the door and lifts up a lamp to reveal the glint of gold everywhere. That’s become the defining moment for archaeology.”
What do we know about the people who explored and studied Egypt’s ancient civilizations? The notebooks of well-known figures such as Howard Carter, who unearthed King Tut’s tomb in 1919 and created stunning, detailed renderings of it, reveal how Europeans have tried for centuries to unravel the mysteries of Egypt’s ancient languages, cultures, rituals, and monuments. The history of the exploration of Egypt tells not only of our drive to understand the ancient world, but also the political machinations and contests that motivated such exploration.
Chris Naunton’s new book, Egyptologists’ Notebooks: The Golden Age of Nile Exploration in Words, Pictures, Plans, and Letters, uses the often-beautiful records of early explorers and archaeologists from the 17th through 20th centuries to give insight into their discoveries. In this episode, Naunton discusses some of the key figures in Egyptology, highlighting their contributions to the field and to our contemporary understanding of ancient Egypt.
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Egyptologists’ Notebooks: The Golden Age of Nile Exploration in Words, Pictures, Plans, and Letters
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
CHRIS NAUNTON: The idea of a kind of intact tomb, at a certain moment where the archaeologist breaks through the door and lifts up a lamp to reveal the glint of gold everywhere. That’s become the defining moment for archaeology.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Chris Naunton about his new book Egyptologists’ Notebooks.
“Beyond what they tell us about ancient Egypt, these notebooks also reveal to us the personalities of the early Egyptologists.” So begins Chris Naunton’s recent book on the discovery and documentation of ancient Egypt.
The story begins with a 17th-century German priest and continues to an 18th-century Danish naval captain, the great 19th-century French diplomat and first director of the Louvre, Vivant Denon, the general and soon-to-be emperor, Napoleon, the finding and deciphering of the Rosetta Stone, the woman who founded the Egypt Exploration Fund, until ultimately Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered King Tut’s Tomb.
Beautifully and copiously illustrated, Naunton’s book Egyptologists’ Notebooks: The Golden Age of Nile Exploration in Words, Pictures, Plans, and Letters was published in the US by Getty Publications as part of Ancient Worlds Now, the Getty’s initiative to promote a greater understanding of the world’s cultural heritage.
CUNO: Well, thank you, Chris, for joining me on this podcast.
NAUNTON: It’s a pleasure, Jim. Thank you very much for having me.
CUNO: Now, your book explores, as you put it, not only what archaeologists’ notebooks tell us about ancient Egypt, but what they tell us about the personalities of the early Egyptologists. How did you come up with the idea to write this book?
NAUNTON: Well, for a long time, I’ve had an interest in the history of the subject. I’m an Egyptologist myself, first and foremost, so you know, I’ve spent a long time studying ancient Egypt and trying to get under the skin of the ancient Egyptians, what they were thinking and how they were doing things. When you’re studying a subject, thinking back to my undergraduate days perhaps, to a certain extent, you’re taking things at face value. So you know, you might be told that for example, Pharaoh Ramses II comes to the throne in such and such a year and he reigns for a certain amount of time and he did this, that, and the other. And as you begin to study subjects like that in more depth, you begin to realize that you need to understand how we come to these conclusions. And that led me to thinking about the history of our subject.
And in my early career, I worked for an organization called the Egypt Exploration Society, and while I was there in particular, I was very conscious of the physical notes—the drawings, the sketches, maps, plans, diaries—that had been produced by archaeologists in Egypt. As a means to an end, you know, a way of capturing information and setting it down so that it could be organized and then, in most cases, shared with the scholarly world and the wider public, through publication. But I was also very struck that in many cases, these things are beautiful objects in their own right. So it’s— on the one hand, it’s a desire on my part to tell a story about how we know what we know; but this book was also an opportunity to use these notes and drawings, sketches, as a way of showing these off and celebrating them as beautiful objects in their own right.
CUNO: I think most of us know something about the early discoveries in Egypt. And we think of them as dating back to the early part of the 19th century and continuing into the early part of the 20th century. But your book begins with the 17th-century classically trained German priest and antiquarian Athanasius Kircher, who from his position at the Roman College in Rome, was commissioned to study Egyptian hieroglyphics.
What was known of those markings then? How did they come to Rome? And how prepared was he to deal with them?
NAUNTON: Kircher is one of the very earliest to begin looking at hieroglyphic inscriptions. And of course, in his time, in the 17th century, knowledge, at least in the West, of how the language and the script should be read had been completely lost. And he was a kind of polymath. He was somebody who was interested in everything and wanted to understand how the world worked. And he also was a very religious man, and was familiar with Neoplatonist ideas about how the world and the universe, the cosmos, worked. Some of which derived from some very ancient texts, which themselves were set down in Egypt in the first place. And he believed that he could read into the hieroglyphs this kind of ancient wisdom, which he and others like him believed kind of were fundamental to understanding the universe.
So he was looking at inscriptions with a kind of predetermined idea of what they were going to say to him. And he was completely mistaken in this. He wanted to see individual signs as encoding things like the sun and the moon and the cosmos and the four elements of the earth. The hieroglyphic script and the language, the Egyptian language, didn’t work like that at all, we now know. But in the process, he became one of the first people to begin doing things like copying inscriptions and gathering together Egyptian material. He never went to Egypt himself, but he’s— he’s one of the first to look seriously at it, however misguided he was.
And he relied quite heavily on things like obelisks because there were a number of them in Rome, which meant that they were accessible to him and to his colleagues. They were ancient Egyptian obelisks, but they’d come to Rome at the peak of the Roman Empire, brought there to embellish Roman public spaces, public buildings.
So his contribution, I think, is undervalued because we Egyptologists now tend to think of him first and foremost for being very wrong about how to read the language and the script. But actually, in gathering this stuff together, in my view, he makes an important contribution. He’s also, I have to say, an interesting counterpoint to what comes later, because his drawings, for example, are, by our standards now, not terribly accurate.
And that, in some ways, sets us up for what is to come. And that’s an increasing importance of accurate copying, accurate recording of Egyptian sites, and monuments and inscriptions. And from one character in the book to the next, things begin to get more and more accurate, more scientific.
CUNO: Given that there was some remnants of the ancient Egyptian past available to people in Rome, how is it that there wasn’t preoccupation with attempts to interpret the hieroglyphs earlier than the 17th century? Why not in the ancient Roman times? Why not in the Renaissance times?
NAUNTON: That’s a very good question. There had been attempts. And most interestingly, although we’re only really beginning to come to appreciate this now, there had been a number of attempts made by scholars in the Muslim world, actually, Arab scholars, who had, I guess, readier and easier access to hieroglyphic inscriptions in situ in Egypt.
Kircher actually leans on one of those scholars for some of his source material. But in fact that particular Arab scholar was also mistaken in the way of understanding these things.
As to why there hadn’t really been many more attempts up until this point, I suppose partly, scholars were defeated just because it took years and years and years and years of study, not only of the Egyptian language, but of related languages and scripts as well, and comparison of one to the next, to begin to understand the language.
CUNO: And I suppose, too, there was not the easy access to Egypt, or at least not taken up by travelers, as there was later. But your second Egyptologist, shall we call him, George Sandys, was a turn-of-the-17th-century poet, who was trained in Latin and traveled to Egypt, from Alexandria to the Giza Plateau and the Great Sphinx and pyramids. And then he reported on his findings. How and why did he travel through Egypt? What was he looking for?
NAUNTON: Sandys is a really fascinating character. He, again, is somebody who just has a fascination with nudging the boundaries of what is known, I think, and you know, and exploring territory that was, for him and for the culture that he came from, at the very edge of knowledge and understanding. So Egypt, in his day, was a very far distant land. He visited as part of a wider tour of Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. You know, the people who inhabited Egypt at this time had a different set of religious beliefs, different language, different script, different dress. You know, everything is different. So it wasn’t an easy thing for him to do, to go there; but he just wanted to try to see what of the ancient culture of Egypt, which was known of and had survived in the writings of classical authors and in the bible of course, as well, he wanted to see what could still be seen of this famous ancient culture on the ground, as it were.
He visited Alexandria, where he arrived. He traveled across the delta to Cairo, and explored the area around Cairo, particularly looking for the ancient capital city of Memphis. He didn’t get much further than that, which by comparison with later travelers makes it seem as though he didn’t really get very far. But he was traveling at a time when almost nothing was known of, at least in Europe, of the situation on the ground, as it were, in Egypt. So his descriptions, and the drawings that he included in the published account of his travels, are among the first views and illustrations we get.
For somebody like me, this is hugely exciting because he really was visiting Egypt at a time when everything was brand new. When he talks about visiting places like Giza or a site which—he doesn’t give this name, but I’m sure, I think, must be the cemetery site of Saqqara, which was attached to the capital city of Memphis—he’s really visiting at a time when almost no excavation of any kind had been done. We now know Saqqara to be an incredibly rich place, incredibly rich site archaeologically. And he was going there when it was almost completely undisturbed. His descriptions give us a feeling for what it must have been like to have been there and to be coming across these things almost as one of the very first visitors in centuries.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, you follow your account of Sandys with an account of a Danish naval captain and explorer named Frederic Ludwig Norden. What were among his most important contributions to the knowledge of ancient Egypt? And I note that this is the early part of the 18th century and that it’s coincident with the sort of first developments of systematic archaeology in Rome and in Herculaneum and in Pompeii. So there’s a sense that this is simultaneous in date with what’s being discovered in Egypt.
NAUNTON: Yes. There is a growing appreciation and understanding in Europe, I think, of the value of visiting ancient sites and monuments. By Norden’s time, a still relatively very small number of people, but nonetheless, a number of people had traveled to Egypt and Norden, his contribution really is, I think, is in raising the standard of the kind of account of Egypt. He’s very thorough.
He’s commissioned by the Danish king to make a survey of the country and its sites and monuments. And he’s a captain in the Danish Navy. Very young man at this point, in his twenties, but extremely capable and clearly very competent in working with and creating maps, for example. And maps are absolutely crucial to organizing information about archaeological landscapes and sites.
So his account is really notable for its detail. He describes the places he encounters on his journey up the Nile one by one, mentioning not only ancient sites, but the villages he passes, as well. There’s a huge amount of information in his account, about the situation in Egypt at the time. His maps, by comparison with what had gone before, are incredibly good, incredibly accurate. And his drawings of the sites that he saw, although he didn’t draw absolutely everything, what he did draw is noticeably higher in quality than the things that had gone before, too. So we’re creeping towards this being the kind of science of archaeology and Egyptology, at this point—certainly something more than just a travel account.
CUNO: Now, the fourth amateur, in the best sense of the term, that you write about was the eighteenth-century English clergyman Richard Pococke, who visited and described the temple of Karnak at Luxor, and the tombs of the kings of Thebes. Tell us about him.
NAUNTON: Well, incredibly, Pococke traveled to Egypt at almost exactly the same time as Norden. And in fact, although they weren’t entirely aware of it, they actually crossed on the Nile at a certain point.
Pococke, in keeping with various other travelers around this time, was simply on a tour around the Mediterranean region, and looking to record what he saw. He visited the major sites. He set down an account, which he would later publish, and he made a number of drawings. My particular interest in Pococke is in his sketches of the landscape on the western side of the river, in the area of what is now Luxor. So this is the part of the world that includes very famous sites, particularly the Valley of the Kings. And he sketched monuments in that area, including the so-called Colossi of Memnon, which are actually colossal statues of the 18th dynasty King Amenhotep III and showed them, in one case, in position in relation to the Theban cemeteries.
And his drawings are a good example of somebody attempting to use imagery to convey the lie of the land. So you know, essentially, here are the statues; and if you’re looking for the tombs, you’ll find them off in the background there. But in terms of sort of scientific accuracy, there’s still something lacking. And his sketch of the Valley of the Kings is a really sort of glorious, slightly contorted vision of a mountainous wadi, with a mountain itself kind of at the top of this sketch with a series of doorways leading off in all directions from this desert wadi floor. And these are meant to be the entrances to the tombs of the Valley of the Kings.
And in the way that Pococke sketches it, you could expect to spend no more than about two or three minutes walking from one end of the valley to the other, and you could encounter a doorway, an entrance to a tomb, once every few feet. It’s not really like that in reality at all; we know that. But still, you know, Pococke is trying to convey the sense of a valley fully of tombs like this, which is, even if visually it’s not quite right, there’s some truth to what he’s trying to convey.
CUNO: It does look a bit like a housing development right now, the way he draws it. But nevertheless, there is something about these undecorated entryways that take you down into the earth, that then open up and reveal a great burial enterprise.
NAUNTON: I think you’re right. And actually, thinking about these drawings has caused me to reflect on what we mean when we think of as accurate. You know, as somebody who has spent a long time now as an Egyptologist, there’s a lot that you take for granted about a certain way of doing things. So what really strikes you when you look at a drawing like this of Pococke’s is how inaccurate it is. In that, we are all trained to capture things almost kind of photorealistically. And if there’s any deviation from that, that in some sense, is wrong. And yet Pococke was making these sketches at a time before any of these scientific standards developed. So what might seem inaccurate, and therefore kind of wrong or bad somehow to us now, actually was extremely effective in his time.
CUNO: Well, now we get to the great figure of Napoleon. He launched his great campaign in 1798, and it resulted in a twenty-six-volume description of Egypt published between 1809 and 1829. What was the purpose and legacy of the project? And tell us about the major figures, including Napoleon, the architect and antiquarian Dominique Vivant Denon, Lord Nelson, the Ottomans, and the Mamluk warriors. I mean, this is the stuff of magic.
NAUNTON: Yes, it is. Napoleon, from a purely Egyptological point of view, his great contribution is in instigating this grand description of Egypt. But of course, first and foremost, his reason for being in Egypt was very different. He was there for political, territorial reasons. It was all part of the French struggle against the British, and an attempt to capture territory in a particular part of the world which would make life difficult for the British, who were benefiting very greatly from their own territorial influence in particularly India. The French believed that if they could succeed in capturing Egypt, they’d be able to exploit it for its own natural resources; but they’d also get in the way of the British trade routes between the UK and India. So they took a very large army, headed by Napoleon, to Egypt and seized the country by force.
There are all kinds of dubious things about that, that we should be very careful about celebrating. But he was, or somebody was enlightened enough on Napoleon’s behalf, to bring with the campaign dozens of scholars, artists, scientists of all kinds, to make a record of the country—of the natural environment, the natural landscape, and the built environment. And that meant documenting the monuments of modern Egypt, but also ancient Pagan Egypt.
The French Army was decisively successful almost as soon as it arrived, but it wasn’t completely able to defeat the Mamluk Army, which was its principal opposition in the country, for a few months. The Mamluks, incidentally, were a kind of class of soldier who’d come to rule Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman Empire.
And so Napoleon’s savants, as he called them, or as they came to be known, made what ultimately came to be, at that time, the most comprehensive and the best survey of ancient sites and monuments in Egypt. So they were doing on a much, much grander scale, what people like Norden, Pococke, and other travelers had done before. And most of the histories of Egyptology begin with Napoleon’s expedition and the Description de l’Égypte. The publication was definitive, it was comprehensive, it was a giant leap forward. The drawings were made to extremely exacting standards. They were very, very thorough in dealing with ancient sites and monuments in every last corner of the Nile Valley and the delta. And then the publication itself was extremely well received and quite widely circulated, as well. So it had a huge impact on scholars of Egypt back home.
And it had two main effects in the years immediately following. One was to enhance the knowledge of scholars, of what there was in Egypt. Also of encouraging further study. But the expedition also established a permanent presence in Egypt of not only French individuals acting in various capacities out there, also British. The French were, in fairly short order, defeated by a coalition of British and Ottoman forces. So in terms of the military purpose of the expedition, it was a failure.
But it did, as I say, lead to an established permanent presence of Europeans in Egypt. And that provided a platform for more and more and more travelers, scholars, eventually Egyptologists and archaeologists to go to the country, and to do so without the barriers that there had been before, in terms of, you know, security or language or adapting to the customs. Everything was much easier from this point onwards. So the Napoleonic expedition really is a watershed moment for the subject.
CUNO: And no doubt, they provided sufficient resources to continue the research. And that was in part because of Denon’s— how adept he was at inflating the ego of Napoleon and of his great patron in this.
NAUNTON: Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? I think we like to think of Egyptology and archaeology as being a sort of pure pursuit. That all of us who are interested in the ancient world and active in studying it are doing it purely for the intellectual adventure of learning about the past. And yet something that was really obvious to me by the time I’d finished the research for this book, was just how embedded Egyptology and archaeology in Egypt has been in the political machinations of various European countries, particularly my own country, Britain. And also, France, from the beginning of the nineteenth century onwards. And the two things continue to operate hand-in-hand.
CUNO: Now, the next two explorers that you document, Frédéric Cailliaud and William John Bankes, both end up going to Abu Simbel. And until this point in your story we concentrate primarily on, in, around Alexandria and Cairo, and then in Luxor, with the Valley of the Kings and Queens. So tell us about Cailliaud and about Bankes, and about the allure of Abu Simbel.
NAUNTON: Well, Abu Simbel is one of the most extraordinary sites in Egypt. It’s the site of two rock-cut temples of the time of Ramses II, Ramses the Great, the third king of the nineteenth dynasty, whose reign began in the 1300s BC and ended in the 1200s. These are colossal temples, cut directly into the living rock, in the region of the second cataracts, which is at the limit of a kind of frontier region between what was the territory of Egypt in ancient times and the lands to the south. The cataracts of the Nile are these natural rocky barriers in the river. Huge rocks create sort of rapids in the river, which are impassible when the Nile is low enough. They provided natural frontier points between Egypt and the territories to the south.
So Abu Simbel was built, cut into the rock, at a time when Egypt controlled this first-to-second cataract region. It was powerful and able to expand into the territories of the south, and it’s a great statement to the people to the south, of Egypt’s might and power, the might of Ramses II himself.
The great temple is fronted by four enormous statues, which have the features of Ramses II himself. These had come to be almost completely buried in sand. And up until the first few years of the nineteenth century, knowledge of this place had been completely lost in the West, completely lost to Europeans. It was a Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who was the first to visit the site, in around about 1813.
Because it was almost as far as the second cataract and a long way beyond the first, which marks the traditional southern frontier of Egypt, it was quite a long way further than most people had explored up until this point. To get there required usually a new boat, possibly a new crew, new sets of permits, new sets of negotiators to smooth passage through this next stretch of the river. But from the point that Burckhardt identified Abu Simbel, it became a great destination.
Bankes, William John Bankes, was a wealthy British aristocrat. He’d done all the kinds of things that independently wealthy landed nobility should do. He was an MP, and he was very well educated, and he eventually set out on a grand tour, taking in places including Egypt. And while there, he not only made his own explorations, but funded the work of a number of others. Bankes was also interested in exploring the area further even south of Abu Simbel itself.
The classical sources made it clear that further south, into what is now Sudan, there was a kingdom of people the classical authors refer to as Ethiopians, and that there were some spectacular monuments in that direction. And so Bankes and others came to be interested in exploring this region, and in particular, in locating the ancient capital of the Ethiopians, which was said to be a city called Meroë. The location of which had been completely lost, up until this point.
And so in the early 1820s—1820, 1821—Bankes, who by this time had returned to the U.K., commissioned another explorer-artist, a man called Louis Adolphe Maurice Linant de Bellefonds, a Frenchman, to try to identity the location of Meroë. Bankes had had quite a close working relationship with the leading British individual operating on behalf of the British government in Egypt at the time, a man called Henry Salt. So through this connection to the British government, the expedition led by Linant de Bellefonds was really, although Linant de Bellefonds himself was French, really a kind of British attempt to become the first to identity Meroë.
And at the same time, the French Commission d’Égypte, which was the legacy of the Napoleonic campaign, sponsored another individual, an Egyptologist-artist called Frédéric Cailliaud, to do the same thing; to travel south to try to identity Meroë. So both Linant de Bellefonds and Cailliaud, in fact, took the opportunity to accompany an Egyptian government military expedition to the south, essentially gathering slaves for infrastructure building projects in Egypt. But making use of the Egyptian Army’s protection, they began traveling south and made a number of extremely important discoveries.
It fell to Cailliaud to identity Meroë, although his identification of the site wasn’t entirely accepted for a number of years. But he visited Meroë, observed the distinctive tall Sudanese-style pyramids, which were built for the kings of Meroë, and convinced himself and many others, and he proved to be right, that he’d found this ancient capital city. Linant de Bellefonds was not far behind him, and made a number of other interesting discoveries in the area. But this is the moment, in sort of 1820, ’21, when this British-French competition to make this great discovery resulted in the sudden discovery of these great monuments of the kingdom we now know as Kush.
CUNO: Well, now this whole history of discovery is, of course, so important to the story that you’re telling. And it features primarily, or settles upon, these gigantic forms, whether they’re the pyramids or the tombs or sculptures and things. But the most extraordinary discoveries, I think, and one can make the claim, is of a modest stone piece that was found in a rebuilt part of a Mamluk fort. And that is the Rosetta Stone. Tell us about that discovery and what it unleashed, with regard to our understanding of the ancient world of Egypt.
NAUNTON: Well, I think you’re absolutely right. The Rosetta Stone was a lump of rock, which was cast aside at a certain point and used in the foundation of this rebuilt Mamluk fort. And the French Army, under Napoleon Bonaparte, was also instructed to gather antiquities for the national French collection. And it was a French soldier who noticed this inscribed object tossed into the foundations of a monument and wondered if it would be important. And it turned out that he was absolutely right.
The key to its importance lies in the fact that it was inscribed with the same text three times over. Once in ancient Greek, once in a script called Demotic, which is a kind of cursive sort of handwritten form of Egyptian, and then in hieroglyphic, which is the much more formal, monumental script used to write the Egyptian language. And it’s a fairly, relatively speaking, inconsequential decree of the time of Ptolemy V, in whose time both Greek and Egyptian were in use in the country. Hence the different languages used in the inscription. And of course, the fact that it was the same text in these different languages—ancient Greek being one that scholars could read; hieroglyphic and Demotic being scripts writing the Egyptian language that scholars couldn’t read—it allowed them, by comparison of the three different scripts, to begin to accelerate efforts to decipher the Egyptian language.
And the Rosetta Stone, along with the close study of numerous other texts that were being gathered from this time onwards, ultimately, a little over two decades later, led to Jean-Francois Champollion, the French scholar, announcing that he had established a system for deciphering Egyptian as written in hieroglyphic language.
CUNO: Now, another part of the story is how it ends up in the hands of the British and is now such a featured part of the collection of the British Museum. Tell us about how it was that it went from the French to the British.
NAUNTON: Well, the British were initially unaware of the French expedition to Egypt, but it didn’t take very long for the news to reach them. The British sent a fleet of ships to pursue the French. And a few weeks after the French arrived, there was a battle at sea and the British were victorious, very decisively. And ultimately, through a combination of military defeat, but also a bit of diplomacy, it was agreed that the British would escort the French Army home to France. So the French, in all but a few exceptions, left the country.
And as a part of this agreement, all of the antiquities that the French soldiers and savants had acquired during their time in the country would also pass to the British. So rather than making their way to the national collection of France in the Louvre in Paris, they would instead make their way to the British Museum. And of course, one of the prize pieces in the collection was this incredibly important stone from Rosetta.
There’s an irony, perhaps, in the fact that although the race to decipher the Egyptian language was led by a British and a French scholar, it was ultimately a Frenchman who would succeed in using the Rosetta Stone, which was lost to the French.
CUNO: Well, and with that, opens up this great story of the discovery of antiquities in Egypt. And there’s some great characters associated with the story. And one of them is Giovanni Belzoni, an Italian explorer and larger-than-life character, who discovered the tomb of Ramses I and the tomb of Seti I, one of the greatest of all the pharaohs. And many of us who’ve been to Egypt and been to Luxor and across the river from Luxor have come across his graffiti, his name carved into the stone. Tell us about Belzoni.
NAUNTON: Belzoni is a kind of accidental archaeologist and Egyptologist, inasmuch as he had a very varied career. He was Italian by birth, but he had come to London. He was an enormous man, very tall, very muscular, a very strong man. And for a while, had acted as a circus strongman at Sadler’s Wells in London. He had sort of failed to establish himself and, you know, make an enormous success for himself in that role. And he’d had an idea for a system of irrigation, which he thought might be of interest to the Egyptians at this point.
This is around about 1815. And by this time, the French had left Egypt. The country had been returned to Ottoman rule. But under a man called Muhammed Ali, who had assisted in ousting the French and come to be the ruler of Egypt himself. And he was governing notionally on behalf of the Ottomans, but really independent in all but name. And he was busy by 1815 in modernizing Egypt, in providing it with a new modern infrastructure and technologically advanced army, factories to manufacture weapons and ammunition, and in building things like roads, and in particular, canals.
And so Belzoni, like a number of other Europeans at this time, was beginning to think about Egypt as a place where he might make his fortune by making a contribution to this great modernization effort there to try to sell his idea to Muhammed Ali. He failed. But Belzoni, at the same time, came into acquaintance with Henry Salt, the British Consul at the time, and Salt himself was collecting antiquities. Essentially as part of his own private collection, but with it in mind that these would eventually make their way to London for the edification of the British people.
And Belzoni was— even though his idea wasn’t successful with Muhammed Ali, was somebody who clearly had kind of engineering and logistics capabilities. And so Salt decided to ask him if he could move a colossal statue from a temple in the Luxor area on the West Bank. And up until this point, efforts had been made to move it, and it was simply too big. It was thought that it couldn’t be done. And yet Belzoni managed it pretty easily, it seems. And it is also, along with the Rosetta Stone, now on display in a sculpture gallery in the British Museum.
So Belzoni began acting as an agent in moving large things for Salt and other Brits, but also, in the process, developed his own interest in excavating. So at around this time, people like Salt and his French counterpart Drovetti were beginning to think not only of carrying off monuments which were very visible, but also beginning to dig to look for more. And Belzoni’s very much a part of this.
He also became hooked on the idea that there was more to find in the Valley of the Kings. The classical writers had described some forty-odd tombs, so that’s many more than were visible in the early nineteenth century. And Belzoni thought, well, they must be here somewhere, and he determined that he would make a great discovery. And, in fact, he found between half a dozen to a dozen tombs, many of them undecorated. So not the spectacular discovery he was looking for. But he found the tombs of three pharaohs, which by the standards of anybody before or since is a really spectacular achievement.
CUNO: Well, not only was he the great discoverer of things and again, a great character, as you describe him, but his discoveries cast a bright light on the possibilities of further discoveries in Egypt, as funded by private patrons. And one of those who was someone who made this possible was a woman, a traveler and author of the hugely successful travel book, A Thousand Miles up the Nile. Amelia Edwards is her name.
And she created, in response to all these Egyptian antiquities that she saw that were damaged and lying about, that she founded something called the Egypt Exploration Fund in London, in which members of the public could contribute to the funding of conservation of Egyptian monuments. Tell us about her and her story.
NAUNTON: Well, Amelia Edwards was a writer, an artist. She had made quite a name for herself in the middle of the nineteenth century in the U.K. for those things. She’d written a number of successful novels. So she wasn’t exactly wealthy, by the standards of her day, but she was comfortably off. Well off enough to be able to travel. And she began to travel in Europe and wrote accounts of her travels and became a successful writer of travelogues. And on a— one particular trip to Italy, she found that the weather was awful. And almost on a whim, as she describes it, decided to take a detour away from cold and rainy Italy, to the warmer climes of Egypt, which was a very fashionable destination at this point. This is the early 1870s.
And she took what, by this time, was a fairly standard journey, arriving in Alexandria by boat, enduring a day or two of quarantine, and not spending too long in Alexandria, which most visitors seemed to find quite a disappointment, by comparison with what must’ve been there in the time of Cleopatra and others, making her way to Cairo, hiring a boat, and taking a journey up the Nile as far as Aswan.
And in doing so, she absolutely fell in love with Egypt and with its monuments, but also became very concerned at the rapid destruction of the things that she was seeing, at the hands of the natural elements, of archaeologists, of tourists like her, and, to some extent, of the local population as well. In other words, all these wonderful monuments that she was seeing, she feared would be lost if something wasn’t done.
And so when she returned to the U.K., she wrote an account of her travels, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, which quickly became, and still is, I think, even today, the definitive account of a journey up the Nile. But she was also determined to do something to try and arrest this, the degradation and decay that she saw amongst the monuments that she visited. And so she determined to set up a fund to send an archaeologist or an explorer, to use the term that was in use at the time, to Egypt to uncover sites which were threatened, so that they could at least be documented, and any portable antiquities rescued before they were lost for good. And so this became the Egypt Exploration Fund.
And the idea was a little bit like crowdfunding of modern times. Interested members of the public would contribute as much as they could. If they could contribute as much as one pound, then they would be entitled to become a member of the fund and receive the annual publication at the end of each year. And in this way, she established a way of financially supporting regular highly scientific excavations, which were then routinely, regularly, promptly published to very high standards. And this sets the template for institutions excavating in Egypt from this point onwards.
CUNO: Well, now, we could go on for a long time because there are some great figures in this era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, who were privately funded by figures such as Amelia Edwards, through her fund, the Egypt Exploration Fund. But we have to— can’t stop without talking about Howard Carter, who was connected to that fund and who excavated the Temple of Hatshepsut; but also, of course, most famously, Tutankhamen. So tell us about Howard Carter and what Howard Carter’s contributions were to the history of archaeology.
NAUNTON: Well, Howard Carter, of course, is most famous for the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen, which is really the definitive archaeological discovery. The idea of a kind of intact tomb, at a certain moment where the archaeologist breaks through the door and lifts up a lamp to reveal sort of the glint of gold everywhere. That’s become the defining moment for archaeology. It could never be repeated, I think. It will never be superseded. It’s almost— you have to sort of rub your eyes and scratch your head a bit to believe that it really happened, but it did. And Carter was the archaeologist who made that happen, but the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen was the culmination of his career.
He had, by that time, already been working in Egypt as an archaeologist, Egyptologist, for around about thirty years. But also, in fact, as an artist. Of course, the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen was incredibly important. But he had made a number of incredibly important discoveries up until this point, including the tombs of other pharaohs of the New Kingdom, and some of them quite possibly, even, you know, more important pharaohs than Tutankhamen. It’s just the sheer good luck that Tutankhamen’s tomb happened to be found intact that means Carter is so celebrated and so famous.
He had a very good nose. He was extremely knowledgeable. He was also a first-class organizer and documenter of archaeological remains. And that, the second part of that at least, comes from the fact that his first work in Egypt was as an artist. He traveled to Egypt as a teenager around about sixteen or seventeen years old. He had a great love for Egypt at this point. But he’d been trained as an artist, and he was brought to Egypt by Percy Newberry, of the Egypt Exploration Fund, to sit in front of the walls of beautifully decorated tombs and make accurate copies of the decorations, so that they could then be republished in scientific reports, for the benefit of the scholarly and wider public. And although almost by accident, he would come to be a digger, an excavator, and a very good one at that, he never, of course, lost his ability to draw and to paint.
So much as we think about, you know, the tomb of Tutankhamen as being dominated by gold and other precious materials—and it’s documented very, very beautifully in photographs—but from the archaeological point of view, what was really important was the organization of the material, the conservation efforts, ensuring that the material could be removed—all of which Carter supervised brilliantly. And also the documentation of the material as it left the tomb on its way to the Egyptian Museum. And that meant lots of documentation, notetaking, but also drawings. And there was nobody better—there perhaps never was anybody better—at making drawings of ancient things in Egypt than Howard Carter.
So he exemplifies what I suppose this book is all about, in that his story, the story of his career, is the story of a series of really important contributions to Egyptology and what we now know about ancient Egypt. But the drawings that he made, the paintings, the sketches, which he made as a kind of means to an end, as a way of capturing information so that it could be circulated, those things are beautiful objects in their own rights. So the book is really about, yes, telling his story and the story of others; but it’s also about showcasing these works of art, which were produced in the name of archaeology. And I can’t think of anybody who produced more beautiful art as part of that process than Howard Carter.
CUNO: Well, it’s a great story, Chris, and you tell it extremely well, from the earliest part of the 17th century to the middle part of the 20th century. The book is so beautifully illustrated with the works of people like Howard Carter so we thank you for all of that and we thank you for letting us publish the book and we thank you for joining us on the podcast.
NAUNTON: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts/ or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
CHRIS NAUNTON: The idea of a kind of intact tomb, at a certain moment where the archaeologist break...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824
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