About Egyptology

Egyptology the study of pharaonic Egypt spanning the period c. 4500 bce to ce 641. Egyptology began when the scholars accompanying Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt (1798–1801) published Description de l’Égypte (1809–28) which made large quantities of source material about ancient Egypt available to Europeans. For a discussion of the long-standing fascination with ancient Egypt see Sidebar: Egyptomania.

Written Egyptian documents date to c. 3150 bce when the first pharaohs developed the hieroglyphic script in Upper Egypt. The documents of these kings their successors and their subjects as well as the archaeological material of their culture well preserved by Egypt’s arid climate provide the source material for Egyptological study.

After the Roman conquest (31 bce) the knowledge of pharaonic Egypt was gradually lost as Hellenism infused Egyptian culture. The temples alone preserved pharaonic religion and the hieroglyphic script. Christianity introduced in the 1st century slowly eroded this last bastion of pharaonic culture. By c. 250 ce the Greek alphabet with six added letters from the demotic (cursive hieroglyphic script) replaced the hieroglyphic system. The last known hieroglyphs were carved in 394 at Philae where the worship of Isis survived until about 570. Some observations about pharaonic Egypt had passed into Greco-Roman civilization through such Classical authors as Herodotus and Strabo. The worship of Isis and Osiris had also spread throughout the Roman Empire and Manetho an Egyptian priest had compiled a list of kings for Ptolemy I that preserved the outline of Egyptian history in Greek. These factors helped keep a dim memory of ancient Egypt alive in Europe.

After the Arab conquest (641) only the Christian Egyptians the Copts kept alive the ancient language written in Greek characters. In Europe the Coptic texts taken from Egypt during the Renaissance awakened interest in the Egyptian language. Athanasius Kircher a German Jesuit published a Coptic grammar in 1643 and European travelers to Egypt returned with antiquities and stories of wondrous ruins. The first scholar known to have engaged in scientific work the 17th-century English astronomer John Greaves measured the pyramids of Giza.

In 1799 a French engineer found the Rosetta Stone a trilingual stela with Greek hieroglyphic and demotic texts. Knowledge of Coptic permitted the deciphering of the stone’s inscription a work completed in 1822 by Jean-François Champollion. He and an Italian scholar Ippolito Rosellini led a combined expedition to Egypt in 1828 and published their research in Monuments de l’Égypte et Nubie. Karl Richard Lepsius followed with a Prussian expedition (1842–45) and the Englishman Sir John Gardner Wilkinson spent 12 years (1821–33) copying and collecting material in Egypt. Their work made copies of monuments and texts widely available to European scholars. Muḥammad ʿAlī’s government (1805–49) opened Egypt to Europeans and consular agents and adventurers began to collect antiquities often in ways that amounted to plunder. From this arose the great European Egyptian museum collections. Auguste Mariette went from the Louvre in 1850 and began excavations at Memphis where he found the Serapeum. He convinced Saʿīd Pasha viceroy of Egypt to found the first Egyptian museum at Būlāq (1858; moved to Cairo 1903) as well as the Service des Antiquités (1863). Mariette became the first director of this organization which worked to stop the hitherto uncontrolled digging and collection of antiquities.

The research of Emmanuel de Rougé in France Samuel Birch in England and Heinrich Brugsch in Germany established Egyptology as an academic discipline. In 1880 Flinders Petrie brought to Egypt his technique of controlled scientifically recorded excavation which revolutionized archaeology; he pushed back the origins of Egyptian culture to 4500 bce. The British Egypt Exploration Fund (later Society) founded in 1882 promoted excavations using Petrie’s principles and other professional associations of Egyptologists spread these standards. Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow published in Berlin the Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache an exhaustive dictionary of hieroglyphic Egyptian. In 1954 Wolja Erichsen published his demotic lexicon Demotisches Glossar. The Germans Erman Eduard Meyer and Kurt Sethe the English scholars Francis Llewellyn Griffith and Sir Alan H. Gardiner and the Czech Egyptologist Jaroslav Černý conducted research that shaped the currently accepted outlines of Egyptian history. James Henry Breasted founded the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and pioneered American Egyptology with his survey of Egypt and Nubia (1895–96). He started the Epigraphic Survey in 1924 to make accurate copies of the inscriptions on monuments which are subject to deterioration from exposure to the elements and to then publish these records. The group’s current project which began during the 1990–91 season is a record of the temple of Amon in Madinat Habu.


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