Victorians and Egyptomania – Part One – By Sara Taylor

Interpretive Guide, Sara Taylor is back in part one of “Victorians and Egyptomania.” Why did our great-great grandparents many times over LOVE everything and anything Egyptian? Read on and find out!

Sara Taylor

While Napoleon and his contemporaries were content to incorporate Egyptian motifs and architecture into everyday buildings, décor, jewelry, and even clothes, the Victorians were at a completely different level!

The Victorians or the Victorian Age, gets its name from Queen Victoria, who reigned as Queen of the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and Ireland from June 1837 to her death in January 1901. Her reign saw the expansion of the British Empire and was a time marked by great social, political, and scientific changes. Not just in the British Empire, but all over the world. 

Victorians on a tour of Egypt’s wonders (source Pinterest)

The Victorians were responsible for or were the origin for many things that we enjoy in our everyday life (including our favorite house, Villa Finale!). While Napoleon re-introduced the splendor of Ancient Egypt to Europe on a scale never seen before, the Victorians took Egyptomania to a whole new level!

The Roots of Egyptology

After the French were expelled from Egypt in 1801, Egypt remained nominally part of the Ottoman empire, ruled by Muhammad Ali Pasha, a former commander in the Ottoman army, who would establish a dynasty which would rule Egypt until the 1952 revolution. It was from Pasha that our old friend Giovanni Belzoni, an explorer and early archaeologist, received permission to explore and excavate many ancient Egyptian tombs. While by modern archaeological standards he is considered little above a looter, he is still considered a pioneer in what was the early stages of archaeology and Egyptology. 

As the years went on, the European interest in Egypt grew, not only due to its fascinating history, but also for its resources and strategic location.

A New Science

This was the time where archaeology truly began to become a science. Prior to the late 19th century, archaeology focused on more on finding artifacts that were artistically beautiful, or strange to the European eye, than on what they could realistically tell about the people who created the object.

Excavations also tended to be haphazard and finds that did not meet the excavator’s criteria were overlooked or tossed away as insignificant. 

This all began to change in around 1840.

The dashing Karl Richard Lepsius (source Wikipedia)

In 1842, Karl Lepsius led a Prussian team of scientists and specialist to record the remains of the Ancient Egyptian civilization. Lepsius who had studied under one of Jean Champollion’s disciples, based his expedition much on Napoleon’s own. They carried out some of the first truly scientific studies of the pyramids of Giza as well as Saqqara, Dashur, and Abusir. The expedition lasted four years, before the group returned to Europe to publish their findings.

Lepsius discovered a Ptolemaic manuscript in 1842 and dubbed the text, “The Book of the Dead,” mistakenly believing it to be a holy book, much like the Bible or the Qur’an.

The Book of the Dead was in fact a collections of spells and prayers meant to help guide and protect the deceased person’s soul on its journey to the afterlife. These books were never codified and so no two were exactly alike. They were customized to a person’s wishes and could be bought pre-made with blanks where a person’s name could be filled in by a scribe for a small fee.

Auguste Mariette (source Wikimedia Commons)

Auguste Mariette, an early French archaeologist in connection with the Louvre, began excavating the ancient burial ground of Saqqara, unearthing the avenue of Sphinxes and the Serapum in 1848. Ten years later he accepted a position with the Egyptian government and began to eliminate illegal excavations as well as limit the sale and export of archaeological artifacts. A year later he convinced the Ottoman Viceroy to establish a museum which would become one of the most famous museums in the world, the Cairo Museum.

In 1880 Flinders Petrie led an expedition to Egypt that would truly change the face of Archaeology and Egyptology as we know it!

Petrie can almost certainly be called “the father of modern archaeology.” His expedition in 1880 conducted the most complete and accurate surveys of the Giza plateau to date. He was also the first to try and reason how the pyramids were built based on scientific evidence.

Petrie introduced to archeology the idea of taking methodical measurements and records of the site and all artifacts and in the process uncovered many artifacts and ruins that would have been lost or other overlooked.  Petrie was also a mentor to Howard Carter who in the early 20th uncovered the famous tomb of Tutankhamun.

He was friends with Amelia Edwards a writer turned Egyptologist, who championed preserving the ancient moments of Egypt, which at the time were at risk from modern development and over-tourism. Many sites had already been lost by the time their efforts began and they were determined not to lose more.

Amelia Edwards (source Wikipedia)

In 1884 Petrie led an excavation of the ancient city of Tanis of Indiana Jones fame (yes it really exists!). Here he took leadership of the dig away from the overseers and workers. Prior to Petrie, in what is called the “old system”, the overseers and local diggers were heavily pressured to dig incredibly fast to find large and impressive artifacts quickly, and thus a lot of smaller, but still significant artifacts were overlooked or lost.

(Look for part two of this story where Sara will “unwrap” the subject of mummies!)

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