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What Are the Origins of Egyptology

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It was during the Enlightenment when people began to question the governments they lived under and the religions they followed, when the idea of studying older, venerable cultures became popular. Enlightenment scholars began to see the perfect forms of government in ancient Athens and Rome and as they looked further, they began to see that the even older cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt also had a lot to offer. It was in the milieu of the Enlightenment and during the Napoleonic Wars that followed during the early nineteenth century where most scholars pinpoint the origins of Egyptology. The seminal event within this period was the discovery and subsequent decipherment of the Rosetta Stone, which allowed modern scholars to read the enigmatic hieroglyphic script of the ancient Egyptian language, thereby making the plethora of Egyptian texts readable. Once the texts became readable, ancient Egyptian chronology became clearer and the nuances of pharaonic civilization became accessible to the modern world. As much as the discovery and decipherment of the Rosetta Stone represented a watershed moment in the history of Egyptology, the march toward understanding the pharaohs began hundreds of years earlier and then continued long after scholars translated the text on the legendary stone.
====Early Interest in Ancient Egypt====
[[File: Pyramids.jpg|300px|thumbnail|left|250px|“Pyramids of Gerzah” Lithograph by David Roberts, 1838-9]]
Although the ancient Egyptians wrote about their own history, the first true critical analysis of ancient Egyptian history was conducted by the early Greek and Roman historians and geographers. The fifth century Greek historian, Herodotus, is perhaps best known for the in-depth treatment he gave to pharaonic history in Book II of <i>The Histories</i>, which influenced others, such as Diodorus and Strabo, to follow with their own observations of the Nile Valley. The accuracy of the classical accounts of ancient Egyptian history could vary widely. The further back in time the accounts went, the more likely that the chronologies were garbled and facts were simply wrong. The reason for these problems is directly related to the fact that even the most educated Greeks and Romans never took the time to learn the ancient Egyptian language so they were often forced to rely on the Egyptian priests for translations and explanations of texts. The priests were only human, which meant that some parts of Egyptian history were sacrificed for others they believed more important. <ref> Krebsbach, Jared. “Herodotus, Diodorus, and Manetho: An Examination of the Influence of Egyptian Historiography on the Classical Historians.” <i>New England Classical Journal.</i> 41 (2014) pgs. 98-99</ref> The classical historians were able to more critically examine events closer to their own period, though, because many of those events were already written about in Greek.
The curiosity that Europeans felt toward ancient Egypt during the Middle Ages began to evolve into a genuine desire to view pharaonic culture more objectively during the Renaissance. While Renaissance artists were influence by Greek models to create some of the finest pieces of work in the history of Western Civilization, some scholars began looking at ancient Egypt from beyond the perspective of the Bible. By the fifteenth century, most educated Europeans knew that pyramids were used as tombs, not granaries as they had previously believed. <ref> Curran, Brian A. “The Renaissance Afterlife of Ancient Egypt (1400-1650).” In <i>The Wisdom of Ancient Egypt: Changing Visions through the Ages.</i> Edited by Peter Ucko and Timothy Champion. (London: University of London Press, 2003), p. 103</ref> The interest in ancient Egypt began to permeate throughout some of Europe’s oldest universities, but the key to understanding all aspects of pharaonic culture were still unknown – the language. Some Renaissance scholars were able to correctly surmise that the enigmatic hieroglyphic script contained both phonetic and idiomatic elements, but it may as well have been a script from another planet because its decipherment still remained far out of reach. <ref> Curran, p. 108</ref>
====The Enlightenment and Ancient Egypt====
[[File: Leon_Cogniet_Jean-Francois_Champollion.jpg|300px|thumbnail|left|Jean-Francois Champollion (1792-1832)]]
The first legitimate attempts to understand ancient Egyptian civilization objectively came during the period known as the Enlightenment. Many are familiar with the political aspects of the Enlightenment put forth by seventeenth century writer John Locke or eighteenth century writers Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but just as important are the cultural changes during the period. Enlightenment philosophers, historians, and philologists all began to study pre-Hellenic ancient civilizations without the veneer of the Bible. Although they viewed ancient Egypt and the other ancient Near Eastern civilizations as exotic and “other,” these early modern scholars all had a will to understand ancient peoples objectively. <ref> Outram, Dorinda. <i>The Enlightenment.</i> (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 63</ref> It was from within this intellectual milieu that the modern study known as Egyptology made its first true steps.
If one were to identify Egyptology’s first true patron, it would be none other than the conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon is best known for his rise and fall as a military commander and dictator over much of Europe, which in many ways demonstrates that the French-Corsican commander eschewed many of the Enlightenment’s ideas about democracy and representational government. Although it is true that Napoleon only used the political ideas of the Enlightenment when they were to his advantage, he was a firm believer in the cultural aspects of the Enlightenment as discussed above. Napoleon’s conquest brought the French to Egypt, which they occupied from 1798-1801. Even before he invaded Egypt, Napoleon was awed by Egypt’s legacy so he brought 167 scholars, known as <i>savants</i>, from the Commission of the Sciences and Arts with him during the initial invasion. The <i>savants</i> studied all aspects of Egypt, from the flora and fauna to its history, and compiled all of their findings in a multi-volume work known as <i>Descripton de l’Égypte</i>. The volumes of interest to the proto-Egyptologists of the time were labeled <i>Anitquités</i>, which contained numerous drawings of the monuments with accompanying French text. <ref> Jeffreys, David. “Introduction – Two Hundred Years of Ancient Egypt: Modern History and Ancient Archaeology.” In <i>Views of Ancient Egypt Since Napoleon Bonaparte: Imperialism, Colonialism, and Modern Appropriations.</i> Edited by David Jeffreys. (Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press, 2011), p. 2</ref> Despite the strides that Napoleon’s scholars were quickly making, understanding the ancient Egyptian language was still a stumbling block that needed to be overcome.
====The Discovery and Decipherment of the Rosetta Stone====
The break that the world needed came in mid-July 1799 in the small village of Rosetta located on the Mediterranean Sea. According to accounts from the period, the key to understanding the ancient Egyptian language – the Rosetta Stone – was discovered by French soldiers who were clearing away a wall for a fort. The Rosetta Stone, which was ensconced in the wall, was immediately recognized as something important so it was spirited away for <i>savants</i> to study. <ref> Andrews, Carol. <i>The British Museum book of the Rosetta Stone</i>. (London: British Museum Press, 1985), p. 9</ref> The French knew that the stone – what is known as a “stela” by Egyptologists as it commemorated an important historical event – was important because it contained fifty-four lines of Greek text, which they could read, along with fourteen lines of unreadable hieroglyphic text, and thirty-two lines of the equally unreadable demotic Egyptian script. But before the French could dedicate any serious research to the Rosetta Stone, Egypt was captured by the British in 1801. Along with victory went the spoils of war and under Article XVI of “The Capitulation of Alexandria,” the French were forced to relinquish the Rosetta Stone and various other Egyptian antiquities. The British then promptly moved the Rosetta Stone to the British Museum in London where it still sits today.
While Young was laboring away in England, across the channel in France an equally impressive polyglot named Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832) worked equally as furiously to decipher the enigmatic script. Using his background in the Semitic languages of Arabic and Hebrew, Champollion was able to complete a useable translation of the Rosetta Stone’s hieroglyphic lines in 1814. Although there were later found to be problems with some of Champollion’s translations and his theories on Egyptian grammar, his work provided the basis for the modern Egyptological understanding of the ancient Egyptian language and writing. <ref> Griffith, F. “The Decipherment of the Hieroglyphs.” <i>Journal of Egyptian Archaeology.</i> 37 (1951) pg. 41</ref>
====After the Rosetta Stone====
[[File: James_Breasted.jpg|300px|thumbnail|right|James Henry Breasted (1865-1935)]]
With Champollion’s decipherment of the Rosetta Stone, both scholars and rogues began to flood Egypt in order to become rich and/or famous by rediscovering ancient treasures. Both Britain and France dispatched large numbers of agents to acquire the best pieces for their burgeoning museums in what became a war over ancient Egyptian culture that continues on today to some degree. <ref> Jeffreys, pgs. 3-4</ref> By the middle of the nineteenth century, German scholars led by Karl Richard Lepsius conducted archaeological expeditions into the Nile Valley and by the end of the century the Americans got into the act. George Reisner is responsible for some of the first American Egyptological expeditions, but many see James Henry Breasted as the father of American Egyptology.
Although the axis of modern Egyptology is still centered on the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the United States, there are programs in countries such as Argentina and Japan. The process by which Egyptology became a modern discipline is a long one, but one can point to the discovery and decipherment of the Rosetta Stone as being the true starting point. Without understanding the ancient Egyptian language, much of what is known today about Egyptian history and culture would still be covered by shrouds of mystery.
====References====<references/> [[Category:Wikis]][[Category:Ancient Egyptian History]][[Category:Ancient History]]{{Contributors}}

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