From the Beginning with Egyptology

Oct 23, 2010

From the Beginning with Egyptology


Egyptology, the study of ancient Egypt, has along history as an academic discipline. From its mention by early Classical travelers and biblical references, modern-day interest in Egyptology advanced to the point that we now have an understanding of the people’s daily lives, diet, diseases, and religious beliefs, as well as Egypt’s extensive history and renowned rulers.
The subject has developed along particular lines, and to a considerable extent, it reflects the contemporary attitudes and opinions of several generations of Egyptologists. Thus, there are different interpretations of various aspects of the history, while the discovery of new evidence forces scholars constantly to review and revise their conclusions.



One of the most important advances ever made in the subject was the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) (see Chapter 8). This achievement enabled Egyptologists to translate and interpret the rich religious and secular literature and thus gain an insight into the Egyptians’ thoughts and beliefs. With this knowledge it was possible for the first time to explain many of the “mysteries” that until then had puzzled early travelers and scholars.
Interest in ancient Egypt developed during the Renaissance and inspired wealthy patrons to collect antiquities, but once the hieroglyphic code had been cracked, there was a new demand for inscribed objects, in this case for translation and study. This in turn led to various projects; some of these set out to record the standing monuments and copy their inscriptions, while others involved archaeological excavation. At first, the latter was usually a“treasure-seeking” exercise in which untrained men pursued the acquisition of spectacular pieces for their patrons, at the expense of preserving the archaeological context and any associated information. Gradually, however, a more scientific approach was adopted, and political measures were also put in place to stem the excessive export of antiquities from Egypt.

Nevertheless, the archaeological evidence has its own limitations; for example, stone tombs and temples have survived better than the mud-brick domestic buildings. Excavation of these religious sites has therefore produced more evidence and consequently an imbalanced view of the Egyptian civilization. Also, the climatic and environmental conditions in the north of the country have preserved the monuments and antiquities much less effectively than those found at southern sites, and so, until recently, archaeologists have tended to concentrate on the more productive areas. The archaeological record is thus biased and incomplete, and for particular periods of history, it provides relatively little evidence.
Modern excavation and postexcavation studies that include pottery analysis, carbonating techniques, palaeopathology, and dietary surveys present a much fuller picture of the society.
As a discipline, Egyptology has a long and varied history, and the preserved evidence includes monuments, artifacts, literature, and human remains. Therefore, as an academic subject, it provides a good example of what can be learned about an ancient civilization.

Classical Accounts

The descriptions of Egypt written by Greek and Roman authors are considered in detail elsewhere (see Chapter 8, Written Evidence).
These unique accounts preserve details of a civilization, soon to disappear, that these writers observed firsthand. Some of this information would have otherwise remained unrecorded and unknown, and other evidence has subsequently been destroyed. For the later periods of Egyptian history, where the archaeological evidence is scanty or absent, these accounts often provide the only extant details. Indeed, these Classical writings remained the most reliable source of literary evidence about ancient Egypt until Champollion deciphered hieroglyphs in the nineteenth century and enabled the ancient texts to reveal their own contemporary world.
Today, although the Classical historical and geographical accounts are an important source, scholars recognize that they must be used with caution: Some of the information is factually correct, but the Classical texts also include information and theories that are based on hearsay, speculation, and fantasy.

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