THE DEVELOPMENT OF EGYPTOLOGY

Apr 1, 2011

THE DEVELOPMENT OF EGYPTOLOGY

Egyptology, the study of ancient Egypt, has a long 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 pre- serving 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, carbon-dating 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.


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