Establishment of a National ANCIENT EGYPT Antiquities Service

Apr 2, 2011

Establishment of a National ANCIENT EGYPT Antiquities Service
The archaeologist Gaston Maspero in the burial chamber of the pyramid belonging to King Unas at 
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Egyptology generated great public interest:
In many museums in Europe, visitors could view the antiquities, the hieroglyphic texts could be read, and public demand for more knowledge inspired the publication of many well-illustrated books and the creation of specially designed tours that conveyed their passengers to view the monuments along the Nile. Excavations, however, were still frequently conducted in a haphazard manner, with a focus on treasure seeking, which often resulted in the destruction of evidence.

The first Egyptologist to adopt a more scientific approach to excavation was the French-man Auguste Mariette (1821–1881). In addition to the respect accorded him as an archaeologist, he is honored and remembered as the Egyptologist who established in Egypt the world’s first national antiquities service and in Cairo the first national museum to be built in the Near East.
Aware of the urgent need to halt the destruction and export of antiquities from Egypt, Mariette also drew attention to the need for appropriate care and conservation of the extant monuments. He persuaded the Egyptian ruler Sa‘id Pasha to establish a service that would supervise Egypt’s standing monuments. As head of the new museum established at Boulaq in Cairo and the first director of the antiquities service, Mariette ensured that a firmer control was exerted over the export of treasures. He also raised general public awareness of the need to conserve and restore the monuments and emphasized Egypt’s right and responsibility to maintain its own heritage.

A New Approach

If Mariette’s contribution was to ensure the preservation of Egypt’s patrimony, his successor’s was to introduce the modern era of Egyptology, with its emphasis on the development of new archaeological methods and techniques.
By this time, scholars had largely established the main outlines of Egyptian history, and their attention was now turning to acquiring evidence about people’s everyday lives.
French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero (1846–1916) supported this approach to archaeology, and his role in this change in the focus of archaeology influenced the choice of excavation sites.
When Maspero succeeded Mariette as director at Egypt’s national museum, he organized and produced a catalog in fifty volumes of its collections, establishing a systematic approach that would be used as the basis for later work.
As director of antiquities, he also expanded Mariette’s work. His more lenient attitude toward foreign excavators enabled museums in Europe and the United States to renew their acquisition of antiquities. Over the past 150 years, Egyptology has continued to develop along the lines laid down by Mariette and Maspero, whose actions ensured that Egypt would retain its most important antiquities.


Present-day Egypt is a country where many international, multidisciplinary teams under-take excavations, and it is fully recognized that scientific techniques must be applied through-out this process and in postexcavation treatments. A top priority for Egyptologists is to conserve the monuments and antiquities once they have been excavated, either in situ or when they enter museum collections.
One of the most exciting aspects of the field is that new evidence is still being revealed that can either illuminate and perhaps resolve long-standing questions or redefine existing opinions.

Some Early Pioneers

All current fieldwork owes its origin to more than a century of pioneering archaeology. This involved many excavators from various countries, including the following, who contributed greatly to the development of the subject.
Flinders Petrie undertook the earliest excavation of a royal workmen’s town, Kahun. This photograph,
taken by C. T. Campion (right) when he visited the site in 1914, shows Petrie (center) and his wife, Hilda.
Petrie had just completed the clearance of the enclosure around the nearby pyramid of Senusret II.
(Courtesy The Manchester Museum, University of Manchester) 
Alexander Henry Rhind, a Scotsman who excavated a number of tombs between 1855 and 1857, first set out the aims of scientific Egyptology, but William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853–1942) is accredited as the man who originally devised the principles and methods of scientific archaeology.
Petrie, an Englishman, not only used the scientific approach to excavate new sites but also reworked locations that had been inadequately explored by his predecessors. He recognized the importance of all excavated material, however apparently insignificant, and retained all the material from his excavations that might be of scientific or historical interest. Instead of concentrating on large monuments or spectacular treasure, as his predecessors had done, he emphasized the importance of all types of finds and their archaeological contexts.

Working first in Egypt, then in Palestine, Petrie made more major archaeological discoveries than any other Egyptologist. He personally supervised his workforce at the sites and trained selected people in his methods so that they could eventually become foremen at other sites. He also instructed a whole generation of students in his principles so that they could carry his ideas forward.
His work covered most historical periods, but his greatest archaeological contribution was to reveal the existence of an extensive period of civilization before Dynasty 1, now termed the Predynastic Period. Grave goods from one predynastic site, Nagada, enabled him to develop a system known as sequence dating (see Chapter 2, Historical Background).
Although not perfect, this system did enable material to be positioned chronologically even when other dating evidence was absent. Petrie’s lasting legacy was a profound revision of the role and methodology of archaeology.

Many of Petrie’s ideas were developed further by the American Egyptologist George Andrew Reisner (1867–1942), one of the most successful archaeologists of the early twentieth century. One important project he led was the Archaeological Survey of Nubia (1907–1908).
This was initiated by the Egyptian Survey Department in response to the construction of the Aswan Dam, built at the First Cataract between 1899 and 1902, which increased the water level of the Nile and thus threatened many important archaeological sites in the area.
The work involved a survey and general description of the area to show the cultural sequence, and also a program of urgent and rapid excavation of significant sites. Reisner had to develop a new methodology to cope with the extent and complexity of the survey.
Combined with techniques he evolved when excavating the cemeteries at Naga ed-Der for the University of California in 1901, these new skills enabled him to carry out the first fully scientific excavations in Egypt. In addition, he built upon Petrie’s detailed recording systems, which he raised to a new standard, gathering and recording information about each excavated object so that an unprecedented amount of data could be included in his publications.


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