Excavation in Egypt and the first excavators

Apr 2, 2011

Excavation in Egypt and the first excavators

From the seventeenth century, Egyptology became fashionable among wealthy Europeans, and the continuing desire to acquire antiquities led to an intensification in treasure hunting.
Some collectors undertook excavations in order to augment the supply of available objects.
Once Champollion deciphered hieroglyphs, an increased demand for inscribed pieces for further scholarly research compounded the situation. The decipherment of hieroglyphs marked a great advance in the study of ancient Egypt, but another important development was the gradual emergence of scientific archaeology that grew out of this treasure hunting.

Early Excavations

The first “excavators” were tomb robbers. In antiquity, most tombs were robbed and plundered by men who sought the precious goods included in the burials, and this continued in later times. In the early fifteenth century, the Arab writer Ibn Khaldun stated that treasure seeking was classified and taxed as an industry because it was so commonplace.
When interest in ancient Egypt was rekindled in the Renaissance, museums and private collectors employed dealers and then excavators to provide them with spectacular treasures.
These included not only papyri, mummies, coffins, and items of jewelry but also large inscribed blocks cut from tomb and temple walls. During this period, the diplomatic staff of foreign consulates and embassies in Egypt often vied with each other to obtain the finest pieces for their national and private collections. There was little concern about the archaeological context of these treasures: In seeking out pieces that were spectacular and had financial rather than scientific value, the early excavators often destroyed the archaeological importance of a site.
To justify this approach, it was argued that the general public in Europe and elsewhere gained a greater awareness of Egyptian civilization because they could see these treasures displayed in museums; it was claimed that the removal of antiquities from Egypt was in fact a means of preserving its heritage for humankind.
Furthermore, it was pointed out, the Egyptians themselves used the monuments as quarries for building materials, thus contributing to the destruction of the ancient sites. Since Egypt had no national museum to house these treasures, their removal abroad was believed to be the only guarantee of their safety and preservation.
When, in 1805, Muhammad ‘Ali became the effective ruler of Egypt (although he still owed allegiance to the Turkish overlords who included Egypt in their empire), he rapidly introduced a program of modernization, opening the country to European technology and foreign advisers. Champollion, however, alerted him to the damage to Egypt’s heritage that was resulting from foreign excavation permitted by the Turkish rulers. In 1835, Muhammad ‘Ali issued an ordinance that was the first serious attempt to prohibit the export of antiquities; it also formally acknowledged the need to establish a national museum in Cairo where newly discovered objects could be kept. The ordinance also forbade the destruction of the ancient monuments and stated that it was the government’s responsibility to conserve the national heritage.
It was only partly successful in controlling the export of antiquities, however, and its restrictions were frequently ignored or circumvented.


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