Napoleon Bonaparte’s early Egyptology

Apr 2, 2011

Napoleon Bonaparte’s early Egyptology

Napoleon Bonaparte’s military adventure in Egypt in 1798 provided the unlikely circumstances under which the study of ancient Egypt was able to develop into an academic discipline.
The watershed discovery of the Rosetta Stone and Jean-François Champollion’s key advances in deciphering hieroglyphs using this stone, are considered elsewhere (see Chapter 8, Written Evidence). However, although the first aim of the early Egyptologists was to translate and understand the language, it was also essential that they gain access to new texts in order to make progress with language studies.

As a result of the intensified interest since the Renaissance in acquiring antiquities, foreign collectors started to conduct their own excavations in Egypt. Incredibly, they were able to obtain permission from Egypt’s Turkish rulers to remove the contents from tombs and cut out wall decorations and inscriptions from tombs and temples, thereby accelerating the “treasure hunting,” with excavators and agents from different countries competing to obtain the finest pieces. Meanwhile, the main aim of this exercise was to supply wealthy patrons with the objects they desired rather than to advance Egyptology.

Recording the Monuments

Once Champollion deciphered hieroglyphs in 1822, however, another group of people began to require access to new material: Scholars needed new texts in order to make advances in understanding and translating the language.
These were acquired by making exact copies of inscriptions on the standing monuments exposed aboveground (a technique known as “epigraphy”) and by developing a more scientific approach to excavation.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, epigraphists had developed satisfactory methods to record and publish inscriptions on aboveground monuments. These have included the making of accurate line drawings and colored copies of the wall reliefs and inscriptions, and also taking squeezes (a type of impression using papier-mâché) and producing plaster casts. (Less intrusive and potentially destructive methods have gradually replaced these latter techniques.) Color photography, interestingly, has not been widely used to record complete monuments because it is not an entirely reliable method. In particular, there can be problems in producing a long-term record by this means because preservation of the photographs cannot be ensured, and the colors may not remain accurate in the future.
Some projects have successfully used a combination of techniques; for example, the Oriental Institute of Chicago has very effectively developed a method originally devised by British Egyptologist Howard Carter (1873–1939). It involves photographing large relief scenes on temple walls, then producing large prints on which the scenes and inscriptions are inked in with permanent ink.
Afterward, the print is immersed in iodine solution so that the photograph disappears while the line drawing remains.
Despite advances in recording techniques, however, the painstaking work of the epigraphist, relying on his visual accuracy and Egyptological knowledge, has never been replaced. Epigraphy remains an essential feature of studies in the field recording the details on monuments that are often subsequently damaged or destroyed. On contemporary excavation sites, recording the monuments and their scenes and inscriptions is carried out alongside the scientific exposure of buildings and artifacts.
Over the past two centuries, some epigraphic studies have been undertaken by large expeditions, whereas others have been carried out as part of the surveys of archaeological sites or areas, and individual copyists have also produced important work. Projects have ranged from recording scenes and inscriptions on tomb and temple walls, to the emergency rescue operation undertaken to survey and record the buildings in Nubia that were destined to be submerged after construction of two large dams at Aswan.


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