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History of Egyptology

After the Arab conquest in AD 641, only the Christian Egyptians, the Copts, kept alive the ancient language, written in Greek characters. In Europe the Coptic texts taken from Egypt during the Renaissance awakened interest in the Egyptian language. Up to this time, views of Egypt were dominated by the classical tradition that it was the land of ancient wisdom.

This wisdom was thought to inhere in hieroglyphic script which was believed in impart profound symbolic ideas, not –as it in fact does- the sounds and words of texts. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, Egypt had a minor but significant position in general views of antiquity, and its monuments gradually became better known through the work of scholars in Europe and travelers in the country itself; the finest publications of the latter were by Richard Pococke, Frederik Ludwig Norden, and Carsten Niebuhr, all of whose works in the 18th century helped to stimulate an Egyptian revival in European art and architecture. Coptic, the Christian successor of the ancient Egyptian language, was studied from the 17th century, notably by Athanasius Kircher, for its potential to provide the key to Egyptian.

Napoleon I’s expedition to and short-lived conquest of Egypt in 1798 was the culmination of 18th century interest in the East. The expedition was accompanied by a team of scholars who recorded the ancient and contemporary country, issuing in 1809-28 the Description de l’Egypte, the most comprehensive study to be made before the decipherment of the hieroglyphic script. The renowned Rosetta Stone, which bears a decree of Ptolemy V Epiphanes in hieroglyphs, demotic script, and Greek alphabetic characters, was discovered during the expedition. It was ceded to the British after the French capitulation in Egypt and became the property of the British Museum in London. This document greatly assisted the decipherment, accomplished by Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822.

The Egyptian language revealed by the decipherment and decades of subsequent study is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Egyptian is closest to the family’s Sematic branch but is distinctive in many respects. During several millennia it changed greatly. The script does not write vowels, and because Greek forms for royal names were known from Manetho long before the Egyptian forms became available, those used to this day are a mixture of Greek and Egyptian.

In the first half of the 19th century, vast numbers of antiquities were exported from Egypt, forming the nucleus of collections in many major museums. These were removed rather than excavated, inflicting together with the economic development of the country, colossal damage on ancient sites. At the same time, many travelers and scholars visited the country and recorded the monuments. The most important, and remarkably accurate, record was produced by the Prussian expedition led by Karl Richard Lepsius, in 1842-45, which explored sites as far south as the central Sudan.

In the mid-19th century, Egyptology- now defined as the study of pharaonic Egypt, spanning the period 4500 BC to Ad 641 (the time of the Arab conquest)- developed as a subject in France and in Prussia. The Antiquities were established in Egypt by the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, a great excavator who attempted to preserve sites from destruction, and the Prussian Heinrich Brugsch, who made great progress in the interpretation of texts of many periods and published the first major Egyptian dictionary. In 1880 Flinders Petrie (later Sir Flinders) began more than 40 years of methodical excavation, which created an archaeological framework for all the chief periods of Egyptian culture except for remote prehistory. Petrie was the initiator of much in archaeological method, but he was later surpassed by George Andrew Reisner, who excavated for American institutions from 1899 to 1937. The greatest late 19th century Egyptologist was Adolf Erman of Berlin, who put the understanding of the Egyptian language on a sound basis and wrote general works that for the first time organized what was known about the earlier periods.

Complete facsimile copies of Egyptian monuments have been published since the 1890s, providing a separate record that becomes more vital as the originals decay. The pioneer of this scientific epigraphy was James Henry Breasted of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, who began his work in 1905 and shortly thereafter was joined by others. He started the Epigraphic Survey in 1924 to make accurate copies of the inscriptions on monuments, which are subject to deterioration from exposure to the elements, and then publish these records.

      In the first half of the 20th century, some outstanding archaeological discoveries were made. Howard Carter uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922, Pierre Montet found the tomb of the 21st-22nd-dynasty kings at Tanis in 1939-44, and W.B. Emery and L.P. Kirwan found tombs of the Ballanah culture in Nubia in 1929-34, which preceded the second raising of the Aswan Dam. This was followed in the late 1950s and 60s by an international campaign to excavate and record sites in Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia before the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970. Lower Nubia is now one of the most thoroughly explored archaeological regions of the world. Most of its many temples have been moved, either to higher ground nearby, as happened to Abu Simbel and Philae, or to quite different places, including various foreign museums. The campaign also had the welcome consequence of introducing a wide range of archaeological expertise to Egypt, so that standards of excavation and recording in the country have risen greatly.

Excavation and survey of great importance have continued in many places. For example, at Saqqara, part of the necropolis of the ancient city of Memphis, new areas of the Sarapeum have been uncovered with rich finds, and a major New Kingdom necropolis is being thoroughly explored. The site of ancient Memphis itself has been systematically surveyed; its position in relation to the ancient course of the Nile has been established; and urban occupation areas have been studied in detail for first time. More recently, archaeologists in 2009-10 discovered in Alexandria the remains of temple dedicated to Bastet, a goddess in the shape of a cat.

Egyptology, it should be noted, is primarily an interpretive subject. There have been outstanding contributions- for example in art, for which Heinrich Schafer established the principles of the rendering of nature, and in language. New light has been cast on texts, the majority of which are written in a simple metre that can serve as the basis of sophisticated literary works. The physical environment, social structure, kingship, and religion are other fields in which great advances have been made, while the reconstruction of outline of history is constantly being improved in detail.

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