Tuesday, May 20, 2014


David Gange, Dialogues with the Dead: Egyptology in British Culture and Religion, 1822-1922. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. ix, 357. ISBN 9780199653102. $150.00.

Reviewed by Daniele Salvoldi, Freie Universit├Ąt, Berlin​ (daniele.salvoldi@fu-berlin.de)

Version at BMCR home site


This book is an innovative study on the impact and relationship between Egyptology and British culture from the decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822 to the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun a century later. It features a long introduction followed by five chapters cleverly but not usefully named after periods of ancient Egyptian history.

The lengthy introduction summarizes the state of the discipline, declares the goals of the study, and explains the methodology. Gange begins with his theory that the interest in ancient Egypt in British culture was at its highest point in the last quarter of the 19th century. This contradicts the established perception that Egyptology was particularly popular after the decipherment; however, the impressive amount of documentation amassed by the author is definitely persuasive. Methodology includes the screening of "not just excavation reports and technical manuals, but popular pamphlets, correspondence, biblical commentaries, the periodical press, novels and even latter-day epic poems" (p. 4). After a summary of the hundred years of Egyptology between 1822 and 1922, Gange explains what he believes are the three main demands in writing a history of Egyptology: 1. Immersion in the "religiously and classically suffused" culture of the 19th century; 2. Attention to the nineteenth-century interpretation of other Near East and Eastern Mediterranean civilizations; 3. Use of innovative criteria, such as considering Egyptologists who did not contribute much to the discipline, but were immensely popular in their time (such as Reginald Stuart Poole and Archibald Sayce).

The first chapter recounts the wave of skepticism that surrounded Champollion's decipherment in 1822. It then turns to the perception in British society at the time of an oppressive and dark Egypt, largely dictated by the Bible. This vision was strongly reinforced by the paintings of J. M. W. Turner and John Martin, which are frequently referred to in the text. It is unfortunate that the publisher did not accompany the text with a corresponding set of images. Literature, travel accounts and architecture related to Egypt are also mentioned in this chapter. Gange then makes a survey of mentions of Egypt in magazines and newspapers of three different British cities in 1822, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Colchester. At the same time, citizens of the capital were fascinated by Giovanni Battista Belzoni and his exhibition at the "Egyptian Hall." Gange treats at length the figure of the pioneer Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson, the fate of his books, and the cultural environment of Britain in the 1830s. The next section deals with "the most prominent forms of British interest…in art, design and display." It treats the work of demystification of Egypt carried out by Egyptologists and architect Joseph Bonomi (curator of Sir John Soane's Museum from 1861) and the designer Owen Jones. The last, very long section deals with unorthodox interpretations of Egypt. It features the great shift in British culture that happened in 1848, the bitter debates over Egyptian chronology, the increasingly Biblical anti-Islamic sentiment of the 1840s, and the critical reception of Christian von Bunsen's work (1840-1860) on Egyptian chronology. It deals in particular with the Syro-Egyptian Society, the most active Egyptian organization in Britain and "a hotbed of diverse forms of rational dissent" (p. 102).

The second chapter begins with a short discussion of John Ruskin and his influence on the perception of Egypt. It was the period of bitter clashes between opposing interpretations of Egypt: radical ideas began to circulate among larger audiences while at the same time the first archaeological discoveries in the Near East received large popularization as proof that both the Bible and the Classics were right. The chapter is titled "Intermediate": because the period "did not see significant developments in Egyptological technique […], but the meanings attached to Egyptology during its glorious revival of the 1880s were created by the cultural turmoil of this decade" (p. 127). This stance is innovative because the work of Petrie and the Egyptian Exploration Fund were previously regarded as a completely new development, without roots in the previous decades. The chapter continues with the discussion of pyramid metrology in the 1870s and in particular of the works of Charles Piazzi Smyth. Particularly praiseworthy here is the dismissal of the "narratives of chauvinism" (p. 132) – the stress on nationalistic rivalries between scholars – so frequent in many histories of Egyptology. The chapter continues by describing what Gange calls "archaeologies of the imagination", i.e., the fanciful interpretations of many discoveries such as Schliemann's Troy. Little Egyptology is actually involved in this chapter, however.

The third chapter introduces the "Middle Kingdom" of Egyptology: momentum was obviously gained with the involvement of Britain in Egyptian politics in 1882. Perception of Egypt turned from the country of tyrants to the homeland of "pugnacious engineers or visionary astronomers" (p. 153). According to Gange, the 1880s represented the high tide of Biblical interest in Egypt. The author admits that his analysis clearly contradicts many histories of Egyptology written so far. The common mistakes he lists are: 1. the idea that the period 1880-1950 was dominated in Egyptology by feelings of racism, skepticism and scorn towards ancient Egypt; 2. the assumption that from the 1880s the tight relation between Biblical scholarship and Egyptology was finally severed; 3. the certainty that direct access to ancient Egyptian texts finally dismissed the Bible as a reliable source. The author then offers a quick aside on the concept of "secularization" and its importance in understanding fin-de-si├Ęcle Egyptology. The chapter continues with references to British tourism in Egypt (from The Prince of Wales' travels to Thomas Cook's business), military occupation, its related political failure and the process of "religious framing" through colonialism. It is noteworthy, as Gange points out, that British Egyptologists absolutely refused any connection between their work in Egypt and politics. The chapter then concentrates on the Egypt Exploration Fund, its foundation, relationship with the media and the public, and research (i.e. mainly, the Exodus route). After discussing the exploits of the EEF in the Delta, especially at Pithom (a topic dear to the author, see his other new book Cities of God) and Naucratis, the chapter discusses the popularization of Egypt through journals such as The Academy, Nature, and Knowledge. The following section demonstrates how much religious language was used in anthropology and comparative mythology. The chapter ends with a discussion of theories connecting Christianity to ancient Egypt, and of monotheism, especially after the "discovery" of the Amarna period.

Chapter four focuses on the discovery of Egyptian prehistory by Flinders Petrie. The "discovery" of Graeco-Roman Egypt and a large amount of early Christian papyri at Oxyrhynchus is then discussed, with a long aside concerning the EEF and its restructuring. The chapter then deals with the "Babel und Bibel" controversy and its impact on British culture, the rise of "racial groups" theories, and the "reorientation of British occultism" (p. 262).

In Chapter five Gange argues that in the early 1900s a "substantial institutional, political and indeed social, consolidation had reshaped the field of operations of professional archaeologists and Egyptologists" (p. 275). Histories of Egyptology had until now failed to recognize a peculiar character of the period: the strong link between Egyptology and anthropology and in particular the figure of Flinders Petrie. It is a pity that Sinai is mentioned only in relation to Petrie's research, because in fact it constituted matter of discussion for decades before Petrie's own contribution. Also surprising is the little space given to the Israel Stele, which at the time raised great interest among the public. This chapter goes on to point out some key developments of archaeology, such as the extensive use of photography, stratigraphy, and seriation. The second part of the chapter is dedicated to anthropological and archeological studies in Sudan carried out by Elliot Smith in the early 20th century, including a wider discourse on prehistory and the clashing historical interpretations following "evolution" or "diffusion". At the end of the chapter Gange discusses the effects of World War I on historical disciplines, the later developments of the EEF, and the eventual clear distinction between Biblical archaeology and Egyptology (boosted by the British Mandate in Jerusalem). The last topic, unfortunately only briefly touched, is the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, that led to new attention on "marvels and wonders", the persistent idea that Egyptology was European, and not Egyptian, and the rise of the curse mania. He argues that it completely changed the relationship between Egyptology and the public: "Egyptologists now had a new task: rather than attempting to whip up popular interest…they turned their attention to attempting to control, repress and moderate the outpouring of elaborate theories" (p. 326).

Dialogues with the Dead is an extremely interesting book, thoroughly researched, and innovative. Remarkably, it was not written by an Egyptologist (the author is Lecturer in History at Birmingham) and this definitely adds extra value: it is more interested in the impact of Egyptology than Egyptology itself. There are many stimulating points in the book that change our accepted knowledge of the discipline. The bibliography is thorough and current, including nineteenth-century underutilized sources, such as newspaper articles. There are only few things that lessen the work done by Gange. The first is that it is not always an easy book: readers who are not familiar with specific social, political, and religious aspects of British culture might find difficult to follow the argument. The second is the lack of focus in the second part of the book. In particular, British Egyptology is basically reduced to Flinders Petrie and his contribution to archaeology (more than Egyptology itself). Many aspects of British cultural life influenced by the development of Egyptology, such as theater, art, music, and literature are not considered, or considered only briefly. There is also little to no comparison with Egyptology in the rest of the world, especially France, Germany, the USA, and Italy. The result is that British scholarship seems an isolated discipline. The Amarna period, which had a massive impact on British culture and religion, is treated in few pages only.1

The book is an excellent and useful addition to the panorama of the histories of Egyptology for its deep work of research and profound grade of innovation. It is to be hoped that other scholars will undertake similar histories of Egyptology for other countries and/or other periods. ​


1.   Only few factual errors were found, all of very little importance: Biblical spelling Tahpahnes for the more used and scientifically correct Daphnae or Tell Dafanah (p. 191), Ishmael for Khedive Isma'il I (p. 244), Meneptah for Merenptah (p. 185), a reference to Noe, Elias, and Eliseus as "Germanic biblical names", while in fact these are simply Latin renditions (p. 141). The description of Poynter's painting Israel in Egypt refers to Philae, while in fact the model seems to be the Theban West Bank, with what appears to be Gabal Qurna in the background (p. 306).

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