Egyptologists, scientists and historians


You want to know what an Egyptologist is? Understand the differences between the profession of archaeologist and the profession of Egyptologist? Or would you like to know who the great Egyptologists in the history were?

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It's perfect: you've come to the right place! As Egypt enthusiasts, we have prepared an article on the beautiful profession of Egyptologists.

Egyptologists are the scientists studying the history of ancient Egypt's past. They are therefore the ones who study the remains, monuments and objects found in Egypt today. Modern Egyptologists were born in 1822 with the discovery of hieroglyphics by Champollion, who gave this profession the first tools to better understand the ancient Egyptian world.

In this article, you will discover:

  • What is an Egyptologist
  • Who were the first Egyptologists
  • Who were the 5 great Egyptologists who founded modern Egyptology

After this article, the science of studying the history of ancient Egypt, Egyptology, will no longer hold any secrets for you.

Let's start without further ado by defining who the Egyptologists are!

1) Who are the Egyptologists?

Egyptologists are the scientists who study the history of ancient Egypt in all its forms. They are therefore interested in monuments, ancient beliefs and everything that forms Egyptian civilization (which can be described as the ancient human activity that took place in Upper and Lower Egypt from 4500 BC to 641 AD).

Egyptology is a branch of science distinct from archaeology (which is the "study of the history of the past" of the world, which includes all countries, unlike Egyptology).

It is important to know that the "Egyptologists" we hear about nowadays are only "modern Egyptologists". Before them, there were other ancient Egyptian, Greco-Roman and medieval Egyptologists who, in their own way, studied the history of ancient Egypt.

Wall covered with hieroglyphs representing Isis and Thoth
The first Egyptologists were not British, German or French: they were ancient Egyptians.

I) Period of the Egyptian explorers

Although it may seem surprising, the first Egyptologists were Egyptians. Since the civilization of the ancient Egyptians lasted for 5000 years, it is quite normal that the ancient Egyptians of 1000 BC studied the temples and writings of the first Egyptians of their civilization born in 3000 BC (a difference of 2000 years).

For comparison, this situation corresponds to that of the 2020 Egyptologists conducting research on the Egyptian palaces of Cleopatra (built in 40 BC). Indeed, this is also a difference of about 2000 years.

Among the great ancient Egyptian Egyptologists is the king Thutmose IV, who restored the great Sphinx of Giza in 1380 BC. Thutmose IV restored this monument dating of 2532 BC after a dream that he thought had been sent to him by the gods of Egypt.

The fourth son of Rameses II, the prince Khaemweset, was also one of the first great Egyptologists. In 1222 BC, he was responsible for the costly reconstruction, maintenance, and identification of many tombs and temples built 1000 years earlier.

II) Period of the Greco-Roman explorers

The Greek city-states and the Roman Empire were nations that frequently traded with Egypt. As a result, great trade routes were created.

It was these trade routes that enabled many Greek and Roman historians to visit Egypt and produce detailed accounts of their travels. Thus, the writings of ancient historians such as Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, and Strabo are today a great and reliable aid to modern Egyptologists.

III) Period of medieval explorers

After a slight downward trend in interest in the history of ancient Egypt after the fall of the Roman Empire, it is to the Bible of the Christians that we owe the revival of exploratory voyages from Europe.

Indeed, in the Bible, Joseph, Mary, and their "son" Jesus fled to Egypt to hide from the eyes of the world. For this reason, Egypt became a place of pilgrimage and was studied in search of Christian sacred relics.

During this period, the Pyramids of Giza were explored and studied because they were suspected to be the holy place of the "granaries of Joseph" where Jesus' "father" stored food in anticipation of difficult years.

2) The modern Egyptologists

Modern Egyptology begins with the rediscovery of the meaning of the hieroglyphs lost for 1200 years (after 600 AD).

This rediscovery was greatly facilitated by the Egyptian campaign of Napoleon Bonaparte (at this time a general in the French army).

During this military campaign to damage the functionality of the British enemy trade route called "Road to India", Napoleon took many scholars and scientists with him so that they could bring back to France ancient Egyptian treasures and pieces of collection.

Among these antique objects is the Rosetta Stone, which was used by Champollion to decipher hieroglyphics in 1822.

As a result of Champollion's work, the possibility of understanding once again what is hidden behind the hieroglyphs gave rise to spectacular discoveries in Egyptology from 1822 to the present day.

Thus, we propose you to discover the 5 Egyptologists who made Egyptology the great and beautiful science it is today:

I) The decipherer of hieroglyphics

Champollion, the father of EgyptologyTo understand why Jean-François Champollion was the first to decipher the meaning of the hieroglyphs, one must be aware of his colossal capacity for work and knowledge's accumulation:

  • At the age of only 16, Champollion had fully mastered the translation of six major ancient languages (in addition to ancient Latin and ancient Greek, which he had already mastered since the age of 14).
  • At the age of only 19, the future decipherer of hieroglyphics became a full professor of ancient history.

Despite his obvious high enough level for his career, Champollion was soon attracted by the challenge of solving the hieroglyphic writing.

For this great project, Champollion relied on the Rosetta Stone, a stone bearing a declaration of the beginning of the reign of the Egyptian king Ptolemy V. Brought back by one of Napoleon's officers, this stone carried a specificity that immediately appealed to the young Champollion.

Indeed, this stone bore three times the account of the establishment of Ptolemy V: once in hieroglyphics, once in demotic (kind of hieroglyphics less worked and therefore easier to write) and once in ancient Greek.

Champollion, who had a perfect mastery of Greek translation, was therefore able to understand the text in hieroglyphics completely.

He then took into consideration the hypothesis that it was possible that not all the hieroglyphs were letters of the alphabet.

Continuing on this path, Champollion discovered that there were several types of hieroglyphs. These types of hieroglyphs, 4 in number, were as follows:

  • Those representing a letter of the alphabet (i.e. a consonant or a vowel).
  • Those representing a combination of consonants and vowels (i.e. a sound).
  • Those representing a character or an object (i.e. a whole word).
  • Those giving a shade of gender or a shade of number (hieroglyphics that therefore qualify whether another word written in hieroglyphics was "masculine or feminine" and "singular or plural").

Thanks to this enlightened translation (or what some call today luck!), Jean-François Champollion is today described as the "first of the Egyptologists" and as the "father of Egyptology". The following other Egyptologists owe him a lot because with this deciphering, the whole civilization of ancient Egypt can be studied with much more ease.

II) The founder of the Cairo museum

Auguste Mariette, curator at the LouvreAuguste Mariette began his Egyptologist's career as a curator at the Louvre Museum (called the "Museum of the king Charles X" at that time).

Expert in language (because like Champollion, he mastered many languages), Auguste Mariette was in charge of appraising and buying antique objects to be exhibited in the Louvre museum.

If Auguste Mariette was able to distinguish himself from the other Egyptologists of his time and to create later the museum of Cairo, it is thanks to the fame that the discovery of the "Serapeum" gave him, of which here is the account:

In 1850, during a trip to Egypt for an initial acquisition of several Coptic manuscripts, Mariette will buy material for an excavation project in the ancient city of Saqqarah.

Indeed, the transaction of the Coptic manuscripts has failed. The money intended for this operation of purchase will be used by Auguste Mariette to carry out excavations near the pyramid of Djoser (in Saqqarah, not far from the pyramids of Giza).

After the purchase of material intended for vast excavations, while going to the site of Saqqarah, Auguste Mariette will see a head of small sphinx protruding from the sand of the desert. He then remembers one of the accounts of the antique Greek historian and Egyptologist Strabon. Auguste Mariette remembers that two rows of sphinxes bordered the Serapeum.

By looking more closely at the sphinx, Auguste Mariette will understand that he discovered the Serapeum, the large necropolis dedicated to the sacred bulls of the pharaohs (some bulls incarnating the Egyptian bull god Apis, the Egyptian god representing fertility and male strength). This is a great discovery for Egyptology because knowledge of the location of Serapeum had been lost after the fall of the Roman Empire.

From this vast underground necropolis, Auguste Mariette will take out 19 mummies of sacred bulls. This discovery will project him into the circle of the great scientists and historians of the time. By this fact, the career of Auguste Mariette will know a great leap forward. All the requests for financing to organize excavations that he will demand will be granted to him.


Serapaeum from the Saqqarah site

300 meters of galleries dug into the stone where the most sacred bulls were stored: this is what the Serapeum of Saqqarah was.

In 1855, Auguste Mariette became second curator of the "ancient Egypt section" of the Louvre Museum.

In 1858, Auguste Mariette worked closely with the Egyptian government to found the Boulaq Museum in Cairo (the predecessor of today's Egyptian Museum in Cairo). The purpose of this museum is to curb the anarchic excavations in Egypt that are sometimes considered as looting of Egypt's treasures on their way to Europe. With this museum, most of the ancient objects excavated during excavations will be preserved in Egypt and not repatriated by default to Germany, the United Kingdom, and France.

In 1872, Auguste Mariette supervised the desandering of the "temple of Edfu", the temple dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus in ancient Egypt. Mariette's meticulous direction of the temple's desandering work ensured that the temple was not damaged at all by the operation. As a result, it is today possible to see its walls covered with hieroglyphics in a state very close to their original condition.

In 1878, Auguste Mariette was awarded the honorary title of pasha of Egypt in recognition of his role in preserving Egypt's heritage.

In 1881, Auguste Mariette dies of complications from his diabetes. After having excavated 15,000 ancient objects during the 300 excavations in which he participated, Mariette is buried in Cairo at the age of 60.

III) The discoverer of the "Texts of the Pyramids"

Gaston Maspero, professor at the Collège de FranceAt the age of 26, Gaston Maspero joined Egyptology in Paris through his profession as a full professor of Egyptology at the very reputed "College of France".

In 1880, learning of Auguste Mariette's deteriorating health caused by his diabetes, France sent Gaston Maspero to Egypt to help Mariette in the direction of the French excavations.

In 1881, after having learned much from Auguste Mariette, Gaston Maspero takes the direction of French Egyptology missions. It is thus he who discovered the "Texts of the pyramids", a grouping of texts describing the missions and attributes of the various gods of the Egyptian polytheistic religion.

In 1886, Gaston Maspero directed the restoration of the Karnak temples in Luxor. Maspero carried out a complete desanding of the site (a site which was extremely rich in fragile hieroglyphic wall inscriptions and statues of gods).

IV) Flinders Petrie, the creator of "stratigraphy"

Flinders Petrie, excavation leaderIn the 18th and 19th centuries, excavations always took place in a limited time because of the cost of mobilizing men and excavation equipment. The main goal of Egyptologists was to make each excavation profitable in terms of finds in order to obtain new grants from wealthy individuals.

Thus, it was not uncommon for ancient objects to be destroyed or damaged in the course of an excavation to find more new ones.

In 1875, Flinders Petrie began to use and spread around "stratigraphy", a method of excavation more respectful of the past. Stratigraphy consists of exploring ancient soils gradually by digging layer by layer of soil.

This method of excavation has met with great success. It is first encouraged by the Egyptian government, which appreciates that the state of its national historic heritage is respected. It is then widely adopted by Egyptologists because it allows them to better estimate the Egyptian period to which the excavated ancient objects belonged.

V) The discoverer of Tutankhamun's tomb

Howard Carter, the trigger of the curse of TutankhamunHoward Carter is the legendary discoverer of the lost tomb of Tutankhamun.

In 1917, after many years spent traveling to excavations in Egypt to reproduce unmovable hieroglyphic wall writings, Howard Carter met Lord Carnarvon. Lord Carnarvon was a wealthy Englishman who wished to acquire the services of a connoisseur of Egypt to search for the tomb of the mysterious pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Howard Carter seized the opportunity and set out to find the tomb of Tutankhamun in the necropolis of many pharaohs called the Valley of the Kings. Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, and their team carried out intense research for five years. However, although they find vases and papyrus bearing the name of Tutankhamun, they find no trace of the pharaoh's tomb.

In 1922, when Lord Carnarvon returned to the United Kingdom on personal business, Howard Carter took some risks: Carter chose to prohibit tourists from entering the Valley of the Kings to conduct excavations there (an action that was widely criticized by the Egyptian government of the day).

Carter quickly realized that he had made the right decision. He and his team discover the remains of wooden shacks that once belonged to workers at the tomb of Rameses VI. This discovery proved that this zone has never been explored before.


The Funerary Tomb of Tutankhamun

Carter is lucky: the entrance to the Valley of the Kings has never been excavated because of the unpopularity that the immobilization of an extremely tourist attraction like the Valley of the Kings would imply.

After a few days of excavation, on November 4, 1922, Carter's team discovered a first royal tomb's staircase step in the sand. Even after a few more days, the entrance to the tomb was completely clear.

In the tomb of Tutankhamun, Carter will discover one of the rarest treasures not looted in antiquity. After a 7 meter-long corridor, Howard Carter discovers the pharaonic burial chamber (8.5 meters long and 3.5 meters wide) filled with precious objects.

With the discovery of this tomb, Howard Carter would become a star Egyptologist of his time. In addition, Carter was not affected by the "Curse of Pharaohs" a mysterious chain of deaths that began with Lord Carnarvon's death and seems to have struck many people who were connected in some way with the discovery of the royal tomb of Tutankhamun. Indeed, the latter all died by coincidence from diseases unknown at the time (some events which create the "Curse of Pharaohs"!).

The Egyptologists

At the end of this description of the profession of Egyptologist, you now know everything about Egyptology. Indeed, you now know:

  • Description of the Egyptologist's job
  • The history of the first Egyptologists, precursors of modern Egyptology
  • The stories of the lives of the fathers of modern Egyptology (those of Carter, Petrie, Maspero, Mariette and Champollion!).

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