Egyptology: science and profession


Do you w nt to understand what is Egyptology? To know the difference between Egyptology and archaeology? Or to know who the most famous Egyptologists are?

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You've come to the right place: passionate about ancient Egypt, we will explain what is Egyptology, the "science of Egypt".

Egyptology is a branch of science separate from archaeology that studies the history of ancient Egypt. The best known form of Egyptology is "modern Egyptology" which began in 1922 after Champollion's deciphering of the hieroglyphs (which allowed scientists to better understand the history behind the monuments and artifacts of the ancient Egyptians).

In this article, you will discover:

  • The definition and history of Egyptology
  • The first forms of Greek, Roman and medieval Egyptology
  • The great Egyptologists who built modern Egyptology

After reading this article, you will know all about one of the historical sciences which start with Napoleon Bonaparte's Egyptian campaign of 1798.

Let's get started without further ado!

1) Egyptology (history)

Egyptology is the study of the past of ancient Egypt (a period from 4500 BC to 641 AD).

Egyptology is a discipline distinct from archaeology. This distinction between archaeology and Egyptology is due to the importance of Egyptology in our country.

When one speaks about Egyptology, one thinks especially of the recent discoveries exposed in modern museums (such as those exposed in the Louvre Museum of Paris). However, it must be understood that this Egyptology is only the "modern Egyptology" part of Egyptology. It should be emphasized that this modern Egyptology only began after the discovery of the hieroglyphs by Jean-François Champollion in 1822.


Egyptian fresco of Isis and Thoth

Indeed, it should also be understood that there were Egyptologists among the ancient Egyptians (since their civilization lasted for about 5000 years!).

I) The Egyptian Egyptologists

The first Egyptologists were obviously the Egyptians themselves. Since Egyptian civilization stretched from 4500 BC to 641 AD, it is in no way shocking that Egyptian Egyptologists living in 1000 BC study the monuments and customs of their pairs from 3000 BC.

For example, in 1380 BC, encouraged by a dream he had, pharaoh Thutmose IV began renovation work on the Sphinx of Giza built in 2532 BC.

About 140 years later, in 1242 BC, the prince Khaemweset (the fourth son of Rameses II) began extensive work to identify and renovate ancient temples and tombs.

II) Period of the Greco-Roman explorers

As a result of the many travels of Greek and then Roman historians, a knowledge of ancient Egypt developed in the form of narratives of historical contexts. Today, it is not uncommon for modern Egyptologists to rely on the writings of great Greek historians such as Herodotus, Strabo and Diodorus Siculus to conduct their research.

Moreover, as Egypt became a province under the control of Rome after Cleopatra's death, Rome contributed to the restoration of Egyptian temples and monuments (and thus accumulated a lot of knowledge about ancient Egypt).

III) The medieval explorers

Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt (Cairo) to hide according to the Bible. Thus, following the changeover of Europe to Christianity, ֤Egypt has become an important place of pilgrimage frequently visited by Christian historians and monks.

The Pyramids of Giza were studied at that time because they were suspected to be "Joseph's granaries" used by Mary's companion to store grain and flour for future years of misfortune.

2) The great Egyptologists

In his "Egyptian campaign", the French general Napoleon will take many researchers with him to establish his authority and popularity. These researchers would bring back to France (and Europe) a large quantity of antique objects that would serve as the basis for studies and identification work by the curators of the great French history museums.

Since the Egyptian campaign, the understanding of ancient Egypt has continued to grow through multiple advances (notably through the translation of hieroglyphics by Champollion).

Thus, we propose you in a second step to discover together the 5 Egyptologists who had a significant impact on the understanding of ancient Egypt.

I) Jean-François Champollion

Jean-François ChampollionAt the age of 16, the legendary French decipherer of hieroglyphs, Jean-François Champollion, had already mastered 6 ancient oriental languages (in addition to ancient Greek and ancient Latin, which he knew from an early age).

After becoming a full professor of ancient history at the age of 19, Champollion quickly became passionate about "discovering the meaning of hieroglyphs".

It is estimated that the ability to translate hieroglyphs was lost by the Egyptians in about 600 AD. It is thanks to the Rosetta Stone that Champollion would be the first to regain the ability to read hieroglyphics after the forgetting of their meaning for 1200 years.

This black stone, called the "Rosetta Stone" and brought back by an officer of Napoleon's after the Egyptian campaign, describes the advent of the reign of pharaoh Ptolemy V. The specificity of the writings of this stone is to repeat three times the same text but in three different languages: in hieroglyphics, in demotic (a form of hieroglyphs less illuminated and worked) and (especially) in ancient Greek.

By bringing together the text in hieroglyphics and the text in Greek, Champollion will discover something that had totally escaped his predecessors. He discovered that some hieroglyphs represent letters of the alphabet while others do not.

Champollion then updates 4 types of hieroglyphs:

  • Hieroglyphs representing a vowel or a consonant (a letter of the alphabet).
  • Hieroglyphs representing a sound (a set of vowels and consonants).
  • Hieroglyphs representing a whole word (such as a object or a character).
  • Hieroglyphs complementing the meaning of other hieroglyphics (giving the gender "masculine/feminine" or the number "singular/plural" of other words written in hieroglyphics).

The translation of the hieroglyphs thus made possible to begin to understand the history of ancient Egypt by reading the hieroglyphs present on the walls and writings of all types. For this reason, Champollion is nowadays considered the "father of Egyptology".

II) Auguste Mariette

The archaeologist and Egyptologist Auguste MarietteAfter a youth spent learning hieroglyphics, Coptic, Syriac and Armenian, François Auguste Ferdinand Mariette began his Egyptological journey at the Louvre Museum of Paris.

In 1850, Auguste Mariette is sent to Egypt to buy a collection of Coptic manuscripts.

This transaction having failed, Auguste Mariette want to re-use the funds intended for the acquisition of the manuscripts to carry out excavations in Saqqarah, close to the Pyramid of the pharaoh Djoser.

Before this vast excavation operation, Auguste Mariette and his team camped at the foot of the Pyramid of Khufu, not far from the site of Saqqarah. While moving on the site of Saqqarah with his team, Auguste Mariette will see a head of sphinx emerging slightly from the sand on its course in the desert. He will then remember the writings of the Greek historian Strabon who attested that the alleyway of the "Serapeum Necropolis" dedicated to the sacred bull Apis was lined with two rows of sphinxes. It is thus at the beginning of his career that we owe the discovery of the 19 mummified bulls of the Serapeum.

Thereafter, by the prestige which the discovery of the Serapeum will offer to him, Auguste Mariette will receive all the financing which he will ask to carry out excavations.


the immense Serapion of the Nile country

Underground galleries 300 meters long serve as the final resting places for the sacred bulls of the pharaohs: "the Egyptian Serapeum of Saqqarah".

In 1855, Auguste Mariette was appointed assistant curator of the Egyptian collection at the Louvre.

In 1858, he founded the Boulaq Museum in Cairo. This museum (which later became the "Egyptian Museum of Cairo") was to house most of Auguste Mariette's Egyptian discoveries (the large part left in Egypt and not repatriated to France, England and Germany).

In 1872, Auguste Mariette directs 2780 employees. In that year, he had the temple of the falcon god Horus in the city of Edfu desanded. The interior of the temple of Edfu having been invaded by sand over the centuries, Mariette's meticulous cleaning will allow the temple to return to its original state without damaging its walls (bearing many hieroglyphics and frescoes).

In 1878, in recognition of his struggle to preserve Egypt's national heritage, Auguste Mariette was awarded the title of high-ranking nobleman "pasha".

In 1881, Auguste Mariette died at the age of 60 from medical complications caused by his diabetes. In total, Auguste Mariette will have excavated 300 tombs and found 15,000 antique objects. Considered one of the greatest protectors of Egypt's heritage (which sometimes caused him problems with the leaders of Europe), Auguste Mariette is buried in Cairo, capital of the country to which he devoted his life.

III) Gaston Maspero

The explorer Gaston MasperoGaston Maspero began his life as a full professor of Egyptology at the prestigious "College de France" in Paris.

In 1880, Auguste Mariette's health having already deteriorated a year before his death, France sent Gaston Maspero to him to help him in the conduct of French excavations in Egypt.

In 1881, Gaston Maspero is credited with the discovery of the "Texts of the Pyramids", a collection of texts describing the rituals and myths concerning the passage into the Afterlife according to Egyptian mythology. Written in 2289 BC, these writings gave Egyptologists a much better understanding of the god-related beliefs of the ancient Egyptians.

In 1886, in Luxor, Gaston Maspero led excavations of the many temples at Karnak. He managed to excavate the entire complex, which covered an area of more than 2 square kilometers.

IV) Flinders Petrie

The Egyptologist Flinders PetrieDespite the experience of the Egyptologists who preceded Flinders Petrie, some excavation methods were still lacking in Egyptology to preserve archaeological excavation sites and to avoid destroying some ancient objects while excavating others.

Flinders Petrie introduced "stratigraphy" a method of layer-by-layer excavation that allows precise dating of the objects and monuments discovered. Indeed, as sand and earth gradually cover the ground over the centuries, it is possible to know to which period the excavated objects belonged by excavating a site layer by layer.

From 1880 to 1883, Flinders Petrie led excavations in the Solar City of Amarna, the city built by pharaoh Akhenaten in honor of the Egyptian solar god Aten. Thus, it is thanks to Flinders Petrie that so much is known today about Akhenaten as a "heretic pharaoh" (who tried to replace the Egyptian gods by the single god Aten) who was erased from the collective memory of the Egyptians by Akhenaten's successors.

V) Howard Carter

The discoverer of Tutankhamun's tombHoward Carter was originally a British draftsman and Egyptologist who specialized in replicas' recreation of Egyptian frescoes that could not be moved to be stored in a museum.

After several years spent in Egypt drawing fragile walls and papyrus in excavations in the region, Howard Carter was approached by Lord Carnarvon.

Lord Carnarvon is a wealthy Englishman with a passion for archaeology who is looking for a talented Egyptologist to help him after a long and fruitless search in the Valley of the Kings. Lord Carnarvon is persuaded that there remain tombs of pharaohs which were never discovered in the great necropolis of pharaohs called "Valley of the Kings".

After five years of searching, Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon found only vases and jars bearing the name of Tutankhamun but failed to find the tomb of the pharaoh. While Lord Carnarvon returned to Britain, Howard Carter will try to innovate. He takes the decision to close the entrance to the Valley of the Kings, which brings him much criticism (because this entrance is very popular with tourists).

Howard Carter began digging at this site and soon discovered the remains of huts that had been used by workers of the tomb of Rameses VI. Carter became convinced that the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun was just a little deeper than the huts of those workers. He believes that research at this particular location has never been undertaken in recent years because of the unpopularity with tourists that might result from temporarily closing the entrance to the Valley of the Kings for excavation.

On November 4, 1922, Howard Carter and his team excavated one tomb step and soon several others. Carter soon discovered a gate with the royal seal of Tutankhamun.


Tutankhamun's Tomb

After a few more days of excavation, Carter enters what will turn out to be the tomb of Tutankhamun.

The tomb of Tutankhamun will prove to contain the only pharaonic treasure not stolen by looters in antiquity.

The tomb indeed contains a real treasure. Howard Carter found a room 8 meters long and 3.6 meters wide filled with all kinds of funerary treasures: precious jewelry in great numbers, chests, a throne made of gold and beds. Above all, in this tomb, Howard Carter found the sarcophagus and the ceremonial gold and lapis lazuli tomb mask of Tutankhamun.

After the discovery of this tomb, a series of deaths among the scholars who took part in it (and the death of Lord Carnarvon) gave rise to the legend of the famous "curse of the pharaohs". Indeed, the chance made that many people related to this expedition probably died of unknown diseases at that time (resulting in the legend of the "curse of the pharaohs").

Howard Carter will not be affected by this legendary curse and will live until he is 64 years old, 17 years after he entered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

The history of Egypt

Arrived at the end of this article, you now know everything about Egyptology because we saw together:

  • The history and definition of Egyptology
  • The history of the first Egyptian, Greek, Roman and medieval Egyptologists
  • The great Egyptologists Champollion, Mariette, Maspero, Petrie and Carter

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