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Three Great Egyptologists

Author:R Kay Ologist
Date: 2015-03-02 02:52:00
Tags:Giovanni Battista Belzoni; Jean-François Champollion; Howard Carter; Egyptology; Archaeology; ancient Egypt; Tutankhamun; hieroglyphs;

When one looks back over the history of Egyptology, it appears that three men stand out from the rest, and each of them has left his mark indelibly printed: Giovanni Belzoni (left picture), Jean-Francois Champollion (right picture), and Howard Carter (centre picture). Who has never gazed in awe at the statue of Ramses II in the British Museum? Who has never wondered what the hieroglyphs say? Who has never heard of King Tutankhamun? Three landmarks in the field of Egyptology which have (in some way) affected the lives of the majority of the people on this planet: three landmarks which are attributed to the three aforementioned men.

Giovanni Battista Belzoni

... My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

Segment from “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley was so inspired by the colossal statue of Ramses II that he felt compelled to write the poem “Ozymandias”. What was it about this statue that made a man do this? Certainly, at seven and a half metres tall and weighing around seven tons, it is awe inspiring: even today. But how did this statue manage to get from Luxor to the British Museum? It must have been a great man who accomplished this task, and Giovanni Battista Belzoni fits this description completely.

In the late summer of 1715, Belzoni had arrived in Egypt primarily to sell his invention, a new type of hydraulic water pump, to Pasha Muhammad Ali, the new leader of Egypt, who was undertaking a programme of agrarian land reclamation and important irrigation works. Due to a technical failure during the testing of the pump, his new design was rejected: Belzoni was out of work. Through meetings with some friends of his who were also in Cairo, he found that the British Consul-General, Henry Salt, was looking for someone to transport a gigantic statue from Luxor to London. Belzoni had no interest in archaeology, but was fascinated by the objects that the Ancient Egyptians had created. This, plus the fact that he had no money left, convinced him to travel up the Nile to Luxor and undertake the retrieval of the statue which was then known as “The Young Memnon” (this was pre-Champollion and so no one could read hieroglyphs. The statue was named “The Young Memnon” in honour of the Ethiopian who had brought ten thousand men to ancient Troy, only to be killed by Achilles).

The French had attempted to move it during Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt, but after revolving it from the “face down” position to a “face up” one, they gave up, and so it lay until 27th July 1816 when Belzoni arrived at the “Memnonium” (now known as the Ramesseum). Like many before him, he had never attempted a feat like this, and had only brought fourteen poles, eight of which were to be used in making a sledge to place and move the statue upon, four palm leaf ropes, and four rollers: no winches or other mechanical aides. He also had the promise of local labour, but due to the French hatred of the English, as well as their strong influence within the country, the promise meant nothing and it took all of Belzoni’s negotiating skills to acquire the manpower that he needed, especially as the inundation was getting nearer and he wanted the statue safely moved before the flood arrived. Despite all the pitfalls that faced him, including the arrival of Ramadan, so no workers could help him, or the workers just not turning up due to “other duties”, Belzoni found himself on the banks of the Nile, with the statue, on August 12: a mere fifteen days to travel two miles. Ironically, Belzoni, without knowing it, had used the same technique to move the statue as the ancient Egyptians had.

Using his engineering skills, Belzoni eventually managed to load the statue safely upon a boat for transportation to Cairo, Alexandria and finally, London, a feat which proved a lot easier than its initial move. Giovanni Battista Belzoni had made his mark on Egyptology, though it took a long time after his death for what he had done to be completely appreciated. Howard Carter, one hundred years later, called him “One of the most remarkable men in the history of Egyptology” and Maurice Willson Disher sums up Belzoni’s achievement perfectly in his book “Pharaoh’s Fool” when he writes about the moving of Ramses II’s statue, “It was the turning point not only in his own career but in the history of Egyptology”. The first landmark in Egyptology had been created.

Jean-François Champollion

Anyone who has visited the Valley of the Kings, and has been lucky enough to be there on a day when KV17 is open, will have instantly recognised the majesty of the final resting place of Seti I. Discovered and opened by Belzoni on 16th October 1817, this tomb carried the name of the giant Paduan for 12 years until it became the “home” of Jean-François Champollion (23rd December 1790 - 4th March 1832) and his entourage in 1829, an entourage that included student artists of Baron Gros, who had painted pictures glorifying Napoleon’s battles.

Ever since he had discovered the secrets of the hieroglyphs Champollion wanted to travel to Egypt. His deciphering of the Rosetta Stone was done on a rubbing, as the original was in London and he was in Paris, and he wanted to see these symbols with his own eyes in their original location.  Eventually his ambition was fulfilled and he found himself in Egypt on 18th August 1828.

Before leaving France, he had been told from the Church, and the King, that he was not to publish any works that contradicted anything said in the bible, yet within a few weeks he was reading messages from the Ancient Egyptians that did exactly that. The biblical flood was supposed to have happened in 2349BC, yet the Egyptian civilisation predated that Rather than be ridiculed, Champollion kept a secret diary of his findings, to be published after his death.

March 1829 found him in Thebes/Luxor, where he became the first man in thousands of years to read about Ramses II’s battle with the Hittites. But Champollion was not only reading the hieroglyphs and reliefs, he understood them as well. He was finding out who the Ancient Egyptians really were, and by doing so he was bringing them back to life. He found the names of the Pharaohs who had helped build the colossal Temple of Karnak, and by reading them he gave them the immortality that they once wanted. But Champollion’s landmark lay just across the Nile in the Valley of the Kings, which is where he went to next.

Belzoni had known that the hieroglyphs in the tombs had meant something, but was unable to read them: now came a man who could. Why had the tombs been adorned so lavishly with these paintings? Were they an autobiographical account of the owner? Seti’s tomb unearthed all its secrets to Champollion, and by doing so it helped answer these questions. They were not autobiographical; they were an account of the deceased’s passage into the underworld. One of these texts that he discovered is now known as the “Book of Gates”, which shows the journey of the dead Pharaoh through the underworld so that he may receive resurrection. He has to pass through a series of gates, each one linked with a different goddess, the deceased having to recognise each one to progress. Those that recognise the goddesses will pass, but those that do not will meet their fate in a lake of fire.

Another text that Champollion discovered was the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony. This ceremony involves magically opening the mouth of a mummy so that it can breathe, speak and eat. Special tools were used for this, which were all depicted in the texts on the walls of Seti’s tomb.

Though Champollion visited, read and recorded most of the sites in Egypt, the tomb of Seti I is the landmark discovery as it is the one which let the world know about the Ancient Egyptians. From these texts, and Champollion’s ability to read them, it could be seen that the Ancient Egyptians had their own religion and beliefs. Though Champollion passed away two years after his discoveries, his talent at reading these long forgotten texts helped give back the immortality that the Ancient Egyptians craved.

Howard Carter

‘Wonderful things’: two words that will forever be etched in Egyptology folklore; in fact it is fair to say that they will forever be etched in archaeology folklore as well. Mention Egypt to anyone and their reply will usually be Tutankhamen, mention Tutankhamen and the reply will be Howard Carter. Has a discovery ever made such an impression on the world?  Hollywood movies, curses, books (from excellent to utter trash), conspiracy theories (all utter trash), the list is endless.

But what is forgotten is the actual discovery itself. People tend to focus on the grave goods found inside the tomb, as if they were the landmark: this is not so. The actual landmark was the meticulous way that Carter searched the Valley of the Kings, looking for the elusive tomb. Pressure was coming from his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, to speed things up, but Carter argued his case, knowing that if he was to find the tomb, the search would be done his way; and only his way.

The search for the tomb of the boy king started in the autumn of 1917. Carter suggested to Carnarvon that they should clear a triangle of land, between the tombs of Ramses II, Merenptah and Ramses VI, and in doing so they would actually clear the area, not just move piles of rubbish and previous dig debris from one place to another. By March 1920, Carter had removed enough debris to make him think that he was down to the “virgin ground below”. Though he found some artefacts of Ramses II and Merenptah, this triangle of land was of no use to him.

He then turned his attention to the area near to the tomb of Tuthmosis III, which was up a small lateral valley. Again, the boy king was elusive, though Carter did discover some interesting things there. By now, even Carter was getting frustrated, and so he decided to turn back to the triangle of ground he had cleared. Previously he had avoided one particular area, in front of the tomb of Ramses VI, as he did not want to isolate the entrance. He and Carnarvon decided to have one more season at that site, starting earlier than usual, and putting all their efforts into discovering something. If it meant isolating the entrance, then isolate it they would. In Carter’s own words “My own feeling was that so long as a single area of untouched ground remained, the risk was worth taking” That, plus his feeling that there was something in that corner of the valley would pay great dividends.

Six seasons had been funded by Lord Carnarvon, without any real success, just a few artefacts, nothing that Carnarvon could use to justify his expenditure. Carter was given the ultimatum by his sponsor; this was to be the last season. October arrived and by the end of that month, so had Carter. Four days later the digging had begun. Carter remembered that they had previously unearthed some workmen’s huts close to the entrance to Ramses VI’s tomb, so he decided to excavate some of them. They were drawn, written down and then removed: it was now November 3rd. The next morning, Carter arrived at the site to be met by silence, silence that usually meant that something had been found. From underneath the debris of the first hut, a stone cut step had been found, a bit more excavating and it was obvious that there was something there. By the evening of the 5th enough rubble had been removed to identify the top of a stairway. The evidence was there: they were at the entrance to a tomb. Slowly they uncovered another step, then another, eventually coming to a ten foot high, six foot wide passageway and then the sealed doorway. Carter’s persistence had paid off and another landmark in Egyptology was created.


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