Napoleon's Tomb Raiders
In may of 1798, a French armada set sail across the Mediterranean, heading for Alexandria. In command of the expedition was a 29 year old Napoleon Bonaparte- not yet emperor, but already a rising star in the French military. He had been given nearly 200 vessels and 13 ships of the line, alongside the newly formed Army of the Orient. This army was created to seize Egypt for France, from the clutches of the decrepit Ottoman Empire. (Fritze, 2015)
More than 150 scholars also accompanied the expedition. These researchers, called the Scientific Commission, were to study every facet of Egypt, natural and human, modern, and ancient. Out of these men, though, only 3 were archaeologists. Archaeology was such a young discipline that it was largely still left to rich antiquarians to collect artifacts as curiosities, not as part of any scientific study
They came as conquerors, and from our perspective as looters, but they saw the remains of Ancient Egypt in a state that none of us will ever have a chance to experience. The sphinx was buried to its shoulders- many monuments still showed remains of their original paint- and two centuries of Egyptomania and looting had yet to strip the desert of its treasures. I want to share with you some amazing descriptions and illustrations, and ponder how much really separates me, a modern professional archaeologist, from those 19th century plunderers. I think the gap is narrower than you might think.
While French soldiers, Ottoman Mamluke defenders, and local brigands fought in a chaotic and fast-moving campaign, the Scientific Commission scrambled to record everything they could. At the Battle of the pyramids, the French broke a Mameluke army under Murad Bey, who fled south to Upper Egypt. Napoleon sent General Louis Desaix chasing after him, with the scholar Dominique Vivante, Baron de Denon in tow. At Dendera, Denon saw the ruins of the Temple of Hathor, a sky goddess who was also associated with the worship of the dead.
“I found, buried in a heap of ruins, a gate built of enormous masses covered with hieroglyphics. Through this gate I had a view of the Temple of Hathor. I wish I could here transfuse into the soul of my readers the sensation I experienced.” … “This monument seemed to me to have all the primitive character of a temple in the highest perfection.” ~Dominique Vivant, Baron de Denon (Russell, 2005)
Entering the temple, he was astonished by the carvings adorning the inside.
“On casting my eyes on the ceiling, I perceived zodiacs, planetary systems and celestial planispheres represented in a tasteful arrangement. I observed the walls to be covered with groups of pictures exhibiting the religious rites of the people, their labors in agriculture, the arts and their moral precepts.” ~Dominique Vivant, Baron de Denon (Russell, 2005)
Months later, when he had a chance to return, he knew he needed to study that beautiful ceiling again. Lying on his back in the darkened room, he sketched by candlelight.
“I began with what had been the principal object in my previous journey, namely, the celestial planisphere that occupies part of the ceiling of a little apartment built over the nave of the great temple. The floor being low and the room dark I was able to work for only a few hours of the day.” … ”The desire of bringing to the philosophers of my native country the copy of an Egyptian bas-relief of so much importance made me patiently endure the tormenting position required in its delineation.” ~Dominique Vivant, Baron de Denon (Russell, 2005)
This was the East Osiris Chapel, situated on the roof of the Temple of Hathor. The zodiacal ceiling he described is now housed in the Louvre in Paris, after having been looted by a French treasure hunter a couple decades later. This kind of two-faced behavior characterized the French adventure in Egypt. While figures like Denon made a serious effort at recording the ruins they encountered, just as many Frenchman dedicated themselves to private collecting and the bourgeoning antiquities trade.
"Denon's work aroused tremendous enthusiasm for archaeology, especially among the hydraulic engineers charged with improving Egyptian agriculture. The engineers were soon neglecting their own dull work and making a beeline for temples and tombs, recording architectural features, hieroglyphic inscriptions, and all the magnificent panoply of ancient Egypt. Pencils ran out, lead bullets were frantically melted down as substitutes, and a vast body of irreplaceable infromation was recorded for posterity. At the same time, they removed small antiquities by the hundreds from temple and tomb." (Fagan 1975: 53-54)
The greatest discovery of the expedition was made by a soldier, not a scientist. While erecting coastal defenses in the Nile Delta, near the town of Rosetta, a soldier named D'Hautpoul stumbled across an inscribed granite stela beneath a pile of boulders (Fagan 1975: 50). On it were three versions of a decree- the first in Hieroglyphics, the second in demotic, the freehand version of the Egyptian script, and finally in ancient Greek. It was a miraculous find, because, it meant the Greek could be translated back into the Egyptian, and the mystery of hieroglyphics could finally be unlocked. So Napoleon's expedition culminated in the greatest single advancement ever made in Egyptology. But the Rosetta Stone was also fought over by Britain and France as a symbol of national pride, and has still not been returned to Egypt. For decades after his invasion, people like Bernardino Drovetti, the French consul to Egypt, and Henry Salt, Britain’s consul, continued the competition, and allowed widespread looting and collecting. "Their greed and rivalry became so intense that they reached an unspoken gentlemen’s agreement, if that is an appropriate description, to carve up the Nile Valley into 'spheres of influence.'" (Fagan 1975: 62)
One of the most talented treasure-hunters for the British side was the Great Belzoni, a former circus strong-man turned antiquities dealer. He uncovered Abu Simbel Temple from dozens of feet of sand, so the relief carvings inside could be recorded for the first time. He also sent a river of statues, mummies, and other treasures flowing to London. He even described crushing a mummy once when he sat on it. “I sought a resting place, found one, and contrived to sit; but when my weight bore on the body of an Egyptian, it crushed like a band-box.” (Fagan 1975: 98)
At the same time, Champollion, the frenchman who deciphered the Rosetta Stone, was lobbying for better protection for these antiquities His pleas resulted in an Egyptian government ordinance published on August 15, 1835. On paper, it forbade all exportation of antiquities, and while unenforceable, it shows how this period led to the emerging concept of archaeological stewardship. (Fagan 1975: 170)
The funny thing is I’m only appalled at the way these people conducted archaeology because of the developments they contributed to. We are their intellectual descendants, and without those early archaeologists I would never have been taught modern methods of research. So in a sense, I’m standing on their shoulders, shouting down at them.
Modern archaeologists record what we dig up in excruciating detail. We deliver everything we find to museums, placing them in the public trust. But surely if we waited, future archaeologists could do the same digging, with better technology, gathering better data before destroying the site? After all, archaeological sites are destroyed when they’re excavated. The Society for American Archaeology’s first ethical principle is stewardship. “Stewards are both caretakers of and advocates for the archaeological record for the benefit of all people; as they investigate and interpret the record, they should use the specialized knowledge they gain to promote public understanding and support for its long-term preservation.”
But stewardship isn’t easy. It’s not as if putting an artifact in a museum is a perfect solution. Museums are stuffed to bursting in what is being called the curation crisis, and I’ve seen this firsthand. At the Smithsonian, they don’t even know everything they have- artifacts are often improperly stored, and many haven’t been looked at since they were first brought to the museum. There are endless rows of shelves of slowly decaying treasures, occasionally glimpsed by visiting researchers and collections interns. Is this what we mean by stewardship? It’s not like archaeologists don’t personally benefit from our control over antiquities, advancing our careers and reputations.
“If an artifact is to be dug out of the ground, I would want to see it in an archaeologist’s hands. What with their careful observation and skills of long term preservation, they are a far cry from pothunters. But since archaeologists hold themselves up as self-selected stewards, they invite close scrutiny.” ~Craig Childs
I doubt the ethics of archaeology will ever be clear. I think in terms of deep time, and I can’t imagine the knowledge we’ve gained lasting for too long, in the grand scheme of things. There are signs the rates of archaeological discovery are already in decline (Surovell et al., 2017). Imagine the empty hills and hollowed out ruins we leave to the archaeologists of future civilizations. The thing is, even after I think of that, I can’t help but feel excited about the next excavation. I don’t condone those early archaeologists. But I do understand them.
Childs, C. (2013). Finders keepers: A tale of archaeological plunder and obsession. Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company.
Fagan, B. M. (1975). The rape of the Nile: Tomb robbers, tourists, and archaeologists in Egypt. Westview Press.
Fritze, R. H. (2015). Egyptomania: A history of fascination obsession & fantasy. Reaktion Books.
HOOCK, H. O. L. G. E. R. (2007). The British state and the Anglo-French Wars over antiquities, 1798–1858. The Historical Journal, 50(1), 49–72. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0018246x06005917
Russell, T. M. (2005). The discovery of Egypt: Vivant Denon's travels with Napoleon's Army. Sutton.
Surovell, T. A., Toohey, J. L., Myers, A. D., LaBelle, J. M., Ahern, J. C., & Reisig, B. (2017). The End of Archaeological Discovery. American Antiquity, 82(2), 288–300. https://doi.org/10.1017/aaq.2016.33
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The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause." ~Henri Bergson
Archaeologists may not always see the trees, but we capture the forest with great clarity" ~Robert Kelly
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No civilization has survived forever. All move toward dissolution, one after the other, like waves of the sea falling upon the shore. None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate.” ~Douglas Preston
If you go into a museum and look at antiquities collected there, you can be sure that the vast bulk of them were found not in buildings but in graves." ~Leonard Woolley
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Shamanism is not simply a component of society: on the contrary, shamanism, together with its tiered cosmos, can be said to be the overall framework of society." ~David Lewis-Williams
Opened are the double doors of the horizon. Unlocked are its bolts." ~Utterance 220 of the Pyramid of Unas
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." ~Rudyard Kipling
The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains." ~John Muir
The ecological thinker is haunted by the consequences of time." ~Garrett Hardin
Through the experience of time, Dasein becomes a ‘being towards death’: without death existence would be care-less, would lack the power that draws us to one another and to the world." ~Iain McGillchrist
The dead outnumber the living fourteen to one, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril." ~Niall Ferguson
Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." ~Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared." ~Alfred Russel Wallace
Humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences." ~Sebastian Junger
Except in geographical scale, tribal warfare could be and often was total war in every modern sense. Like states and empires, smaller societies can make a desolation and call it peace." ~Lawrence Keeley
The first people were aware of the signs and signals of the natural world. Their artifacts were projectiles, blades, and ivory sewing needles, either used on animal products, or made from them, or used to procure them. The world around them was a cycle of animals of all sizes, from voles and falcons to some of the largest mammals seen in human evolution." ~Craig Childs
The number of herbivores sets a cap on the number of carnivores that can live in a region. Of course, adding an additional predator of fairly large body size, like a modern human, would produce repercussions that would ripple though all the other predators in the area and their prey." ~Pat Shipman
When viewed globally, near-time extinctions took place episodically, in a pattern not correlated with climatic change or any known factor other than the spread of our species." ~Paul S. Martin
However splendid our languages and cultures, however rich and subtle our minds, however vast our creative powers, the mental process is the product of a brain shaped by the hammer of natural selection upon the anvil of nature."
Behavior is imitated, then abstracted into play, formalized into drama and story, crystallized into myth and codified into religion- and only then criticized in philosophy, and provided, post-hoc, with rational underpinnings."
I have seen yesterday. I know tomorrow."
We are fire creatures from an ice age." ~Stephen Pyne
Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified." ~Edward Abbey
Men and women, empires and cities, thrones, principalities, and powers, mountains, rivers, and unfathomed seas, worlds, spaces, and universes, all have their day, and all must go." ~H. Rider Haggard
One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be- though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes will remain- because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone." ~ Oswald Spengler
All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance."
In the long paleontological perspective, we humans must be considered invasive in any locale except Africa." ~Pat Shipman
Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Civilization, man feels once more happy." ~Richard Francis Burton
Sedentary culture is the goal of civilization. It means the end of its own lifespan and brings about its corruption." ~Ibn Khaldun
Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire." ~Gustav Mahler
As for man, his days are numbered. Whatever he might do, it is but wind." ~The Epic of Gilgamesh
There is a cave in the mind."
Full circle, from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come." ~Joseph Campbell
I feel again a spark of that ancient flame." ~ Virgil
Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it therefore not to be an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning." ~Clifford Geertz
In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order." ~Carl Jung
Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids." ~Arab proverb
Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land." ~Hiram Bingham
You don't have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things- to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals." ~Edmund Hillary
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going into the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity." ~John Muir
To speak of truth sounds too grand, too filled with the promise of certainty, and we are rightly suspicious of it. But truth will not go away that easily. The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’." ~Lain McGillchrist
The Sphinx will always have to be looked after."
Yes, the pyramids have been built, but if you give me 300,000 disciplined men and 30 years I could build a bigger one."
Civilizations exist by geological consent, subject to change without notice."
When at last we anchored in the harbor, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless"
The best prophet of the future is the past."
An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can get. The older she gets the more interested he is in her."
Archaeology is the peeping Tom of the sciences. It is the sandbox of men who care not where they are going; they merely want to know where everyone else has been."
What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain."
I have never been able to grasp the meaning of time. I don't believe it exists. I've felt this again and again, when alone and out in nature. On such occasions, time does not exist."
Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. "~Joseph Campbell
In my experience, it is rarer to find a really happy person in a circle of millionaires than among vagabonds."
Always my soul hungered for less than it had"
History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs, and wooden shoes coming up."
Back home, I'm always focusing on something happening in the future. On expeditions, time stops, and you become like a stone age man, acting on instincts and knowing you are part of the universe."
Genes are rarely about inevitability, especially when it comes to humans, the brain, or behavior. They're about vulnerability, propensities, tendencies." ~Robert Sapolsky
The Land is not old. It only changes, becoming one thing and the next. We are the ones who ascribe age, the brevity of our lives demanding a beginning, middle, and end."
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books."
The only thing that belongs to us is the time."
To abhor hunting is to hate the place from which you came, which is akin to hating yourself in some distant, abstract way." ~Steven Rinella