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Book Review: Wonderful Things, Vol. 2

December 2, 2016

Book Review: Jason Thompson, Wonderful Things: A History of Egyptology, Volume 2: The Golden Age: 1881-1914 (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2015).

Cover Image, courtesy AUC Press

The second installment of Jason Thompson’s Wonderful Things is just as wonderful as the first.  The first volume, which covered the history of Egyptology from Antiquity to 1881, was fast-paced and instructive (I reviewed it here, for the BHA).  This second volume picks up where the first left off; there is obviously a bit of timeline overlap here, but it’s all necessary for the foundational issues in the book.  This is called the “Golden Age,” Thompson argues, because “it was during the years between the death of Mariette in 1881 and the outbreak of the First World War that Egyptology experienced what would come to be remembered as its Gold Age and assumed the discipline’s defining characteristics.  The immense Egyptological accomplishments of the past one hundred years rest on that mostly sound but occasionally shifting foundation” (xiii).  Furthermore, this period, largely dominated by Lord Cromer on the government administration side and Gaston Maspero on the Antiquities Service side, “was one of great field discoveries, important institutional developments, and leaps in knowledge so great…” that one can’t help but call it a Golden Age (5).  Also, one might argue, it was the period that had an air of the American Wild West about it: adventure, intrigue, scandal, and amazing discoveries.

It makes sense that the organization is roughly chronological among the chapters.  Within each chapter there is overlap with other chapters, which means that you really need to be paying attention to the chronology.  Thompson signposts well with dates throughout, so it isn’t too difficult to follow along.

There are a lot of wonderful things (ahem) about this volume.  First, Thompson brings women into the conversation, which is a good thing to see in a work such as this.  The general reader may expect a very masculine story—and won’t be disappointed—but there are women who were influential in Egyptology and he brings them to the forefront in many places.  For example, Medea Norsa (1877-1952) was an Italian philologist who worked with a number of Italian Egyptologists on Greco-Roman Egyptian history.  She took over the Instituto Papirologico in Florence after Girolamo Vitelli died in 1935.  She has no entry in the Who Was Who in Egyptology but now has a major papyrological institute named after her in Italy.  Thompson also talks about my two favorites—Margaret Murray and Caroline Ransom—more extensively than I’ve seen in similar books.

Image result for medea norsa

Medea Norsa, from Papyrology site.

Second, he tells a very good story.  Thompson has done the archival and secondary research for this project very well, as we expect from him.  You’ll get sucked in by stories about finding massive mummy caches, kept secret as private cash cows for generations in Qurna cellars.  There are also stories about finds disappearing or getting deliberately destroyed.  Flinders Petrie, Howard Carter, and James Breasted figure prominently throughout, as do Gaston Maspero, Victor Loret, and Jacques de Morgan.  It is refreshing to read about more than just British and German Egyptology, especially in the chapters “New Players in the Game” and “The Berlin School and its Rivals.”  Here, Thompson outlines other ideas of Egyptologists from Italy, France, Austria-Hungary, the Netherlands, Russia, Scandinavia, and Egypt.  Egyptian Egyptology is difficult to find, both in the record and in secondary sources (notable exceptions are, e.g., Reid, Whose Pharaohs and Contesting Antiquity).  Here, Thompson includes many of the local dealer families such as the Abd al-Rassuls of Sheikh Abd al-Qurna, whom he calls “the most notorious of many who derived their livings” from selling objects to tourists and archaeologists, in the count of Egyptologists (188).  They excavated, unearthed, and distributed finds, and could make a tidy sum doing so.  Petrie’s Qufti workmen were also legitimized in this section, as they have been in other works (see Quirke, Hidden Hands).  Thompson’s argument is that just because Egyptians had been excluded from the scholarly training for centuries doesn’t mean they didn’t make important contributions.  Once Egyptians like Ahmed Kamal began to receive scholarly training, usually at the hands of the French or British, their contributions were noteworthy.

My personal critiques here are minimum, but I will state two:
1) There are no images.  But fear not!  We are comforted by the words in the preface: “The intention, therefore, is to compile and publish a later volume that will be exclusively devoted to the visual dimension of those crucial years [late 19th and early 20th century] and to prepare a video series about the story of Egyptology.”  So we have an image volume AND a video series to look forward to!

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Theban Tomb 2b

2) Much of the story—as you would expect—focuses on excavations, findings in the field, and field methods.  However, there is some discussion of libraries, museums, and other collections and what happens to objects when they arrive at their destinations, especially when Thompson discusses American Egyptology.  It is true that without the field finds it would be difficult to populate museums and other collections with artifacts; but on the flip side, it would be difficult to justify pulling the artifacts out of the ground without public or private collections to support.  In highlighting the field, the volume misses out on a number of important women and their influence in the discipline of Egyptology because their domain was in administrative positions at home institutions.  However, there are a number of women discussed throughout the book.  The discussions of these women, their careers and their influences is really well done, but again, the focus is on the field.

Caroline Ransom Williams, Egyptian Collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 1917 (Courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art)

What is really great about this volume for a scholar like myself who studies this exact period in Egyptology is the fact that Thompson cannot possibly cover everything there is to cover.  He weaves a complex narrative while leaving a number of appropriately loose threads for others to pick up.  I would use this in a history of archaeology or history of Egyptology course; I’m using it currently to organize a syllabus for just such a course.  I am really looking forward to the third volume, and of course to the volume of images.



Stop Press!

December 1, 2016

If you go over to the Bulletin of the History of Archaeology you’ll find some of the papers that were initially presented at HARN 2015, written up, expanded and all most excellent!

As it says there, these papers reflect: ‘the primary purpose of the Histories of Archaeology Research Network (HARN)– to demonstrate that there are many histories of archaeology rather than one overarching masculist narrative HARN encourages historians and archaeologists to examine the discipline of archaeology in various ways. Each method can explain a missing piece of a complex history of science. Therefore the collection presented for publication demonstrates the wide range of the history of the discipline of archaeology, both chronologically and geographically, and the exciting potential for analysis, narrative, and debate. The arguments presented here encompass several distinct but interconnecting themes, all presented by members of HARN. Bucolo and Dixon examine the history of archaeology in Roman institutions. Barber, Wickstead (forthcoming) , and Lewis deal with seemingly disparate histories—aerial archaeology, barrow excavation, social networks, and inaugural lectures. However, the histories of archaeology are just that, different methods of doing history of a particular scientific practice. Barnes and Aricanli and Snead analyze the history of archaeology in the Americas. These articles discuss the social and disciplinary implications of actual archaeological practice. There are, again, many ways to consider disparate field practices within our framework. Finally, Siapkas focuses on craniometry and how measuring skulls can be extremely political and aid in institutional racism.’

Go and have a read, you’ll really enjoy them.


Sir Francis Ronalds

November 24, 2016

Professor Beverley Ronalds has sent us the following piece about a fascinating character – I have to confess I knew nothing about Sir Francis Ronalds before reading it, now I’m intrigued and want to know more:

Surveying the Carnac Stones in 1834


Ronalds’ lithograph of standing stones near Sainte- Barbe in Brittany being measured by Blair and their local assistant Jean-Marie Kermorvin. The original was drawn on 21 October 1834.

It is 200 years since Sir Francis Ronalds built the first working electric telegraph and heralded today’s telecommunications era.  A biography has been published by Imperial College Press to commemorate the bicentenary, entitled Sir Francis Ronalds: Father of the Electric Telegraph.  

 Like many scientists of his time, Ronalds’ interests were broad and extended beyond engineering to art, archaeology and travel.  The book addresses these diverse topics, utilising his papers in the Ronalds Archive at the Institution of Engineering and Technology in London and other little known primary sources.

 In 1818-20, he conducted a “Grand Tour” through Italy, Malta, Egypt, the Holy Land, Cyprus, Turkey and Greece.  Along the way he befriended two Giovanni Battista’s – Belzoni and Lusieri – amongst numerous other antiquarians.  Ronalds’ travel journals and sketches have now been published on the Sir Francis Ronalds website

Ronalds and his friend Dr Alexander Blair began studying ancient ruins in England around 1830.  Blair had just been appointed professor of English and Rhetoric at UCL and had particular expertise in European languages.  His skills complemented Ronalds’ and they also had much in common including a love of learning and low self-esteem. 

Ronalds invented several surveying instruments that assisted their work.  He had patented a mechanical drawing machine in 1825 that enabled a scene or object to be traced from nature with considerable accuracy.  Ronalds manufactured and sold hundreds of them and examples survive in several British museums.  There is a detailed description of its workings in the biography.  He also created the classic portable tripod stand with three pairs of hinged legs to support his drawing machine in the field.  In the late 1820s, he developed a novel doubly-reflecting instrument that enabled the angular separation of two distant objects to be sighted and then drawn directly onto a survey plan as well as an enhanced surveyor’s wheel that recorded distances travelled in graphical form.


Ronalds’ patented perspective tracing instrument.

Blair and Ronalds travelled to Brittany in September 1834 to survey the ancient standing stones around Carnac.  Their detailed observations each day, including conversations with people they met and local customs they witnessed, were recorded in a journal.  It – along with Ronalds’ notebook of compass bearings and dimensions and several of his original pencil sketches of the ruins – are all retained in the Ronalds Archive.

On their return home, they organised their fieldwork into five categories of megalith, which Blair wrote up while Ronalds lithographed the drawings (obtaining Hullmandel’s assistance with a couple of the plans).  They printed their interim results in book form as Sketches at Carnac (Brittany) in 1834.

Diarist Henry Crabb Robinson immortalised Blair’s talk on their findings at UCL in 1835 by describing it as the most disappointing lecture he had ever attended – he had hoped that the authors would focus on the origins of the monuments more than their current appearance.  Any confidence they had in their accomplishment would now have been dissipated. 

Blair and Ronalds were already researching a much more detailed book that compared monuments from different cultures to help understand their purposes.  Several sections of it are in the Ronalds Archive.  Blair struggled increasingly with depression in this period, however, and was unable to complete his part of the task.  Meanwhile, the first book was languishing at the printer’s warehouse.

Blair’s friend Revd James Yates and Ronalds’ friend Samuel Sharpe were two people who recognised the value of the preliminary work and encouraged its eventual dissemination.  Yates arranged for Blair to give a talk at the 1849 conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.  Although very nervous, Blair was able to outline his view on the value of bringing “an ethnological view” to archaeology.  With the interest it sparked, he and Ronalds began to distribute copies of their book to friends and colleagues.  Another 40 years later, Dr Gustave de Closmadeuc publicised the book in France through a long article.

These days, the quality of Ronalds’ lithographs is appreciated.  In an era when depictions of the Carnac ruins were often romanticised, Ronalds’ lithographs have “quasi la precision d’un cliché photographique” to quote the 2009 CNRS publication Carnac: Les Premières Architectures de Pierre.  His drawing instrument created accurate archaeological visual recording in the pre-photography era. 

Ronalds and Blair would be surprised by this 21st century recognition when both felt so little pride in their achievement and, to their deaths, their book was largely ignored by the antiquarian community.  



Book Review -Fagan and Durrani A Brief History of Archaeology: classical times to the twenty-first century – 2nd edition

November 18, 2016


The volume under consideration is an updated version of Brian Fagan’s earlier work of the same title, detailing the genesis and development of the science of archaeology. As the title suggests, Fagan, this time with the collaboration of Nadia Durrani, provides a brief, yet intended to be comprehensive, investigation of archaeological epistemology from the earliest acts of what might be considered ‘archaeology’, to those of the present day. They start with a description of Babylonian excavations in the sixth century BC, albeit recognizing that these excavations are far from what might now be considered archaeology. They also discuss the writings of early Greek and Roman scholars.

The bulk of the book, however concerns the events which took place in the period after AD1600 and the Enlightenment. In particular, the authors consider the influence of religion in the investigation of the past.  Is this a good thing – probably, for many individuals who shaped our understanding of the past were clergymen. However, there is more to the subject, and to deepen our understanding of the matter, we must look to those who weren’t as well.  Many post-Enlightenment scholars were simply attempting to get an understanding of the world and its (pre)history as they saw it. Fagan and Durrani divide their text into chronologically organised sections, with noted practitioners, and their exploits, forming the nucleus of each chapter. Thus, for example, they look at the actions of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy and Mycenae, and Flinders Petrie in Egypt. In other case studies, the contributions of individuals to method and theory are considered, as is the case with Jacob Jens Worsaae and the Three Age System, for example. Notably (and thanks to Julia for pointing this out) the work of Peter Rowley-Conwy in not considered here. This is followed by a study of recent important discoveries and, finally, a look at the post-war debates surrounding archaeological theory and an assessment of where the discipline goes next. At the end of each chapter is a brief page or so summarizing said chapter: these are extremely helpful for aiding the reader who is unsure if they want to read the whole chapter.

And yet, in many ways there are problems within this text – mainly due to the writing style, bad phrasing, defects and inaccuracies. Many of these problems would have been eradicated by more rigorous editing. Too often, A Brief History lapses into what can be best described as journalese – the recreation of Louis Leakey leaping out of his bed despite suffering from a severe bout of influenza (p.186) is particularly jarring. Sometimes, the authors seem to think they are writing a TV script rather than an academic text. As an example of this bad language, for example, on page 2 antiquarians are rather blandly defined as simply “someone who studies the past”. Does this not then include all of us? In their discussion of Boucher de Perthes, we are told that (p.25) “in short, he was a bore….the scientists of the day labelled him a crank” and later, when discussing his eventual scientific acceptance, we are told that “had de Perthes not been such a bore, recognition might have come earlier.” This is hardly the height of critical thinking. Consider, then, their assessment of archaeologists in the present day who specialise in scientific analyses of one sort or another (p212); these specialists can be “little more than sophisticated technicians”. This could no doubt be seen as, at best, somewhat of a slight.

There are frequent errors. The Amesbury Archer is referred to throughout as the Avebury Archer; there is no agreement in the text as to whether the gold ornaments are earrings or hair tresses. These are the problems inherent in attempting to write such an all-encompassing book. The expert on Stonehenge cannot be expected to be the expert on Herculaneum, for example.

Throughout the volume, the text is repetitive. Referencing is minimal; sometimes quotations are referenced, otherwise not, and plain text generally not at all. There are short, general bibliographies at the end of each chapter and of the volume, but these are mainly dated and certainly not sufficient for an academic piece of work. A glossary of referenced (mainly) sites is provided – this adds little to what is provided in the text; the index could be best described as minimalistic.

The narrative is vivid, easy to read and contains a great deal of information. Perhaps, to this reader, the best sections are the later chapters on the development of archaeological theory. Post-war developments, here, are certainly well explained, albeit with certain inconsistencies. Arguably, however, the book sticks to the familiar old ‘great men’ (and women) of archaeology concept; it would be nice to move away from this paradigm. Although it is designed as a text book – some might argue a key one – it is more than a text book, perhaps it covers too much. I am undecided as to whether I would recommend it to students – it is somewhere between a school age and University undergraduate text book, but for the general reader, it is certainly to be recommended.

Jonathan Trigg


November 11, 2016

I realised I don’t need to summarise the conference, all the abstracts are here so why would you need my ramblings? Particularly since I was giving a paper, reading another, fighting twitter and at one point had to rush back to my hotel for something, so my notes are hardly comprehensive. However, we have wonderful abstracts which you can read at your leisure – I think this way’s better!

I do have a photo for you


Photo: Lars Berggren, ISV

We should have done it mid-conference rather than at the end, there’s 28 people here and we had 73 the second morning. We’ll know for next time – and more news about next time will be forthcoming.

Have a great weekend and do read the abstracts if you haven’t already, then mentally insert many images of Mussolini


Nordic Bronze Age Symposium

November 10, 2016


University of Oslo, 6-10 June, 2017

This year’s Nordic Bronze Age Symposium in Oslo represents the conference’s 40th anniversary. Through the years papers presenting contrasting approaches to Bronze Age research have been presented: Spectacular finds, meticulous empirical studies, methodological breakthroughs, theoretical queries and ground breaking interpretations.

An important result of the Symposium is that different schools of archaeological thought from the whole Nordic region have met and energetically discussed the Bronze Age. Bronze Age research – and the Nordic Symposium – has served as a vanguard for archaeological research, the list is long: social theory, semiotics, dating, excavation method, ritual, landscape, domestic space, warfare, gender, technology, art, symbolism, interaction, exchange and migration – to mention some. A 40th anniversary is an opportunity to take stock of the past, sum up the present and think about the future. This session invites papers on the historiography, history of ideas and theoretical perspective of Bronze Age research.

Session organisers:

Christopher Prescott – Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, University of Oslo

Herdis Hølleland – The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

More information about the sessions can be found here

Question Time

November 10, 2016

Not ‘USA, what were you thinking?’ Although that’s a valid question, especially from Brexitland. No, I’ve had a query I can’t answer so I’m hoping a HARN member can. Ana Cristina Martins asked who in the UK is critiquing the preservation of material culture? Specifically she wants to know who is researching whether we should preserve all artefacts? If so, where should they be kept/stored/conserved? And, if not, who decides what is kept and what discarded?

Answers in the comments or by email to

Thank you