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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.

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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.



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