Egyptology and Imperialism

While standard histories of Egyptology tend to focus on the development of "scientific" Egyptology and its methods and institutions in the West--always including glowing and completely uncritical accounts of the so-called "Father of Egyptology," Flinders Petrie--when one looks at the history of Egyptology, it's not hard to see a profound and enabling connection to 19th century French and British imperialism.

The British Bombardment of Alexandria, 1882 (Wikipedia)

Indeed, no one knew this more than Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, himself [Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo (page xviii)]:

Budge, for one, knew that Egyptology and imperialism were intimately acquainted. "It is interesting to note," said the elderly Budge [in the Times] on his retirement from the British Museum in 1924:
"that the acquisition of the Rosetta Stone, which is the foundation of Egyptology, was the result of certain ‘military operations’ which the British carried out in Egypt about the year 1800, and that the great development of Egyptology during the last 40 years is due to another set of ‘military operations’ which Mr. Gladstone permitted to be carried out off the coast of Alexandria in 1882. The British guns blew down the forts at Alexandria, thereby opening up the road by which Egyptologists of every nationality might travel, not only from the swamps of the Delta to Abu (Elephantine) as the Egyptians would say, but to Buhen (Wadi Halfah). The Excavations that have been made since a British Army of Occupation entered Egypt, and the publications that have appeared, are eloquent witnesses to the excellence of that road."

This is a refreshingly frank acknowledgement that Egyptology's history is not simply the development of a Egyptology as a "science," but rather as an adjunct of imperialism.


The Afterword to my revised edition of Wallis Budge, "Wallis Budge and the Petrie Claque," deals with the question of imperialism and the connection of Flinders Petrie and his methods to eugenics and Social Darwinism, which rather upsets the image of "The Father of Egyptology" as a science...

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