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"Forward" to Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo

Please enjoy the "Forward" to my biography, Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo (Dost Publishing, 2021).

On November 28th 1934 a memorial service was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral for the Egyptologist Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge, who had died November 23rd at age 77. Among those gathered at St. Paul’s to remember Sir Ernest were distinguished members of England’s upper crust, and their presence made the memorial service something of a society event. Gathered to mourn their departed friend were the Earl and Countess of Shaftsbury, Lady Verney, the Earl and Countess Stanhope, the Dowager Countess of Seafield, General Sir Reginald Wingate, Mrs. Robert Crawshay, Colonel Battye, the famous medical man Sir Almroth Wright, the Egyptologist Alan Gardiner, Lady Jane Lindsay, the publisher Sir John Murray, General Cunliffe, Mr. Frederick Cavendish-Bentinck and Sir Herbert and Lady Samuelson, some of whom Budge had known during forty years work in the British Museum. Others came because Budge was a sociable man who loved the company of the titled and wealthy.

The organist at St. Paul’s, Dr. Stanley Marchant, was also present at the service, Budge having been a friend to every organist there since the 1870s. There were also representatives of the various departments of the British Museum, the Royal Asiatic Society, the School of Oriental Studies, the Friends of the National Libraries, the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal College of Organists, University College, London, and the University of Liverpool.1

“Oriental study has lost in Budge a scholar of original personality, of uncommon vigour, and extreme tenacity of purpose,” the Times had commented on November 24th, “and, it should be added, of intense loyalty to his museum.”2 And Budge’s originality of personality, vigour, tenacity and loyalty (and not only to the Museum) surely defined him above all else. These qualities established him as a great and admired scholar of enormous output, an energetic servant of the British Museum, an intrepid traveller to dangerous and unsettled places to collect antiquities, a man whose story-telling was legendary, and whose circle of friends was both wide and devoted.

So, indeed, was his circle of enemies. “Scholars as a class are bonny fighters,” remarked Budge’s friend Violet Markham in 1956, “and in this respect Budge outstood even among his peers. His likes and dislikes were heroic. But if his enemies were numerous so too were his friends.”3

Violet Markham’s comment on his numerous friends was important, but we must not think that his friends were limited to the society folk at his funeral. “Budge enjoyed society of the most varied kind,” Markham said. “He was a great raconteur and much in demand as a diner out . . . Royalty, aristocracy, students, men of letters, society folk, working-class folk – he had time for them all.”4

Budge was thus a man who was both extraordinarily successful in his career as an Egyptologist, for which he was knighted, and a man of great and varied friendships. His story, however, is not like so many others of his professional peers, public school and Oxbridge boys whose families claimed a satisfactory professional and social station as a right of their class — but more like one of those great Lancashire industrialists who clawed his way out of poverty to wealth and power through guts and determination and then gained a title at the end of his life to top it all off.

Budge was born very near to the bottom of the social ladder and would have climbed a long way even if he had achieved less. Though all manner of silly rumours have circulated that he was related to royalty or even to Prime Minister Gladstone,5 Budge was actually the illegitimate child of a Cornish girl named Mary Ann Budge, the daughter of a waiter at a Bodmin hotel, and of a father he never met. Budge was humbly educated until the age of twelve, when he went to work as a clerk for the newsagent W.H. Smith. That Budge did not end his career as a version of that hero of the Diary of a Nobody, Mr. Pooter, the City clerk scraping together whatever precious shreds of respectability he could manage in the face of great odds, is a testimony both to his enormous energy and to his devouring ambition to overcome his lowly beginnings.

Budge did not rise as he did in society without knowing that he was playing a role. He was unquestionably ambitious, both socially and professionally, and it was surely his fine comprehension of the ways of society that allowed him to penetrate it. Budge’s status in society was not as a gentleman, of course, but as a scholar and a fascinating character who had wonderful stories of Oriental travel, arcane and interesting knowledge of Egyptian magic and mummies, and a notable ability to relay this interesting knowledge to a popular audience. And if we think about Budge’s professional status as a museum keeper and Egyptologist, it is not surprising that his main entrée to society seems to have been his position in the British Museum.

In March of 1904, for example, Mrs. Wellesley, whose name betrays her social status, thanked Budge very much for showing her and her friends around the Egyptian and Assyrian galleries, and also accepted his invitation to come again.6 In July of 1907, one of Budge’s most interesting society friends, T. Douglas Murray, wrote to him: “When you find a happy moment of leisure will you kindly decipher this impression from an admirable (and certainly ancient) scarab, which belongs to a charming and beautiful friend of ours, who is longing to meet you some day. I have told her you are most kind, but really engaged. She begs however that you will share a brief moment to tell her what the inscription means.”7 One could see many such letters in the British Museum, and there is little question that this was mostly how Budge became a friend of the high and the mighty. At any rate, it certainly wasn’t because of his relation to the distinguished Budges of Bodmin!

Having grown up as Ernest Budge, sub-proletarian rural bastard and under-educated newsagent clerk, Budge had endured a master class in the disadvantages of Victorian English class prejudice; but having learned to play his role as Dr. E.A. Wallis Budge, prolific author of popular and scholarly books on Egyptology, Oriental traveller, Keeper in the British Museum, keeper and dispenser of recondite and fascinating knowledge, much sought dinner table raconteur and public speaker, friend of the aristocracy and certified charmer of titled old ladies, Budge was also an expert on what it took to enter the charmed circle. Budge played his role to packed houses every night.

For all his energy, ambition and abilities, however, we cannot say that Budge was completely self-made. He had the help of friends and patrons along the way who were generous, if occasionally condescending. Without them, Budge would doubtless have been frustrated in his ambitions.

Besides his illegitimacy, lack of connections, poverty, a doubtlessly substandard accent and a rudimentary education, Budge gained some formidable professional enemies. The excavator-of-Nineveh-turned politician, Sir Henry Layard, Layard’s protégé Hormuzd Rassam, the archaeologist Flinders Petrie, the Egyptologist Peter Le Page Renouf, Budge’s colleague in the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, Theophilus Pinches, and Renouf ’s patron Lord Acton, were all powerful and influential men who demonized Budge with a very nearly religious virulence, doing all that was in their considerable power to destroy him.

Nor has the hatred Budge inspired been limited to his lifetime or to his contemporaries. Budge’s enemies were powerful, well-connected men, whose acolytes in the next generations have repeated the numberless urban legends and nasty gossip that adhere to Budge to this day. Renouf, Rassam and Petrie would doubtless be pleased to know that they have managed to control his memory among their professional descendants, and knowing of Budge’s many sides, it can be quite astonishing to experience this highly emotional intergenerational vilification even today.

One example of this vestigial hatred will serve, from a 1988 mystery novel called The Deeds of the Disturber, by the University of Chicago trained Egyptologist Elizabeth Peters. The novel centres on the detective work of the narrator, Amelia Peabody and her archaeologist husband Radcliffe Emerson. The former is based (very) loosely on the 19th century co-founder of the Egypt Exploration Fund, Amelia Edwards, and the latter on the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, though the portrayal is wildly complimentary to the real Petrie. As Emerson excavates in Egypt, fighting constantly with the officials of the Service of Antiquities and other Egyptologists, his wife solves mysteries that are often connected to archaeological matters.

In Deeds of the Disturber, Peabody and her family attend the unwrapping of a mummy at the British Museum conducted by E.A. Wallis Budge (pp. 193-96). Amelia Peabody says, contemptuously, “Apparently Budge had invited every titled and prominent person in London to attend his performance. By doing so (vain creature that he was) he had of course neglected his original purpose.” She then describes Budge’s lecture as “interminable” and presents him as knowing so little about his topic that her little boy corrects him. After listening to the child lecture him from the audience “Budge recovered himself. ‘Of all the . . . This is the most . . . Sit down professor! Be silent, young man! How dare you allow –.” The scene sputters to a close with the little boy getting the best of the foolish Budge, and well represents one of the first stereotypes still circulating, that Budge was a vulgar social-climber and ignoramus who gained his great position only through the influence of powerful friends.

In another scene (pp. 52-58), when Peabody asks if the pottery they sent to the British Museum is yet on display, Emerson says that “If I know Budge, our contributions are still in the packing cases . . . The man’s insane jealousy of other scholars – I name no names, Peabody – passes all bounds.” Later he says that

“Mistranslations are Budge’s specialty . . . He never had an original idea in his life; he simply repeated Pettigrew’s error [concerning mummification] without ever bothering to investigate on his own.” Thus another stereotype concerning Budge: that he was a poor scholar whom no one respected and that he was jealous of his colleagues because of their greater scholarly success. Peters’ Budge is ignorant, lazy, vain, incompetent, jealous, and ultimately a foolish little social climber whom nobody need take seriously.

An especially modern-day example of the ferocity of assaults on Budge is the brutally ad hominem attacks posted on a University of Chicago listserv by two professors of Ancient Near Eastern Studies in 2003. One of these posters simply says that “Budge is known to be one of the most dispicable [sic] men to ever have walked the face of the earth,” a description that would make Budge, apparently, some sort of Hitler or Pol Pot. This overwrought remark, in turn, is probably a half-remembered repetition of a remark by Professor Mogens Trolle Larsen, in his hagiographic treatment of Austen Henry Layard, The Conquest of Assyria, concerning Budge and his 1925 book The Rise and Progress of Assyriology. Larsen remarks, when he saw something negative about Layard in Budge’s book, that the book had been written in 1925 by a man called Wallis Budge . . . For that reason alone one has to be sceptical, for although Budge’s book for generations was the authoritative account of the history of exploration and decipherment, it is in fact shot through with the author’s personal sympathies and antipathies – and the author did not like Layard. In fact, Budge is probably the most completely unpleasant person in the history of the field [of Assyriology], and his book can now easily be seen to constitute a strange mixture of truth and downright mendacity.8

Nasty words, indeed. The other poster on the listserv, a model of temperance by comparison to his colleague, merely accuses Budge of fraud, saying “I don’t suppose there’s been a critical biography of Budge that managed to trace the actual authors of the scores of editions published under his name.”9

Such attacks say much more about academic politics and repeating gossip than they do about Budge, but the picture they represent reigns almost unchallenged. One goal of this biography is to recover the context and history of the conflicts between Budge and some of his enemies, particularly the circles of Rassam, Layard and Renouf. Recovering the context of these conflicts demonstrates that much of the anger directed towards Budge emerged from crabbed complexes of class prejudice, malicious gossip, professional power struggles, conflicting personal ambitions, and the endless spats of claim and counter-claim that bedevil any complex human interaction.

And while we can discuss Budge as the product of Victorian Britain, it is impossible to write a biography of Budge without giving a central place to his adventures in Egypt, the Sudan, Istanbul and Iraq in the 1880s through the early 1900s and his controversial collecting of antiquities for the British Museum. Whether by excavation or by purchasing artefacts from antiquities dealers, from the 1880s to the 1920s Budge brought thousands upon thousands of statues, coffins, mummies, stele, papyri, manuscripts, inscribed tablets, and even some gravestones into the British Museum, making it perhaps the elite national collection of ancient Near Eastern antiquities in the world. He recorded many of his adventures in his extremely entertaining autobiography, By Nile and Tigris (1920), and also in a few remaining letters to superiors at the British Museum, and these sources allow us to tell his story in some detail.

That Budge’s methods of obtaining antiquities for the British Museum were often scandalous is true. Let us say it without any ambiguity or apologetics: modern archaeology, based in the careful excavation of a site and minute description of the resulting artefacts and the physical context in which they were uncovered, is superior to old-fashioned antiquarianism such as Budge’s. Budge’s mentors and exemplars were not modern archaeological excavators, but rather, antiquarian scholars, philologists, keepers of manuscripts, and travel writers such as Samuel Birch, George Smith, Peter Le Page Renouf, Sir Austen Layard, Sir Henry Rawlinson, William Wright, Edward Maunde Thompson, or Edward Bond. Budge was trained in ancient languages, not archaeology, and he viewed archaeological artefacts as potential museum exhibits and as inscription-bearing materials; he bought beautiful and useful artefacts from antiquities dealers because he was quite indifferent to the archaeological provenance of what he placed in the British Museum. Obviously, this is anathema to modern archaeology, and rightly so.

Antiquarianism and philology do not provide the only context for understanding Budge’s career, however. As a patriotic British Victorian, Budge was also quite consciously engaged in a highly politicized, very earnest, nationalistic competition with the French, German, American and Ottoman national museums to build the best collections in Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Near East in the world. Museum collections were consciously a part of the national project of the most powerful countries, but they were also quite consciously a part of the imperial project, whether that imperialism is Western or Ottoman in origin. As we shall see, Budge and the pioneering Egyptological excavator Flinders Petrie, different though they were in approach, were deeply imbued in the British imperial project both in their practices and in their intellectual lives – which would be quite obvious to anyone who looked at their work with a bit of the cultural history of the late-Victorian and Edwardian era in mind.

One need not defend Budge’s antiquarianism, nor the rampant smuggling and skulduggery surrounding the extraction and export of antiquities from the Middle East to the collections of the national museums of the West, to insist that it is important to recover the context in which all this took place beyond the narrow question of excavation methods. There, is, after all, little question that modern archaeology is preferable to old-fashioned antiquarianism, nor that the goal of archaeology should be to build knowledge, not to build collections of artefacts. But the rather cartoonish portrayal of Budge that pervades so many histories of British Egyptology is not only historically inaccurate, it also conceals more than it reveals about the context in which Budge and his contemporaries worked.

Budge, for one, knew that Egyptology and imperialism were intimately acquainted. “It is interesting to note,” said the elderly Budge 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.10

As Budge suggests, the history of the rise of Egyptology was hardly just a story of scholarly people reading and writing books and searching for the tombs of the pharaohs. On the contrary, it was owing mostly to the penetration of Egypt by Westerners bent variously on trading, travelling, collecting, looting, studying, digging up, writing up, bombarding, governing or otherwise invading Egypt that such a history existed at all. It is the major military invasions of 1800 and 1882 that made Egypt available to looters, tourists, soldiers, administrators and Egyptologists on a comprehensive scale. Without the British and French domination of Egypt it is no more likely that teams of Western Egyptologists would for decades have emptied the tombs of the pharaohs than that teams of Egyptian Anglotologists would have entered Westminster Abbey to clear the tomb of Edward the Confessor and to check the funerary equipment of Dr. Samuel Johnson and taken the artefacts back to Cairo to display in a wing of the Egyptian Museum.

A consistent narrative in writings about Egyptology places this underlying imperialism of Egyptology to one side in favour of another, much more comforting, story of the rise of “scientific” Egyptology. In essence, the non-imperial narrative is one of personalities and professional progress, beginning with the Napoleonic invasion and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone; continuing with the unscrupulous methods of adventurers such as Belzoni and his paymaster Henry Salt, who removed the antiquities from the country with a concern only to make a profit on their sale; stopping off to shake a fist at Budge for buying antiquities from dealers and smuggling them out of the country against the wishes of the Occupation government; then finally bowing at the altar of Flinders Petrie as the founder of modern, disinterested, academic Egyptology, where all ethical dilemmas concerning the relation of Egyptology to the “rape of Egypt” or to external, “unscientific,” motivations suddenly disappear.

The common narrative allows one to suggest an ethical difference in kind between Budge and Petrie, rather than recognize an ethical difference of degree. This narrative suggests that it is acceptable for Petrie to exploit the foreign domination of Egypt to carry out excavations about which the Egyptians themselves had little say, and as long as one acts in accord with more modern methods of research and publication all is quite politically innocent.

It is necessary to bear in mind, when retailing Budge’s part in this process, that a sameness exists to the different narratives of the history of Egyptology that looks suspiciously like an unexamined assumption. In both the conservative Genesis of British Egyptology By John David Wortham (1971) and Brian Fagan’s more critical Rape of the Nile (2004), the authors work on the assumption that we can chart the development of Egyptology in the course of the 19th century from early, unethical chaos to a later disinterested order without acknowledging that the taint of imperialism adheres to the entire process from Belzoni to Flinders Petrie himself. In effect, proper Egyptological methods developed in a seriously compromised moral and political environment. If we acknowledge this rather different story about the rise of methodical Egyptology, and also ask that Egyptology should at least partly be judged by the degree to which the Egyptians themselves were consulted, then the decided self-righteousness of the standard histories as they approach the emergence of Petrie becomes rather more interesting.

This revised approach allows us to ask if we can really say with the standard accounts that Budge’s methods were morally tainted while Petrie was pure. Is it really acceptable that Budge should be depicted as “A short, pugnacious man of aggressive and unattractive personality,” a man whose “collection methods combined bribery, trickery, and sheer audacity, and were outrageous even by contemporary standards”?11 Or might this ad hominem, harsh judgment issue more from the history of the nasty gossip and invective that has been so industriously passed down to the present by Budge’s enemies? Petrie is usually depicted as a lovable, self-sacrificing, eccentric whose contributions to Egyptology were a product of his genius and dedication to disinterested scientific inquiry, and this is another stereotype that would be revised by less grovelling biographical treatment.

Petrie, a dedicated friend and follower of the infamous founder of Eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, believed that intelligence was an inherited trait and that selective human breeding based on intelligence was necessary to save any human society from degeneration. Petrie believed that the history of humanity (including England of his own day) was an essentially circular one in which the strongest and most excellent people inevitably rose to the top of their society, then as their own society degenerated over the generations of admixture with people of inferior stock, the people of the best stock migrated out of their own lands to conquer the weak and degenerate people of another. After some generations this new conquering race would inevitably degenerate as an increasingly democratic society protected the weak and allowed them to procreate without any concern for the excellence or otherwise of their offspring, thus leading, once again, to a cycle of degeneration and the migration of the people of the best stock to other lands. It was this cyclical theory of history that informed Petrie’s narrative of the emergence of the “Dynastic Race” out of the “predynastic” history of Ancient Egypt. Indeed, the megalomaniac Petrie was so strongly convinced of his own genius and the desirability of his own stock, that he donated his brain to science in the hope that it would be of aid to the future in understanding what makes a great man great.12


Long after the British were forced out of Egypt the question of the contested relation between modern Egypt and the discipline of Egyptology is a living issue. When a scandal broke out in 2003 around the claim by British Egyptologist Joann Fletcher to have discovered the mummy of Queen Nefertiti in Egypt, the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo threatened to suspend her right to conduct excavations in their country because she reported what they regarded as false information without first informing the Council. As reported in Cairo’s Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper, the Times of London responded to the Council with an attack on its Secretary-General Zahi Hawass, saying that “the dispute has thrown British Egyptology into turmoil with British archaeologists accusing the Egyptian government of taking revenge on Britain for occupying Egypt in the 19th century, for invading Iraq and for refusing to give back the Rosetta Stone. They also say that the rise of Islamism and nationalism in Egypt is leading to a pool of resentment against the British.”

If the British were not feeling vulnerable enough, “The Times also accused Hawass of ruining British Egyptology and of being willing to use his status as Egypt’s most powerful archaeologist to ‘break the careers of any Egyptologist.’ ‘All these [accusations] are a pack of lies,’ Hawass told the Weekly. ‘We have put restrictions on future work in Egypt not only for foreign missions but for Egyptians as well, in order to pay attention more to conservation, preservation and documentation work in sites threatened by modern development.’”13

The matter of the relation of Egyptology to imperialism may seem to be an old one, but this article suggests that it is not yet dead. The dependence of Western Egyptologists on gaining access to Egypt is obviously quite different than it was in Budge’s day, when Westerners controlled both the government and the Service of Antiquities. Whether the Times was right or wrong to attack Hawass for acting as an agent of post-colonial resentment against the British, the sense that Egyptology is held hostage to a new master can be very unsettling to those who used to make the rules.


After his missions to Iraq and Egypt in the 1880s and 1890s Budge became Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in the British Museum and began to publish most of the books in Egyptology for which he is remembered, such as The Mummy (1894), First Steps in Egyptian (1895), An Egyptian Reading Book for Beginners (1896), The Chapters of Coming Forth By Day (Book of the Dead) (1897), Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life and Egyptian Magic (1899), The Gods of Egypt, or Studies in Egyptian Mythology (1903), Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection (1911), Literature of the Ancient Egyptians (1914), An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary (1920), and From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt (1934). The list includes only works in Egyptology. It ignores his other publications, such as numerous Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopic translations which remain in print or on the internet to this day.

The years immediately before and after Budge was made Keeper were dominated by the libel suit brought against him by Hormuzd Rassam and by his missions to the Sudan from 1897 to 1905, which he describes in the two volume work The Egyptian Sudan 1907). This book, which reads like both a history of the Sudan and a tract on British imperialism, is interesting as much for the ideological content as it is for the biographical information we can extract from it. The Egyptian Sudan shows Budge in the fullness of his John Bull mode, celebrating the British occupations of Egypt and the Sudan and idealizing the occupiers in a fully conscious manner as a part of his narrative.

Though his travels mostly ceased after 1905, except for some leisurely trips to Egypt, Budge’s story did not stop then. He continued in charge of his department until 1924, published book after book nearly to the day of his death, enjoyed his many friendships, and gained a knighthood. Budge was unquestionably more relaxed and contented with life after the struggle to gain a foothold in the museum world was over. And when the mourners left Budge’s memorial service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1934, they had paid tribute to a remarkable life that likely was the fulfilment of all of Budge’s wildest dreams.

(This Forward © Matthew Ismail, 2021.)

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