Egyptomania

I’ve become interested recently in Egyptomania – the sudden engagement of western countries with Ancient Egypt in the nineteenth century.

Egyptomania spawned a whole range of things – from the Egypt Exploration Society to the Amelia Peabody novels and is with us even today with the hype around any large exhibition of Ancient Egyptian artefacts

Before the nineteenth century, Pharonic Egypt was unknown in the west save for some biblical texts and references in a few classical authors. Napoleon’s Savants pushed open the door a little, as did Champollion’s work on hieroglyphs, but in the first half of the nineteenth century what archaeology there was was little more than glorified tomb robbing.

‘Proper’ access didn’t really happen until the 1870’s, indirectly as a result of a financial crisis in Egypt, which resulted in a take over by stealth of the two largest creditors, Britain and France.

This enabled tourism, as exemplified by Amelia Edwards’ 1877 A Thousand Miles up the Nile,and with tourism came curiosity, and gradually a more formal system of regulated exploration and excavation. Of course Amelia Edwards was not the first, or the only lady tourist cum egyptologist, there was Marianne Brocklehurst, Amelia Oldroyd and Annie Barlow to name but three, all of whom used their money to build substantial collections.

But of course it’s not just these high profile collections – many people were infected by Egyptomania which why there’s an Egyptian mummy in Hyderabad, one in Perth museum in Scotland, in Derby museum in England, in Manchester, in Adelaide, in Lisbon, and even in New Zealand, not to mention those scattered across museums in the United States and Canada.

And of course it’s not just mummies – Egyptian artifacts are lodged in museums from Montrose in Angus to Sao Paulo in Brazil.

In fact there are so many holdings it’s impossible to list them all – Wikipedia attempts to list the main holdings but the list is incomplete – Annie Barlow’s collection in Bolton is omitted as is the Marianne Brocklehurst collection in Macclesfield – and of course collections keep on changing as this recent discovery in Sydney shows.

The impact of Egyptonmania spread far beyond collecting and souveniring – the discovery of the tomb tomb of Tut Ankh Amun by Howard Carter spawned a whole new burst of Egyptomania – Tutmania – with Egyptian themed clothing and jewellery.

And it’s with us today – with television specials on Ancient Egypt and tomb hunting drawing substantial audiences from a jaded public.

So Egyptomania hits the public’s buttons in so many ways, despite the deep disconnect between our world and the dark god-ridden world of the ancient Egyptians.

I have no doubt that they laughed, loved, suffered the agonies of loss just as we do, and in a few places the voices of ordinary people shine through, but mostly it’s king lists, praise to the gods, and other highly stylized ritual texts. We know of them, but we do not know them in the way that we know the lives of the classical world, but yet the fascination remains, and that’s something we see today.

So what’s out there?

A quick and rather random survey turns up ancient Egyptian holdings in Australia at

as well as the well known collections at the Nicholson Museum and the Australian Museum in Sydney – the real revelation came with Victorian Collections which revealed a substantial collection held by Queen’s College in Parkfield .

I’m sure there’s others I’ve missed, plus given the role of Australian soldiers in the middle east in the first world war various items locked away in local museums or even sitting on someone’s mantlepiece ..

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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