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Victorian Egyptology and the Making of a Colonial Field Science, 1850-1906



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This dissertation provides a new account of the origins of archaeological fieldwork in the Nile Delta. It considers how practitioners from diverse disciplinary backgrounds circulated knowledge about the built environment of pharaonic ruins: monuments, architecture, burials, and soil mounds that remained in situ. I trace the development of Egyptology from an activity that could be practiced long-distance through a network of informants to one that required first-hand field experience. By the turn of the twentieth century, archaeologists had demarcated the field site as a new space of scientific knowledge production, and designed field practices to claim intellectual and moral authority over Egypt. It is a project about the relationship between empire, locality, expertise, and invisible labour. These themes are examined through four case studies and divided into two parts, corresponding to the periods before and after the 1882 British Occupation of Egypt. The first part, “long-distance archaeology,” explores a set of routine practices in mid-Victorian Egyptology, whereby scholars based in London relied on informants to communicate archaeological knowledge from abroad through field records. I focus on long-distance investigations of Heliopolis and Memphis in the 1850s and Tell el-Yahudiyeh in the 1870s. The second section introduces what I term the “shift to the field,” an idea popularised by archaeologist W.M. Flinders Petrie, that Egyptological expertise could only be gained by sustained time spent in Egypt. I show that reliability and trust remained a consistent concern throughout this transitional period. The push for first-hand fieldwork was not simply about the revolutionary implementation of new methodologies, as previous histories have suggested, but primarily about becoming an expert witness to the credibility of excavations. The process of publicising Egyptian fieldwork in the periodical press and in books became a crucial mechanism for erasing the contributions of archaeological labourers and has shaped heroic mythologies of Egyptology that persist today.





Secord, James
Staley, Richard


History of Egyptology, History of archaeology, History of science, Fieldwork, Nineteenth century, Colonialism, British empire


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Wolfson College, University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge