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The accidental linguist:

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Sir Herbert Thompson’s working papers and correspondence held as an archive at Cambridge University Library present a comprehensive record of his achievements in Egyptology made over more than 40 years. Thompson’s dedication to his work can be traced here from the time his interest in the subject was first sparked around 1898, until his death in 1944. The notes and transcripts in the archive relate to early Egyptian texts, mostly in Demotic and Coptic, which, instead of excavation work, he had made his personal focus. The correspondence reveals the diversity of his academic contacts and provides evidence, both of the assistance he provided to colleagues and the respect he received from them for his learning and advice.

The aim of this chapter is to show how such an archive can demonstrate the trajectory of an individual career and how the efforts of a single individual can make a significant contribution to a wider field of scholarship. Douglas Givens has, in the context of biographical studies, argued that the analysis of past events and the contributions of specific individuals, through time, is best appreciated through biography. He suggests that this should focus on the available evidence from the work produced, of the individual’s existence in space and time, as well as their position and contribution in the current intellectual climate. Thompson, through his archive, provides evidence in both senses.

The importance of collections of private papers as a resource for biographical studies is also demonstrated by Marc-Antoine Kaeser, in his study of the archive of Édouard Desor (1811–1882). Desor was a SwissGerman prehistorian, from a generation prior to Thompson, but as his archive also consists of correspondence, notes and a personal library, it shares many similarities with the Thompson material. Kaeser also remarks on the increase in recent decades, of biographical studies and their acceptance as a valuable resource in historiography. The significance of the Thompson archive rests not only on reconstructing his life, but also on the evidence it provides of progress made by British Egyptology in the early twentieth century and the network of scholarship within which Thompson is gradually revealed to be a critical figure. Yet, because the archive was handed from scholar to scholar in Cambridge, its contents have been little known and the contents unaddressed in the broader context of the times. Thompson, along with his colleagues F. Ll. Griffith and W. E. Crum, made a significant contribution to the study of Demotic and Coptic and in a sense, provided the third, and least known, side of the triangle formed by them. But Thompson was not only an Egyptologist, he also had a fascinating personal life with interests in the visual arts, music and natural history and there is evidence that these also influenced the course of his career.



The accidental linguist:


Is Part Of

Life-writing in the History of Archaeology

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UCL Press