Thames & Hudson, £32
Review by: Andrew Robinson
Anyone visiting Egypt today must wonder how it struck travellers before our current understanding of its archaeological sites. Egyptologist Chris Naunton, former director of the historically influential Egypt Exploration Society, answers, while introducing his new book Egyptologists’ Notebooks, that ‘nowhere are its natural beauty and man-made wonders captured better than in the private scribblings and sketches of the travellers who first set out to explore it’.
He offers an illuminating series of brief biographies, covering five centuries, based on travellers’ diaries, letters, and notes. Some, such as Giovanni Belzoni, Howard Carter, and Amelia Edwards, are names familiar beyond Egyptology, but many, such as Jean-Jacques Rifaud, are known only to the cognoscenti. Each is intriguingly illustrated with portraits and evocative sketches – often in full-page colour reproductions – ranging from pyramids, temples, statues, paintings, and mummies to period maps, technical drawings, and hieroglyphic writings, drawn either by the travellers or their contemporaries.
The biographies include Jean-François Champollion, ‘perhaps the greatest of Egyptologists’, given his 1820s hieroglyphic decipherment, and the subject of my biography, Cracking the Egyptian Code. His enchanting journal recounts his first and only visit to Egypt, in 1828-1829. On arrival in Alexandria, while visiting obelisks in the desert, he encountered dogs. ‘[W]e were accompanied by the barking of a crowd of these animals, which occupied the summits of the dunes one by one as they pursued us at quite a distance with husky, muffled cries. These dogs, though of varying sizes, are of one and the same species; they strongly resemble the jackal, except for their coats… I am no longer astonished that in the hieroglyphic inscriptions it should be so difficult to distinguish the dog from the jackal: their defining characteristics are identical. The hieroglyphic dog differs only in having a tail raised like a trumpet. This trait is taken from nature; all dogs in Egypt carry their tails curled up like this.’ Two little drawings by Champollion of jackal and dog hieroglyphs follow.
Champollion’s expedition, though crucial in proving his decipherment, did relatively little excavation. His contemporary, Belzoni, a former circus strongman, was the first serious excavator. On the Nile’s west bank, near Luxor, Belzoni recorded his pursuit of mummies in his dramatic Narrative of his excavations, published in 1820. ‘Once I was conducted… through a passage of about 20 feet in length, and no wider than that a body could be forced through. It was choked with mummies, and I could not pass without putting my face in contact with that of some decayed Egyptian; but as the passage inclined downwards, my own weight helped me on: however, I could not avoid being covered with bones, legs, arms, and heads rolling from above.’ Unsurprisingly, Belzoni appended no illustration, but his Narrative proved a key inspiration to Carter – artist turned archaeologist – in his discovery in 1922 of the tomb of Tutankhamun, illustrated by Naunton with Carter’s eloquent drawing of the young pharaoh’s naked, jewelled mummy.