The history of archaeological work in Egypt may conveniently be divided into five rather arbitrary phases of unequal length, each of very different character. The first phase consisted of ancient interest in Egypt's past. The second did not transpire until the seventeenth century CE. The third took place in the nineteenth century. Both the fourth and fifth occurred in the twentieth century.

Phase One: From Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century.

More than four thousand years ago, ancient Egyptians themselves excavated parts of their archaeological patrimony. Most of the work was motivated by practical concerns: a pharaoh could show his love of the gods and respect for their priests by restoring temples. He could demonstrate his own legitimacy by preserving the monuments of his ancestors. In the twelfth dynasty, for example, Senwosret (Sesostris) III removed two sarcophagi from beneath the third dynasty Step Pyramid and placed them in the foundation deposits of his own pyramid complex as a means of demonstrating a historical affinity with Egypt's more ancient kings. In the nineteenth dynasty, Khaemwese, a son of Ramesses II, carefully explored necropolises from Saqqara north to Giza, cleaning and restoring many ancient monuments. He considered his actions to be both pious and historically important. Greeks and Romans, too (Egypt was under their control from 332 BCE to 337 CE), took an antiquarian interest in Egyptian monuments and restored or rebuilt those that played significant roles in their own religious ritual.

These early ventures into Egypt's past were harmless; some even protected the monuments. By the end of the Roman period, however, the treatment of Egyptian antiquities had become much more brutal. Perhaps it was because they no longer had meaning or cultural relevance: by the fifth century CE, the last Egyptian temples had closed, the last priests had died, and knowledge of the Egyptian language had died out. It was also because two new and jealous religions, Christianity and Islam, which dominated Egypt in turn beginning in the third century CE, saw Egyptian monuments as threats to man's relationship with the True God, best used only as convenient sources of building material. Local villagers plowed artifacts into the mud, burned papyri as fuel for bread ovens, hacked out pagan images on temple walls, and tore out stone blocks for new construction. The ancient Egyptians had sometimes abandoned or dismantled monuments; the Romans had carted several obelisks back to Rome, but there had not been destruction of this magnitude before.

Such destruction has continued into recent times. European travelers, who had begun visiting Egypt in numbers in the sixteenth century, were not concerned with archaeological preservation. Early pilgrims carried off Christian objects, anxious to acquire relics that would confirm their religious beliefs and offer proof of biblical history. They too destroyed figures that they could no longer understand or that seemed threatening. Medieval travelers picked over ancient sites, collecting mementos of their visits and carving their names on temple walls. Renaissance entrepreneurs dug for mummies that could be shipped to Europe and ground into what many believed were efficacious medicines. In all these instances, the digging was primitive and random, the record-keeping nonexistent, and the destruction of what we today would consider essential information nearly total.

Until the nineteenth century, Europeans derived most of their knowledge about ancient Egypt from classical sources (especially Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, Horapollo, and Pliny the Elder), biblical texts and exegeses, and the often fraudulent writings of travel writers such as John Mandeville (who, in fact, had never visited Egypt). Rarely accurate, these descriptions of Egypt and its monuments conspired to convince European scholars that Egypt was a truly exceptional country whose culture and history followed none of the rules that had governed the rest of human development. For example, both Pliny and Mandeville claimed that Egypt was a country inhabited by one-legged human beings who hopped about cultivated fields so fertile that frogs spontaneously generated in the mud, whose people drank from a Nile so potent it instantly made women pregnant, a people who built temples and pyramids with the direct assistance of God and the angels. Egypt was said to be the site of the garden of Eden, the earthly model of paradise. Surely, Europeans argued, the usual rules could not be applied there. Egypt was thus considered a unique country that had appeared suddenly, fully developed, with no predecessors, survived for three thousand years, and disappeared, leaving no obvious descendants.

Gradually, this view was expanded as tales about Egypt assumed an ever greater role in European myth and art. That the ancient Egyptians possessed knowledge far greater than modern humans was a popular opinion. This belief was regularly confirmed by the misinformation published in Europe about the magical powers of Egyptian objects, the potency of Egyptian symbols, and the special relationship between Egypt and the supernatural. For example, Europeans had long believed that the bodies of Christian saints, unlike those of ordinary mortals, were incorruptible. If their corpses were exhumed, it was claimed, they would be as perfectly whole and sweet-smelling as a living person's. How saintly, then, must the ancient Egyptians have been because thousands of perfectly preserved bodies (mummies) were found there every year! The whole population must have sat at the right hand of God!

Phase Two: Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Collecting.

By the late seventeenth century, Egyptian artifacts were to be seen throughout Europe. At that time museums were first established, and cabinets des curiosités could be found in the homes of the well-to-do. These Egyptian collections exerted a profound influence on Europe's views and on its own decorative arts and architecture. People wanted to possess Egyptian “things,” the older, the more mysterious, the better. From the late 1600s onward, European collectors enthusiastically sought after Egyptian objêts, and agents happily ran an antiquities trade to satisfy them. In a short time, not only were small amulets, statuettes, and mummies being shipped abroad but even monumental sculptures, obelisks, whole tombs, and temple walls. The peculiar features of Egyptian art that these collections displayed—human figures with animal heads, elaborate pieces of golden jewelry, and fascinating but unreadable texts—only confirmed the Egyptians' special status.


Archaeology. Excavations of Dieter Arnold at el–Lisht, 1989. Repair work on the western side of Imhotep's mastaba. (Courtesy Dieter Arnold)

Phase Three: Nineteenth-Century Exploration.

The distorted European picture of ancient Egypt did not begin to change until early in the nineteenth century. The first step toward a more accurate representation resulted from the Napoleonic expedition of 1798–1802. Bonaparte had brought 175 “savants” with his army—a committee of artists and scholars—whose task was to prepare as complete a record of the country as possible. The result was the Description de l'Égypte (1809–1828), a stunning record of Egypt's archaeological monuments, natural history, and local cultures, published in twenty-one volumes of text, maps, and plates. The Description's elaborate illustrations gave Europeans their first accurate view of the country and its monuments. For almost the first time, Europeans could see the real Egypt, not the fanciful country that earlier sources had described.

In 1799, Napoleon's men found what was later to be called the Rosetta Stone while digging coastal defenses near the Rosetta branch of the Nile. It was immediately recognized as a possible source for the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic script. Although the Rosetta Stone was confiscated by the British after the Battle of Waterloo (it is now in the British Museum), copies had been made, and, working from them in France, Jean-François Champollion declared in 1822 that the key to ancient Egyptian had been found. With that announcement, it became possible for the first time in fourteen hundred years to read ancient texts and to learn about Egypt from the ancients themselves. Almost overnight, a vast new source of information was available, and there was a scramble to acquire inscribed materials to study.

This desire for texts, either the originals or copies, led to numerous expeditions to the Nile Valley. Champollion visited Egypt in 1828 to copy texts, and a dozen other scholars from throughout Europe went as well. The most important was Richard Lepsius (1810–1884), whose thirteen-volume Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien (1849–1859) included hundreds of folio plates of ancient texts, relief scenes, and temple plans. Today, Lepsius's work is still a rich source of information for Egyptologists; then, it and the Description were the most reliable and comprehensive sources available. So too were the superb watercolors of David Roberts (1796–1864), and the works of Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, whose brilliant three-volume Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (1837) provided descriptions and explanations of nearly every aspect of the ancient culture.


Archaeology. Careful recording necessitates measurements. A theodolite, a surveying instrument, measures vertical and horizontal angles, as used at the excavations of Dieter Arnold in el–Lisht, 1989. (Courtesy Dieter Arnold)

As positive as the contributions of these descriptive publications may have been, they had unintended negative impact too. Although in the nineteenth century, in other parts of the world, archaeology was rapidly developing new techniques of excavation, dating, and interpretation, in Egypt these were being pushed into the background of scholarship. Egyptologists, most of them philologists by training, considered archaeological data merely footnotes to the story told by the written word. Archaeology's goal, it was argued, should simply be to find more texts. Archaeological context was ignored, and objects were saved only if they were deserving of display in museums. Excavators felt perfectly justified in plowing through sites (not habitation sites, but cemeteries or temples, for they were the ones known to contain the treasures), saving only inscribed objects and pieces of aesthetic appeal, and tossing the rest into the Nile. Not only would the texts reveal all that one needed to know, scholars claimed, but also there would be more to dig. Egypt was an archaeological cornucopia that could never be exhausted. By the late nineteenth century, dozens of expeditions were at work on sites from the Mediterranean to Aswan. It was an exciting time: excavators plundered tombs, dynamited temples, committed piracy, and shot their competitors in order to assemble great collections. Enactment of antiquities laws (the first in 1835), the founding of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, and the establishment of a national museum (1863) did little to reduce the scale of pillaging.

Phase Four: Early Twentieth-Century Excavation.

Not until the beginning of the twentieth century were excavations properly controlled in Egypt. These rare early projects, in which careful digging was accompanied by proper recording procedures and contextual analyses, were the work of William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853–1942) and George Andrew Reisner (1867–1942). Petrie's work on artifact typologies, seriation, and sequence dating demonstrated that even without associated texts, archaeological material could provide important information and not just pretty objects. His numerous publications, particularly of Predynastic materials, helped set new standards for the analysis of archaeological data. Similarly, Reisner's meticulous excavations of cemeteries at Giza and at Naga ed-Deir established new chronological guidelines for Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom artifacts.

Unfortunately, Petrie's and Reisner's emphases and methods were slow to influence other excavators' techniques. What we today consider “proper” excavations remained the exception. The first half of the twentieth century was a time of spectacular archaeological discoveries in Egypt, including the tomb of Tutankhamun (excavated by Howard Carter), the treasures of Illahun and Thebes (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); the Early Dynastic cemeteries at Saqqara (Walter B. Emery); and the Giza cemeteries (Reisner and Hermann Junker). Yet, important and well-executed as these projects were, they indicate that Egyptologists still preferred clearing tombs and stone temples to sifting through habitation debris or working with mud brick, still preferred well-preserved sites along the desert edge to the complex remains in the Nile Valley and Delta. The excavations of the necropolis at Tanis (a Delta site dug by Pierre Montet) and the long-term projects at Tell el-Amarna and Deir el-Medina (both townsites) were among the few exceptions. Thus, there were few attempts in the early twentieth century to work at sites being threatened by new irrigation schemes, growing towns, new roads, or expanding agriculture, so many of these sites are gone. This bias in favor of desert and stone continues to be an increasingly serious problem even today.

Phase Five: Modern Analysis.

One of the most significant changes in the character of Egyptian archaeology occurred during the Nubian Salvage Campaign in the 1960s. Deeply concerned about the hundreds of sites that would be destroyed by rising Nile waters when the new Aswan High Dam was completed, Egypt and UNESCO issued a joint appeal to archaeologists from around the world to conduct salvage archaeological projects in the area south of Aswan. Although in ancient times this area, which was part of Nubia, did not belong to Egypt culturally, excavations there had traditionally been conducted by Egyptologists (among them, Reisner, Junker, and Emery). Now, dozens of archaeologists, many of them trained in fields very different from Egyptology, came to work. With backgrounds in European prehistory and North American archaeology, they brought with them more rigorous approaches to excavation and analysis than Egyptian archaeology had ever developed. Lithics and ceramics were subjected to detailed study; typologies were created; chronological schemes were expanded and refined; and such disciplines as palynology, botany, zoology, chemistry, and statistics were used to reveal changing patterns of climate, describe minute details of lifestyle, and track changes in culture.

When the Nubian campaign ended, many of these archaeologists turned their attentions farther north to Egyptian sites, bringing a whole new approach to Egyptian materials. They took an interest in urban sites. These archaeologists gave emphasis to finds that earlier generations of Egyptological excavators had considered worthless: for example, animal bones, vegetation, stone tools, potsherds, soils, and mud-brick architecture. They were eager to work in areas formerly though to be impossible, in the Delta, the Nile alluvium, and the oases. They gave to archaeological data an interpretive emphasis formerly reserved only for textual evidence. They also asked new questions about subjects as diverse as health and disease, social stratification, the influence of climatic change on agriculture and trade, the development of ceramic technology, and the origins of complex society.

Today, archaeological work in Egypt is increasingly more anthropological rather than object or text oriented. Not surprisingly, many of its practitioners have as much social science in their backgrounds as traditional Egyptology. Karl Butzer, for example, is a geographer and anthropologist who has examined the impact of the environment on ancient Egyptian culture and on the development of irrigation in the Nile Valley. Bruce Trigger is an anthropologist interested in the origins of civilization and its dynamics. Fekri Hassan is a prehistorian with a long-standing interest in the origins of Egyptian society and the theoretical framework for its study. William Y. Adams is a prehistorian by training, whose Nubian ceramic studies are benchmarks that have put Nubian chronology on a solid footing. Barry Kemp is an Egyptologist and archaeologist who has studied the dynamics of Egyptian society as revealed by the archaeological record; his work at Tell el-Amarna and his processual approach to dynastic culture have had major impact. The activities of these and other scholars provide examples of archaeological analysis and interpretation as good as any in the world today. Furthermore, excavations—the long-term work at Hierakonpolis; Mark Lehner's studies of the Giza plateau; Robert Wenke's surveys and excavations in the Faiyum and the Delta; Manfred Bietak's superb studies of the site of Tell ed-Dabʿa (ancient Avaris); and those of the Germans and Swiss at Elephantine, to name a few examples—are truly state-of-the-art projects. No longer is the emphasis on pretty objects or simple description; there is a commitment to problem-oriented excavations, to the utilization of appropriate techniques, and to cross-cultural comparisons that extract the maximum amount of information from Egyptian sites.

It has taken several centuries, but Egyptologists today recognize that ancient Egyptian culture is not a unique phenomenon that can only be explained by suspending the rules and invoking the gods. Egyptian culture is very special and very impressive, but by acknowledging that it is the work of humans, it can best be understood. When studied like other civilizations, ancient Egypt has relevance to our understanding of human development. Such newfound relevance has come at a critical time. Without carefully planned archaeological work coupled with meticulous conservation and recording, Egypt's cultural patrimony will not survive. Egypt's archaeological sites are being seriously threatened today, from pollution, agriculture, growing population, theft, and other insidious forces. These threats make it even more crucial that we treat Egypt's archaeological remains not as the inexhaustible curiosities we once thought they were, but as fragile and finite resources.



  • Assmann, Jan, et al., eds. Problems and Priorities in Egyptian Archaeology. London, 1987. Series of reports on some of the current archaeological work being conducted in Egypt, especially in the Nile Delta.
  • Bietak, Manfred. “Avaris and Piramesse: Archaeological Exploration in the Eastern Nile Delta.” Proceedings of the British Academy 65 (1979), 225–290. Accessible introduction to Bietak's excellent work at an important Delta site; also published as a separate volume (Oxford, 1981). More recent information on his work there, and on other Egyptian projects, may be found listed and abstracted in the Annual Egyptological Bibliography (Leiden, 1947–).
  • Butzer, Karl W. Early Hydraulic Civilization in Egypt: A Study in Cultural Ecology. Chicago, 1976.
  • Description de l'Égypte. 21 vols. Paris, 1809–1828.
  • Greener, Leslie. The Discovery of Egypt. London, 1966. The most readable account of Egyptology's early history to 1855.
  • Kemp, Barry J. “In the Shadow of Texts: Archaeology in Egypt.” Archaeological Review from Cambridge 3 (1984), 19–28.
  • Lepsius, Richard. Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien. 13 vols. Berlin, 1849–1859.
  • Reeves, C. Nicholas. After Tut'ankhamun: Research and Excavation in the Royal Necropoleis at Thebes. London, 1992. Examples of the kind of archaeological work currently being done in the Valley of the Kings.
  • Trigger, Bruce G. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge, 1989. General work with occasional discussion of Egyptian data.
  • Trigger, Bruce G. Early Civilizations: Ancient Egypt in Context. Cairo, 1993. Good example of how current anthropological theory is making use of Egyptian archaeological data.
  • Weeks, Kent R., ed. Egyptology and the Social Sciences: Five Studies. Cairo, 1979. Egyptologists discuss the future needs of Egyptian historical, anthropological, and archaeological studies.
  • Weeks, Kent R. An Historical Bibliography of Egyptian Prehistory. American Research Center in Egypt, 6. Winona Lake, Ind., 1985. Useful source for work done on Paleolithic through Early Dynastic Egyptian sites.
  • Wilkinson, John Gardner. Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians. 3 vols. London, 1837.

Kent R. Weeks