Egyptology in its modern form, along with archaeology, decipherment, and critical biblical studies, grew out of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century movement in European intellectual history known as the Enlightenment—the movement of Locke, Newton, Leibniz, Humboldt, Goethe, Descartes, Spinoza, Franklin, and Jefferson. It was the Enlightenment that transformed the already ancient fascination with Egypt and its past into a systematic recording, tabulation, and analysis of data and an exploration and application of methodologies informed primarily by a secular-rationalist model of knowledge. The first fruits of this activity were the compilation and publication of the magnificent Description de l'Égypte and the decipherment of the ancient Egyptian scripts and language. The Egyptian expedition of Napoleon, the Enlightenment despot par excellence and would-be new Alexander, resulted in the publication of the Description, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, and the inception of the organized study of Egypt on a vast scale.

The ancient Egyptians had been interested in their own past and made efforts to chronicle and systematize it as it grew increasingly longer, a process which gave rise to the king-list tradition and ultimately to Manetho's Aegyptiaca (third century BCE). The best-known ancient Egyptian “Egyptologist” or antiquarian is the high priest of Ptah, Prince Khaemwaset, son of Ramesses II in the thirteenth century BCE, a restorer and scholar of ancient monuments, remembered in later ages as a sage and wonder-worker. There are, however, many other indications of ancient Egyptian antiquarian study. The various phases of “archaism” in ancient Egyptian art and architecture reflect the study, and sometimes the rediscovery and revival, of materials belonging to earlier periods. This is also true of texts; the Pyramid Texts of the late Old Kingdom were copied and redacted through Greco-Roman times. Highly educated scribes of the entire era of hieroglyphic literacy studied the classical Egyptian language. A number of texts contain parallel versions in classical and later forms of Egyptian, including but not limited to bilingual (sometimes called “trilingual”) decrees such as the Rosetta Stone and the Canopus Decree.

Egypt occupies a prominent place in classical literature as early as Homer. The accounts relating to Egypt in Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, and Plutarch were available in the predecipherment period, although they had to await the revival of Greek learning in the late High Middle Ages and Renaissance. A number of eminent Greek thinkers and authors, including Pythagoras, Solon, Thales, and Plato, are credited with traveling or even studying in Egypt. These claims have been treated with skepticism by many modern scholars, though there seems to be more receptivity to the credibility of these traditions in the past couple of decades. There have been several reasons for the adoption of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” when dealing with classical writers on Egypt: the language barrier, the question of the authors' informants and their reliability, and the presence of obviously secondary material and misinterpretations of known Egyptian material. Methodologically, scholars have been reluctant to accept the veracity of classical statements without corroborative Egyptian evidence, and they have tended to jettison the classical authors once native materials in Egyptian became available. Many Egyptologists found native materials markedly different from the presentations by the classical writers, though some of these judgments were made prematurely on the basis of a rudimentary knowledge of Egyptian and a very limited selection of materials. In particular, it has been common to regard interpretive statements by classical authors, especially any with metaphorical or allegorical content, as purely Greek elaborations out of keeping with the Egyptian “character.” This attitude has, however, been moderated somewhat in recent scholarship, and some of the glosses in Egyptian mortuary texts (“As for ——, it means ——,” etc.) can be cited as native precedents. Regarding ancient Egyptian writing, the prevailing tendency has been to emphasize the revolutionary nature of the phonetically based decipherment and to regard classical and Late Antique statements on hieroglyphs as wrongheaded symbolic obfuscation concealing kernels of accurate knowledge. In the second half of the twentieth century, scholars have shown greater willingness to explore Egyptian and classical sources for suggestive correlations and to look for the connections and affinities rather than the disjunctions between the two corpora. (Important relevant works include those of B. H. Stricker, L. Kákosy, L. V. Žabkar, J. Hani, T. DuQuesne, and H. Jackson.) Thus, Horapollo, the fourth to fifth century CE Greek grammarian of Egypt, who does preserve some traditions of identifiably genuine Egyptian origin, can be regarded as the last gasp of native hieroglyphic scholarship, and Plotinus (third-century CE Egyptian-born Roman) on hieroglyphs can be understood to say something meaningful about the system. With regard to Plotinus himself, some scholars no longer regard it as a geographical accident that he was born in Middle Egypt and are willing to explore his affinities with Egyptian thought. The existence of authors such as Manetho and Horapollo, the material relating to Egyptian religion provided by Plutarch (first-century CE Greek) and Apuleius (second-century CE Roman), and the intimate interrelationship between the Egyptian and Greek Isis materials are only some of the indications that a cultural apartheid such as that envisaged by many scholars simply does not account for what is attested. One Greek scholar who may well have had unusually expert knowledge of Egypt is Eratosthenes (third-century BCE Greek), though many modern scholars do not consider the king list ascribed to him to be his authentic work. This king list includes translations of the royal names that incorporate accurate renditions of words and hieroglyphs. Eratosthenes was librarian of Alexandria, and his experiment to calculate the circumference of the earth shows that he traveled as far as Aswan.

The figure of Thoth, Egyptian god of wisdom and writing and author of sacred books, was the focus of a religious synthesis in late antiquity that gave rise to a body of writings in Greek known as the Corpus Hermeticum. Thoth was equated with Greek Hermes, Roman Mercurius, and (according to the Persian-Jewish author Artapanus) biblical Moses. A number of scholars have proposed Egyptian analogues and antecedents for materials and concepts in the Hermetica. Thoth-Hermes and the Hermetica provide a bridge from late antiquity to Renaissance Europe, when they—and Greek texts as a whole—were rediscovered and translated by Italian scholars such as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Giordano Bruno.

In medieval times, the main source of information about Egypt available to European scholars was the Bible. Then the large-scale encounter between Europe and the Middle East began, with the Crusades (eleventh to thirteenth centuries CE), which opened up an exotic realm to European experience and imagination. This was an indubitable factor in the genesis of European fascination with the ancient Near East, including Egypt, but for a long time the primary motivations for visiting the Near East remained crusading and religious pilgrimage (which were often identical). The Crusades brought Europeans face to face with the Arabs' civilization and language and (along with the Muslim occupation of Spain) began the process by which Greek learning reentered western Europe. Greek literature would dramatically increase the available materials dealing with Egypt and foment much new interest, while travel to the Middle East—including Egypt—would take on a much more scholarly and antiquarian cast. Both these tendencies would emerge strongly in the Renaissance.

Along with the development (or revival) of humanistic philosophy, the Renaissance was characterized by the flowering of an interest in antiquity focusing on but not limited to the classical civilizations. This interest was far from merely academic, but was predicated on the premise that the wisdom and accomplishments of the “ancients” can serve as a model for present endeavors, and as an incentive for excellence. This movement was fueled by the obelisks and other Egyptian and Egyptianized monuments in Rome itself. Renaissance scholarship subsumed the classical texts' Egyptian content and was intrigued by Egypt for its own sake, attaching considerable importance to Egyptian religion. In a sense, the Renaissance was picking up where the classical world left off, as Egyptian deities and mysteries had been among the most popular in the Roman Empire. There has been a tendency to regard the Egyptianizing elements of Renaissance (and subsequently Enlightenment) culture as more façade than substance, but some recent scholarship has questioned this position.

Although all of Father Athanasius Kircher's life fell within the seventeenth century, he straddled the cusp between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. This learned Jesuit, who is often unfairly ridiculed for his unsuccessful attempts to read hieroglyphs, made signal contributions to Egyptian studies, as well as to other fields, such as Sinology and geography. Iversen (1971) rightly regards Kircher as “the father of modern Egyptology.” He was the first European scholar to write a grammar of Coptic, which he recognized as a form of the ancient Egyptian language. He also produced legible copies of hieroglyphic inscriptions, as did his older contemporary G. Hoerwart von Hohenburg, author of Thesaurus Hieroglyphicorum. The rigorous exploration and description of the Great Pyramid by John Greaves, published in Pyramidographia (1646), was probably the first instance of scientific archaeology in Egypt, just as Kircher's Coptic grammar was the starting point for Egyptian philology. Likewise, the study of Egyptian art can be said to begin with a pioneering exposition of an aesthetic of Egyptian sculpture in its own terms by the eighteenth-century artist Giambattista Piranesi.

The Enlightenment paved the way for the decipherment of pre-Coptic Egyptian in a number of concrete ways. Great interest in the typology and origins of writings and language, focusing on Chinese, Egyptian, and Hebrew, provided important impetus toward decipherment. In the seventeenth century, the English philosopher John Locke studied ancient Jewish coins with inscriptions in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet; in the eighteenth century, the Phoenician/Paleo-Hebrew script was definitively deciphered, as was the script used for Palmyrene Aramaic. Cryptography, used in international intrigue, made great strides from the early work of Trithemius to the expertise of Isaac Newton's older contemporary John Wallis. The mathematical discoveries of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz of the seventeenth century added to the toolbox of decipherment procedures. William Warburton anticipated some of the arguments of the decipherers of Egyptian, calling for a rejection of the symbolic/Neoplatonist approach. Thus, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Georg Friedrich Grotefend was making the first strides in the decipherment of Old Persian cuneiform, even while Sylvestre de Sacy and Johan Åkerblad achieved their initial successes in the decipherment of Demotic.

It has been normative for modern Egyptology to define itself as beginning with the decipherment of the native scripts and pre-Coptic forms of the Egyptian language, consummated though not singlehandedly achieved by J.-F. Champollion. The success of this decipherment depended on the affirmation of the essential phoneticism of Egyptian writing and the rejection of the symbolic-metaphorical-allegorical perspective; this in turn seemed to entail the rejection of much of what classical sources contain relative to Egypt. It was the culmination of a process that had gathered steam in the seventeenth century with the increasing emphasis on pure rationalism and the rise of empiricism. To some extent, the decipherers and their immediate successors were simply overwhelmed by their new-found ability to read texts in pre-Coptic Egyptian and to plunge into the deep well of primary sources. More problematic was the increasing tendency to deny profundity and insight to the Egyptians in contrast with the Greeks, a development that has been explored in Martin Bernal's controversial work (1987). Scholars' appreciation of the content of the Egyptian texts was limited by rudimentary understanding of grammar and lexicon and colored by nineteenth-century theories of “primitive” languages. Although it is dubious whether the beginning of Egyptology can be adequately defined as occurring at the turn of the nineteenth century, it remains clear that the decipherment is a watershed, separating modern Egyptology from the history, or prehistory, that preceded it.

The decipherment of pre-Coptic Egyptian was an intellectual triumph of a very high order, all the more so because the texts used, primarily of the Greco-Roman period, would strike fear into the heart of any beginning student of Middle Egyptian today. As already noted, classical authors are often blamed for propounding a stereotype of the hieroglyphs as esoteric symbols knowable only through initiation, and thus for delaying correct decipherment. In the context of Greco-Roman texts, we can see how this attitude needs to be qualified. During the period of the classical writers, knowledge of the hieroglyphs was steadily declining among the Egyptians themselves, who were using Demotic as the utilitarian script and introducing the Old Coptic alphabet. Many of the Ptolemaic and Roman hieroglyphic texts feature hundreds of new hieroglyphs and new values of hieroglyphs, based on graphic variation, phonetic change, puns, etc., and the teaching of this tradition was increasingly specialized and restricted. In light of the scribal tradition of the time, the characterization by some classical authors is far more appropriate than many modern writers have concluded.

An important aspect of the legacy of the decipherment to modern Egyptology is the philological tilt which has characterized Egyptology as an academic discipline—an emphasis that has sometimes been questioned or qualified by its own practitioners. There has been a tension between philology and archaeology/art history that only in recent decades has begun to yield to an integrated or holistic view, largely following the lead of H. G. Fischer. In general, Egyptology continues to define itself by the ability to read the language; with very limited exceptions, hieroglyphic literacy has been a “litmus test” for defining who is an Egyptologist.

The rise of archaeology/decipherment-based disciplines in the first half of the nineteenth century did not merely open up new vistas of the past and extend our reliable continuum of history. It also raised questions that were ambivalent and sometimes threatening for the intellectual and ideological status quo. Like Darwinian evolution and geology, archaeology—which was especially closely linked with the latter—attempted to address the reconstruction of the past independent of Scripture, and to challenge the “biblical” reckoning of the age of the earth. The reading of royal names of the pharaonic period quickly showed that the king list given in Manetho's Aegyptiaca corresponded closely with the original monuments, even in Egypt's early periods, and Manetho's totals reached back to a very remote antiquity. There were several responses to the advent of this extrabiblical data. At one extreme, some rejected archaeology and “pagan” sources (though they were used and transmitted by many early Christian authorities, such as Eusebius) and considered it impious even to appeal to extrabiblical sources to affirm the truth of Scripture. At another extreme, some scholars welcomed the opportunity to cut the Bible down to size, as it were—especially the Hebrew scriptures and the Jews. Many scholars used archaeological and documentary/inscriptional discoveries to proof-text or vindicate biblical accounts. Some (like A. H. Sayce in his 1904 Monument Facts and Higher Critical Fancies) regarded archaeology and Near Eastern texts as providing a corrective to what were seen as the dangerous excesses of the higher critics. In both the archaeological and textual spheres, these are controversies that continue today. Excavations were sometimes undertaken in order to resolve biblical questions, and findings were often interpreted in a biblical light, as indicated by such titles of early excavation memoirs as The Store-City of Pithom and the Route of the Exodus or The Land of Goshen. The Famine Stela on the island of Sehel, copied by Charles E. Wilbour, was immediately compared with the biblical famine in the Joseph narrative and published by H. Brugsch under the title Die biblischen sieben Jahre von Hungersnoth (1891). The proposal (now widely accepted) that the Egyptian Instructions of Amenompe was a source of part of the Book of Proverbs met with strong resistance from some scholars. Undoubtedly, the new Near Eastern discoveries provided an ancient context and milieu for the Bible for the first time. Meanwhile, many scholars applied themselves to learning as much about ancient Egypt and its neighbors as possible without ulterior biblical concerns.

One of the main thrusts of nineteenth-century Egyptology was the compilation of copies of inscribed standing monuments by individual scholars and major expeditions, an enterprise initiated by the Napoleonic expedition. Some copyists ranged over Egypt and Nubia; others stayed in one inscription-rich area. The most celebrated were Champollion himself, Ippolito Rosellini, John Gardner Wilkinson, Robert Hay, Prisse d'Avennes, Charles E. Wilbour, and Karl Richard Lepsius. James Breasted's great work of collation and translation, Ancient Records of Egypt, while published after the turn of the twentieth century, is really the culmination of the nineteenth-century copying effort, and the Epigraphic Survey he initiated is one of its offspring.

The first scholarly attempt to explore the relationship between the Egyptian and Semitic languages was made by the nineteenth-century philologist Theodor Benfey when Coptic was still the only form of Egyptian known. As research on pre-Coptic Egyptian advanced, Egyptologists and linguists propounded diverse views of the relationships—if any—between Egyptian and neighboring languages. For some, Egyptian was sui generis or represented a primitive type of language in which the word and root were the same (thus P. Renouf, see below), a view echoed by the great American linguist William Dwight Whitney. In this approach, similarities between Egyptian and Semitic were seen as superficial, illusory, and/or the result of borrowing. For some of these scholars, Egyptian, while essentially unrelatable in a phylogenetic sense, was regarded as somehow essentially “African.” (Perhaps these views of Egyptian were facilitated by the strong specialization in Chinese of a number of nineteenth-century Egyptologists, such as Charles Wycliffe Goodwin, Samuel Birch, and Renouf, linked with the then-current European stereotypes of the Chinese language. Could the major shift from “nineteenth” to “twentieth” century or “pre-Erman” to “Berlin school” Egyptology [see below] have been partly a function of a shift from the ascendancy of largely Sinological Egyptologists to others who were primarily Semitists?) For others, Egyptian became a component of phylogenetic schemes, some of them prefiguring proposals that remain part of the current linguistic discussion. For Lepsius (also a pioneer of the study of modern Nubian), Egyptian belonged to a group essentially similar to Afroasiatic; for Jens Daniel Carolus Lieblein, this itself was part of a group tentatively designated “Noahitic,” much like the proposed “super-family” or “macro-family” of Nostratic.

As the decipherment ushered in modern, “scientific” Egyptology, so the work of Adolf Erman and his colleagues and students in the Berlin School, starting in the 1880s, initiated the modern, “scientific” phase of Egyptian philology. One aspect of this was a marked turn in the direction of Semitic for the perceived affinities of Egyptian. There were several fundamental reasons for this stance: (1) the identification of the native scripts as unvocalized and including in their inventory the aleph and the ayin; (2) the consequent identification of the Egyptian root as essentially similar to the Semitic root, and the pursuit of methodologically rigorous lexical/etymological comparisons; (3) the analysis of Coptic verb-classes as corresponding to types of older consonantal root; (4) the identification by Erman of the Stative (“Pseudoparticiple,” “Old Perfective”) form of the Egyptian verb as corresponding to the Akkadian Stative (“Permansive”) and other Semitic forms; and (5) the insistence on the paradigmatic alignment of pronouns and grammatical formatives in Egyptian and Semitic. The general methodological rigor of the Berlin scholars suggested productive lines of research, yielded impressive results, and at least in some quarters enhanced the work's credibility. It did, however, become mired in nationalistic bickering, especially among English, French, and German scholars. Erman and his coworkers propounded a clear division of the ancient Egyptian language into stages, each of which required its own grammar; and the work of Kurt Sethe and others on the verbal system gave rise to the “classical” Egyptological view that the geminating and nongeminating forms correspond to the Semitic categories of perfect and imperfect. The perfect/imperfect dichotomy was powerfully influential and is still maintained at least in part by many Egyptologists, although its monolithic nature has been increasingly questioned, beginning with the work of Battiscombe Gunn in the 1920s. The strong Semitic cast assumed by Egyptian in the work of the “Berlin school” was a major target of criticism by opponents of the new approach, such as Édouard Naville and Gaston Maspero. Indeed, Maspero's emphasis on Berber comparisons actually pointed to a more balanced assessment of the place of Egyptian in what would come to be regarded in the 1930s to 1950s as Hamito-Semitic or Afroasiatic. Under the leadership of the Berlin scholars, remarkable pinnacles were reached before World War II, with Erman's grammars, Kurt Sethe's magisterial work on the Egyptian verb, and the Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache (1926–1963), to mention only a few of the most outstanding achievements.

It is often assumed that pre-Berlin Egyptian philology was a blundering, haphazard, entirely “unscientific” enterprise. This caricature is reinforced by the oftenreprinted careless works of E. A. W. Budge (who fell far short of the standards of the best of the “old school” and was blasted by his “pre-Berlin” colleague Renouf), and by the crusading denunciations of Breasted. This is a grave injustice. The best nineteenth-century Egyptian philologists were learned in many other languages, including Chinese, as Champollion and Thomas Young had been, and in the new discipline of “comparative philology” or linguistics as represented by the Grimm brothers (Jacob Ludwig Carl and Wilhelm Carl), Franz Bopp, and other architects of that field. Their work often shows an erudition and sophistication for which it is given scant credit today.

The study of language was strongly related to other emergent comparative studies in anthropology, folklore, and religion, all of which were significant in nineteenth-century Egyptology. One of the scholars most active in this research was English, Peter Le Page Renouf, who subscribed to the then-popular etymological theory of myth. With this perspective, he compared Egyptian Wenen-Nefer with the Hare of Native American mythology, not on a diffusionist level but on what might be called an archetypal level. Following the publication of James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890), some Egyptologists applied his approach to Egyptian materials and became adherents of the “Myth and Ritual” school. Moving into the twentieth century, a seminal development in the study of religion was the publication of Rudolf Otto's Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy, 1917), and the rise of the phenomenology of religion. This had a strong effect on the study of Egyptian religion, especially in the work of Dutch Egyptologists, beginning with G. van der Leeuw and continuing with A. de Buck, C. J. Bleeker, J. Zandee, M. Heerma van Voss, and Herman te Velde. Outside of the Netherlands, such major contributors to the field as Siegfried Morenz and Erik Hornung have also taken a phenomenological approach.

In general, it can be noted that a dispassionate look at the history of Egyptology refutes the accusation that Egyptologists have been (or are) isolated and disregard other fields. In language, archaeology, literature, myth, and religion, Egyptology from the beginning has been intertwined, engaged, and interactive with other disciplines and has attempted to locate itself in a “global” context—as witnessed by Baron von Bunsen's mid-nineteenth-century work Aegyptens Stelle in der Weltgeschichte.

Nineteenth-century Egyptian archaeology began, and continued for decades, as an unregulated and fiercely nationalistic enterprise focused on the acquisition of objects for major museums, and it was inseparable from the purchase of and other forms of prospecting for antiquities. Giovanni Belzoni, perhaps the most colorful figure of early nineteenth-century exploration, has been revealed as a more careful excavator and recorder than the stereotype would suggest. A regulatory authority was introduced in 1858, when the French scholar Auguste Mariette (who would also originate the plot for Aida) was appointed the first Conservator of Antiquities in a newly formed government department.

If Erman marks the turning point in philology, William Matthew Flinders Petrie marks the shift from the exclusive focus on objets d'art, inscriptions, and monumental remains to “dirt archaeology,” introducing a new set of priorities and a methodological approach far more rigorous than other work then being done in Egypt. The use of stratigraphy and the concept of the type-series was fundamental in his approach; the type-series is exemplified by his ambitious development of the “Sequence Dating” system for Predynastic pottery. Petrie did not ignore monumental remains, but he studied them with increased precision, as in his early work on the metrology of Stonehenge and his Giza survey (undertaken initially to test claims about the measurements of the Great Pyramid). By today's standards, Petrie's work was very fast and was characterized by taking small samples of many sites, but by the standards of the times it was a major systematic endeavor. Petrie's publication program was just as remarkable: a steady stream of excavation reports publishing his materials in an orderly fashion, year in and year out. Petrie believed strongly that all archaeology is salvage archaeology and saw his excavations as a frantic race against time. In addition to transforming the archaeology of Egypt, he brought his rigorous approach to the Eastern Mediterranean region, where he began to work in an effort to follow the Hyksos (whose remains he correctly identified at Tell el-Yahudiyyeh) back to their homeland (Hyksos and Israelite Cities, 1906). Although Jacques de Morgan first correctly identified Predynastic remains as prehistoric, it was Petrie who placed the analysis of Predynastic materials on a rigorous footing, and prehistory remained a major theme of his life's work, culminating in his Prehistoric Egypt (1920) and The Making of Egypt (1939). At Abydos, he sorted out the site after Emile Amélineau's excavations, and he correctly identified and ordered the tombs of the rulers of the Early Dynastic period, bringing that formative epoch firmly into the history of Egypt. Important light was cast on the beginning of the Egyptian state by the excavation at Hierakonpolis by Petrie's students James E. Quibell and Frederick W. Green. Outspoken and often abrasive, Petrie cared little about the opinions of others, and his British School of Archaeology in Egypt/Egyptian Research Account had rocky relations with the Egypt Exploration Society, which became the dominant British Egyptological organization. Amelia Edwards, the author, traveler, and Egypt enthusiast, endowed the Edwards Professorship of Egyptology at the University of London, emphasizing the teaching of scientific excavation and created for Petrie as first incumbent.

The United States entered the world of Egyptology during the nineteenth century, although not until the 1890s was a regular university position in that field created there. Memphis, Tennessee, is named after Memphis, Egypt; a delegation of Memphis officials visited Egypt and took back a block from the original Memphis given to them by Mariette, a profoundly Egyptian act. George R. Gliddon, an American consul in Egypt during the pre-Civil War period, popularized Egyptology widely through his lectures and his book Ancient Egypt (1847), which went through many editions. A self-professed “Champollionist,” he seems to have been the first American scholar to learn Egyptian. His insistence on the preservation and conservation of antiquities was remarkably forward-looking. Perhaps the dominant American in nineteenth-century Egyptology, though he kept a very modest profile, was Charles Edwin Wilbour, a New York journalist who fled to avoid indictment with the Tweed Ring of “machine” politicians. Moving first to Spain and then to Egypt, Wilbour became known as an Egyptologist, collector, and indefatigable copyist of inscriptions, which he generously made available to colleagues. His collection and library formed the nucleus of the Brooklyn Museum of Art's Egyptian Collection and Wilbour Library. In the later nineteenth century, Charles Moldenke, an adherent of the “old” (i.e., pre-Berlin) school, moved from Germany to the United States, where he rather picturesquely rebuilt his castle.

American Egyptology as an academic and institutional phenomenon, and ongoing fieldwork by American scholars, began with James Henry Breasted, generally regarded as the giant of American Egyptology. This great scholar and teacher was also responsible for a significant advancement of the place accorded to Egypt and the Near East in the human and Western heritage—what he called the “New Past.” His zeal and evangelical style inspired large public audiences as well as wealthy patrons; he was an extremely effective fundraiser and publicist. As professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago, beginning in 1896, he embarked on the expedition mentioned above, which culminated in the publication of Ancient Records of Egypt (1906), and he was the major force in the establishment of the Oriental Institute. A student of Erman and vigorous partisan of the Berlin school, Breasted firmly established the “new” movement as normative for the study of Egyptian language and chronology in North America. His history textbooks, especially Ancient Times: A History of the Early World (1915), appreciatively reviewed by Theodore Roosevelt, were extremely influential in the treatment of Egypt and its neighbors in the secondary school curriculum. Some of his other outstanding contributions were his authoritative History of Egypt (1905), ground-breaking and insightful studies of Egyptian religion, and consummate editions of two very difficult and important texts, the Memphite Theology and the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus. In works such as The Dawn of Conscience (1933), he insisted on the moral vision and sensitivity of the ancient Egyptians. The Oriental Institute itself and his students who carried on his work are probably his most important legacy.

The Victorian author Amelia B. Edwards, mentioned above, was a major benefactor and popularizer of Egyptology whose books, such as A Thousand Miles Up the Nile (1877), exerted considerable influence. During that period, other women also began to leave their mark on Egyptology. Mary Brodrick and Helen M. Tirard are known mainly for translating French and German works by Maspero, Emile Brugsch, and others into English, with revisions and addenda attesting to their own scholarship; they also wrote articles and general books. Husband-and-wife teams worked in the field, notably Annie and Edward Quibell and Winifred and Paul Brunton, a type of collaboration later immortalized by Elizabeth Peters (Barbara Mertz) in her “Peabody and Emerson” mysteries. Winifred Brunton, an artist, painted the memorable portraits in Kings and Queens of Ancient Egypt (1926) and Great Ones of Ancient Egypt (1930). The first woman Egyptologist of major stature was Petrie's student Margaret A. Murray, who wrote prodigiously on folklore, European witchcraft, and comparative mythology as well as Egyptology. Her work was often controversial; her oftreprinted synthesis The Splendour That Was Egypt (1949) elaborates many of her ideas. Her Elementary Egyptian Grammar (1905) and Elementary Coptic Grammar (1911) were long popular. The title of her autobiography, My First Hundred Years (1963), gets one up on Petrie's Seventy Years in Archaeology (1931). This can only be seen as a good-natured dig, as she was extremely devoted to her mentor.

The first concession granted to women field directors in Egypt was the temple precinct of Mut (South Karnak); the archaeologists were Margaret Benson and Janet Gourlay, who published The Temple of Mut in Asher in 1899. As was the case in other academic fields, it was not easy for women to pursue Egyptological studies or careers in the early decades; Margaret Murray was discouraged from studying anthropology, and Kurt Sethe's hostility compelled Elise Baumgartel to study with Walter Wreszinski in Königsberg. Special mention must be made of Amice Calverly's exemplary work at Abydos and that of Gertrude Caton-Thompson in the Faiyum. Other women scholars who became active by the mid-twentieth century include Militza Matthieu, Miriam Lichtheim, Winifred Needler, and Nora Scott. An unusual and fascinating figure in the history of Egyptology is Dorothy Louise Eady, better known as Omm Sety, who moved to Egypt, worked as Selim Hassan's assistant, and made Abydos—of which she had unrivaled knowledge—her physical and spiritual home.

The participation of women in Egyptology has increased until today it can fairly be said that its practitioners comprise an indiscriminate assortment of men and women. The insights and perspectives of women's studies brought to bear on the study of Egyptian society and the understanding of Egyptian art, literature, and religion have been more significant than the existence and number of female Egyptologists. In recent years, notable work has included that of Gay Robins, Lana Troy, and Betsy Bryan; Women's Earliest Records (1989), edited by Barbara Lesko, was a benchmark for the study of women in the ancient Near East.

The Third Reich affected Egyptology as it did so much that happened globally during its cataclysmic twelve years (1933–1945), and so much that has happened since. Egyptology continued in German and Austrian institutions of higher learning. A contemporary reviewer noted the appearance of Wolfgang Helck's monograph Der Einfluss der Militärführer in der 18. Ägyptischen Dynastie (1939) as a sign of the times. In the neighboring field of Assyriology, it was possible for Erich Ebeling to include in a criticism of Benno Landsberger's work a call for the establishment of a “rein deutsche Wissenschaft” (“purely German science”); Landsberger was one of a number of eminent Near Eastern scholars who succeeded in emigrating. Among Egyptologists, Ludwig Borchardt moved to Switzerland; Georg Steindorff (who was deleted from the masthead of the Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache during the 1930s), Bernard Bothmer, Rudolf Anthes, and Walter Federn sought refuge in the United States. Hans-Jakob Polotsky, who was to have been Sethe's successor at Göttingen, settled in Palestine, where he became founder of the “Jerusalem school” and of Israeli Egyptology. Polotsky went on to be recognized as the preeminent Egyptological linguist of the second half of the twentieth century. Raphael Giveon, whose Egyptological studies were then in the future, settled on a kibbutz.

Past the midpoint of the twentieth century, the study of the Egyptian language was dominated by Alan Gardiner, a scholar of almost unparalleled productivity, consummate standards, and powerful influence. In addition to his many Egyptological publications, Gardiner also wrote notable works in general linguistics. The three editions of his Egyptian Grammar (1927–1957) provided generations of students in many countries with their curriculum in Middle Egyptian. Aspects of the Gardiner paradigm were questioned by Battiscombe Gunn (Studies in Egyptian Syntax, 1924), Hans Jakob Polotsky (Études de syntaxe copte, 1944, and many other works), and Thomas William Thacker (The Relationship of the Semitic and Egyptian Verbal Systems, 1954), but the comprehensive and compendious nature of Gardiner's work made it difficult to supersede. Although Polotsky never produced a comprehensive grammar, his analysis of the Egyptian verbal system began to achieve increasing acceptance in the 1960s. His system, elaborated and in some ways revised by Mordechai Gilula, John B. Callender, Friedrich Junge, Wolfgang Schenkel, Helmut Satzinger, Antonio Loprieno, Eric Doret, Leo Depuydt, and others, became known in the 1980s as the “Standard Theory.” The general trend has been to accord greater nuance and subtlety to Egyptian syntax.

One of the major aspects of the study of Egyptian religion in the mid-twentieth century, especially in the English-speaking world, was the identification of Egyptian and other ancient Near Eastern thinking as “mythopoeic thought”—defined as a mode of thought that automatically personifies its surroundings and all observable phenomena and is thus incapable of philosophical abstraction. This claim was associated especially with the post-Breasted “Chicago school” centering on John Wilson and Henri Frankfort; it was presented in its most classic form in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (1946), entitled Before Philosophy (1951) in its abridged edition. Frankfort and his colleagues were strongly influenced by the French anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, who argued his concept of the “primitive mentality” in La pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind, 1962/1966); Lévy-Bruhl himself had second thoughts in notes that were published only after his death. The “mythopoeic” thesis—entailing that thought must be emancipated from myth before philosophical reasoning is possible—has been increasingly challenged and rejected, for example, by Lana Troy, Herman te Velde (who labels it a “superfluous fiction”), and M. Bilolo.

As was the case with religion, the vision of Egyptian political and cultural history in the post—World War II period was strongly influenced by John Wilson of Chicago, especially his forcefully argued work The Burden of Egypt (1951; paperback, The Culture of Ancient Egypt). This work regarded the post—New Kingdom period as one of decline in which Egypt lacked the cultural vigor to continue the constructive growth of its tradition or to interact creatively with its neighbors. Although Wilson eventually qualified this judgment in his autobiography, it set the tone for a devaluation of the Late period and a minimizing of the Egyptian contribution to the Greco-Roman world. Starting in the 1970s, the pendulum has been swinging in the opposite direction, and increasing attention has been lavished on all aspects of the post-Empire periods, beginning perhaps with Kenneth Kitchen's compendious and ambitious Third Intermediate Period (1972).

The profound and elegant exposition of the principles of Egyptian art by Heinrich Schäfer has had at least as much staying power as Gardiner's Grammar and has bridged the period from World War I through the 1970s in its successive incarnations (1st edition 1919, through 4th edition, 1964; English translation by John Baines with introduction by E. Brunner-Traut, 1974). Among the abundance of excellent work on Egyptian art, one may mention the studies of the canon of proportion by E. Iversen and Gay Robins and the proposals on symbolism in art by Philippe Derchain and Wolfhart Westendorf. Fischer introduced an increasingly fruitful focus on the interrelationships between hieroglyphs and representational art.

If Tutankhamun's tomb was the Egyptian discovery (or perhaps the archaeological discovery regardless of region) that most captured the public imagination in the first half of the twentieth century, the Aswan High Dam salvage campaign in Nubia has been the most influential and seminal event in Egyptology as well as Nubiology in the second half of the century. Its influence and consequences have been great and far-reaching. It appealed to the popular imagination and spread a global awareness of Egyptian monuments and culture while calling forth a global coordinated effort of unprecedented extent. Under the auspices of UNESCO, the campaign was conducted on the premise that the threatened sites and monuments are the common treasure of all humankind. Many countries sent missions to Nubia, including some in which Egyptology had been of low profile or virtually nonexistent. A number of important archaeologists who had never worked in the Nile Valley became directors of expeditions, among them William Y. Adams; this cross-fertilization brought more anthropological perspectives and new field methods into Egyptian archaeology and enriched its theoretical development as well as practice. The amount of fund-raising was prodigious, and the institutional base and infrastructure of Egyptology expanded. Some major discoveries, such as the A-Group cemetery at Qustul, provided important new material and sometimes gave rise to controversy. The autonomy of ancient Nubian studies received important impetus. It is to some extent the expansion initiated in that era that has more recently become the victim of the belt-tightening, downsizing, and changed priorities of the late twentieth century. Despite this, the intervening decades have seen the flowering of Egyptology in many countries, including Japan, Spain, Argentina, and China.

Afrocentrism or Pan-Africanism is a perspective—some would say an ideology—that has had considerable appeal among African Americans and African intellectuals. It is one of the most truly grassroots and most controversial approaches to ancient Egypt. It comprises two strands which have converged: one in America, beginning with G. G. M. James (Stolen Legacy, 1954), and one in Africa, starting with the work of the Senegalese physicist Cheik Anta Diop (e.g., The African Origin of Civilization; Myth or Reality?, 1974). Afrocentrism has gained a wide following in the African-American community on all levels of education and is especially identified with authors such as Molefi Keti Asante, Ivan Van Sertima, Maulana Karenga, and Legrand H. Clegg III. In Africa, Diop's work has been continued and broadened by Théophile Obenga. According to the Afrocentrists, ancient Egypt was a black African civilization, and the ancient Egyptian Kmt (“the Black Land”) refers not to the soil but to the inhabitants. Cultural parallels throughout Africa (many already noted by mainstream scholarship) are taken to demonstrate the black African nature of Egypt, and Egypt is held to have originated much if not all of the cultural legacy of the classical world. These points are, according to Afrocentrists, the subject of a wide cover-up by “establishment” scholars, against whom considerable hostility is sometimes expressed. Afrocentrist claims have recently received a detailed and sympathetic discussion by Martin Bernal in his controversial work, Black Athena, and in the late 1980s and 1990s Afrocentric issues are being addressed by mainstream Egyptologists. American Afrocentrism arose in a context of the African-American community's attempt to arrive at a positive self-definition in the face of second-class status and cultural contempt, and African Afrocentrism arose in an analogous process in the wake of colonialism. Martin Bernal is compelling, however, when he warns against the tendency to expose ulterior motives for minority paradigms while assuming that the dominant Eurocentric paradigm is objective. It is undeniable that scholarly and normative views of ancient Egypt have been strongly affected by racist and colonialist stereotyping. Many scholars have even denied that the Kushite twenty-fifth dynasty was of black African origin, and many of the classical works of Egyptology contain statements that are insensitive, to say the least. Ivan Van Sertima insists that Kushites colonized Mexico, and Théophile Obenga and others attempt to remove Egyptian from the Afroasiatic language family, providing many etymologies claimed to link Egyptian with “sub-Saharan” or “Negro-African” languages, such as Wolof. One partial by-product of Afrocentrism has been the increased appreciation of Nubia as an autonomous high civilization. Another interesting development is the adoption of ancient Egyptian maat as an ethic for the African-American community. The first generally acknowledged major African Egyptologist outside Egypt and Sudan, M. Bilolo, teaches at a center in Zaire named after Cheik Anta Diop.

Another approach to ancient Egypt that has considerable popular appeal can be described as metaphysical or esoteric; Egyptologists generally include in this category revisionist approaches to the age and construction of Egyptian monuments. Egyptologists often label these approaches with the rather unflattering terms “Egyptomania” and “Egyptophilia” and sometimes with the less disparaging “Egyptosophy.” The unity implied by this label is less than it appears at first glance, as it encompasses a spectrum ranging from the Rosicrucian Order to “ancient astronaut” enthusiasts. Mainstream Egyptologists generally reject these approaches because, as they see it, they depend on data and claims of verification outside of “scientific” methodologies; they use materials that are in-authentic or wrongly interpreted; they bypass established Egyptology and have not “done their homework.” For their part, proponents of esoteric approaches often regard themselves as transmitting or discovering the authentic wisdom of ancient Egypt and accuse Egyptologists of refusing to recognize its true nature or of knowingly concealing it. Egyptosophists generally regard established Egyptology as an exclusivist in-group that ignores them because they lack specialist credentials and that dismisses their evidence without a fair examination, and they often explicitly reject the rationalist Enlightenment paradigm. The frequently polemical nature of communications on both sides has made constructive dialogue difficult.

Ancient Egypt has continued to figure prominently in the symbolism and teachings of secret societies and mystical orders of initiates such as the Masons, the Rosicrucians, the Golden Dawn, and the orders initiated by Aleister Crowley; it also looms large in the lore of groups devoted to esoteric studies, such as the Theosophical Society. On one level, this is a continuation of Renaissance Hermeticism and its further Enlightenment developments. The Rosicrucians consider Akhenaten a founder of their tradition and maintain an Egyptian Museum in California; the Egyptologist Max Guilmot is a member of the Order and has written a rather devotional pamphlet on initiation in ancient Egypt as well as purely academic Egyptological publications. The monuments at Giza, especially the Great Pyramid and Great Sphinx, have been the focus of much Egyptosophical attention. Of the many claims made for numerological and prophetic interpretations of the Great Pyramid, the most celebrated have been those of Charles Piazzi Smyth, Astronomer Royal of Scotland, whose claims Petrie first went to Egypt to test. The American trance clairvoyant Edgar Cayce gave a number of “readings” on the history of the Giza monuments and a “hall of records” under the Sphinx; the foundation administered by his descendants has lavishly subsidized archaeology at Giza. Peter Tompkins and Livio Stecchini have revived the numerological approach to Great Pyramid measurements with a focus on correspondences with the measurements of the planet Earth. The mathematician and modern-day Hermetic philosopher R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, along with his wife Isha, his stepdaughter Lucie Lamy, and the Egyptologist Alexandre Varille, propounded what became known as the “symbolist” approach to ancient Egypt. Schwaller spent years taking meticulous measurements of the Luxor Temple and its decoration; he interpreted it as an allegorical mapping of the human being as microcosm progressing through different stages of development, in accordance with an intricate numerical system. He expounded this in Le temple de l'homme (The Temple of Man 1957/1998) and many other works; the major advocate and popularizer of Schwaller's work today is John Anthony West. During the 1990s a major controversy has erupted over a geological examination of the Great Sphinx by Robert Schoch and Thomas Dobecki, who went to Egypt at West's invitation and published findings indicating that the Sphinx amphitheater and body are heavily eroded by precipitation and hence millennia older than generally recognized. Another geologist, David Coxhill, has recently concurred in this assessment, which has been dismissed by most Egyptologists. At least as controversial has been the related proposal by Egyptian-born Belgian engineer Robert Bauval that the Giza pyramids map the stars in Orion's belt. As part of the “New Age” pursuit of global spirituality and self-improvement, there are some who follow a highly personal vision of ancient Egyptian religion as a spiritual path. Indeed, the Egyptian religion has devoted adherents totally outside of the “New Age” community, Omm Sety having been one of them.

As John Baines has noted in a penetrating article on “restricted knowledge, hierarchy and decorum” in ancient Egypt and Egyptology, the scholarly understanding of ancient Egypt's religion has shifted to a strong consideration, and in some cases general acceptance, of features that several decades ago were the sole domain of the Egyptosophist. It can be debated how much of this is due to the Egyptosophists, but in any case it provides common ground for discussion.

Fieldwork (often with improved methodology and technology), new data, interdisciplinary cross-fertilization, and shifting and deepening theoretical perspectives have been converging to focus on a number of themes and frontiers in current Egyptology. One important frontier is the emergence of the Egyptian state, illuminated especially by discoveries at Hierakonpolis and Abydos; in the same breath one can perhaps mention the Neolithic “megalithic” site at Nabta Playa. [See ASTRONOMY.] The focus on the late periods has continued along with fieldwork in the Delta and Sinai, and the remarkable underwater discoveries in Ptolemaic Alexandria, which have sparked a media outpouring on Cleopatra. Foreign relations have been highlighted by discoveries in southern Israel and the Nile Delta, including the Aegean frescoes at Tell ed-Dabʿa, and by textual studies, and they have been the subject of scholarly syntheses such as Donald Redford's Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times (1992). The understanding of Egypt under the Persians, Ptolemies, and Romans as a “multicultural society” has arisen in the context of the debate on “multiculturalism” in American education and society. In the realm of language and writing, grammarians have been engaged in a reassessment and sometimes attempted supersession of Polotsky's “Standard Theory,” while scholars of writing systems have been focusing increasingly on the semiotic and esthetic aspects of the Egyptian scripts. Dynasty “0” discoveries at Abydos have raised the possibility that Egyptian writing may have been the earliest, after all. Thanks partly to the work of Foster and the inclusion of Egyptian selections in the Norton Anthology of World Literature and other standard educational resources, ancient Egyptian literature is more widely appreciated and has begun to enter the “canon.” The interpretation of Egyptian literature and art have begun to reflect the poststructuralist school of criticism. In the study of Egyptian religion, “mysteries” (sštʒ, štʒ) and “initiation” (bsi) are now well accepted, and some scholars entertain the possibility that mortuary text materials had a this-worldly application or ritual performance (a proposal first made by Walter Federn for the “Transformation Spells”). Recognition of the existence of ancient Egyptian mysticism has moved from the fringe to the mainstream, and comparisons with South and East Asian materials have been presented in scholarly literature. The word “philosophy” is now applied to Egyptian thought (J. P. Allen, M. Bilolo). More fundamentally, the seriousness and sophistication of Egyptian spirituality, theology, and cosmology are widely discussed. The expansion of public interest and of amateur Egyptology is shown by the rise of organizations such as the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, local chapters of ARCE (American Research Center in Egypt), and kindred groups in Britain, Australia, Spain, Japan, and elsewhere, and by the emergence of publications such as KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt.

Should this survey then end on a note of ebullient optimism, a vision of Egyptology advancing from strength to strength? Alas, that would be naïve and Pollyana-ish. What can euphemistically be termed retrenching or downsizing in institutions of higher learning has converged with the reassessment of priorities away from humanities and in favor of “professional” and commercially oriented programs. This syndrome has resulted in a shrinkage of the academic Egyptological establishment, a paucity of positions, a decrease in job security for the positions that exist, the merger and abolition of departments, and the failure to fill positions of retirees. The very restricted job market is a disincentive to enrollment in Egyptological and cognate degree programs, as is the decrease in the size and breadth of faculties. More and more Egyptologists are working in other fields. Are we looking at the prospect of Egyptology in the twenty-first century making a full circle to the nineteenth century, once more becoming a largely amateur field, many of whose practitioners will need to pursue it as a hobby? Will this tend to restrict substantive involvement in Egyptology to the wealthy? Will the critical mass of Egyptology, and some other fields as well, need to survive outside the university? If the universities had to preserve human knowledge in the face of some global threat, would they any longer be able to do so?

Can we affirm of Egyptology what Stephen Vincent Benét's Daniel Webster demands that visitors to his grave say of the Union—that she “stands as she stood, rockbottomed and copper-sheathed”? We would certainly like to think so. Time will tell.



  • Baines, J. “Restricted Knowledge, Hierarchy and Decorum.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 27 (1990), 1–23. A thoughtful discussion which includes reflections on non-orthodox approaches to ancient Egypt.
  • Baines, J., and J. Malek. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. New York and London, 1980. One of the most useful reference works about ancient Egypt, including sections on “The Study of Ancient Egypt” and John Gardner Wilkinson.
  • Bernal, M. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vol. 1. London, 1987. Provocative and controversial, more reliable when dealing with the history of scholarship and ideology than when theorizing about Egyptology.
  • Breasted, C. Pioneer to the Past: The Story of James Henry Breasted, Archaeologist. New York, 1943. A very sympathetic account by one of the great scholar's sons.
  • Brugsch, H. Die Ägyptologie. Leipzig, 1897. A culminative statement of one of the greatest nineteenth-century Egyptologists, including his endorsement of the Berlin system of philology.
  • Budge, E. A. W. The Mummy. 2d ed. Reprint, New York and London, 1972. Contains an interesting selection of material from classical sources about Egyptian writing. As a whole, this work exemplifies the low end of pre-Berlin Egyptology.
  • Davies, W. V. Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Berkeley and London, 1987. A clear and concise description of ancient Egyptian language, writing, and decipherment.
  • Dunham, D. Recollections of an Egyptologist. Boston, 1972. An informal and conversational autobiography; includes reminiscences of Georg Steindorff.
  • DuQuesne, T. “Egypt's Image in the European Enlightenment.” In Seshat: Cross-cultural Perspectives in Poetry and Philosophy, vol. 3, pp. 28–43. London, 1999. An extremely erudite and thorough exploration of the Egyptian legacy and its European reception, with detailed consideration of material of genuinely Egyptian origin.
  • Greener, L. The Discovery of Egypt. London, 1966. A beautifully written and literate history of the study and exploration of Egypt through the death of Mariette.
  • Hoens, D. J. “A Short Survey of the Study of Egyptian Religion in the Netherlands.” In Studies in Egyptian Religion Dedicated to Professor Jan Zandee, edited by M. Heerma van Voss et al., pp. 11–27. Leiden, 1982.
  • Hoffman, M. A. Egypt Before the Pharaohs. 2nd edn. London, 1991. An engaging narrative of prehistoric archaeology in Egypt as well as the prehistory of the region itself.
  • Iversen, E. “The Hieroglyphic Tradition.” In The Legacy of Egypt, edited by J. R. Harris, pp. 170–196. 2d ed. Oxford, 1971. An excellent discussion of the study of hieroglyphs and other Aegyptiaca up until the decipherment; conservative in its assessment of the Egyptian content of classical materials.
  • Pope, M. The Story of Archaeological Decipherment: From Egyptian Hieroglyphs to Linear B. New York, 1975. Contains one of the most complete generally accessible discussions of hieroglyphic scholarship during the Renaissance and Enlightenment and the decipherment of Demotic.
  • Wilson, J. A. Signs and Wonders on Pharaoh. Chicago, 1964. Focusing on but not limited to the history of American Egyptology, packed with information and documentation.
  • Wilson, J. A. Thousands of Years: An Archaeologist's Search for Ancient Egypt. New York, 1972. Autobiography of one of the most influential American Egyptologists, Breasted's student.
  • Wortham, J. D. British Egyptology. Norman, Okla., 1971. Especially informative for the earlier period of scholarship.
  • Yates, F. A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. London, 1964. A landmark work in intellectual history. Note that Yates dismisses the possible authentic content of the Egyptianizing material used by Renaissance Hermeticists.

Articles about many figures in the history of Egyptology have appeared in the magazine K.M.T.: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt.

Edmund S. Meltzer