pioneering Egyptologist and leader of the Prussian expedition to Egypt of 1842–1846. Born in Naumburg in Saxony, the son of a regional government official, Lepsius was educated in Greek and Roman archaeology at the universities of Leipzig (1829–1830), Göttingen (1830–1832), and Berlin (1832–1833). His interest and facility in ancient languages were proved early in his life. In 1833, while in Paris, he attended lectures on the history of Egypt by Jean Letronne, the French classicist and archaeologist who had taken an early interest in the work of Jean-François Champollion on the decipherment of ancient Egyptian language.
Lepsius was attracted to the study of Egyptology, then in its infancy, but he resisted concentrating on Egyptian language until the posthumous appearance of Champollion's Grammar (1836–1841), when it became possible for him to undertake a systematized approach to it. Lepsius made a comparison of the various systems of translation then in use, in an attempt to discover to his satisfaction the one that was most likely to be correct. In 1836, he visited Italy, where he was able to meet Ippolito Rosellini, who had led the Tuscan contingent attached to Champollion's expedition to Egypt. The result of their discussions concerning the work of Champollion resulted in Lepsius's publication Professeur I. Rosellini sur l'alphabet hiéroglyphique Lettre á M. le Professeur I. Rossellini etc., in which he expanded on Champollion's explanation of the use of alphabetical signs in hieroglyphic writing. If he was not the sole individual who recognized the principal on which the ancient language was organized, he certainly contributed one of the most helpful additions to the original theory.
In 1842, with the proposal of Johann Eichhorn, then Prussia's minister of instruction, and the recommendations of the scientists Alexander von Humboldt and Robert Wilhelm Bunsen, King Frederic William IV of Prussia commissioned a scientific mission to investigate the remains of ancient Egypt in the Nile Valley. The staff of the expedition consisted of surveyors, artists, draftsmen, and a plaster molder—the best equipped and qualified of any scholarly group to follow the French Egyptologists in the entourage of the Napoleonic army's campaign in Egypt forty years earlier. The Prussian expedition assembled in the Egyptian seaport of Alexandria in September of 1842 and had reached Giza by early November. Altogether they spent more than six months at Giza, Abusir, Saqqara, and Dahshur. Lepsius later explained the length of time devoted to the investigation of this area by noting that, with the exception of the pyramid studies of Richard H. Vyse and John S. Perring (1835–1837) and the cursory examination of the area by the French-Tuscan expedition under Champollion and Ippolito Rosellini (1828–1829), they were the first to study and record what was essentially material from the Old Kingdom, a foundation for the study of Egyptian history. As an example of the thoroughness of their work, in the area from Abu Rowash to the Faiyum region, they discovered the remains of 67 pyramids and more than 130 tombs of nobles.
In May 1843, they encamped in the Faiyum, at the ruins of the Labyrinth, where they carried out excavations and remained for several months. In the process, they made the first detailed plans of that monument. They traveled through Middle Egypt with stops at a number of sites, including Beni Hasan and Bersheh, as they made their way up the Nile River, hardly pausing at Thebes on the way to Nubia. The custom at the time, dictated by the realities of travel on the Nile, was to move with dispatch to the south, then to examine the monuments in more detail on the return journey down river.
The work of the party in what was called Ethiopia (Upper Nubia) must stand as the earliest thorough investigation and modern record of that area. Lepsius, with a small company, separated from the main party at Khartoum and ascended the Blue Nile past Sennar. His intention was to explore the country but also to make a study of the regional languages. When they descended the Nile, they were at Thebes by 2 November 1844. They camped for four months at Qurna, on the western bank, to investigate the tombs and temples and then spent another three months on the eastern bank, at the temples of Karnak. The length of time that they devoted to important centers of Egyptian antiquity indicates the serious attempt they made to observe and record as much as possible.
Lepsius made a side trip, by way of the Coptos road to Sinai, then went back to Thebes before the group set out northward, making lengthy stops at the principal sites on the way. The Nile Delta was explored as far east as Tanis during their journey from Cairo to the Mediterranean seaport of Alexandria. They returned to Europe along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, by way of Beirut, Damascus, Baalbek, and Constantinople (Istanbul), arriving at Trieste in January of 1846.
In a summary of the accomplishments of the Prussian expedition, Lepsius characterized the earlier French-Tuscan excursion as one of “discovery,” whereas he maintained that the importance of his own work was in the opportunity he was given to expand and develop a history and chronology of ancient Egypt. He also pointed out that Champollion had only ascended the Nile to the Second Cataract, whereas his exploration more completely included the Nubian monuments. He emphasized the contributions that his expedition made to the understanding of geography, the ancient Egyptian language, and Egyptian mythology. In simple fact, Lepsius, with a carefully chosen team of specialists, was able to take more time and care in investigation and recording than anyone had before him. He was instrumental in adding depth and detail to any further understanding of Egyptian antiquities.
Although the main concerns of the expedition were the recording of monuments and texts in copies, squeezes, and casts, they had also carried out some limited excavations to facilitate their investigations. In the course of the expedition, Lepsius also collected more than fifteen thousand antiquities and plaster casts to take back to Europe.
The chief result of the study was the monumental twelve-volume Denkmäler aus Ägypten und Äthiopien, with its nearly nine hundred plates. Although the text did not appear until after Lepsius's death, compiled from his notes by Edouard Naville and others, this work has continued to be a standard reference on the monuments of Egypt and Nubia and is an indispensable research tool for modern scholars. The plans, maps, and drawings of tomb and temple walls are of a high degree of accuracy and reliability. Often they are the only record of monuments since destroyed or later reburied.
Lepsius was made a professor at the Berlin University in 1846 and codirector of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin in 1855. He edited the Zeitschrift für Äegyptische Sprache und Ältertumskunde, one of the most important early periodical journals on Egyptian antiquity for many years. Following the early progress of Champollion, he ranks as one of the fathers of the modern study of Egyptology and one of the early giants in the development of the discipline, essentially laying the groundwork for the chronological study of Egyptian history. He is considered the founder of the “German school” of methodical research on the language, antiquities, and archaeology of ancient Egypt.
See also CHAMPOLLION, JEAN-FRANçOIS.
- Bierbrier, M. L. Who Was Who in Egyptology. 3d rev. ed. London, 1995.
- Ebers, George. Richard Lepsius: ein Lebensbild. Leipzig, 1885.
- Lepsius, Dr. (Karl) Richard. Letters from Egypt, Ethiopia and the Peninsula of Sinai, translated by Leonora and Joanna B. Horner. London, 1853.
William H. Peck