When Jean-François Champollion died at the age of just 41, the nascent discipline of Egyptology lost much. The one man who had understood ancient Egyptian writing better than any other was gone before he had had the chance to put much of his knowledge down on the page — and he had likewise been denied the chance to amend and correct much of what he had recorded. With the one expert in the subject of Egyptian hieroglyphs no longer around to defend his work, it was all too easy to revert to the old mystical traditions of Hermes Trismegistus and Athanasius Kircher. Many of Champollion’s contemporaries, among them his old nemesis Edme-François Jomard, would never accept his findings. The new approach to ancient Egypt which Champollion symbolized would to some extent have to wait for the next, less hidebound generation of scholars to reach maturity and take positions of intellectual leadership.

In the meantime, those who did hear the ring of truth in Champollion’s Egyptian grammar did their best to champion and expand upon his work. Unsurprisingly, these were often young scholars. Two prime examples were the Briton Samuel Birch and the Prussian Karl Richard Lepsius. We’ll begin with the former.

Birch joined the British Museum in 1836 at the age of 23 and remained there for the rest of his life. For several decades, he was the only employee of the museum who could read Egyptian hieroglyphs with reasonable accuracy. Soon after Howard Vyse returned from the Giza Plateau in 1837, Birch turned his attention to the sketches and descriptions of hieroglyphs which the steadfast British Army colonel had brought back with him. He found therein much that enlightened — and a fair amount that confused.

Samuel Birch, shown here much older than he was during the events described in this chapter. (Public Domain)

Vyse, Birch realized, had unearthed the first pieces of real Egyptian textual evidence — read, hieroglyphical evidence — confirming Herodotus’s claim that the largest of the pyramids belonged to a pharaoh known as Khufu. Amidst the rubble surrounding the pyramid in question, his workers had turned up part of a cartouche naming that legendary pharaoh. Based on the texture of the stone, it appeared to be from a much later date than the pyramid itself. Even so, it was more than welcome as a confirmation that the ancient Egyptians as well had connected this pyramid with that pharaoh.

But still more exciting was the graffiti which Vyse had found in the newly opened stress-relieving chambers above the King’s Chamber in the same pyramid. These humble scribblings marked the first time that one of the great pyramids had deigned to speak for itself directly. Whilst admitting that “hieroglyphics are at present so imperfectly understood, that it is difficult to give an explanation of the whole of these signs,” Birch found repeated instances of the name of Khufu therein as well.

Everywhere apart from the great pyramids, meanwhile, the Giza Plateau was suddenly speaking loquaciously indeed. The pyramid of each pharaoh, Birch and other scholars were learning, was surrounded by the final resting places of the lesser lights who had distinguished themselves during his reign. A building to the west of the Pyramid of Khufu had been dubbed the “Tomb of Trades,” thanks to its many painted scenes of industrious carpenters, bricklayers, and jewelers. But it was actually the tomb, concluded Birch from the hieroglyphic evidence all over its walls, of “a person of very high rank,” described by the hieroglyphs as a “royal orator, prophet, royal priest, superintendent of the palace of Khufu, of the royal race, devoted to his lord, loving his lord,” etc.

In other places, the connections the people interred around the great pyramids had to the pharaohs who had once been interred inside them was still more personal, even poignant. Exploring one of the smaller satellite pyramids on the Giza Plateau, traditionally thought to be the resting places of the pharaohs’ queens, Vyse had found upon the ceiling of one what could now be read as the cartouche of Menkaure. Pieces of a skeleton remained within the sarcophagus found here. “From the appearance of the bones, and the small size of the sarcophagus,” wrote Vyse, “they seem to have belonged to a female.” This was strong circumstantial evidence that this smaller pyramid was indeed the tomb of Menkaure’s queen (or, at any rate, of one of them). Presumably, then, Menkaure himself was buried on the plateau as well, in the pyramid assigned to him by Herodotus. Sure enough, the hieroglyphs found on the broken lid to the later-shipwrecked sarcophagus which Vyse had discovered inside that pyramid — another rare example of a great pyramid deigning to speak for itself — were soon translated as making reference to that pharaoh.

The notion that the great pyramids had been the product of a pre-literate civilization — that all of the hieroglyphs found outside of them on the Giza Plateau must have been the work of a much later iteration of Egyptian civilization — had now become untenable. Both of the smaller tombs just described, and many more beside, were plainly contemporaneous or nearly so with the pharaohs whose names will be forever linked to the pyramids they built. Even “at this early period,” wrote Birch, “the language had definitely formed.”

Yet even as the hieroglyphs on the Giza Plateau enlightened, they could also confuse; these voices from the past were often a dissonant babble rather than a chorus singing in unison. Vyse had discovered hieroglyphs amidst what were slowly coming to be accepted as the quarries from which the stone used to build the pyramids had been taken, in defiance of Herodotus’s claim that all of the building materials had been transported to the plateau from elsewhere in Egypt. But the chronology the hieroglyphs intimated was rather baffling. One of the messages, said Birch, “contains the names and titles of a functionary of the age of one of the Ramses (the second, or third); he is named Muci, and is stated to be the superintendent of a certain office under Ramses.” It wasn’t hard to picture this Muci as a puffed-up supervisor at the quarry, slyly carving his own name into the rock to ensure his immortality alongside that of his pharaoh. But the pharaoh for which he claimed to have worked had reigned long after Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure.

The answers to conundrums like these must be found in the realization that the Giza Plateau was not merely a frozen-in-amber memorial to three long-dead pharaohs, but rather a palimpsest of the millennia of history that had taken place there. Indeed, said palimpsest was still being added to every month, every time a European visitor carved his own name on the wall of some ruined tomb or temple, for reasons not all that far removed from those of Muci. Giovanni Caviglia’s excavations around the Sphinx had already revealed the Giza Plateau to have still been an active center of political and religious ceremony at the height of the Roman Empire. It would now appear that stone was being quarried and used to build some of the many tombs and temples surrounding the three great pyramids at a point perhaps halfway between the epochs of Khufu and Nero. A new picture was beginning to emerge, of the Giza Plateau — this place of death — as a paradoxically living cultural centerpiece, right down through millennia of Egyptian history.

The hieroglyphs on the plateau that had most stridently been screaming out for translation were those uncovered against the breast of the Sphinx by Caviglia in 1817. Unlike the great pyramids, the Sphinx had no traditional provenance stemming from Herodotus; the Father of History hadn’t written a word about it. Did this mean that it might actually post-date Herodotus, or had it merely been buried under the sand when he visited the Giza Plateau? The hieroglyph-covered steles discovered by Caviglia might just provide the answers which scholars had been seeking for centuries. Two of the three steles had been reburied by the Italian, but, luckily, Henry Salt had sketched them.

Birch believed that the great granite stele which occupied the most prominent place of honor in the little temple between the Sphinx’s front legs stemmed from the first year of the reign of a pharaoh named Thutmose IV, who was thought, thanks to other historical evidence, to have reigned long after Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. Although Birch found the text difficult to translate in its entirety, it clearly was, as one might expect given its location, of a ceremonial nature, full of effusive panegyrics toward the pharaoh in question: “the diadem of diadems; the giver of life, of stability, and of power; like the sun for ever,” etc. Interestingly, the text appeared to take the form of an address by the Sphinx itself to Thutmose IV: “I am thy father; the god in the solar mountain.” It was hard to conclude from this text that Thutmose IV had built the Sphinx; on the contrary, the text gave every indication that the Sphinx had already been a long-established religious monument at the time the stele was set in place. And the claim that it stemmed from the first year of his reign further argued against the notion of Thutmose IV as the Sphinx’s builder: it was hard to imagine that such an enormous edifice could have been carved out of the rock so quickly.

So, was the Roman historian Pliny, the only classical source who mentioned the Sphinx at all, correct in saying that it dated from the reign of a pharaoh named Ahmose I, who had seemingly lived just a century or two before Thutmose IV? Perhaps. Still, the way the Sphinx was written about on the stele — or, rather, spoke for itself — smacked of a monument that was of great antiquity even in the time of Thutmose IV. “The Sphinx probably represented,” said Birch, “the monarch by whose orders the image was constructed; and it was afterwards worshipped in consequence of the superstitious observances, which gave rise to the deification of departed kings, to whose service priests of different orders were dedicated, and whose glory was compared to the noonday effulgence of the sun.”

The smaller steles, on the other hand, made reference to that greatest pharaoh of them all, Ramses II, using similarly ornate language. But he was believed to have reigned some fifty years after Thutmose IV — and if he had built the Sphinx, it was hard to believe that he, being legendary not least for his pride, would have accepted being honored only through these smaller steles placed in subsidiary positions.

Birch and his fellow travelers among the new school of Egyptology, among them Karl Richard Lepsius, were thus inclined to believe that, although through the steles they had traveled well back in time from the Roman-era processional way which Caviglia had uncovered a little further in front of the Sphinx, they had not yet arrived at the great beast’s point of origin. Both of the aforementioned scholars thought that the Giza Sphinx was most likely contemporaneous with the Pyramids of Giza, and that it most likely represented Khafre. After all, they couldn’t help but note, the Sphinx was placed directly in front of that pharaoh’s pyramid.

Karl Richard Lepsius. (Public Domain)

Lepsius, for his part, would come to exceed even Birch in importance when it came to carrying on the work begun by Champollion. Born in 1810 and educated as a philologist, he had become at age 23 one of the first scholars in the world to have his initial encounter with ancient Egypt occur with the intermediation of Champollion’s preliminary grammar. Thus his judgment was never clouded by earlier hieroglyphic traditions. Late in life, he would describe himself as having been, for a time, the “thin thread” keeping Champollion’s knowledge alive until a “broad basis” for its acceptance could be constructed.

By 1842, Lepsius had already made significant expansions upon and corrections to Champollion’s grammar. This work brought him to the attention of Prussia’s Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm IV, a noted patron of the arts and sciences. Wilhelm rewarded Lepsius for his achievements in a manner much like Champollion had been rewarded by his monarch a decade and a half earlier: he was allowed to visit Egypt himself at the head of a major research expedition, funded by the Prussian crown. Whereas the bookish Champollion had largely been content merely to look closely at what had already been discovered by others on the Giza Plateau and elsewhere, Lepsius was of a more active disposition.

Indeed, the expedition proved a fascinating, often amusing collision between old and new attitudes toward Egyptian antiquities. Lepsius, a proud Prussian in addition to being a brilliant scholar, made a point of arriving at the Giza Plateau on October 15, 1842, his king’s 47th birthday. He pitched an enormous Prussian standard just outside his tent, then placed another one atop the Pyramid of Khufu. He and his party concluded the day’s festivities by singing the Prussian national anthem with gusto in the pyramid’s King’s Chamber. They were still on the plateau on Christmas Eve, which they celebrated by lighting an enormous bonfire on the top of the Pyramid of Khufu: “The flame shone magnificently upon the other two pyramids, as well as on the Necropolis, and threw its light far over the dale to Cairo. This was a Christmas pyramid!” They ate their dinner that night inside the King’s Chamber, into which a Christmas tree had been brought for the occasion. New Year’s Eve was celebrated with another bonfire, this one atop the Pyramid of Khafre.

Such shenanigans would have suited a Cavigilia, Belzoni, or Vyse just fine. But most of what Lepsius occupied himself with on the plateau would have been profoundly foreign to them: he poked and prodded at the place ceaselessly, looking not so much for secret passages or hidden treasures as for as-yet unrecorded hieroglyphs, the grist for his translator’s mill. He was rewarded with a number of heretofore unknown cartouches, representing heretofore unknown pharaohs.

He also was able to examine in person the graffiti which Howard Vyse had discovered above the King’s Chamber in the Pyramid of Khufu, and produced thereby a much more complete translation than Samuel Birch had been able to manage from London. The character of the graffiti could hardly have been more different from the other, ceremonial hieroglyphs he had been examining elsewhere; this was the informal product of work crews, who had names like “The White Crown of Khufu” and “Khufu Excites Love” and boasted about their “power” in comparison to rival crews. The esprit de corps peeking through between the lines, even all these millennia later, all but single-handedly put to rest Herodotus’s claim that the pyramids had been built by slaves. In fact, the graffiti felt oddly contemporary in contrast to the ancient solemnity that confronted one everywhere else on the Giza Plateau — proof that at least some aspects of human nature really were eternal.

Lepsius’s most difficult undertaking on the Giza Plateau was to uncover again the front of the Sphinx, which Caviglia had excavated a quarter-century before, only to so rudely rebury it. This project, which had been contemplated but set aside by Champollion, Lepsius was able to accomplish. Once able to examine the great granite stele in person, he could, once again, make a more complete translation than Birch had been able to manage. It was actually a narrative of sorts, telling of how a young Thutmose fell asleep in the shade of the Sphinx, to be visited in his dreams by the god Atum, the creator of the world, in the form of the creature. In this way did Atum personally bestow upon his “son” the right to rule Egypt. The complete translation of the stele thus provided more contextual evidence that the Giza Sphinx had already existed and been an object of longstanding reverence before the boy became pharaoh. The stele would be known henceforward simply as the “Dream Stele.”

Through it all, Lepsius contended with problems of Egyptian excavation which modern archaeologists know all too well, but with which he was much less equipped than them to deal. To reveal the splendor of ancient Egypt, he learned, was often to destroy it. He found that the paintings inside many of the tombs he opened, which initially looked almost untouched by the thousands of years that had passed since their creation, began to fade and peel almost immediately when struck by sunlight. And he battled constantly with the natives who lived around the Giza Plateau, who took every fresh excavation as an opportunity to collect its stone for their own building projects. Still, Lepsius was at least trying to preserve the remnants of this great civilization in a way that Caviglia, Belzoni, and Vyse never really were. He just wasn’t always terribly successful at it, for reasons that were largely out of his control.

Egypt remained Egypt, a place of astounding beauty — nature offers few sights more splendid than a golden Egyptian sunset or the great starry belt of Orion wheeling over the desert — but brutal climatic extremes; the winter nights on the plateau were as frigid as the days were broiling. Rain in the desert was rare, but when it came it struck with Biblical force. One day Lepsius spotted a “great black cloud” coming toward the encampment:

Suddenly the storm grew to a tremendous hurricane, such as I have never seen in Europe, and hail fell upon us in such masses, as almost to turn day to night. Presently I saw a dashing mountain flood hurrying down upon our tents, like a giant serpent upon its certain prey. The principal stream rolled on to the great tent; another arm threatened mine, without quite reaching it. But everything that had been washed away from our tents by the shower was torn away by the two streams, which joined behind the tents, and carried into a pool behind the Sphinx, where a great lake immediately formed, which fortunately had no outlet.

Just picture this scene to yourself! Our tents, dashed down by the storm and heavy rain, lying between two mountain torrents, thrusting themselves in several places to the depth of six feet into the sand, and depositing our books, drawings, sketches, shirts, and instruments — yes, even our levers and iron crowbars; in short, every thing they could seize, in the dark, foaming, mud ocean. Beside this, ourselves wet to the skin, without hats, fastening up the weightier things, rushing after the lighter ones, wading into the lake to the waist to fish out what the sand had not yet swallowed; and all this was the work of a quarter of an hour, at the end of which the sun shone radiantly again, and announced the end of this flood by a bright and glorious rainbow.

Such was life under the majestic but merciless desert sky. Having thus experienced their own personal version of the Flood, the expedition would soon encounter a plague of locusts. (“Like a new animated vegetable, these millions of winged spoilers cover even the neighboring sand hills, so that scarcely anything can be seen of the ground.”)

One question that consumed Lepsius was the varying sizes of the pyramids , not only on the Giza Plateau but at other sites such as Saqqara and Dashur. One day he declared, with Germanic forthrightness and no false humility, that he had “solved the riddle of pyramidal construction.” His solution would soon be labeled the “pyramidal accretion theory”:

At the commencement of each reign, the rock chamber, destined for the monarch’s grave, was excavated, and one course of masonry erected there. If the king died in the first year of his reign, a casing was put upon it and a pyramid formed; but if the king did not die, another course of stone was added above and two of the same height and thickness on each side; thus in process of time the building assumed the form of a series of regular steps. These were cased over with stone, all the angles filled up, and stones placed for steps. Then, as Herodotus long since informed us, the pyramid was finished from the top downward, by all the edges being cut away, and a perfect triangle only left.

An illustration of Lepsius’s ingenious but disproven accretion theory of pyramid construction. The pharaoh’s tomb is built at point A, then surrounded by an initial grouping of blocks. On each anniversary of the pharaoh’s rule, another layer of blocks is added to the construction to expand it horizontally and vertically. After the pharaoh’s death and internment, a smooth outer casing is added to the pyramid to complete the structure. Thus if the pharaoh dies during the first year of his reign, his pyramid will be of size B; if he dies during the second year, his pyramid will be of size C; etc. (Public Domain)

In other words, the height of a pharaoh’s pyramid was directly proportional to the length of a pharaoh’s reign. It isn’t hard to understand why a proto-archaeologist like Lepsius had now become, examining the structures a civilization had left behind for clues to its history, would find such a theory so appealing. According to it, Khufu must have been the longest-reigning pharaoh of all among those who built pyramids, with Khafre only a smidgen behind him, while Menkaure had a much shorter reign. It really was all wonderfully neat and tidy. The accretion theory served to explain not only how the Pyramids of Giza had become so gigantic, but why the landscape of Egypt wasn’t littered with half-finished pyramids meant to inter pharaohs who hadn’t lived long enough to see them completed. “Could a monument of such stupendous size as the great pyramid of Gizeh, have been contemplated as an original plan, to have been finished, or nearly so, in the lifetime of one man?” asked Lepsius rhetorically. An answer of no struck him as self-evident — “but it is easy to conceive that by perpetual addition during a long reign, such a building may have been completed.”

Unfortunately, the accretion theory wasn’t one of Lepsius’s more valuable contributions to Egyptology. Like so many neat and tidy theories, it couldn’t long survive contact with the realities of structural engineering, nor even with the physical evidence of the pyramids themselves. To the eye of an engineer, it was obvious that the pyramids on the Giza Plateau were planned beforehand; the exact span of ground upon which each pyramid was to stand had been leveled and a pavement put down to serve as the pyramid’s base before the first stone was laid. Nor did the internal construction of the pyramids accord with the accretion theory; the stones simply weren’t laid in the orderly, symmetrical pattern it described.

For these reasons, the theory was immediately controversial. Among its foremost critics was John Shae Perring, the engineer who had worked alongside Vyse on the Giza Plateau several years before. “It must be borne in mind,” he wrote, “that the subject is of a practical nature; and in the arts of construction I may claim the advantage of a more intimate acquaintance” than Lepsius.

And yet, despite its fairly obvious problems, the accretion theory of pyramid construction would remain a viable explanation in many minds for decades to come. Somehow lost in the debate was another possible explanation for the differing sizes of the pyramids, beyond even that of a civilization possessed of different degrees of wealth and available manpower at the time each was constructed: perhaps some pharaohs, such as Khufu and Khafre, had assumed the throne at a younger age and in better health than others, and for this reason had dared to build their eventual tombs on a more lavish scale.

Still, even if Lepsius demonstrated rather clearly via his accretion theory that he had been educated as a philologist rather than an engineer, his contributions to Egyptology as a whole far outweigh his mistakes. After spending three months on the Giza Plateau, his expedition went on to spend three more years at other sites. When they returned to Prussia at last, they prepared and published the truly monumental twelve-volume Monuments from Egypt and Ethiopia over the course of the next decade and change. In scope and detail, it exceeded even the French savants’ Description of Egypt. It still remains an invaluable resource for modern Egyptologists, given that some of what it describes and illustrates no longer exists. (Some of what it contains was, as already noted, destroyed or badly damaged by Lepsius’s own expedition in the course of studying it.)

Lepsius continued to make major contributions to Egyptology even after the last volume of his expedition’s record was published in 1859. In 1866, on a return visit to Egypt, he discovered in the ruins of an ancient town known as Tanis a close analogue to the legendary Rosetta Stone. This proclamation stemmed from Ptolemy III rather than Ptolemy V, but also presented the same text in hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Greek scripts. Lepsius promptly demonstrated that, when translated using Champollion’s system with his own expansions and amendations, the hieroglyphs here as well corresponded with the Greek. The truth of Champollion’s system was now undeniable. In an event fraught with symbolism, Edme-François Jomard, the last survivor among Napoleon’s savants and one of the last holdouts from the Kircher school of hieroglyphic wisdom, had died at age 85 just a few years before this final nail in the coffin of Hermes Trismegistus.

These middle years of the nineteenth century were changing times for Egyptology inside the country of Egypt as well, as the older generation of treasure hunters and patriots gave way to an at least comparatively more scholarly mood, if also a more bureaucratic one. Archaeology in Egypt during this period came to be dominated, to a degree never quite equaled before or since, by one man: a Frenchman named François Auguste Ferdinand Mariette.

Auguste Mariette. (Public Domain)

Born in 1821 and educated as a teacher of French and Latin, Mariette first became interested in Egypt at age 21, when he was bequeathed the papers of a deceased family friend who had accompanied Champollion on his expedition to the country. “The Egyptian duck is a dangerous animal,” he would later write. “He welcomes you benignly, but if you allow yourself to be taken in by his innocent manner and handle him with familiarity, you are lost: with one peck he injects his venom, and there you are, an Egyptologist for life.” Pursuing his passion with dogged persistence, the newly infected Egyptologist found employment as a low-level functionary at the Louvre Museum, and finally talked his way in 1850 into a trip to the country, with the primary purpose of collecting manuscripts for the Bibliothèque Nationale and the secondary mission of collecting interesting artifacts of a non-textual nature, should he come across any.

Once in Egypt, Mariette pursued manuscripts in a desultory manner at best, but embraced the secondary part of his brief with considerably more enthusiasm. Whilst exploring the ruins of Saqqara, he stumbled upon the head of a sphinx poking out of the sand. Despite having no official authorization to conduct excavations, he hired thirty Egyptian workers and set them to digging around the head. In the months that followed, they unearthed treasure after treasure from what proved to be a stupendous temple complex, now known as the Serapeum of Saqqara. Muhammad Ali had finally died the previous year after almost half a century in power, and his nephew had assumed the throne as Abbas I . Mariette was under strict orders from Egypt’s new king not to remove any antiquities from the country, but he nevertheless sneaked the contents of the temple back to the Louvre through a series of elaborate subterfuges. The feat won for him a popular fame to rival that of Belzoni and Champollion.

It also won for him the enmity of Abbas I — but then, that monarch wasn’t to duplicate the long reign of his uncle. He was murdered by palace intriguers in 1854, and was succeeded by Muhammad Ali’s son, Mohamed Sa’id. Sa’id was a weak-minded man — doubtless the reason the intriguers had left him alive. He quickly fell under the sway of an assertive French diplomat named Ferdinand de Lesseps, who convinced him, among other concessions, to let France build the Suez Canal and operate it for 99 years under terms far more favorable to the French than the Egyptians. The much older de Lesseps was impressed with the verve Mariette had demonstrated at the Serapeum, and took him on as a sort of protégé. Meanwhile the selfsame Hero of the Serapeum, who could be the most genial of courtiers when he wished to, had also cultivated a relationship with France’s latest emperor, Napoleon III. In 1858, Mariette’s two august patrons set up a new “Antiquities Service” in Egypt with the official blessing of Sa’id, and placed him at its head as “Director of Antiquities.”

Sa’id and his successors thereby gave Mariette virtually complete control of all Egyptian archaeology for the next 23 years. Not since the time of Napoleon I’s invasion had one foreign nation — much less one man — had so much power over Egyptology in Egypt. Mariette became the discipline’s gatekeeper; he alone decided who got to dig, and where, and when. It was an unlikely role for the former schoolteacher from an undistinguished family, but he embraced it with enthusiasm. Unlike such predecessors as Henry Salt and Bernadino Drovetti, Mariette wasn’t burdened with the other duties of a consul generalship. He could devote himself entirely to Egyptian antiquities — and devote himself he did, often personally supervising the most important digs. He worked as if he expected the whole country of Egypt to sink beneath the sea in a few years, as if all of its secrets had to be laid bare right now. At one point, he had 37 separate digs in progress at the same time. Small wonder that some took to calling him, not always approvingly, “the whirlwind on the Nile.”

Unsurprisingly given the Giza Plateau’s convenient location right in the backyard of his Cairo headquarters, Mariette was as active there as anywhere in Egypt. He opened countless more tombs there, sending many of the artifacts he found inside them streaming back to the Louvre.

He also discovered and excavated an immense and shockingly well-preserved temple just to the southeast of the Sphinx. Hieroglyphic evidence inside connected it with Khafre; it thus became the second grand temple dedicated to that pharaoh to be found on the Giza Plateau, joining the one much closer to the Pyramid of Khafre itself which had been excavated by Belzoni among others. Inside what would become known as Khafre’s Valley Temple, Mariotte unearthed arguably the most impressive single object yet found on the Giza Plateau: an intact life-sized statue of the pharaoh seated on his throne, carved out of a single block of the rare stone known as anorthosite gneiss, the nearest deposits of which lay some 400 miles (650 kilometers) south of the plateau. The modern Egyptologist Mark Lehner names the uncovering of Khafre’s Valley Temple as Mariette’s second most significant single accomplishment among many, behind only his discovery of the Serapeum of Saqqara.

The anorthosite gneiss statue of Khafre discovered by Mariette in Khafre’s Valley Temple. The facial features look strikingly similar to those of the Giza Sphinx — further evidence that the Sphinx dates from the reign of that pharaoh. (Jon Bodsworth)

The work at the Valley Temple shows Mariette at his best and his worst. His sense of haste could lead to what archaeologists of later times wouldn’t be able to label with any other appellation than sheer sloppiness. In forcing his way inside the temple, he did far more damage to it than he needed to, even given the technological constraints of the nineteenth century. And, even more frustratingly, he left behind no documentation of exactly what he did or how he initially found things inside. Countless archaeologists since have cursed him for this seemingly endemic carelessness — and the Valley Temple isn’t even the most egregious example of same. At other sites, his zeal to just get at things could lead him to employ methods almost as unsubtle as those of Caviglia, Belzoni, and Vyse; he wasn’t even above the occasional gunpowder blast.

Yet the fact remains that Mariette’s attitude was, in some fairly fundamental way, different from that of these predecessors. Much of his haste, to hear him tell the story anyway, was down to an honest conviction that these priceless artifacts needed to be preserved and studied properly before more mercenary explorers got their hands on them; he truly believed he was “taking possession of Egypt for the cause of science,” as his successor in the role of Director of Antiquities Gaston Maspero would later put it. While he did send many artifacts back to the Louvre, he also established the first museum of Egyptian antiquities that was worthy of the name in Egypt; thus the statue of Khafre from the Valley Temple, which any prior European excavator would have sent out of the country without a second thought, instead went to this new museum, and has remained in Egypt to this day. Similarly, Mariette really did make serious efforts to preserve rather than merely to exploit the ancient sites he excavated — especially against the depredations of the tourists who were beginning to visit Egypt in much greater numbers by the second half of the nineteenth century. “It behooves us to preserve Egypt’s monuments with care,” he wrote. “Five hundred years hence Egypt should still be able to show to the scholars who visit her the same monuments we are now describing.”

Amidst it all, knowledge of ancient Egypt continued to advance in leaps and bounds. Shortly before his death in 1881, Mariette produced an Outline of Egyptian History suitable for use in Cairo’s schools. It succinctly summarizes how far Egyptologists had come in understanding a civilization that had been a veritable blank slate one century before.

Following a system devised by Karl Richard Lepsius, said civilization’s long history has now been divided into three great cultural flowerings, known as the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, separated by periods of decline and stagnation. Following a system devised by Egypt’s own historian Manetho circa 300 BC, the history has been further subdivided into 31 separate dynasties, with the names of many of the individual pharaohs that comprise them now known. Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, being early pharaohs, belong to the Old Kingdom’s Fourth Dynasty; Khufu is theorized to have reigned from 3733 to 3700 BC, Khafre from 3666 to 3633, Menkaure from 3633 to 3600. Consigned to the realm of myth has been Herodotus’s notion that Khafre was the brother of Khufu, Menkaure Khufu’s son; now it’s believed that Khafre was the the son of Khufu, Menkaure Khafre’s son and Khufu’s grandson. Thanks to the deciphering of the Egyptian language, all of these pharaohs are now — or at least can now be — referred to by their Egyptian names rather than the old Hellenized appellations of Cheops, Chephren, and Mykerinos. And another pharaoh, an older brother of Khafre named Djedefre without a pyramid to call his own on the Giza Plateau, who went unmentioned by Herodotus but was chronicled by Egypt’s own historians, has been inserted between Khufu and Khafre in the dynastic timeline. Mariette is still wrong in plenty of particulars; most Egyptologists will come to believe by the mid-twentieth century that Khufu probably assumed the throne and began to built the first pyramid at Giza around 2550 BC, almost 1200 years after Mariette’s estimate. Still, Egyptology has come a long way indeed.

For all that, though, that other current of Egyptian fascination, which persisted in seeing ancient Egypt in general and the monuments on the Giza Plateau in particular as a source of metaphysical enlightenment and mystic wisdom, was far from dying away even at the time Mariette wrote his manual. In fact, it too had entered a new phase, one which continues to shape attitudes toward Egypt to this day.

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(This series's cover art is by KennyOMG, and is utilized under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

11 Comments for "Chapter 9: The Philologists and the Gatekeeper"

  • Bryan

    Protege should be protegé.

    Loving this series! It’s making me want to read much more on ancient Egypt – do you have a book list? Is there a good modern tome for a generalist to check out?

    • Jimmy Maher


      I’ll put up a complete bibliography when we’re finished. In the meantime, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson is a very good, very readable one-volume history of ancient Egypt.

  • typolice

    “It must be born [borne?] in mind” tripped me up. A neat poetic image, though 🙂

    • Jimmy Maher

      🙂 Thanks!

  • Doug Orleans

    There’s at least one instance of “Kahfre” instead of “Khafre”.

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Derek

    A correction: the dynasties were devised by Manetho in Ptolemaic times (not late antiquity, which begins with the Crisis of the Third Century in the Roman Empire), but it was Lepsius who grouped together Manetho’s dynasties into the Old–Middle–New Kingdom system.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Thank you!

  • Will Moczarski

    But everything that had been washed away from our tents by the shower was torn away by the two streams

    Should this perhaps be everything that had *not* been washed away?

    • Jimmy Maher

      I looked at that twice as well when I transcribed it, but I believe it’s actually as intended. He’s stating that the stuff was first washed away from the tents, then carried further by the two streams of water that developed. Certainly not the way I would have written it; perhaps it read better in the original German. (I only have the English translation of Lepsius’s book to hand.)

      • Will Moczarski

        I see, thank you for the clarification! I had suspected it might be correct but just didn‘t feel right to my ears (eyes, rather).


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