From the New York Times (hat tip: Dan Franke): a review of Toby Wilkinson, A World Beneath the Sands: The Golden Age of Egyptology.
No civilization has visited itself upon the Western imagination as powerfully as that of ancient Egypt. With its fathomless mystery, its architectural majesty, its artistic inspiration, civic order and sheer volume of wealth, ancient Egypt has captivated us and compelled us not just to understand it but to possess it — to literally grab our shovels, dig up its stuff and haul it home with us.
Who’s “us”? By all accounts just about everybody in history who found himself in Egypt while the digging was easy, and even long after Egyptian law made it difficult. The idea was that possession of a nice piece of ancient Egyptian art would lend a stamp of legitimacy — a greater greatness, let’s say — to any empire or, indeed, any private back garden in Dorset. The Greeks pondered it, the Romans started it and various Europeans got awfully good at it. But, as the Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson demonstrates in his excellent new book, “A World Beneath the Sands,” nobody in history succumbed more feverishly to the compulsion to take hold of ancient Egypt nor succeeded at it more thoroughly than the British and the French.
Wilkinson’s ambitious focus is the hundred years of Egyptology between Jean-Francois Champollion’s groundbreaking deciphering of the Rosetta stone in 1822 and Howard Carter’s sensational discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. During that century of exploration and excavation the science of Egyptology was shaped as much by benevolent curiosity and genuine scholarly interest as by the cutthroat imperialist rivalry between Britain and France.
Both nations had a burning desire to best the other in the struggle to gain control of Egypt politically and archaeologically, and both used the Egyptian collections in their national museums — the Louvre and the British Museum — as the measure and symbol of their success. Whoever seized the biggest statues and tallest obelisks, whoever got the best and the most of Egyptian antiquity and lugged it home and filled their museum with it would be the de facto winner. Winner of what exactly isn’t Wilkinson’s present concern, but his evidence suggests it meant more than just colonial expansion or the crucial access to India that Egypt offered. The bitter contest was, it seems, as much pathological as it was practical.
Read the whole thing, and also Brian Fagan, The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt (2004).