Toby Wilkinson, the author of A World Beneath the Sands: Adventurers and Archaeologists in the Golden Age of Egyptology, has provided an engaging new account of the Egyptology craze, describing in detail America and the world’s embrace in the nineteenth and early twentieth century of ancient Egyptian culture. An academic based at the University of Cambridge, Wilkinson is one of the towering figures of modern Egyptology and the author of a handful of volumes that have appealed to both scholarly and popular audiences. A World Beneath the Sands follows French, English, and German scholar-adventurers in their search to procure and preserve Egypt’s antique treasures in the face of the region’s rapid modernization. The lion’s share of Wilkinson’s book covers the hundred years between the French philologist Jean-François Champollion’s 1822 decoding of the Rosetta Stone and the opening of King Tutankhamen’s tomb by the British archaeologist Howard Carter’s expedition in 1922.
The stories that constitute this volume are uniformly well told and have a cinematic feel. This is as true of the tales of familiar figures such as Howard Carter as it is of lesser-known historical actors. Among these lesser lights, Ernest Budge, the first curator of Egyptian artifacts at the British Museum, deserves a movie of his own. Equal parts pedant and hustler, Budge found many creative and sometimes underhanded means of acquiring pieces for his collection. Wilkinson dispels the idea that the people of the time were tone deaf to the ethics of such matters. Indeed, many of Budge’s contemporaries viewed him as a thieving reprobate. By the end of the nineteenth century, a consensus had emerged among the chattering classes that excavations ought to be conducted with the approval of both the local and imperial officialdom. Budge, conversely, used backchannels to acquire pieces for the British Museum. Often these were via local Egyptian antique dealers who relied on what amounted to smuggling and grave robbery to provide Budge with pieces on the cheap. Wilkinson makes it clear that Europeans, Americans, and Egyptians alike did some awfully shady things in pursuit of the wealth that came from this burgeoning artifacts market.
The Egyptology craze grew particularly pronounced in America in the decades following the Civil War. Yet Americans were latecomers to this game, as they proved to be in their colonial ventures as well. Egypt had already become all the rage in Western Europe some decades before, in the aftermath of Napoleon’s Levantine excursion from 1798 to 1801. After the fate of the Union had been safely settled, America’s increasingly ascendant middle class, once sated by merely reading about the exploits of the Pharaohs, now had a desire to see the real thing for themselves. By 1870, hundreds of American tourists a year were registering with the U.S. consulate-general in Cairo. Civil War veterans were signing up for the Egyptian army. In 1874, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired its first pieces of Egyptian art, almost a decade after the Connecticut antiques dealer Edwin Smith had assembled a robust collection of Egyptian artifacts for the Brooklyn Museum. Throughout A World Beneath the Sands, Wilkinson documents the transformation of this once obscure antiquarian subculture into a transatlantic passion.
A World Beneath the Sands is decidedly a story of empire. The Western powers increasingly supplanted Ottoman rule in Egypt over the course of the nineteenth century, culminating in the British conquest of the region in 1882. At the same time, however, Wilkinson also tells the story of the nascent Egyptian nationalist movement. Outrages over the egregious looting of Egyptian historical artifacts helped to galvanize stirrings of anti-colonialism, particularly among the educated set in Cairo. The more value that Western treasure seekers placed on what they found beneath the earth in Egypt, the more value Egyptians themselves placed in the idea of their political sovereignty and their rights to that earth.
The willingness of Wilkinson’s scholar-adventurers to take numerous chances in pursuit of treasure, as well as their cunning and guile, makes inspiring reading in our own risk-averse age of micromanagement. Egyptologists, it turns out, are exactly the kind of men that Harvey Mansfield valorized in his excellent 2006 book, Manliness. These are men who showed decisiveness and confidence in the face of uncertainty, sometimes for the worse—but often for the better.
The hardcover edition of A World Beneath the Sands is an objet d’art and one of the most beautifully illustrated books I have encountered in recent memory. Its pastel blue cover, juxtaposed with gold calligraphy script and an image of the Valley of the Kings, will stand out on any shelf. It is a perfect complement to the bushel’s worth of swashbuckling stories contained within.