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Pyramids and Sphinx, Egypt. Colored Engraving, 1879 Photographic Print

Pyramids and Sphinx, Egypt, 1879

Today marks the first day of the Summer Reading Program at my library. This year’s theme is Dig Into Reading. Underground and archeology are two major subcategories. It triggered my interest in 19th century archeology, what discoveries were made then? What caught the public’s imagination? How did it influence the world at large?

So I traveled back to Egypt. For better or worse, we have Napoleon to thank for reigniting the spark of the ancients back around the early 1800s with his conquests. His expedition published their findings of Egypt and its art in the 1820s and from there it exploded into obsession with the exotic culture. In Europe, whole buildings were constructed with stylized Egyptian motifs.

Private citizens and international government agencies all got in on the act to do some digging of their own (as permitted by the Egyptian government). All of these sand-movers contributed to unearth much of how we know Ancient Egypt in its current state. Entire structures and even communities were exhumed during the 19th century more than an other single time in Egyptian history. This place of dry, desert climate, and sand dunes full of mysteries became obsessions for some which in later years culminated into the discovery of The Tomb of Tutankhamen (and consequently giving breath to Art Deco). Some of the greatest finds in Egyptian archeology occurred in the 1800s:

Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799 by Napoleon’s soldiers

Abu Simbel Temples, rediscovered 1813 by Jean-Louis Burckhardt

Tomb of Seti I rediscovered in 1817 by Giovanni Battista Belzoni

Hieroglyphics decoded 1822 by Jean Francois Champollion

Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, discovered in 1889 by

Numerous publications detailed the daily struggles and finds of the archeologists and their digs. Many a Victorian devoured every scrap of journalism they could get their hands on. Egypt was too exotic for many to full grasp and lots of them loved to gasp at the scandal, intrigue, occult, and nudity of the ancient Egypt. It became a source of entertainment which spilled over to their vignettes and parlor games. It showed up in furniture lines and forms. Women began to don their own cartouche broaches and similar accessories became en vogue. It seemed everyone wanted to look and walk like an Egyptian!