Egyptologists and their stories

Sometimes the stories behind the discoveries of ancient Egypt are as interesting as the objects themselves. Some would say that modern Egyptology began with Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt. The military forces were accompanied by an expedition of a hundred and sixty or so intellectuals (savants). Supporting this group were some two and a half thousand artists and technicians, and engravers who provided material for the volumes reporting the findings of the expedition.

The work of this team of scientists, engineers, surveyors, cartographers, historians, linguists, and others took twenty plus years to complete and was issued as Description de l’Egypte the first volume of which was published in 1809. Over the next twenty years, ending in 1828, a total of 23 volumes would appear. Three of these were the largest books that had ever been printed up to that time, standing over 43 inches tall. The total set contained 837 engravings, many of them of unprecedented size, which captured Egyptian culture from every possible vantage point.

As a part of the accomplishments of Napoleon’s expedition, Pierre Jacotin’s survey of Egypt, Palestine and Syria became the basis all future studies of the region most of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries.Égypte_(Description_de_l%27Égypte)#/media/File:Jacotin’s_1799_survey_of_Egypt_and_Palestine,_as_a_composite,_published_in_1818_(Carte_geographique_de_l’Egypte_et_des_pays_environnans._Reduite_d’apres_la_Carte_topographique_levee_pendant_l’expedition_de_l’Armee_francaise).png

Pre-Napoleonic Sources

Herodotus was a 5th century Greek philosopher. He is frequently referred to as the “Father of History.” Herodotus was the first historian to collect materials, check them for accuracy and them place them in chronological order. His writings give the reader a sense of the nature of the world and of science during his time. Herodotus wrote a nine volume series titled The Histories. An Account of Egypt or Euterpe is the second in the series. An eyewitness account of life in Egypt it is notable for the his reference to “Egypt being the gift of the Nile.” which is quite possibly the widest quoted phrase in all books about ancient Egypt.


Mantheo is thought to have been an Egyptian priest thought to have lived in the Ptolemaic Kingdom during the early third century – the Hellenistic period. He is noted for having written the Aegyptiaca (History of Egypt) in Greek. This work is the main chronological source for the dynastic structure and kings list comprising thirty dynasties and roughly three hundred Pharos. “Despite the reliance of Egyptologists on him for their reconstructions of the Egyptian dynasties, the problem with a close study of Manetho is that not only was Aegyptiaca not preserved as a whole, but it also became involved in a rivalry among advocates of Egyptian, Jewish, and Greek histories in the form of supporting polemics. During this period, disputes raged concerning the oldest civilizations, and so Manetho’s account was probably excerpted during this time for use in this argument with significant alterations. 

Most modern scholarship that mentions the names of the kings will render both the modern transcription and Manetho’s version, and in some cases Manetho’s names are even preferred to more authentic ones. Today, his division of dynasties is used universally, and this has permeated the study of nearly all royal genealogies by the conceptualization of succession in terms of dynasties or houses. Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion reportedly held a copy of Manetho’s lists in one hand as he attempted to decipher the hieroglyphs

Jean-Francois Champollion 1