In Review

Book of the week: A World Beneath the Sands by Toby Wilkinson

Toby Wilkinson explores the dark side of the ‘Golden Age’ of Egyptology

A World Beneath the Sands by Toby Wilkinson

Toby Wilkinson’s colourful new book is a study of Egyptology between the first decipherment of hieroglyphics in 1822, and Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, 100 years later, said James McConnachie in The Sunday Times. This period, known as the “Golden Age” of Egyptology, could “also be regarded as a very dark age indeed” – a time of plunder and skulduggery in which the world’s most powerful nations vied to rob Egypt’s artefacts. Virtually all the leading Egyptologists of the day were European; and as Wilkinson shows, they were a pretty eccentric lot. Flinders Petrie, who helped systematise the preservation of artefacts in the 1880s, liked to work in his underwear – claiming it “kept the tourists at bay”. (He was also, Wilkinson notes, “odoriferous as a polecat”.) Wallis Budge “dug an escape tunnel from his storeroom into the grounds of the adjacent Luxor Hotel” to enable him to remove objects without detection. Such men preferred to think of themselves as “scholars” rather than “scoundrels”, but the line between the two was “often blurred”.

While these Egyptologists were guilty of “ruthless exploitation and catty infighting”, many were also brave pioneers, said Robert Eustace in The Daily Telegraph. At the start of the 19th century, knowledge of ancient Egypt was still primitive, and its treasures lay under mountains of sand. Over the next 100 years, archaeologists revolutionised understanding of the “first great civilisation on Earth”. Wilkinson’s accounts of their discoveries are often very moving: Jean-François Champollion, deciphering the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone, then running into his brother’s room and shouting “I’ve done it!”; Auguste Mariette – founder of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities – “dropping, with a rope about his waist, into the dark of the Serapeum of Saqqara”, a burial place for sacred Apis bulls, with a single candle illuminating the vast scale of his discovery. 

Unavoidably, this book is partly a history of “Western willy-waving”, said Tom Holland in The Observer. Colonial powers competitively looted Egypt’s giant obelisks, and shipped them to Paris, London and New York, providing a “brutally castratory metaphor for the way in which scholars from distant lands took ownership of the study of Egypt’s past”. Set against the backdrop of the Nile, the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings, A World Beneath the Sands is a tale rich in drama – and a “subtle and stimulating study of the paradoxes of 19th century colonialism”.

Picador 512pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

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