New College of the Humanities

American Egyptologist

American Egyptologist: The Life of James Henry Breasted and the Creation of His Oriental Institute
Jeffrey Abt
University of Chicago Press   510pp   £29

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How to squeeze the many achievements of James Breasted, as documented by Jeffrey Abt, into one short review? I can do no better than quote the great man himself:

The limited space to which this article must be confined will permit no more than the meagrest outline.

Today we are so familiar with the kings of the dynastic age that it comes as a shock to realise that before 1822 ancient Egypt had no known history. With the hieroglyphic script defying all attempts at translation, Egyptian artefacts were essentially dumb. As cultural dead ends they were accorded such low value that many museums refused to include them in their collections. The decoding of hieroglyphs brought a new respectability to ancient Egypt and, as scholars started to restore 3,000 years of lost history, an academic discipline was born. The perceptions, experiences and unconscious assumptions of these first Egyptologists had a huge impact on the development of their subject and it is important that we understand something of their lives and times.

Breasted was born in 1865 Illinois; a small-town boy of limited means but formidable intelligence. After a couple of false starts – training as a pharmacist and a minister – he moved to Berlin to study under the world’s foremost ‘Oriental’ scholars. So new was the work that, as he himself noted: ‘The professor is often the sole textbook to be had. There is simply no other way of acquiring knowledge.’ That the Germans drank beer with their meals was another new experience for the once teetotal student.

Just as his parents began to fear that he would never achieve employment, Breasted was appointed to the first ‘assistantship’ in Egyptology at the new University of Chicago. It was an inspiring institution, equally dedicated to teaching, to scholarship and to ‘outreach’ – the dissemination of scholarly work to the public. This commitment, plus a need to supplement his university salary, led Breasted to embark on a non-stop round of public lectures. Thus, almost by accident, he established himself as the foremost communicator of Egyptology to general audiences.

Breasted prospered at Chicago, becoming the first professor of Egyptology and Oriental History in the United States. He proved himself a prolific author and developed major fieldwork projects. While advances in linguistics and new discoveries mean that Breasted’s books are today less useful than they once were his other great achievement remains as important as ever. In 1919 he developed the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago: a centre of excellence renowned for its research into the early Near East. Even Indiana Jones studied archaeology at Chicago, so Raiders of the Lost Ark tells us.

In 1922 Breasted was helping Howard Carter decipher the seals that named a newly discovered king buried in the Valley of the Kings. He would probably have laughed had he known that, 13 years later, five doctors would certify his own death to avert any speculation that he had been killed by Tutankhamen’s deadly curse.

Joyce Tyldesley is author of Tutankhamen's Curse: The Developing History of an Egyptian King (Profile Books, 2012)

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