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  Egyptology, as the Greek derivation of the word suggests, is the study of ancient Egyptian civilization and antiquities. Ancient Egypt was the first-known major civilization, emerging 6,000 years ago at the same time as the (lesser) Sumerian and Chinese civilizations. According to the priest Manetho, who produced the 30-volume History of Egypt, King Menes (3100 BCE) was the First Dynasty ruler responsible for uniting the diverse population of ancient Egypt into a culture that eventually reached great heights in architecture, the arts, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, music and religion. Egyptian ideas about social organization influenced the Greeks and through them much of contemporary society. Manetho\'s work was destroyed by the fire at the great library at Alexandria when it was captured by Julius Caesar (1st century  BCE), destroying much of the textual documentation concerning Pharaonic Egypt. The remaining texts were wilfully burnt in 391  CE, an act hampering Egyptology\'s current attempts to reconstruct and understand this ancient civilization.

In 1799, a black basalt stone covered with inscriptions was found in Rosetta, near Alexandria, during military operations by the French. A text in Greek was accompanied by a passage both in hieroglyphic script, and in demotic (a kind of shorthand used by scribes in ancient Egypt). A talented French linguist, Jean-François Champollion, set out to decipher the ‘lost’ languages, and 1822, the date when he sent his findings to the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, is the point most generally accepted as the start of Egyptology as a science.

Reports by early Greek and Roman travellers and the work of the Greek historian Herodotus, who was fascinated by the ancient world, were followed in the 17th century by descriptions of the archaeological marvels throughout Egypt, abandoned or desecrated first under Christianity and later under Islam, and often submerged in sand. Archaeology was the first discipline to pay attention to these ruins. Amateurs dug where they wanted, often destroying much in the process, until the Frenchman Auguste Mariette founded the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1858, along with the Cairo Museum. From this point on, Egyptology gradually assumed a more scientific character, through the painstaking work of enthusiasts like Flinders Petrie, George Reisner and Howard Carter.

From the 17th century explorers, collectors, and European consuls continued a tradition started by Roman and Byzantine emperors of making off with Pharaonic statues, sphinxes and pillars. The flow of antiquities was only partially stemmed when Mariette established the Cairo Museum and the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Tomb robbing had been a widespread phenomenon even at the time tombs were built to house royalty and nobility with their jewel-encrusted gold possessions, amulets and mummy casings. Howard Carter\'s discovery of the largely intact tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 astonished people with the extraordinary wealth and craftsmanship of the buried objects, bringing knowledge of the achievements of ancient Egypt to the Western world. (The resulting Egyptomania spawned a fashion for an imaginary ancient Egypt that has influenced design and styles in architecture, films, and fashions from the 1920s to the present day.)

In the wake of his military campaigns in Egypt, Napoleon commissioned a group of scholars to study and record the monuments, resulting in the publication of Description de L\'Egypte. The same two methods are still largely used by Egyptologists. Archaeological excavations and epigraphy (the study of inscriptions) are used in an analysis of monuments and remains in their attempt to reconstruct a picture of ancient civilization. Egyptology is still a young science, and new finds are being unearthed all the time.

The Egyptologists\' overriding concern with description may have hindered them at first from developing a more holistic understanding of Pharaonic Egypt. Until recently, there has been little change in the way scholars have attempted to comprehend this ancient civilization, and no attempt to question the premises on which these assumptions are made. As Barry Kemp writes in Ancient Egypt, it is at best an imagined world, and current speculations may have more to do with our contemporary understandings of what constitutes civilization. Egyptologists have posited a highly bureaucratic society led by a kingship propped up by elaborate religious institutions, characterized by continuity and rigid resistance to change. While contemporary scholars argue that they were a pragmatic race little inclined to philosophical speculation, in classical times early Egyptians were credited by the Greeks with great knowledge and wisdom. As well as the mystery cults reported by Herodotus, there was a highly developed and ritualized mortuary cult, dealing with death and metamorphosis. A number of texts guiding the dead through the afterlife were found in the many excavated tombs, the most well-known being The Book of the Dead.

The advanced knowledge evident in the findings dated from the First Dynasty bears witness to an astonishing degree of civilization, without any evidence of earlier precursors. This has led to speculation about the origin of this knowledge, evidenced in the astonishing precision of proportions and measurements. The self-styled Egyptologist R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz spent his life studying the mathematical laws according to which the temples were built, concluding that these principles constituted a sacred science. He claimed that the Egyptian priesthood\'s understanding of the harmonious relationship between man and nature was expressed in art and architecture. The sophisticated use of irrational rations phi and pi to express proportion was generally assumed to have been ‘discovered’ by the Greeks. Schwaller de Lubicz showed that they were abundantly used and argued that in fact Greek civilization was a pale shadow of that of the ancient Egyptians, and that much vital esoteric knowledge was lost with the decline of Egypt. His theories have been rejected by scholars reluctant to revise the received view that Greece is the birthplace of civilization as we know it. Yet it is through the work of such enthusiasts that Egyptology has progressed beyond a discipline that is concerned merely with documentation of an ancient culture, to one that attempts to understand a world-view from within its own parameters, rather than those imposed in hindsight by a very different society. CL RK

See also ethnoarchaeology.Further reading J.R. Harris, The Legacy of Egypt; , John West, Serpent in the Sky.



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