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ialogues with the Dead by David Gange is a dynamic history of Egyptology in Britain that begins with the decipherment of hieroglyphics in 1821 and ends with the discovery, a century later, of Tutankhamun's tomb. In between, Gange traces the multiple ways in which Victorians approached the problems of history and meaning posed by ancient Egyptian texts, artifacts, and monuments. Borrowing metaphors from geology and archaeology, Gange takes "a series of cross-sections" of Victorian discourse about ancient Egypt and, more broadly, the ancient Near East, in order to capture "the excitement and confusion of the competing voices that attempted to claim authority over the interpretation of this most ancient of civilizations." (46) In broad strokes, Gange's argument is this: Rather than systematizing and unifying knowledge about ancient Egypt, the burgeoning discipline of Egyptology tended to polarize opinion in many contexts -- religious, secular, elite, popular, scholarly, aesthetic, and so on. The audiences that animated these different contexts shaped from this material fresh questions that, in turn, led to new investigations.

To begin, Gange first locates the origins of British Egyptology in Biblical criticism and classical scholarship, both of which were important sources of meaning in broader Victorian culture at the start of the nineteenth century. Thanks to the "almost universal familiarity with the allusive language of the Bible and classical literature amongst nineteenth-century readers" (43), ancient Egypt proved a rich source of interest for a wide swath of the public. Yet despite ancient Egypt's broad appeal, the flow of knowledge remained one-way: theologians were the primary conduit of knowledge about Egypt to this broader public until mid-century. As a result, early Victorian conceptions of Egypt remained "more or less unruffled" (39) after the decipherment of hieroglyphics in 1822, and Egyptology as a discipline remained fallow through the 1830s. This fallow period owed something as well to publishers who were unwilling to risk alienating audiences by presenting up-to-date views of the ancient past that threatened to undermine established interpretations of scripture (83). Gange suggests that the drama that attended Champollion's breakthrough had made Egyptology unappealing for another reason as well. Although Gange does not pursue the notion, he does suggest that the decipherment must be understood not as a triumph of either code-breaking or linguistics but as something smaller and more ironic, "an immensely fruitful anti-climax," an event that did not establish Egyptology as a discipline but simply re-rooted Egyptological research more deeply in already-fertile soil. The decipherment "did not make Egyptology a self-contained discipline, but perpetuated its reliance on other strands of historical and archaeological research" (46). Paradoxically this development made Egyptology less, rather than more, attractive to scholars seeking opportunities to make a splash. "[W]here Egypt was concerned," Gange observes,

increased knowledge actually led to a decline in interest. Because Champollion had made a dramatic linguistic breakthrough, subsequent, less decisive, developments could not find a market. It is striking and strange that, after the hieroglyphs were deciphered but before much had really been learnt from them, Egypt was considered too well known to be the basis of a career by many of the scholars who had expressed interest in it (34).

The quiet could not last. Egypt's popular appeal proved too enduring. Canvassing publications about Egypt in genres ranging from travelogues to antiquarian investigations, Gange shows how writers in these genres found eager audiences despite the heterogeneity of their approaches, publishers' unwillingness to bring out Egypt-related materials, and the reluctance of specialists to take up Egyptology in Champollion's shadow. To support this point, Gange offers a detailed discussion of the reception of Gardiner Wilkinson's Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (1837), the publication of which marked the end of the dry spell. As the first Egyptological work "to receive public approval and critical adulation on a scale to rival Belzoni" (83) since the 1820s, Gardiner's book had three advantages: it was lavishly illustrated, the author made few pretensions to specialist knowledge of hieroglyphics, and he did not enter into lengthy discussions of religious matters (88).

The pace of publication quickened after Gardiner's breakthrough, hastened as well by the development of comparative linguistics and by modernizing philological methods in the German states. By mid-century, Egyptology had become viable, if not fashionable, once again. This time, it was popularly linked to Dissent, notably in the works of Unitarian ministers Samuel Sharpe and John Kenrick; Sharpe was also a member of the Syro-Egyptian Society of London, established in 1844 as a "motley fellowship of Unitarians, Primitive Methodists, geologists, astronomers and surgeons" who met to discuss recent discoveries (112). But perhaps the most radical of these encounters with Egypt was provided by Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), whose Eastern Life: Present and Past (1848) framed the knowledge derived from the study of ancient Egypt as a "social and religious threat" (110) that was all the more unsettling for being concealed in an unassuming travelogue. Victorians had re-embraced ancient Egypt as a source of meaning and interest, and the ferment of these years would shape opinions about Egypt that coalesced around particular groups, projects and institutions at mid-century, helping to "define the ambitions of later British Egyptologists" and "dictate the expectations of expansive new audiences" (128).

The subtitle of Gange's second chapter, "The Religion of Science and the Science of Religion," focalizes this familiar Victorian tension in terms of the problem ancient Egypt posed to the order of knowledge after mid-century. Recent archaeological discoveries had undermined cherished certainties about the literal truth of the Bible, and these anxieties dovetailed with others, stoked by Darwinism, about the loss of humanity's privileged place in creation. But if some required bulwarks against the scientific authority of Egyptology, others needed Egyptologists to provide authoritative support for religious positions. Rather than being simply part of a rising tide of scientism, the nascent science of archaeology, for instance, provided a key resource for orthodoxy, so that archaeology became "the other side to scientific naturalism's coin" (126). Yet, as Gange shows in the following chapter, as much as this contradictory state of affairs may confuse us, Victorians were less perplexed, accustomed as they were to permeable boundaries between disciplines now viewed as quite separate. To illustrate this point, Gange explores the establishment of editorial protocols for The Academy, an Oxford journal founded in 1869 and published by John Murray for the purpose of presenting continental scholarship and research to a British audience. When James Sutherland Cotton, a founding member of the influential Egypt Exploration Fund, took over editorial responsibility for the journal, his first order of business was to divide the publication into sections devoted to science, the fine arts, and literature. "Articles and reviews featuring ancient Egypt suffused all three of these [categories] to the extent that their distribution seems indiscriminate," Gange writes. "This apparent lack of system, and the complex logic that does inform it, is revealing of the place Egypt had come to occupy within public culture" (196). This important point is worth a closer look, as it prepares the way for a larger insight about the Victorian organization of knowledge. Here is Gange again:

While we expect disciplinary boundaries in 1881 to be different from our own, we do not usually anticipate quite the degree of difference on display here. It seems disorienting to encounter biblical commentaries placed confidently under the heading of 'Science,' or obituaries of Egyptologists under the heading 'Fine Arts,' or evolutionary studies of Egyptian origins under the heading 'Literature." Although ostensibly haphazard, the editorial decisions that resulted in these quirks were governed by careful definitions. The most striking of these is the agenda established for the 'Science' section, which embraced 'Natural Philosophy, Theology, and the Science of Language, especially the English Language and Dialects, and the very important and interesting study of Comparative Philology, in connection with the Mythology, Folklore, Manners, Customs, and Institutions of the various races of mankind' (197-98).

As eccentric as these categories may seem, the apparent confusion of scientific and humanistic disciplinary boundaries actually pointed to an important, if overlooked, historical reality: the Victorians recognized a form of knowledge that encompassed both moral and empirical elements without contradiction. On this point, Gange's argument coheres nicely with the history of Victorian psychology which, like Egyptology, also had this mixed quality.)

Gange next turns to a technical advance, Flinders Petrie's (1853-1942) development of sequence dating, to explain what was distinctive about the study of Egypt in the closing decades of the century. Focusing on Petrie's innovation, Gange shows how Egyptologists were liberated from the requirement to situate their findings in historical frameworks borrowed from either the classics or Biblical studies. As they shifted from absolute to relative chronology, they ushered in a period of increased disciplinary autonomy. New questions could be set, and new approaches deployed to answer them. "Many of the great advances of the 1880s and 1890s came not in reducing historical uncertainty," Gange reflects, "but in learning to cope with it" (237). The uptake of Petrie's method of relative dating "reveals a discipline in which Egypt finally mattered more than its associations. It was no longer a lens through which Greek and Hebrew cultures could be viewed, but an object of study in its own right" (238). The blessing was not unmixed, however. Liberation from requirements borrowed from other disciplines also freed scholars, notoriously Petrie himself, to apply contemporary speculations about race to the inhabitants of the ancient world. As a result, much more could be said about ancient Egypt, but not all of it was sensible. The worst of it -- the craniology, for instance, that reprised the phrenology of eighty years before -- was simply embarrassing. In 1905, the paleo-archaeologist Arthur Keith was so exasperated by Egyptologists' pseudo-scientific absurdities that he was moved to list and categorize them:

From four separate studies of heads, made within the last five years, four different theories have arisen: (1) that there are at least three races mingled in the inhabitants of ancient Egypt; (2) that there are six; (3) that there is but one; (4) ... that there were two, but that they lived side by side until early in the Christian era. Surely, then, one may say that craniology is a sphinx, when on each of four occasions she returns a different and contradictory answer. One may well ask, Will she ever speak the truth?" (qtd. on p. 243)

The confusions extended and ramified. The discovery of the Oxyrhynchus papyri roused painful uncertainties about early Christianity; newly decipherable cuneiform texts unsettled longstanding views of the Flood narrative as the famous Babel-Bibel Streit swept from Berlin to London in 1903. Discussing these separate but similar controversies, Gange shows that while no one involved could establish firm interpretive control over such vast quantities of fresh materials, that control was desperately desired by the very audiences that had previously provided so much support for the study of ancient civilizations of the Near East. As a result, the specialists, unwilling to make sweeping claims from inconclusive evidence, were divided from their largest readership, the lay readers who longed for the very certainties the specialists could not provide (243-59).

Consistent with his general strategy of d├ętournement, Gange closes his book as he opens it, with a surprising reversal of received wisdom. Just as he views the decipherment of hieroglyphics as a "fruitful anti-climax" to decades of fevered activity, he understands the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb by Howard Carter in 1922 as the culmination of two decades' worth of erosion of British imperial control of Egypt. Although this control had been fairly decisively undone by the revolution in 1919 and the independence movement that soon followed, the events of 1919-1922 "came as a shock to British Egyptologists who continued to favor a naive, obfuscating rhetoric of the unrelation between 'Egyptology' and 'politics'" (271). To contextualize this "shock," Gange must make sense of its belatedness. Why did it take so long for anyone to notice the movement for independence that was afoot? To answer this question, Gange selects a focal text, How to Observe in Archaeology (1921) and uses it as a kind of object lesson that allows us to "see, free from the shadow of Tut, what changed, and what did not in British attitudes between 1900 and 1920" (272).

A guidebook authored by specialists and published by the British Museum, How to Observe in Archaeology attempted to "chivvy [readers] into a roving, information-gathering army" by converting British tourists in the Near East into knowledgeable semi-experts who could be trusted to visit important archaeological sites and to make good archaeological sense of what they found there (272). In contrast to writings about Egypt produced a century earlier, the guidebook had little to say about matters related to religion; nor did the guidebook mention either the massive infrastructure developments, such as the construction of the Aswan Dam, undertaken by the British in Egypt during the first decades of the twentieth century; nor was there any discussion of the 1919 revolution. Instead, the guidebook advised on the practicalities of travel, the ways and means of acquiring antiquities as souvenirs, and the use of photography at sites of archaeological interest. In short, the volume reflected and reinforced the widening gap between expert knowledge and political activity (274-75). If, as Gange believes, the guidebook provides a reliable indication of a significant historical reality, then we can infer that the moral dimension of Egyptological knowledge had disappeared. At the same time, other specialist fields -- geology, anthropology, and perhaps inevitably, eugenics -- were finding fresh and not infrequently unsettling applications in Egypt. (275-276)

Generously studded with surprising facts and suggestive anecdotes, Dialogues with the Dead is a tantalizing work of scholarship that spreads riches before its reader. It is the sort of book that spawns a dozen others. The Scots aspect, for instance, cries out for fuller treatment, starting with George Combe's phrenological ideas of the 1820s and including Egyptian motifs in the writings of James Hogg; an intriguing footnote (on page 6) about Welsh-language encounters with ancient Egypt begs for elaboration; and neglected institutions and organizations like the Syro-Egyptian Society of London are profiled all too briefly. As Gange roams the expanse of Victorian engagement with the ancient Near East, he occasionally overreaches as he attempts to justify his inclusion of some choice tidbit: for example, the ten pages devoted to Troy and Gladstone struck me as hardly worth the candle (141-50), and I thought the five pages devoted to George Smith's decipherment of cuneiform (136-40) added little to David Damrosch's account in The Buried Book (2007), on which the section relied a bit too heavily in any case. But these quibbles should not obscure Gange's substantial achievement: with Dialogues with the Dead, Gange has captured and rendered an impressively wide variety of Victorians' idiosyncratic, often confused, frequently conflicted, and invariably fascinating encounters with the ancient Near East.


Gange, David. Dialogues with the Dead: Egyptology in British Culture and Religion, 1822-1922. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Last modified 1 September 2015