In A World Beneath the Sands, by Toby Wilkerson, we see the sordid, exciting, criminal, exhilarating history of the first 130-ish years of Egyptology. Wilkinson begins with Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition in 1798 and ends with Howard Carter’s opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. In that time period, Wilkinson takes us from days in which European knowledge of ancient Egypt was entirely informed by the bible and semi-accurate accounts from Greek and Roman historians to modern regulations and regimented archaeology. This might sound bland and more academic than most people would want, but I was highly entertained by the anecdotes Wilkinson found to punctuate discussions of translation and digging. I was also highly infuriated at the high-handed and sticky-fingered ways of the early European Egyptologists. I expect most readers will finish this book with the same feelings I did: wonder and irritation in equal measure.
When I think of archaeology, I think of a dirt field with grids stretched across it with string. Brushes, tools, and bits of pottery or stone are strewn around, lying in situ to be photographed and documented before it is whisked away to the labs at a museum. Early archaeology was…very much not that. The earliest Egyptologists were a cross between scholars and graverobbers. Wilkinson’s recounting of their activities often looks like this: European arrives, hires a bunch of local workers, frantically digs up anything that looks interesting, grabbing anything that looks good, and hauling it off to the British Museum, the Louvre, or the Berlin Museum. (It was decades after Napoleon’s expedition that the Cairo Museum was founded and even later that Egyptians were in charge of granting digging concessions.)
There are a few heroes in A World Beneath the Sands, all of them flawed. Jean-François Champollion, who is given credit for translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, was an obsessive who deeply resented anyone stealing his limelight. William Flinders Petrie was one of the first people whose work looked like modern archaeology, but he often worked naked and required everyone to eat tins of more-or-less spoiled food. (In one excerpt from a person who worked with Flinders Petrie, it was rumored that cans were thrown and only eaten if they didn’t explode on contact.) Muhammad Ali was the first independent ruler of Egypt in centuries and did much to modernize Egypt, but he was also a ruthless dictator who instituted the hated corvée system—which took abled bodied men away from their homes to work on labor-intensive, dangerous jobs. There were also quite a few men out there in the sands who were more graverobber than anything else.
I’ve always been interested in the history of different sciences for a lot of reasons. A World Beneath the Sands hit a lot of those reasons. First, ethics always lag behind practice. A lot of crimes can be committed before laws are created to actually make things illegal. Second, everyone is making things up as they go along. The early Egyptologists didn’t have photography; they relied on their own notes and drawings to document their finds—assuming they even bothered to make notes or drawings. Because some of those things are now standard practice, I wonder if there are better ways of doing things or if there are things we’re doing now are causing unforeseen problems. Third, I love getting the context around the big discoveries. We take so many of these discoveries for granted—being able to read hieroglyphics, knowing all the monarchs and dynasties, being able to see Tutankhamun’s funerary mask or Nefertiti’s bust—has me looking at Egyptology in a new light. I knew that a lot of the Egyptian collections in European museums were stolen, but I was astounded at how casual Europeans were about packing things up and shipping them home. On the other hand, I marveled at how Champollion, Thomas Young, and others were able to translate something as challenging as Egyptian languages mostly through sheer determination.
There are some places in A World Beneath the Sands that drag, but I found it to be engaging and terrifically researched. Wilkinson’s history of Egyptology is a fantastic read, partly because the test is full of well-chosen quotes that let the early Egyptologists speak for themselves (only sometimes shoving their sandy shoes in their mouths). Wilkinson also does an excellent job of putting Egyptology into its political context. All of this philology and science and art theft plays out against a constantly shifting background of alliances, betrayals, nationalist sentiments, rebellions, and oppression. I really appreciated that Wilkinson kept reminding me of the plight of ordinary Egyptians, the ones who were doing all the heavy lifting with very little (if any) pay only to see the bulk of what they dug up shipped off to Europe. A World Beneath the Sands was everything that I could have hoped for in a work of historical nonfiction.