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Conference Report: Tea with the Sphinx

Many thanks for Eleanor Dobson and Nichola Tonks for the report below on their ‘Tea with the Sphinx’ conference, which BARS helped to support.


Tea with the Sphinx:
Ancient Egypt & the Modern Imagination

Eleanor Dobson & Nichola Tonks

On 23 and 24 September, we held a conference at the University of Birmingham entitled ‘Tea with the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt and the Modern Imagination’.  It was Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 that originally sparked what has come to be known as ‘Egyptomania’, an intense fascination for ancient Egypt that permeated the cultural imagination in the nascent nineteenth century and beyond.  This event, generously supported by BARS, sought to interrogate the ‘waves’ of Egyptomania since this moment, which saw the history and iconography of ancient Egyptian civilisation drawn upon for all varieties of purposes.

The evening before the conference we held a screening of Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932), a film whose narrative tropes might be considered nineteenth-century in origin.  Jane C. Loudon’s The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827) (heavily influenced by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein [1818]) is considered the first modern work to feature a reanimated mummy, presenting an evil Cheops brought back to life by an electric spark.  We might also chart the predecessors of the Egyptologists in The Mummy back to the early nineteenth century: Bonaparte’s expedition involved the production of the multi-volume Description de l’Égypte (1809-1829), and the resultant studies of Egypt’s ancient history and monuments led to the emergence of the scholarly field of Egyptology.

The conference itself was opened by Chris Naunton, whose keynote paper ‘The Popular vs. the Scientific in Egyptology’ emphasised the importance of popularisers over the course of the development of the Egyptological discipline, largely held to have begun at the outset of the nineteenth century.  A number of the papers that followed over the course of the first day spoke to Romantic concerns, tied to a time largely held to be those of Egyptology’s modern origins.  Nichola Tonks’s paper scrutinised tombstones, plans for Egyptian-style burial pyramids and other Egyptianising funerary material culture, bringing to light the ways in which ancient Egypt was woven throughout British burials in the early- to mid-nineteenth century.  Case studies included the burial of Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton, who nurtured a passion for Egyptian antiquities, demonstrated (most eccentrically) by his collection of two Egyptian sarcophagi.  One of these was to become the vessel in which Hamilton was buried (his body was mummified by Thomas Pettigrew who is best known for his high-profile of mummy unwrappings in the 1830s).

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Louise Ellis-Barrett’s paper addressed archival materials relating to ‘the forgotten Father of Egyptology’, John Gardner Wilkinson, who first arrived in Egypt in 1821 (leaving, on this first of a number of visits, in 1833).  Ellis-Barrett showed a number of rarely-seen sketches and notebooks, proposing that drawings featuring an unknown male figure might be a depiction of Wilkinson himself.

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In the afternoon, Nickianne Moody’s paper on girls’ comics tied back to the nineteenth-century material addressed by other speakers earlier in the day.  Moody demonstrated the origins of certain Egyptian tropes in the nineteenth century, including elements of the phantasmagoria popularised by the likes of Étienne-Gaspard Robert, whose projections were often accompanied by Egyptian iconography and material (‘Ægyptiana’).  Moody also identified the connection between showmanship and Egypt as embodied by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, whose Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations, in Egypt & Nubia (1820) presents the explorer as a hero penetrating particularly Gothic landscapes.

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The second day of the conference began with a panel on mummies. Angelia Stienne’s paper explored the transformation of Egyptian mummies from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries at the hands of individuals who shaped and transformed the mummy’s materiality and reception.  Stienne investigated groups of individuals with common backgrounds in the medical and natural sciences who physically engaged with the mummy in the form of medical dissections, autopsies and private and public unrollings.  Her analysis incorporated individuals to whom delegates were introduced on the first day of the conference, such as Thomas Pettigrew.

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In the afternoon, Howard Carlton spoke on a number of pseudo-Masonic rites which were developed on the basis of somewhat tenuous connections with ancient Egyptian rituals and supposedly recovered esoteric knowledge, from the mid-eighteenth century onwards.  Early versions of the connection can be seen, Carlton demonstrated, in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute (1791) and the mysterious, or possibly counterfeit, form of ‘Count Cagliostro’ and his ‘Rite of Egyptian Freemasonry’.  Such neo-Egyptian rituals were initially popular in France and Italy, but subsequently found echoes in British and American circles.  The trend was naturally strengthened by the discoveries of French archaeologists during the Napoleonic Wars and the subsequent decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Champollion.  Carlton’s presentation explored the genesis of this phenomenon and sought to interrogate the reasons why the mythology and mysteries of ancient Egypt proved to be of such great and abiding interest to would be ‘seekers after the truth’ in both Europe and America.

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The final panel of the conference explored representations of Cleopatra VII Thea Neotera Philopater.  Bridget Sandhoff noted that Cleopatra is one of the most misunderstood but widely-known historical figures; few authentic facts survive about her life, and those facts that do survive provide contradictory reports about the last Ptolemaic ruler.  In Egypt, she was a beloved savior and goddess, but the Romans vilified her as a wanton seductress.  Sandhoff demonstrated that Roman writings dominate history and have tainted Cleopatra’s visual legacy for centuries, exploring the myth of Cleopatra promulgated by the Romans, especially Augustan invective, which has served as the source for most visual depictions of the Egyptian queen.  Through analyzing how Roman notions of Cleopatra have been used over time, paying particular attention to the nineteenth century, Sandhoff proposed that twentieth-century depictions take a more balanced view of Cleopatra than any century prior.  They do, however, fall victim to the Roman characterization of her as a sexually voracious queen, who seduces anyone for her own gain.

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The conference was closed by David Gange, whose monograph Dialogues with the Dead: Egyptology in British Culture and Religion, 1822-1922 addresses the close intertwinement of religion and Egyptology from the early nineteenth century to the opening decades of the twentieth.  Gange emphasised the interdisciplinary importance of the event, which brought together scholars from history, art history, literary studies, Egyptology, archaeology and museum studies.  Sharing methodologies and disciplinary insights had been one of the highlights of the conference, as well as the identification of overlaps between approaches that came to light.  What the conference has surely demonstrated is a burgeoning scholarly interest in the reception of ancient Egypt across disciplines, which, if it is encouraged and nurtured, will succeed in uniting these fields in a truly interdisciplinary manner.  It is through this kind of collaboration that we might carve out and define a new field.

For more on ‘Tea with the Sphinx’, visit the conference Twitter account, Storify, or the Histories of Archaeology Network website, where a series of blog posts detailing the conference are being uploaded over the coming weeks.