The American Discovery of Egypt

By Twair, Pat McDonnell | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 31, 1996 | Go to article overview

The American Discovery of Egypt


Twair, Pat McDonnell, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


The American Discovery of Egypt

By Pat McDonnell Twair

Perhaps the most spectacular archaeological discovery in Egypt came in the 1920s when Britain's Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon opened the sealed tomb of King Tutankhamun. Nonetheless, the true test of archaeology is the slow, meticulous sifting through dirt and detritus to piece together the overall story of a past civilization. Americans have held their own with most European schools of archaeology and, for the first time, their efforts and the objects they have retrieved in Egypt are on view in a major exhibition entitled "The American Discovery of Ancient Egypt." More than 250 items spanning 4,400 years are featured in this show that opened Nov. 5 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Americans excavated rigorously in Egypt for the first three decades of this century. This activity surged in the mid-1960s, when archeologists rushed to excavate and save monuments threatened with inundation upon completion of the Aswan High Dam. Today, there are 42 American expeditions in Egypt. This year's best-known find is Dr. Kent Weeks' recently announced discovery of the tombs of the sons of Ramses II in the Valley of the Kings.

Exquisite pieces of Pharaonic art are in this exhibition, thanks to American archeologists such as George A. Reisner, who unearthed the mortuary temple of King Menkaure, and Herbert E. Winlock, who guided the Metropolitan Museum of Art's excavations at Deir el-Bahri.

In 1919 Winlock, who is regarded as the founding father of American Egyptian archaeology, oversaw the groundbreaking discoveries of Queen Hatshepsut's mortuary temple. He recovered the red granite statue of this woman who was a pharaoh of the mid-18th dynasty--a unique piece in the exhibition because Hatshepsut's nephew, Tuthmosis III, tried to destroy every statue and inscription of his hated aunt after he finally succeeded to the throne.

There was no word for queen (female ruler), only "wife of the king." Hence, when the headstrong Hatshepsut ascended to power, she had herself depicted with the pharaoh's masculine beard. The still intact pinkish stone likeness of her portrays her with a royal beard, but it also reveals a feminine upturned smile and the sharp, narrow nose experts associate with this woman who, it is said, hoped to be succeeded by a dynasty of daughters and granddaughters.

Some of the greatest contributions to Egyptology come from American epigrapher James Henry Breasted, who founded the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and preserved Theban texts and drawings through precise and exacting methods that have set scholarly standards for a century.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator Nancy Thomas has placed a 26th dynasty sarcophagus at the entrance to the exhibition as a symbolic demarcation line between the time antiquities could be purchased by wealthy collectors and when serious archaeology was undertaken by Americans. The sixth century B.C. coffin cover was discovered in 1900 and purchased by American publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

Ubiquitous figurines throughout the exhibition are shawabtis or shabtis, funerary figurines that were essential components of any royal Egyptian burial--judging by their frequency in tombs from 1640 to 30 B. …

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