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Library display case Queen's College

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Ancient Egyptian at Queen's

 

For Peter Neumann

 

The Queen’s College has a long association with the study of Ancient Egyptian, beginning with Francis Llewellyn Griffith, a Fellow of Queen’s and the first Professor of Egyptology at Oxford (1924–1932), who worked on both texts and archaeology. In 1939 the Griffith Institute was founded in his memory, and it remains at the heart of the subject in Oxford (http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/). This display explores the contributions made to the study of Ancient Egyptian texts by some college members.

Thomas Eric Peet (Reader and Professor designate of Egyptology 1933–1934) was notable for studying Ancient Egypt in its own terms with what Clare Lewis has termed an ‘anti-presentist’ approach. He worked in an interdisciplinary manner, and his study of the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (c. 1550 BC) drew on both his own mathematical training and his exchanges with Otto Neugebauer, a historian of astronomy and mathematics, as can be seen in their correspondence recently discovered by Christopher Hollings and pictured below. [1, 2]

 

Peet, like many of his successors, was appreciative of Queen’s for being ‘most kind to me in every way’, and he is commemorated in the college by the Peet Library, a collection of Egyptology books donated by Sir Alan Gardiner (1879–1963), pictured below [3]. This contains many early publications from the early years of Egyptology, including works by Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) who deciphered the hieroglyphic script, enabling Ancient Egyptian to be read for the first time since antiquity. Champollion worked from copies of inscriptions and from monuments that had been removed to Europe, but he visited Egypt in the late 1820s—the first time a reader had experienced this inscribed landscape for many centuries. His letters home to his brother were later published, giving a vivid record of his first impressions of Egypt itself. [4]

Gardiner was a philologist who had studied Classics, Hebrew and Arabic at Queen’s (1897–1906). As a scholar of independent means, he never needed an academic post at Oxford (Honorary Fellow of Queen’s 1930–1963), but he worked internationally and contributed generously to many projects, including the recording of Theban tombs by the artists Norman and Nina de Garis Davies [5]. 

He also financed the development of a hieroglyphic font based on their drawings, to enable Oxford University Press to print his great Egyptian grammar. Below are the original watercolours produced by de Garis Davies. [6,7,8]

 

The watercolours were used as the basis for typeface vectors, shown below. [9,10]

Excerpts from Hieroglyphic Printing Type [11] and Gardiner's Egyptian Grammar. [12]

Ancient texts in living contexts

The Czech scholar Jaroslav Černý (Professor of Egyptology 1951–1965) [13], specialised in the cursive everyday ‘hieratic’ script of ancient Egypt. [14]

Following the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, he worked on the hieratic texts there, including the labels written on the king’s boxes and containers; his research notes and the final publication benefitted from the influence of Gardiner. [15,16,17]

Černý is, however, best known for his research on the New Kingdom community of craftsmen who created the tombs in the Valley of the Kings (c. 1300­–1100 BC). [18]

A combination of texts, artefacts and archaeology make this village one of the best-documented communities from the ancient world. Černý’s published works and his archive in the Griffith Institute remain a fundamental resource for subsequent scholars, such as Andrea McDowell, who continue to investigate the lived experiences of this community through their own words and artefacts. [19]

Oxford Egyptology has continued to embed Ancient Egyptian texts in their material, social and cultural contexts through the anthropologically minded scholarship of John Baines (Professor of Egyptology 1976–2013). The current Associate Professor of Egyptology at Oxford, Elizabeth Frood, [20], heads part of an international project in the New Kingdom temple complex of Karnak, recording graffiti left by priests and temple visitors in order to explore these sacred spaces as living environments. An example of her work can be seen below. [21]

In a similar contextualising manner, the current chair, Richard Bruce Parkinson, is continuing Gardiner’s work on the Middle Kingdom poem The Life of Sinuhe, using performances by actress and author Barbara Ewing [22] as a means of re-imagining the emotional impact that the words might once have had on their original Egyptian audiences around 1850 BC.