The Museum in the Field

Originally Published in 1979

View PDF

“To be a good (archaeological) finder one needs a peculiar quality which is not altogether erudition—the hog which is most lucky at finding truffles is not always the fattest, best eating hog—on the contrary.”

Sara Yorke Stevenson

Sara Stevenson’s sense of humor, of which the above is a good example, enlivens her correspondence and publications. The two ‘hogs’ she referred to were well known to her, being the distinguished Egyptologists Flinders Petrie and Edouard Neville. She hastened to tell her correspondent that “I beg these gentlemen’s pardon for the homely simile,” but the incongruity between it and their late Victorian dignity must have amused her. Equally typically, her remarks had a serious point. Petrie had just been replaced by Neville as the excavator far the Egypt Exploration Fund, from whose excavations the Museum at that time obtained most of its Egyptian antiquities in return for the financial support it provided the Fund. “My private opinion is that the … Fund . , . has made a great blunder in parting with Petrie,” she wrote; “his successor has not his ‘nose.’ ” Irresistibly, the simile of the hogs followed.

Mrs. Stevenson’s concern was natural. From 1889 to 1905 she devoted much of her formidable talents and energy to both the development of the Museum as a whole and its Egyptian Section in particular. The vigor, adaptability and perseverance, tempered with tact and good humor, that she brought to these tasks characterized her life as a whole. Her background was unusually varied. Born of American parents in Paris in 1847, she spent most of her first fifteen years there and, while enjoying a sociable life, first became interested in antiquities and research into them. By 1862 her family had settled in Mexico, where she joined them and lived for five years during the turbulent reign of the Frenchimposed “Emperor” Maximilian. Subsequently the family moved to Vermont, but in 1868 Sara Yorke, as she was then,—aged 21—went to Philadelphia andsettled in with some aged relatives, of whom she was very fond, The ancestors of her father, Edward Yorke, had settled in Pennsylvania in 1728. Her pleasures in Philadelphia included a regular “evening supper of oranges, nuts, crackers, cheese, beer and port with the blind uncle, with whom she swapped stories until late each night, thus forming her habit of late hours” (Sara Yorke Stevenson, A Tribute from the Civic Club of Philadelphia, 1922, 10).

In 1870 Sara Yorke married a Philadelphia attorney, Cornelius Stevenson, and while maintaining an active social life—”much as society people do today,” her obituarist in 1922 somewhat tartly remarked, “but with more decorum and better manners” (op, cit. 10)—in a few years she became deeply involved with the city’s civic, philanthropic and educational affairs, an involvement which lasted until shortly before her death in 1921. In 1905 she had severed her connection with the University Museum (then the “Free Museum of Science and Art”) and three years later, when her family’s financial situation deteriorated. Mrs, Stevenson had, with characteristic aplomb and resilience, augmented its income by becoming literary editor and columnist—”Peggy Shipper’s Diary, a Chronicle of Events”—for the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Her newspaper work continued until 1920, as did a curatorship in the Pennsylvania Museum at Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park, (now the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and many other activities, including strong participation in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1921, some months before her death, she was publicly honored by prominent Philadelphians and she herself gave a luncheon for many friends, some of fifty years, duration or more. On the place cards was inscribed her motto: “Why not tell the truth with a smile?”

Mrs, Stevenson’s vital role in the founding and development of the University Museum is described elsewhere (see pp. 33 if). Here we are concerned with her cura torship of the Egyptian and Mediterranean Section from 1890 to 1905. As curator, Mrs Stevenson had two main ambitions, in the first of which she was ultimately unsuccessful, She had hoped that the Museum could establish its own fieldwork in Egypt, through the agency of the American Exploration Society a group of wealthy individuals of whom she was one, who ha( been organized to fund Museum expeditions to the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt, No doubt they were inspired by the Museum’s successful expedition of 1889-1900 to Nippur in Iraq. The problem—which turned out to be insurmountable—was to engage a competent excavator,
As we have seen, Mrs, Stevenson’s first choice, Rasher, was a failure, but while in Egypt in 1898 she made other contacts. Edouard Neville suggested that he excavate for the Society the important funerary temple of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep (ca. 2060-2010 B.C,) at Dear el Bahri. This XIth Dynasty king had reunited Egypt after a period of conflict and civil war and had inaugurated a cultural renaissance.

Nothing came of the idea. Mrs. Stevenson also tried to get James Quibell, a Petrie ‘trainee,’ to excavate for the Society while maintaining his position with the Antiquities Organisation, but his superiors forbade it. In Quibeli the Museum would have had a man who was not only (and continued to be) a successful and ‘lucky’ excavator, but one renowned for his geniality and shrewd good humor, Later, according to one story (perhaps, like all the best stories, apocryphal), when the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb during the 1920’s had created tensions which provoked the archaeological supervisor of the work, Howard Carter, who was a fierce-tempered man, to stalk off the site and retire sulking into his hotel room in Luxor, Quibell was instrumental in persuading him to return to the excavations where his expertise was essential to the work. They were good friends and Quibell’s cable from Cairo, “Dear Carter, I hear you have thrown down your bucket and spade and refused to play,” helped to restore his sense of perspective.

For a brief and, to us, in retrospect, exciting period it looked as if the Museum and Reisner, then beginning his career, might join forces. Mrs. Stevenson met Reisner in 1898 and was initially not enthusiastic; he had not yet gained any field experience (although he was determined to do so) and she thought him over partial to the development of German Egyptological fieldwork. Reisner did have strong professional and emotional ties with Germany; his grandfather was one of Napoleon’s German soldiers and Reisner himself had been trained by German Egyptologists, who were (and are) amongst the best in the world. But he was also a thoroughgoing American, who was born in Indianapolis in 1807, raised and educated in the United States, and devoted his long career from its outset to the promotion of American Egyptology. In fact, Reisner’s German ties eventually became traumatic for him. His long-time assistant and colleague flows Dunham records that in 1914, when war broke out, Reisner spent “hours pacing up and down in his office … weighing such evidence as he could gather as to the rights and wrongs of the war. Then, at last, after many days of anguished thought, he made his decision, perhaps the hardest of his life. I remember the tears welling out of his eyes as he expressed his judgement that the Allies were in the right and his decision to take that side, which meant for him the breaking of old ties and friendships,” (flows Dunham, Recollections of an Egyptologist, 15.)

Despite Mrs. Stevenson’s initial hesitation she was soon in correspondence with Reisner. Mrs. Phoebe Hearst, a prominent and very wealthy member of the American Exploration Society, had become his patrol and in 1899 he sent Mrs. Stevenson a list sites, one of which he might excavate for the Society, Unfortunately, Mrs. Hearst soon after left the Society and decided to support Egyptian fieldwork for the Univer sity of California, with Reisner as its excavator. Later, in 1905, Reisner formed the association with Harvard and The Boston Museum of Fine Arts which was to last for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, from time to time he generously responded to requests for advice from the University Museum, which also, in various ways, has periodically had indirect contacts with his work, as when it employed his former assistants Fisher and Rowe, and now through the Pennsylvania-Yale Expedition to Giza (see page 60),
In her other ambition as curator Mrs. Stevenson was outstandingly successful. She wanted to build up a collection of excavated material, of works of art and objects that would be thoroughly representative of all periods and regions of ancient Egypt. In fact, she ensured a steady flow into the Museum of items which were not only representative, but not infrequently of outstanding historical or aesthetic value, by encouraging the support by the American Exploration Society (see page 17), of the Egypt Exploration Fund, a society founded in England by Amelia Edwards (another charming but formidable lady] and others to promote scientific excavation in Egypt. In return for its financial support the Museum, through the American Exploration Society, received an often substantial share of each year’s finds.

Mrs. Stevenson always maintained good relations with the Egypt Exploration Fund and its excavators, relations based on a combination of her genuine respect for scholarship and her diplomatic skills. A series of letters in the Museum archives in the characteristically (to those who have consulted his field notebooks) execrable hand of Petrie reveal that Mrs. Stevenson was particularly successful with this prickly genius, Petrie often complained that some museums failed to appreciate the material sent them from his excavations and Mrs, Stevenson noted that many people thought Petrie was, while unique, “almost impossible to get along with and full of angles,” meaning of course his personality was rather rugged, not devious! But her letters to him were genuinely and warmly respectful as well as diplomatically flattering. “You are,” she told him, “the father of our (Egyptian) department—for to you we owe all that we are and have.” Petrie was appreciative and ensured that the Museum benefited in the allotment of his very important finds.

Mrs. Stevenson then had succeeded in firmly linking the University Museum to what was, despite its faults, one of the most innovative and fruitful phases in Egyptologists fieldwork. During this phase the full dimensions of the ancient Egyptian cultural experience began to emerge for the first time, This experience, insofar as it can be reconstructed, has been described in a variety of ways by writers on Egypt, but to bring out the significance of the Museum’s contribution to our understanding of that experience we must emphasize certain points and themes. All attempts at reconstructing Egyptian history and culture are necessarily incomplete, because so little data is available as compared to what existed, or even to the data that has survived but still awaits excavation or recording. However, attempts at reconstruction must be made and, if they are to convey the depth and texture of the ancient culture, must make fullest possible use of both the available textual and archaeological data, Each partially compensates for important gaps in the other.

We must also try to see Egypt, at any period, as a whole and not become over-influenced by the impression conveyed by a few major or comparatively well explored sites. In fact, three major themes provide a usefully broad frame of reference in trying to understand the nature and development of Egyptian history and culture, and the Museum’s role in contributing to that understanding. The first theme is that of the royal centers at which resided the royal dynasties which governed Egypt throughout the last three millennia B.C. During the long periods of stability and national unity in Egyptian history these royal centers enjoyed great human and economic resources and were responsible for major social, intellectual, artistic and technological advances.

However, a second theme—that of the provinces—is equally important. Ancient Egypt consisted of a series of regions, each subtly different in geography from the others, while overlying the regions was a second pattern of historically significant divisions, the ‘names,’ or provincial political units. During periods of political stability provincial resources were vigorously exploited by the royal centers, while provincial society was strongly influenced by the cultural and artistic modes of the centers. When, during periods of national disunity, the royal centers weakened, the provinces asserted varying degrees of political independence, and considerable cultural and artistic variety developed throughout the country, Our third theme is that of the towns, which linked the royal centers and the provinces. At any historical period there was a network of such towns, consisting of a tiny number of national capitals and a much larger number of provincial towns. In our terms, even the largest of these towns must have been comparatively small, for the total population of ancient Egypt probably never exceeded four or five millions; but they were the physical foci and expression of those concentrations of people and resources which were the foundations of the major advances at the centers and the innovations and experiments in the provinces.

By becoming a major sponsor of the Egypt Exploration Fund and, later, of a second organization, the British School of Archaeology in Egypt (founded by Petrie), the University Museum was one of the institutions responsible for a rich documentation of these themes. This sponsorship was strongest from 1890 to 1907, but was periodically revived (1913-15, 1924) when the Museum’s own Egyptian field-work slackened. The aims and methods of Petrie and those he trained and employed were innovative and ambitious. Petrie’s basic aim was to reconstruct, by combining textual and well-documented archaeological data, the totality of Egyptian society, “weaving,” as he wrote in 1885, “a history out of scattered evidence using all material of inscriptions, objects, positions and probabilities.” (W. M, F, Petrie, 70 Years in Archaeology, 113.) He and his followers therefore worked at sites in many different parts of Egypt and paid as much attention to the remains of the middle and lower classes as to those of the elite.

Of course, the results often failed to live up to the ideal, What in fact was attempted was a vast sampling technique, in which hopefully representative elements of sites were examined but others, sometimes equally important, were overlooked, The pace of the work was intense, partly because Petrie had early become afraid that much vital information was being lost as sites were affected by the expanding agricultural system or ransacked by antiquities dealers, and as a result, field techniques of excavation and recording, even as practiced by Petrie himself, often failed to meet his own standards. Publication was rapid, in order to make data available to Egyptologists in general, but much important detail was omitted; and Petrie’s followers failed to attempt the substantial interpretive studies required if their work was to have the scholarly impact it deserved, Petrie himself wrote voluminously on Egyptian history and culture, sometimes with great insight but often with a superficiality or dogmatism which lessened the value of his work.
Nevertheless, the fundamental effects of Petrie and his ‘school’ were extremely positive. His comprehensive approach to the study of ancient Egypt has made an ineradicable impression upon the work of later generations of Egyptologists, and he himself applied to the data powerful analytical methods the more developed uses of which are only now becoming fully apparent. A striking example is his method of ‘sequence dating’ or establishing a relative chronology for artifacts found in both prehistoric and historic cemeteries; out-lined by Petrie in 1901, sequence dating was the first step toward the more sophisticated techniques now being applied very successfully to Egyptian material. Petrie also set the precedent for the orderly classification of the many categories of ancient Egyptian artifacts and for the study of their historical and cultural significance. This classification was based in large part upon the enormous masses of data recovered by his and others’ fieldwork, much of which data came to the University Museum.

The geographical range of the sites with which the Museum was indirectly involved is immediately seen on the map (Figs. 19, 20), while chronologically all periods were covered, from prehistoric to Roman and Christian times, To Petrie and his followers Egyptian history and culture was a continuum, and although they concentrated on pre-Hellenistic sites they did not neglect later material when circumstances made it avallable to them. The characters of the sites were also very varied. Cemetery sites were frequent (about 30 in all), representing many provinclal areas as well as royal centers like Giza and Meydum. Some temple sites (about 14) were excavated, as were a large number (13) of town or settlement sites. The excavation and study of the latter were often inadequate by modern standards, but reflect an appreciation of the importance of urban archaeology in Egypt, which was to largely disappear in the forties and fifties and has only begun to revive in recent years.

Only a few of the many sites involved can be singled out for specific reference. At Naqada and Ballads, Petrie found vast pre-historic cemeteries enabling him to reconstruct the character and chronology of Egyptian culture in preliterate (i.e. before 3100 B,C.) times, while at Hierakonpolis Quibell and Green explored one of the earliest of the royal centers, a late prehistoric Early Dynastic town yielding extraordinary works of art, Subsequently Petrie excavated at Abydos the tombs of Egypt’s earliest historic kings—those of Dynasty I—and documented the rise of historic civilization in Egypt. At Kahun Petrie discovered a Middle Kingdom (ca. 1890-1700 B,C.) town, and studied the social stratification revealed in its carefully Iaid out plan and the associated artifacts, He also spent several seasons at Memphis, an immensely complicated site which was a royal center or northern capital from ca. 3100 to about 300 B.C. Finally, we should note that the Museum was a sponsor of excavations at Naukratis, a town which was the earliest Greek settlement in Egypt (ca. 7th century B,C.) and received important papyri on administrative and religious matters from the Graeco-Roman towns at Oxyrynchus and El Hibeb, The greater part of the extraordinary range of materials received by the Museum as a result of these and other excavations arrived during the curatorship of Mrs, Stevenson.

David Randall MacIver and an Extraordinary Province

In 1905 Sara Yorke Stevenson, then president of the Museum’s Board of Managers, resigned all her Museum positions, apparently to express disagreement with the Board’s handling of a famous dispute about Hilprecht, Curator of the Babylonian Section, By then Mrs, Stevenson and her colleagues had firmly established the viability of the Museum and during the next five years it rapidly evolved. The number of archaeological and ethnographic expeditions was increasing, while an expanding collection and staff were not only outgrowing the building constructed in 1889; but required a more coherent administrative system. In 1910 Eckley Brinton Coxe, Jr, became President of the Board; C, C. Harrison, formerly the University’s Provost, became chairman of a building committee; and an energetic, formidable Canadian, George Byron Gordon, was appointed Director. The Museum now “took on the exciting air of the seat of a storied empire,” as Percy Maderia, Jr. aptly put it, (Men in Search of Man, 30); but like all empires it first encountered vigorous opposition from satraps who had flourished under an earlier, looser regime. Hilprecht clashed with Gordon, went on leave in 1910 ‘defiantly taking the keys of the Babylonian Section with him” (op. chit., 27)—and retired in 1911, The same year Maclver, the Museum’s first professional Egyptologist, appointed a curator only six years earlier, concluded a feud with Gordon by not seeking reappointment,
Before this unhappy break David Randall Maciver had established the Museum as a major excavator in Egypt, following the innovative trends already evident in its earlier association with Petrie, Coxe. an Egyptological enthusiast, had provided funds for a curatorial staff and excavations, and in Maciver the Museum found an archaeologist of unusually broad and adventurous interests. He was a handsome and charming man who had excavated in Egypt since 1899, in association with Petrie’s group; but had also surveyed the archaeology of Algeria and, in 1905, worked at the famous Central African monument of Zimbabwe. MacIver demonstrated that Zimbabwe’s earliest structures dated to medieval and not, as many argued, to Phoenician or earlier times; and were built by indigenous Africans not intrusive and ‘superior’ foreigners, a conclusion unacceptable to many at the time.

Maclver had phenomenal energy and ambition and, since he was responsible for both Egyptian and Mediterranean antiquities, first proposed a five year program of excavation in Egypt or Nubia (1907-1908), of megalithic remains in Algeria (1907-1908), and of sites in Cyprus or Spain (1909-1911). In fact all Maciver’s Museum excavations (1907-191p) were in Lower Nubia, a region then largely unknown archaeologically but of great potential interest, Prominent Egyptologists such as Reisner, Junker and Griffith were becoming interested in it and Maclver’s sense of adventurous scholarship was roused. In 1907 he noted that apart from a few still visible Egyptian temples “nothing is known of the country at all” and whatever he discovered he was sure would be “of quite a new character.” MacIver’s prediction was correct, but even after he had started work Coxe and Gordon (whose position as Director was then crystallizing, although not yet formalized) must have found it alarmingly difficult to keep their new curator’s enthusiasm confined to Nubia.

During that first year in Nubia, Maciver discovered a rich provincial culture with strong connections with Late Roman and Byzantine Egypt and initiated the first comprehensive study of some of the well preserved Nubian brick churches which had survived from the medieval period. The same year he saw for the first time the Byzantine churches and fortresses of Turkey and Greece and, afire with enthusiasm, linked them with characteristic boldness to his current work in Nubia. Maciver argued there was “a straight line through from Pagan Nubia of the 1st century before Christ to Gothic churches of the 15th century” and proposed that he, on the Museum’s behalf, “should launch out on a great historical study of medieval Greece, especially of the medieval architecture and in so doing lay the foundations of an historical-architectural department in our Museum such as no other institution has attempted,” Maciver sensed that his superiors might be a little taken aback by these bold schemes and joked to Gordon, “unless you intend to get a mighty great new Museum built you had better not get more like me into it, for the present building will not hold so many.” In fact, ‘the Byzantine scheme’ was not to their liking, but it took Gordon what he perhaps euphemistically described as “a good many talks” before Maciver could be persuaded to drop it.

Maclver was thus forced to channel his energies into the Nubian work, through which—with substantial assistance from Woolley who had been appointed Assistant Curator—he contributed significantly to several areas of knowledge, What made Lower Nubia a most unusual province of ancient Egypt was its frontier position between Egypt and other important African groups, which made it the setting for strong cultural interactions between the two, Moreover, conditions of preservation were unusually good and MacIver, who liked to excavate settlements as well as cemeteries, considerably enhanced our knowledge of Egyptian urbanism and its effect upon the indigenous Nubians, The lower Nubian population was apparently always ethnically and linguistically different from the Egyptian, but in ancient and medieval times Egypt periodically sought control of the region to secure a southern frontier and exploit Nubia’s trade routes and natural resources (especially gold). Maclver and Woolley were amongst the earliest recorders of a fascinating pattern in which indigenous Nubian cultures maintained distinctive characteristics for long periods, but were often strongly influenced—and sometimes totally swamped—by Egyptian culture. Reisner in 1907-1908 demonstrated that this pattern went well back into prehistoric times, but Maclver concentrated on the historic period as represented at several sites.

For example, in 1907-1908 he excavated a settlement of the ‘Regroup,’ the indigenous Lower Nubian culture from ca. 2290 B.C. onwards. This settlement clearly reflected the increasing influence of Egyptian architectural norms upon the C-group, and only one other C-group settlement of comparable size has ever been excavated. On a much larger scale was the great Egyptian fortress town at Buhen, which dated to the Middle and New Kingdoms (ca. 2000-1000 B,C.). Two seasons were spent at Buhen, one of the best preserved examples of ancient military architecture in the Near East, and much data of great historical value was collected. Maclver was over sanguine about the completeness of the excavation; a subsequent British expeditlon spent eight profitable seasons on the site! The full implications of the material found by Maciver in the town and nearby cemeteries, together with the British material, are emerging only today and show that in the later Middle Kingdom a permanent Egyptian colony (instead of the rotated garrisons of Dynasty KII) developed at Buhen, Like others in Nubia, this provincial town grew wealthy as it capitalized upon the growing weakness of the Egyptian royal centers at the time, but eventually it fell under the control of an intrusive Kushite (Upper Nubian) Kingdom which exploited the expertise of the Egyptians. Later, in the New Kingdom, Buhen did again come under the rule of Egypt proper. Only one other of the many Egyptian fortresses in Nubia (Mirgissa) has been as historically revealing as Buhen.

MacIver’s single greatest achievement however was one not fully acknowledged in recent histories of Lower Nubia, the literal discovery of its Meroitic culture. He fully realized the importance of the discovery—he and Woolley, he wrote, had given “to the history of southern Egypt a new chapter”—and the main conclusions he reached in his pioneer study of Meroitic Nubia are, with a few exceptions, the same as those of more recent researchers with much more material at their disposal. The Meroitic Nubians occupied southern Lower Nubia from the second to the fourth centuries A.. and lived in substantially built brick towns and villages, parts of one of which Woolley excavated. They were politically linked to the great Meroitic kingdom of the Sudan, and were dominated locally by rulers living in a few major fortified towns. From the cemeteries of Shahlul and Karanog MacIver recovered hundreds of artifacts, revealing an extra-ordinary amalgam of local, Meroitic, Egyptian, and Hellenistic-Roman influences, the range of which he demonstrated while at the same time remaining sensitive to the originality of this regional culture. In important areas of his material and intellectual culture MacIver considered the “Nubian less of a copyist than an adapter; he stamped his borrowings with his proper genius and evolved something which at any rate had the merit of originality.”

William Kelly Simpson and Later Work in Nubia

Today, many years later, Nubia has disappeared beneath the waters of the new Aswan High Dam reservoir, but the University Museum did have an important role in the great salvage campaign of the 1960’s which preceded the construction of that reservoir. Froelich Rainey, then Director of the Museum, was a leading participant in the securing of United States support for the international collaboration with the Egyptian government that saved the famous temples of Abu Simbel for posterity. Simultaneously, a University Museum-Yale University expedition, directed by William Kelly Simpson of Yale, excavated several sites which recalled MacIver’s pioneering work, Parts of important Christian and earlier settlements were excavated and a number of important Meroitic inscriptions recovered. Perhaps most striking was the discovery of the tomb of an Egyptianized Nubian chieftain, Hekanefer, of the 14th century B.C.; although known to be a Nubian, he was depicted as an Egyptian and followed Egyptian customs. In 1910 Maclver had discovered at Buhen statuettes of a similiarly Egyptianized chief, Amenemhat (15th century B,C.), although their significance was not realized until later.

Clarence Fisher: An Unknown Achievement

Coxe’s enthusiasm for Egyptological research remained undimmed after Maclver’s departure and in 1914 Gordon recruited a new Egyptian Curator, Clarence Stanley Fisher. Fisher spent most of the next nine years in the field, accomplishing an enormous amount of work of which much was of major significance, yet his career with the Museum was, in a professional sense, a tragic one. He began under favorable auspices; Petrie thought highly of him and Reisner, for whom he had worked, believed Fisher had the ability and opportunity to become “the most important archaeologist in Egypt.” But when Fisher left the Museum in 1925 all his major work was—and still is—unpublished and his achievements are so poorly known that he is assigned an undeservedly peripheral place in the history of American Egyptology.

Fisher’s advantages included a supportive Museum Director, a generous endowment left for Egyptological research by Coxe when he died in 1916 and a favorable environment for foreign archaeological activity in Egypt. The causes of his problems can only be guessed at, but were to some degree rooted in his very merits as a person and an archaeologist. Fisher was very experienced in the field, and had a special orientation to architectual recording and history. He graduated as an architect from the University of Pennsylvania in 1897, worked with the Nippur expedition from 1897 to 1900, and subsequently assisted Reisner in Egypt and at Samaria in Palestine. From Reisner he learnt good field techniques and elaborate if time consuming methods of recording and documentation, but found difficulty in bringing his results into a publishable form, This was partly due to the pressure of an intense excavation schedule, but also reflected Reisner’s influence and Fisher’s own limitations. Reisner liked to analyze his material in elaborate and sometimes numbing detail before publication, which meant that excavation and publication were typically far apart in time. Fisher’s only important Egyptological publication—on a minor cemetery at Giza came out in 1924, nine years after the excavation. It is an excellent record of data and of architectual interpretation, but is not a major piece of archaeological scholarship; Fisher lacked Reisner brilliance and had never received any formal Egyptological\ training.

Fisher was to a degree a good organizer, and had a sound and well-informed concept of the needs of Egyptian archaeology; sites representative of all periods of Egyptian history should be systematically excavated “on thoroughly scientific lines,” the extant temples carefully recorded and a “corpus of all existing Egyptian archaeological material” should be prepared, being made useful for ready reference by means of card index systems. However, he devised research schedules which eventually proved too much for his health and personal equilibrium. Punishing schedules were not unusual then, as Petrie, Reisner and others worked long seasons with what to us seems tiny staffs, but Fisher’s efforts were excessive. From 1915 to 1919 he worked each year at two major sites, moving from Memphis to Dendereh when the water table became uncomfortably high at the former. Later, his plans verged on the fantastic; in 1919-20 he proposed to Gordon that he be responsible for excavations in Egypt, Palestine and Babylonia and, in fact, from 1921 to 1923, Fisher did alternate between Memphis and Dra abu el Naga in Egypt and Beth Shan in Palestine.

Fisher’s health was seriously affected by his work load in 1919, and began to break down again in the early twenties. The physical strain was further exacerbated by his tendency to become involved in emotionally draining disputes. In 1922, for example, Fisher complained to Gordon that his field assistant Greenlees (recommended by the eminent Egyptologist Francis Llewellyn Griffith) “is very young and inexperienced and has pronounced Bolsheviki ideas. These views make him assert an independence of all authority.

I have tried to help him but he has a habit of pointless criticism which is most annoying,” Queried by Gordon, Griffith wrote: “Neither my wife nor I can conceive of Greenlees (who had been Griffith’s student) having or expressing Bolsheviki views or anything bordering on insubordination unless someone or something has driven him to a state of lunacy! Has he been working too hard?” The exchanges read like passages from a Wodehouse novel, but the problem was a real one. Reisner had noted years earlier that Fisher was “liable to error where his persona! feelings are concerned” and Fisher in fact during his career quarreled too often and too seriously—with Reisner, Petrie and several of his own assistants—to have been always in the right.

Inevitably, Fisher and Gordon also had a major falling out, For many years Gordon was sympathetic to Fisher and appreciative of his fieldwork, although, as a director devoted to increasing the Museum’s collections and its public educational role, he sometimes grew restive at Fisher’s long absence in the field, Subsequently, Gordon became increasingly concerned about Fisher’s problems with his subordinates and at the same time expressed increasing impatience at Fisher’s inability to produce, after 1919, the major monumental art works with which Gordon wished to embellish his expanded Museum. In 1925 Fisher, who had then been back at the Museum some time, quarreled with Gordon and resigned, taking up what appears to have been a happier and, in terms of publication, more productive archaeological career in Palestine.

The vicissitudes of Fisher’s career however should not detract from his very real achievements in Egyptology, which we hope will in time be fully published and appreciated.

Fisher had a strong interest in the archaeology of the people living in ancient Egypt, as well as that of the gods and the dead; urban and settlement sites attracted him as much as temples and cemeteries, His director, Gordon, was not unsympathetic t• an interest in the less pretentious aspects of ancient Egyptian culture. In 1916 he publicly stated that no “object, however humble, is without significance in the reconstruction of the past” as attempted in the Museum’s exhibits (The Museum Journal, VII, 2, 85]. However, at the same time Gordon made it clear that major monuments were also desired, for the “might of Egypt” must be represented in the Museum by “sculptured stone and hammered bronze” (bid. 86). Fortunately, in Egypt urban sites typically included monumental temples and palaces, and Fisher, having first applied for the ancient town mound of Tanis (which turned out t• be reserved for the French] and considered that of Sais, another major Delta site, finally settled on Memphis, The results met both his and Gordon’s expectations, although Fisher’s other choices of sites were less productive in monuments and contributed to the final break with Gordon, Fisher, perhaps the only Egyptologist who had previous experience working on the complex town mounds of Mesopotamia, was not put off by the similar, equally difficult town-sites of Egypt, Memphis was a major challenge to the excavator and, since no visible major temple complex like that of Karnak at Thebes had survived, had generally been avoided by Egyptologists. Petrie alone had carried out serious excavations there (1909-1913) with results which were very variable in quality, Memphis is enormous in size, It was for millennia a major royal center, having been founded perhaps at the opening of Dynasty I (ca. 3100] and having re-mained of great importance into Roman times. Its history, in terms of periodically rebuilt temple complexes and the build-up of overlying town strata, was very complex while the site itself lay in the cultivation and was surrounded and partly covered by fields, villages and date palm plantations. The water table lay not far below the surface and has always been a serious problem for excavators.

Despite these difficulties, Fisher was very successful, From 1915 to 1920 he uncovered the remains of a large (over 3000 square meters) mud-brick palace of the pharaoh Merneptah (ca. 1236-1223 B.C.) and totally cleared a large area of stratified ancient town remains running over the palace ruins and surrounding them on every side. These perhaps comprise the largest segment of complex and stratified ancient Egyptian town remains ever excavated in a systematic and well recorded way. Fisher’s architectural recording was of high quality and his aim was “to take the strata in their order and not destroy anything (ice, without adequate recording) no matter how unimportant it may seem at the time.” The chief limitations of his results are that, like other excavators of his time (e,g. Maclver at Buhen and apparently Woolley at Karanog] Fisher equated strata with building levels, whereas they are in fact usually much more complex entities; and he made no study of the thousands of stratified sherds he must have encountered, The latter would have been an invaluable record and facilitated both the relative and the absolute dating of his superimposed building levels and their stratified matrixes.

Merneptah’s palace, as recorded by Fisher, greatly enriched our understanding of the original appearance of such structures, for the building burned and collapsed at an early date, sealing off many fallen architectural elements such as massive inscribed stone columns and doorways, No other of the few excavated Egyptian palaces has been so rich in architectural data, The exact nature of the palace remains uncertain however, because Fisher was unable to recover its surrounding complex, It was quite possibly a ceremonial palace, meant only for periodic, short visits by the king but not lived in permanently by him, and lying at right angles to the axis of an (as yet undiscovered] temple with an east-west axis, Such palaces are found in the later New Kingdom (ca. 1300-1080 B.C.) royal funerary temples, and an earlier, more elaborate ‘temple-palace’ occurred under Akhenaten (ca. 1379-1326 B.C.) at Amarna.

Despite the importance of his Memphis work. Fisher’s greatest archaeological achievement was his excavation in the cemetery of Dendereh, a major provincial center in southern Egypt. It was an important cult center, probably from prehistoric times, of the popular goddess Hathor and supported a substantial town from early historic into Hellenistic times; its cemetery therefore reflected both local and national cultural fluctuations which were historically important. Fisher applied Reisner’s methods—”with the idea of working the site like one ploughs a field, leaving no place to chance or unexplored”—to a large area previously sampled by Petrie. Where Petrie reported about 140 tombs, Fisher recorded over 2000!
Petrie’s and Fisher’s material, which has been studied by Henry Fischer and Ray Slater Hemphill, covered mainly the time-span from the later Old Kingdom into the late Middle Kingdom (ca. 2500-1700 B,C.) and is particularly informative on a fas-cinating historical period, the First Intermediate Period when the royal centers became seriously weakened. The provincial governors buried at Dendereh in Dynasty VI were, in some cases, conspicuously wealthy, reflecting perhaps a draining away into the provinces of the wealth once largely monopolized by the royal centers. Further provincial vitality was attested by distinctive styles demonstrated in tomb superstructures and the inscribed stelae affixed to them, styles peculiar to Dendereh and provinces adjoining it. During the disturbed times following Dynasty VI Dendereh became a fortified town, and its prosperity, as reflected by grave goods, dropped, until it revived again during the national reunification achieved by Dynasties XI and KII (ca. 2040-1786 B.C.). In addition to giving important historical data, Fisher’s records also document an archaeological sequence of tomb types, ceramic and other artifacts for the period ca. 2500 to 1700 B,C. which is rivalled at very few other provincial sites.

Fisher’s third major project (1921-1923) was the excavation and recording of Dra abu el Naga, a section of the West Bank cemetery of the great royal center of Thebes. This site includes the inscribed and decorated tombs of some of Egypt’s highest officials of the period ca. 1320-1085 B.C., but Fisher’s valuable architectural and archaeological records were not complemented by cleaning and epigraphic work of comparable quality, A new Museum expedition began work at the site in 1967 to make up for these deficiencies (see p. 50).

Alan Rowe and the Mysterious Pyramid of Meydum

One of the most striking symbols of the intellectual and economic resources of the royal centers of ancient Egypt was the rapid evolution in the style and size of the pyramids during the first half of the third millennium B.C. These great monuments dominated the ‘residence-cemetery,’ i.e. the cemeteries of the royal centers in which the reigning king, his relatives and highest officials were buried and at which major technological and artistic advances were made. About 76 kilometers south of Cairo is one of the most mysterious of these pyramids, a massive stone ruin still rising about 300 feet high at Meydum. Our increasingly better understanding of this monument and its associated archaeological remains is based mainly upon data collected under the partial (Petrie or total [Alan Rowe) sponsorship of the University Museum. (For photograph, see cover.)

By whom, and when, was this great pyramid built and the impressive ‘residence-cemetery’ surrounding it laid out and begun? The question is important, for the Meydum pyramid itself was originally designed as a step pyramid, like those of Dynasty III (ca, 2700-2600 B.C.), but was transformed into the first true pyramid, the type so familiar to us from Dynasty IV (ca. 2800-2500 B.C.) Giza and later sites. Moreover, the associated funerary temple and causeway and the adjoining cemeteries of royal relatives and nobles, as we shall see, comprise the earliest examples of the classic ‘residence-cemetery’ of the Old Kingdom. Strangely, the identity of the royal builder of Meydum has not survived in any explicit form, but many scholars have believed him to have been King Snefru (ca. 2700-2676 B,C.), primarily because the ancient Egyptians, at least from the 15th century B.C. on, themselves thought so. If true, this would make Snefru the greatest monumental builder of early Egyptian history, for he was certainly the builder of two further pyramids at Dahshur to the north. These three pyramids, if combined, would have created a pyramid nearly twice the size of the pyramid of Snefru’s son Khufu [Cheops), the single largest pyramid ever built, Equally intriguing is the present state of the pyramid, for of all the completed, massive stone pyramids of the Old Kingdom it has suffered the most damage, having lost about 20% of its original content, mostly from the exterior casing.

When the University Museum decided, in 1929, to resume excavations in Egypt, it was natural that Alan Rowe, the field director chosen, should have been attracted to Meydum. An Englishman, Rowe had learnt excellent excavating and recording techniques from Fisher (with whom he worked at Beth Shan in Palestine in 1922) and Reisner. Already an enthusiastic Egyptologist, Rowe presumably became particularly interested in the history, art and architecture of Old Kingdom Egypt while serving as Reisner’s assistant at Giza from 1923 to 1925, during which time it was Rowe who actually discovered the famous tomb of Hetepheres, the mother of Khufu or Cheops, builder of the ‘Great Pyramid.’ Noting that the pyramid of Meydum, if dating to the reign of Snefru or thereabouts, was critical for an understanding of the evolution from the early step pyramids, with their small scale masonry, to the true pyramids built of megalithic blocks, Rowe anticipated that excavations at the Meydum pyramid and its nearby ‘residence-cemetery’ would “provide much new light” upon the transition from Dynasty III to Dynasty IV (The Museum Journal, XX, 2, p. 118). He was also careful to stress that magnificent art treasures had been found by earlier excavators at Meydum, clearly being aware that although Gordon had died in 1927, his successor as Director, Horace Jayne (1929-1940), followed Gordon’s shrewd policy of encouraging excavations which were both scientifically important and likely to yield outstanding as well as culturally representative items for the Museum’s collections.

Rowe, like most of his contemporaries, was convinced that Snefru had built the Meydum pyramid, and supported his case with a mass of well documented detail, both archaeological and textual. He was, in an academic sense, more of a professional Egyptologist than Maciver or Fisher and, unlike either of them, could read Egyptian hieroglyphs with same proficiency. (In 1907, Gordon had urged MacIver to learn hieroglyphs; Maclver promised “I shall have a try as soon as I can, but it takes longer than I think you realize!”; and in fact never did so). However, the evidence was scanty, and Rowe’s enthusiasm sometimes outstripped his scholarly caution. In 1931 or 1932 he wrote to the Museum on a discovery which had much excited him, and the Museum authorities, not quite succeeding in distinguishing fact from speculation in Rowe’s lengthy report, published a statement that Rowe had found: “a lime-stone slab on which is carved … a portrait of Snefru. The fact that the portrait was found in a quarry used in building the pyramid clearly indicates that it is a work contemporary with the Fourth Dynasty … it is the only contemporary portrait of King Snefru that has ever been found in Egypt” (The University Museum Bulletin, 3.5, 1932 p. 111). In fact, the ‘slab’ turns out to be a fragment of a small (8,3 cm. high), roughly shaped stone stela, bearing a crudely carved royal figure which is unidentified, although Rowe thought he could make out Snefru’s name in shallowly scratched hieroglyphs. Even if the stela does represent Snefru, it could be an ex-voto of a much later period.

As an unpublished research paper by James Weinstein has argued persuasively, the real importance of Rowe’s excavations around the pyramid itself and in the cemeteries was to delineate in detail the funerary temple and causeway and to discover good evidence that Snefru had been active at Meydum, but almost certainly to complete a pyramid largely built by his predecessor, King Hun, who must have been buried here. Snefru himself was probably buried in the ‘northern’ of his two pyramids at Dahshur. The Meydum pyramid was perhaps also responsible for the fact that Snefru himself had two pyramids. The southern Dahshur pyramid abruptly changes angle and is ‘bent,’ and hence a second, more suitable pyramid had to be built. Kurt Mendelsohn has argued in The Riddle of the Pyramids (1974) that the ‘Bent Pyramid’ reflects adaptations to compensate for poor constructional techniques revealed when the recently or partly completed casing of the Meydum pyramid collapsed like a shattering landslide while the ‘Bent Pyramid’ was being built; Snefru’s name remained associated with Meydum and it was natural for later generations of Egyptians to mistake him as its builder. Most of the Old Kingdom rulers were shadowy figures in later times, except for Khufu who was identified as a tyrant, but Snefru survived in literature as the type figure of a benevolent and good natured ruler, not unlike our own “King Cole” who was “a merry old soul, And a merry old soul was he!”

Petrie and, in richer detail, Rowe demonstrated how closely the Meydum ‘residence-cemetery’ anticipated the layout of later ones, and that innovations had occurred at Meydum as they did at other royal centers in earlier and later times. Petrie documented in the tomb chapel of Nefermaat a unique treatment of the decorated chapel walls, making extensive use of inlaid faience, while Rowe established that a huge tomb superstructure standing before the pyramid had originally had a stepped appearance, the only example of its kind. Neither found sculpture to equal that discovered by Mariette’s workmen at Meydum in 1871, when they found the famous statues of Rahotep and Nofret in a sealed chamber and fled, terrified by the statues’ lifelike appearance in the flickering torch light.

Rowe’s other major achievement was to show that Meydum had remained an important cemetery well into Roman times; he thus demonstrated an appreciation for continuity in Egyptian history earlier seen in Maciver. Rowe was a productive scholar, and his writing kept well in pace with his excavations; but unfortunately the onset of the Depression led to the termination in 1931 of his appointment as Field Director and prevented the publication of his full manuscript on Meydum. So this work, like most of Fisher’s, remains one of the great unpublished records of the Museum.

Rudolf Anthes: A Foiled Archaeologist

Rudolf Anthes, Curator of the Egyptian Section from 1950 to 1963 and now living in retirement in Berlin, is well remembered in the Museum for his outstanding qualities as teacher and scholar and his humor and good nature. We are sure that he would not object to the slightly whimsical title above, for it makes a very important point. In the course of two seasons’ work at Memphis, the famous royal center already described, Anthes came to grasp with enthusiasm the fundamentals of a discipline—archaeology in which he had previously had little experience; and developed a projected excavation program at Memphis that was potentially most important for urban archaeology in Egypt. It was, as he said, then “unique” in Egypt and would anticipate “new methods of excavating (new for Egypt)” which would be needed in “the future of digging in Egypt,” the excavation of the great Delta town sites. However, circumstances pre-vented the plan going into effect and foiled Anthes’ effort to open up a new line of development in his distinguished career.

How was it that Anthes, a philologist, historian and student of Egyptian art with no significant archaeological training or experience, found himself in February, 1955 beginning excavations at Memphis, one of the most difficult sites in Egypt? The particular cause was his own courageous and adventurous scholarship, but the general one was the extraordinary revival of University Museum fieldwork throughout much of the world in the 1950’s.

After Egyptian fieldwork was terminated by the Museum in 1932 for financial reasons, important Museum field projects continued in some other countries, funded by wealthy individuals or cost-sharing with other institutions, However, the depleted Coxe Fund income was devoted to engaging curators—Battiscombe Gunn and Hermann Ranke—to meet the urgent museological needs of the large Egyptian collection, With the Second World War, Museum field-work everywhere had to cease, but after 1947, a newly installed Director, Froelich Rainey (strongly supported by the Board’s Chairman-President, Percy C. Madeira, Jr.) applied his flair and energy to reviving Museum fieldwork and succeeded brilliantly. By 1956, several major, long-term projects had begun—Gordian (Turkey), Hasanlu (Iran), el-Jib (Jordan) and Tikal (Guatemala)—with further important work beginning in the early ’60’s at Sybaris (Italy) and in under-water archaeology.

Archaeological research sponsored by United States institutions in Egypt had declined since the 1930’s and Rainey was anxious to see the Museum’s tradition of Egyptian field-work revived with, as he wrote in 1954, “something significant … so that we might revive American interest in that field,” Perhaps with some reluctance Anthes was persuaded to select a site for excavation and chose Memphis, for reasons which showed considerable foresight about the future imperatives of archaeology in Egypt. Further excavation of the comparatively well preserved cemeteries, temples and occassional settlements on the dry desert fringes of Egypt was, he wrote, not urgent. It is the ruins in the cultivated land and those monuments which are already uncovered that we have to look to first of all” (The University Museum Bulletin, 20, 1, p. 7]. Memphis was a major town and temple site of great importance, which had suffered much damage over the centuries, yet only Petrie and Fisher had attempted serious work there. Anthes planned to follow up their work—originally on a small scale—in the southeast sector of the site, in collaboration with the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation.

Anthes candidly admitted that during his two seasons [1955, 1956] at Memphis he made some serious mistakes in archaeological techniques and interpretations due to the inexperience of himself and his staff. However, his correspondence and publications reveal that Anthes’ powerful scholarly mind gradually came to appreciate the importance of good excavation techniques and the value of properly interpreted archaeological data. He also began to develop a comprehensive plan of excavation designed to solve some major archaeological and historical problems of Memphis, Only a coordinated system of horizontal and vertical cuts is adequate for the understanding of a site which has accumulated under changing living conditions in contrast to the consistent activity of wind and sand in the desert,” he wrote, and added, the “main object of excavating (at Memphis) should be the stratigraphy as it applies to the site of an ancient city.”) [R. Anthes, Mit Rahineh 1956, pp. 2-3.)

The large-scale project which he envisaged as an expansion of the 1955-56 work would contribute significantly to a “greater pattern , . the understanding of the topography, the history and the economical development of Memphis through more than one and a half millennia” (The University Museum Bulletin, 21, 2, p. 12), Although this larger project was never effected, the results of the work Anthes had done were most valuable, and his discussions of them interwove textual and archaeological data with a scholarly depth and richness never achieved by any, of the previous directors of Museum projects in Egypt, The small temple of Ramesses II which Anthes excavated raised. as he showed, many questions about the character of the Ramesside remains in the south-east sector of Memphis (which included the palace of Merneptah excavated by Fisher and reinvestigated by Anthes). Further, he demonstrated that a huge brick enclosure wall surrounding the temple complex of Ptah, god of Memphis, was Roman and not, as generally thought, Ramesside in date. Some of the recovered artifacts were also of great interest. A large stone libation basin [32 centimeters high) reproduced in miniature the huge towered walls which had surrounded the Ptah temple in Ramesside times, and a representation of a man and woman of ca. 1250 B.C, showed them as “almost life-size on a single slab” which is “hardly known else-where in Egypt” (The University Museum Bulletin, 21, 2, p, 29).

Why were Anthes’ proposals not put into effect? The Museum, in the ’50’s, had emphasized more strongly than ever before its “traditional dedication to scientifically valuable excavation and had recognized that the archaeologists’ prize today is not trinkets, but knowledge.” especially since most countries refused any more to divide antiquities with the foreign expeditions that found them (Percy C. Madeira, Jr., Men in Search of Man. p. 60]. However, the older (and perfectly reasonable if limiting) Museum policy of sponsoring field-work which combined important scientific results with others of more popular appeal was still powerful. In this regard Memphis compared unfavorably with the other field projects of the period. At Gordion, a richly equipped royal tomb—perhaps of the legendary Midas—had been discovered; and although other projects were concerned mainly with urban centers. each had a special and unusual feature: ‘el-Jib was Gibeon, where the sun stood still for Joshua; Tikal was dominated by extraordinary pyramid temples, reaching a height of 270 feet; and Hasaniu lay in an archaeologically unknown region.

Memphis, by contrast, was a site almost too familiar; it was so well known, after all, that in the 19th century Memphis in Tennessee received its name presumably, like Cairo and Karnak in Illinois, to create “an atmosphere of grandeur” (D. J, Boorstin, The Americans. The National Experience, p. 298]. Moreover, it lacked the obvious monumental strength or potential richness (in terms of visually striking artifacts) of other sites. An eminent and influential visitor from the Museum wrote back ominously of Anthes’ excavation that “work is not likely to result in worthwhile discoveries of objects”: and once the substantial investment of time and money required by Anthes’ expanded plan was realized, the Memphis project was terminated. Anthes accepted the situation gracefully; in terms of the Museum’s own scholarly development, his Memphis project was before its time.

During the next five years the archaeological picture in Egypt changed rapidly as the Egyptian government encouraged the redevelopment of large-scale foreign archaeological activity in Egypt. Since the 1930’s for reasons which were understandable, divisions of finds had become less favorable, and eventually ended altogether; and the government “supervision of (foreign) excavation in Egypt became stricter and was often responsive to anti-foreign feeling expressed in the Egyptian press and parliament” (John Wilson, Signs and Wonders upon Pharaoh. The Story of American Egyptology, p. 194), Naturally, archaeological work as a whole had, as a result, diminished, But in 1959, Egypt, now a fully independent and self-confident nation, reinstated more generous terms, first to encourage work in Lower Nubia, soon to be inundated by Lake Nasser, the new Aswan Dam reservoir, hut subsequently also in Egypt proper, During the ’60’s United States government funding of archaeological work in Egypt dramatically increased and for American institutions in general, and the University Museum in particular, a new and expansive phase of Egyptian field-work began. But that story is told elsewhere in this magazine (pp. 46 ff).

Cite This Article

"The Museum in the Field." Expedition Magazine 21, no. 2 (January, 1979): -. Accessed September 28, 2023.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to