Books in Brief
Excavating in Egypt—The Egypt Exploration Society 1882–1982
T. G. H. James, editor
(The University of Chicago Press: Chicago & London, 1982) 192 pp., $22.00
In honor of its one hundredth anniversary, the Egypt Exploration Society has published this commemorative volume, modest in size, but full of fascinating information on the history of the oldest organization devoted to archaeology in the Nile Valley. The editors have arranged the material on geographical lines and assigned the authorship of each chapter to a different scholar. The book is well illustrated with photographs and maps and is provided with notes on sources, a list of participating institutions and a good index.
Although written by a number of scholars—is multiple authorship becoming something of a fad?—the book is consistently of a quality that sets it far above similar works that concentrate on the history of the discipline itself. In fact, in the chapters by M. S. Drower (“The Early Years”), Cyril Aldred (“Amarna”) and T. G. H. James (“The Archaeological Survey”), the style is something of a model for aspiring young scholars to copy and a yardstick by which to measure their own work.
To absorb the history contained in this book is to become familiar with an important episode in the development of western culture, that is, the involvement of English-speaking scholarship in the Middle Eastern roots of Biblical and classical studies. Here one will kind a very fair chronicle of the rather timid, amateurish beginnings of field work in Egypt, set afoot by devout members of the British middle class in the year of Colonel Aribi’s rebellion. The conflict between the humanist and the scientist, the linguist and the archaeologist, the historian and the excavator, is vividly portrayed, without the expected malice. (These struggles are still continuing, needless to say!) A most delicate topic is broached when the writers move on, as they must, to matters that impinge on ethnic rivalries (again, these problems live on). The reviewer was highly gratified at how circumspectly and discreetly the writers negotiated this difficult terrain, since many of the protagonists have almost become “national heroes” of archaeology. The book indirectly stresses how detrimental to scholarship is the lionization of individuals as members of an ethnic group. The only valid criteria for the evaluation of a scholar’s accomplishments should be awareness of the latest state of the discipline and ability to wring every particle of evidence out of an excavation.
Not least, the present work highlights the changes that for good or ill have overtaken archaeology and the publication of results in the past century. In a day when dig budgets are unconscionably enormous, one looks back with shock and quiet admiration at the spartan frugality of Flinders Petrie. I, for one, do not censure him at all for making a fetish out of penury. The same scholar could lighten his reports with wit and color in a way that, today, would be criticized as irrelevant and self-serving. Another development in archaeology, one that we should perhaps he glad to see, is the end of the era of the polymath, when an F. L. Griffith could combine skill in epigraphy, linguistics and history with field archaeology. But something is inevitably lost when a single mind is unable to interpret evidence in different disciplines.
Introducing Egyptian Hieroglyphics
(Scottish Academic Press: Edinburgh, 1981) 52 pp., $17.50
When Roman rule arrived in Egypt in 30 B.C., Egypt lost its status as the hub of an Empire; in addition, Egypt’s principal socioeconomic institution, the temple estate, lost for all time its privileged position. The priesthood, which already had been dwindling in number and was becoming increasingly paranoid, came to regard itself as the sole guardian of the traditions of the ancestors, chief among which was the knowledge and use of the ancient hieroglyphic script.
By 19 A.D., we read in Tacitus, only an older priest was able to translate Thutmosid hieroglyphic inscriptions for Germanicus (Tacitus, Annals, ii. 67). By 107 A.D., the city of Oxyrhynchos could boast only five hieroglyph carvers, none of whom had apprentices (Oxyrhynchos Papyrus 1029).
Temple building came to a halt, and decoration of existing structures lapsed—decoration of Edfu and Kom Ombo ceased in the first century of the present era; of Esna, in the mid-second; of Dendera, in the last quarter of the third. The Edict of Theodosius (391) closed the pagan temples and virtually disbanded their priestly staffs. The last hieroglyphic inscription known, predictably, dates to 394.
Within two generations, knowledge of the hieroglyphic script was lost. European polymaths, who had never taken the “natives” and their language seriously, were misled for over 1,000 years by Neoplatonic and related approaches to antiquity; efforts to interpret the hieroglyphs were stymied by the view that they were purely ideographic signs. Dr. Watterson’s book is an exemplary and well-written attempt to bring enlightenment where such misunderstanding can still be found. The work is divided into two unequal parts: the first (48 pp.) is an introduction to the history of decipherment and to the origin and nature of the script and language; the second (92 pp.) is a series of 11 lessons (with sign-list and vocabulary) comprising a primer aimed at people with no prior language training.
I predict that the book will be treasured for its first part. If this section of Dr. Watterson’s book is used in conjunction with F. L. Griffith’s classic article in the Times Literary Supplement for February 2, 1922, entitled “The Decipherment of the Hieroglyphs,” the reader will gain a most valuable and detailed appreciation of how the most famous, and the earliest, decoding of an ancient language was accomplished.
The second part of Dr. Watterson’s book may serve to awaken interest in school children, but it seems somewhat elementary and too short to enable one to take even a first step in the subject. Once one is no longer mesmerized by the script, the orthography and language of the hieroglyphs will he found as worthy of intensive and sober study as any other language, ancient or modern. The phonetics of ancient Egyptian are less well known than those of other Hamito-Semitic languages, and the syntax throws up a number of complex problems, as yet unsolved, which are not found in Hebrew or Akkadian, nor for that matter in Greek or Latin. In fact, in Egyptian we are still too far from nailing down elusive points of grammar to make possible primers such as this.
A number of misleading statements perhaps could not be avoided in a brief and foreshortened introduction of this nature. To say that the Sumerians introduced the idea of writing into Egypt (p. 35) is daring and, as formulated, incapable of being proved. To state that the uses to which the nascent script was put in Egypt differed from those operative in Mesopotamia (p. 36) is erroneous. In both areas the script fulfilled the three basic needs common to nation states: to commemorate, to identify and to keep accounts. References to prehistoric “tribal groups” and the “Armenoid or Giza race” (p. 6) conjure up old theories long laid to rest. There are other errors. Wi is the word for “coffin,” not “mummy” (p. 52); pr-c3 was not pronounced per aar (p. 50), but par-o. On the whole, however, readers unfamiliar with Egyptian hieroglyphs will find this book informative, fun and reliable.
The Middle East in Pictures
G. Eric Matson
(Ayer Publishers: New York, 1980) Four volumes, 962 pp., $440
For the first half of this century, Eric Matson used his camera as a pictorial memory bank, scouring the lands of the Bible in pursuit of the extraordinary—pausing to snap a camel picked clean of flesh by locusts or focusing on Nabataean inscriptions deep in the Sinai desert or capturing sunsets from the peak of Mt. Hermon.
It seemed that nothing dulled his curiosity for the quirks of fate, the diversity of people and the abundant legacy of civilizations past. At times he could meld all these insights into a few juxtaposed prints, as with his stiffly formal portraits of robed Coptic, Franciscan, Armenian, Greek or Jewish clerics and rabbis, freezing their assertive stares for posterity and then pasting them in an album to contrast with what his lens had seen in a line of ragged lepers, their eyes shamefully averted from the prying tool of his trade.
Matson was equally at home as a photographer of the static as he was with the action of hard, breaking news. He would close in on a perched kestrel hawk and then race to the scene of violent clashes between Arabs and British troops. This breadth of interest and quest for Middle Eastern wonders took him from the walled city of Jerusalem to the banks of the Tigris and then to the shores of Tripoli. He crossed the desert to the antiquities of Petra and wandered over the hills to the cedars of Lebanon and the bazaars of Damascus. His singular passion took him across the Mediterranean to the temples of Athens and to the ancient harbor of Constantinople. It was a lifelong romance with a region that so suffused his spirit that no journey was too long, no danger too inhibiting, no subject too banal.
The four volumes under review represent 5,000 frames taken from the turn of the century until 1934. They were printed and pasted up in 11 albums that tourists paged through to make selections in Matson’s shop on bustling David Street, close to all four religious quarters (Jewish, Moslem, Christian and Armenian) of the Old City of Jerusalem. In 1966, the year his wife Edith died, Matson formally gave his collection of 20,000 negatives to the Library of Congress. Of this number, 7,000 had been retrieved after the Six Day War of 1967 from an East Jerusalem basement where they had lain since 1946, the year the Matsons fled to the United States to escape mounting political violence.
Matson’s photographic record might never have come about if his family had not left their native Sweden for Jerusalem with the eight-year-old boy in 1896. Once there, they teamed up with a group of Americans and Swedes, pooled their resources, lived communally and dedicated themselves under the collective title of “The American Colony” to the spiritual and physical well-being of Christians, Moslems and Jews. They opened their own hospital and hotel, bought land and buildings, olive groves and animals, and outfitted caravans from their shops and workrooms.
In 1898, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Jerusalem. The American Colony opened a department to sell photographic souvenirs; demand quickly justified its expansion to cater to successive waves of tourists. Matson joined the photography department of the American Colony as a young man and there met Edith Yantiss, whose family had joined the Colony on arrival from Kansas. They were married in 1924, and ten years later they took over the business.
The 5,000 prints in The Middle East in Pictures are remarkable not only for what they document but for how they highlight the changes that have taken place since 1934 in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the field of archaeological 064excavations. Matson’s photographs show the bleakness of Masada, the barren wastes of Kurnub, the sand dunes of Shivta and preliminary digs at Beth Shean and Jerusalem. How his pulse would have thumped if the glories unearthed at Masada, Hazor, Megiddo, Shivta, Kurnub, Caesarea, the Hill of Ophel, Herodium and the southern and western walls of the Temple Mount had been unearthed in his heyday.
But he was amply compensated for what he missed by the exciting endeavors of the pioneers of his time. Matson photographed the tent cities of the impoverished immigrants, the cargo boats anchored off the port of Jaffa, the saplings rising along Tel Aviv’s Herzl Street (now dwarfed by the tallest building in the Middle East), and the horse-drawn transport of the nascent cities.
His pictorial document is filled with historical allusion. There is the Turkish Mayor of Jerusalem surrendering with a white flag to General Allenby’s troops at the close of World War I. British generals pose imperiously with swagger sticks and jodhpurs while Australian cavalrymen pitch pup tents on the barren slopes of Mt. Scopus as their horses wander freely. In 1929, Matson went south to Hebron, burial place of the Biblical patriarchs, to photograph the ransacked homes of massacred Jews. A year later, he stood near the Kidron Valley, training his camera on the British High Commissioner, Sir John Chancellor, as he laid the foundation stone for the Rockefeller Museum. In 1931, Matson looked skyward as the Graf Zeppelin drifted over the clear skies of Jerusalem. Only a year after the Nazis came to power, Matson went to Tel Aviv for the annual Purim carnival and snapped a float of three swastika-marked dragons driven by a caricature of Adolf Hitler. Celebrities from far and wide stood still for Matson, and these volumes contain striking portraits of the famous and the infamous—T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Emir Abdullah, Lord Balfour, Chaim Weizmann, Sir Herbert Samuel, King Faisal and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.
The high proportion of photographs devoted to the customs and rites of the ethnic groups of Middle Easterners points to Matson’s pursuit of cultural variety. Occasionally, his caption is more than illuminating, prodding the viewer to take a longer look, as in the print of a desert grave covered with a garment of the deceased, or in a picture of a camel’s cheekbone guarding a grave.
Matson must have dwelt at length with the Bedouin, for he snapped these “Lords of the Desert” in unfamiliar playful moods at games and dances. As intriguing as these shots are 066the series of photographs of white-robed Samaritans, numerically the smallest religious minority in the region, during their annual sacrifice of a lamb on Biblical Samaria’s Mt. Gerizim.
Matson was captivated by the craftsmen working in their open-air stalls in the Arab bazaars. He trekked from Jerusalem to Damascus, building up an enthralling portfolio of artisans patiently fashioning inlaid slippers, sharpening swords and sickles, hammering at horseshoes and deftly working with mother-of-pearl. Often they are seen working cross-legged on the stone floors in contrast to their neighbors, who sit on low stools and draw languidly on hookah pipes in the customary ritual of the coffee shops.
Many of the scenes Matson captured were peculiar to his day and age. There are no longer streams of Russian pilgrims converging near Jericho for baptismal rites in the waters of the Jordan. Gone are the herds of buffalo, the camels in the Ayalon Valley, the seaplane on the Sea of Galilee, the desolate huts on the site of modern Ashdod.
What can still be seen that is revealed in these volumes is the fullness of the beauty of the Holy Land itself, whose lines and contours seized the imagination of this sensitive cameraman. “I rely on feelings and intuition for composition,” said Matson, who sought out the shadows cast early or late in the day, while avoiding outdoor photography during the bright noonday sun. When he wasn’t scaling the cliffs at Rosh Hanikra or walking up the Mount of Beatitudes, Matson soared even higher in a single-engined plane for spectacular aerial views of Biblical geography. The barren landscape, now softened by afforestation and agriculture, looked like anything but the land of milk and honey. But Matson discovered myriad wild flowers dotting the wilderness, and these gave him as much delight as the people who bought copies of his prints. Through the lens of his camera he captured this exquisite beauty and held it for later generations.
Excavating in Egypt—The Egypt Exploration Society 1882–1982
T. G. H. James, editor
(The University of Chicago Press: Chicago & London, 1982) 192 pp., $22.00