“A World Beneath the Sands” by Toby Wilkinson – a history of those who dug up the history of Egypt

A World Beneath the Sands by Toby Wilkinson is a book about Egyptology. It is not a book about the history of Ancient Egypt and the amazing artefacts, buildings and tombs which remain but about the history of the men, and occasionally women, who uncovered them and who made a discipline from the study of them. In looking at the history this book also needs to tell the history of Europe’s relationship with Egypt at the time in order to understand the context – it does this in an easily accessible and very readable way.

The book mostly covers the period from the late eighteenth century to the mid twentieth century and the archaeology at the time was mostly uncovered and studied by European scholars and occasionally adventurers. As archaeology was also developing at the time there were some appalling practices in the early days which amounted to looting. Britain, France and Germany fought over the most impressive finds and filled their museums and private homes with them. Mummified bodies were taken and put on show, unwrapped for amusement or even ground up and used as medicine. The excavations were under the control of France for many years and Europeans decided who had the right to dig in Egypt. What you take away from the reading of this history is the colonial attitude and the disregard by Europeans for the people in whose land the discoveries were made.

The book concentrates on some of the great archaeologists of the time and shows how techniques were developed and what was learned. There is also a lot of time devoted to the reading of hieroglyphs and their translation.  All this is fascinating and you can see the various motivations of archaeologists and also how discoveries were used politically. The author has a dry wit and is very honest about the people about whom he writes.

I found this book compelling reading. I don’t know very much about Egyptian history but this book was really about European history and imperialism and how it affected one particular area of study and location. It was easy to read and my hardback edition had some good photographs to accompany the text. If you have ever read the Amelia Peabody books of Elizabeth Peters you will recognise a lot of the characters and events from her novels – see my reviews here and here for my views on a couple of her titles.

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