Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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from the trenches
Books: Napoleon's Egyptologists Volume 61 Number 2, March/April 2008
by Zach Zorich

(Courtesy Harper Collins)

In Egypt, the science of archaeology was born at gunpoint. It was a strange byproduct of Napoleon's 1798 invasion, which was justified, in part, by the promise of scientific discovery and the desire to spread the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment. Journalist Nina Burleigh relates the story of the 125 scholars who accompanied Napoleon's force of 30,000 soldiers and sailors in Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt (HarperCollins, $25.95). Napoleon's bungled attempt to instill French values in Egypt's mostly Muslim population, and his strategic blunders, might have made this book hilarious if not for the body count. Nearly one third of the invasion force died, taking untold numbers of Egyptians with them. In the end, the only redeeming value of the three-year-long invasion and occupation came from the notes and specimens taken by the scholars. Important advances that still shape modern science were made in the fields of mathematics, biology, and engineering. But the most important discovery was the Rosetta Stone, the carving that eventually allowed Egypt's ancient hieroglyphic script to be translated.

Burleigh's account captures the personalities of the scholars involved as they cope with both the culture shock of surviving in a foreign land and the difficulties of adapting to life in the French military. One scholar who readily handled the challenge was the artist Dominique Vivant Denon, who attached himself to a group of soldiers chasing Egypt's deposed ruler, Murad Bey, south along the Nile into Upper Egypt and Nubia. Denon, the author of the classic Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt, sketched the temples of Thebes and Karnak, fueling interest in Egypt's ancient people among his colleagues and the European public. Burleigh's book succeeds as Denon's did, bringing to life a bygone era that still has much to teach us.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America