A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Meresamun was purchased in 1920 by University of Chicago archaeologist and historian James Henry Breasted (1865-1935), a seminal figure in Egyptology, Near Eastern studies, and museology. Originally trained as a pharmacist, Breasted had decided to go into the ministry until he became disillusioned by discrepancies between the original Hebrew texts he was studying and their translations in the King James Bible. So William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, easily convinced him to study the then-obscure field of Egyptology in Berlin, one of the few places the subject was offered at the time, in exchange for a chair at the institution when he returned. In three years, Breasted received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, writing his dissertation on monotheistic hymns of the Amarna period—in Latin.
The Breasteds made numerous trips to Egypt, including a 1906 expedition when they brought their young son, Charles. The family is shown here by the entrance to the great temple at Abu Simbel. (Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)
While in Germany, he met and married American-born Frances Hart, and they honeymooned in Egypt. It was the first time either of them had been there, so they spent much of the time visiting ancient sites, as James copied inscriptions from the monuments. Harper had given Breasted $500 to acquire antiquities from dealers for the university's fledgling museum, so he also started buying. For safekeeping, he stored the more than 700 purchases in the couple's honeymoon suite—aboard their personal cabin on the boat where they slept, which was docked along the Nile. In a letter to her family dated January 2, 1895, Frances wrote:
I was home by three—had lunch—and afterwards a good scrub. Then I made room for the products of our explorations. And lay down to rest and wait for husband. He came about 4.30 as well as the things and we had a great time, storing them in our small quarters. We had to take the dirty stuff in for fear of it being detected and taken. The back deck was filled so that we could not shut the door—and our dressing room was a pretty sight! We had to lean over a mummy case in order to wash in the morning and when I came to look for my tramping shoes, I finally discovered them under it!
Upon his return to Chicago, Breasted, the first American to earn a Ph.D. in Egyptology, was awarded the first professorship of the discipline in the United States. In later years, and with the financial and personal backing of his friend John D. Rockefeller, Jr., he went on to found the Oriental Institute at the university and eventually served as the first director of the institute's museum.
Over the next three decades, with millions of Rockefeller dollars, Breasted organized numerous expeditions throughout Egypt and the Near East, purchasing antiquities for the museum's collection, as well as for the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum, where he became an honorary curator. He also scouted out locations for the Oriental Institute's archaeological investigations, some of which are still being conducted to this day. Although he lived an adventurous life, his university salary was so small that he had to lecture widely and publish frequently. In one book intended for high-school students, entitled Ancient Times (1908), he coined the phrase "fertile crescent."
Breasted purchased Meresamun from a dealer in 1920 along with a second item for a total of 330 Egyptian pounds—about $1,650 at the time (almost $17,000 in today's dollars). In a letter dated January 25 of that year, he wrote to Frances, who was at home with their three children:
Just as I was leaving Luxor, old Mohammed Mohasseb sent his son to see me and tell me he had something to show me. After many precautions and much secrecy, the son took me into the court of a house where lay a beautifully colored white and red mummification coffin, as fresh and bright as the day it left the painter's studio. He wants 400 pounds for it....—old Mohammed Mohasseb, who owns nearly a thousand acres of land and has an income from these lands, of nearly 20,000 pounds Egyptian a year. These dealers are men of wealth to whom the profits from such dealing in antiquities is but part of a much larger income. Old Mohammed Mohasseb's son said to me: "What does this antiquity business which we run for a while in the winter amount to, when we make out if it only a beggarly 1,000 pounds or possibly 2,000 pounds a year, when we have our lands with cotton and sugar cane and wheat bringing ten times what they used to bring?"
Meresamun has been on display at the University of Chicago ever since.
Frances died in 1934. The following year, at the age of 70, Breasted married her sister, Imogen, and the couple honeymooned in Italy and the Near East. On their voyage home, Breasted contracted an infection, of which he died on December 2, 1935.
Eti Bonn-Muller is managing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.