Early Travelers and Explorers to the Pyramids, Part III

Early Travelers and Explorers to the Pyramids, Part III

By Jimmy Dunn

Karl Richard Lepsius

It was a gradual process, but fortunately for us today, the exploration of Egypt and particularly the pyramids, after the exploits of the earliest antiquarians, took on a more disciplined approach by scholars. The preservation and recording of ancient Egypt by the mid 1800s began to take precedence over the more brutal excavation methods of the early part of the century.

One of the first great scholars, widely held to be the greatest Egyptologist after Champollion, was Karl Richard Lepsius (1810-1884). He first studied classical archaeology in Germany, but went on to study Egyptology in Paris.

King Frederick William IV of Prussia ordered a survey of Egypt and Nubia, and it was Lepsius who he appointed as leader of this expedition. At the time Lepsius was a lecturer in philology and comparative languages at Berlin. However, he prepared himself for this massive undertaking by first spending four years touring the Egyptian collections of Europe, recording details of artifacts and copying inscriptions. He not only studied the Egyptian language, but also developed practical skills such as lithography and copperplate engraving. Finally, in 1842, he and his team set out for Egypt, where they would spend three highly productive years characterized by careful, methodical analysis, meticulously recording the details of their outstanding finds.

Very early photograph of Khafre's valley temple before it was cleared by Mariette

Lepsius investigated many of Egypt's pyramids, including Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara. From it, he removed from the southeast part of the substructure a door lintel and frame inscribed with the name of the king, together with some of the blue faience tiles from the wall. In 1843, his team conducted excavations at Hawara in the Fayoum. The site, known as the Labyrinth, had been described by Herodotus and Strabo. Herodotus even regarded it as a wonder of the world greater than the Giza pyramids. Of course, this was the largest of all mortuary temples, belonging to the 12th Dynasty ruler, Amenemhet III. Lepsius also began excavations on the north face of the pyramid itself, but failed to find an entrance.

Lepsius map of the pyramid field of Saqqara

The contributions that Lepsius made to Egyptology are many, but without doubt his greatest was the 12 volume work published after his death known as Denkmaler which documented the monuments of Egypt. It contained 894 folio plates, and five volumes of text, appearing between 1897 and 1913, were prepared from his notes. In addition, Lepsius also published a personal account, called Discoveries in Egypt. Today, the 15,000 casts and antiquities that Lepsius brought back from Egypt form the core of the Berlin Museum collection.

One of the most influential scholars to find his way into Egyptology was Auguste Mariette (1821-1881). After reading the papers of one of his relatives, Nestor l'Hote, who had been a draughtsman on the Egyptian expedition of Champollion and Ippolito Rosellini, Mariette's fate was sealed. A bright young man with varied interest, he studied art, history, and ancient Egyptian language including Coptic. After writing a number of articles and papers, he finally secured a post with the Louvre museum. In 1850, that institution sent him to Egypt to buy Coptic manuscripts, but he began excavating instead. During this period, he was responsible for finding and excavating the Serapeum at Saqqara, where the sacred Apis bulls had been buried in a huge catacomb.

A statue of Auguste Mariette

However, in 1858, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was in charge of the Suez Canal project, pressured the ruler of Egypt, Said Pasha, into naming Mariette as the head of all Egyptian antiquities. Thus, Mariette was placed in charge of the new national Antiquities Service, a position that would be held by a Frenchman until 1952. It was he who founded the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, first located at Boulaq but now in the heart of Cairo, to gather and display the ancient works of the Egyptians. For the next two decades he carried out field archaeology at 35 sites throughout Egypt. His work practices and methods were criticized by some of the next generation of Egyptologists, but they were advanced for his time and his output has never been equaled.

A second statue of Auguste Mariette

After the Serapeum, Mariette's second major discovery was the valley temple of Khafre, which was visible at the time as only a series of pits and stones. He partially excavated the interior of the valley temple in 1853 and completed its clearance in 1858. Unfortunately, he published almost nothing about his findings within the temple, which was a problem also with several of his other excavations.

During the last year of Mariette's life, the foreman of the Antiquities Service, Mohammed Chahin, opened the pyramid of Pepi I at Saqqara. It was the first in which Pyramid Texts were found. Afterwards, the pyramid of Merenre was entered just before Mariette's death, and others were penetrated by his successor, Gaston Maspero. As Maspero explained:

"The discovery of the Pryamids of Pepi and of Merenre at the place where the theory affirmed that they would be found, decided me to direct the attack on the entire front of the Memphite Necropolis, from Abu Roash to Lisht. Rapid success followed. Unas was opened on the 28th February, Pepi II, Neferirkera [Neferirkare] on April 13th, and that of Teti on the 29th May. In less than a year, five of the so-called "dumb" pyramids of Saqqara had spoken..."

William Matthew Flinders Petrie

Of course, one of the greatest of the early Egyptologists was about to also make his grand appearance. William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) was not just a hard worker in the field. He was a child prodigy. He learned the hieroglyphic alphabet before the age of six and later, encouraged by his father, combined his interests in mathematics and measurement with archaeology.

In 1866, Petrie read Charles Piazzi Smyth's Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid, and became excited by the possibility of reconciling science and religion. He did not subscribe to Smyth's extreme idea that Britain was a lost tribe of Israel, but he fully accepted the idea of the Great Pyramid as a gigantic scale model of the Earth's circumference put forth by Smyth.

However, in 1880, he also became convinced that there was a need for another survey of the Great Pyramid, and it would be Petrie's meticulous survey of the pyramid that would in fact prove the death of many of Piazzi Smyth's theories, at least among scholars. With debris banked against the sides of the Great Pyramid, Petrie measured its exterior through an elaborate set of triangulations that encompassed all three pyramids at Giza. These measurement disputed those of Smyth, though his theories would be popular for some time to come among the general populous.

The triangulation made by Petrie of the Giza Pyramids

Petrie went on to investigate a number of other pyramids. During 1888 and 1889, he followed up on the work of Lepsius by investigating the site of Hawara, where he excavated what remained of the Labyrinth and the adjacent pyramid of Amenemhet III. He entered the flooded burial chamber of that pyramid and found two sarcophagi, together with burnt human remains.

Between 1887 and 1888, Petrie excavated the pyramid of Senusret II at Illahun, but failed to find the entrance and passage to the burial chamber until the following year. he also searched unsuccessfully for a passage or chamber beneath the subsidiary "Queen's Pyramid" of Senusret II, even though he carved out two crossing tunnel systems and a deep vertical shaft, directly under the pyramid. It does seem strange that there are apparently no passages or chambers under this small pyramid, despite Petrie having found the remains of a chapel on its north side.

A very early photograph showing tourists arriving at the Great Pyramid

Petrie continued his pyramid investigations at Meidum, where he uncovered the small limestone temple next to the pyramid of Snefru, with its two uninscribed stelae. he also examined the two anonymous pyramids of Mazghuna, south of Dahshur.

A woodcut of early travelers being helped up the sides of the Great Pyramid

But scholars were not the only ones to visit the pyramids during the late 1800s. The first pyramid postcards began to appear around the end of that century. A year before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, an elevated road was built from Giza to the pyramid plateau to facilitate visits by attending royalty, most notably the Empress Eugenie. At the same time, the Mena House Hotel was developed at the base of the plateau, and a roadway led from the hotel to the foot of the pyramids. Modern tourism was now in full swing.

See also:

Early Pyramid Travelers and Explorers, Part I

Early Pyramid Travelers and Explorers, Part II

Early Pyramid Travelers and Explorers, Part III






Reference Number

Complete Pyramids, The (Solving the Ancient Mysteries)

Lehner, Mark


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05084-8

Illustrated Guide to the Pyramids, The

Hawass, Zahi; Siliotti, Alberto


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 825 2

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4

Pyramids, The (The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt's Great Monuments)

Verner, Miroslav


Grove Press

ISBN 0-8021-1703-1

Treasures of the Pyramids, The

Hawass, Zahi


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 798 1