Scholars, Scoundrels, and the Sphinx: A Photographic and Archaeological Adventure Up the Nile

January 28, 2000–July 30, 2000

Excavation of a Mastaba Tomb.
Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, Albumen print by J. Pascal Sébah.
Young Lebanese Woman, Albumen print. Photographed in Beirut by the Bonfils Family.

View Slideshow

The McClung Museum has ushered in the new century with an exhibition that celebrates Egypt, the land of the pharaohs, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The exhibition explores the Nile River Valley between 1850 and 1930, at a time that saw the birth of Egyptology as a science and the flowering of photography. It was a pivotal time in the development of scholarly research. It also saw the emergence of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo through the relentless determination of the great French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette. This period is one of tremendous fascination with ancient Egypt and one that witnessed a wealth of important records produced by Egyptologists and photographers, who bathed the world in new light about the country of the pyramid builders. It was an exciting and dramatic age, when an intense interest and study of a rich culture and its treasures were at its peak. The exotic tales of much earlier explorers and travelers were changing into systematic investigation and documentation of ancient Egypt.

Exhibition Overview

The exhibition is a brief introduction to the important discoveries by a few leading Egyptologists, and the memorable views of the Nile River Valley produced by gifted and industrious photographers. Each documented Egypt in ways of enduring value. They witnessed and recorded the nineteenth century state of the monuments and, through their work, awakened in people a curiosity to learn more.

During the period covered by the exhibition, the discipline of Egyptology moved forward with great strides, and improved archaeological methods were established. At the same time, new technological developments in photography were introduced, and photographic records became more useful to research. The juxtaposition of photographs and ancient objects in the exhibition makes clear why people came to Egypt and what seized their imagination.

Scholars, Scoundrels, and the Sphinx also suggests the condition of ancient tombs and monuments, mosques, and museums, providing views of how they once looked and indicating a few of the monuments subsequently moved to other locations due to rising waters of the Nile River resulting from construction of the dam at Aswan.

Also featured in the exhibition are a few of the eminent archaeologists who excavated in Egypt, and several of the important photographers who photographed there. These individuals were pioneers in their respective fields and opened the way for a deeper understanding of a remarkable ancient civilization.

Finally, the exhibition also touches upon the topic of travelers, collectors, explorers, fakers of and dealers in antiquities, town and country life, excavation funding, donors to American museums, and the pashas and khedives of the time.

Photographs and Artifacts

More than eighty original photographic images, including albumen and silver prints, of more than thirty-five sites along the Nile River were taken from the McClung Museum’s photographic archives. A selection of early stereoviews and postcards are also from the museum’s collections. These early photographic records taken along the Nile River capture some of the major sites seen by the adventurous traveler of an earlier time.

Starting at Alexandria, the exhibition takes visitors to a number of the most outstanding monuments. Represented are Giza and the Great Sphinx and pyramids, Saqqara and King Djoser’s Step Pyramid, Thebes and the great Temple of Amen at Karnak, the Valley of the Kings and the famous tomb of Tutankhamen, and the temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel in Lower Nubia. Many of the photographs in the exhibition were taken by well-known commercial photographers who worked in the Middle East.

These photographers included such luminaries as Félix Teynard, Francis Frith, Antonio Beato, the Bonfils family, and J. Pascal Sébah. These were the photographers then also popular with travelers, who bought their photographic prints in shops in Cairo or Luxor as souvenirs.

To complement the photographs, the museum has borrowed some fifty-eight ancient Egyptian objects from ancient Egyptian collections in American museums. Statues, wall reliefs, objects of daily life, pottery, jewelry, figurines, amulets, and other ancient works are on loan from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh; the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley; the Detroit Institute of Arts; and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

The ancient objects were excavated at or near many of the sites pictured by renowned archaeologists, including the British Egyptologists W. M. Flinders Petrie and James Quibell, and the American Egyptologist George A. Reisner. These individuals were pioneers in their field. They opened the way for a deeper understanding of a remarkable ancient civilization and introduced more scientific methods to archaeological excavations.

Also noted in the exhibition is that these Egyptologists and many other archaeologists were skilled in field photography as well. They made their own photographic records of monuments and their excavations. One outstanding photographer was the British archaeologist Harry Burton, who completely documented the Tomb of Tutankhamen discovered by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1922. A video show with actual footage of treasures being removed from the tomb, as well as still photographs by Burton, introduce the exhibition.

The photographs and ancient objects in the exhibition help to illustrate why people came to Egypt. Visitors are introduced to a few of the Egyptologists who discovered exciting new data and the photographers who produced memorable images of the Nile Valley. Each in their own way preserved knowledge. They witnessed and recorded the state of monuments at that time.