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VICTORIAN EGYPTOLOGY

The Victorians are often associated with a literal and conservative interpretation of the Bible, as the  "Darwinists" are associated with science.  In some ways the epic battle between the two sides was waged in America in the 1920's, in the so called "Monkey Trial."  The State v. John Scopes pitted what has been described as Victorian revivalists of the American South against the moderns. In 1925 a biology teacher in Tennessee was charged with illegally teaching evolution. William Jennings Bryan, a former candidate for President, led the fundamentalists.  Byran claimed that "if evolution wins, Christianity goes," while Darrow contended that "civilization is on trial." The prosecution opened the case by asking the court to take judicial note of the Book of Genesis as presented by the King James version of the Bible. Bryan took the stand as an expert on the Bible.  He was asked about Jonah and the whale, the garden of Eden, and the creation.  Bryan finally held that not all parts of the Bible should be taken literally. He did not escape criticism for his testimony. The case changed nothing, and the debate continues, even to this day. The same fervor is now directed towards other social issues, and the study of the past itself is being questioned. In many university environments the study of ancient Egypt is under threat not from religious conservatives, but by "moderns."  Compared with the exact science, what can archaeology, or for that matter the humanities, have to contribute to modern society?(17)

In comparing the past with the present, what has this meant for Egyptian archaeology?  Both positive and negative aspects can be argued.  On the one hand Egyptology has been gradually freed from Biblical archaeology. A more scientific approach - like that of Petrie - certainly dominates in academic circles today. There would be few modern academics who would write a book on ancient Egypt that would reflect Victorian era morality. Such a book would find few readers in the general public.  In an environment where Egyptian history can be taken on its own merits, one can assume that scholars will be closer to reality.  The Bible pertained to a people who were, at best, on the fringe of the Egyptian empire.  As a result there have been many archaeologists who advocate the study of the archaeology of the region without the Bible. But is this the way forward?  

On the other hand it cannot be denied that without a religious basis, the general public is not interested.  It goes without saying that major research universities do not well reflect the nation as a whole. By not considering the Bible, the interests of a large segment of society is not considered. Narrow specialization in an academic environment, as in a natural environment as defined by Darwin, can lead to extinction. Petrie could reconstruct a society for the layman, yet today academics are encouraged to publish ever more specialized tomes with little general interest. Is that where modern archaeology along with Egyptology is headed? The age in which Petrie lived, where religion and science did indeed intersect, may well prove to be the heyday of Egyptian archaeology.


(17) For a general discussion of the position of the humanities in contemporary American universities see Bloom, A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind.  Somon & Schuster: New York.

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