Giovanni Belzoni, The First Man To Popularize Egyptian Archaeology, Was A Horrible Archaeologist, At Least By Today’s Standards

(Portrait from Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, London, 1820, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 

Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823 CE) is a strange person to hold a title as one of the founding fathers of Egyptology. He had no background in archeology or history. Instead, his drive for adventure, and his passion for exploration, would lead him to discover pyramids, tombs, temples and obelisks that would reinvigorate western interest in the history and archeology of Egypt.

Giovanni Belzoni was born in Padua, Venice in 1778. Though he was born in Venice, he spent most of his developmental years in Rome. Once he reached his adult years, Belzoni began considering entering a monastic life, but he fled Rome (and thoughts of a cloistered life) in 1798 when Napoleon occupied the city. After leaving Italy, he made his way to the Netherlands, and from there, he found a new home in England.

In 1803, Belzoni married his English bride, Sarah Bane (or Banne). The newlywed couple pursued an interesting career path to sustain themselves in the great city of London—they joined the circus. For around ten years, Belzoni and his wife performed feats of strength wherever there were crowds looking for entertainment.

Around 1812, the circus act was retired and Belzoni began pursuing a new career in engineering. He met with an agent of Muhammad Alī Pasha  (the founder of modern Egypt) and received permission to showcase to the Egyptians a hydraulic engine of his own design. When Belzoni arrived at Egypt, however, he found that he enjoyed searching for, and excavating, old buried sites more than his hobby of engineering.

From around 1812 to 1819, Giovanni Belzoni and the British Consul General, Henry Salt, worked together to locate and excavate historical sites in Egypt. Unfortunately, many of Belzoni’s methods of excavation were destructive, and the purpose of his expeditions is now often described as looting.

Despite Giovanni Belzoni’s dubious motivation and method of excavation, he discovered numerous great archaeological finds. He journeyed to the Abu Simbel temple in Nubia and retrieved a large bust of Ramses II (the “Young Memnon”), approximately nine feet in height. In 1818, he was the first modern explorer to find the entrance and venture inside the pyramid of Khafre at Giza. Belzoni also discovered the tombs of King Ay (where he blasted through priceless, decorated walls), Prince Mentuhirkhopeshef, and Ramses I. The amateurish methods used to excavate some of these tombs would later cause water damage. He also discovered the city of Berenice, and removed an obelisk from the island of Philae (Jazīrat Aswān), but French rivals stole the obelisk before it could be sent to England.

Giovanni Belzoni recorded his near decade-long career as an explorer and amateur archeologist in Egypt within his book, Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia. Belzoni returned to England in 1819, and by 1820, his book was released to the public—it was a great success and is regarded as the first book in the English language in the field of Egyptology.

In 1823, Giovanni Belzoni set out for another expedition, this time to Timbuktu. He never arrived, however, because he caught dysentery in Gwato Village, Benin, and died before he could reach his destination.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

 

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