January 28, 2012 12:09:00 PM
28 January - Quick, name an Egyptologist. For me, the only name I could think of was Howard Carter, who made the sensational King Tutankhamen finds. Because of a witty and instructive current biography, though, there's now another whose name I am glad to know. Belzoni: The Giant Archeologists Love to Hate (University of Virginia Press) is by Ivor NoŽl Hume, who is himself an archeologist. Hume has books about his own work in more recent archeology, and was the director of Colonial Williamsburg's research program, but he has valuable insider's insights on the work of the almost-forgotten Giovanni Belzoni, who was among the first to bring back treasures from Egypt in the wild days when museums and collectors were glad to get statues and mummy cases and didn't mind that their acquisition came from some sort of smash-and-grab operation. So archeologists do "love to hate" Belzoni, although he cannot be faulted for not having a modern idea of professional propriety. And he was literally a giant, six and a half feet tall at a time when such heights were rarities. How an Italian commoner came to be digging around the Nile for Britain proves to be a lively tale.
Belzoni was born in 1778, one of fourteen children sired by his father, a barber in Padua, Italy. He and his brothers all worked in the barbershop, but Belzoni wanted something more. His father was reluctant to let him go, but at age sixteen he was off to Rome to study hydraulics, although no one knows how he got an interest in such a subject. He was bright and good with his hands, but as he wandered through Napoleonic Europe, he didn't find that there was much call for a hydraulics engineer who spoke Italian. He wound up seeking such work in London, but no one wanted his services there, either. There was no work to be found except using his height and strength in the fairs and circuses as the "Patagonian Sampson." In his act, among other feats, he would carry twelve lesser mortals around the stage. He did well enough in this role that he could call some of his own shots, expanding into conjuring and playing the musical glasses. It was also during this time that he met his wife Sarah. Sarah may have been a tightrope walker; there are many gaps in her history and in Belzoni's (his memoir made no mention of his days as a showman). She helped polish his act, and when he had his career change in Egypt, she was a resourceful helpmeet, artist, and writer. Belzoni had a short life, and Sarah had a long widowhood during which she attempted to keep up the world's fading recognition of the husband to whom she seems to have been devoted.
The couple barnstormed around England and beyond, and while they were in Malta, Belzoni met an agent of Mohammed Ali Pasha, the ruler of Egypt. When the topic came around to the waters of the Nile and how they might be raised for better agriculture, Belzoni saw a way he could return to his passion for hydraulics. He designed an engine for the job, went to Egypt to build it and put it into action. It worked, but the pasha was not impressed with the gadget, and Belzoni and his wife were foreigners without means of support. Eventually, he contacted the British consul general, Henry Salt, who owed his appointment to his post to a wealthy patron, and knew that one way of currying favor with British aristocrats was to ship them Egyptian antiquities, for which Napoleon had made a fashion all over Europe.
Salt hired Belzoni for the initial job of going to the mortuary city of Thebes, and finding there the gigantic bust of Ramesses II, commonly called "the Young Memnon." Moving and transporting the huge statue had nothing to do with hydraulics, but it called upon Belzoni's engineering skills. A watercolor he made of the procedure shows about fifty turbaned workers pulling on ropes, with the statue on beams moving on logs as rollers. Belzoni's skill at the mechanics of such operations is unquestioned. What he was also good at was almost unlimited patience in cajoling, convincing, and threatening rulers of districts in which treasures might be found. At a time before Egyptian antiquities were valued as historical specimens, the rulers were willing to let anything go. In putting his proposal to dig at Abu Simbel, Belzoni faced the ruler of its district, who thought digging to find a temple could simply not be done. But if it could, asked Belzoni, what then? The ruler laughed and said, "If you find the temple full of gold, half of it is to be mine." This was fine with Belzoni, who said, "But if it is only full of stones, they are all my property." The ruler had no interest in any stones. Similarly, when Belzoni had opened the sepulcher of Seti I (still known as Belzoni's Tomb), the aga in charge of the area was eager to see the excavations, and wanted to know where the treasure had been put. There was no treasure, Belzoni had to say, but wanted to know what the aga thought of the magnificent painted figures on the walls all around. The aga barely looked at the murals, but then allowed, "This would be a good place for a harem, as the women would have something to look at."
Belzoni was also good at getting labor from the local populace, which Hume says often displayed "their innate reluctance to overwork." In becoming one of the first Egyptologists, he had truly found his calling. He zipped up and down the Nile for three years, raising fallen statues, resurrecting mummies and digging in the sands. He was the first man to open the magnificent temple at Abu Simbel. He discovered the entrance to the second pyramid at Giza. The giant Belzoni also visited the Great Pyramid, crawling through its inner passages and becoming so tightly wedged in that his guides had to pull him out forcibly. He was among the first to be digging and sending back treasures, but he was not the only one. His main rival was another Italian, this one working for France, Bernardino Drovetti. Sometimes their competition lead to drawn pistols, as in the conflict over who had rights to loot an obelisk from the island of Philae, but usually it was just bragging and ruses.
Belzoni was to return to Britain in 1819 as a sort of hero, even known as "The Great Belzoni." Back in London, he arranged to set up a replica of the tomb of Seti I in, no less, the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. He hit a problem, though, in trying to get Seti's sarcophagus for the display; Belzoni had excavated it and sent it back, but he and Salt and the British Museum were arguing over costs and ownership, and the display suffered without it. (It wound up in Sir John Soane's Museum.) He wrote a memoir in 1821, however, and it sold briskly: Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia. By most standards, he had a successful life and he did increase European understanding of the ancient pharaonic world. He was, to his disappointment, never to be accepted as the sort of gentleman scholar he wished to be; he was too Italian, and he had been in the circus, and he had done his digging for financial gain.
Hume displays a great deal of professional sympathy toward Belzoni's work. He thinks unfair the criticism of Belzoni as a looter, citing a passage from Belzoni's writing about crashing into mummy cases; Hume remarks, "That description, and others like it, have led to Belzoni being condemned by modern archaeologists as their profession's most dastardly plunderer - overlooking, of course, that in 1817 there was no archeological profession." Hume also comments amusingly and knowingly on the trials of the field archeologist: "Belzoni again found himself burdened with the kind of chore that is the bane and lot of every archeologist. He had to serve as tour guide for three gentlemen wished on him by Henry Salt." In other words, he was in charge of the VIP tour. Some things have not changed, it seems, although archeologists tell themselves these days that they are professionals and historians and not treasure hunters. Hume can't show that Belzoni was an exemplar of our own concepts of archeological propriety, but he has nicely given us an appreciation of Belzoni's real accomplishments.