Amelia Edwards: Egyptology’s First Public Historian

Known as the “Godmother of Egyptology,” Amelia Edwards, British author, traveler, and social climber opened new doors for the field of Egyptology when she formed the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) in 1882.  This British Victorian society was managed by academics and enthusiastic amateurs interested in the study and preservation of ancient Egyptian history.  The EEF was funded by subscriptions and donations from the public, and these monies went to fund excavations in Egypt, publications of discoveries, and transport of objects to museums in Britain, Egypt, and the United States.  The society had a long-lasting impact on the field of Egyptology.  The EEF changed its name to the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) in 1919, and the society is still operating today.  For historians, EEF can be considered part of a larger British Victorian Biblical archaeological movement, entangled with British imperialist interests in Egypt.   

Amelia Edwards

Amelia Edwards.  Image courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society and TrowelBlazers.

There are a number of publications written in recent years about Edwards, springing in part from an increased scholarly interest in women’s history.1  Edwards was no ordinary woman.  She did not come from a noteworthy family, she had no titles, no formal education, but despite these obstacles she made a name for herself.  She never married and became independently wealthy through her writing.  Today, her most well-known work was a travelogue about her trip to Egypt, published in 1877 entitled, A Thousand Miles up the Nile.2  When she toured the country, she was distressed by the dilapidated state of the monuments.  Egyptians and European tourists sought antiquities to sell and Egypt’s monuments were easy targets.  These eager, poorly-trained antiquarians often destroyed the very things they valued.  Edwards wrote in A Thousand Miles, “the work of destruction, meanwhile goes apace. There is no one to prevent it, there is no one to discourage it. […] When science leads the way, is it wonderful that ignorance should follow?”3  She believed that the Egyptians were not capable of protecting their history from themselves and others and that action needed to be taken immediately by the British.

A Thousand Miles up the Nile Book cover

A Thousand Miles up the Nile by Amelia B. Edwards.  Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Digital Library and “A Celebration of Women Writers,” Mark Mark Ockerbloom, editor.

Edwards, after returning home to England, wrote to friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers in Egyptology for help in starting a society, and in 1882 the Egypt Exploration fund was born.  There has been much debate about the real motivation behind Edwards’ startling career change from fiction author to society founder.  The current scholarship on Edwards attributes her travels in Egypt as the motivation for her creation of the society which aimed to preserve and explore Biblical and Egyptian sites.  In my research, I argue that Edwards, a woman in Victorian England with no titles  a modest background, would not have been accepted as an equal among the British elite, no matter how popular her gothic novels.  Edwards drew on her experiences in Egypt and the popularity of her travelogue and wielded the EEF as a tool to cultivate connections with scholars and wealthy supports, thus elevating herself as a member of British Victorian elite.  But, enough about my research, let’s get back to public history.    

Karnak

“Yet to look is something, if one can but succeed in remembering; and the Great Hall of Karnak is photographed in some dark corner of my brain for as long as I have memory.”  – Amelia Edwards in A Thousand Miles up the Nile.  Chapter VIII:  Hypostyle Hall, Karnak Temple, Luxor, Egypt.  Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Digital Library and “A Celebration of Women Writers,” Mary Mark Ockerbloom, editor.

The EEF needed money so that it could pay archaeologists to dig in Egypt.  To raise funds and share the latest Egyptological news and findings, the EEF’s archaeologists published a series called Memoirs which were available for purchase.  Edwards often summarized progress updates from the archaeologists in the field and published these in newspapers and journals such as The Times and The Academy, to reach both public and academic audiences. Edwards was a talented author who was adept at writing to the general public.  Her audience knew little of Egypt and she was extremely capable of inspiring interest in her readers.  She brought this unique skill to the EEF’s publications.

Not everyone was supportive of this ground-breaking approach.  When the editor of The Morning Post, a daily newspaper from London, suggested to Edwards his interest in creating a column about ancient Egypt, Edwards reached out to her Egyptology contacts for support.  One scholar, Samuel Birch, discouragingly responded to Edwards.  Birch believed that the British Museum’s ancient Egypt displays were enough public outreach.4  For Birch, Egypt’s history did not belong to the masses.

Edwards’ effort to reach the public went beyond newspaper articles and museum exhibits. In 1889, Edwards traveled to the United States to give lectures at colleges and museums in American cities including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Baltimore.  Edwards had over two thousand people attend her first lecture, ‘The buried cities of ancient Egypt,’ held at the Academy of Music in New York.5  She was also the first woman to be allowed to lecture at the Peabody Institute, where there were over thousand people in attendance.6  During her five months in the United States, Edwards gave over 120 lectures and reached thousands of people.7  She did all of this while in ill-health; she would be diagnosed with breast cancer a few months later.      

 

Edwards Stela

Upon her death, Edwards bequeathed financial support for a Egyptology teaching position at the University College London, the first of its kind in Britain.  She also left her private collection, including this stela of Osiris and Neskhons.  This collection founded  the Petrie Museum.

Edwards’ efforts changed how ancient history was presented.  Unlike historically-geared societies of the past, Edwards worked to get the EEF to publish and present information in ways that would be easily accessible to the public.  This approach was truly progressive and indicative that the EEF was something unique, thanks to the efforts of Edwards.

 

This blog post is based upon my ongoing research during my Ancient Near Eastern Colloquium Independent Study under the guidance of Dr. Pedram Partovi.

 Erichson, Alexandra.  “Amelia Edwards and the Egypt Exploration Fund.”  American University, 2015.   

  1.  There are many biographical works on Amelia Edwards.  For more information see Amanda Adams, Ladies of the Field:  Early Women Archaeologists and their Search for Adventure (Berkeley:  Greystone Books D&M Publishers Inc., 2010).  Adams bases much of her work off of two older publications: Joan Rees, Women on the Nile:  Writings of Harriet Martineau, Florence Nightingale and Amelia Edwards, (London:  The Rubicon Press, 2008), Patricia O’Neill, “Destination as Destiny:  Amelia B. Edwards’s Travel Writing,” Frontiers:  A Journal of Women Studies 30, no. 2 (2009), http://www.jstor.org/stable/40388730, and Brenda Moon, More Usefully Employed:  Amelia B. Edwards, writer, traveller and campaigner for ancient Egypt (London:  Egypt Exploration Society, 2006).  Another work of interest on Amelia Edwards is Joan Rees, Amelia Edwards:  Traveller, Novelist & Egyptologist (London:  The Rubicon Press, 1998).  Rees’ works view Edwards’ trip to Egypt as the reason behind her passion to protect and preserve Egypt’s ancient history.  Adams, Moon, O’Neill, and Rees would disagree that imperialism, Biblical studies, or desire for fame had any influence on creating the EEF.
  2. A.B. Edwards, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, (London:  George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1877).  
  3. A.B. Edwards, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, vol. 2, (London:  1887), 519f, quoted in Margaret S. Drower, Flinders Petrie:  A Life in Archaeology (London:  Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1985), 57.
  4. EES III.j.3, quoted in Brenda Moon, More Usefully Employed:  Amelia B. Edwards, writer, traveller and campaigner for ancient Egypt (London:  Egypt Exploration Society, 2006), 161.
  5.  Moon, More Usefully Employed, 224.
  6.  Ibid.,228.
  7. Amanda Adams, Ladies of the Field:  Early Women Archaeologists and their Search for Adventure (Berkeley:  Greystone Books D&M Publishers Inc., 2010), 38.

 

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