Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 25, 2013
Jeffrey Abt American Egyptologist: The Life of James Henry Breasted and the Creation of His Oriental Institute Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 536 pp.; 128 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226001104)

Born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1865, James Henry Breasted (d. 1935) became the most famous American Egyptologist of his generation. He was known not only for his historical scholarship, embodied in A History of Egypt (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), a massive book published in 1905, and the five volumes of Ancient Records of Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), published in 1906–07—achievements that led to his appointment to the first professorship in Egyptology in the United States, which he assumed at the University of Chicago in 1905. He was also widely known for many semi-popular and popular articles, guides, and textbooks, notably the highly successful Ancient Times (Boston: Ginn and Company), released in 1916 and partly responsible for galvanizing the public interest that sustained his institutional achievements. Some of his most sweeping ideas began as catchphrases for non-specialist consumption. (The most well known is his vivid if dubious notion of the “Fertile Crescent,” devised at the last minute in 1914 for a textbook (193).) Equally important for the long-term consolidation of ancient Near Eastern studies, Breasted was the first chair of the Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago and in 1920 the founding director of the university’s Oriental Institute, which remains the most important center of philology and epigraphic and archaeological research in Egyptology and other fields of ancient Near Eastern studies in North America.

In his own massive book, Jeffrey Abt recounts the frames and contexts of Breasted’s achievements. At Yale in the early 1890s, Breasted was educated in Hebrew, Assyrian, and Arabic (as well as the methods of historical criticism in Biblical studies) under the supervision of William Rainey Harper, the future first President of the University of Chicago. In the mid-1890s he went to Berlin to study Egyptian hieroglyphic script with Adolf Erman, “arguably the foremost Egyptologist of the day” (26). In Berlin, Breasted took part in the grunt work of the Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache launched by Erman. It involved him in the extensive collection of inscriptions on Egyptian artifacts in European collections, an epigraphic and lexicographic training that he later used as a model in surveys in Egypt and Nubia in the early years of the twentieth century.

Breasted’s 1894 Berlin dissertation on solar hymns of the reign of Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten, solidified an interest in Egyptian religion (and in particular in the religious reforms of Akhenaten, the “first individual in human history” [A History of Egypt, 356]) that he would pursue throughout his career, especially in Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons) in 1912 and The Dawn of Conscience (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons) of 1933. Both of these books remain suggestive today due in large measure to Breasted’s hermeneutic flair. After criticism has clarified “what the monuments say,” as Breasted put it in 1900 (82), the real business of history begins: to make sense of them as records of living human custom and belief, especially of moral conflict and ethical decision making (see 170–82).

American Egyptologist joins the short shelf of full-length books devoted to individual Egyptologists, notably Harmut Mehlitz’s examination of the first Egyptological epigraphist, Erman’s predecessor, Richard Lepsius (his Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien [1849–58] was the prototype for Erman’s and Breasted’s projects), and Margaret S. Drower’s life of the British archaeologist W. M. Flinders Petrie (Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), perhaps the only Egyptologist to make decisive conceptual contributions to the general analytic apparatus of global archaeology tout court. But American Egyptologist is not only a biography of one influential scholar. It also deals at length with the broad institutional forces (such as the organization of the University of Chicago as a research university) and international financial affairs (such as the extensive philanthropy of the Rockefellers) from which Breasted benefited and with which he contended throughout his life.

Though not an Egyptologist, Abt is sensitive to matters of Egyptological nuance. He is attentive, for example, to the Egyptological epigrapher’s special difficulties in determining whether fine differences in the visible inscribed morphology of hieroglyphs (that is, in the drawing of a particular sign) should be assigned any definite syntactic, semantic, depictive, or aesthetic value, or alternately can safely be standardized in transcription (265), and in turn to the underlying matter of defining a meaningful conceptual boundary between pictogrammatic script and depiction (61, 128, 292–93). Abt gives extended consideration to Breasted’s unusual alertness to these issues; he shows how they motivated his invention of innovative photographic and other documentary techniques.

Still, there is no reason to overdo Breasted’s intellectual perspicuity. Indeed, one might regret that he never seems to have heard of the semiotic theories of Charles Sanders Peirce or even the arguments of his colleagues in philosophy at Chicago, including George Herbert Mead (his career overlapped with Breasted’s over several decades) and Charles Morris, whose Foundations of the Theory of Signs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) of 1938 might be taken to systematize Breasted’s and like observations (hitherto conceptually informal) about syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. One can only fantasize about an “American Egyptology” that might have proceeded from Peirce, Mead, and Morris through Breasted and his students! Breasted lacked the perspective that might have enabled him to take advantage of early twentieth-century critiques of phenomenologies of meaning. Here the careers of Erwin Panofsky in art history or even Henri Frankfort, a junior colleague of Breasted’s who became Director of the Warburg Institute in 1949, would make salient counterpoints. Both of these writers were able to put their documentary methods into dialogue with contemporary philosophical phenomenology, while Breasted’s hermeneutics remained more or less literary and empathetic.

If he was an exacting documentarian, Breasted was also a “charismatic intellectual” (139). He strived to convince his colleagues and the public that “the commanding position of the lands of the [ancient] Near East in the career of man has been obscured by failure to view them in the deep and broad perspective of world history,” as he wrote in his official history of the Oriental Institute (The Oriental Institute, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1933, 3). As he saw it, an argument for the centrality of the ancient Near East in the “vast cultural synthesis” of Asian, African, and European development (ibid., 11) would not attempt to secure Judaeo-Christian scriptural narratives as history or, more scientifically, to excavate the history of Biblical times. These ideas had framed American approaches to ancient history and specifically to Egypt in the two or three generations before Breasted—an intellectual history and a social context that are the least developed aspects of Abt’s overall presentation. In contrast, Breasted urged historians to pursue “oriental science”—Egyptology, Assyriology, and so on—settled on rigorous foundations in philology, epigraphy, archaeology, and physical anthropology, all conceived as interdisciplinary helpmeets rather than as the “water-tight compartments” that had been created in classical and ancient Near Eastern studies by earlier scholars (222–23).

In context, these were not easy insights for Breasted to attain, and Abt’s story gains depth in its narrative of Breasted’s doubts and mistakes, regardless of his innovations and insights. For one thing, Breasted could never escape his Midwestern Protestant background; like many bookish young men of his day, he had contemplated a career as a preacher. Throughout his life, then, he “struggled to balance skepticism about the truth of biblical teachings with a deepening interest in the origins of what he perceived as humanity’s universal, inherent hunger for justice” (171). His student John A. Wilson later wrote that as a teacher and a fundraiser Breasted “retained an evangelical zeal” (Signs and Wonders Upon Pharaoh: A History of American Egyptology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964, 142).

For another thing, as a scholar Breasted was chiefly attracted to the “water-tight compartments” of philology and epigraphy. Only fitfully did he come to appreciate the role of scientific archaeology, including seriation and typology, in studies of ordinary material culture and geology, botany, and other sciences of land, ecology, and settlement. All this had already been well understood by such archaeologists as Petrie, whose excavations in the 1890s had opened up Egyptian prehistory (see 46–47). To be fair, as Abt notes, Breasted admired Petrie’s techniques (47), and at the time “there was not a sufficient amount of Egyptological research that integrated the results of epigraphy and archaeology” (105)—a task that Breasted’s Oriental Institute would make very much its own. Indeed, in 1933 Breasted could proudly report on the pioneering work of the Oriental Institute’s Prehistoric Survey, a “partly geological and partly archaeological” undertaking that helped crystallize an awareness of the long-term transformation of “a green and well watered upland where game was plentiful” into the “desert plateau of the Sahara” (The Oriental Institute, 129, 139)—a process of desiccation recognized by Breasted in 1919 as one of the most fateful in world history (225).

Abt’s research has been exhaustive. Many sources are cited on every conceivable relevant topic: the modern transcription of hieroglyphic texts; the history of photography in epigraphy; Sigmund Freud’s use of Breasted’s writings; the political turmoils of early twentieth-century Egypt. Particular care is given to the issues that will interest readers today. As an Orientalist, a Western student of the ancient Middle East, Breasted might sometimes have been guilty of “Orientalism”; he did not much concern himself with ordinary contemporary Egyptians, and sometimes accepted stereotypes about them. Still, as Abt points out, he did not “pander to contemporary Western tastes for the Orient’s apparent exoticisms” (91). Indeed, Abt makes the important point that “the most lasting damage wreaked by scholars of Breasted’s generation was not on the Middle East or Islam but on the founding stories and ethical underpinnings of Judaism and Christianity.” Breasted recognized this, and agonized about it. As Abt goes on to say, “It was the theological origins and intellectual primacy of Western civilization that would have to be fundamentally rethought” (60). Such seminal books as The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago), published in 1946 by Breasted’s colleagues and successors (including Frankfort as co-editor), would have been unthinkable without Breasted’s advocacy of “oriental science” as an antidote to Western parochialism, both cultural and spiritual.

Of course, Breasted was very much an American. Here Abt adopts the perspective of Breasted’s first biographer, his son Charles, who described his father as “an intensely American scientist,” one among “a whole sturdy procession of American country boys who had wandered out of Main Street into the world,” in Breasted’s case to become “a pioneer to the past” (Charles Breasted, Pioneer to the Past: The Story of James Henry Breasted, Archaeologist, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943, 3–4). Equally or more to the point—one that Abt documents in full—was the sense in which Breasted was accepted by peers in Egyptology as an Egyptologist in America, the only one to have been embraced as such so fully at the time. This was partly because Breasted was the first American to study under the majestic Erman, in turn carrying on the inaugural methods of the founder Lepsius. At a technical level, in fact, if anything Breasted was a “German Egyptologist” in America. As I have suggested, he never wholly discerned the contemporary philosophical underpinnings for a specifically American Egyptology that could have been, though it is revealing that he attributed some of his anthropological perspectives to his studies specifically of pre-Columbian and Americanist archaeology and ethnology (222–23). The fact that Breasted was an American enabled him to stand aside from nationalist squabbles among French, German, and British Egyptologists in the larger context of the European contest for control of Egypt and Sudan.

In his appreciation of his teacher, Wilson concluded that “Breasted was one of the great American voices on the past” (Signs and Wonders, 215). Abt’s book confirms this. Regardless of the technical basis of Breasted’s specialist Egyptology in its international contexts, his story of the “rise of man” in which all ethical roads did not lead to American Protestantism—indeed, in which “the emergence of social idealism” was “entirely independent of religion” (356)—was certainly a message for Americans, and surprisingly reformist.

Whitney Davis
George C. and Helen N. Pardee Professor of History of Art, Department of History of Art, University of California, Berkeley

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