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The Archives of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

The Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan holds a collection of archives, housed in a dedicated archive room and presently being conserved and catalogued. The material documents the history of the Department and its collections, supplementing the records of Museum administration and correspondence held in the Museum’s Central Archives.

The core documents are concerned with the acquisition and early cataloguing of objects in the collection. A series of Acquisition Register volumes contain lists of antiquities, entered by the date of acquisition or registration. They note whether the objects were presented or purchased and give the provenance if known. From 1836 until his death in office as Keeper in 1885, Samuel Birch compiled a detailed manuscript catalogue of the Egyptian antiquities on small slips of paper. These were bound into volumes and cover some ten thousand objects, at that time the entire collection.

Complementing these records are other manuscript documents concerning the major collections which entered the Department in the nineteenth century, including those of Henry Salt (1780-1827), Joseph Sams (1784-1860), and Giovanni Anastasi (1780-1860). Among the earliest records is the 1756 bequest of the Museum’s first two mummies from Col. William Lethieullier and his nephew, but other material runs up to the present time. In Autumn 2008, the archive received the gift of the papers of the German Egyptologist, the late Detlef Franke, which are currently being catalogued. They relate to his research and publications on the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. At his death, Franke was co-authoring with Marcel Marée the publication of Middle Kingdom Stelae in the British Museum. 

The departmental correspondence is bound and arranged alphabetically by year. It dates back to 1826 and covers various divisions of the original Department of Antiquities, culminating in the separation of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities into two departments in 1955, now renamed as the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan and the Department of the Middle East. The joint correspondence is bound together and kept in the Arch Room Library of the Middle East Department.  

The range of archival material is diverse and eclectic, defying neat classification. It includes the personal papers and diaries of former keepers, curators and excavators; nineteenth-century photographs and glass negatives; drawings, watercolours and prints; and an important set of ‘squeezes’, impressions on paper of ancient reliefs and inscriptions, made by John Gardner Wilkinson (1797-1875). Journals, notebooks, and correspondence in the archives from early Egyptologists and travellers to Egypt are particularly valuable as they may record monuments and inscriptions which are now damaged or lost, or reveal the provenance of objects otherwise unidentified.

Patricia Usick

The catalogue of archive material is available on a searchable database in the AES Study Room by appointment.  To consult the catalogue, or for any other archival inquiries, please email egyptian@britishmuseum.org.