The Napoleonic Expedition and the growth of collecting (1798-1836)

The event which significantly stimulated the growth of the Egyptian collections was the invasion of Egypt by the French, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1798. This aggressive campaign was designed to threaten the British regime in India, but it was attended by a more laudable purpose. The French army was accompanied by a group of scholars who were instructed to prepare a survey of Egypt, including accounts of the geography of the country, its natural history, antiquities and general customs. To this end an Institute was established in Cairo to which were brought the various specimens collected by the scholars; these included antiquities. The most notable antiquity, discovered at Rosetta in 1799, was a stone inscribed with three bands of text, written in different scripts, hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek. It was at once recognised as offering a possible key to the deciphering of the ancient Egyptian scripts, because the Greek text could be read.

After the defeat of the French in 1801, the Egyptian antiquities collected in Cairo were confiscated by the British army in the name of King George III. When they were brought back to Britain, they were presented to the British Museum, forming the first important acquisition of large sculptures. There were granite statues, seated and standing, of the lioness-deity Sekhmet from Thebes, and a huge breccia royal sarcophagus, removed from a mosque in Alexandria where it had been used as a public bath. At the time it vas thought to be the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great, the Greek conqueror of Egypt in 332 BC, but when the texts on it could be read, it turned out to belong to King Nectanebo II of the Thirtieth Dynasty, who died a generation before Alexander's conquest.

But the most important acquisition at this time was the Rosetta Stone. Although it took twenty years for the first significant results in decipherment to emerge, the stone was from the first recognised as of the greatest importance. When the stone was exhibited in the British Museum, it established the primacy of the Egyptian collections, and it has remained the best known Egyptian antiquity in the Museum. It is not a work of art, but it is recognised as the monument by which most of the reliable knowledge of ancient Egypt has been gained.

Following the defeat of the French, Egypt came under the control of Mohammed Ali Pasha, the Turkish viceroy, but virtual ruler of the land. He opened up Egypt to foreign diplomats, businessmen and tourists, and a scramble for antiquities followed. As far as the British Museum was concerned its principal agent for obtaining antiquities was Henry Salt, British Consul-General in Egypt. In partnership with Jean-Louis Burckhardt, a Swiss scholar and traveller, and with the practical help of Giovanni-Battista Belzoni, he arranged for the removal of a great bust of King Ramses II from his mortuary temple, the Ramesseum, in Western Thebes, and for its presentation to the British Museum in 1817. It was the first masterpiece of Egyptian sculpture to enter the collections, and it still occupies a prime position in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery.

The gift of this huge sculpture was received with enthusiasm by the Museum's Trustees and the British public, and Henry Salt was encouraged to undertake the regular collection of Egyptian objects for the Museum. Belzoni as Salt's agent, working with official permissions, began a campaign of excavation and collecting mostly in the Theban area. The science of excavation was not yet evolved, but Belzoni showed a natural talent for field-work, developing a sympathetic interest in ancient Egypt and its physical remains. He was instrumental in sending to London many fine sculptures, some taken from the vast temple-complex of Karnak, and others from the mortuary temple of King Amenhotep III in Western Thebes.

Belzoni also worked in the royal and nobles tombs in Western Thebes, and built up for Salt a large collection of smaller objects: tomb painting, papyri, small sculpture, wooden tomb figures, and items of domestic furniture and household equipment. Much of this additional material also came to the British Museum from Henry Salt, providing the foundation of the rich collection of funerary equipment and of objects illustrating the daily life of the ancient Egyptians. Unfortunately, a dispute between Henry Salt and the Trustees of the Museum resulted in a large part of Salt's collection going to Paris.

By the middle of the 1820s British travellers in Egypt brought back to Britain large quantities of antiquities, and in due course many important pieces were presented to the Museum. Purchases were also made at the many sales of antiquities which occurred with increasing frequency during the first half of the nineteenth century. In particular, many fine papyri and small objects were bought in 1835 at the sale of the remnants of Henry Salt's collection (he himself had died in 1827). In 1833 papyri and funerary inscriptions in quantity were bought at the sale of John Barker, Salt's successor as Consul-General in Egypt; in 1834 the collection of Joseph Sams was acquired; in 1836 purchases were made at the James Burton sale and at the first of two sales of Salt's second agent Giovanni d'Athanasi (the second followed in 1837). Very important literary papyri were bought in 1839 at the sale of the huge collection amassed by an Armenian merchant in Alexandria, generally known as Giovanni Anastasi.

From the time of the foundation of the Museum, the Egyptian objects were part of the general Department of Antiquities, and there was no Egyptological specialist to supervise or promote them. Yet during the 1830s many thousands of small objects swelled the Egyptian collections, and also many larger pieces: two monumental lions, given in 1835 by Lord Prudhoe who had brought them to Britain from Gebel Barkal in the Sudan. They had originally been set up in the temple of King Amenhotep III at Soleb, also in the Sudan; one bears the name of King Tutankhamun. In 1837, the Museum purchased a very important list of Egyptian kings which came from the temple of King Ramses II at Abydos.