Giovanni Battista Belzoni (Biographical details)

Giovanni Battista Belzoni (archaeologist; Italian; Male; 1778 - 1823)

Also known as

Belzoni, Giovanni Battista; Belzoni, Giambattista

Biography

Italian excavator, explorer and adventurer. Born in Padua into a poor family, his father was a barber. At the age of sixteen he went to Rome in order to seek his fortune. It is said that he studied hydraulics at the this time and was (in 1798) preparing to enter the Capuchin order when the French entered the city.

After travelling throughout Europe, he worked as a strong man at the Sadler's Wells Theatre and married Sarah, his constant companion until his death. He travelled in Portugal and Spain (1812-1813) and the following year (1814) met Muhammed Ali who suggested that he should go to Egypt. Here he met Burckhardt and Drovetti, the former introducing him to Henry Salt who subsequently employed him to collect and arrange the removal of certain antiquities to The British Museum. Belzoni then visited Nubia and Aswan, where he failed to reopen the entrance to the temples at Abu Simbel, and conducted excavations at Karnak and, with Athanasi and others, on the west bank at Thebes. Some of the methods used in his early excavations, particularly at Qurna, were the cause for much contemporary and later criticism. He then excavated and recorded the monuments at Philae and continued work on the reopening of the temples at Abu Simbel. In all, he discovered six royal tombs in the Theban area, the most important being that of Sety I, in which he and his wife lived for a time. He opened, in 1818, the pyramid of Khafre and identified the site of the Ptolemaic port of Berenice, and went on an expedition to the oases but did not, as intended, reach Siwa.

He returned to England in 1819 and mounted an exhibition of his discoveries at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, in 1821, and prepared the text of the 'Narrative', his best known work, for publication. A portrait medal of him was issued in 1822 and his collection of antiquities was sold in London at this time. He was unable to secure funding for further work in Egypt and, instead, set out on a expedition to discover the source of the Niger River. He died, en route, in Gwato, Benin.

Bibliography

'Who Was Who in Egyptology', Dawson & Uphill, Third Revised Edition edited by Morris Bierbrier, London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1995; Stanley Mayes: 'The Great Belzoni: The Circus Strongman who Discovered Egypt's Ancient Treasures', London: I.B. Tauris, 2003 (paperback edition).