The first Egyptologist in the Museum (1836-1886)

In 1836, however, a most important acquisition was made by the Museum - a young scholar, Samuel Birch, who was to become its first serious Egyptologist. Until his death in 1885, he was tireless in building up, organising, nurturing and publishing the rapidly increasing Egyptian collections, making them available to the general public and to the scholarly world through his many books and articles. When he began his study of hieroglyphics and the related hieratic script, it was little more than fifteen years since the announcement by Champollion of the first results of significance in decipherment. Birch was self-taught, but his mind was disciplined and systematic, and it was not long before he was able to contribute to the interpretation and translation of Egyptian texts.

Under his direction, the Egyptian collections of the British Museum became the base for serious Egyptology in Britain. Samuel Birch was a desk-scholar. He never went to Egypt, and rarely travelled outside England; but he corresponded with the leading Egyptologists in Europe, and studied closely the collections in his charge. He was not a vigorous collector, but he took opportunities to acquire by purchase or through the generosity of donors, important antiquities, especially papyri. One frequent visitor of Egypt, specially encouraged by Birch, was the clergyman Greville Chester. From him, by gift and purchase the Museum obtained many hundreds of objects between 1864 and 1891.

This was the period before serious excavation by Europeans had begun, and the value of Chester's material lay not only in its diversity, but also in the fact that in many cases he carefully recorded the provenances of objects. In his early years in the Museum, Birch had been instrumental in having Egyptian papyri transferred to the Department of Antiquities from the Department of Manuscripts, and thereafter he made many useful additions to the papyrus collection. In 1857, there came the Abbott Papyrus which contained the official record of a royal commission to investigate tomb robberies in Thebes in about 1125 BC; in 1863, the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus which has provided rich information about ancient Egyptian mathematics; in 1872, the Harris Papyri which included the longest known papyrus roll (41 metres), the Great Harris Papyrus which records donations to the temples of Egypt by King Ramses III of the Twentieth Dynasty.

By the time Birch had completed his initial classification of the Egyptian collections, the number of objects amounted to about 10,000. In 1866, on the break-up of the old Antiquities Department he had become Keeper of a new Department of Oriental Antiquities, which after his death was again reorganised and called the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities. He lived just long enough to witness the beginnings of excavation in Egypt by a British organisation, the Egypt Exploration Fund. Birch was not a supporter; he did not believe that objects found by foreign excavators in Egypt would be allowed to leave the country. In that he was mistaken. From their very first season at Tell el-Maskhuta in the Eastern Delta in 1883 the Egypt Exploration Fund obtained a share of their finds, of which two sculptures, a falcon and a statue of an official, were presented to the Museum. Sadly, it was too late for Birch to change his mind, and in 1885 he died.