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The first geological chronology of ancient Egypt and the antiquity of man, 1846–63

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The 1850s through early 1860s was a transformative period for Victorian studies of the remote human past, across many new and evolving disciplines. Yet very little is known about the role of ancient Egypt as a focus of these discussions. Naturalists and scholars with Egyptological knowledge fashioned themselves as authorities to contend with the divisive topic of human antiquity and looked to the country’s ancient monuments and written records to support their various claims. In a characteristic case of long-distance fieldwork, British geologist Leonard Horner relied on Turkish-born, English-educated, Cairo-based engineer Joseph Hekekyan to measure Nile silt deposits around pharaonic monuments at the ancient sites of Heliopolis and Memphis. The excavations were jointly-funded by the Royal Society of London and Egyptian government and contributed to a research program, championed by Horner and his son-in-law Charles Lyell, to assign absolute dates to the most recent geological period. Hekekyan meticulously recorded his field observations in hundreds of letters, reports, sketches and maps, which he sent to Horner for analysis. Their conclusion in 1858 that humans had existed in Egypt for over 13,000 years was particularly shocking to those who endorsed traditional biblical chronology and the work entered heated exchanges about man’s place in nature and Scriptural authority.

This talk will discuss these geo-archaeological investigations, the production and circulation of field records, Hekekyan’s role as a go-between, and lastly, the publication’s mixed reception by several groups in Britain, including Egyptologists, geologists, ethnologists, anthropologists, Scriptual chronologists and German biblical critics. The episode is indicative of the many practical attempts in this period to deal with the growing anxieties of human antiquity. It further illuminates the roles of local knowledge and ancient Egypt within debates about the age of humans and highlights mid-Victorian attempts to reshape porous disciplinary boundaries.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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