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The Making of the Book: Egyptologists’ Notebooks

Posted on 29 Sep 2020

‘Elephant’ folios, ancient fascinations and two-hundred-year-old travel permits. From the British Library to the banks of the Nile, head behind the scenes of ‘Egyptologists’ Notebooks’ with author and renowned Egyptologist Chris Naunton and picture researcher Sally Nicholls.

Picture Researcher Sally Nicholls on an archival odyssey 

Egyptologists Notebooks was a voyage of discovery that involved delving deep into collections of journals, letters, sketches, watercolours and notebooks, many previously unpublished and undigitised. Author Chris Naunton and I started the journey at the Egypt Exploration Society and the British Library, where we met to look at some of the vast wealth of material held by these institutions and to get a sense of what might be available to use for the book.

I think it was a revelation to both of us to discover quite how much there was, and a sobering realisation that we would have to make tough choices as to what to include. There were archive boxes of loose sketches and notes, folders filled with numbered notebooks, rolled up maps, and at the British Library volumes and volumes of bound letters, diaries, sketches and official documentation. Just the Robert Hay collection at the British Library numbered 49 volumes.”

“Our process was to choose the collections relating (as much as we could identify them) to particular sites and periods, and then spend the hours going through them and taking snaps of the more visually interesting items. We then (slowly) made the hard decisions as to what to get photographed.”

“As well as the EES and the British Library, I also spent a day at the Bodleian Library looking through multiple boxes of material relating to John Gardner Wilkinson and his travels and work in Egypt. The collection belongs to the National Trust but is housed at the Bodleian in multiple archive boxes, and has not previously been digitised. It includes sketchbooks, letters, an original hand drawn map of Thebes, and Wilkinson’s notes for his ‘Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians’.”

“The full Wilkinson collection comprises 37.73 linear metres of shelf at the library and 343 physical shelfmarks, though not all of it is directly related to Egypt! I chose and pre-ordered a selection of items to look at, including sketchbooks and papers relating to Wilkinson’s academic work in Egypt. It was a wealth of fascinating material. I snapped away on my phone and sent notes and images to Chris (modern technology at its most useful!). Luckily he and I were in agreement as to the items we found most interesting and thought would work best.”

“Once we’d selected our materials, the photography for the book was done by the in-house photography studios of the libraries where the materials were housed. The Egypt Exploration Society, however, are a small, private institution and don’t have the facilities for professional level photography, so once we had decided on the material we wished to include, I commissioned Jonathon Vines (who also works for the Image studio at the British Library) to do a day’s photography at the EES.”

“I accompanied Jonathon, and was his assistant for the day. We met Chris and Stephanie, the EES archivist, on site and did the photography in their conference room. It was a mixture of material – some photographs and notebooks which could be simply laid out on the table, where it was easy for Jonathon to set his lights and camera for optimum results, but also some paintings both framed and unframed, and a large map.  The framed paintings needed to be carefully dusted and cleaned prior to photography, and were quite tricky to set up for optimum photography.

One of the unframed paintings and the map were too large to be displayed on the table, so a little ingenuity was required with the set-up of the lights and camera. Clean sheets of thick paper were laid out on the floor, the items were unrolled and lights set up on either side. Then, in order to get the necessary height to be able to photograph the whole object, Jonathon climbed a rickety step ladder and leaned over and photographed freehand (without tripod), while I helped hold the ladder steady.  A bit Heath-Robinson, but it got the job done!”

Author and Egyptologist Chris Naunton on swashbuckling explorers and unsung heroes

“One of the enormous images that required special photography that day at the EES was the Pendlebury drawing. John Pendlebury is a bit of a hero of mine. He was a good archaeologist and managed to make himself into an expert in the ancient cultures of both Egypt and Crete, while also carefully cultivating an image as an athletic, swashbuckling sort of adventurer. I sometimes think I might have found him a bit brash and self-regarding if I’d ever met him but I admire his iconoclasm and insistence that archaeology was meaningless if it wasn’t made accessible to the wider public.

It’s no surprise therefore that his excavations at Amarna are among the best documented, both in terms of the scientific recording but in other ways too, most strikingly in the films he made of the work and life on site. Facsimiles like the one we photographed at the EES were made as a scientific record of the things the team found, in this case a beautifully decorated lintel from the house of Akhenaten’s master builder, Hatiay. It was never published – presumably as printing in colour was expensive and perhaps considered unnecessary for scientific purposes – but it means this beautiful drawing has never had the exposure it deserves. Importantly, it was made not by Pendlebury who, as Director of the project and author of the publications, gets all the credit for the work, but by his wife, Hilda, one of a number of unsung heroes who were part of this team and others like it.”

The Description de l’Égypte

“All Egyptologists know about the Description de l’Égypte, the immense multi-volume survey of the landscape and monuments of Egypt made by the savants who accompanied Napoleon’s expedition to the country in 1798. At the time it was by far and away the most comprehensive and accurate such record ever produced; it represents a watershed monument for Egyptology, and the plates – the published form of the hundreds of drawings made by the savants – have been widely reproduced ever since. As a result, few get the chance to consult the original volumes.

While researching Notebooks I was living in the home of the late Dr. Robert Anderson, a musician and Egyptologist, and specialist in the Description. He owned a copy of the second edition, with its 24 volumes of text and twelve volumes of plates, printed at ‘elephant foilo’ size (very large!).”

“The drawings are beautiful and they’re a vitally important record of the monuments as they were at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, before any serious archaeological investigations or Mohamed Aly’s modernisation – both of which would dramatically alter the landscape of Egypt – had been undertaken. They also capture many monuments which no longer exist.

The volumes themselves seem huge and unwieldy now, but were designed for study in quiet and capacious libraries, a far cry from the war-torn Egypt in which the savants gathered their information and made their sketches. As with so many of the records I looked at while putting Notebooks together, the pages of the Description are of incalculable value for the study of ancient Egypt but they’re also incredibly evocative of the times in which they were made, and the people responsible.”

Two-hundred-year-old travel permits

“In the 19th century, travellers from Europe to Egypt needed to collect papers from the government giving permission for them to travel around the country and asking the local authorities to provide them with access to the places they wanted to visit, and protection if necessary. There were few enough of them that many came into direct contact with the senior representatives of the Egyptian government, including the ruler Mohamed Ay himself.”

“Among James Burton’s papers in the British Library is a folder of his travel permits. They were only ones I saw during my research and I found them utterly fascinating. In some cases they bear the very handwriting of Mohamed Aly. To me these documents, handwritten in the Arabic script but using the Turkish language of the Ottoman empire – of which Egypt was still a part – are incredible artefacts in their own right, and as evocative of the times as any others I saw.”

Dive deep into the excitement of Egyptology’s golden age with Egyptologists’ Notebooks, a celebration of early explorers’ eye-opening diaries and journals.

Discover the book

Egyptologists’ Notebooks

Chris Naunton