American Egyptomania Search


Earliest Egypt

A History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905), Chapter III, pp. 25-50

James Henry Breasted was America’s first dean of Egyptology. Founder of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, Breasted was the first American to receive a Ph.D. in Egyptology, and his A History of Egypt of 1905 was the first major textbook published in America by an American Egyptologist, and represents the first major sign of the professionalization of American Egyptology. In the twentieth century, Egyptology became an academic field, complete with institutional programs, refereed journals, chaired professors, and college students, and Breasted is best known for his founding role in this stage of the history of American Egyptomania.

Breasted did not come out of nowhere, however, and so his life and work can be seen as a bridge between the eclectic mix of tomb robbers, adventurers, linguists, and archaeologists of the nineteenth century and the authorizing role of professional academic programs of the twentieth. Indeed, his 1905 History is an excellent example of this transition: Breasted’s text’s whole presentation – his use of an objective tone, statistical data, and scientific illustrations – has its roots in the nineteenth century, but so does his choice of narrative style, picturesque imagery, and overall concern with race and racial difference. Breasted is particularly concerned to identify the racial history of the ancient Egyptians, and, before the second paragraph is over, argues against any possibility that the Egyptians were of “negro” origin. This anxiety over the connection between ancient Egypt and the rest of Africa, like the use of linguistic keys and archaeological maps, was a direct outgrowth of the origins of Egyptology in the nineteenth century, and like linguistics and maps, racial anxiety continued to shape Egyptology well past it as well.

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On the now bare and windswept desert plateau, through which the Nile has hollowed its channel, there once dwelt a race of men. Plenteous rains, now no longer known there, rendered it a fertile and productive region. The geological changes which have since made the country almost rainless, denuded it of vegetation and soil, and made it for the most part uninhabitable, took place many thousands of years before the beginning of the Egyptian civilization, which we are to study; but the prehistoric race, who before these changes, peopled the plateau, left behind them as the sole memorial of their existence vast numbers of rude flint imple- ments, now lying scattered about upon the surface of the present desert exposed by the denudation. These men of the paleolithic age were the first inhabitants of whom we have any knowledge in Egypt. They can not be connected in any way with the historic or prehistoric civilization of the Egyptians, and they fall exclusively within the province of the geologist and anthropologist.

The forefathers of the people with whom we shall have to deal were related to the Libyans or north Africans on the one hand, and on the other to the peoples of eastern Africa, now known as the Galla, Somali, Bega and other tribes. An invasion of the Nile valley by Semitic nomads of Asia, stamped its essential character unmistakably upon the Ian- rage of the African people there. The earliest strata of the e Egyptian language accessible to us, betray clearly this composite origin. While still coloured by its African antecedents, the language is in structure Semitic. It is moreover a completed product as observable in our earliest preserved examples of it; but the fusion of the Libyans and


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