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Object Lessons: The Egyptian Collections of the University of California, Berkeley: Digging the Past

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Digging through Layers of the Past

Tebtunis was inhabited through the Islamic conquest of Egypt until the twelfth century CE, when residents moved closer to the cultivation area, to the nearby village of Tutūn. Beginning with Ottoman control in 1517, Egypt became embroiled in global networks of imperialist dominance, passing into European hands with the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798.

 

Henderson, Apperson Hearst, Roosevelt, Wheeler, and others on Charter Day

Berkeley, March 23, 1911

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, UARC PIC 01:004

 

By the nineteenth century, new modes of oceanic travel made Egypt a popular destination for westerners, who could sail down the Nile in luxury. Having nurtured an interest in antiquity and philanthropy, Phoebe Apperson Hearst (1842–1920) worked with the German-American archaeologist, George Reisner (1867–1942), to sponsor excavations in Egypt from 1899 to 1905.

 

Through Reisner, Mrs. Hearst employed a pair of Oxford scholars, Bernard Grenfell (1869–1926) and Arthur Hunt (1871–1934), to excavate at the site of Tebtunis in the winter of 1899–1900. Though they dug for only one season, the number of objects that they unearthed was immense. The Greek papyri that they excavated were first sent to England for study and today form the core of the collection of the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri.

 

As an academic supporter, the University of California enabled George Reisner to develop a form of systematic excavation. He believed in the scientific pursuit of archaeology and applied early photography to record the exact layout of objects as he found them. At Mrs. Hearst’s request, he maintained an active correspondence, including details of his discoveries throughout the period of sponsorship. Just as financial difficulties forced Mrs. Hearst to end her funding of Reisner’s work in 1904, she visited his project at the pyramids of Giza.

Early-Twentieth Century Travel in Egypt

A California Woman Faces down the Sphinx

 

Photo of Phoebe Apperson Hearst at the pyramids with her companions and guides

Photographer Unknown

Giza, Winter 1898–1899

Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 15-18884


“In Egyptology as in everything else the great idea is to do something new and ‘sensational’…”

 

Letter to Phoebe Apperson Hearst

William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951)

1899

 

The intergenerational involvement of the Hearst family in the excavations in Egypt is evident in this letter written by William Hearst to his mother Phoebe. He mentions his personal interest in the archaeological work, which included meeting with George A. Reisner to discuss potential sites. Elsewhere Hearst’s stated interest is the conservation of Egypt’s history, but here he suggests a desire to do “something new and ‘sensational.’” He also reports how Mrs. Hearst’s renown for her generosity had spread far and wide, proudly signing the letter, “Affectionately, Mrs. P. A. Hearst’s Son.”

 

Letterhead used by William Randolph Hearst while sailing down the Nile on a type of steamboat known as a dahabeah

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, BANC MSS 72-204 c Box 6, Folder 32

 

 

Photograph of the dahabeah Serapis (Programme of Cook's Arrangements for Visiting Egypt: The Nile, Soudan, Etc., 1900-1901, Thomas Cook & Sons, pg. 52)

 


A Guide to Egypt – and Where to Buy Antiquities

 

Karl Baedeker

Egypt: Handbook for Travelers with 22 Maps, 55 Plans, and 66 Views and Vignettes. Fourth remodeled edition

Leipzig, 1898

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, DT 45.B2

 

 

Seeking an Expert Archaeological Opinion Before Buying a Mummy

 

Letter to Phoebe Apperson Hearst

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853–1942)

Karnak, Egypt, 11 February 1899

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, BANC MSS 72-204 c Box 43, Folder 26

 

Shipping and Handling

 

Letter from Thomas Cook & Sons about shipping objects from Egypt

London, England, 26 June 1889

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, BANC MSS 72–704 c Box 43, Folder 28

Note by Phoebe Apperson Hearst on the back of the letter: “Ship to S.F. by sailing ship around the Horn”

Digging at Tebtunis

Grenfell and Hunt Sat on their Bench like Bookends

Bernard Grenfell (left) and Arthur Hunt (right) in front of their tent at Tebtunis

Photographer Unknown

Tebtunis, 1899–1900

 

Bernard Pyne Grenfell (1869–1926) and Arthur Surridge Hunt (1871–1934) were undergraduate friends before they began excavating at Tebtunis in the winter of 1899–1900. After publishing papyri on his own, Grenfell persuaded the Egypt Exploration Fund to finance excavations in 1895 and eventually convinced Hunt to join him in the field. They worked together for many years in the Fayyūm and at Oxyrhynchus. During their partnership, Grenfell and Hunt excavated and published the objects they found. Hunt described their collaborative process, stating:

 

Problems which arose in the field, difficulties of decipherment and interpretation, were ventilated and discussed. Copies of papyri were exchanged for the purpose of collation, and whatever one wrote was revised by the other.

 

Obituary of Bernard Grenfell by Arthur Hunt

Proceedings of the British Academy 12 (1926): 362.

 

Courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society, GR.NEG.053


“The U. of California is to be congratulated on the outlook of getting a mass of material such as no other American University possesses.”

Letter to Phoebe Apperson Hearst

George A. Reisner (1867–1942)

Helwan, Egypt, 23 June 1899

 

George Reisner cannot contain his excitement about securing the services of Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt to excavate in the name of the University of California. Having referred to the two in a previous letter as “the two most distinguished men at present in this field” (Letter to Phoebe Apperson Hearst, 1 May 1899, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley), Reisner recognized the significant contribution their work would have in supporting Mrs. Hearst’s goals for the University of California. Despite the fact that the project had not yet obtained permission to excavate, Reisner was sure that Grenfell and Hunt would successfully round out Mrs. Hearst’s Californian collection with Ptolemaic and Roman objects.

 

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, George and Phoebe Apperson Hearst Papers, 1849–1926, BANC MSS 72-204 c, Box 43, Folder 20


Digging in the Desert Wind

Arthur Hunt (1871–1934)

Egypt, ca. 1900

This photograph depicts Bernard Grenfell supervising work by his excavation team while sand blows around them. Although largely absent from the publication record, large teams of skilled Egyptian workers—men, women, and children—were key to the success of early excavations such as those at Tebtunis. Grenfell and Hunt employed many of the same individuals year after year, following a practice common in Middle Eastern archaeology of the time.

 

Brains are the absolute essential for papyrus digging. A workman may be as honest as the sun, but if he cant see the papyrus at once (and it requires an very sharp eye to do so in the perpetual clouds of dust) he passes it over or else knocks it to bits, and is therefore as bad or worse than a thief.

 

Letter from Bernard Grenfell to Sir W. M. Flinders Petrie, 14 February [1897]

Petrie Museum of Archaeology, 6/GRE/01

 

Courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society. GR.NEG.026

 

 

Members of Grenfell and Hunt’s Excavation Team

Arthur Hunt (1871–1934)

Egypt, ca. 1900

Courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society, GR.NEG.209


Reporting Discoveries in a Hearst Newspaper

“Ancient Egyptian Treasures Hidden in Mummies and Crocodiles.”

Bernard P. Grenfell (1869–1926)

American Magazine Supplement to the New York Journal

10 June 1900

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.


“Many of these [papyri] are extremely large and well preserved and of immense importance for the internal history of Egypt…” 

Letter to President Benjamin Ide Wheeler

Bernard P. Grenfell (1869–1926)

Oxford, England, 29 October 1901

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, BANC CU-5 Series 1 Box 7, Folder 154


“I am very glad that the reviews of the Tebtunis Papyri which have appeared do justice to the munificence which prompted your undertaking.”

Letter to Phoebe Apperson Hearst

Bernard P. Grenfell (1869–1926)

Beni Mezar, Egypt, 27 February 1903

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, BANC MSS 72-204 c Box 43, Folder 25

The Hearst Egyptian Expedition

“George A. Reisner agrees to give his whole time and attention to conducting excavations in Egypt…”

 

Original contract between Phoebe Apperson Hearst and George A. Reisner establishing her support for the Egyptian Excavations

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, BANC MSS 72-204 c, Box 43, Folder 19

 

 

George A. Reisner

The Hearst Egyptian Expedition

1903

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, BANC MSS 72-204 c Box 43, Folder 19

 


“Mr. Reisner, in the name of the University of California…”

 

One-year permit for George Reisner to excavate at the Giza pyramids

Gaston Maspero (1846–1916), Director of the Antiquities Service

Cairo, Egypt, 4 December 1903

 

George Reisner received a permit from the Egyptian Antiquities Service, a government office run by a European until 1952, to excavate at Giza. Permits like this were issued in an attempt to stop illegal digging and the export of antiquities from the country, while still guaranteeing the excavator a set of objects through a division process known by the French “partage.” Reisner was given a concession, or excavation area, in which he was allowed to work and did so alongside German and Italian teams until his death in 1942. His system of archaeological recording at Giza was methodical and extensive, as he had honed it through his years working for Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Partage is no longer practiced in Egypt.

 

Facsimile © 2019 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

 

Sabtu, Overseer of Craftsmen, and his Son Hetepirek

 

Painted limestone tomb statue

Tomb 1402, Giza, Dynasty 5 (2465-2323 BCE)

 

Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 6-19803

 


The Hearst Medical Papyrus

 

This exceptionally preserved papyrus, originally measuring around 3.5 meters long, has remedies for ailments from head to toe. It was given to Reisner after it was found by a local farmer near Deir el-Ballas. The quality of the papyrus and beautiful hieratic writing – a cursive form of hieroglyphs – suggest that it was something more than a typical doctor’s manual. Unlike today, medicine and magic in ancient Egypt were closely linked, and magic did not have its current negative connotations. Instead, problems in the body were thought to be caused by spells or malevolent spirits; for this reason, this papyrus includes numerous incantations.

 

Papyrus roll containing 260 medical prescriptions

Deir el-Ballas, Early New Kingdom (ca. 1550 BCE)

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, P.Hearst 1

 

George A. Reisner

The Hearst Medical Papyrus: Hieratic Text in 17 Facsimile Plates in Collotype with Introduction and Vocabulary

Leipzig, 1905

The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, University of California, Berkeley, fPJ1681.H4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

San Francisco Chronicle

13 February 1906

Newspapers & Microforms Library, University of California, Berkeley


An Orientalizing Dream of Egypt in Northern California

 

“Historic Splendor of Ancient Egypt Revives for Dr. George A. Reisner”

The Examiner, San Francisco

19 September 1902

 

Phoebe Apperson Hearst hosted George A. Reisner and his family in California in 1902. Reisner gave a week of public lectures at Berkeley, but the highlight of his trip was a lavish party at Mrs. Hearst’s Pleasanton estate, Hacienda del Pozo del Verona. As was common at the time, the event presented a Western fantasy of Egypt, prioritizing its buried past over the reality of the contemporary colonized state. William Randolph Hearst covered the Egyptian night with a two-page spread in his paper The Examiner, including the guestlist, a who’s who of the Bay Area.

 

Newspapers & Microforms Library, University of California, Berkeley


“[T]his must be my last stay in Egypt, and my association with the work there ceases.”

 

Letter to George A. Reisner

Phoebe Apperson Hearst (1842–1919)

Paris, France, 5 November 1904

 

In a ten-page letter, Phoebe Apperson Hearst informs George A. Reisner that she must end support for the University of California Egyptian Expedition. Having been heavily invested in the excavations for five years, Mrs. Hearst’s tone is one of sorrow. She explains to Mr. Reisner that recent financial troubles, as well as a lack of public recognition for her philanthropic work, will prevent her from providing further assistance. Mrs. Hearst ends the letter by telling her long-time friend about her hopes for her last trip to Egypt, the land to which she had devoted so much attention and resources.

 

Facsimile © 2019 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Celebrating with Mrs. Hearst

Photograph of Phoebe Apperson Hearst at George Reisner’s Giza dig house

Photographer Unknown

Giza, Egypt, February 1905

 

When Phoebe Apperson Hearst first visited Egypt in the winter of 1898–1899, she was a relatively new to archaeology, itself a recently developed scientific discipline. Over the five years she sponsored the excavations in Egypt, however, she became familiar with the practices of the field and comfortable with its terminology. Mrs. Hearst made a final trip to Egypt in the winter of 1904–1905. She spent some time at Reisner’s excavation camp in order to get first-hand experience on the project.

 

We saw a tomb opened where they found two statues. If you had seen me hanging over the edge of the place looking down to see the figures as they were uncovered, you might have thought it right to class me with excavators. I was more excited than anyone.

 

Phoebe Apperson Hearst to Orrin Peck, 9 February 1905

The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, Pasadena, California

 

That winter proved especially harsh with strong winds, sandstorms, and rain. Mrs. Hearst (between two of the excavators: Norman de Garis Davies [1865–1941] to the left and Arthur C. Mace [1874–1928] to the right) covers her face against the elements. The event they have gathered to watch is a dance by a group of Rifa’i, an order of Sufi Islam.

 

Group of Refa’s dancing at Bevian at Harvard Camp (HUMFA B11838 OS)

Facsimile © 2019 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


The Women Behind the Excavation

Letter to Phoebe Apperson Hearst

Mary P. Reisner (1870–1950)

Pyramids, Egypt, 3 July 1906

 

With daughter Mary in tow, Mary Reisner lived with her husband George in Egypt every season. She also travelled to San Francisco in 1902 and enjoyed the hospitality of Phoebe Apperson Hearst. The two women corresponded for many years, exchanging news about children, friends, and the work in the field. This letter was prompted by a gift Mrs. Hearst had sent and conveys shock over recent events in the Bay Area:

 

We were so relieved to know that you were not in San Francisco during the terrible earthquake. What an appalling thing it was! One fails to grasp the awful extent of the disaster even with the help of photographs.

 

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, BANC MSS 72-204 c Box 22, Folder 26

 

The Reisner Family at Giza

Photograph of pyramid excavators and their families in front of their dig house

Clarence Fisher (1876–1941)

Giza, Egypt, 1913

Left to right: Mrs. Fisher, Fisher child, Clarence Fisher, Miss Nelly Abel, Miss Mary Reisner, Mrs. Mary Reisner, George Reisner, and Oric Bates (HUMFA A6119_NS)

Facsimile © 2019 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Further Excavations at Tebtunis

Lo Scavo (“The Excavation”)

Film and Photographs of the Italian Egyptian Expedition

 

“I am very happy to report extraordinary success on the part of Grenfell and Hunt in the Fayum. They have found nearly as much as in any ordinary year.”

 

Letter of George Reisner to Phoebe Apperson Hearst, 2 January 1900

The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

 

During their short four-month season in 1899–1900, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt found more papyri than could be published in a lifetime. But they had dug only a small fraction of the site of Tebtunis. Hunt used a still camera to document the excavation. By the 1930s, when a team of Italian archaeologists worked at the site, motion picture technology had advanced enough to make shooting films on site practical and affordable. Gilbert Bagnani, one of the directors, recorded a range of experiences, from arriving at Alexandria and building the dig house to the excavation – including of a large find of papyri!

 

“The quantity [of papyrus] is so enormous that we have made no attempt at sorting them, but have filled three large suitcases and some eight tin boxes with them.”

 

Letter of Gilbert Bagnani to his wife, Stewart, 11 March 1931

Gilbert and Stewart Bagnani fonds, Trent University Archives

 

Selection of Film Footage from Tebtunis

Gibert Bagnani (1900–1985)

Tebtunis, Early 1930s

Courtesy of the Edward P. Taylor Library and Archives, Art Gallery of Ontario. Gilbert and Stewart Bagnani fonds. Gift of Eleanor Currie, 1998

 

Photograph of a Suitcase of Papyri

Courtesy of Archivio Anti presso il Museo di Scienze Archeologiche e d’Arte del Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali dell’Università degli Studi di Padova

 

Photograph of the “cantine dei papiri" from 1931

Courtesy of Archivio Anti presso il Museo di Scienze Archeologiche e d’Arte del Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali dell’Università degli Studi di Padova