My Favorite Artifact

BY CARL ABREGO, Department Manager, Residential College (former Kelsey Administrative Specialist) and Member, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan

Favorite Artifact: Description de l’Égypte. Paper, pigment, leather binding. Deluxe first edition. Published 1809–1822 in Paris. Bound by Rowfant Bindery in Cleveland, Ohio, 1912–1914. KM 2003.4.1a–w.

Why: “One of my co-workers described the Description de l’Égypte volumes as ‘coffee table books on steroids!’ I love books so when Sebastián Encina, Museum Collections Manager, first showed them to me, I had to agree! Their size is very impressive, as is the sheer vibrant color of many of the illustrations. Plus, the Kelsey’s set is a deluxe first edition.

“I couldn’t ever imagine being one of the people who drew the illustrations or wrote the descriptions. It’s impressive in itself how much time and energy went into the development of the content to provide a real record of Egypt at that time.”

About Artifact: Description de l’Égypte is an amazingly detailed description of Egypt’s past and then-present. Editor François Jomard based the content on material collected by a scientific commission of approximately 175 scholars, appointed by Napoleon to accompany his 1798 expedition to Egypt. There, he directed the scholars to study all of Egypt.

The Kelsey’s set includes 23 volumes: 10 with text and 13 with illustrations (including 3 elephantine folios), many in color. Published from 1809 to 1829, Description pages were sold individually, mainly to financially well-off people. Owners later arranged to have their pages bound into books. The Kelsey’s pages were published 1809 through 1822.

Desscription volumes

Left: Volumes of the Description de l’Égypte in their storage drawer in the Kelsey Museum; right: Collections Manager Sebastián Encina displays an elephantine volume.

The scientific commission included engineers, mechanics, surveyors, cartographers, interpreters, printers, architects, surgeons, pharmacists, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, astronomers, geologists, zoologists, archaeologists, economists, artists, musicians, and poets, according to historian J. Christopher Herold in The Age of Napoleon.

Once in Cairo, the scientific commission established the Institute of Egypt and a headquarters on the edge of the city. Before them lay a massive undertaking. They set up a library, laboratories, workshops, observatory, museum, zoological and botanical collections, aviary, agricultural-experiment station, artists’ studios, printing plant, living quarters, and a meeting hall, all to support and process their research findings.

“Freed from the social distractions of Paris,” writes Herold, “the scholars gave themselves over with adventurous zeal to their various pursuits . . . . to the study of the fish of the Nile, of mummified cats and birds, of desert insects, of Oriental music. Field teams were assigned to such tasks as surveying the Isthmus of Suez, compiling detailed topographical maps of Egypt, and exploring the ruins and antiquities.”

Two illustrations from the Description de l'Égypte: on the left, an asp; on the right, ibis mummies and other mummy fragments.

Two illustrations from the Description de l’Égypte: on the left, an asp; on the right, ibis mummies and other mummy fragments.

Worldwide Impact: “This work, a unique event in archaeological history, at one stroke impressed on the modern world’s attention a culture hitherto unknown but to a few travelers, a culture as remote and mysterious, if not completely hidden from view, as that of Troy,” said C. W. Ceram in Gods, Graves, and Scholars. “They saw in it things never seen before, they read of absolute novelties, they became aware of a mode of life the existence of which had previously not even been suspected. Having more capacity for reverence than ourselves, they must have experienced a shuddering sensation as they were carried back thousands of years.”

And Egyptology was born.

Artifact Source: In 1953, Dr. Otto O. Fisher gave the Kelsey a complete deluxe first edition of Description de l’Égypte. Fisher was a surgeon who interned at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital in 1922–23 and then practiced in Detroit. According to Kelsey Curator Emerita Lauren Talalay, Fisher was an avid bibliophile, whose collection of rare books and documents numbered more than 20,000 at one time.

Talalay said he gave Description to the Kelsey in exchange for his recall of the Fisher Papyrus (an impressive copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead), which he had lent to the museum on a long-term basis but eventually wished to sell.

Background: Napoleon I left Toulon, France, in 1798 with a fleet of 328 vessels, carrying 38,000 men headed for Egypt. He intended a world-conquering expedition (such as Alexander the Great’s), which he initially expected to push as far east as India. Napoleon did capture Egypt for about a year. But, in the end, he was defeated and fled Egypt in 1799. Many of his soldiers and scholars, however, remained for another year.

One of Napoleon’s soldiers found a stele of polished black basalt with inscriptions in three different forms of writing. This was the famous Rosetta Stone, now housed in the British Museum (the British having defeated the French in Egypt). Although many of the artifacts found by the French eventually had to be turned over to Britain, the French retained all the drawings and descriptions of Egypt that they had completed, taking them back to France and eventually producing the Description.

Find It: Currently, none of the Kelsey’s Description de l’Égypte volumes are on exhibit, but at least one volume will be part of a special exhibition—“Passionate Curiosities: Collecting in Egypt & the Near East, 1880s–1950s” (August 28–November 29, 2015)—to be curated by Margaret Cool Root. Scholars may inquire about the books from Museum Collections Manager Sebastián Encina at sencina@umich.edu.

Learn More: Currently scheduled for publication in late 2015: Passionate Curiosities: Tales of Collectors & Collections from the Kelsey Museum by Lauren E. Talalay and Margaret Cool Root. To be available for purchase in the Kelsey Gift Shop and online from ISD.

View an online edition of Description de l’Égypte here.

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