Religion and Science in Late-Nineteenth-Century British Egyptology

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The late nineteenth century is generally considered to be the period of Egyptology’s development into a scientific discipline. The names of Egyptologists of the last decades of the century, including William Flinders Petrie, are associated with scientific technique and objective interpretation as well as colonialist agendas. This article’s thesis is that rapid developments in scientific technique were largely driven by spiritual objectives rather than any other ideologies. Egypt – after being derided and ignored during the mid-century – became of great significance to the British when spectacular finds suggested that Egyptology might offer conclusive evidence against Darwinism and the higher criticism while proving events of the Old Testament to be historically true. Other groups used ancient Egypt – professing Darwin, Spencer, and Huxley as inspirations – but the teleologies they invariably produced owe more to spiritualism than to scientific naturalism, blurring boundaries between science, the occult, and religion. In terms of popularity traditional Christian approaches to ancient Egypt eclipsed all rivals, every major practising Egyptologist of the 1880s employing them and publications receiving large, demonstrably enthusiastic, audiences. Support for biblical Egyptologists demonstrates that, in Egyptology, the fin de siècle enjoyed a little-noticed but widely supported revival of Old-Testament-based Christianity amidst a flowering of diverse beliefs.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1083-1103
JournalThe Historical Journal
Issue number4
Early online date24 Nov 2006
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2006


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