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Centenary Awards 2010-11: From Helene Virenque in London

Continuing the series of reports on research supported by the Society through the Centenary Fund, Dr Hélène Virenque discusses her project, ‘“A Swiss Egyptologist on Her Majesty’s Service”: Édouard Naville and the Egypt Exploration Fund through his correspondence’


Hélène Virenque at work in the Society's archives.


“From the time of his first contact with A.B. Edwards and R.S. Poole until the end of his excavations in Lower Egypt (1880-1892), Edouard Naville wrote approximately 200 letters to the joint honorary secretaries of the EEF, which are now kept in the Society’s Lucy Gura Archive. Writing in a fine and fast hand and in perfect classical English (a skill inherited during 1862-1863 when he attended King’s College, London), Naville mentions his researches at major sites in the Delta such as Tell el-Maskhuta, Saft el Hinna, the famous site of Bubastis (Tell Basta) and Tell el Yahudieh. 


Edouard Naville among his workmen at Tell Basta.


This scientific correspondence contains precious details about his everyday life as an Egyptologist, how the hard work was divided between Naville and the engineers Achille Jaillon and the Count Riamo d’Hulst and eventually about the editing of the final publications, in which his wife, Marguerite (née de Pourtalès), played a great part thanks to her skill in drawing. Several letters of the Count and Marguerite provide a comprehensive picture of the work undertaken between Egypt, Switzerland and England.


A letter of 24 March 1889 to Miss Edwards from Naville in Cairo. Naville writes about his excavations in Bubastis, and has added little sketches of excavated fragments.


Edouard Naville was indeed a true anglophile, supporting the creation of the Fund and maintaining its good relations with the director of Egyptian Antiquities, particularly when the post was held by his colleague and friend Gaston Maspero. His efforts were especially appreciated by Poole to whom he wrote most of his letters. At the same time, Miss Edwards always thoroughly corrected the reports Naville sent for the Committee and his articles for the Academy. This close relationship between the Fund’s ‘officer in charge of explorations’ and both honorary secretaries never failed even when Naville’s theories about East Delta topography especially the “Pithom” case was criticized by many Egyptologists such as Lepsius and Petrie.


An image of a Hathor capital from the temple of Bastet at Tell Basta


A letter written to R.S. Poole dated the 8th of January 1886 shows that this was not only a matter of words: Naville wished to thank Poole for offering to support his possible application for the post of Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum, which had been vacant since the death of Samuel Birch in 1885, but also seems quite circumspect when faced with Poole’s enthusiasm:

“ I am most thankful for your very great kindness to me and I wish I could express it as well as I feel it. I consider as one of the results which are most valuable to me of the creation of the Fund, the good friendship which we have contracted and I most earnestly hope and I beg from you that whatever may happen even I do not come to the museum, nothing may be changed in that respect […] I feel now more keenly than I ever did the immense number of links which bind me to my country, to my family, to my present mode of life […] but besides all other difficulties, I doubt whether at my age (41) I shall bear well such a total change of life. You see how perplexed I am I can assure you I feel most miserable […]” [EES Archive.V.d.2]

Eventually, it was Peter Le Page Renouf who would be appointed to the post, a few months later.

My aim for this visit to the EES archives is to scan the letters written by Naville and others which concern directly his excavations in the Delta, such as drafts for reports or articles. I have also noted a few letters written by his spouse Marguerite during the process of editing the Memoirs. The final project publication will consist of a transcription of the letters along with a historic and archaeological commentary.

This scientific correspondence will be complemented by two other corpora of material. The first are the letters written by A.B. Edwards and R.S. Poole to Edouard Naville which are kept in the Geneva Library. These letters along with those of the EES represent the complete correspondence and provide a unique opportunity to follow the discussions pursued over the course of more than ten years. Furthermore, the Institut de France in Paris houses the letters written by Naville to Gaston Maspero during the same period; this final corpus will undoubtedly enlighten other aspects of the relationship between Naville and the EEF and provide a better picture of the European community of Egyptologists at the end of the 19th century.”


Parts of two illustrated letters in the Society's archives; on the left a letter from Amelia Edwards to R. S. Poole ends with a drawing of 'The Secretary Bird', and on the right, in a letter to Miss Edwards of 10 January 1883, Poole drew an illustration of the Fund as a new-born baby.


Hélène’s work is complemented by that of Marie Vandenbeusch, an independent researcher from Geneva who has also visited the Society’s archives on several occasions in recent months to pursue her research on Naville's work in the Delta. Marie recently published an article with Dr Jean-Luc Chappaz of the Musée d'art et d'histoire de Genève on a statue of Ramesses II discovered at Tell Basta, and now kept in Geneva. The statue was excavated by Naville on behalf of the EEF, and divided by the Fund to the Musée d'art et d'histoire; it appears in the Society’s distribution lists as ‘a heroic statue of rameses II, enthroned in polished black granite’. The article, entitled ‘Voyage en Zigzag: Ramsès II de Zagazig à Genève’ is published in the journal, Genava, vol. LVIII (2010).


Marie Vandenbeusch studying photographs taken during the Society's first ever season of work, at Tell el-Maskhuta


Studying the records left by excavators such as Naville is an important part of the formulation of strategy for current fieldwork and research; as such the work of scholars such as Hélène and Marie is a vital part of the Society's overall strategy and feeds usefully into the work of our field teams such as that at Tell Basta, a site which remains as important today as it was in Naville's time.


UPDATE (17 Oct 2011): A further article by Marie Vandenbeusch entitled 'Les premières fouilles de l’Egypt Exploration Fund: Édouard Naville à Tell el-Maskhuta' was recently published in the Bulletin de la Société d’Égyptologie Genève (BSEG) and is available online here.

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