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Giovanni Battista Belzoni, archaeologist of his time, or smash and grab looter?

Belzoni, along with Bernardino Drovetti were perhaps the two people, who more than any others started the raiding of Egypt’s antiquities, to fill the museums & palaces of the west. Were they just doing, what was accepted at the time, or was a lot of history plundered to their reckless methods?

Wall Street Journal [1]

A Pre-Digital Tomb Raider
Sifting sand, opening crypts, raising fallen statues and scooping up anything marketable—and transportable—to Britain.

In the Egyptian gallery of London’s British Museum stands a 3,400-year-old statue carved from polished black stone. Lifted from the city of Thebes, the figure depicts Amenhotep III, who ruled Egypt from about 1386 B.C. to 1350 B.C., when the kingdom was at the peak of its power and prosperity. Sitting erect but serene, his hands resting on his thighs, Amenhotep seems every inch the pharaoh. But one detail disturbs the regal impression: Beside the king’s left foot, with all the subtlety of a Times Square billboard, appears the crudely carved name “Belzoni.” How this Italian commoner came to be forever linked with an Egyptian pharaoh is now the subject of a lively, witty biography by Ivor Noël Hume.

Though Giovanni Battista Belzoni is not generally recalled today, he is still infamous among archaeologists. Born in 1778 in Padua, Italy, Giovanni worked in his father’s barbershop until age 16, then left to study in Rome. After Napoleon Bonaparte captured the Eternal City in 1797, Belzoni wandered Europe for a time, ending up in London, where he hoped to secure work as a hydraulic engineer. But the only job the 6-foot-6 Italian could find was as a circus performer, billed as “the Patagonian Sampson” and toting a dozen lesser men about the stage.

For more than a decade, Belzoni barnstormed Britain and the Continent, yet always longed to make his mark in a respectable calling. On the island of Malta he met an agent of Egypt’s ruler Mohammed Ali Pasha, who hired him to design an irrigation system to distribute the waters of the Nile. With his Irish wife, Sarah, Belzoni arrived in Alexandria in June 1815. But when his waterworks failed to impress, the Belzonis found themselves broke and far from home.

Then Giovanni met Henry Salt, England’s new consul general to Egypt. Eager to curry favor with British aristocrats, who coveted the Egyptian antiquities that Napoleon had made fashionable, Salt hired Belzoni to provide the goods. The Italian took to the work with the mercenary zeal of a true showman and over the next three years dashed up and down the Nile, sifting sand, opening tombs, raising fallen colossi, and scooping up anything transportable and marketable.

Belzoni didn’t have the pharaonic fields to himself, however. His great rival in looting was another Italian, Bernardino Drovetti, the former French consul general, whose clients included the Louvre museum. Though their competition was usually limited to dirty tricks and subterfuge, the shenanigans occasionally flared into something more pointed, as when pistols were drawn over sacking rights to an obelisk from the island of Philae. (Belzoni prevailed.) To eliminate any question of ownership, Belzoni and Henry Salt took to incising their names directly on the relics.

But the collaborators quarreled often and long about expenses, the rights to the loot and credit for their discoveries. By 1819, Belzoni was fed up; he and the long-suffering Sarah returned to England. He had excavated the fabulous tomb of Seti I at Abydos, and in London he hoped to exhibit a reproduction of the sepulcher. But he failed to pry Seti’s sarcophagus away from Salt and the British Museum, and without that showpiece his exhibit failed to attract the hoped-for crowds. Belzoni’s memoir sold briskly, though, and in London he was celebrated as an illustrious explorer and even “the Great Belzoni.” To his bitter disappointment, however, his lower-class origin, Italian nativity, circus experience and patently mercenary attitude meant that he could never be accepted by English society as a gentleman scholar.

Later generations were even harder on Belzoni. In the 19th century, as archaeology began to mature into a more rigorous, respectable endeavor, his smash-and-grab methods were abhorred; he was decried by the president of the Archaeological Association of America as “the greatest plunderer of them all” and by a writer for the National Geographic Society as “the most notorious tomb robber Egypt has ever known.”

Biographer Ivor Noël Hume hopes to rehabilitate Belzoni’s reputation. The “Great Explorer,” he argues, was no worse than his contemporaries or his predecessors. The looting of Egyptian tombs and temples was already rife in ancient Greek times, and the Egyptians themselves were eager accomplices (for a price) in the sacking of their cultural heritage. Into the 20th century, tourists could still buy antiquities directly from Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.

As for Belzoni, Mr. Hume says, “he was only doing his job.” In that laissez-faire era, “there were no archaeological purists looking over his shoulder. All that mattered was finding something exciting.” If there is blame to be ascribed, Mr. Hume suggests that it be cast on Belzoni’s employer, Henry Salt, and on Salt’s wealthy patrons, who craved Egyptian objets to display at their country estates and in the august institutions on whose boards they sat, especially the British Museum, which purchased many of Belzoni’s discoveries.

Despite Belzoni’s unsavory reputation, the author says, he “showed more serious interest in the context of the tombs and temples” than others of his time. Mr. Hume, former director of excavations at Colonial Williamsburg, goes so far as to argue that Belzoni was “a bona fide archaeologist.” Others may find that claim extreme, since the beginning of Egyptian archaeology is usually traced to about 1850, when Frenchman Auguste Mariette, the founder of Egypt’s first national museum, began to preach the gospel of conservation. And some may not be so quick to forgive the desecration of Egypt’s patrimony. Still, in this entertaining and graceful account of Belzoni’s adventures, Mr. Hume opens a window on the raffish days of early Egyptology, when an Italian giant towered over his competitors.

Mr. Helferich is the author of “Stone of Kings: In Search of the Lost Jade of the Maya,” just published by Lyons Press.