Belzoni: The Giant that Archaeologists Love to Hate, by Ivor Noël Hume.
University of Virginia Press, 2011. xi + 301pp, 39 colour plates, 47 b&w illustrations, 1 map. Hb, ISBN 978-0813931401. $34.95.
It is over half a century since the last good book on Giovanni Belzoni was published (Mayes, 1959). Here, written by a noted archaeologist and former Director of the Colonia Williamsburg archaeological research programme, is a splendid and up-to-date story of the, literally, giant (2m tall) and pioneer Egyptologist. Many writers of recent years have had a tendency to denigrate Belzoni and his work, but Howard Carter wrote that his work in the Valley of the Kings was the first large scale excavations in the Valley, an ‘we must give Belzoni full credit for the manner in which they were carried out … on the whole the work was extraordinarily good’. Belzoni’s detractors fail to recognise th ethos of the period in which he worked, and they should be mindful of Matthew 7:1. Hume’s new biography puts Belzoni firmly in his place as a pioneer who really thought about his discoveries—he was no rabid collector like his rival Drovetti, without any thought for interpretation or context.
From humble beginnings in Padua via the fair grounds of Europe, fate cast him into Egypt where, against all initial adversities, he found a calling and followed it. Some of the finest sculptures in the British Museum, notably the colossal 7½ ton head of Ramesses II and much else, the sarcophagus of Seti I in Sir John Soane’s Museum, the lid of the sarcophagus of Ramesses III in Cambridge, are all due to his endeavours. Added to that, he retrieved the Philae obelisk for William John Bankes (now at Kingston Lacey), o which the inscription was to be vital in Champollion’s decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822. He was the first European to enter the Second Pyramid, of Chephren, at Giza, an the first to find the entrance to the Great Temple at Abu Simbel and, five years before Champollion deciphered hieroglyphs, realise that the ‘hero’ depicted on the walls there was the same he saw in Thebes, i.e. Ramesses II.Noël Hume brings Belzoni to life in his own words, and the world in which he carried out his explorations, and adds much new insight into that life as well as his own pertinent observations. He particularly puts more flesh onto the person of Belzoni’s long-suffering but devoted wife, Sarah. It is ‘S..’s Law’ that on excavations the best finds turn up on the last day, and Noël Hume has been similarly bedevilled. Belzoni died at Gato in Benin in 1823, and Sarah in Jersey in January 1870. Mayes (1959) did not know where she was buried, and both Noël Hume and the reviewer (unbeknownst to each other) have for years been trying to locate her grave via Jersey local newspapers, radio an personal contact, to no avail. As, literally, the book was finished and published, word came that her grave and inscribed tombstone had been found. Now the chase is on for details of how and who provided for her burial. Egyptological research, even after a couple of centuries, always has surprises and goals to pursue.
Peter A. Clayton
Postscript. Several people have searched for the grave of Sarah Belzoni in Jersey, but recently, by a happy case of serendipity, Anna Baghiani (Education Officer, Société Jersiaise, St Helier, Jersey) stumbled on Sarah’s name in the Records of the Channel Islands Family History Society, in the Jersey Archive. It was an erroneous entry by a unknown subscriber, but it provided a date and place of burial. With the help of Vic Geary, the cemetery supervisor, who held a detailed plan of the cemetery from the time, she and Dr John J. Taylor (Tutor in Egyptology) were able to find the grave. Taylor had walked past it many times on sunny afternoons when it was in deep shadow, but on a bright morning the inscription was partly visible, and there was no doubt that it read: ‘Sarah, widow of Giovanni Baptista Belzoni’. The original footstone reads: ‘S. B, 1870’. Permission is now being sought to clean the stone and restore the lettering. A photo of the grave in sunlight is reproduced in Ancient Egypt, vol. 12, no. 3, issue 69, Decembe 2011/January 2012, p. 16. An article on Sarah Belzoni also appeared in the February issue of the Armenian Egyptology Centre magazine, including details of her grave.