Abt, American Egyptologist: The Life of James Henry Breasted and the Creation of His Oriental Institute.
Jeffrey Abt's encyclopedic critical biography of James Henry Breasted, the founder of one of the foremost academic institutions in the United States, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, is a treasure trove of information about the development of the field of ancient Near Eastern epigraphy and archaeology. Abt's rather long (over 500 pages) biography follows Breasted's life from childhood in the 1880s in Rockford, Illinois to the end of his life due to illness in 1935. Along the way, we travel to Chicago, throughout Europe, Egypt and throughout the Middle East during a time of geopolitical unrest and military and diplomatic maneuvering before and after World War I. Abt's biography is remarkable for its intricate portrait of the complex mind and career of Breasted as well as the way in which it situates Breasted's academic impulses within the rise of secular education and within the early 20th century progressive vision of education as community. Through careful analysis of the tremendous archives at the Oriental Institute, Abt carefully works through Breasted's scholarly projects, journals, photographs, and letters to arrive at a complex portrait of a seminal figure in American academia. Abt aims to provide a critical commentary to Breasted's life and to situate the scholar within a spate of recent research on the University of Chicago, Biblical studies, (1) Egyptology, (2) and the international politics of World War I. (3)
Abt begins his narrative with Breasted's childhood and quickly explores the gifted academic talents of the young boy. Breasted is introduced to higher education and scholarly research as a seminarian studying the languages of the Old and New Testaments. Under the tutelage of William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago and friend of its Rockefeller family founders, Breasted became one of the pioneers of a school of biblical criticism that employed empirical methods and "scientific" positivism to "study Judeo-Christian sacred texts in the context of the ancient Near Eastern linguistic and historical traditions from which they emerged" (17). At Harper's urging and with the promise of a potential position at the University of Chicago upon completion, Breasted continued his doctoral training in Germany before WWI, where he became increasingly intrigued with the language and monuments of ancient Egypt. Under Egyptologist Adolph Erman, Breasted switched his doctoral focus and became one of the first of a class of new scholars devoted to studying the intricate grammar of the ancient Egyptian language. Abt's in-depth analysis of Breasted's work habits shows how this early persistence and doggedness, combined with his singular devotion to his studies, would contribute to Breasted's success in securing funding for his own scholarly pursuits as well as the institutions that he helped to develop such as the University of Chicago and its Oriental Institute.
With his doctorate complete and position at the University of Chicago secured, Breasted's first mission was to visit Egypt. Abt unfolds the story of Breasted's first visit to the country of his scholarly imagination with vivid detail and wonder. Trained in the German historical method that emphasized examining actual ancient monuments to understand the language, Breasted set out to draw and photograph as many ancient Egyptian monuments as he could in six weeks. This was the first of many voyages through Egypt and Sudan where Breasted experimented with the epigraphic method, a precise, careful, and exactly drawn rendering of images and texts carved into the stone walls of temples, for which the Oriental Institute would become famous. Abt delivers tremendous detail in describing Breasted's copying techniques and photographic methods, which the scholar developed in order to accurately record the ancient monumental inscriptions. Throughout the biography, in fact, Abt culls the archives, searching through letters, journals, drawings, and photographs from the Oriental Institute to provide lengthy passages on Breasted's archaeological and epigraphic field methods. These descriptions give valuable insight into the technical aspects of recording information for the historian of photography and they suggest that Breasted was a pioneer in field photography. However, for the non-technical expert, they distract occasionally from the overall narrative.
Breasted returned to teach at the University of Chicago, inscriptions in hand, and began the development of his early career. He quickly found he had to supplement his teaching income with public lectures to various local clubs and organizations. The most interesting part of the book for the educational historian comes here, as Abt uses Breasted's public addresses and published books to show how the young Egyptologist envisioned his role as educator. Breasted wisely collected many of these public lectures and turned them into books on Egyptian and ancient Near Eastern history aimed at general audiences. Breasted's public lecture program cleverly aligned him with the goals of Harper, who wished to expand the teaching aims of the university to inspire the community at large, and of the Baptist idealism of the University of Chicago. These goals meshed well with the philosophical goals of progressive secularism, which aimed to expose public audiences to the ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian contexts of the Biblical scripture. Despite training as a language specialist, Breasted saw his primary role as being a historian--to expose the public to the pre-Classical civilizations of the "Fertile Crescent," a term that Abt shows Breasted coined, and to situate the translated texts into their historical context. Abt writes that Breasted's embrace of the "'New Historical Method' dislodged ancient Israel from being a place of origins to a site through which more ancient ideas were transmitted to the modern world" (174). At the same time, it fulfilled Breasted's goal of pushing the public's interest in ancient Egypt beyond mummies, mysteries, and curses. Abt's archival detail allows us to see that this dedicated scholar took an unconventional path in academia at an early point in his career: he risked publishing several high school textbooks. Such a move was risky because these publications would not count necessarily towards Breasted's tenure decision at the University of Chicago, as they were directed at a non-scholarly audience. For example, Breasted and J.H. Robinson's Outlines of European History (1916) situated ancient Near Eastern civilizations before Greece and Rome and at the beginning of an evolutionary model that culminated in Western Civilization.
The remainder of Abt's biography follows Breasted as he pursues the creation of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, which would be devoted to establishing permanent epigraphic and archaeological missions in the Middle East. Abt focuses especially on Breasted and Harper's relationship with the Rockefellers and their various educational foundations. However, Abt documents how the goal of establishing a particularly American academic "footprint" in the Middle East during the early twentieth century was Breasted's from the beginning. Abt explores how Breasted's vision of an Oriental Institute in America, paired with permanent American field expeditions and institutes in the Middle East, played into the diplomatic, military and nationalist tensions rising in the prelude to and aftermath of World War I. Breasted wisely used these tensions and competitive impulses to bring attention to his academic agenda, while at the same time he unwittingly became a pawn in the intrigues between the British and the Egyptians as the two governments jockeyed to control a new archaeological museum and research institute in Cairo after World War I. Breasted eventually realized his vision of the museum and institute in America, even if he wearily stepped out of the failed attempt at a similar institution in Cairo. In chapter eight, Abt exposes Breasted's Orientalist attitudes towards the Egyptian government and critically analyzes how Breasted's failure to understand Egyptian nationalism in the 1930s led to a politicized attempt to found the national research institution in Cairo. The reader might have benefitted from more frequent post-colonial analyses of Breasted's motivations, attitudes, and writings vis-a-vis contemporary Middle East throughout the book, but Abt sidesteps such opportunities on many occasions, perhaps to protect the reputation of Breasted, a leading scholar and founder of the University of Chicago, the same institution whose press published the biography. Perhaps the author was ambivalent as to whether this biography would be a genuinely "critical" enterprise. Regardless, Abt's discussion of Breasted's role in the Egyptian Museum episode demonstrates how politically situated archaeology was one hundred years ago, as nations competing on the geo-political stage in the early 20th century attempted to establish comprehensive national museums in order to educate their subjects and display their global influence. (4)
Abt's biography is a welcome addition to the study of the history of American higher education, historical thought, and archaeology as well as a detailed overview of the intellectual and political context of a preeminent American academic and the institution he founded. The book is amply illustrated with high quality images of Breasted's own photographs, maps, and notes drawn from the extensive archives of the Oriental Institute. The historian of education will be inspired by Abt's meticulous archival work and detailed narrative of Breasted's life and accomplishments.
Allison Karmel Thomason
Southern Illinois University
(1) Thomas W. Davis, Shifting Sands: The Rise and Fall of Biblical Archaeology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
(2) Donald M. Reid, Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
(3) James F. Goode, Negotiating for the Past: Archaeology, Nationalism, and Diplomacy in the Middle East 1919-1941 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007); Geoff Emberling and Emily Teeter, eds. Pioneers to the Past: American Archaeologists in the Middle East, 1919-1920. Oriental Institute Museum Publications, no. 30. (Chicago: Oriental Institute Press, University of Chicago, 2010).
(4) Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. (London: Routledge, 1995); James M. Cuno, Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
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|Title Annotation:||Jeffrey Abt|
|Author:||Thomason, Allison Karmel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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