Online Review: Book

American Egyptologist: The Life of James Henry Breasted and the Creation of His Oriental Institute


By Jeffrey Abt. Pp. xix + 510, figs. 130, maps 4. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2011. $45. ISBN 978-0-226-00110-4 (cloth).

Abt’s biography of James Henry Breasted is absorbing, compelling, and instructive. Written by a master storyteller, the monumental volume contains more than 500 pages of exhaustive detailed text and notes, set in small type, which describe Breasted’s life and accomplishments and place them within the context of the world events and scholarly advances of his day. Without doubt, it will be the definitive work on Breasted, far surpassing the previous biography that was written and published in 1943 by Breasted’s own son, Charles (Pioneer to the Past: The Story of James Henry Breasted, Archaeologist [Chicago]).

Dense with detail but eminently readable, the first section documents Breasted’s education and training, including his time at Yale with William Rainey Harper, who later hired Breasted at the newly founded University of Chicago. It also recounts at length his years spent acquiring a Ph.D. in Berlin, where he studied Egyptology under Adolf Erman and where his fellow students included Ludwig Borchardt, Carl Schmidt, and Kurt Sethe, each of whom also went on to illustrious academic careers. While in Berlin, he met and married Frances Hart, a young American originally from San Francisco, with whom he embarked on his first visit to Egypt, in the fall of 1894. During this journey, while visiting the site of Amarna, he realized the importance of having scholars transcribe the hieroglyphic inscriptions while they were still visible, which later led to the establishment in 1924 of the Epigraphic Survey and of “Chicago House” in Luxor, both of which the Oriental Institute still runs today.

The second section begins with Breasted’s arrival at the University of Chicago, following his trip to Egypt, and his early years in academia, at a starting salary of $800 per year. He immediately plunged into his work, as Harper wanted professors to be productive, more focused on what they were doing than what they had done. In addition to his teaching, research, and museum work, Breasted began giving public lectures to supplement his income, speaking at churches, synagogues, “student club meetings, private clubs, museums, high schools, and colleges” and addressing audiences ranging from professional colleagues and college administrators to “amateur folklore associations, Bible and Semitics students, and devotees of archaeology” (57–8). He lectured for F.A.M.E. (“fifty [dollars] and my expenses”) as they said in the day, and gradually became skilled at presenting a scholarly version of Egyptology in a popular way to general audiences, supplementing his points with lantern slides so that his listeners could actually see what he was talking about.

Breasted also became a decent photographer in his own right, including developing his own negatives each evening, as he embarked on a project in 1899 to create a record and database of all the Egyptian inscriptions that were scattered among the museums of Europe. He found it faster to take photographs and then leisurely transcribe the inscriptions by hand later, rather than trying to do the drawings and transcriptions during the limited public hours in the museums. This allowed him to document in a mere two months the collections in Vienna, Venice, Rome, Naples, Florence, Pisa, Turin, Nuremberg, Munich, and Berlin. Abt’s writing dramatically conveys Breasted’s efforts and contributions to Egyptology at this time. In fact, Egyptology was still very much in its infancy, as shown by the fact that, at the time, Breasted was also writing critical book reviews of volumes just published by Petrie and Maspero on Egypt and other civilizations of the ancient Near East. It would, in fact, be several more years before Breasted published his own 700-page volume on the history of Egypt (A History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest [New York 1905]), when he was 40 years old. This was followed immediately by his monumental five-volume series, Ancient Records of Egypt (Chicago 1906–1907), which was the result of his exhaustive study of inscriptions that had begun in 1899.

The third section of Abt’s biography, entitled “Two Years, Three Books, Seven Volumes,” describes in detail the years from 1905 to 1907, during which time the above items—and several others—were published. Abt goes into tremendous detail about the work that went into the production and publication of these volumes, particularly that of Ancient Records of Egypt, considered by many to be among Breasted’s greatest academic accomplishments.

The following sections contain a similar degree of close detail, resulting in hundreds of additional pages documenting Breasted’s life and work during the next several decades. These include, for instance, discussions of Breasted’s involvement with Howard Carter’s legal problems after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb as well as his involvement in the founding of the Palestine Archaeological Museum, otherwise known as the Rockefeller Museum, which still operates to this day in East Jerusalem. Rather than recapitulate what is contained in these pages, suffice it to say that the reader will come away with a comprehensive knowledge of Breasted’s outsized achievements; but it takes a degree of perseverance, for this is not light summer fare, but rather a volume that rewards the determined reader. One must be patient even if reading with an eye toward specific events. For instance, it is not until the sixth section, fully 210 pages into the book, that one begins to truly come across the better-known aspects of Breasted’s career, including the founding of the Oriental Institute in 1920, which Breasted undertook with a $50,000 grant pledged by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and it is not until 150 pages beyond that, in the ninth and last section of the book, when we are told briefly about the beginnings of the excavation at Megiddo in Israel that would last from 1925 until 1939.

In fact, the level of detail is so high, including the tremendous amount of documentation and additional information buried in the nearly 70 pages of notes at the end of the book, that it is surprising to find no recounting of Breasted’s 1919 conversation in Cairo with General Allenby, in which the latter stated that his successful military strategy at the Battle of Megiddo during the previous year had been based on Breasted’s English translation in Ancient Records of Egypt of Thutmose III’s tactics at the same site in 1479 B.C.E. For this, one needs to read the biography of Breasted written by his son Charles.

Among the highlights that are included, however, are gems such as the details about the textbooks for high school students that Breasted wrote. These ended up reaching a much larger adult audience than was originally intended and include Outlines of European History, cowritten with James Harvey Robinson (Boston 1912), in which Breasted coined the term “Fertile Crescent.” Another book was Ancient Times (Boston 1916), which, championed by none other than Teddy Roosevelt, was selling an average of 100,000 copies per year by 1920. It was this book that persuaded Rockefeller to donate the money that allowed Breasted to found the Oriental Institute and, later, to undertake the long-running excavations at Megiddo, including building a dig house at the site, complete with tennis courts (this last fact, though, is not mentioned by Abt, who describes instead the extravagances found at some of the Oriental Institute’s other dig houses, such as at Tell Asmar).

What comes across most conspicuously in this volume is the extent to which Breasted, and others of his generation, were pulling together the pieces of the puzzle that is the history of Egypt and the ancient Near East. Wrestling with questions of chronology and other aspects of antiquity, including the documentation of ancient records straight from the monuments themselves, Breasted laid out for the general public, as well as for his scholarly colleagues, the preliminary basis for much of our current understanding of these areas in antiquity. In fleshing out the details of Breasted’s writing, and of his popular lecture courses at the University of Chicago, Abt’s biography of the great man serves as a reminder that it was only 100 years ago that most of this took place, a fact that is easy to forget when opening up the many introductory textbooks on the ancient world that are readily available today.

It is also clear that Breasted’s reputation and legacy were not only well deserved but hard-earned—ranging from his participation in flea-infested survey expeditions through the deserts of the Middle East just after World War I to appearances in the boardrooms of corporate America, where he sought funding from the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, and others to support his academic endeavors. Just as we remain indebted to Breasted, so are we now to Abt for his detailed chronicle of Breasted’s remarkable career and accomplishments.

Eric H. Cline
Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The George Washington University
Washington, D.C. 20052

Book Review of American Egyptologist: The Life of James Henry Breasted and the Creation of His Oriental Institute, by Jeffrey Abt
Reviewed by Eric H. Cline
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 118, Number 3 (July 2014), published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1183.Cline

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