The Giant Archaeologists Love to Hate
Ivor Noël Hume
The Italian son of a barber. A failed hydraulic engineer. A giant who performed feats of strength and agility in the circus. Giovanni Belzoni (1778–1824) was all of these before going on to become one of the most controversial figures in the history of Egyptian archaeology. A man of exceptional size with an ego of comparable proportions, he procured for the British Museum some of its largest and still awe-inspiring treasures. Today, however, the typical museum visitor knows nothing of Belzoni, and many modern archaeologists dismiss him as an ignorant vandal.
In this captivating new biography, Ivor Noël Hume re-creates an early nineteenth century in which there was no established archaeological profession, only enormous opportunity. Belzoni landed in Egypt, where he was unsuccessful in selling a hydraulic machine of his own invention, and came under the patronage of diplomat Henry Salt, who convinced him to travel to Thebes in search of artifacts. Among the many treasures Belzoni would bring back was the seven-ton stone head of Ramesses II, the "Young Memnon."
The book includes gripping accounts of Belzoni’s wildly productive, and physically brutal, expeditions, as well as an unforgettable portrait of his wife, Sarah, who suffered the hardships of the Egyptian deserts and later bore the brunt of the disillusionment that came with the declining popular perception of her husband. Including numerous illustrations, many in color, this volume brings one of archaeology’s most fascinating figures vividly to life.
The flamboyant and ingenious Belzoni has long been regarded as a key player in the early exploration of ancient Egyptian civilization, but we are long overdue for another biography. Noël Hume, who has a well-deserved reputation for archaeological and historical detective work, has written a very clear and elegant book, fully up to the very high standards he has practiced for many years.
Ivor Noël Hume offers an informative and beautifully crafted biography of a man who is often demonized by modern-day scholars. The narrative allows the reader to feel as if they are by Belzoni’s side, and also on his side, by successfully exploring the complex character of this remarkable historical figure.
A lively, witty biography.... [I]n 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.
While it’s entirely possible to cringe at Belzoni’s methods... it’s nearly impossible to resist the story of a life... full of 'naïveté, ambition, duplicity, avarice and poverty worthy of Charles Dickens or Henry James, differing only in that it happens to be true.
Noel Hume brings Belzoni, and the world in which he carried out his explorations, to life in his own words, and adds much new insight into that life as well as his own pertinent observations
Later archaeologists...have dismissed Belzoni as a vandal and thief, and Hume's biography embraces Belzoni's worth and vividly examines his life and legacy. His work is in no way dry history, as he recounts Belzoni's life story...
Ivor Noël Hume is former Director of Colonial Williamsburg’s archaeological research program and the author of more than twenty books, including Martin’s Hundred and A Passion for the Past: The Odyssey of a Transatlantic Archaeologist (both Virginia).