Upon entering the Oriental Institute, nestled in the neo-Gothic University of Chicago campus, you pass under a sculpture of "East teaching the West". This concept of the Near East and the Nile Valley handing knowledge to Western civilisations belonged to James Henry Breasted (1865-1935). The museum, public programmes and research of the Oriental Institute are, in part, his legacy.
The founding of this research centre happened towards the end of a busy and eventful life. It is Breasted's life that Jeffrey Abt teases out from the backdrop of scholarship, travel, technological advancement, a world war, archaeological discovery, funding crises and diplomatic power games in the Middle East. He outlines how much the Oriental Institute's inception was the vision of one man, albeit one with many influences and help from others.
Abt argues that Breasted was quintessentially an "American" Egyptologist; hence the title. There are parallels in his suburban upbringing and early Bible-fuelled interest, as well as the sourcing of public-private sponsorship and development of new archaeological techniques, with the English Egyptologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie, but it is his role in the political and historical context of the period that makes Breasted's a specifically American story.
Breasted was a philologist, specialising in Hebrew and ancient Egyptian, who supplemented his meagre university salary by giving lectures to history societies and publishing popular yet scholarly books on ancient Egypt. He considered that his numerous publications and translations were crucial to attracting funding by private benefactors and cementing Chicago as a renowned research centre for the ancient Near East. He negotiated the domestic politics and financial world of US big business and academia from the start of his first appointment at the University of Chicago in 1894. It was this careful negotiation, mainly with the Rockefellers, that led to the Oriental Institute's opening in 1931. Breasted's hard-won German scholarship and his academic ambition to translate Egyptian texts was combined with a knack for the popular touch; Abt narrates how he featured in what was possibly the first documentary film on archaeology, The Human Adventure, produced by his son Charles in 1935.
In order to explore the "fertile crescent", the term Breasted coined to describe the lands of present-day Egypt, Northern Sudan, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, archaeologists worked within the context of European colonisation and burgeoning nationalism. As an American, Abt contends, Breasted was for a short time considered "neutral" in spheres of political interest, and he carried out a diplomatic mission for the British during the First World War. In the 1920s, he was an intermediary in the dispute between British, French and Egyptian authorities and players over the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen. Abt clearly depicts the tensions building up in the region, in which archaeology and Breasted played a part, notably in the creation of the Palestine Archaeological Museum (later the Rockefeller Museum). Arguably, however, Breasted's relationship with the Rockefellers and their role in oil deals in the region during the same period discounts such claims to neutrality.
Recounting the life of such a multifaceted man is an arduous one. At times there are confusing jumps in chronology and the minutiae of academic life can be dry. However, there is much of interest here beyond Breasted and institutional history, with its account of the use and development of photography in archaeology as one example.
American Egyptologist is the fascinating story of a man and the formation of an institution whose roots lie in the tense politics of the Middle East but whose mission is to keep alive the histories of the ancient Near East.
American Egyptologist: The Life of James Henry Breasted and the Creation of His Oriental Institute
By Jeffrey Abt. University of Chicago Press. 536pp, £29.00. ISBN 9780226001104. Published 1 December 2011.