One afternoon in December, a group of library staff ventured out into deepest darkest Bloomsbury on a trip to the Egypt Exploration Society.
Upon arrival, we were ushered into a room full of boxes of letters and paintings and books on display. Dr. Carl Graves gave an illuminating talk on the history of the society, from its founding by the intrepid Amelia Edwards through to today, using examples from the archives to highlight achievements and bring to attention to various daring deeds of members of the society, particularly during the course of the 20th century. In doing so, he demonstrated how the archive materials could bring the society’s history to life whilst also making a serious point about how the role of the archive is to preserve a record of what once was.
Before this talk, I was unsure as to whether the heyday of Egyptology had been and gone. As it happens, that is not the case! Again, using material from the collections, Carl gave examples that illustrated how few sites had actually been excavated and documented- he put the figure of sites waiting to be discovered as high as 65%. When discussing the vast collections of papyri that had been preserved, he claimed that 90% of all known papyri have yet to be translated. Whilst he didn’t go into the reasons for this, he did then use one recently translated example- a 1,900 year old cure for a hangover, as it happened- to illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of the material in the archives. Not only could it be of interest to Egyptology students, but to students studying, say, the history of medicine.
Dr. Brigitte Balanda then took over to discuss her ongoing project of scanning, transcribing and cataloguing all correspondence of the society members from its founding in 1882 through to the 1920s. She illustrated the challenges of her job with close ups of the various styles of handwriting she had come across during the course of her project.
However, despite the challenges, it has been extremely rewarding work. Thanks to her efforts, what has been transcribed and catalogued is now discoverable in their catalogue. The work has also had the added benefit of bringing all their existing collections under a single numbering system. It is now also possible to browse the content of the folders Brigitte has worked on. If you would like to follow her progress on Twitter, and possibly help out with the more challenging examples, you may do so.
Finally, we had a brief tour around the library itself. It is situated in what used to be the house of the egyptologist Professor Ricardo Caminos. He bought the house next door to the society with the intention of letting them use it as a library after his death. Professor Caminos himself helped design the bookshelves, in order that they would accommodate books and his secret stash of whisky bottles which would line the shelves behind the books.
Upstairs, we were shown the storage space, where all the precious letters, manuscripts and maps of digs were kept. It was here that Carl mentioned that the Egypt Exploration Society will be moving in the near future. Although they fully intend to be a tube ride away from Central London, they will miss the place.
As my first visit to an actual archive, I learnt a great deal about the mission of such an archive. Our hosts, Carl and Brigitte, were most informative and were engaging and generally splendid throughout the course of our visit. Should anyone who didn’t get to go be interested in visiting at all, they said that their door was always open for visitors.
Photo of more replica vases in the Society. Fun fact: the ovals you see on the side were used to contain the name of the ruler, as the circle was believed to have protected their name from harm. These ovals are called cartouches. They were named so when Napoleon’s army invaded Egypt 200 years ago. When his men saw the monuments with these ovals, they thought they looked like the bullet cartridges, or cartouches, as they are known in French, that they used to load their guns.