To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Description de l’Égypte, Princeton University Library is currently presenting the exhibition Egypt Unveiled: The Mission of Napoleon’s Savants.
Despite the failure of Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1798 military campaign in Egypt, the work of the scholars who accompanied him on the expedition was an incredible success. A group of 151 scientists, engineers, and artists was recruited to explore, describe, and document every aspect of the country. From the great temples and tombs of ancient Egypt to contemporary customs and trades, from Egyptian animals, plants, and minerals to local topography, the savants—or scholars—captured it all.
The single greatest archaeological discovery made by the French in Egypt was a dark gray granite slab found in July 1799 near the town of Rosetta, east of Alexandria. Measuring forty-seven inches tall and thirty-two inches wide, the scholars immediately recognized the importance of the artifact. The same decree from 196 B.C. is inscribed on the stone in three scripts: Greek (bottom), Egyptian demotic (middle), and Egyptian hieroglyphics (top). The Rosetta Stone proved to be the key to decoding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, allowing the language to be read for the first time in fifteen hundred years.
Description de l’Égypte, the comprehensive result of all of the scholars’ work and research, was published beginning in 1809. Comprising twenty-three volumes and 837 engraved plates, it is considered an extraordinary scholarly achievement as well as a foundational work of modern Egyptology.
Egypt Unveiled: The Mission of Napoleon’s Savants is on view through Sunday, May 10, 2009, in the Main Gallery of Firestone Library. The exhibition was organized by Jen Meyer, Assistant to the Curator of Rare Books. Former Assistant, Paula Entin, also contributed. For more information, visit: http://www.princeton.edu/~rbsc/exhibitions/main.html
Note regarding the exhibition poster: The scholars enjoyed drawing each other at work in Egypt. In this sketch, an expedition artist contemplates a mighty granite statue of Rameses II in Thebes. Citation: “Thèbes. Karnak. Vue d’un colosse placé à l’entrée de la salle hypostyle du palais.” Antiquities. Vol. III, pl. 20. Description de l’Égypte: ou, Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l’expédition de l’armée française. Paris: Imprimerie impériale, 1809-1822. Gift from the library of Ralph E. Prime (1840-1920), presented in 1921 by his sons, Ralph E. Prime Jr., Class of 1888, and William Cowper Prime Jr., Class of 1890. Rare Book Division. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.