Auguste Mariette

The French scholar and archaeologist François Auguste Ferdinand Mariette (February 11, 1821 – January 19, 1881) was the foremost Egyptologist of his generation, and the founder of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.


Early career

Born at Boulogne-sur-Mer, Mariette proved to be a talented draftsman and designer, and he supplemented his salary as a teacher at Douai by giving private lessons and writing on historical and archaeological subjects for local periodicals.

Meanwhile his cousin Nestor L'Hote, the friend and fellow-traveller of Champollion, died, and the task of sorting his papers filled Mariette with a passion for Egyptology. He devoted himself to the study of hieroglyphics and Coptic. Largely self-taught, his 1847 analytic catalogue of the Egyptian Gallery of the Boulogne Museum got him a minor appointment at the Louvre Museum in 1849.

First trip to Egypt

Entrusted with a government mission for the purpose of seeking and purchasing the best Coptic, Syriac, Arabic and Ethiopic manuscripts for the Louvre collection so that it retains its then-supremacy over other national collections [Their acquisition by national and private collections was then a competitive endeavour - the English had the advantage of being able to pay higher prices, although that did not prevent ruthlessness and ambition by all sides.] , he set out for Egypt in 1850.

After little success in acquiring manuscripts due to inexperience, to avoid an embarrassing return empty-handed to France and wasting what might be his only trip to Egypt, he visited temples and befriended a Bedouin tribe, who led him to Saqqara. The site initially looked "a spectacle of desolation... [and] mounds of sand" (his words), but on noticing one sphinx from the reputed avenue of sphinxes that led to ruins of the Serapeum near the step-pyramid with its head above the sands, he gathered 30 workmen. Thus, in 1851, he made his celebrated discovery of this avenue and eventually the subterraneous tomb-temple complex of catacombs with their spectacular sarcophagi of the Apis bulls. Breaking through the rubble at the tomb entrance on November 12, he entered the complex, finding thousands of statues, bronze tablets and other treasures, but only one intact sarcophagus.

Accused of theft and destruction by rival diggers and by the Egyptian authorities, Mariette began to rebury his finds in the desert to keep them from these competitors. Instead of manuscripts, official French funds were now advanced for the prosecution of his researches, and he remained in Egypt for four years, excavating, discovering — and despatching archaeological treasures to the Louvre, as was the accepted Eurocentric convention. However, the French government and the Louvre strike a deal to split the finds 50:50, so that on his return to Paris 230 crates go to the Louvre (and he is raised to an assistant conservator), but an equal amount remain in Egypt.

Director of Antiquities

However, unsatisfied with a purely academic role after his discoveries at Saqqara (he said "I knew I would die or go mad if I did not return to Egypt immediately"), after less than a year he returned to Egypt on the insistence of the Egyptian government under Ismail Pasha, who in 1858 created the position of conservator of Egyptian monuments for him.

Moving with his family to Cairo, his career blossomed into a chronicle of unwearying exploration and brilliant successes:
*gaining government funds to set up the museum in Cairo (aka the Bula Museum or Bulak Museum) in 1863 in order to take the pressure off the sites and stop the trade in illicit antiquities [ [] ] .
*the pyramid-fields of Memphis and (exploiting his previous success to find a cache of c.2000BC painted wooden statues such as the Seated Scribe, and the decorated tomb of Khafra) the tombs of Saqqara
*the necropolis of Meidum, and those of Abydos and Thebes
*the great temples of Dendera and Edfu were disinterred
*important excavations were carried out at Karnak (marking the first full Egyptian use of the stratigraphic methods first developed by Karl Richard Lepsius and of photographing every object prior to its excavation), Medinet-Habu and Deir el-Bahri
*Tanis (the Egyptian capital in the Late Period) was partially explored in the Delta
*even Gebel Barkal in Sudan was explored
*He cleared the sands around the Sphinx down to the bare rock, and in the process discovered the famous granite and alabaster monument, the "Temple of the Sphinx".

In 1860 alone he set up 35 new dig sites, whilst attempting to conserve already-dug sites. His success was aided by the fact that no rivals were permitted to dig in Egypt, a fact that the British (who had previously had the majority of Egyptologists active in the country) and Germans (who were politically allied with the country's Ottoman rulers) protested at as a 'sweetheart deal' between Egypt and France. Nor were Mariette's relations with the Khedive always stable. The Khedive, like many potentates, assumed all discoveries ranked as treasure and that what went to the museum in Cairo went only at his pleasure. Even early on, in February 1859, Mariette dashed to Thebes to confiscate a boatload of antiquities from the nearby tomb of Queen Aotep that were to have been sent to the Khedive.

In 1867 he returned to oversee the ancient Egyptian stand at the Exposition Universelle, to a hero's welcome for keeping France pre-eminent in Egyptology. In 1869, at the request of the Khedive, he wrote a brief plot for an opera. The following year this concept, worked into a scenario by Camille du Locle, was proposed to Giuseppe Verdi, who accepted it as a subject for "Aida". [The Khedive had asked Verdi to compose an ode in honour of the opening of the Suez Canal and the new Royal Opera House in Cairo in November 1869, but the composer declined. The Opera House opened with a performance of Rigoletto.] For "Aida," Mariette and Du Locle oversaw the scenery and costumes, which were inspired by the art of Ancient Egypt. The premiere of "Aida " was originally scheduled for February 1871, but was delayed until 24 December 1871, due to the siege of Paris at the height of the Franco-Prussian War (which trapped Mariette with the costumes and scenery in Paris). The opera met with great acclaim.

Mariette was raised successively to the rank of bey and pasha, and European honors and orders were showered on him.

In 1878 his museum was ravaged by floods, destroying most of his notes and drawings. By spring 1881, prematurely aged and nearly blind, he realised he appointed his own replacement to ensure France retained supremacy in Egyptology, the Frenchman Gaston Maspero (a linguist rather than an archaeologist, who he had met at the Exposition in 1867) rather than an Englishman (the English then making up the majority of Egyptologists in the country). He died in Cairo and was interred in a sarcophagus.


Though not all his discoveries were thoroughly published, the list of his publications is a long one.


External links

* [ "The Monuments of Upper Egypt," 1877] : (excerpt: discovery of the Serapeum, in English)
* [ Mariette and the Serapeum at Saqqara]
* [] Information on the Mariette Pacha exhibition at Boulogne-sur-Mer, France - 2004


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