For about 15 centuries, people, fascinated, gazed upon Egyptian hieroglyphics without comprehending their meaning.

In 1799, LT Pierre Bouchard discovered the Rosetta Stone while building Fort Julian (see to left--now Fort Rashid) on the west bank of the Nile during Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. The proclamation carved on it, praising Ptolemy V in 196 B.C., is of relatively little significance; what is important is that the inscription appears in three texts: Hieroglyphics, Egyptian Demotic Script and Greek.




Jean Francois Champollion was a brilliant linguist who worked from an 1808 copy of the Rosetta Stone's inscription. He labored on it for 14 years without ever seeing the stone itself. In 1822, Champollion finally decided that "Ptolemy" might be read phonetically -- patiently reconstructing the name, sound by sound from the Greek and Coptic.  Twenty-three years passed before the Rosetta Stone finally surrendered its secret in 1822 -- which began with the deciphering of "Ptolemy's" name.



As mentioned above, the Rosetta Stone was discovered during the Napoleonic Egyptian Campaign in 1799. In 1822 Jean Champollion was able to crack the code of hieroglyphics. Once the code of hieroglyphics had been cracked, it brought a renewed interest to that region of the world. These discovery spawned an even greater interest in Egyptian archaeology. Anthropologists and archaeologists were presented with quite a challenging conflict.



or the first time in thousands of years, utilizing the new-found skills of reading Egyptian hieroglyphics, people could corroborate certain historical events, people and places -- unlocking the secrets of ancient Egypt.

The discovery of the Rosetta Stone and subsequent understanding of the esoteric hieroglyph language was the connection that brought everything to the forefront for "modern" people to wrestle with some realities.

European archaeologists, anthropologists and historians were in a catch-22 situation. On one hand they were seeing images of people with clear Afroid features as they traveled around Egypt.  


…SLAVE TRADE: On the other hand, there was the terrible history of the slave trade that had been going on for approximately 350 years prior. For Europeans to justify the economic drive of the slave trade, there had to be the denigration of people of African descent. (Also, let's not forget the complicity of African Kings in bringing their warring neighbors to the slave traders.) Since the slave trade had been going on for some 350 years, the negative view of Black people had permeated much of Europe, South and North America and the rest of the world.


In the early 1800s, around the same time Egyptian Archaeology was maturing, the Middle Passage (slave trade) was in full swing. In order for Europeans to justify the economic drive of the slave trade, blacks had to be viewed as non-humans. Animals. Tools for building the dreams of Europeans.


  In stark contrast to the picture of blacks being painted by those who favored the slave trade -- anthropologists and archaeologists were discovering more statues and other artifacts which presented a different view. Black people had indeed created the many pyramids and other
artifacts. What to do? The Egyptians had left behind a huge "Picture Album". 



Vivant Denon (an eyewitness) etched the image of the Sphinx of Giza  around 1798. If the Sphinx of Giza had been defaced before 1798, is it reasonable to conclude that Denon would have at least mentioned it?

In his written account, Denon stated, "...Though its proportions are colossal, the outline is pure and graceful; the expression of the head is mild, gracious, and tranquil; the character is African, but the mouth, and lips of which are thick, has a softness and delicacy of execution truly admirable; it seems real life and flesh. Art must have been at a high pitch when this monument was executed…”
-- Universal Magazine, 1803



  There was a crisis of conscience, especially in the mid 1800s. How are the European archaeologists, anthropologists & scholars going to interpret and communicate what they are seeing and understanding, to an eager outside world? In my opinion, they blew a wonderful opportunity to share the truth. Instead most went to all sorts of ends to try to present Egyptians as though they were not of African descent. The book, Black Spark, White Fire (by Richard Poe) addresses the ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians in a most ingenious and well-documented manner.

...ONE-DROP RULE  The one-drop rule worked in the US -- one drop of black blood makes one black. Let's reverse the standards for archaeologists and anthropologists when viewing ancient history -- one drop of white blood makes you white, no matter how curly the hair or thick the lips. All of this impacted the world.
...FREDERICK DOUGLASS  Even the great orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, commented on such matters in July 1854 when speaking to the students at Western Reserve College (founded 1826 in Hudson, Ohio). His topic was, "The Claims of the Negro Race: Viewed in a Psychological and Physiological Light." Read the article about this speech (click here), written by Horace Greeley and transcribed directly from an original copy of the New York Tribune. (owned by The Freeman Institute)



…EGYPT THE LAND OF HAM: What if the original Egyptians were unmixed, pure black folks from Africa? Perhaps you have heard of Ham, one of Noah's sons. It is interesting to note that the Biblical record states several times that "Israel also came into Egypt...the land of Ham." (Psalm 105: 23). Egypt was called the land of Ham. Having studied the "Table of Nations" (Gen. 10) very carefully, I find that rather intriguing. Three of Ham's sons set up shop in Africa: Put (Lybia), Cush (Sudan and Ethiopia), and Mizraim (Egypt). By the way, the name, Mizraim, literally means "two Egypts

…CONNECTING THE DOTS: It's all about context and the ripple effect of ideas. In my opinion, there was the convergence of many events and ideas that forced 19th century European scholars, anthropologists, social thinkers and historians to wrestle with the racism and intellectual bias specifically targeting people of African descent.

Could this convergence have influenced the way European/Caucasian scholars on both sides of the Atlantic categorized the ethnicity of ancient Egyptians? Perhaps we will never know for sure, but here are some thoughts to consider:

  1....the European discovery of the Rosetta Stone:  Cracking the code to hieroglyphics in 1822, unlocking the secrets of ancient Egyptian history -- causing an even more focused interest in Egypt and the ethnicity of ancient Egyptians in the mid to late 1800s.

  2....the on-going debate about slavery: The Slave Trade started in the late 1400s and was abolished in 1807 in UK and USA. After that, many in Europe and America fought against the Trade. British and American naval vessels released many Africans bound for slavery. But the cultural/intellectual acceptance and on-going practice of the enslavement of Africans was still pervasive in the 1800s. (The Freeman Institute Black History Collection has many books and documents substantiating this reality).

Three hundred+ years of justifying the economic drive of the Trade by denigrating people of African descent had embedded itself in the collective consciousness of people around the world. There is little doubt that this thought process leaked into the halls of higher education during the 19th century. Wait, but there's more...

  3....the theory of evolution was taking form during mid 1800s:  This is not an attempt to leap into the middle of the "Evolution vs. Creation" debate. Instead, I am intrigued by the theory's potential cultural/societal influence upon the thinking of many scholars during the mid-late 19th century.

...GREAT CHAIN OF BEING  Introduced in the 1500s, the Great Chain of Being was a hierarchy that linked all living organisms of the world, God being first, then the angels, then man; it went all the way down to the smallest insect. The purpose of the existence of the lower beings of the chain was to serve the higher beings. But problems arose with this system: some organisms and species did not fit neatly into the mold.


...LINNAEUS  Shah Hossain writes, "In 1677, Dr. William Petty of England came up with a solution. He announced in a paper to the Royal Society that the missing link they had been looking for consisted of "savages", beings that fit between Caucasian men and other organisms. Thus, he also naturally concluded that since they were lower on the Great Chain, they were brought into being to serve and follow the will of the beings superior to them. At the time, his contemporaries did not pay much attention to his idea. But fifty years later, Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus revived his notion."



...DARWIN  Let's fast forward to the 1800s. Darwin personally detested slavery, but undeniably racist elements in the theory emerged when seeking to determine the transition between apes and humans (see image to the right). In 1859, Charles Darwin released a book which is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (the concept of "race" probably had a wider definition in the mid 1800s).

...GALTON  Francis Galton (half-cousin of Charles Darwin), a very intelligent man, published a celebrated book in 1869, Hereditary Genius. Galton used a sort of grading scale to point out where each race in the classification system he used lay according to its range of intelligence. Africans were two "grades" below the average Englishman. He later coined the term eugenics (literally means well-born), which became extremely popular with many Anglo scholars on both sides of the Atlantic during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


  Did any of this discussion about social engineering (Social Darwinism) influence the scholarly debate about the ethnicity of ancient Egyptians in any way? I leave that for you to wrestle with...



When it is convenient, feel free to take a look at some informative articles addressing:
Scientific Racism     Eugenics     Great Chain of Being     Historical Images

  NOTE: The Freeman Institute Collections owns 19th Century books/articles celebrated by the scientific community of that period, with images of skulls of people of African descent being compared to gorilla, chimpanzee, ape and baboon skulls.

...SUMMARY Remember, it's about context and world-view. And ideas do have consequences. (If you disagree, examine the impact of Eugenics in Nazi Germany.) All of this was converging around the same time in the mid 1800s...ultimately influencing, and in some instances reshaping, the thinking of European scholars on both sides of the Atlantic regarding people of African descent, the ethnicity of the Egyptians, the justification for Jim Crow laws, eugenics (especially in the early 20th century), and such matters. Does any of this sound plausible?

The cultural/sociological/intellectual/scholarly climate during that period did not bode well for people of African descent -- on any level. Is there any credible disagreement?

All of this is something to consider, especially when encountering individuals who seem to expend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to make sure that ancient Egyptians are viewed as anything BUT black. What's that all about


Additional information