The discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb on November 4,1922 was a dazzling event—the most spectacular discovery in Egyptology—but for the participants it was quickly shadowed by disagreement and misfortune. After finding the site he had sought for years, excavator Howard Carter, long known as a difficult man, grew more obstreperous still, quarreling first with his benefactor and co-excavator Lord Carnarvon, then with local authorities. The press, predictably, delighted in these troubles, and later, when Carnarvon died unexpectedly, newspapers worldwide published sensational reports that the tomb was cursed (See Aramco World, September-October 1988).
Amid these difficulties, Carter called on the eminent American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted to help him through his ordeal. As a scholar, Breasted was asked to examine a critical detail, the ancient seals on the tomb's main door. As a conciliator, he mediated Carter's altercations with the Egyptian authorities. And though neither scholarship nor conciliation won the day at King Tut's tomb, Breasted's reputation as an intriguing, even towering, figure remained intact throughout the controversy.
Indeed, the diminutive professor remained in the public eye for most of his life—a commentary both on Breasted himself and on the audience he addressed. His field was scholarly, but his message had unmistakable impact beyond the academy: He insisted that "civilization" did not begin with the Greeks—as schoolchildren then were commonly taught—but went back to the Egyptians, the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The public, to its credit, paid attention. Breasted was lionized as a scholar and popularizer and, toward the end of his career, even appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
As America's first professional Egyptologist, Breasted was more than merely accessible: He was outgoing and enterprising. He not only mastered ancient languages, he brought the past alive in popular books, lectures and even an early film. He touched on palace intrigue in ancient Egypt, and referred to disinterred mummies as his "friends." Perhaps most important, he cultivated the interest of businessman and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Among many other projects, Rockefeller supported and later endowed the Oriental Institute that Breasted founded at the University of Chicago as a center for archeology and research on the "ancient Near East."
Breasted spent much of his productive career behind a desk. Yet he also cultivated a sense of discovery and excitement. He wrote of his quest for the "New Past," which would reveal to a wide audience not just the riches of extinct cultures, but evidence of their humanity as well. "He who really discerns it," Breasted once said, "has begun to read the glorious Odyssey of human kind, disclosing to us man pushing out upon the oceans of time to make conquest of treasures unspeakable, of worlds surpassing all his dreams—the supreme adventure of the ages."
"It seems surprising that Breasted became a public figure in his lifetime," says John Larson, archivist of The Oriental Institute. 'To compare him to present-day scholars, I think you could cite [astronomer] Carl Sagan or [Civil War historian] Shelby Foote," with their popular books and television appearances. Breasted's exploits—excavations he organized and oversaw from Luxor to Persepolis—were routinely covered by the press, but his scholarly approach to science was unaffected by publicity.
Fame and power were not, in the beginning, part of Breasted's life plan. He was born in 1865 to a modest family in Rockford, Illinois, a town connected to the rest of the world by a minor river. His father, physically unfit for service in the Civil War, poured most of his energy into his modest hardware business.
The one passionate influence on Breasted's life was his Aunt Theodocia, a childless woman who "identified herself with many worthy causes," according to James's son Charles Breasted, author of the only full-length biography of the archeologist, Pioneer to the Past, published in 1945. There's no evidence that Theodocia burned fire and brimstone into James. But after beginning an ambivalent career as a pharmacist, he did choose to enter the ministry. At the age of 22, he traveled to the big city and entered Chicago Theological Seminary.
Breasted distinguished himself at seminary, excelling particularly in the study of Hebrew. He was so successful at it that he came to the attention of the esteemed Hebraist William Rainey Harper, then a professor at Yale. At Harper's coaxing, Breasted decided to pursue not the ministry, but scholarship.
The way Breasted told his bewildered mother of this decision is worth repeating. He stood before her, according to Charles Breasted, and read a passage from the King James version of the Bible. He paused, then read his own translation of the verse from the original Hebrew. The two were markedly dissimilar. To Breasted, if not to his mother, the conclusion was obvious: "I could never be satisfied to preach on the basis of texts I know to be full of mistranslation."
At Yale in 1891, Breasted was much aware of his deficiencies among better prepared classmates. Because of that, he immersed himself in the one world he felt equipped to master: ancient texts of the Near East. His social contacts were infrequent. On one occasion, he wrote home that he had met a young woman at a party in an artisfs studio and was somewhat smitten. But Aunt Theodocia, who was helping finance his year at Yale, wrote back sternly, "You are an idealist. When will you get down to solid rock?"
In fact he had been excavating deeply in the rocky history of the ancient Middle East, learning not only Hebrew but other languages that preceded it—those of Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia. Later, he wrote that these studies showed him "man's primitive advance from physical evolution to an evolution of his soul, a social and spiritual development...." In plainer terms, Breasted was intrigued by the way the history of human morality could be traced through the oldest written records known.
One day on the Yale campus, Professor Harper buttonholed Breasted to discuss the student's future. Breasted said noncommittally that he was considering a doctorate in Egyptology. Harper, preparing to leave Yale to become the first president of the University of Chicago (with its initial bequest from John D. Rockefeller), seized Breasted's lapels. Breasted should go to Berlin and earn a Ph.D. in Egyptology there, he insisted. If he did, Harper would create America's first professorship in that field, and give it to Breasted when he returned to Chicago.
So off Breasted went, with a promise of future employment, and little else, in his pocket. Berlin was at that time a place of martinets and angry mobs, but Breasted immersed himself, once again, in his studies. He mastered ancient Egyptian, Coptic, Hebrew and Arabic, as well as German. He also mastered his own sense of inadequacy. "Now I can read pages [of hieroglyphics] in a day ... now the reins are in my hand," he wrote home triumphantly. In 1894, after writing his dissertation in Latin, he ran a gauntlet of rigorous examinations to achieve, finally, the right to be addressed as "Herr Doktor." His appointment to Chicago soon followed.
Shortly after his graduation, Breasted married Frances Hart, another American studying in Berlin. Their honeymoon trip, not unexpectedly, was to Egypt, where the Breasteds witnessed the varied styles of life of Egyptologists in the field. They were heartened by their meeting with Archibald Sayce of Oxford, who lived comfortably on a finely appointed dahabiyah, or river barge, in Cairo. As the Breasteds drank tea with him, they discussed archeology and local politics, and gossiped amiably about mutual acquaintances. Egyptology, it seemed, could lead to a good life.
Less encouraging was a visit to Sir William Hinders Petrie, also an Englishman, whose reputation as a scholar was unexcelled but whose personal habits were less than exemplary. The Breasteds called on Petrie at his excavation at Nagada, near Luxor. Their host's tattered clothes were indescribable, at least to Frances Breasted, and his cuisine was execrable. It was said that Petrie tested aging tins of food by throwing them against the wall. If a can exploded on impact, its contents were deemed to be unfit.
Also on this trip, Breasted began a lifelong effort to build a collection of antiquities for the University of Chicago. In Cairo and other cities, he combed the streets for shops that might contain something of value. Ancient stone knives, statuettes and other authentic pieces could be found in boxes of otherwise worthless junk. Sometimes these excursions produced ordinary finds at low prices; at other times they could be as productive—and as exhilarating—as opening a tomb.
A typical story of Breasted's collecting exploits occurred during a later visit to Cairo. It involved a dealer named "Tano," who coaxed Breasted from his own shop to another one down the street. Breasted resisted, but finally followed. He was then shown an almost pristine "Book o of the Dead," a scroll prepared to accompany the deceased into the afterworld. Breasted knew the price would be high, so he pretended to be uninterested and left the dusty shop. Urgently, he cabled Chicago for funds. Two days later he purchased the scroll for $2500—just as two other collectors were passing through Cairo. In the summer of 1895 Breasted returned with his bride to the University of Chicago and, as "Assistant in Egyptology," was assigned a small office in Cobb Hall. His only equipment consisted of two or three hundred photographs. He had no books, no students, no colleagues anywhere in the United States, and so small a salary that he had to lecture around the country to make ends meet. Things looked so bleak that he was tempted to accept one of the positions that had been offered him in Berlin and Vienna.
Instead, he spent the next several years establishing his field in America. In 1900 he undertook to copy all the Egyptian inscriptions in the leading museums of Europe, and included them in the five volumes of English translation he published in 1906 as Ancient Records of Egypt. His History of Egypt was published by Scribners in 1905, and was popular enough to be reissued several times. In it, he described pharaohs such as Thutmose III, who was both conqueror and artist. He wrote of Ikhnaton, whom he called history's "first monotheist," and who fought a losing battle against a corrupt priesthood. Never before had Egypt's story been told in such lively terms.
In the seasons from 1905 through 1907, he led an expedition to copy and photograph the Egyptian inscriptions of ancient Nubia along 1600 kilometers (1000 miles) of the Nile. The following year he was home to begin a special study of ancient Egyptian religion. He also embarked on a high-school textbook called Ancient Times—he was dismayed by the poor teaching of ancient history in American and English schools—and in it coined the term "Fertile Crescent." This bit of popularization in particular did not come easily. On the day in 1916 that he finally finished the manuscript of Ancient Times, he wrote in his diary, "I feel like a convict suddenly set free after years of weary labor and bondage." The book became the most widely used ancient-history text in the United States and other countries, and remained so for many years.
In May 1919, Breasted was sitting at breakfast reading his mail when he noticed a letter with the return address "The Homestead, Hot Springs, West Virginia." He nearly tossed it out unopened: It looked like a brochure for a vacation he could not afford. In fact, it was a letter from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., overdue reply to a request for funding. Breasted had written him with a grand plan for excavation and study throughout the Middle East. Rockefeller, who had assisted his father in the founding of the University of Chicago, was enchanted. "Because I believe no one is better fitted to lead in this enterprise than yourself, I shall be happy to finance your project on the basis of the annual expense outline" —which was $10,000 a year for five years.
Thus began a remarkably productive collaboration which would continue for the rest of Breasted's life. With the promise of the Rockefeller money, Breasted and several colleagues from Chicago set out on an ambitious reconnaissance of Egypt and western Asia. The objective was to survey the region—Ottoman rule had recently ended in much of the area—and to identify promising sites for excavation. Breasted started in Cairo, where he visited the British high commissioner, Lord Allenby. Allenby arranged for Breasted to journey through Babylonia, in Iraq. Getting there, however, would entail a detour—to Basra by sea, via Bombay—to avoid the fighting that continued in Trans-Jordan.
After weeks at sea, the Breasted party was met by a British staff car, and then embarked on the new Basra-Baghdad railroad line. They visited Sumerian sites and examined ruins dating to 3000 bc. They spent a week at ancient Babylon, finding it as German excavators had abandoned it during the war. In Baghdad, Breasted made an important acquisition: a six-sided clay prism inscribed with the text of the Royal Annals of Sennacherib, a terra-cotta piece with beautifully impressed columns of cuneiform.
The party traveled on to the land of the ancient Assyrians, around Nineveh, where they saw lines of ancient walls, grain fields and plateaus where great palaces had once stood. "The journey had been one continuous demonstration of the economic and historical geography of the early East," Breasted wrote, "and I had learned more in these four hours than I had gained at home from the most intensive study...." They went to Khorsabad, seat of Assyrian king Sargon II. Little was left of the ancient capital except the city gates, which remained unexcavated.
The Breasted group then passed beyond the limits of British control, and pressed on through the Syrian Desert toward Aleppo, near the Mediterranean. This territory was hostile to Europeans at that moment, but the Chicagoans were fortunate: They had a series of escorts through the new Arab state, due in part to the blessing of King Faysal in Damascus. They were escorted from khan to khan by bands of riflemen on horseback. On several occasions the Breasted party passed camps of Bedouins, whose hospitality of coffee and cigarettes they were glad to accept. "We Arabs all love Americans," one of them told Breasted; it was the English and the French who had worn out their welcome in Syria. In fact, the archeologist sharply sensed coming political change in this area, and Allenby later asked Breasted to travel home via London to report the details first-hand to Lord Curzon, the British minister of foreign affairs.
Despite political vagaries, Breasted was successful over the next few years in organizing many teams of archeologists at important sites throughout the Middle East, and in publishing series of volumes on their work. The projects were funded by Rockefeller, and Breasted took extreme care to maintain the philanthropist's interest. The archeologist made extravagant preparations, for example, to welcome the Rockefellers at the opening of Tutankhamun's sarcophagus in 1923. Although the Rockefellers bowed out at the last moment, Breasted later described the event to them in a letter. He wrote in one passage about the discovery that a portion of the crypt had been assembled wrongly by ancient workmen. "Even the most learned philologist would find it difficult to reconstruct the exchange of amenities which [must have] passed between the chief engineer and the chief cabinet-maker," Breasted wrote.
The Rockefeller-Breasted collaboration suffered a major disappointment in the failure of a Cairo Museum project, for which Rockefeller had pledged $10 million. As Rockefeller's representative, Breasted had planned the building down to its architectural details. But King Fu'ad I of Egypt, wary of yet another Western power intervening in his country's affairs, vetoed construction.
Apparently unfazed, Breasted and Rockefeller proceeded to other projects. "Breasted was the kind of visionary who kept reframing and reshaping his objectives in order to have a successful outcome," says art historian Jeffrey Abt, who is working on a new biography of Breasted. Rockefeller put a smaller sum toward a Palestine Museum, though this project was sidetracked until after Breasted's death. Most significantly, the funds not spent on the Cairo Museum eventually went to a project far closer to the professor's heart, the Oriental Institute itself. Rockefeller, who had previously financed Breasted's operations on a year-by-year basis, endowed the Institute with seven million dollars.
Breasted's son writes that when this money came in 1928, his father's only regret was that he was not 20 years younger. But he took on the construction of a large research facility and exhibit halls, and the hiring of more archeologists to excavate more sites. Before the roof of the new Institute building was completed, cranes lowered the monumental relief of an Assyrian bull into one of the halls. It came from the Khorsabad gate that Breasted had first noted 10 years earlier. Today it is but one of the treasures of this small but stunning museum.
The Institute's opening in 1931 brought out Chicago's business elite, and it was this event that put Breasted's visage on the cover of Time. There were other triumphs, but travel and hardships had taken their toll. Breasted fell ill on the boat back from Egypt in 1935, and died days later in New York.
Despite his frailty in later years, something in Breasted's nature never did grow old: Throughout his career, he never forgot the youthful enchantment that had led him into his life's work describing, in a letter to Rockefeller, the progress of excavations at Megiddo—a Palestinian site also known as Armageddon—Breasted mentioned the discovery of a faint inscription that included the name of Shishak, a pharaoh of the 10th century BC. Long ago, Breasted wrote, he himself had puzzled over this same biblical name "in Sunday School, in a little church on the far-off prairies of Illinois."
Breasted's enthusiasms were real, and he transmitted them unerringly to his readers. His scholarship took many productive turns, for which he is still venerated within his profession, yet the broad outline of his career made him a truly public figure. In one lifetime, he lifted the veils from several thousand years of history, and told its story in ways that intrigued the entire world.
Jay Pridmore writes a museums column in The Chicago Tribune. His most recent book is Chicago Architecture and Design, published by Abrams. Breasted's biography is available as a Phoenix paperback from the University of Chicago Press.