When asked what he saw after reverently peering into the freshly opened tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, Egyptologist Howard Carter could only find the words the say “Wonderful Things.” These words have become legend in Egyptology; whether they were actually spoken by Carter or were ascribed to him after the events took place in order to embellish the moment is moot; the discovery and opening of King Tut’s tomb is notorious within and without Egyptology. However, as Jason Thompson’s recent trilogy shows, the history of Egyptology is full of such “Wonderful Things.”
Wonderful Things: A History of Egyptology is a 3-volume history of the study of ancient Egypt from ancient times to the present. Beginning with how the ancient Egyptians reconciled their own past through colonialism and two world wars, Wonderful Things is encyclopedic in its biography of many of the field’s practitioners from around the world. In its comprehensiveness, this series is an accomplishment and a fantastic first step for anyone interested in the history of Egyptology. Yet, it never sacrifices depth for breadth, often weaving chronological developments in the field with deeply empathetic narratives.
Thompson wrote this series with a critical eye towards many of the dubious practices of past Egyptologists—indeed not all archaeologists played nice with one another nor excavated according to standards that would be acceptable today. But Wonderful Things is written from a place of both attentiveness to the problematics of the past and with sincere appreciation for the study of ancient Egypt. It is that appreciation, that enthusiasm, which has kept Egypt in the imagination of people around the world for millennia, now more so than ever before.
Samuel Pfister is the collections manager at the Badè Museum in California's East Bay.