- Old World Meets New World: Biography of an Egyptian Collection in the Sonoran Desert
The Arizona State Museum (ASM) at the University of Arizona curates one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive archaeological and ethnographic collections from Arizona, the U.S. Southwest, and the borderlands region, and its mission is to promote “understanding of and respect for the peoples and cultures of Arizona and surrounding regions through research, stewardship of collections, and public outreach.” Given the museum’s nearly total focus on this particular region throughout its history, it is perhaps surprising that ASM also holds approximately 800 ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman archaeological objects, acquired by gift, purchase, and exchange, mainly in the period soon after the founding of the museum in 1893 to the 1950s. The ancient Egyptian collection comprises approximately 250 accessioned objects, as well as a large pottery typology collection of approximately 300 large sherds and nearly whole vessels. All were collected or excavated in Egypt from around the 1880s to the 1930s.
This biography of ASM’s Egyptian collection is presented here not because it provides substantial new insights into our knowledge of ancient Egypt, but rather, because it offers a window into the little-known nexus among New World and Old World archaeologists and institutions that shaped the discipline in the first half of the twentieth century. Southwest archaeology and Egyptology in this period were interconnected in surprising ways. Although some of the Egyptian objects are of unique interest (Romano 2014), as a whole and by any measure ASM’s Egyptian collection ranks as minor in terms of its size and importance. Its interest, rather, lies much more in its collectors and donors, notable individuals, as well as lesser luminaries, who are not only part of the story of [End Page 189] exploration of Egypt in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries but also of the history of Arizona and its land grant university. These individuals provide various links (and sometimes only weak threads) bridging New World and Old World archaeology in the days when the discipline was not as firmly divided along cultural and geographic lines as it is today and at a time when there was still a lively intellectual exchange regarding major questions of the evolution of civilizations and an interest in comparative anthropological approaches. Egypt figured prominently in some of these discussions, for example in the “hyperdiffusionist” theory of prehistory propounded by the Australian-British anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith (1871–1937), who claimed that major inventions and innovations began with the ancient Egyptians and spread from Egypt to the rest of the world (Smith 1911; Elkin and Macintosh 1974). As the first chair of anatomy at the Cairo School of Medicine (1900–1909), Smith investigated the brains of Egyptian mummies and was the first scientist to perform x-rays of mummies (Smith 1915). His theories on diffusion were much debated during these years, and University of Arizona anthropology students also grappled with these issues, as Clara Lee Fraps (Tanner) (1905–1997) did in her 1920s term paper on “Diffusion vs. Independent Origins” in which she often cites Smith and challenges his views (Fraps, undated paper [1923–1927?], ASM Archives MS11:86/10). Smith was also an advisor to the 1907 Nubian Archaeological Survey, which conducted salvage archaeology in advance of the rising waters of the first Aswan Dam. This was a project of the Harvard–Boston Expedition directed at the time by George Andrew Reisner (1867–1942), who had a significant impact on ASM’s Egyptian pottery collection.
The American Southwest and Egypt are, of course, linked by their dry desert environments, allowing remarkable preservation of artifacts to elucidate their ancient cultures. The similarities of flooding, silt, and climate have caused some scholars to ponder the comparable factors that contributed to the rise of one great civilization along the banks of the Nile and to an absence of urbanization and widespread agriculture along the lower Colorado River (Kroeber 1948: 708). It was also this environmental link that took arid lands agricultural specialist Robert Humphrey Forbes (1867–1968) to Egypt where he developed a friendship with Reisner, one...