Today when we think of an archaeologist, we imagine a cautious and learned professor, carefully scraping away the sand to reveal the treasures of the past. Belzoni was an early 19th Century archaeologist who had more in common with Indiana Jones, opening tombs using a battering ram, hacking his way into the Pyramid of Khafre, and taking anything that could be moved. His life makes an interesting story.
Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born in Padua, Italy, on 5 November, 1778, to Giacomo, a barber, and Teresa, who suffered from very bad headaches. He was generally known as Giambattista or Gio Batta to his friends and family. He was the second of four brothers: Domenico, Giovanni Battista, Francesco and Antonio. Times were hard and their father's work seems to have supported not just the family but a number of relatives as well. Giovanni Battista never got any formal education; he learned to read but never learned to spell, either in Italian or English.
Belzoni didn't leave the city of Padua until he was 13, when the family went on a picnic outing to the countryside. The boy was entranced by this world outside the city he knew, and was determined to see more of it. A couple of days later he ran away from home, along with Antonio aged nine. They travelled 50 miles, as far as Ferrara, before Antonio became homesick and the two boys returned home. When Belzoni was 16, he left home for good, travelling to Rome where, according to his own account of his life, he studied hydraulics. It is not clear what exactly he means, but he may have worked on the wells and fountains of Rome.
In 1798, Napoleon led his army into Rome and Italy was in a state of chaos. Belzoni couldn't find work in Rome. He had by now grown up and was very big: he was variously described as 'over six feet', 'six feet six inches' or even 'full, if not over, seven feet in height'. Whatever his size, he was also immensely strong. He was worried that he would be drafted into the army, so he left Italy, travelling to France, and then twice to Holland, the second time bringing Francesco with him. From here, at the end of 1802, the two brothers eventually arrived in England, where they adopted the life of the theatre.
Belzoni appeared for a three-month season in the Sadler's Wells Theatre, just outside London. Due to licensing restrictions, this house was not allowed to put on spoken plays (that right being reserved for only four houses in the centre of the city). Instead, the performances consisted of a mixture of pantomime, musicals and circus acts: Belzoni appeared as the 'Patagonian Sampson', a giant who would carry up to 10 men standing on a special cast-iron apparatus around the stage in an act known as the 'human pyramid'. He also acted in any of the plays that required large actors. In Jack the Giant Killer he was the giant; in Philip Quarll, a story about a desert-island castaway, he was the Cannibal King.
Belzoni was later ashamed of his performances as a strongman, and didn't mention them at all in his own account of his life. Despite parading himself in front of audiences for a living, he was in fact a quiet and unassuming character. He preferred to refer to himself always as a hydraulics engineer. The Industrial Revolution was well underway in England at this time. Steam engines had just been invented, electricity (known then as 'Galvanism') was being investigated, and new roads were being built everywhere. It was a great time of change, and Belzoni was fascinated by all the science and engineering.
However, a man had to make a living. So for the next ten years, Belzoni toured around the British Isles; mostly he performed his strongman stunts, but occasionally he would present a 'most curious Exhibition of Hydraulicks' with jets of water and fire being shot into the sky.
Belzoni was apparently very good looking: according to Lieutenant-Colonel Fitzclarence, 'He was the handsomest man I ever saw'. This view was also expressed by Sir Walter Scott: 'the handsomest man (for a giant) I ever saw'. Sometime around 1803 Belzoni married a woman called Sarah. We know very little about her, but she accompanied him on his touring and later on his trips to far-flung countries.
As the years went by, Belzoni's abilities in the theatrical world improved: he performed airs on 'the musical glasses'; he played the title role in Macbeth (although not necessarily with much of Shakespeare's text); he 'CUT a Man's Head Off!! And put it on Again!!'; and he also presented displays of optical illusions and 'phantasmagoria', projecting images onto screens using primitive gas or oil-powered lamps and lenses.
The Hydraulics Engineer in Egypt
All this time, Napoleon had been busy conquering Europe and Belzoni was reluctant to leave Britain. But in 1812, Napoleon was finally deposed and exiled to Elba. In 1813, Belzoni and Sarah left England under English passports and toured Spain and Portugal. By the end of 1814, they were in Sicily, and Belzoni wrote in a letter to his parents that he was on his way to Constantinople. There was always a demand for circus performers in that city.
Then Belzoni met a man from Egypt who told him that the new ruler of Egypt, the Pasha Muhammad Ali, was trying to modernise his country and was urgently looking for engineers and industrialists. Belzoni at last had a chance to get away from the life of showman and use his knowledge of hydraulics. So in May 1815, Belzoni, Sarah and a young Irish servant called James Curtin set out for Egypt, arriving in Alexandria about three weeks later.
After an inauspicious start in which an outbreak of plague confined them to Alexandria, they made it to Cairo where Belzoni met the Pasha and promised to construct a giant water wheel which would be capable of pumping with just one ox as much water as six traditional Egyptian ox-powered pumps. The Belzonis were given a house in the grounds of the Pasha's palace and a modest salary.
Egypt at the time was mainly occupied by Arabs, but had a ruling class of Turks. Britain and France had fought over Egypt and it was generally reckoned the British would be back soon. So while the supreme ruler, the Pasha, was all in favour of Europeans, their presence was resented by most of the Turks. Belzoni had to tread carefully.
At this stage in Belzoni's life, Egypt's past was just considered an oddity. He went to see the pyramids at Giza, and later with Sarah to the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, but these were typical tourist trips. They were more interested in climbing the pyramids for a good view than speculating on who might have built such enormous constructions.
In June 1816, after nearly a year's work, the water wheel was ready and Belzoni organised a demonstration for the Pasha. Like a giant hamster wheel, the ox stood inside and walked slowly along, pumping the water. This was pitted against six traditional ox-powered pumps. The ox-drivers were determined that this upstart European would not outdo them, so they pushed their oxen to the limit, while Belzoni's lone ox kept to a slow and steady pace. Sure enough, Belzoni's machine matched their output. It was about ten times as good as a traditional pump. The Pasha was delighted, but to save face, he decreed that the new machine was the equal of only four of the old ones.
Then disaster struck. The Pasha asked jokingly how well the wheel would do with humans instead of an ox. About 12 Arabs immediately jumped into it and worked it up to a great speed. James, the servant, joined in the fun. Suddenly the Arabs had had enough and jumped out. The wheel went wild and James was thrown out, knocking him unconscious and breaking his leg. That was the end of the water wheel project - the Egyptians would never accept the machine now, because it was a potential killer.
Working for Salt
Belzoni was now without a job. He had spent a year constructing the water wheel, but it was quite evident that he was not going to get a contract for making any more, and he hadn't even been fully paid for the first one. It was time to look for a different sort of work.
He heard from the newly arrived British Consul in Cairo, Henry Salt, that the British Museum in London was looking for Egyptian artefacts. In Upper Egypt1 there were temples and tombs laden with statues and sarcophaguses. The Egyptians had no interest in these things and they were just left lying in the fields. Even worse, with the new industrialisation of Egypt, many of them were smashed up to make building material - many of the temples recorded by the first explorers were gone 50 years later, after having survived for thousands of years. The museums of Europe saw nothing wrong in the removal of artefacts from Egypt: not only would they be saved from destruction, but they could be put on display where 'civilised' people could see them.
The Pasha, Muhammad Ali, who was Turkish not Egyptian, was prepared to allow these relics of a forgotten past to be taken away if it kept the Europeans happy. He was more interested in the new knowledge of industrialisation which the Europeans brought into the country. This digging for archaeological treasure wasn't a free-for-all, though. No European could dig without a permit, and the Pasha only gave these out to certain people. Salt, as British Consul, was ideally placed to get a digging permit, known as a firmin.
The First Trip Up the Nile
Luxor had been the capital of Egypt during the 'Middle' and 'New Kingdoms' and the tombs and temples were particularly thick on the ground there. Salt was interested in one thing in particular in Luxor: the head and shoulders of a giant statue of a forgotten pharaoh. At that time, nobody knew the name of the pharaoh represented by the statue, as the hieroglyphic inscriptions could not yet be read, so he was variously known as Memnon2 or Ozymandias3. The same pharaoh was commemorated in countless statues all over Egypt. Today we know him as Ramses II.
Salt commissioned Belzoni to get the head and bring it back to Cairo. The retrieval would be no simple task as the artefact weighed approximately seven or eight tons. He also said that Belzoni could collect any other antiquities he could lay his hands on and Salt would cover his expenses.
Belzoni and Sarah set sail immediately to Luxor, departing from Cairo on 30 June, 1816. On the way south, they met with Bernardino Drovetti, the head of the French team which was involved in a similar task to Belzoni, collecting artefacts for museums. Drovetti welcomed Belzoni and 'gave' him a present of the lid of a sarcophagus. In fact, the lid was still in its tomb and Drovetti had been unable to remove it. His gift simply meant that he relinquished his claim to it, and let Belzoni take it if he wanted it. Much of the collection of artefacts was done on this basis - once a collector had 'put his name' on a monument, other Europeans were honour-bound not to touch it.
The Head of Ramses II
Belzoni arrived in Luxor on 22 July, 1816, and lost no time in finding the head. It was in a temple on the west bank dedicated to Ramses II. This temple is now known as the Ramesseum but at the time was known as the Memnonium. Steam power had not yet reached Egypt4 so the most sophisticated equipment Belzoni had at his disposal was a supply of wooden logs. He hired a team of workers and got a carpenter to build a wooden pallet. Then using levers, the head was lifted and the pallet was inserted underneath it. Next, the pallet was lifted and rollers were placed underneath it. Now began the long haul to the river. It took them from 27 July to 12 August to bring the head as far as the river, averaging about 200m each day. Since no suitable boat was available yet to take the head, they left it at the side of the river while Belzoni took a well-deserved rest.
A Trip to Nubia
Belzoni now took the opportunity to find and retrieve the sarcophagus lid which he had been offered by Drovetti. The lid was a massive granite affair and was lying upside down in the tomb of Ramses III. When he turned it over, he found it was an extremely fine piece of work. It's unlikely Drovetti would have let it go if he had known. Belzoni organised the transport of the lid as far as the bank of the river, where he left it for a future date.
Belzoni and Sarah now had time to spare. They decided to go upstream as far as possible and look out for antiquities along the way. The Nile is navigable for much of its length except for short sections of rapids known as cataracts. The first of these as you go upstream is at Aswan, and it was considered the traditional end of the country of Egypt. South (upstream) of this was called Nubia. Nubia was not always considered part of Egypt, but during the New Kingdom it had been conquered and there were many Egyptian temples there5.
Just beyond the First Cataract was the town of Philae; here, there was a giant temple to Isis6 on an island in the river. Belzoni noted an obelisk near the river which had already fallen over and would be easy to remove. This obelisk later became the key to the decipherment of the hieroglyphs.
The party continued on into Nubia. Sarah was the first European woman in centuries to reach this far up the Nile. To amuse herself, she started collecting chameleons and carried on this hobby for all her time in Egypt - at one stage, she had 50 or 60 of them.
Finally the boat reached Abu Simbel, which is almost at the Second Cataract and as far as the boat could go. Here, a few years previously, the Swiss explorer Burckhardt had discovered a giant temple. It was carved into the cliff face at the side of the Nile valley, but sand blowing in from the desert had poured down the cliff and the temple was now buried under a huge pile of sand. All that was visible was the tops of three giant statues7. Belzoni reckoned that the figures were probably seated, in which case the entrance was probably about 35 feet below the level of the sand. He hired a team of labourers and set to work clearing the sand, but they only cleared about 20 feet before it was time to return to Luxor.
Digging in Luxor
Back at Luxor, he set a score of men digging in the temple of Mut (on the east bank) and found 12 statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet. At this stage, there was some friction between Belzoni and the team of French diggers - they claimed that he had moved in on their territory and that the statues were ones they had already uncovered. Belzoni retired and shifted his attention to the west bank.
In the Western Valley (an annexe of the Valley of the Kings), he reckoned he could find a tomb just by noting the pattern of water flow from the occasional torrential rain in the valley. He stuck his walking stick into a pile of rubble at the point where he thought the tomb should be, and sure enough, he found a tomb: it belonged to Ai, a minor official. Belzoni demonstrated this uncanny ability to know where to dig many times in his few years in Egypt.
A suitable boat finally arrived and Belzoni had the task of putting the giant head onto it using only wooden poles. Despite everybody's opinion that the boat would sink, the job went without any hitches and he and Sarah were now ready to return downstream. They arrived back in Cairo on 15 December, 1816. Their trip up the river had taken 5½ months.
Belzoni now organised the loading of the giant head on to a ship to be sent back to London and the British Museum. However, he was somewhat surprised that the other things he had collected were set aside and left in Cairo. Salt paid him for his six months' work and gave him two of the lion-headed statues to keep. Belzoni later sold them for cash.
The story of Belzoni is continued in Part 2.