Belgian expansionism and the making of Egyptology, 1830-1952

Research tracks

The general research objective of P&P is to disclose from a Belgian perspective how political, economic and scientific networks and interactions between 1830 and 1952 gave shape to the discipline of Egyptology. In this period the new Belgian state, created in 1830, came to pursue expansionist policies in a playing field that was increasingly dominated by the opportunities created by the British colonisation of Egypt, which only ended with the Nasserist revolution of 1952. The research hypothesis is that Egyptology was an integral part of Belgian expansionism.

The specific research questions are:

  • Transnational networks at work: which role did Egypt play in Belgian expansionism?
  • Belgian expansionism to Egypt prior to 1882: who were the major stakeholders and to what extent did they influence interest in ancient Egypt?
  • Industrialists at work: measuring the impact of Belgian entrepreneurship on the development of Egyptology under British colonial rule (1882-1914)
  • Belgian Egyptology at its height: scrutinising the role of expansionism in the elaboration of an Egyptological infrastructure (1914-1952)
  • Putting Belgium on the map: Belgian Egyptology in the international intellectual climate
  • Reconstructing archaeological excavations based on archival records in Belgium and Brooklyn

The P&P project is divided into five work packages (WP)

WP 1: Data Management and Support

WP 1: Data Management and Support

P&P will analyse a corpus, selected on the basis of research-driven criteria, of different types of publications by experts dealing with Egyptology on the one hand and with the Belgian expansionist doctrine on the other. The presence, content, and components of the discourse will be examined using Natural Language Processing techniques with a pre-generated list of cited authors, bibliographic references, named entities and evolving concepts. This allows P&P to probe into the cognitive dynamics inside the scholarly community of Egyptologists and a variety of networks. The written and visual sources to be consulted include manuscripts, private papers, books and memoirs, newspapers, scholarly journals, popular magazines, conference proceedings, pamphlets, official government publications, papers and publications of learned societies and professional associations, and company archives. The most important archival collections are housed at the Royal Museums of Art and History (RMAH, Brussels) and the Musée Royal de Mariemont (MRM).

Data selection and collection.The corpus selection is research driven. In WP1 we will make a detailed overview of the most relevant sources to be investigated, both archival and published. Throughout the duration of the project, the archives of the RMAH and MRM will be structured and described. Source-finding missions are organized within Belgium and the US.

Data management and analysis. Many archives are not yet digitised. Therefore WP1 will set up a Virtual Research Environment (VRE) in which selected sets of archival data will be made available digitally. The platform will include a collaborative relational database (to process the data for social network analysis, prosopography, etc.) and a corpus with annotation tools and export functionalities. It integrates archival descriptions and digitised primary sources. The database will be powered by Nodegoat (, a web-based database management, analysis and visualization platform with API and linked data ingestion. In WP1 we develop an independent platform for textual data (articles, monographs, correspondence), tailor-made for the entire project and with the possibility to extract Named Entities (persons, places, etc.). The Madoc/Omeka-S powered corpus management platform will provide a complete end to end digitization pipeline and finishes with annotation layers (IIIF manifests), allowing further research and scholarly collaboration, e.g. for the transcription and semantic annotation of correspondence and documents.

WP 2: Belgian Expansionism, Egypt and Egyptology: Social, Structural & Cognitive Factors

WP 2: Belgian Expansionism, Egypt and Egyptology: Social, Structural & Cognitive Factors

WP Leaders: Christophe Verbruggen (UGent)
Team members involved: Jan Vandersmissen (UGent), Marie-Cécile Bruwier (Musée Royal de Mariemont), Arnaud Quertinmont (Musée Royal de Mariemont), Sophie Urbain (Musée Royal de Mariemont)

In our study of Belgian expansionism related to Egypt, the concept of interconnectedness between the ancient heritage and the promising potential of developing modernity is fundamental. Our approach favours a transnational avenue of analysis to capture all relevant entangled cross-boundary exchanges and transfers and fully understand the complexity of Belgian involvement in a much wider international web of relations. 19th and 20th century expansionism operated through transnational networks. We therefore investigate the construction of exotic and cosmopolitan worldviews, paired with innovative technologies and strategic knowledge. Focusing on networks of ‘experts’ as vectors for materialising the ideology of Western dominance in Egypt, we will identify key ‘linking agents’ in technology transfer and industrial development, and in the circulation of knowledge relating to Egyptology. We hypothesise that an upward social mobility connected these non-state actors with royalty, politicians, diplomats, the haute finance, and industrialists, who were passionate about world-transforming innovations.

In WP2 we generate a prosopography, identifying individual trajectories within the Belgian expansionist movement related to Egypt. Based on a social network analysis, we will reveal the plural involvement of personalities in many fields relevant to the interaction between the communities of expansionists and Egyptologists. We will explain how and where these actors were related and interacted with one another, and whether one can identify specific loci of cohesiveness that pull towards more formal ways of interaction, fostering a process of institutionalisation of Egyptology as a discipline. The systematic study of social attributes will be complemented with a formal network analysis (cluster analysis, modularity class) of their affiliations and co-memberships, resulting in the identification of subgroups and central actors that call for further qualitative research.

We will proceed with an in-depth investigation of one of the project’s key-concepts: ‘expansionism’, conceived as a comparative study of the theorists of expansionist thought. We work on an encompassing but non-exhaustive corpus of Belgian expansionist literature. We will use bibliometric techniques or ‘scientometrics’ and a combination of distant and close reading to analyse the co-occurrence of (title) words, keywords, co-authorship, connecting them, for instance, with the authors’ institutional affiliations in order to get a grip on the continuity and change in the scope of expansionist thought in areas relevant to Egyptology.

WP 3: The Growth of Belgian Egyptology in International Context

Collection Van den Abeele

WP Leaders: Eugène Warmenbol (ULB), Laurent Bavay (ULB), Harco Willems (KUL)
Team members involved: Dorian Vanhulle (ULB), Gert Huskens (ULB/UGent), Marleen De Meyer (KUL), Jean-Michel Bruffaerts (ULB)

The growth of Egyptology in Belgium was intrinsically connected to the wider political and socio-economic framework within which it developed. In WP 3 three chronological stages are analysed:

  1. 1830-1882: In the 19th century, which preceded Egyptology as an institutionalised discipline in Belgium, royals, diplomats and industrialists responded to indigenous demands, with the Ottoman pashas mobilising European specialists in their pursuit of technological innovation. The activities of king Leopold II can partly be seen in this perspective, and the important collection of Egyptian antiquities that he acquired, will be studied based on the State Archives, the Archives of the Royal Palace (Goffinet Papers), and the travel notes of Hippolyte Stacquez. Furthermore the careers and actions of the Belgian diplomatic representation in Egypt, and the collections of antiquities they acquired, are studied in this WP.
  2. 1882-1918: The increasingly tight interaction between Western Europe and Egypt, finally leading to the country’s colonisation, created the conditions shaping the institutionalisation of Egyptology in Egypt itself. Colonial administration came to rest with the British, to whom Cairo became a cosmopolitan hub between Britain and India. While they dominated the administration, finance, and engineering, the French directed the Ministry of Public Works and led the Antiquities Service. Belgian expansionism exploited the connections with both colonial powers, and did so also to the benefit of Egyptology. 
  3. 1918-1952: Apart from the European context, an important focal point will be Belgo-American relations that were strengthened after WWI in the field of scientific cooperation, mainly thanks to active support from Belgian and American politicians and captains of industry. Jean Capart made good use of this and became Advisory Curator of the Egyptian Department at the Brooklyn Museum. Defining the interpersonal context will serve as a backcloth to better understand how Belgian Egyptology grew in the interbellum.

Given Capart’s crucial role in the development of Belgian Egyptology during the first half of the twentieth century, a scientific biography on the man and his career will be finalized. 

WP 4: The Position of Belgian Egyptology in Western Intellectual History

Bruffaerts, Jean-Michel. “Jean Capart, pionnier des fouilles belges en Egypte”. In Ceci n’est pas une pyramide: un siècle de recherche archéologique belge en Egypte, onder redactie van Laurent Bavay, Marie-Cécile Bruwier, Wouter Claes, en Ingrid De Strooper. Leuven: Peeters, 2012, p. 27.

WP Leader: Harco Willems (KUL)
Team members involved: Vincent Oeters (KUL/UGent)

Egyptologists have a poor tradition in making explicit the theoretical frameworks underlying their interpretations. Yet their work (often unconsciously) imposes templates on the pharaonic evidence that were developed in the social sciences, the history of religion, or art history. This issue is only beginning to attract the attention it deserves.

Capart received his Egyptological training from Boeser in Leiden, Erman in Berlin, Mapero in Paris and Petrie in London. The academic background of these Egyptologists must have exerted great influence on his thinking, and indirectly on that of his students. In the interbellum, Brussels became a central place in global Egyptology. Because of international scholarly networks, ideas developed elsewhere must have penetrated Egyptology at home. Western thinking about ancient cultures was until the early 20th century dominated by Classical sources. However, colonialism confronted scholars with so-called ‘primitive’ cultures. The approach of social Darwinism was applied to the interpretation of ‘exotic’ societies. This led to ideas of a unilinear development from ‘savage’, through ‘barbarian’, to ‘civilized’ societies. It often explained cultural differences from racially determined predispositions. In the French-speaking world, Durkheimian sociology muted the racist elements of earlier British anthropology, but are in general agreement with many tenets of evolutionist thinking.

In an implicit way the writings of Egyptologists clearly adopted such mental templates. Petrie often explained changes in society in evolutionary and racial terms. Such theories were unwittingly transmitted in the discipline until quite recently, and recognizing them is of direct relevance to understand the development of Egyptology. Political currents impacted on thinking in Egyptology . For instance, the Russian revolution stirred deep concern among the elite, to whom most Egyptologists belonged. Their negative perceptions of popular movements provided a template for interpreting Egypt’s political collapse during the First Intermediate Period.

It is likely that Belgian Egyptological writings of the period reflect these as well. For instance, Capart was well acquainted to the French Egyptologist A. Moret, who for a time taught at the ULB, and applied the ideas of Mauss and Durkheim. It will be highly rewarding to place Belgian Egyptology of the period investigated in the broader context of developments in the humanities and the social sciences.

WP 5: Egyptian Collections in Belgium and Brooklyn


WP Leader: Luc Delvaux (RMAH)
Team members involved: Marleen De Meyer (KUL), Athena Van der Perre (KUL), Joffrey Liénart (ULB)

With the first Belgian excavation in Egypt taking place only in 1907, and the long-term archaeological mission to Elkab only starting in 1937, the Royal Museums of Art and History (RMAH, Brussels) originally fed its Egyptian collection largely by subscription to the EEF excavations led by Flinders Petrie and his disciples. This was common practice at the time, and led to a wide dispersal of archaeological finds to collections all over the world.

Apart from being curator of the Egyptian collection at the RMAH, Jean Capart, was also Advisory Curator of Egyptology at the Brooklyn Museum in the 1930s. There he used the same network to build up the museum’s Egyptian collection. Until the outbreak of WWII he would divide his time between Brussels and Brooklyn, leaving a permanent Belgian mark on the creation of one of the most important Egyptological collections in the USA.

The main objective of WP5 is to trace the archaeological history of Egyptian antiquities in the collections of the RMAH and the Brooklyn Museum during Capart’s term, and to clarify how the objects of these collections fit in the international excavations of their time. The very large scale British excavations produced contexted artefacts, which due to their dispersal have to a large extent lost their meaning. By tracing assemblages and linking them to the original excavation reports, the scientific importance of what are now essentially orphaned museum artefacts will be valorised. The WP will also aim to derive patterns in acquisition strategies.

The reconstruction of the archaeological contexts will be based on archival research at the museums, combined with personal documentation, excavation reports and diaries. The information gained during this research will be added to the online catalogues of the corresponding museums, and will contribute to a new permanent exhibition gallery at the RMAH which will be devoted to the history of Belgian Egyptology.