Victorian Society and Ancient Cultures

How did archaeology shape 19th-century perspectives on Biblical cultures?

Archaeologist Austin Henry Layard shown excavating John Bull, pictured as a lamassu Bull, in a 19th century image from Punch Magazine.

The discoveries made by iconic Victorian-era archaeologists such as Robinson, Layard and Petrie shape our understanding of the Near Eastern world to this day. But how did the contemporaneous public understand these discoveries? In the Archaeological Views column “Biblical Archaeology Through a Victorian Lens” in the January/February 2014 issue of BAR, Kevin McGeough examines how archaeology reformed Victorian perspectives on the Biblical world.

McGeough writes that 19th-century discoveries were often framed in the context of technology and development. Victorian England justified its imperialism through claims of superiority, and showed off its engineering skill through the discovery, transportation and display of monumental wonders from the ancient world.

Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.

But how did Victorian society perceive these ancient civilizations? McGeough notes a sharp divide between the portrayal of Biblical cultures and that of their peers:

The cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia were depicted as exotic civilizations with values far different from the Victorians. Much of the art printed with these articles was only loosely based on excavations and emphasized the “otherness” of the places where the discoveries were made… Many of the 19th-century illustrations portrayed ancient Egyptian men as snake charmers and women as belly dancers. The Holy Land, however, was described very differently. Popular presentations of Biblical archaeology minimized the “otherness” of the Biblical world.

Author Kevin McGeough.

Victorian Christians and Jews cast Egypt and Mesopotamia as ancient villains, but they took a more empathetic tone with Biblical cultures. Nineteenth-century Bible shows represented Biblical culture through more contemporary Bedouin analogies while archaeological discoveries reframed questions about the Bible. McGeough writes: “After reading about these discoveries, people were no longer content to read the Exodus account merely as a conflict between Moses and Pharaoh. Rather, readers wanted to know which pharaoh.”

BAS Library Members: Read Kevin McGeough’s Archaeological Views column “Biblical Archaeology Through a Victorian Lens” as it appears in the January/February 2014 issue of BAR.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today.

Posted in Archaeologists, Biblical Scholars & Works.

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  • Matt says

    I’d also say that minimising the mysterious and “otherness” of the Biblical finds was an act of appropriation, an attempt to claim knowledge and ownership of the Biblical tradition.

  • Rob says

    My great grandparents relocated from New Brunswick to Maine, where the husband, a timber surveyor who could estimate the number of board feet of a river log jamb, lovingly studied achievements of Queen Victoria, thru Dr. Livingston in Africa. His wife had to admonish him on occasion: “Now John, remember which side your bread is buttered on.”

  • Les says

    The Victorians often interpreted their digs within the confines of their moral standards,,,, especially the sexual

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