How did archaeology shape 19th-century perspectives on Biblical cultures?
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.
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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.
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.”
Subscribers: Read Kevin McGeough’s Archaeological Views column “Biblical Archaeology Through a Victorian Lens” as it appears in the January/February 2014 issue of BAR.
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