Egyptology vs Archaeology

When I came back from the field season in Egypt, a bunch of people asked me what the difference is between an Egyptologist and a garden variety archaeologist. I didn’t have a very good answer, except that Egyptologists study Egypt, but really only the ancient bits, and archaeologists study, well, ancient everything. The next question would be – but why does Egypt have its own -ologists? Do other countries have -ologists?

I wasn’t really sure.

So I have looked into it.


Egyptology arguably started with Napoleon Bonaparte, who went ahead and invaded Egypt around about 1800.


Napoleon Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, (ca. 1868) by Jean-Léon Gérôme

(Although, other people were fascinated by Ancient Egypt long before Napoleon got there, even other ancient Egyptians. For example, fun fact; Cleopatra is closer in time to us right now, than to the building of the pyramids. Herodotus, the “father of history” gave an account of his trip to Egypt in 454BCE. He thought the pyramids were overrated and that the camel rides were a rip-off.)

Napoleon took scientists with him when he invaded Egypt, and together they wrote Description de l’Égypte, published over 20 years between 1809 and 1829, making information about Egypt widely accessible to Europeans for the first time. Egyptomania ensued.

Champollion deciphered hieroglyphs using the Rosetta stone, and a huge amount of information became available through the written history of Egypt, now able to be read.

With the work of Flinders Petrie in Egypt came a new professionalism in excavation not seen before. Petrie championed controlled excavation and rigorous recording techniques.

(Fun story; when everyone was busy treasure hunting in Egypt, one of the most successful treasure hunters was an Italian named Belzoni.


Belzoni in his strong man days (1803)

He had originally been a circus strong man, but obviously saw a niche market for lifting big things out of Egypt. You can still see his name carved into the Ramesseum in Luxor)


Belzoni’s name at the Ramesseum

In 1882 the British Egypt Exploration Fund was established, promoting the methods Petrie had pioneered, and academic work flourished in Egypt alongside antiquarianism and treasure hunting.

In 1919 the Oriental Institute was founded at the University of Chicago, and so Egyptology became an established field of study in the United States.


The text book definition of archaeology is “the study of the material remains of the human past”, or some variation on that. This of course involves recovering those material remains before you can study them, which is where excavation comes in. Knowing precisely where these material remains came from and what they were with is important to develop a complete picture of the object in question, which is where archaeology and treasure hunting differ. Also, you aren’t allowed to keep the things you find (people ask me that All The Time).

Archaeology developed independently as a discipline in the US and in Europe from a general interest in the human past based on things that people found. (fun fact; in many places around the world, when people found stone arrow heads and tools, they thought they had found thunderbolts. Seems like a reasonable explanation to me.)

In Europe archaeology developed as its own discipline, while in the US it developed as a sub-discipline of anthropology. Either way, the aims and methods of archaeology remain pretty much the same all over the world.

Other -ologies and Conclusion

There aren’t really any other -ologies. I thought maybe Mexicology was a thing, or Roman or Greek, but they doesn’t seem to be.

Why? I think the answer lies in the Egyptomania that was sparked after the publication of Description de l’Égypte. Pretty much, everybody went nuts over all things Egyptian, and Egyptology as a discipline seems to have evolved and changed from that to what it is now.

This isn’t to say that other places don’t have their specialists, they most certainly do. Ask any archaeologist, everybody has a speciality, and even if it isn’t country related, like lithics (stone tools), it will probably be region specific. For example; my speciality is artefact analysis, specifically metals, specifically silver, specifically Spanish silver. Aha! Maybe I am a Spainologist.

Conversely, all Egyptologists have specialities too, many of which can be translated over to other countries and regions. For example, a friend of mine studies Egyptian burial practices, well, just about everybody buries their dead, so her work can be translated over to other places, even if it’s just for comparison.

At the end of the day, we’re all one big happy family, who would like to know a bit more about our family tree, aaaawww, group hug!


One thought on “Egyptology vs Archaeology

  1. I’ve been asking myself the same question. Also, there weren’t any camels in Egypt during Herodotus’ time, so those camel rides wouldn’t even have been on real camels. Perhaps heavily disguised donkeys were used or two men in a camel costume. Whatever the answer, definitely a rip-off!

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