Seyler (Emerita, English/Northern Virginia Community Coll.) delivers a biography of William Bankes (1786-1855), one of the first Europeans to document the ruins of ancient Egypt.
A college friend of Lord Byron, a gifted painter and avid art collector, Bankes was a pioneer of archaeology. Handsome and witty, he was also gay in an era when that was a capital offense in Britain. He attended Cambridge, served a term in Commons, and in 1813, decided to see life outside England. He headed first to Spain and Portugal and began collecting art, much of it still on display in his Dorsetshire home, Kingston Lacy. In 1815, he decided on a voyage up the Nile. There, he copied art and inscriptions in tombs and temples and made careful notes of their layouts. With a few companions from his Nile trip, Bankes traveled to Palestine, disguising himself as an Arab to gain entry to sites where Europeans were unwelcome. Returning to Egypt, he made an even longer journey up the Nile, visiting numerous sites and copying inscriptions, including an important list of kings from a temple in Abydos. His careful documentation facilitated the eventual decoding of hieroglyphics. In 1820, he returned to England, where his travels brought him brief fame—but his failure to write up his discoveries denied him real recognition. In 1833, he was caught in a compromising position with a soldier. With the help of influential friends, he was acquitted, and he managed to keep a low profile until 1841, when he was arrested a second time. He fled the country and spent his final years in Italy, still buying art to send back home. Though Seyler is sometimes hazy on chronology, she provides a solid account of her subject, who was in the right place when there was important work to be done on Egypt.
The fascinating story of a figure who deserves to be much better known.