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Whipple Library

Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Banner for web   Conflicting Chronologies1

Can we then wonder that they who decipher the monuments of Egypt, or the geologist who interprets the earth’s autobiography, should arrive at views respecting the date of an ancient empire, or the age of our planet, irreconcilable with every one of these numerous and conflicting chronologies?

Charles Lyell
Principles of Geology, 9th revised edition

London: John Murray, 1853, p. 660

The deep human past was a key arena for Victorian intellectual controversy. Were humans older than the biblical tradition of 6,000 years? Where had we come from? Were we one or many species? Above all, who had the expertise to provide authoritative chronologies? The term ‘prehistory’ first appeared in English in 1851. Ancient Egypt soon emerged as a critical juncture between prehistoric and historic time and became a symbolic place of debate. Egypt was believed to be the source of ancient wisdom and precise measurement, a critical region for linguistic development, and the origin of agriculture and metalworking. For Victorians, the Nile Valley was ‘the cradle of western civilisation.’ Amid British control of semi-colonial Egypt, the period saw enormous changes to studies of human antiquity. British geologists, philologists, ethnologists, anthropologists, archaeologists and astronomers identified traces of the remote human past in the region. All attempted to answer the question: who lived in Egypt before the pharaohs? This exhibit showcases some of the texts that debated the age, origin and development of early Egyptian civilisation. It illuminates how Egyptian materials and labour informed these cross-disciplinary disputes.

This exhibition was put together by Meira Gold, PhD student in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, with support from the staff of the Whipple Library and the University Library. Click through to see the digital display, which you can view in person on level one in the library.