Émile Amélineau

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Émile Amélineau
Photograph of Émile Amélineau
Born28 August 1850 Edit this on Wikidata
La Chaize-Giraud Edit this on Wikidata
Died12 January 1915 Edit this on Wikidata (aged 64)
Châteaudun Edit this on Wikidata
OccupationTranslator Edit this on Wikidata

Émile Amélineau (1850 – 12 January 1915 at Châteaudun) was a French Coptologist, archaeologist and Egyptologist.[1] His scholarly reputation was established as an editor of previously unpublished Coptic texts. His reputation was destroyed by his work as a digger at Abydos, after Flinders Petrie re-excavated the site and showed how much destruction Amélineau had wrought.


Amélineau began his career by studying theology and was ordained as a priest prior to 1878. Between 1878 and 1883 he studied Egyptology and Coptic at Paris under the direction of Gaston Maspero and Eugène Grébaut. In 1883 he was a member of the French archaeological mission at Cairo, and renounced his orders. In 1887 he submitted his thesis, on Egyptian gnosticism. Thereafter he held a number of academic posts in France.[2]

Tomb stele of the pharaoh Djet discovered by Émile Amélineau, now on display at the Louvre

Amélineau published great quantities of Coptic literature. He was perhaps the greatest Coptic scholar of his generation.[3]

He undertook an ambitious project to edit the literary remains of Shenoute, the founder of Coptic monasticism. He first published a collection of Coptic and Arabic texts, all more or less related to this subject (1888–95), and then a corpus of Shenoute's own works (1907–14). Work on the latter was interrupted by his death. Stephen Emmel has said that his publication of these texts was "too full of errors to be relied on for serious purposes", but that no one else has undertaken the task.[4]

Amélineau also excavated in Egypt, at a period when archaeology had yet to become a scientific subject distinguishable from tomb raiding or treasure hunting. Much of his work was on the Early Dynastic period of Ancient Egypt. In 1895 he discovered a stele inscribed with the name of pharaoh Djet. This object is now on display at the Louvre. He was the first archaeologist to excavate the tombs of the First Dynasty pharaohs of Ancient Egypt at the Umm el-Qa'ab section of Abydos,[5] his findings outlined in several volumes of material published in the early years of the 20th century.

But his work as an excavator has attracted strong criticism, not least from Flinders Petrie, the founder of modern scientific Egyptology.Émile Amélineau dug at Abydos, Egypt from 1894 to 1898. Petrie was awarded the concession to dig there by Gaston Maspero, head of the Antiquities Service, after Amélineau had declared that there was nothing more to be found there. Petrie was appalled at what had been done, and did not mince his words. He wrote:

"During four years there had been the scandal of Amelineau's work at the Royal Tombs of Abydos. He had been given a concession to work there for five years; no plans were kept (a few incorrect ones were made later), there was no record of where things were found, no useful publication. He boasted that he had reduced to chips the pieces of stone vases which he did not care to remove, and burnt up the remains of the woodwork of the 1st dynasty in his kitchen."[6]

Amélineau was so well connected that it was felt to be unsafe to tell him that the concession had been reassigned in case he came back, and he did not discover what had happened until some years later.[7]

Amelineau responded to the criticism in his tardy publication of his finds. But the fact was that his work merely produced a series of finds of tombs and artefacts, while Petrie, by sifting the rubble that Amélineau left behind, was able to establish the whole chronology of the First dynasty. Petrie's work using scientific methods established Petrie's reputation, and conversely severely damaged that of Amélineau. Jane A. Hill has said that "Amelineau was not an archaeologist and basically plundered the cemetery in search of goods he could sell to antiquities collectors."[8]

One example of the limitations of Amélineau's work is that 18 of the 20 ivory and ebony labels describing key events in the reign of the pharaoh Den known to come from that king's tomb were found by Flinders Petrie in the spoil heaps left by Amélineau's earlier excavation of that tomb.[9]

In 1905 Amélineau donated a portion of his collection to the Society of Archaeology of Châteaudun, which is now on display at its Museum of Fine Arts and Natural History.



  1. ^ Romer, John (3 May 2012). A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. Penguin Books Limited. p. 277. ISBN 978-1-84614-378-6.
  2. ^ Pascale Ballet, INHA article, accessed 23 December 2010.
  3. ^ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1935, p.401: ... Amelineau published a volume on the Bruce papyrus in 'Notices et Extraits', Paris, 1891. Amelineau was a sick man writing in a hurry against death, but he was a great Coptic scholar, probably the greatest of his day; his quarrel with his Church destroyed him.
  4. ^ Stephen Emmel, Shenoute's literary corpus, 2004, p.25
  5. ^ Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. p. 67. Oxford University Press. 2000. ISBN 0-19-280458-8
  6. ^ Julie Hankey, A Passion for Egypt: Arthur Weigall, Tutankhamun and the "Curse of the Pharaohs", pp.28-9. Hankey adds that the majority of the finds were scattered as "pretty presents" to friends in Paris, and the majority of the finds sold at auction. The reference is given to Petrie, Seventy Years in Archaeology, pp.172-3. There are further very critical remarks in Petrie, The royal tombs of the first dynasty, 1901, part II, page 2: "Again a rich harvest of history has come from the site which was said to be exhausted; and in place of the disordered confusion of names without any historical connection, which was all that was known from the Mission Amelineau, we now have the complete sequence of kings from the middle of the dynasty before Mena to probably the close of the IInd Dynasty, and we can trace in detail the fluctuations of art throughout these reigns. The 166 plates of results from our work will need some twenty or thirty to be yet added to record the whole of the information, which no one could hope to have recovered two years ago. And this recovery is not only after the removal of everything that was thought of value, both by the Mission, and also by the thieves of Abydos who did the work, but it is in spite of the determined destruction of the remains on the spot. The pottery jars were smashed, avowedly to prevent any one else obtaining them. The stone vases, broken anciently by fanatics, are referred to thus, "ceux qui etaient brises et que j'ai reduits en miettes" (Amelineau, Fouilles, 1897, p. 33), and we indeed found them stamped to chips; the stacks of great jars which are recorded as having been found in the tomb of Zer (Fouilles, 1898, p. 42) were entirely destroyed; the jars of ointment were burnt, as we read, "les matieres grasses brulent pendant des journeys entieres, comme j'en ai fait l'experience " (Fouilles, 1896, p. 18); the most interesting remains of the wooden tomb chamber of Zer, a carbonized mass 28 feet by 3 feet, studded with copper fastenings, have entirely disappeared, and of another tomb we read "j'y rencontrai environ deux cents kilos de charbon de bois" (Fouilles, 1896, p. 15), which has been all removed. The ebony tablets of Narmer and Mena — the most priceless historical monuments — were all broken up in 1896 and tossed aside in the rubbish, whence we have rescued them and rejoined them so far as we can. In every direction we can but apply to the destroyer his own words concerning the Copts who left the remains, "tous brises de la maniere la plus sauvage" (Fouilles, 1896, p. 33).
  7. ^ Margaret S. Drower, Flinders Petrie: a life in archaeology, p.255-7. Amelineau's own description of events may be found in the preface to Les nouvelles fouilles d'Abydos, 1896-1897, compte-rendu in extenso des fouilles..., E. Leroux, Paris, 1902, in which he replies to Petrie's remarks in The royal tombs of the first dynasty, without denying the basic facts alleged.
  8. ^ Cylinder seal glyptic in predynastic Egypt and neighboring regions, 2004
  9. ^ Shaw, Ian and Nicholson, Paul. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. p. 84. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1995. ISBN 0-8109-9096-2


  • Pascale Ballet, AMÉLINEAU, Émile, Institut National d'histoire de l'art article in French with detailed bibliography and a different view from that of Petrie.

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