The Work of Frédéric Cailliaud and the Interpretation of Archaeological Sites

  • Posted on May 16, 2016 by

As represented in a recent lineup of museum exhibitions and new installations featuring Egypt and the Near East (e.g. Egypt Reborn (at the Brooklyn Museum), Ancient Egypt Transformed; Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs), not to mention this year’s Hollywood blockbuster Gods of Egypt, the land of Pharaohs and pyramids continues to captivate our imaginations. It should come as no surprise, then, that French explorer Frédéric Cailliaud, who first traveled to Egypt in 1815 on a mission to rediscover emerald mines, became enamored with the country and its treasures (Bednarski and Harer 2013). 

Cailliaud met Bernardino Drovetti, the French vice-consul in Alexandria, upon his arrival and began to accompany him on research expeditions (Mainterot 2014, 4. While Cailliaud brought back 126 objects from these adventures that now reside in institutions such as the Musée Dobrée,the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and the Louvre (Mainterot 2014, 20), his legacy lies largely with his archaeological drawings.

Portrait of Frédéric Cailliaud (Bednarski 2014, Fig. 9)

Throughout his time in northern Africa, Cailliaud became an expert copyist, publishing splendid plates of the scenes he encountered in three monographs: Travels in the Oasis of Thebes (1821-62), Travels to Meroe (1826), and Arts and Crafts of the Ancient Egyptians, Nubians, and Ethiopians (1837). While Cailliaud was not the first or the last European explorer to visually document his travels in northern Africa, his work, especially Travels to Meroe, was groundbreaking in its “sheer size, broad scope, and . . . particular focus on the geology of Egypt and Sudan” (Bednarski 2014, 30). Travels to Meroe also holds an esteemed place in the Brooklyn Museum’s Wilbour Library of Egyptology, as some of its volumes (1-2) make up part of the original collection of Charles Edwin Wilbour. The remaining volumes were purchased in 1944. The following year, the entirety of the Oasis of Thebes was acquired by “J.D.C.” in Paris for $50.00. Both of these works, along with Arts and Crafts, are currently available for consultation at the Library via appointment.

In 1824, France awarded Cailliaud the Legion of Honor for his exemplary finds (Bednarski and Harer 2013), and, in 1837, thirty-six of the eighty-nine plates within his last book, Arts and Crafts, were featured in one of the lengthiest spreads to date in one of the most important scholarly publications of the time, The Athenaeum (Bednarski 2014, 31). Parts of Cailliaud’s visual corpus also make up the last remaining documentation scholars have of now-lost archaeological sites, such as the tomb of Neferhotep (Bednarski and Scott 2014, 164). Andrew Bednarski, the author of extensive research on the textual portion of Arts and Crafts, called the “Harer Papers,” writes:

The historical equivalent of what Cailliaud did in today’s world would, perhaps, be a visit to known but unexplored portions of the moon: entirely possible, given the available technology, but almost inconceivable to the average person, and largely the stuff of heroes and national projects. (2014, 30).

Although Cailliaud’s work was not without its detractors (see Bednarski 2014, 32), his contributions to Egyptology are still some of the most significant to date.

Representing one of the most interesting phenomena within the world of archaeological illustration, Cailliaud’s drawings were, largely, vignettes of compiled scenes. In other words, rather than publishing illustrations of scenes and objects as they were found in situ, Cailliaud took different images from his oeuvre and placed them together to form a cohesive narrative for his viewers. He was not revolutionary in doing this either. People like John Gardner Wilkinson and Émile Prisse d’Avennes were known for this technique, and two of the most seminal European works on Egyptology, Dominique Vivant Denon’s Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt (1802) and the French government’s Description de l’Égypte (1809), are filled with these types of compositions.


Offering to the Tree Goddess (Bednarski 2014, Plate 65)

Plate 65, above, is from Arts and Crafts. Here, each scene is from a different tomb in Luxor. Compiled together, however, “they illustrate points Cailliaud wanted to make both in his chapter on Egyptian embalming and, rather unexpectedly, that on hairstyles” (Bednarski and Scott 2014, 156). In a prelude to modern goals of data visualization, Cailliaud and his contemporaries pulled from their large repositories of work and presented an easily-digestible series of images with the goal of highlighting relationships. Edward Tufte, an American statistician and professor, writes that “when principles of design replicate principles of thought, the act of arranging information becomes an act of insight” (1997, 17). As Bednarski points out above, echoing Tufte, Cailliaud brought the Luxor scenes together in this arrangement to encourage his viewers to engage with the possible connections between these discrete practices.

The (in)visibility of the archaeological copyist is fascinating, especially when the line between purposeful arrangement (e.g. Plate 65) and outright alteration blurs. When creating drawings from his observations of the tomb of Rekhmire, Cailliaud famously corrected the damaged area of an elephant’s face, ostensibly “to make the scene more visually coherent for the viewer” (Bednarski and Scott 2014, 158). Similarly, Albrecht Dürer made a “gloriously wrong” engraving of a rhinoceros in 1513 that went on to be copied into guides, textbooks, and even a monument, before too many people raised objections (Tufte 1997, 71). If there were not other visual data against which to compare Cailliaud’s and Dürer’s interpretations of these items, their now-obvious use of creative license (taken with good intent or artistic hubris) rightly calls into question the objectivity many usually attribute to technical drawings.

Bednarski and Scott write that a goal of Cailliaud’s and his contemporaries was to “amass visual data that would complement words that created a context in which to understand ancient Egypt” (2014, 171). This goal of facilitating understanding seems to have trumped Cailliaud’s dedication to faithful representation. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Authors of early archaeological drawing manuals urge objectivity, writing things such as “it should be emphasized that the recording of the architectural material must be completely objective. The world of scholarship is fully dependent upon the reliability of the published material” (Detweiler 1948, 5). Later authors, however, write that archaeological illustration is “the conscious realisation that the purpose of the illustration is to convey not only information but also an interpretation of that information” (Adkins 1989, 5) and that archaeological illustrations are “interpretive diagrams rather than attempts at realistic . . . portrayal” (Adkins 1989, 7-8). There are, of course, many well-founded arguments that data should be presented as-is. In the context of archaeological illustration, though, the progression towards greater semantic flexibility in what it means to represent data correctly provides an important access point to the creativity involved in the practice.

Research into the collections held at the Wilbour Library of Egyptology found further evidence that Cailliaud subscribed to this interpretive school of archaeological illustration, as it allowed him to present his audience with his unique (read: superior) artistic style. Below is a scan of a manuscript written by Cailliaud documenting a complaint against a contemporary illustrator, Mr. M. Hoskins. It reads:

The plans and views of the monuments in upper Nubia in my Voyage à Méroé offer differences,more or less noticeable, with the drawings in the work of M. Hoskins. I think that I should point out that these differences are all to my advantage. I know that M. Hoskins himself cannot think otherwise.” (Translation by Wilbour Library staff)

Complaint (protest) of M. Frédéric Cailliaud on the work of Mr. Hoskins.

Cailliaud, Frédéric. Declamation De M. Frederic Cailliaud Sur L'ouvrage De M. HoskinsMS, Wilbour Library of Egyptology.

The two illustrations in question are below: Cailliaud’s is on the left, Hoskins’s is on the right.

Comparison of Illustrations

Left: Cailliaud, Frédéric. 1826. Travels to Meroe. Paris: Imprimerie Royale, V.II Pl. III.

Right: Hoskins, George Alexander. 1835. Travels in Ethiopia, above the Second Cataract of the Nile: Exhibiting the State of That Country, and Its Various Inhabitants, under the Dominion of Mohammed Ali and Illustrating the Antiquities, Arts, and History of the Ancient Kingdom of Meroe. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman, plate 33.

This move towards acknowledging the subjectivity inherent in design that is prescient in Cailliaud’s and others’ creative strategies is necessary for critical engagement with the contemporary practice of data visualization and its related disciplines. While completely altering data (e.g. Cailliaud “fixing” the elephant’s face) is undoubtedly an ill-advised strategy, stringing together separate pieces of information into a pattern that allows viewers to make connections is, arguably, the foundation of Linked Open Data, the Semantic Web, and user experience.

Cailliaud, among others, not only went to the moon and back by bringing ancient Egypt to the homes of the French, but he also participated in and advanced the study of data science in ways that undoubtedly contribute to current practice.

For further exploration via Arcade, our consortium's online catalog, follow the subject headings below:

Archaeological Illustration


Archaeological Drawing

Information Visualization


A very special thanks goes to Roberta Munoz, Librarian in the Wilbour Library of Egyptology, for her extraordinary assistance with this research project.

Audrey Lorberfeld, Wilbour Library of Egyptology Intern, The Brooklyn Museum

Works Cited

Adkins, Lesley. 1989. Archaeological Illustration. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bednarski, Andrew, “The Harer Papers,” in The Lost Manuscript of Frédéric Cailliaud: Arts andCrafts of the Ancient Egyptians, Nubians, and Ethiopians (New York: The American Universityin Cairo Press, 2014), 30-44.

Bednarski, Andrew, and W. Bensen Harer. “The Explorations of Frédéric Cailliaud.” Aramco World 64,No. 1 (2013): Accessed January 1, 2016.

Bednarski, Andrew, and Gerry D. Scott, “The Visual Corpus and Cailliaud,” in The Lost Manuscript of Frédéric Cailliaud: Arts and Crafts of the Ancient Egyptians, Nubians, and Ethiopians (NewYork: The American University in Cairo Press, 2014), 151-172.

Cailliaud, Frédéric. 1821. Travels in the Oasis of Thebes. Paris: Imprimerie Royale.

—. 1826. Travels to Meroe. Paris: Imprimerie Royale.

—. 1837. Arts and Crafts of the Ancient Egyptians, Nubians, and Ethiopians. Paris: DeBure.

—. n.d. Declamation De M. Frederic Cailliaud Sur L'ouvrage De M. Hoskins. MS, Wilbour Library of Egyptology.

Cailliaud, Frédéric, and Andrew Bednarski. 2014. The Lost Manuscript of Frédéric Cailliaud: Arts andCrafts of the Ancient Egyptians, Nubians, and Ethiopians. New York: The American Universityin Cairo Press.

Detweiler, Henry, A. 1948. Manual of Archaeological Surveying. New Haven: American Schools ofOriental Research.

Hoskins, George Alexander. 1835.Travels in Ethiopia, above the Second Cataract of the Nile: Exhibiting the State of That Country, and Its Various Inhabitants, under the Dominion of Mohammed Ali and Illustrating the Antiquities, Arts, and History of the Ancient Kingdom of Meroe. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, Longman.

Mainterot, Philippe, “The Life, Travels, and Works of Frédéric Cailliaud,” in The Lost Manuscript ofFrédéric Cailliaud: Arts and Crafts of the Ancient Egyptians, Nubians, and Ethiopians (NewYork: The American University in Cairo Press, 2014), 3-29.

Tufte, Edward. 1997. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Cheshire:Graphics Press.

Banner image: Bednarski, Andrew, and Gerry D. Scott, The Lost Manuscript ofFrédéric Cailliaud: Arts and Crafts of the Ancient Egyptians, Nubians, and Ethiopians(NewYork: The American University in Cairo Press, 2014), 166-167.

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