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Karl Richard Lepsius

Karl Richard Lepsius
Born 23 December 1810 (1810-12-23)
Naumburg an der Saale, Saxony
Died 10 July 1884 (1884-07-11)
Nationality Prussian
Fields Egyptology

Karl (or Carl) Richard Lepsius (23 December 1810 – 10 July 1884) was a pioneering Prussian Egyptologist and linguist and pioneer of modern archaeology.



He was born in Naumburg an der Saale, Saxony (Germany), the third son of Karl Peter Lepsius and Friedericke Glaser, and studied Greek and Roman archaeology at the universities of Leipzig (1829–1830), Göttingen (1830–1832), and Berlin (1832–1833). After receiving his doctorate following his dissertation De tabulis Eugubinis in 1833, he traveled to Paris where attended lectures by the French classicist Jean Letronne, an early disciple of Jean-François Champollion and his work on the decipherment of the Egyptian language, visited Egyptian collections all over Europe and studied lithography and engraving.


After the death of Champollion, Lepsius made a systematic study of the French scholar's Grammaire égyptienne, which had been published posthumously in 1836, but was yet to be widely accepted. In 1836, Lepsius travelled to Tuscany to meet with Ippolito Rosellini, who had led a joint expedition to Egypt with Champollion in 1828–1829. In a series of letters to Rosellini, Lepsius expanded on Champollion's explanation of the use of alphabetic signs in hieroglyphic writing, emphasising (contra Champollion) that vowels were not written.

In 1842 Lepsius was commissioned (at the recommendation of Alexander von Humboldt and Christian Charles Josias Bunsen) by King Frederich Wilhelm IV of Prussia to lead an expedition to Egypt and the Sudan to explore and record the remains of the ancient Egyptian civilization. The Prussian expedition was modeled after the earlier Napoléonic mission, and consisted of surveyors, draftsmen, and other specialists. The mission reached Giza in November 1842 and spent six months making some of the first scientific studies of the pyramids of Giza, Abusir, Saqqara, and Dahshur. They discovered over sixty-seven pyramids and more than 130 tombs of noblemen in the area. While at the Great Pyramid of Giza, Lepsius inscribed a graffito written in Egyptian hieroglyphs that honours Friedrich Wilhelm IV above the pyramid's original entrance; it is still visible (photos and translation). In 1843, he visited Naqa and copied some of the inscriptions and representations of the temple standing there.[1]

Working south, stopping for extended periods at important Middle Egyptian sites, such as Beni Hasan and Dayr al-Barsha, Lepsius reached as far south as Khartoum, and then traveling up the Blue Nile to the region about Sennar. After exploring various sites in Upper and Lower Nubia, the expedition worked back north, reaching Thebes on 2 November 1844, where they spent four months studying the western bank of the Nile (such as the Ramesseum, Medinet Habu, the Valley of the Kings, etc.) and another three on the east bank at the temples of Karnak and Luxor, attempting to record as much as possible. Afterwards they stopped at Coptos, the Sinai, and sites in the Egyptian Delta, such as Tanis, before returning to Europe in 1846.

The chief result of this expedition was the publication of the Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien (Monuments from Egypt and Ethiopia), a massive twelve volume compendia of nearly 900 plates of ancient Egyptian inscriptions, as well as accompanying commentary and descriptions. These plans, maps, and drawings of temple and tomb walls remained the chief source of information for Western scholars well into the 20th century, and are useful even today as they are often the sole record of monuments that have since been destroyed or reburied. For example, he described a "Headless Pyramid" that was subsequently lost until May 2008, when a team lead by Zahi Hawass removed a 25-foot-high sand dune to re-discover the superstructure (base) of a pyramid believed to belong to King Menkauhor.

Upon his return to Europe in 1845, he married Elisabeth Klein in 1846 and was appointed as a professor of Egyptology at Berlin University in the same year, and the co-director of the Ägyptisches Museum in 1855; after the death of Giuseppe Passalacqua in 1865, he was director of the museum. In 1866 Lepsius returned to Egypt, where he discovered the Canopus Decree at Tanis, an inscription closely related to the Rosetta Stone, which was likewise written in Egyptian (hieroglyphic and demotic) and Greek.

Lepsius was president of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome from 1867–1880, and from 1873 until his death in 1884, the head of the Royal Library in Berlin. He was the editor of the Zeitschrift für ägyptisches Sprache und Altertumskunde, a fundamental scientific journal for the new field of Egyptology, which remains in print to this day. While at the editorial helm, Lepsius commissioned typographer Ferdinand Theinhardt (on behalf of the Königlich-Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin) to cut the first hieroglyphic typeface, the so-called Theinhardt font, which remains in use today.

Lepsius published widely in the field of Egyptology, and is considered the father of the modern scientific discipline of Egyptology, assuming a role that Champollion might have achieved had he not died so young. Much of his work is fundamental to the field. Indeed, Lepsius even coined the phrase Totenbuch ("Book of the Dead"). He was also a leader in the field of African linguistics, though his ideas are now mainly considered to be outdated. Based on his work in the ancient Egyptian language, and his field work in the Sudan, Lepsius developed a Standard Alphabet for transliterating African Languages; it was published 1855 and revised in 1863. His 1880 Nubische Grammatik mit einer Einleitung über die Völker und Sprachen Afrika's contains a sketch of African peoples and a classification of African languages, as well as a grammar of the Nubian languages.

Major Works by Karl Richard Lepsius

  • 1842. Das Todtenbuch der Ägypter nach dem hieroglyphischen Papyrus in Turin mit einem Vorworte zum ersten Male Herausgegeben. Leipzig: G. Wigand. (Reprinted Osnabrück: Otto Zeller Verlag, 1969)
  • 1849. Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien nach den Zeichnungen der von Seiner Majestät dem Koenige von Preussen, Friedrich Wilhelm IV., nach diesen Ländern gesendeten, und in den Jahren 1842–1845 ausgeführten wissenschaftlichen Expedition auf Befehl Seiner Majestät. 13 vols. Berlin: Nicolaische Buchhandlung. (Reprinted Genève: Éditions de Belles-Lettres, 1972)
  • 1852. Briefe aus Aegypten, Aethiopien und der Halbinsel des Sinai: Geschrieben in den Jahren 1842–1845 während der auf Befehl Sr. Majestät des Königs Friedrich Wilhelm IV. von Preußen ausgeführten wissenschaftlichen Expedition. Berlin: Verlag von Wilhelm Hertz. Translated into English 1853 Discoveries in Egypt, Ethiopia and the Peninsular of Sinai. London: Richard Bentley. (Reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 9781108017114)
  • 1855. Das allgemeine linguistische Alphabet: Grundsätze der Übertragung fremder Schriftsysteme und bisher noch ungeschriebener Sprachen in europäische Buchstaben. Berlin: Verlag von Wilhelm Hertz
  • 1856 Über die XXII. ägyptische königsdynastie nebst einigen bemerkungen zu der XXVI. und andern dynastieen des neuen reichs Berlin: Gedruckt in der druckerei der Königl. Akademie der wissenschaften Internet Archive. Translated into English 1858: The XXII Egyptian Royal Dynasty, with some remarks on the XXIV and other Dynasties of the New Kingdom. London: John Murray (Reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 9781108017398)
  • 1880. Nubische Grammatik mit einer Einleitung über die Völker und Sprachen Afrika's. Berlin: Verlag von Wilhelm Hertz

See also


  • Peck, William H. 2001. "Lepsius, Karl Richard". In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, edited by Donald Bruce Redford. Vol. 2 of 3 vols. Oxford, New York, and Cairo: Oxford University Press and The American University in Cairo Press. 289–290

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

KARL RICHARD LEPSIUS (1810-1884), German Egyptologist, was born at Naumburg-am-Saale on the 2 3 rd of December 1810, and in 1823 was sent to the "Schulpforta" school near Naumburg, where he came under the influence of Professor Lange. In 1829 he entered the university of Leipzig, and one year later that of Gottingen, where, under the influence of Otfried Miller, he finally decided to devote himself to the archaeological side of philology. From Gottingen he proceeded to Berlin, where he graduated in 1833 as doctor with the thesis De tabulis Eugubinis. In the same year he proceeded to study in Paris, and was commissioned by the duc de Luynes to collect material from the Greek and Latin writers for his work on the weapons of the ancients. In 1834 he took the Volney prize with his Paldographie als Mittel der Sprachforschung. Befriended by Bunsen and Humboldt, Lepsius threw himself with great ardour into Egyptological studies, which, since the death of Champollion in 1832, had attracted no scholar of eminence and weight. Here Lepsius found an ample field for his powers. After four years spent in visiting the Egyptian collections of Italy, Holland and England, he returned to Germany, where Humboldt and Bunsen united their influence to make his projected visit to Egypt a scientific expedition with royal support. For three years Lepsius and his party explored the whole of the region in which monuments of ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian occupation are found, from the Sudan above Khartum to the Syrian coast. At the end of 1845 they returned home, and the results of the expedition, consisting of casts, drawings and squeezes of inscriptions and scenes, maps and plans collected with the utmost thoroughness, as well as antiquities and papyri, far surpassed expectations. In 1846 he married Elisabeth Klein, and his appointment to a professorship in Berlin University in the following August afforded him the leisure necessary for the completion of his work. In 1859 the twelve volumes of his vast Denkmciler aus Agypten and Athiopien were finished, supplemented later by a text prepared from the note-books of the expedition; they comprise its entire archaeological, palaeographical and historical results. In 1866 Lepsius again went to Egypt, and discovered the famous Decree of Tanis or Table of Canopus, an inscription of the same character as the Rosetta Stone, in hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek. In 1873 he was appointed keeper of the Royal Library, Berlin, which, like the Berlin Museum, owes much to his care. About ten years later he was appointed Geheimer Oberregierungsrath. He died at Berlin on the 10th of July 1884. Besides the colossal Denkmdler and other publications of texts such as the Todtenbuch der Agypter (Book of the Dead, 1842) his other works, amongst which may be specially named his Konigsbuch der Agypter (1858) and Chronologie der Agypter (1849), are characterized by a quality of permanence that is very remarkable in a subject of such rapid development as Egyptology. In spite of his scientific training in philology Lepsius left behind few translations of inscriptions or discussions of the meanings of words: by preference he attacked historical and archaeological problems connected with the ancient texts, the alphabet, the metrology, the names of metals and minerals, the chronology, the royal names. On the other hand one of his latest works, the Nubische Grammatik (1880), is an elaborate grammar of the then littleknown Nubian language, preceded by a linguistic sketch of the African continent. Throughout his life he profited by the gift of attaching to himself the right men, whether as patrons or, like Weidenbach and Stern, as assistants. Lepsius was a fine specimen of the best type of German scholar.

See Richard Lepsius, by Georg Ebers (New York, 1887), and art. EGYPT, section Exploration and Research.

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