History in the Smallest Detail

Posted on: 03/03/2015

History in the Smallest Detail

David Gibbins

My novel PYRAMID hinges on one of the greatest stories of all time, the Biblical Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the role that may have been played in it by the heretical Sun-Pharaoh, Akhenaten, in the 14th century BC. Like many archaeologists I’ve been fascinated by the quest to find material evidence – artefacts, sites, inscriptions – for the Old Testament narrative, and not surprised that so much of it has remained elusive. Searching for evidence of the Israelites of the Exodus is like a genealogist searching for a lost ancestor known only through family lore – you know they must have existed, yet through a quirk of fate no other record survives of them. Belief in their existence becomes a matter of faith in the story, and of understanding the nature and limitations of any other evidence that might be sought.

That combination of faith and scholarship drove many of the first generation of archaeologists who explored the Holy Land in the 19th century. They included a group of officers of the Royal Engineers, men whose training was brought to bear when they were sent to survey and administer new areas under British influence. Among them was General Gordon of Khartoum, whose last stand against the Mahdi in Sudan – recounted in my previous novel, Pharaoh – made him one of the greatest of all Victorian heroes. Two years before that, in 1883, he had spent an entire of year on leave in Jerusalem. He was on a spiritual quest, but the book later put together by friends from his notes, Reflections in Palestine, shows what he really spent much of his time doing – measuring, recording, exploring tunnels under the Old City, applying a dispassionate engineer’s eye to the problems of Biblical historicity. Despite being a man of great religious faith, he realised that the way forward was not through mystical conjecture but through empirical evidence, through finding the footprint from the past that archaeology seemed to offer.

The eureka moment – the first hard evidence for the existence of the Israelites in the second millennium BC – came a little over a decade after Gordon’s death, not in Palestine but in Egypt. In early 1896, the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie was excavating at Thebes in the mortuary temple of Merenptah, the late 13th century BC successor of Ramesses the Great. Digging in one room, his workmen discovered a reused basalt stele almost ten feet high covered with tightly spaced hieroglyphics. A first reading by Petrie’s colleague Wilhelm Spiegelberg showed that it was mainly an account of Merenptah’s campaigns against the Libyans to the west. But the final lines contained an account of another campaign, against the people of Canaan, including a mysterious word with the hieroglyphs for ‘people’ that Spiegelberg read as ‘I-si-ri-ar.’ It was Petrie himself over dinner that evening who first suggested ‘Israelites.’ ‘Won’t the reverends be pleased,’ he is said to have remarked.  The find made headlines around the world, and to this day remains the only widely agreed reference to the Israelites ever discovered among ancient Egyptian records of the 2nd millennium BC.

With characteristic sobriety, Petrie prefaced his report on the 1896 excavations, Six Temples at Thebes, with the comment that the results ‘were less in some ways than I had hoped, yet in others they far exceeded what could have been expected.’ He had not gone with the least intention of discovering evidence of the ancient Israelites, but he knew that this chance find would be the one for which he would be remembered – in a career that led to a knighthood, a Fellowship of the Royal Society and acclaim as one of the pioneer Egyptologists. Yet those accolades came not so much through his discoveries as his development of exacting methods of survey and observation, an approach that would have chimed with General Gordon. ‘I believe the true line of research lies in the noting and comparison of the smallest details,’ Petrie wrote. In my novels, just as in real-life archaeology, it’s those details that make history come alive – and sometimes the ‘smallest detail’ can open up the greatest revelation.

For more on Petrie’s discovery, go here:


Amy Dolman

Post author: Amy Dolman

Amy is responsible for the smooth running of the H for History website, and enjoys reading history-based fantasy. She also like to photograph sites of historical interest in her spare time with a cup of bovril and a pork pie for company. Favourite period of history: Ancient; Favourite historical read: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave; Upcoming book i'm most looking forward to: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick

Add a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments from others