Stanford acquires a ‘world-class’ Egyptology library

L.A. Cicero Erichsen

Joe Manning, associate professor of classics, with several volumes from the Erichsen library, which documents more than 1,500 years of Egyptian history, from approximately 650 B.C. to about 1000 A.D.

Stanford has acquired the library of one of the foremost Egyptologists of the 20th century.

The collection of Wolja Erichsen (1890-1966), now at Stanford's Green Library, documents more than 1,500 years of Egyptian history, ranging from about 650 B.C. to about A.D. 1000. It includes Egypt's important transition from paganism to Christianity.

"The Erichsen library is one of the most significant and perhaps the last great Egyptology library in private hands," said Joe Manning, associate professor of classics. "It is difficult to overestimate the importance of acquiring this collection. Stanford's acquisition adds great momentum to our research and strengthens our profile as one of the very best places in the world to study ancient Mediterranean civilizations."

Manning, speaking at an Oct. 15 reception to celebrate the acquisition, emphasized that this contribution from the "heroic age" of Egyptology, which peaked between 1880 and 1920 and was centered in Berlin, is "a huge deal."

"The gift of a library is not the sexiest thing in the world—people prefer to build buildings—but this is much more important," he said, to laughter and scattered applause.

Erichsen, a professor at the University of Copenhagen, was a specialist in demotic Egyptian, the script and language of Egypt from 650 B.C. to A.D. 200, and Coptic, the last stage of the ancient Egyptian language that has particular importance for the study of early Christianity, especially since Egypt was the location of the earliest organized church.

Erichsen, for many years based in Berlin, is perhaps most famous for his important dictionary of demotic, Demotisches Glossar (1954), which is still fundamental in the field, and his Demotische Lesestücke (1937-39), a collection of demotic Egyptian texts used for teaching the language even today.

After Erichsen's death, heirs were divided about where the library should go. At one point it was considered by the universities of Würzburg and Chicago, but the collection stayed in Copenhagen until Stanford acquired it.

"The breadth of text editions and studies of demotic and Coptic text editions represented in this library is unmatched," Manning said. Many of the volumes are extremely rare text editions published in Germany before 1940. These editions often have large folio photographic plate volumes. "They are often better than working with digital photos, and simpler and easier to use," Manning added. "They are the next best thing to being there."

In many cases, they provide high-quality 16-by-20-inch photographs of texts that no longer exist because the original papyri were lost or destroyed during World War II.

The collection also contains "beautiful volumes of Egypt and Nubian temples and site plans, a lot of them now gone," Manning said. War wasn't the only enemy: The Aswan Dam flooded some historic sites, other temples were removed from original sites and reestablished in museums, and still other sites have been rifled since books about them were written in the 18th and 19th centuries.

"Arabs were not exactly keen on the ancient monuments—nor were the early Christians," Manning said. "They saw them as potential quarried stone." Hence, old stone from ancient sites was reassembled into new buildings, obliterating ancient history.

It's commonly believed that modern technology and techniques have antiquated the research of an earlier area, but the assumption does not necessarily hold in late Egyptology, a history that is very much a work-in-progress, according to Manning.

"There's a dialogue between the new and old material," he said. "Half of the known demotic texts are not even published. There are still papyri coming up out of the ground." Manning noted that, for instance, 8,000 new papyri of Greek and demotic texts were discovered in the last few seasons at a single site in Egypt. It shows that the available knowledge of the era is far from complete, and scholars are still playing catch-up. Much of the older work has not been revised or updated.

The new acquisition will be the "basis of history-building about this period. It gives great momentum to our work," Manning said. "With this gift, Stanford Libraries have gone from having an average holding of Egyptology to world class."

He said that Egyptology is "a small field, but an important field in human history." Some of its importance, however, may be lost on the uneducated eye.

For example, Coptic, a language that never truly died and is still preserved in the liturgies of the Coptic churches, is a critical language for decoding ancient Egyptian. In fact, Coptic is the last stage of ancient Egyptian, using a Greek alphabet, with an important difference: Ancient Egyptian written languages don't use vowels, but Coptic does. Hence, it has provided clues to how the ancient Egyptian language was pronounced, and also indicates the dialects of ancient Egyptian, corresponding to Coptic dialect up and down Egypt.

The story behind Stanford's acquisition of Erichsen's library is an appealing one: Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922, the same year that young Edna Kumpe (later Upton) graduated from college. Carter's discovery inaugurated her lifelong interest in Egypt and the Bible, rooted in early Coptic translations of biblical texts.

Upton's granddaughter, Stanford alumna Chele Chiavacci, made a donation in the name of her late grandmother. Chiavacci is managing director of Mistral Capital International and also on the advisory board of the Stanford Archaeology Center.

The donation, augmented with a contribution from the Classics Department and matching funds from the Provost's Office, was used to purchase the Erichsen collection.

The Edna Kumpe Upton Memorial Erichsen Library will be housed and available for study partly in the Department of Special Collections and partly in the Green Library general collection stacks.