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Explorer: Belzoni, Giovanni Battista (1778–1823)

The Italian Belzoni is one of the most colourful characters in the history of Egyptology. At 6 ft 7 inches, he was a man of great stature and it was this, together with his sheer determination and engineering experience, that allowed him to retrieve and transport huge Egyptian monuments across land to ports where they could be shipped to Britain. One of the most famous of these was the colossal statue of Ramses II from Thebes, which is now in the British Museum and was perhaps the inspiration for the famous Percy Bysshe Shelley poem Ozymandias. Another large monument that he moved was seven-ton sarcophagus lid of Ramesses III (E.1.1823), often considered to be one of the most important monuments in the Fitzwilliam collection. Its great mass and size meant that it needed the help of concrete specialists and engineers for the museum to be able to display it in an upright position, as it is today.

Belzoni's early career did not suggest that he would become an explorer of Egyptian antiquity. He initially studied hydraulic engineering in Italy but moved to England in 1803 in the wake of political unrest at home. For a time he supported himself as a strongman in the theatre but he had aspirations for his hydraulic inventions and in 1816 he travelled to Egypt in order to sell a water wheel that he had designed. While he was in Egypt he met the British Consul- General, Henry Salt, who employed him to remove enormous statues from Egyptian monuments. Belzoni toured around Egypt, crawling through ancient dark passages and clambering through debris-filled tombs to reach ancient monuments that often lay in the most inaccessible of places.

In January 1819, he moved the lid of the granite sarcophagus from the otherwise heavily plundered and disrupted tomb of Ramesses III in the Valley of the Kings. This was no mean task and according to Belzoni's personal diaries it 'cost much trouble, as may be supposed, to remove a heavy piece of granite from those abysses'. Yet, moved it was and Belzoni felt that it was the best piece he ever acquired by his own account. The sarcophagus base remained in the tomb until it was removed by Yanni D'Athanasi to form part of the second collection of Henry Salt, which was purchased by the French Government and is on display in the Louvre, Paris. More recently, some of the missing lid fragments have been found in the silted up areas of the tomb of Ramesses III.

Belzoni's methods of obtaining antiquities often left much to be desired. Nevertheless, in the period before archaeological practices had been professionally developed his achievements can be more favourably looked upon. For instance, he made detailed drawings and plans of the royal tomb of Seti I, a task which few explorers and treasure-hunters would have engaged with. Belzoni became enraptured by the Egyptian world and sought further support for many more expeditions to Egypt. He was unsuccessful in this bid but his sense of adventure motivated him to undertake new projects. In 1823 he set out to attempt to trace the source of the Niger, but contracted dysentery and died in December of that year.

Further Reading

Dawson, W. and Uphill, E. (1995) Who Was Who in Egyptology. Third Edition, revised by Bierbrier, M.L., Egyptian Exploration Society, London, pp.40–41.

Mayes, S. (1959)The Great Belzoni London.

Vassilika, E (1995) Egyptian Art. Cambridge, pp.86&8211;87.