Wilbour Library Collection Highlight: Gustavus Seyffarth and his Obsession with Hieroglyphs

  • Posted on Jan 23, 2015 by

Genius, misguided, obsessed – these are a few of the terms used to describe the Egyptologist Gustavus Seyffarth  (1796-1885) – one of many scholars who attempted, but failed, to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. On the occasion of our 80th anniversary, the Wilbour Library is taking a second look at Seyffarth and his scholarship via the rare and beautiful images of Egyptian writing and artifacts contained in his major work – the Bibliotheca Aegptiaca Manuscripta.

Although it missed the mark, Seyffarth’s work on hieroglyphics was both prolific and passionately detailed. The 15 volumes of the Bibliotheca Aegptiaca Manuscripta were created during the years 1826-1829 when Seyffarth visited major museums and collections of Egyptian art and artifacts throughout Europe. He copied and recorded over 10,000 hieroglyphs, inscriptions and engravings that he found using the methods of the day – wet-paper impressions (called squeezes), wax impressions, pencil rubbings, tracings and free hand drawings. The copies were then bound into 15 royal folio tomes and christened the Bibliotheca Aegptiaca.

These volumes were bequeathed to the New York Historical Society on Seyffarth’s death and were eventually acquired by the Brooklyn Museum Libraries in 1948. At that time, the Wilbour Library had grown from its beginnings in 1916, when the personal library of Charles Edwin Wilbour was donated to the Museum, into one of the world’s most important resources for the study of ancient Egypt. The Wilbour Library collection continues to grow and covers all aspects of Ancient Egypt.


Gustavus Seyffarth - 1837 Portrait

Gustavus Seyffarth - 1837 Portrait

Biographers describe Seyffarth as brilliant, but tragic – a mind led astray by fantastic notions. Who Was Who in Egyptology  [p.505] states that Seyffarth was a scholar “of vast erudition and incredible industry…had he used his very great intellectual powers alongside Champollion, Lepsius, Brugsch and Ebers whom he fought for sixty years, his contributions to Egyptology might have been immense.”

Born in Germany, Seyffarth began his academic career at the University of Leipzig where he was appointed to a professorship in archaeology in 1830. At that time, numerous scholars throughout Europe, including Seyffarth, were locked in a fierce race to be the first to crack the Egyptian hieroglyphic code. Seyffarth’s primary competitor in the field was his colleague and contemporary, Jean-François Champollion.

The key to the Egyptian language was found on a stone unearthed at Rosetta [Rosetta stone] by the French in 1799. Champollion used this key to decipher the mysterious symbols and he is now credited with discovering that hieroglyphs are phonetic signs that record the sounds of spoken Egyptian. Seyffarth spent his professional career arguing against Champollion’s theory, contending that hieroglyphic signs were phonograms that formed a type of syllabic writing related to Hebrew. After years of study and numerous publications, Seyffarth’s system ended up in the dustbin of history.

As Champollion’s views began to overtake his own within the European academic community, Seyffarth resigned his professorship at Leipzig and moved to America where he taught at several colleges, eventually settling in New York in 1859 where he used the resources of New York’s Astor Library and other institutions to further his research.

Here at the Wilbour, Champollion and Seyffarth both live on in our stacks, engaged in their endless argument for all eternity. In this, the Wilbour Library’s anniversary year, it’s important to contemplate this object lesson in how libraries operate. The hush that settles over the hallowed stacks of any library does not signal harmony of opinion, but rather balance and neutrality. Every opposing viewpoint, every oddball theory and every gifted, but obsessive, scholar gets equal treatment under library law.

Seyffarth in particular deserves attention. The pages of his Bibliotheca Aegptiaca are both a record and work of art unto themselves – the impact of a 3 dimensional copy of an inscription created by hand cannot compare to a photograph. Despite the difficulties he experienced during his lifetime, Seyffarth’s contributions to the study of Egyptology are essential.

Roberta Munoz, Librarian, Wilbour Library of Egyptology, Brooklyn Museum.

Banner image: Front page of Seyffarth's masterwork the Bibliotheca Aegyptiaca Manuscripta, 1826-1830 with rubbings of inscriptions. The Wilbour Library of Egyptology at the Brooklyn Museum.


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