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Robert Frost

Development Studies, University of Nottingham

Thesis title:

Sir John Gardner Wilkinson: cultures of antiquarianism in Egypt, Europe and England

My project builds on undergraduate and MA research I carried out on British travel in Egypt in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though now concentrating primarily on one individual, John Gardner Wilkinson. Though less well known that later pioneers in the study of Egyptology such as Flinders Petrie, Wilkinson has popularly been regarded as the founding ‘Father of British Egyptology’. My contention is that this presentation of Wilkinson is problematic, since it ignores the cultural context in which Wilkinson was producing his material: not only was ‘Egyptology’ a late nineteenth-century concept later applied to earlier (sometimes much earlier) scholars in a search for ancestors to add legitimacy to the new discipline, but this perspective also ignores the techniques Wilkinson used such as collecting, sketching, copying, casting and classifying, which are essentially those of the antiquary. An illustration of this is Wilkinson’s book, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (1837), the first major popular work in English on Ancient Egypt, which, with its focus on reconstructing everyday life through artefacts and with its copious illustrative material, was basically approaching the subject using then-current ethnographic techniques, rather than anything that would be understood today as archaeology.

In addition to considering Wilkinson’s role in the formation of Egyptology, I am particularly interested in his later career (hence the subtitle ‘in Egypt, Europe and England’, in that order), which involved something similar to what was well-known in the eighteenth century as the ‘Grand Tour’, although in his case taking place in middle age and well after the traditional usage of that term. Travelling through mid-nineteenth century Europe from Wales to the Balkans, Wilkinson’s interests extended well beyond ancient cultures, encompassing the modern inhabitants and nascent nationalist movements, in addition to physical geography, natural history and meteorology. Did Wilkinson see all these through an antiquarian lens? Moreover, as has recently been contended by several scholars in the context of antiquarianism, how much did Wilkinson’s work actually contribute to the emergence of modern professional disciplines?

Research Area

  • Development Studies


  • Borders and Crossings (University of Leicester, 2019): "The Natural World of J. G. Wilkinson"
  • Colonial Knowledges (Uiversity of Manchester, 2020): "Gardner Wilkinson: Employer or Employee?"

Public Engagement & Impact

I am Lead Editor for other research outputs (book reviews, exhibition reviews, conference proceedings) at the Midlands Historical Review journal.

Other Research Interests

  • Exploration and travel writing histories
  • History of Egyptology, Archaeology and Antiquarianism
  • Colonial History and geography
  • The British in Egypt (from colonial encounter to the colonial occupation)
  • The British in the Balkans
  • Environmental History (inc. Botany)
  • Visual cultures of the above