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A World Beneath the Sands Reviews

A World Beneath the Sands by Toby Wilkinson

A World Beneath the Sands: Adventurers and Archaeologists in the Golden Age of Egyptology

Toby Wilkinson

3.85 out of 5

6 reviews

Category: History, Non-fiction
Imprint: Picador
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publication date: 15 Oct 2020
ISBN: 9781509858705

A vivid account of the men and women who revealed the treasures of Ancient Egypt to the world, from the first decipherment of hieroglyphics to the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

  • The GuardianBook of the Day
4 stars out of 5
14 Dec 2020

"a story full of drama, with the Nile, the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings as backdrop"

Over the course of his fluent and entertaining narrative, the explorations and excavations of archaeologists are always placed firmly in the context of great power politics. Just as it was Napoleon’s victory in the battle of the pyramids that enabled the first great survey of Egypt’s antiquities to be made, so, over the course of the century that followed, it was the military and economic might of Europe’s colonial powers that underpinned the development of Egyptology. The shipping of obelisks to Paris, London and New York provided a brutally castratory metaphor for the way in which scholars from distant lands took ownership of the study of Egypt’s past.


4 stars out of 5
7 Nov 2020

"Wilkinson never shies away from the truth"

Moreover, though it has been argued that Wilkinson fails to offer explicit censure of the 19th century’s cut-throat imperialism and cultural pillage, it may just be that, as with much else in this book, he assumes a reasonable degree of intelligence on the part of his reader. When we learn that Lord Cromer, on leaving his post, published a work entitled Modern Egypt with chapters on “Main Tenets of Islam: Its Failure as a Social System”, “Degradation of Women” and “Coarseness of Literature and Conversation”, I think we can be trusted to infer that he was probably a racist. If this omission is a fault, then Wilkinson also neglects to condemn the Pharaoh Ramses II for being an anti-Semite, and for presiding over an expansionist slave state.

4 stars out of 5
Sue Gaisford
3 Nov 2020

"A gripping tale of the archaeologists who raced to uncover dazzling ancient monuments"

A World Beneath the Sands tells a gripping story by means of all the wayward eccentrics and heroic archaeologists who devoted their lives to uncovering the world’s most ancient and dazzling monuments from beneath unimaginable depths of windblown sand. They had to deal with most of the biblical plagues of Egypt, with added crocodiles and conjunctivitis, and all, as the great Frenchman Auguste Mariette wittily said, “à la recherche du temple perdu”.

4 stars out of 5
A.S.H. Smyth
24 Oct 2020

"Toby Wilkinson celebrates the golden age of Egyptology"

It would be hard to overstate the excellence of Wilkinson’s storytelling — and I was surprisingly distraught to think that there can never be a sequel. For three years at the beginning of this century I worked — happily, if somewhat fitfully — in an institute named for one of the men in this book, yet those archaeologists’ day-to-day lives were entirely absent from my course. Late on in A World Beneath the Sands I realised what I should probably have studied was not Egyptology but Egyptologists.

3 stars out of 5
22 Oct 2020

" ‘archaeology’ is often represented in books like Wilkinson’s as if it were a science that emerged fully formed in the Enlightenmen"

Though ‘archaeology’ is often represented in books like Wilkinson’s as if it were a science that emerged fully formed in the Enlightenment, both the word and the concept only entered common use in the mid-19th century. To excavate was to dig around, rummaging for the remains of the ancient past. Shared methods and professional standards were decades away, and ethical standards further still. Mariette was well rewarded for his thefts after Said Pasha replaced the murdered Abbas. Said established a Service des Antiquités in 1858, with Mariette at its head, and a renewed state collection was planned for Cairo. This was, Mariette wrote, ‘like taking possession of Egypt for the cause of science’. With a government boat at his disposal, and the power to call up corvée labour, Mariette set thousands of men digging throughout the Nile Valley. This time, what was found didn’t go to the Louvre, but to a museum in Cairo’s Bulaq (‘beau lac’) district. Mariette brought his family from France to join him in the director’s residence next door.

4 stars out of 5
James McConnachie
4 Oct 2020

"This book focuses on the great men of that Golden Age. As such it is an old-fashioned approach — but then those men were very great"

I felt the need for some sort of reckoning here. And a need, too, for a more visceral sense of why ancient Egypt had such allure. Ever since Rome, Wilkinson says, new empires “proclaimed their might by usurping the monuments of earlier empires, especially the empire of the pharaohs”. Yet beyond the admiration and the scholarship, the imperialism and the looting — all skilfully and entertainingly plotted here — there is surely another story to tell; one that explains why the “world beneath the sands” so long exerted such a pull on the European heart.