E.A. Wallis Budge life and biography

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E.A. Wallis Budge biography

Date of birth : 1857-07-27
Date of death : 1934-11-23
Birthplace : Bodmin, Cornwall, England
Nationality : British
Category : Science and Technology
Last modified : 2010-10-22
Credited as : Egyptologist, orientalist and philologist,

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Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge was an English Egyptologist, Orientalist, and philologist who worked for the British Museum and published numerous works on the ancient Near East. Budge was was a strong proponent of liberal Christianity and was devoted to comparative religions. He is well known for translating The Egyptian Book of The Dead and analyzing many of the practices of Egyptian religion and language. Budge's works were widely read by the educated public and among those seeking comparative ethnological data, including James Frazer.

Under Budge's directorship, the British Museum came to hold arguably the best collection of Ancient Near East artifacts in the world, allowing the British and other Western publics to enjoy and learn from these significant civilizations that were distant in both time and space from their own lives, broadening their horizons and advancing our understanding that humankind can unite as one extended human family throughout the world.

Early life

E.A. Wallis Budge was born in Bodmin, Cornwall, England to Mary Ann Budge, a young woman whose father was a waiter in a Bodmin hotel. Budge's father has never been identified. Budge left Cornwall as a young man, and eventually came to live with his grandmother and aunt in London.

Budge became interested in languages before he was ten years old. He left school at the age of 12 in 1869 to work as a clerk at the firm of W.H. Smith, he studied Hebrew and Syriac in his spare time with the aid of a volunteer tutor named Charles Seeger. Budge became interested in learning the ancient Assyrian language in 1872, when he also began to spend time in the British Museum. Budge's tutor introduced him to the Keeper of Oriental Antiquities, the pioneer Egyptologist Samuel Birch, and Birch's assistant, the Assyriologist George Smith. Smith helped Budge occasionally with his Assyrian, whereas Birch allowed the young man to study cuneiform tablets in his office and read books on Middle Eastern travel and adventure such as Sir Austen Henry Layard's Nineveh and Its Remains.

From 1869 to 1878, Budge spent whatever free time he had from his job studying Assyrian, and he often walked down to St. Paul's Cathedral over his lunch break to study. When the organist of St. Paul's, John Stainer, noticed Budge's hard work, he decided to help the boy to realize his dream of working in a profession that would allow him to study Assyrian. Stainer contacted Budge's employer, the Conservative Member of Parliament W.H. Smith, as well as the former Liberal Prime Minister W.E. Gladstone, and asked them to help his young friend. Both Smith and Gladstone agreed to help raise money for Budge to attend Cambridge University. Budge eventually studied at Cambridge from 1878 to 1883, learning about Semitic languages, including Hebrew, Syriac, Ethiopic and Arabic, continuing to study Assyrian on his own. Budge worked closely during these years with the famous scholar of Semitic languages William Wright, among others.

Career at the British Museum

Budge entered the British Museum in the re-named Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in 1883, and though he was initially appointed to the Assyrian section, he soon transferred to the Egyptian section, where he began to study the ancient Egyptian language. He worked with Samuel Birch until the latter's death in 1885. Budge then continued to study ancient Egyptian with the new Keeper, Peter le Page Renouf, until Renouf's retirement in 1891.

Between 1886 and 1891, Budge was deputed by the British Museum to investigate why it was that cuneiform tablets from British Museum sites in Iraq, which were supposedly being guarded by local agents of the Museum, were showing up in the collections of London antiquities dealers. The British Museum was purchasing these collections of their own tablets at inflated London market rates, and the Principal Librarian of the Museum, Edward Bond, wished Budge to find the source of the leaks and to seal it. Bond also wanted Budge to establish ties to Iraqi antiquities dealers to buy whatever was available in the local market at much reduced prices. Budge also traveled to Istanbul during these years to obtain from the Ottoman government a permit to reopen the Museum's excavations at some Iraqi sites in order to obtain whatever tablets remained in them.

Budge returned from his mission to Egypt and Iraq with enormous collections of cuneiform tablets, Syriac, Coptic and Greek manuscripts, as well as significant collections of hieroglyphic papyri. Perhaps his most famous acquisitions from this time were the beautiful Papyrus of Ani, a copy of Aristotle's lost Constitution of Athens, and the Tell al-Amarna tablets. Budge's prolific and well-planned acquisitions gave the British Museum arguably the best Ancient Near East collections in the world.

Budge became Assistant Keeper in his department after Renouf retired in 1891, and was confirmed as Keeper in 1894, a position in which he remained until 1924, specializing in Egyptology. Budge and the other collectors for the museums of Europe regarded having the best collection of Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities in the world as a matter of national pride, and there was tremendous competition for Egyptian and Iraqi antiquities among them. These museum officials and their local agents smuggled antiquities in diplomatic pouches, bribed customs officials, or simply went to friends or countrymen in the Egyptian Service of Antiquities to ask them to pass their cases of antiquities unopened. Budge was no more scrupulous than the others, but his exaggerated reputation for wrong-doing is more the result of the attacks by his professional enemies, such as Flinders Petrie and his many followers, than it is anything else.

Literary and social career

Budge was also a prolific author, and he is especially remembered today for his works on Egyptian religion and his hieroglyphic primers. Budge's works on Egyptian religion were unique in that he claimed that the religion of Osiris had emerged from an indigenous African people. He said of Egyptian religions in Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection (1911):

"There is no doubt that the beliefs examined herein are of indigenous origin, Nilotic or Sundani in the broadest signification of the word, and I have endeavored to explain those which cannot be elucidated in any other way, by the evidence which is afforded by the Religions of the modern peoples who live on the great rivers of East, West, and Central Africa...Now, if we examine the Religions of modern African peoples, we find that the beliefs underlying them are almost identical with those Ancient Egyptian ones described above. As they are not derived from the Egyptians, it follows that they are the natural product of the religious mind of the natives of certain parts of Africa, which is the same in all periods."

Budge's beliefs of the origin of Egyptian religions was regarded by his colleagues as impossible, since all but a few followed Flinders Petrie in his contention that the culture of Ancient Egypt was derived from an invading Caucasian "Dynastic Race" which had conquered Egypt in late prehistory and introduced the Pharaonic culture. Petrie was a dedicated follower of the pseudo-science of Eugenics, believing that there was no such thing as cultural or social innovation in human society, but rather that all social change is the result of biological change, such as migration and foreign conquest resulting in interbreeding. Budge and Petrie thus clashed on the mentioned issue.

Budge was interested in the paranormal and believed in the reality of spirits and hauntings. He had a number of friends in the Ghost Club, a group of Londoners committed to the study of alternative religions and the spirit world. Many people in his day who were involved with the occult and spiritualism after losing their faith in Christianity were dedicated to Budge's works. Budge was a strong proponent of liberal Christianity and was devoted to comparative religions.

Budge was also a member of the literary and open-minded Savile Club in London, proposed by his friend H. Rider Haggard in 1889, and accepted in 1891. He was a much sought-after dinner guest in London, his humorous stories and anecdotes being famous in his circle, and it is hardly surprising that the low-born Budge was fascinated not only by the company of literary men, but also by that of the aristocracy.

Later life

Budge was knighted for his distinguished contributions to Egyptology and the British Museum in 1920, also the year he published his sprawling autobiography, By Nile and Tigris. He retired from the British Museum in 1924, continuing to write. He died on November 23, 1934 in London. In his will, Budge established the Lady Budge Research Fellowships at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, which continue to this day to support young Egyptologists.


Budge's works were widely read by the educated public and among those seeking comparative ethnological data, including James Frazer, who incorporated some of Budge's ideas on Osiris into his ever-growing work The Golden Bough. Budge’s translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead left significant mark on many writers, among others poet William Butler Yeats and writer James Joyce. Budge's works on Egyptian religion have remained consistently in print since they entered the public domain.

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