Building the Egyptian Canon in Early 20th-century Germany: The Case Study of Georg Steindorff’s Excavations
This thesis is a historiographic study of Germany Egyptology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with particular focus on how the different stakeholders involved in that academic environment – scholars, curators, donors and financiers, the German museum-going public, as well as Egyptian people who worked on archaeological excavations – influenced the development of the scholarly canon of ancient Egyptian art. The “canon” is an art historical concept from designating certain objects, styles, and forms as representative of a culture, time period, or artistic movement. Consequently, the canon establishes an artistic hierarchy according to European aesthetic standards that excludes types falling outside of its criteria. The major case study of this thesis involves the career of German Egyptologist Georg Steindorff, who worked as a museum curator at the Ägyptisches Museum in Leipzig as well as a field archaeologist in Egypt from the years 1903-1931. Three ancient Egyptian objects in the collection of the Ägyptisches Museum in Leipzig will be analyzed in depth: a miniature wooden boat model, a diadem, and a block statue. All of these objects were excavated or curated by Steindorff at different pivotal moments of his career; thus, they reflect the shifting priorities of this prominent Egyptologist as he responded to broader trends and pressures in assessing the types of objects considered most important in the canon of ancient Egyptian art.
This thesis builds on existing scholarship by providing a new and enriching perspective to Steindorff’s life and legacy. Each object case study reveals Steindorff’s major contributions to his field and the importance of challenging Eurocentric readings of objects while also accurately documenting and addressing the perspectives present within modern Europe during Steindorff’s era. The primary argument of this thesis is that scholars like Steindorff were conducting excavations and making key curatorial and display decisions in response to a growing scholarly understanding of what constituted the core importance of ancient Egyptian artifacts. Amidst German Egyptologists shaping the canon of Egyptian art, Steindorff indecisively judged rare ancient objects that both aligned with and defied canonical standards. His uncertainty reflected his internal conflicts as a developing excavator and the underlying problems of the canon when applied to ancient Egyptian art. The decisions that Steindorff eventually made regarding the found objects reflected the complexities of the canon and ultimately helped dictate how ancient Egypt was portrayed to the modern museum-going public in Germany. Museums with Egyptian collections that are founded on such decisions must now reflect on what messages and agendas they project onto museum goers and require new solutions to address the longstanding issue of the canon. Germany similarly wanted to not only gain further knowledge of Persia through excavations but also remain politically competitive with the other major Western powers.
Dr. Stephanie Langin-Hooper
Dr. Adam Herring
Dr. Abbey Stockstill
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Linn, Darby, "Building the Egyptian Canon in Early 20th-century Germany: The Case Study of Georg Steindorff’s Excavations" (2023). Art History Theses and Dissertations. 19.