Auguste Mariette

Mariette by Nadar, ca.1861

François Auguste Ferdinand Mariette (11 February 1821 19 January 1881) was a French scholar, archaeologist and Egyptologist, and founder of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities (later Supreme Council of Antiquities).

Early career

Born at Boulogne-sur-Mer, Mariette proved to be a talented draftsman and designer, and he supplemented his salary as a teacher at Douai by giving private lessons and writing on historical and archaeological subjects for local periodicals.

Meanwhile his cousin Nestor L'Hote, the friend and fellow-traveller of Champollion, died, and the task of sorting his papers filled Mariette with a passion for Egyptology. Largely self-taught, he devoted himself to the study of hieroglyphics and Coptic. His 1847 analytic catalogue of the Egyptian Gallery of the Boulogne Museum got him a minor appointment at the Louvre Museum in 1849.

First trip to Egypt

A large group of men and women are gathered below the head of the Sphinx with the Great Pyramid looming behind
Auguste Mariette (seated, far left) and Emperor Pedro II of Brazil (seated, far right) with others during the monarch's visit to the Giza Necropolis at the end of 1871.

Entrusted with a government mission for the purpose of seeking and purchasing the best Coptic, Syriac, Arabic and Ethiopic manuscripts for the Louvre collection so that it retained its then-supremacy over other national collections,[1] he set out for Egypt in 1850.

After little success in acquiring manuscripts due to inexperience, to avoid an embarrassing return empty-handed to France and wasting what might be his only trip to Egypt, he visited temples and befriended a Bedouin tribe, who led him to Saqqara. The site initially looked "a spectacle of desolation...[and] mounds of sand" (his words), but on noticing one sphinx from the reputed avenue of sphinxes, that led to the ruins of the Serapeum at Saqqara near the step-pyramid, with its head above the sands, he gathered 30 workmen. Thus, in 1851, he made his celebrated discovery of this avenue and eventually the subterranean tomb-temple complex of catacombs with their spectacular sarcophagi of the Apis bulls. Breaking through the rubble at the tomb entrance on November 12, he entered the complex, finding thousands of statues, bronze tablets and other treasures, but only one intact sarcophagus. He also found the virtually intact tomb of Prince Khaemweset, Ramesses II's son.

Accused of theft and destruction by rival diggers and by the Egyptian authorities, Mariette began to rebury his finds in the desert to keep them from these competitors. Instead of manuscripts, official French funds were now advanced for the prosecution of his researches, and he remained in Egypt for four years, excavating, discovering and despatching archaeological treasures to the Louvre, following the accepted Eurocentric convention. However, the French government and the Louvre set up an arrangement to divide the finds 50:50, so that upon his return to Paris 230 crates went to the Louvre (and he was raised to an assistant conservator), but an equal amount remained in Egypt.

Director of Antiquities

A statue of Auguste Mariette in his home city of Boulogne-sur-Mer.

However, unsatisfied with a purely academic role after his discoveries at Saqqara (he said "I knew I would die or go mad if I did not return to Egypt immediately"), after less than a year he returned to Egypt on the insistence of the Egyptian government under Isma'il Pasha, who in 1858 created the position of conservator of Egyptian monuments for him.

Moving with his family to Cairo, his career blossomed into a chronicle of unwearying exploration and brilliant successes:

In 1860 alone, Mariette set up 35 new dig sites, whilst attempting to conserve already-dug sites. His success was aided by the fact that no rivals were permitted to dig in Egypt, a fact that the British (who had previously had the majority of Egyptologists active in the country) and Germans (who were politically allied with the country's Ottoman rulers) protested at as a 'sweetheart deal' between Egypt and France. Nor were Mariette's relations with the Khedive always stable. The Khedive, like many potentates, assumed all discoveries ranked as treasure and that what went to the museum in Cairo went only at his pleasure. Even early on, in February 1859, Mariette dashed to Thebes to confiscate a boatload of antiquities from the nearby tomb of Queen Ahhotep I that were to have been sent to the Khedive.

In 1867, he returned to oversee the ancient Egyptian stand at the Exposition Universelle, to a hero's welcome for keeping France pre-eminent in Egyptology. In 1869, at the request of the Khedive, he wrote a brief plot for an opera. The following year this concept, worked into a scenario by Camille du Locle, was proposed to Giuseppe Verdi, who accepted it as a subject for Aida.[3] For Aida, Mariette and Du Locle oversaw the scenery and costumes, which were inspired by the art of Ancient Egypt. The premiere of Aida was originally scheduled for February 1871, but was delayed until 24 December 1871, due to the siege of Paris at the height of the Franco-Prussian War (which trapped Mariette with the costumes and scenery in Paris). The opera met with great acclaim.

Mariette was raised successively to the rank of bey and pasha, and European honors and orders were bestowed on him.

In 1878, his museum was ravaged by floods, which destroyed most of his notes and drawings. By the spring of 1881, prematurely aged and nearly blind, Mariette arranged for the appointment of the Frenchman Gaston Maspero (a linguist rather than an archaeologist, who he had met at the Exposition in 1867), to ensure that France retained its supremacy in Egyptology in Egypt, rather than an Englishman. At this time, the English comprised the majority of Egyptologists in Egypt.


He died in Cairo and was interred in a sarcophagus which is on display in the Garden of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.[4]

The bust of other famous Egyptologists, including Charles Wycliffe Goodwin, have been placed on a semi-circular memorial around the sarcophagus.


Though not all his discoveries were thoroughly published, the list of his publications is a long one.



  1. Their acquisition by national and private collections was then a competitive endeavour - the English had the advantage of being able to pay higher prices, although that did not prevent ruthlessness and ambition by all sides.
  2. Archived November 9, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. The Khedive had asked Verdi to compose an ode in honour of the opening of the Suez Canal and the new Royal Opera House in Cairo in November 1869, but the composer declined. The Opera House opened with a performance of Rigoletto.
  4. Whose Pharaohs?: Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I (2002), by Donald Malcolm Reid, published by Dar El Kutub


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