Napoleon and the Scientific Expedition to Egypt

An exhibition of the Description de l’Egypte (1809-1828) and other rare books documenting the French Expedition to Egypt.

The Zodiac of Dendera

Vivant Denon published the first drawing of the Zodiac in his Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte. Since the zodiac was on the ceiling of a dark chapel, he had to lie on his back and draw by candlelight. Image source: Denon, Vivant. Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, pendant les campagnes du general Bonaparte. 2nd ed. Plates. A Paris: P. Didot l’aine, 1802, pl. 130.

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The Zodiac of Dendera is a large carved stone slab showing the constellations of the zodiac. When Denon first discovered the Temple of Hathor at Dendera in January, 1799, he happened into a little stone chapel on the roof, where he found a large circular planisphere, or zodiac. He had no time to sketch this artifact on his first visit, but when he returned, later that spring, he managed to make a drawing, even though the planisphere formed part of the ceiling, and the chapel was in nearly complete darkness. He published his drawing in his Voyage in 1802. 

Shortly after Denon made his sketch, the first wave of the engineer-archaeologists arrived at the scene, and Jollois and Devilliers made a much more careful rendering of the zodiac, although they too worked under very difficult circumstances, lying on their backs and trying to see the details of the blackened stone ceiling by candlelight. Their drawing would eventually be published in the fourth Antiquités volume of the Description. The zodiac excited a great deal of interest from the savants, because if it was actually an accurate rendering of the positions of the constellations made in ancient times, then it should be possible to assign a date to its construction. And since there were no other hard dates known for ancient Egypt (because no one could yet read hieroglyphics), that was a tantalizing possibility. 

When the existence of the zodiac was made known to scholars back in France, there were many attempts to calculate the date of construction, with some scholars suggesting the zodiac might be as much as 14,000 years old, far older than the world itself, according to biblical chronology. 

Prosper Jollois and Edouard Devilliers were members of a surveying team who were supposed to be studying irrigation techniques in Upper Egypt. When they learned about the Zodiac from Denon, they visited Dendera and made a more careful measured drawing of the artifact, which was later published in the Description de l'Égypte. The large figure on the right is Nut. Image source: Napoleon I, (Edme-François) Jomard, and Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Fourier. Description de l’Egypte.... Antiquités planches, vol. 4, A Paris: De L’Imprimerie impériale, 1809-1828, pl. 21.

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The Dendera zodiac came to be seen as one of the most important surviving documents of antiquity, and it is not surprising that eventually someone decided to try to cash in on its value. In 1822 an antiquities thief name Claude Lelorrain used explosives to remove the Zodiac from its matrix in Dendera, and he brought it back to France, where it was purchased by the King, for the considerable price of 150,000 francs, and put on public display. It was eventually deposited in the Louvre, where it may be seen today. 

The arrival in Paris of the unique artifact prompted a renewed interest in the zodiac from French scientists, and a spate of treatises soon appeared. One of the first was by Jean-Baptiste Biot, who suggested a more modest date of 800 BC for the zodiac. This prompted a response by Karl, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, and Karl’s book is notable because it contains one of the most charming renderings we have of the zodiac, with delicate pastel coloring. 

Champollion, who was then on the verge of deciphering hieroglypics (see next section), warned everyone involved that the most reliable date would surely come from the inscriptions surrounding the zodiac, and Champollion guessed that it had been sculpted during the era of Ptolemaic Egypt, after the conquest by Alexander the Great. Champollion would prove to be right. The zodiac is now dated to the first century BC, just before or during the reign of Cleopatra.

Color lithograph of the Dendera zodiac. Image source: Karl, Landgraf zu Hessen-Kassel. La pierre zodiacale du temple de Dendérah . Copenhagen: Chez André Seidelin..., 1824.

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