The First Egyptian Society (1741-3): The Royal Society, natural philosophy, and antiquarianism

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The Egyptian Society (1741-43), the first of its kind, was created in Georgian England for the purpose of ‘promoting and preserving Egyptian and other antient learning’. Its antiquarian members either travelled to the Land of the Pharaohs as part of their Grand Tour, or were simply interested in Egypt’s material culture. As Mark Thomas Young (Centaurus, 2017) has indicated, fellows of the early Royal Society attended experimental demonstrations sometimes to produce effects for themselves, but more often to access ‘empirical material from which causal and axiomatic principles could be derived through discursive practice. At society meetings, members could access this material in a variety of ways; experimental demonstrations existed alongside the reading of experimental reports, accounts of lay empirical practices and travellers’ reports’. The Egyptian Society fellows followed the same methodology, to discover principles of sociocultural and religious practices in Egypt, as well as to provide ‘object biographies’ of artefacts that belonged to members that they examined with speculations on manufacture and use. I will show that the Egyptian Society approach to textual sources and artefacts was informed by the empiricism of the Royal Society, a form of what I term ‘scientific antiquarianism’.